Archive for January, 2009

Spine Intact Chapter 7.

himself, in the early 60s

himself, in the early 60s

CHAPTER 7

 

 

Gloria in Excelsis

 

 

 

Clearly, however, I have gotten ahead of myself. Or behind. Anyway none of this, I must say, was of the slightest use in Sioux City, Iowa. There were no bars to be found, no drag queens to be ogled (or at the least if they were there they stayed within the curtained confines of their own homes) and no one on whom to practice any special codes or signals.

Dullsville, in other words.

As I said before, Milt Luros’ critics dubbed him the “King of Pornography.” Actually he was one of the nicest people I had ever met, a soft-spoken New Yorker and a true gentleman in the most old fashioned sense of the word.

An artist himself, Milt had set out to print quality art books. In short time he found art books entirely unprofitable—but he was able to make money printing sexually related material—initially for others but eventually for his own companies.

The Federal Government did not like the material he printed. It seemed that manhood and melon breasts were corrupting society. And as I said earlier, federal law allowed charges to be brought not only where the material was shipped from or to, but anywhere it was shipped through. In our case the charges had been brought and the trial would be held in Sioux City, Iowa, even though none of the material involved was ever available in Sioux City, Iowa. I can say for a fact that my Gloria would not have been found dead in Sioux City. I myself went with the greatest reluctance.

The idea apparently was not so much that the government thought they might get convictions on these charges, but that by bringing repeated charges and forcing Luros to defend himself over and over again in small towns and cities around the country (at that time, there were trials pending in two other locations, one in Texas and I have forgotten the other), they could bankrupt him—or convince him to give up the business.

The trials were expensive. Including people like myself and the other writers and freelancers who came to Sioux City made it all the more expensive. Partly for his own protection and partly because it was his nature, Milt picked up the tab for everyone and did so in the grand manner. The “best” hotel in Sioux City was only a Holiday Inn, but that was where Milt stayed and that was where we all stayed. We ate in the same restaurants, flew the same flights back and forth when he did—there was no attempt to save pennies by limiting our share of the expenses. It was generous indeed of Milt—and costly.

By the time I got to Sioux City I had come to realize that my indictment had really nothing much to do with me or with Gloria or the desire of the U.S. Authorities to see me in prison, though that might well have been the result. The real reason I was there was to help run up the tab.

Have I said Kafka-esque?

I can’t say that the experience wasn’t interesting. For one thing, book people are almost invariably interesting people. I didn’t say nice, nor always polite or kind—indeed, you have never been verbally slashed to ribbons until you have been set at by a word-master.

Still, in all my years in the publishing field I have never met anyone—writer, editor, publisher, agent, bookseller—who wasn’t at least interesting, often utterly engaging. For one thing it is not a field that attracts dodos. You can count intelligence, usually very keen intelligence, as a given. It is often, too, a far-reaching intelligence. It’s hard to make it in the book world without a keen interest in a great many different things, certainly without an interest in people.

It is a paradox of sorts that though they are often people who most enjoy solitude, writers are nonetheless inevitably intrigued by people. This is not to say that they do not dislike some of them or find themselves bored with them. Still, I have said often that even boring people fascinate me.

Mr. Maugham said that he never spent fifteen minutes in the company of another person that he couldn’t have written a story about. I have no doubt that he was speaking sincerely. I can certainly say that I have never spent fifteen minutes in the company of another person that I didn’t discover something of interest about him or her (well, yes, all right, there have been times when the fifteen minutes seemed like fifteen years).

I have always found people infinitely fascinating. This is something that I have discovered about my fellow men and women over the years: everyone—but everyone—has something special about them, something they do better than anyone else, something they know better than anyone else, some secret that you may be the first to ferret out of them, some unsuspected (perhaps even by themselves) talent or gift. Every one has his niche.

Let me tell you, for instance, about Otis McVeigh, as I shall call him. I went to school back in Ohio with Otis. Otis was quite simply a clunk. He was not the stupidest person I have ever met, though he never displayed any great intelligence. That is not the same as saying he had none—for some bizarre reason, straight young men in the Midwest of the fifties had an aversion to letting it be known they had brains. I had yet another classmate who, if memory serves, was never more than a C student, who later turned out to be a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, a job you don’t get without some smarts.

What was worse in Otis’ case was that he had no wit. He was neither good looking nor spectacularly unattractive. He was not unkind nor rude nor evil, which can at least be fascinating. If, some years back, you should have asked me if there weren’t at least one exception to finding something interesting in everyone I met, I might have been tempted to mention Otis.

Some years after our school days had ended, I was back in Ohio to visit my mother. It was spring. Mushroom season. Which is to say, sponge mushrooms—morels if you want to be fancy but to us they were sponge mushrooms. Oh, to be sure there were some sub-categories. Dog’s peckers looked like, well, you know, and were among the least prized. But mostly we called them sponge mushrooms, and they did indeed look like little brown and golden sponges on their all too fragile stems.

In Ohio mushroom season is brief, two or perhaps three weeks. The weather must be just right. A good shower and the following day a warm sun. They often come back to the same field where they were found the year before, but some springs they hardly make an appearance, and even when they lie at your feet in abundance they are so well camouflaged that they can be all but impossible to see. It is not uncommon for a hunter to return home with his sack no fuller than when he set out. Locals tend to guard their favorite spots with a secrecy that would be envied by a James Bond villain.

On this occasion, on the first morning of my visit, my mother fixed me an omelette filled with the precious delicacies and the butter they had soaked up—enormous, meaty, savory specimens. Between mouthfuls I asked her where she had found such bounty. She smiled a bit shame-facedly and told me she had paid a visit to Otis.

“Otis?” I almost choked on my food. “Not Otis McVeigh?”

The very same, as it turned out. “He’s the Mushroom King,” my mother explained.

It seems that though others might spend hours in the woods and return home empty handed, Otis had no such problem. He found mushrooms by the sackful, by the basket. He was never, during the season, without a generous supply of them, which he was more than happy to sell to those less fortunate.

Of course everyone wanted to know where he found them. Mushroom hunting is serious business in Ohio, in the springtime. Each morning during the season there were those who would attempt to follow Otis when he left his house, to discover where his particular fields of plenty might be; but to no avail. Around and around Otis would drive, down country roads and rutted lanes, through covered bridges, past this barn and over this hillock, into town once more and out another route—until he had lost his trackers or they had given up in disgust.

Later (unless their own search had been fruitful, and supposing they really craved some fruits of the field, as by this time they surely did) they must park at the curb outside Otis’ house, follow the cement walk along the side of the house to the back porch, knock at his kitchen door and purchase—at a hefty price—the objects of their desire. I am even told that there were those who came late at night, under cover of darkness, and afterward pretended that they had found these mushrooms themselves. But I am quite certain that my mother would never have stooped to such subterfuge.

There was nothing for it. I had to see for myself. My mother placed a call and that very evening we found ourselves following the cement walk about the side of Otis’ house, only a short stroll from my mother’s own.

Otis gave every sign of being happy to see me, though we had never been chums in any sense of the word. He invited us into his kitchen. We sat at a big round table covered with oilcloth. There was a murmur of voices from a television, or perhaps a radio, in another part of the house. The aroma of cooked cabbage and the dishes stacked neatly in the sink spoke of an early supper. Otis and I struggled to make conversation, as people will who wish to be polite but have little to say to one another. Finally I mentioned that we had hoped to buy some mushrooms.

He went to his pantry and returned with what he said were his very best, just picked that same day. They were in a shoe box lined with a clean, neatly folded dishtowel, a dozen or more of the loveliest mushrooms I had ever seen. The largest of them was a giant, easily seven inches tall, and there were a good half dozen who were only a shade smaller.

I looked them over, holding them one at a time in my hand. They were all but weightless, clean, smelling faintly of the earth from which they had recently come—the scent of dead leaves and spring rains and an unspoiled wood in the springtime sun. It is a scent like no other and the finest of perfumes to the aficionado.

We bought six of them, which Otis put into a brown paper bag for us. As I was counting out the money, I glanced up once and found him looking at me with an expression that I could not read and which vanished so quickly I thought perhaps I had imagined it. Was that a twinkle in his eyes, a spark of amusement? I blinked and looked again, and now I saw nothing but the dull gaze with which in the past he had always regarded the world.

We shook hands and parted with the usual polite suggestions to look one another up again. But I was disconcerted. That sense of having surprised something heretofore unsuspected in his expression teased at my mind. Had I missed something all along about Otis? I have always counted myself an astute judge of other people—that, after all, is the essence of the writer’s business. It was troubling to think that I might have been entirely off the mark where Otis was concerned.

As we strolled homeward, I asked my mother what she thought of Otis, what impression she got of him. She thought for a moment and said, “He seems very contented.”

As she so often did, my mother had hit the nail precisely on the head. Real contentment is far rarer than one might suppose. In most people you can almost always sense a feeling of wanting, of needing, of searching for something more than, different from, their present circumstances. Sometimes it is only a wish for the workday to end, or dinner time to arrive, the trivia of a day’s impatience, and sometimes it is great ambition, and sometimes great resentment at ambition thwarted.

There are few who you feel are truly satisfied in any given moment with their lot. Walking at my mother’s side on that moonlit Ohio night, with Otis’ mushrooms in a bag in my hand and the memory of that glint of amusement I had seen earlier still fresh in my mind, I realized that Otis was one of those rare few.

I had to laugh, partly at myself. Who would ever have dreamed that there would be a story to tell about poor Otis, but there it was. He had found his niche.

He was the Mushroom King.

 

* * * * * * *

 

But my point all along has been not mushrooms but writers, who themselves sometimes seem to spring from the very ground after a spring rain and can be nearly as earthy—and book people in general and the fact that they are interesting, perhaps because they are interested. If you must spend a winter in Sioux City, it should be with a group of writers and editors and the like.

And attorneys like the ones we had. Milt Luros’ attorney of record for himself and his employees was Stanley Fleishman. Stanley died in 1999. In the sixties he was probably the foremost First Amendment attorney in the country. He had twice successfully argued First Amendment cases before the Supreme Court.

Nor was he, as a number of other attorneys were then, limited to that one sphere of interest. Confronted with the reality that the disabled were routinely barred from serving on juries, Fleishman also campaigned aggressively and successfully for the rights of the disabled.

A devilishly handsome man, he was himself a childhood victim of polio—though I doubt Stanley would ever have labeled himself a victim. He walked with two crutches and dueled in courtrooms with a brilliant mind and a rapier wit.

He was not above turning his disability to an advantage. A question or a suggestion posed by a competing attorney could so outrage, so stun him, that he would leap to his feet, in his outrage forgetting altogether those shriveled legs. While jurors, judges and even prosecuting attorneys watched spellbound, he swayed, tilted, seemed sure to fall flat on the floor, and only at the last possible moment did he save himself with a frantically grasped crutch. It was theater of the grand sort and by the time he had recovered himself, the statement that had provoked his behavior had lost all its impact, if it hadn’t been forgotten altogether.

Probably few individuals did more to shape our post-seventies culture than Stanley Fleishman, and I am frankly always astonished to find him so little known to the general public.

Certainly Stanley shaped much of that publishing revolution of the sixties and seventies. Milt Luros kept him on retainer full time, and every book, article or photograph that was considered by the Luros editors went first to Stanley, who gave it his approval or disapproval. Initially, the Luros operation published only four to six novels a month, but in time that number tripled and even quadrupled, to say nothing of a roster of magazines that eventually numbered in the dozens.

Stanley performed the same service for Greenleaf. Though Greenleaf’s output was limited mostly to books, their numbers multiplied Fleishman’s reading list many times over. I can only assume that Stanley was a quick read.

All of the pulp publishers of the time had their own attorneys however, who performed the same sort of service. In time I came to see that virtually everything these publishers did was done with one eye on the legal arena. As more and more charges were brought and more material defended in courtrooms, the Courts—particularly the U.S. Supreme Court—struggled to find a coherent legal definition for obscenity. The legal stratagems advised by the publishers’ attorneys changed and developed accordingly.

Two of the key elements handed down by the Supreme Court during this time were that (in order to be considered obscene) the material must, “taken as a whole, appeal to the prurient interest of the reader,” and that it must be “utterly without redeeming social value.”

By the mid-sixties it was common for paperback novels to include on their covers or front page blurbs quoting various authorities or “experts” on sexual behavior. So my Stranger at the Door from Greenleaf in 1967 quoted at length Alex Comfort’s book, Sex in Society (1963): “Forms of behavior have to be considered in the light of their unconscious origin, in the light of what is customary or tolerated in a given culture, and in the light of the part they play in the individual’s mental economy—of who does what and when and where. It is disproportionate, if we are interested in the social effects, to lay much emphasis on the kind of physical variation or deviation in behavior…” The actual quote was considerably longer and much in the same vein. I’m not sure that it had any particular relevance to the novel that followed, but it could be seen to supply redeeming social value.

In the late sixties, when “case history” types of nonfiction began to proliferate, these books invariably included an authoritative forward or introduction written by some “expert”—nearly always a Ph.D., though the degree often had nothing at all to do with this field of interest.

In the seventies, books began to appear with out-and-out hardcore photographs. The text that accompanied these action photos addressed psychological and (sometimes peripheral) medical issues and was deliberately written in a dry, scholarly style. It was thought that it would be difficult, hopefully impossible, for a jury considering the work “as a whole” to find this text obscene, whatever they might think of the photographs.

At the time of Gloria, however, and the Sioux City trial, much of that strategy was still in the future. The Affairs of Gloria did have some rather crude drawings, but the sexual element was only vaguely suggested and the people in them were clothed, if sometimes a bit scantily.

In addition to Stanley Fleishman, Luros had hired a second attorney to represent the freelancers among the defendants, the legendary criminal attorney, Percy Foreman. Foreman, who in time defended Jack Ruby, was a folksy six foot something Texan whose white hair was always in his eyes and who wore rumpled suits that looked as if he had slept in them—and, by the by, a ruby ring the size of a bird’s egg. Known as the latter day Clarence Darrow, Foreman specialized in murder cases, which he usually won. He was asked once if it did not trouble him that some of the people he got off probably were guilty of the crimes with which they had been charged.

“Not in the least,” he replied. “The fees I charge them are punishment enough for any crime they might have committed.”

Foreman once gave his wife a birthday present of a pair of bedroom slippers, but no ordinary slippers—these were encrusted with diamonds taken from rings his clients had given him though the years to pay their fees.

There were rumors, by the by, that Foreman drank. I mean, drank. I can’t really say, but I can tell you that his breath once cleaned the spaghetti stains off my jacket with no assist from the dry cleaners.

This was the first time Foreman had ever involved himself in an obscenity trial and he did so in this instance because, as he explained it, he had jumped at the opportunity to work a case with Stanley Fleishman, whom he had long admired.

Watching these two pros at work was fascinating. And, at least to start, I wasn’t too worried. At this time I still believed that somewhere along the way, someone would look at Gloria and realize a mistake had been made.

And I was a celebrity, if only of a minor sort. Flashbulbs flashed and reporters barked when we arrived at airports, and we made the New York Times (though not the front page). For the record, they had no shortage of words with which to describe us. In Sioux City we were shunned in the manner that every queen comes to recognize and in a perverse way enjoy. We were lepers, but lepers who were the focus of everyone’s attention.

Notwithstanding the interesting companions or circumstances, however, there were ten years in Federal prison hanging over my head. I was young, blond, not unattractive, and a bit effeminate. I thought it safe to suppose that, should prison be the outcome, those would not be the cheeriest of years for me.

And that possibility loomed larger as the weeks passed in the courtroom in Sioux City. Besides books the charges involved a handful of nudist magazines as well. Not the hardcore action pics that you can buy in gift shops today, nor even the bare beavers of Hustler or Penthouse. These were more the Sunshine & Health sort of thing—people in the buff playing volley ball, with the occasional limp appendage bouncing about. I suppose someone might have been sexually aroused by the pictures—but then I know people who get turned on looking at pictures of trolleys.

By the by, none of these magazines were sold in Sioux City. Indeed, there was only one shop that sold Playboy, under the counter. You had to ask for it and it came in the proverbial plain brown wrapper.

So it was worrisome to watch jurors, charged with determining if this material was obscene, pass magazines from one to another without a glance at them, holding them gingerly by their fingertips as it fearing contamination. Had they even read Gloria, I wondered? I doubted it. More to the point, the indictment named me in a conspiracy charge with all the other defendants so that, though I had nothing at all to do with these magazines—heck, I hadn’t even seen some of them, and never got to—the finding that they were obscene could send me to prison.

I got more nervous still when government witnesses, former employees of the Luroses, testified under oath about my connections with the other defendants—meetings I allegedly attended, phone calls, letters—all fictitious. I could only imagine what threats or promises the Federal prosecutors must have made to get this sort of perjured testimony from frightened witnesses.

What if I had accepted Mister Schoof’s invitation to testify against Luros? I knew nothing at all about Luros or his operations and so there was nothing in truth I could have said. But would Schoof and the prosecutors have found a way to force me to say what they wanted said, truth or not? I like to think not but clearly they had accomplished just that feat with other witnesses.

In Al Capp’s classic comic strip, Li’l Abner, the detective Fearless Fosdick was tortured in a particularly heinous manner—tied to a chair and forced to listen over and over again to Nelson Eddy’s recording of Mammy’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin’ Bread. For those of you too young to remember Nelson Eddy, this would in today’s terms be akin to listening repeatedly to the Trapp Family Singers performing Disney’s It’s a Small, Small World. I think you will agree with me that it would take no more than minutes for anyone to crack. I have no doubt they would have found some comparable method to convince me to say what they wanted said. As a gay man and a devout coward I had more than my share of vulnerabilities.

I was soon enough aware that they were not shy about intimidation. The trial hadn’t even begun before my first-class mail began to arrive opened (yes, Virginia, it is illegal). Manuscripts were routinely left at my doorstep atop their envelopes, in case I had any doubts that they were being perused.

Was I paranoid or was my Sioux City motel room really bugged? An employee of the motel whispered to me that it was. I don’t know why he would have made up such a story. And Stanley Fleishman, without saying so directly, gave me to understand that it was safest to make that assumption.

So much for justice and the American way. The foreplay was over. The federal government and Mister Schoof had me on the bed and they weren’t going to let me up until they had their vile ways with me.

The trial went on. And on. It became less interesting to sit and listen to testimony I knew to be false. At the beginning we had buoyed ourselves with the hope that the Judge would quickly dismiss the case or that the prosecution’s case would prove brief and we would soon be done with it. The indictments had come down in March of 1965. The trial began in October. We hoped to be home by Halloween. Then Thanksgiving. Christmas loomed.

At last in late December the government rested its case. Our side rested its case without presenting one. Fleishman and Foreman were convinced that the charges had not been proven, but there was more to their strategy than that. Experience had shown that these cases often went to the appeals courts. That was actually better for the publisher—the results of a local district trial had little impact on the actions of other courts, but a ruling by the appeals court was binding on all Federal courts within that district unless overturned by the Supreme Court—in other words, a ruling at the appellate level could work to Luros’ benefit in other courtrooms and to the benefit of other publishers as well.

In a sense, then, offering no defense was virtually asking for a move to the appellate court—and at the same time giving the government no goofs in the defense case to seize upon and use to argue against an appeal.

All well and good, of course. The strategy was a sound one. But I had been abused and misused for four months; and it left us heading home for a Christmas recess with the outcome still unresolved. Not a very merry Christmas present.

Bah, humbug. Hand me my dancing shoes.

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mom in her wedding dress

mom in her wedding dress

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Spine Intact – Chapter 6

To Coin a Phrase

 

 

 

Perhaps if there had been more of a gay press in those early days, Rae Bourbon might have been better known to the generations that followed. One magazine and Mattachine Review were about all we had, and Der Kreis from Switzerland. The three combined probably had a circulation of no more than three or four thousand. There were no community centers, no Pride Parades.

There were always places for pickups, to be sure—Greyhound bus stations were notorious and decidedly risky. They were also, in my experience, odiferous; but gays regularly visited them despite these drawbacks. The highway rest stops favored by some were no less smelly—many of them were nothing but outhouses after all—and no less risky. Public parks such as L.A.’s Griffith Park at least offered the boon of fresh air and natural surroundings, but many’s the gay man who was dragged from those bushes in handcuffs. Even if you didn’t get arrested, and the odds were great that sooner or later that was going to happen, you nevertheless ran the risk of poison oak and it’s hard to think of a less comfortable place to get it.

In some cities there were hangouts—a certain coffee shop, a movie theater. In Hollywood there was Arthur J’s, a coffee shop on Santa Monica Boulevard at Highland, or the notorious Gold Cup on Hollywood Boulevard. At least there was no poison oak, though you weren’t entirely safe from other irritants of the crawling sort and the vice squad regularly cruised these spots as well. A certain country singer had quite a reputation for picking up the wrong linemen at a rather infamous gas station on Robertson Boulevard, but I witnessed none of those arrests so I can’t really say.

And woe betide the unfortunate gay who picked up what was euphemistically labeled a ‘social disease” in those days. Whether you went to a health clinic or a private physician, the doctor was expected to get from you a list of names of all your sexual partners over the past six weeks. You could decline to name them or say they were anonymous, but either choice led to a visit (at your home or even your work place) from the health squad, who would grill you further to see if embarrassment and intimidation didn’t improve your memory.

Those you named were visited in turn—at their home or their work place—to determine their sexual contacts and to test them for the disease in question. Declining the tests or refusing the interview brought the health squad back, this time with the gendarmes. If necessary you were taken away in handcuffs for testing and further “interviews.” Privacy rights were still a long way in the future.

As an aside, it was thought by the end of World War II that, with the discovery of penicillin, syphilis and gonorrhea had been eradicated, and many medical schools dropped the treatment of venereal disease from their curricula. A large part of a generation of doctors graduated with little training or experience in diagnosing or treating these illnesses. By the nineties attrition had mostly resolved that problem, but in the fifties and sixties it really was a matter of concern.

Conventional wisdom says that gays frequented places known to be risky because they wanted to get caught, wanted to be punished for their ‘sins,” and I have no doubt that this was true in many cases, though I think sometimes the motivation may have been no more complicated than desperate loneliness. Gays were far more socially isolated then than they are now.

It was loneliness that brought them to the bars, and despite the chance of an occasional bust, the bars were still the safest choice for gays who wanted to mingle with other gays.

I suppose all this makes the gay life of the fifties and sixties seem gloomy indeed but it wasn’t, really. I admit I may be prejudiced but it seems to me that homosexuals have always had more fun than heterosexuals. I think that is why there have always been those heterosexuals who truly like hanging around with gays. I have lived in San Francisco, and one can hardly not notice the sizable straight contingent at all the big gay events. Halloween, the Castro and Folsom Street Fairs, the Pride parade, all draw large crowds from the heterosexual community. Some of them, of course, are the predators and some merely tourists, but a great many of them are just there for the fun. The music and the atmosphere are infectious, the costumes and the behavior are outrageous. Serious partying goes on all day and all night.

I’ve been to their street fairs. They have mostly the same booths, the same food vendors, often the same musicians and how different can the watered drinks be? What they never seem to be having is very much fun.

When you think about it, however, there’s nothing particularly mysterious in any of this. In 1989 San Francisco was hit by a major earthquake. Bridges down, houses down, power out, the sky red with flames. You might have expected to find the locals cowering in doorways or fleeing to the safety of the hills as shown in the Clark Gable/Jeanette McDonald movie of the forties, San Francisco.

Not at all. In any case, certainly not in the Castro, the city’s major gay neighborhood. Where you would have expected bedlam at the major street intersections—this was rush hour on Tuesday night, and the street lights were kaput—you had drivers taking their turns politely and even homeless people directing traffic. Stores gave away batteries and flashlights, often in the glare of automobile headlights. The bars poured drinks by candlelight and the streets were packed with people, many with their arms about one another singing San Francisco.

To be entirely frank I have yet to discover any event, however calamitous, that doesn’t make San Franciscans want to have a party. (“Your mother passed away? That’s dreadful. Let’s go hoist a few.”) I have pondered this at some length, and here is what I have concluded: it is just a reaction to living where the earth shakes and at any moment without warning can open up and swallow you down. It is why, I suppose, people tend to party seriously at wartime. It makes you want to squeeze all the fun you can out of the present moment just in case it’s the last moment.

I think that’s pretty much the story with gays and always has been. Someone wiser than I has pointed out that gay is the loneliest of all minorities. With rare exceptions a black child, for instance, is born into a black family. Whatever else he may suffer he at least shares the black experience with his family and he is unlikely to be banished from his family simply for being black.

Gays aren’t so lucky. Gay men and lesbians with few exceptions are born into heterosexual families. He or she may have a gay sibling, even a gay parent, but for the most part they are strangers in a strange land. And the streets of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and Des Moines offer ample proof that, yes, families can and often do oust their gay children, like family discards.

I have always thought myself lucky to have been born into the family I got. It has not been until recent years that my family and I have begun to address directly the matter of my homosexuality and for the most part, we do so gingerly. I am sure my younger life would have been easier and less painful if we could have been more open with one another then. Even sadder, it seems to me, is that there is a massive chunk of my life which remained unknown to and unshared by my brothers and sisters.

It could have been a lot worse though. We grew up in poverty in a conservative, Republican area in the Midwest Bible belt in the thirties, forties, and fifties. By all rights I should have been surrounded by redneck demagogues. Not so. Luckily for me, my siblings were well above average in intelligence and all encouraged from their earliest years to think for themselves. We had, too, the example of a mother who actually believed and practiced the Christian virtues she learned in church, mirabile dictu. If the same could be said for all the professedly religious in the world—Christian, Muslim, Jew, et alii—what a different civilization it would be, wouldn’t it?

Surprisingly, for a woman who raised eleven children my mother remained something of an innocent throughout her life. We never openly discussed my gayness though she seemed to understand and accept it. When one of my brothers died in an accident soon after I began writing those quasi-lesbians novels, I suggested that she come to Beverly Hills for a visit. One afternoon soon after her arrival I found her looking over my books. I pointed out to her that this was how I made my living; besides, they had paid for her trip.

Ever a practical sort, Mom thought that over and the next day opined that she would like to have her own copies of my books and asked where she might find them. At that time there was a large and usually busy paperback store on Vine Street in Hollywood. I took her there.

There were several aisles of books in rows and rows and an all-male clientele browsing, mostly surreptitiously. Lots of raincoats. Hands in pockets. No conversation. This was not a place where casual conversations were struck. Sex was serious business in those days.

My mother was a church lady. I occasionally attended church with her when I was home. Her minister and I shared an interest in writing and whenever we met he liked to chat about book matters. The Brethren Church was a somewhat “fancy” version of the “old order” churches—which is to say they did not have the restrictions that, say, the Amish or the Mennonites had, but you often saw the older women in long dresses with their hair in neat little buns or hidden under modest white caps.

I sometimes wondered what sort of stories or novels the Reverend wanted to tell, though I have no doubt that his work brought plenty of interesting characters into his life. People generally think that small towns are filled with “normal” people and the kooks are all in the big cities but the opposite is more likely to be true.

My mother was not severe in her appearance, but she mostly dressed conservatively, and she did not wear makeup until she was on in years, and then only a little lipstick. Her arrival in a bookstore of this ilk was a subject of notice, needless to say, and when she began to call titles to me from the next row—“Here’s Lesbians on Parade, is that one of yours? Oh, here’s Lesbians of Paris”—it created no end of consternation among the gentleman customers. In the end I had to send her to wait in the car while I found copies of my prose. This was the only time, by the way, that I ever heard her say the word “lesbian.” I’m not sure if she even knew what it meant.

I took it for granted that my mother wanted these lesbian novels for her own, for sentimental reasons, simply because her son had written them. It had never even occurred to me that she might actually read them. I supposed they would go into a drawer where no one would even see them. I certainly never dreamed that she would loan them to her minister to read, which is exactly what she did.

“Well, he asked if he could borrow them,” she replied when I wanted to know why on earth she had done such a thing. No, she could not think of any reason why she shouldn’t have loaned them to him.

The Reverend never expressed to her or to me any opinion on the books” literary merits. Indeed, he never mentioned them to me at all, but he did look at me rather differently on my subsequent visits.

He never asked again about my writing either, and the next time I visited church with my mother the sermon was on “the Unintentional Sinner.” I kept my gaze straight forward and sang the hymns with gusto, though I got through “He knows me as I am” with some difficulty.

 

* * * * * * *

 

My brothers and sisters showed the same sort of tacit understanding as our mother did, though I think they are mostly a bit less innocent. I suppose if you polled the members of my family most of them, if honest, would say that they don’t approve of homosexuality. On the other hand, that has never seemed to affect their relationship with me. Though we fought as children, as all siblings do, and have been known to have our differences even as adults, we have always been good at what I call “circling the wagons” which is, I think, the most important role that a family plays—or should play. I don’t think it always works that way.

When I was younger I was always amazed to discover that others envied me my family. “That bunch of loonies?” I thought more than once. As I got a bit older, though, it did occur to me that “a bunch of loonies” is probably the best thing that could happen to a gay boy growing up there and then. Today when I sit down to list the things in my life for which I am grateful, my family always tops the list.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Here is a scene: My sister and I are seated in front of the television. We are watching one of the daytime talk shows, Oprah, or perhaps Sally Jesse. A tearful woman wrings her hands and in a broken voice tells the audience of the dire circumstances that brought her to her particular despair—why she drank, became a drug addict, married the wrong men over and over, got too fat, too thin, beat her children, stole from her church, murdered, gambled, whored. I cannot remember which of these now all too familiar litanies hers was, but the excuses are always the same. The only mystery is, which will it be this time: the abusive parent? Poverty? The hardness of her early life?

She picks poverty. This is what brought her to shame. My sister looks at me. I look back—and we smile

 

* * * * * * *

 

Understand, it is not that we lack sympathy for the hardships this woman has faced in her life, only that we find her excuse for them amusing. We can afford to smile, you see, at her protestations of poverty, we who lived packed like sardines into an abandoned streetcar; who made our home in the charcoal trimmed shell of The Burnt Place and learned not to mind the snow that blew through the windows onto our beds; who hardly knew, as children, what money even looked like, let alone spent like.

I say “hardly knew” because, although we certainly did not get allowances and only rarely money for any sort of treat, I did as a child get a card each birthday from our Aunt Fanny. That in itself was exciting for a little boy, to go to the big mailbox by the side of the road and find a letter actually addressed to me; and inside the card was always a crisp new dollar bill. At that time I could not remember Aunt Fanny, who had seen me last when I was a baby—one must suppose an adorable one, since she was moved by the memory to honor my birthday each year.

I have no doubt that there are some who are saying to themselves at this very moment, “if only he had put that money each year into a savings account, or perhaps bought IBM stock, he would not now be writing his memoirs in a musty attic by the light of candles and dubious memory.”

I can only reply that there are two classes of people for whom money means little—those who have always had it and those who have never had it. My thoughts were entirely of the present and of the pleasure to be wrung from this largesse. As it happens, the pleasure was of the same sort each year. A dollar would take me and my brothers and sisters, the little ones at any rate, to the movies and buy us candy besides, and that is how we spent it. That may reveal a nature already leaning toward the spendthrift but in my defense I must say that one year the movie was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and I don’t know how with one dollar you could supply any more pleasure than that to seven or eight children, and eat Milk Duds to boot.

There is, I must tell you, a postscript to this little story. When I was eight Aunt Fanny came with Aunt Maggie for a visit. I was thrilled, of course and could hardly be shooed away from her. She left and when next my birthday rolled around I waited eagerly for the postman’s car to appear down the road and snatched the mail from him without his having to put it in the box—only to find that there was no envelope with my name printed upon it. I repeated this same performance the next day and the one after that, until it finally became clear to me that no card was coming, and indeed I never saw nor heard from Aunt Fanny again.

I was broken-hearted, of course, and at my mother’s suggestion was consoled by one of my father’s special hot toddies, which were usually saved for the flu or the very worst of colds. I was a sickly child and seemed to have the flu or a cold every week or so most winters.

As I got a bit older, however, and looked back upon these matters, it was not so difficult to understand. I must surely have been, as I said before, an adorable baby and within only a few years, by the time I was thirteen really, I had already begun to develop bone structure. But eight is an awkward age, isn’t it? Too young for knitted booties and not old enough for stilettos. And it is difficult when you are wearing mostly hand-me-downs to put together anything really chic in the way of an ensemble.

Furthermore, as a child I was prone to social gaffes. Once when my mother took me with her to visit our ladylike cousin, Lillian, I somehow managed to put Lillian’s beautiful white cotton gloves upon my bare feet, for reasons I cannot now begin to fathom. Lillian was not amused and I was not taken on any further visits.

I don’t think I put Aunt Fanny’s gloves on my feet but I have no doubt that my behavior in general was not much more sophisticated. Babies don’t have that problem.

The story is not altogether a tragic one, however, since I was left with a keen appreciation of the fun of celebrating a birthday—which is, as I see it, your very own private holiday and ought to be treated as such—and my father’s “recipe” for a hot toddy, which is simply put a little bourbon and some sugar in a large mug, fill with boiling water, add a cinnamon stick, and allow to steep for a few minutes. This is sovereign for those winter nights when you have the sniffles and sneezes. I don’t think it does a thing for the cold but after a few sips, you won’t mind nearly so much having it.

 

* * * * * * *

 

My sister and I smile as well at those who blame the ills of their life upon an abusive parent. If that excused you from a life of misery and degradation, surely we would be among the murderers and pimps. The actor James Caan has said that his cocaine addiction, which cost him family, fortune, career, was because his father never said he loved him.

Pish-posh. As children we prayed our father wouldn’t say anything to us—it was truly unlikely to be “I love you.” Truth to tell, we prayed he wouldn’t notice us and went out of our way to avoid his attention.

His hot toddies notwithstanding, our father was a man of violent temper and strict rules. Children did not speak to an adult unless addressed first and then we used the appropriate “sir” or “ma’am” when we responded. Children did not talk at the table. Children did not…well, you get the idea.

The difficulty was that the rules often changed, so that you could never be quite sure when punishment—physical punishment, violent punishment—might be meted out. When it was, you were not allowed to cry. Not then and not when he had gone from the room, because he might return to check and a crier could expect another round of fists and booted feet.

Was my father a monster? No, not really. He exemplified the sort of strict Eastern European (Lithuanian) upbringing I am sure he experienced himself. Too, by the time I was old enough to remember him, he was already in failing health. Physical health and, increasingly, mental health. By the time I was in my early teens he suffered paranoid delusions. At times he could be quite lucid, charming even; at others, he was convinced that we were trying to do him in.

I suppose I might have been burdened with a lifetime of bitterness, except for one singular incident that occurred when I was fifteen. I was working out of town at a job, and had come home for the weekend. I came in late on Saturday night and my father was up, as he often was at night. This was one of his lucid spells. He asked me if I wanted a glass of dandelion wine. Now, my father’s dandelion wine was the stuff of legend, the nectar of the Gods. And kept where no one could get to it but him, to my longstanding frustration. Even then I appreciated a nip of the good stuff.

Of course I said yes. Out came the bottle and glasses. We sat at the kitchen table with its red and white checked oilcloth worn thin in spots, and sipped and talked. He talked of things that had never been mentioned to me before, of his own life, of his hopes and dreams and frustrations. He asked about my dreams, my ideas for the future. We joked a little, tentatively, because we were not used to this sort of intimacy, and swapped tales of strange events we had known and the peculiar people whose paths ours had crossed. We talked until the kitchen window grew pale with the light of dawn and we could hear the old rooster out back shouting his orders to his harem. It was the only pleasant, personal conversation my father and I had ever shared.

He was abed when I left the next morning. He died three days later. I have always liked to think that perhaps he sensed that his end was near, and that those early morning hours together had been an attempt on his part to mend the relationship between us before he went, so that I could remember him with fondness instead of anger. If that was his intention it worked, for that is how I have always remembered him, sitting across the big round table from me, in the glow of lamplight and dandelion wine, laughing softly at some story I had told, which may not have been funny at all.

He was, as I have said, in poor health and unable to work except occasionally. This left my mother with the responsibility for raising eleven children and caring for a sick husband. My mother had been a child bride, from a place—not even a town—called Rush Run. I asked my father that last night how they had met. He told me he had been walking down a country road and saw her and she was so pretty he just threw over his shoulder and carried her off. He laughed when he told the story but it might have been true. She was tiny and certainly pretty enough, as everyone agrees who has seen the wedding picture that graces my apartment wall.

She had, unfortunately, no more than a sixth-grade education, which meant that to support her family she could manage only the most menial of jobs. Understand, there were no welfare programs in those days. There was what they called “relief”—rocking chair money. My mother scorned it.

She worked. She cleaned house for ten cents an hour. Even in 1950 the dollar she earned in a long day did not go far. She worked in restaurants, often ten and fourteen hours a day, walking the eight miles round trip to and from our farm, to spend the day standing on her feet—sometimes, when she worked a split shift, she walked the route twice. In Ohio, the summers are hot and muggy. The winters can be bitterly cold. At the best of times this was no stroll in the country.

When she was not working out of the house she worked in it. In the Spring and Summer she worked in the garden with the rest of us, and in the Fall she canned and preserved so that we would have food for the winter. Tomatoes, whole and cooked into sauces, and her own ketchup, blood red and gleaming; corn and beans, the white and the red and the green ones; peas, potatoes and soups; pale yellow pears from the big old tree in our yard—Boscs, but we just knew them as pears; cherries we had picked, the tart Queen Annes, which make the Bings taste insipid by comparison; and berries from the woods nearby, blackberries and raspberries, mostly the black ones—no one had much use then for red raspberries; grapes, huge purple Concords, from the fence along the back of the property; apples and apple sauce and apple butter the color of sable; pickles—dill and sweet and the bread and butter ones, which make a sandwich all on their own with some bread, though in later years I came to like some cream cheese with them as well; mushrooms, the spring sponge mushrooms and the fall pink ones; and mincemeat for pies at Christmas. Shelves upon shelves of winter provenance. Without it we would have starved.

We nearly did anyway one year, when unexpected circumstances reduced the supply. We lived for weeks on canned green beans and boiled potatoes, until I swore that I would never eat a green bean again. But we survived. Today I rather like a mess of green beans boiled up with some potatoes, though it is not a dish I would serve company.

Mostly we had enough food, if only just enough. As an adult I long had a habit of leaving food on my plate whenever and wherever I ate. It took me years to realize that it was a reaction to that time when you couldn’t afford to leave a scrap. It was good food, though, a balanced diet within the limitations of what we had to work with, and healthy stuff, without chemicals or preservatives, which may account for the good health and longevity we have mostly enjoyed since.

Laundry, without running water and no electric appliances, was a long, hard day’s work. The washing was done on the back porch, the clothes hung on a line in the back yard. In the dead of an Ohio winter, the clothes froze as fast as they could be hung. Dawdle, and your hands froze too. When you took them down the clothes were stiff, the shirts and pants like petrified body parts. They crackled when you tried to fold them.

She sewed clothes for us to wear, and cooked, quite marvelously, in a country mode. There was no hollandaise nor elaborate confections but our jams and jellies were home made, our eggs from her chickens. When the hens got too old to lay eggs they did a second tour of duty in rich stews and potpies, and for special occasions one or two of the younger girls got fried, and never did noble sacrifice produce greater pleasure.

It was not until we ventured into the wider world of school that any of us confronted the dreaded ‘store bought bread.” We must make do instead with the bread she baked each week—yeasty loaves kneaded on the kitchen table, left to rise at the back of the big cast iron stove and, after that miracle of rising, popped into the enormous oven to fill the kitchen—indeed, the whole house—with their aroma. Did ever the perfumed air of a palace smell so sweet as the scent of bread baking in the oven? To this day I can think of nothing more delicious than the heel end of a loaf warm from the oven and slathered with fresh sweet butter.

When we had cows, which was not always, she churned her own butter and made her own cottage cheese. So much for spare time.

Surely, if anyone were entitled to be bitter or angry at the hardships of life it was she. She was not. Her smile was shy but warm and sincere and charmed all upon whom she bestowed it, which she did with unfailing generosity, except when anything or anyone threatened her children. At such a time she became a she-tiger whose path you crossed at your peril, as my father was reminded from time to time.

She had a wry wit, an easy laugh and an unshakable conviction that God would take care of us (He did, if sometimes a bit skimpily). Despite her long hours of hard work she found time for her flower beds, which were beautiful indeed. She found time for her children as well, helping us to dye Easter eggs, making Halloween costumes for us, trimming the Christmas tree while she led us in the carols. She sang all the time, mostly hymns, in a clear, sweet soprano. It shall always be difficult for me to listen to In the Garden, which was her favorite.

We all of us got from time to time a smack on the behind, but for the most part she was not one for taking a hand to any of her children. Her form of punishment was far, far worse, and we learned to avoid it at any cost. Our punishment was knowing that we had disappointed her or, if our peccadilloes were major ones, had broken her heart. Worst of all, she blamed no one but herself. She had failed as a mother if her children could do such things.

With just such discipline she raised her brood to be self-reliant (all my brothers, macho regardless, learned to cook and to sew), honest, and to adhere to certain standards of behavior that were to be expected of Mrs. Banis’ children.

Now we all know there is genuine generosity of spirit and there is a form of selfishness and manipulation that masks itself as generosity of spirit for the sake of controlling, or laying guilt, on others. I think perhaps the greatest gift our mother gave her children was in allowing us to feel as we were growing up that we were worthy of the efforts she made on our behalf. It was only as we got older and a trifle wiser that we were able fully to appreciate the extent of her sacrifices. That, in case you were wondering, is the true generosity of spirit.

I suppose in a sense we all of us could have been said to be Mama’s boys and girls. Certainly she loved us and worked hard to take care of us and raise us to the best of her abilities. We were close, we were loving, we were friends. She was not a coddler, however. She wasn’t, for one thing, a demonstrative sort; none of us are. And she simply hadn’t the time (nor, I am sure, the energy) to dote on us individually. We were taught to look out for one another, which we still do, but most important of all, to look out for ourselves. We were expected to be self-reliant and independent; we were and are, perhaps to a fault.

Alas, not all was sweetness and light. I must confess, despite the example our mother set for us and despite all her Herculean efforts, we were no angels. We were children and I am sure that the gray hair she eventually sported came mostly from worrying over us.

I, for one, was always disappearing off on my own, hiking or hitchhiking here and there. Years later she talked about how much she had worried for me when I was gone but she had thought it wiser not to make too much of a fuss and had trusted in my good sense to keep me safe. I can’t help thinking she was a bit optimistic on that score but truth to tell, despite one or two scary incidents, I mostly managed to avoid any real trouble.

The youngest brother, Pat, was a monster as a child, which he would tell you himself if he were here. In retrospect it is fortunate he was able to run as fun as he could, since had I been able to catch him he would probably not have lived to become the terrific man he is today.

Our older brother, Dick, was a wild and rebellious teenager. He was too fond of driving wildly—in cars that were borrowed, so to speak. Not, apparently, for any financial gain, mostly just for the hell of it. He twice went to reform school for his penchant, at a time when the young men in such places were assaulted and abused with impunity. One might have expected such experiences to make a hardened career criminal of him, as so many of today’s whiners assert. In fact he settled down as a young man, married, raised a family, and became a farmer—not one of the rich agribusiness sort, just a hard working man of the earth. When he died in the sixties his funeral procession, I was told at the time, was the longest that had ever been seen in our town. He had earned the respect of all who knew him, family and neighbors.

My sister, Fanny, married right out of high school, as girls often did in those days, in such towns. She ran the office for her husband’s plumbing business and raised six children, and when the children were old enough to take care of themselves and help out in the office, she went to college at age thirty-three. She graduated cum laude, certainly by far the oldest member of her graduating class, and went on to earn her Ph.D. Until her retirement a few years ago she was a respected member of the education community.

Our brother, Sam, was a high school dropout. He earned his GED in the Marine Corps, and while raising his own family worked his way through law school. He became a highly successful attorney and in time a judge.

Ruth is much respected as an artist. Ann is an executive with an insurance firm. Albert ran a booming automotive business with his sons. Eve and May were mothers and wives, but before that they were WAACs and saw much of the world.

No murderers, no career criminals, no handwringing on Oprah. Despite the poverty, despite the violence, all of my brothers and sisters grew up to be good people, successful and caring. And honest to a degree that sometimes discomfits others. We are all of us simply unable to tell any kind of falsehood to the others. There is an unwritten law that you do not ask any question the answer to which you are not fully prepared to hear. Everyone is frank, but you are just as entitled to have and express your own opinion and conversations sometimes get intense.

There is plenty of room for diversity, at any rate. We were champions of “do your own thing” long before that became a hippie slogan and people of all colors, religions and sexual persuasions have always been made to feel welcome. I often took home gay friends, who were accepted or not on their own merits as a person, and my gay niece has no fears about introducing her girlfriends into the family circle. There are few caveats. If you are boring or stupid but otherwise nice, you will be tolerated, though you may find yourself sitting alone at family gatherings. Everyone is proud and pleased for your individual success, as a lawyer, say, or as a writer, but if you put on airs you are likely to be laughed at, and not behind your back either.

We have always been an astonishingly cross-generational group—no generation gap here. I think this is why, unlike so many of my contemporaries, I have never been particularly concerned about growing older—which, as I have said already, is a fortunate state of affairs for a gay man. It is not unusual to see people of four different generations gathered at the table for a game of Euchre or engaged in a spirited argument about politics.

Even the youngest members of the family, who are far too young to have ever actually seen them, know the legends of The Burnt Place and The Streetcar, and the parts they play in our heritage. Their lesson is, Don’t get too big for your britches, Buster, and don’t look down on those less fortunate in some way. We’ve been there ourselves.

We can be a challenge, I know, to others. Our tendency to make jokes of adversity, even at funerals (the notorious Banis sense of humor, which we all deplore but secretly enjoy), has raised an eyebrow or two from time to time but that is our way. We are laughers—at ourselves, certainly. At life and death, at triumph (it keeps you from being pompous) and tragedy (it eases the pain). When I think of my family, it is most often laughter I remember. That’s not such a bad heritage.

Those who fall in love with a family member soon come to realize, at least the wiser ones, that they are marrying not just him or her but an entire large and boisterous clan, in a sense. Most of them are absorbed quickly into the family and like it well enough. Invariably my brothers and sisters in law came to think of our mother as their mother too. A few, especially those prone to putting on airs, have found the challenge too daunting and are left in time by the wayside while the family goes on its way.

Our biggest problem, family wise, is that we are not much for loving talk, preferring to let actions speak louder than words—as indeed they should do, but the words can be important too, and we have had to work at that. We have had to work, too, at the physical elements of our love. We are not, as I have said, a demonstrative bunch, and it has taken time and effort to reach the hugging stage, which even today we do with a certain awkwardness. We are, I think, suspicious of those who wear their hearts on their sleeves or chips on their shoulders.

As for my mother—her name was Anna Viola, which suited her very well, I think, but we wouldn’t have called her that of course. To be honest we almost never called her mother; most of the time except when we were being exaggeratedly polite (read, snotty) she was Mom, and not only the family but most of our friends called her that as well. You may too, if you wish.

What I started to tell you was that though the first part of her life was hard indeed I am happy to say that her later years were far easier. Social Security, an insurance pension from the death of brother Bill and the help that her children were only too happy to give her allowed her to live in modest comfort. Fond of sweets, she grew plump but remained pretty. She could be mischievous and sometimes startled me with the sort of salty expression I would not have expected from her. I have always thought, for instance, that her description of an overly busy acquaintance as “a fart in a whirlwind” was deliciously apt and worthy of Mark Twain. But my siblings say they never heard such language from her. I can only assume that she knew to temper her discourse to her listener. I’m not quite sure what that says of her opinion of me.

She was a sort of woman’s lib before there was woman’s lib. She taught her granddaughters the niceties of fishing, which little girls in those days weren’t supposed to care about. She drove when many women did not and disdained the idea of needing a man to teach her. Marooned on a farm with a passel of children, she went into town one day. A bit later we were playing in the yard when a car came literally careening side to side down our road and skidded into our driveway. It was our mother, who had decided we needed transportation and had bought a car, quite unmindful of the fact that she did not know how to drive.

She taught herself and all of us. I shall always remember on my first lesson—I was fourteen and it was not only my first day of driving but hers as well—chasing a terrified farmer on his tractor across his open field while my mother and I discussed excitedly how one went about stopping a car.

I might as well confess she was a hellacious driver from first day to last. She was never quite able to grasp that there were speeds available to her other than the two fundamental to her purposes: flat out and dead stop. As children we loved it, needless to say, but there were those who could be seen to age visibly when they rode with her, and one or two who could be induced neither by threats nor bribes to set foot in the car a second time. Once behind the wheel she was utterly fearless. When her brakes failed as she charged down a steep incline toward a busy highway she found that driving over and flattening a stop sign slowed her quite enough to allow her to merge with the oncoming traffic and none the worse for wear.

She would fly blithely by police and patrolmen, never dreaming that they would stop her for exceeding the speed limit. They never did, perhaps because she looked so innocent.

She drove in the worst of Ohio’s winters on roads that were all but impassable, without benefit of chains or snow tires, sometimes without benefit of tire tread. And neither failing brakes, patrolmen, nor inclement weather slowed her velocity a single bit. Whatever angels protected her must have been kept busy indeed.

Having once discovered the independence of driving her own car she did not again surrender it until at an advanced age she failed her eye test and was denied a new license. There were surely drivers in several states who breathed sighs of relief at this news but I truly believe that it was from that day, her freedom curtailed, that she began to age.

When she was not tooling about in her car she loved to travel by any other means and would board a bus, a train, an airplane at the drop of a hat. She spent much of her golden years visiting her children, who were by this time scattered about the country.

She lived to be eighty-five. A day or so before her eighty-fifth birthday I dreamed of her. She was young and slim, as she had been in my childhood, and she was packing a suitcase. In my dream, I asked her where she was going and she told me that she was finally going off on her own and had only come to say goodbye. She smiled and waved and started off down a long, tree lined road.

I called my brother the next day to tell him of my dream (else, I would not be sharing it with you now; I really don’t try to be nutty). He told me that she was fine. By this time she was living with our brother Al, in Texas, but she had just returned from a visit to Ohio.

Two nights after her birthday she sat down in her favorite rocking chair and went to sleep. She passed away peacefully, I hope confident that she had done the very best that she could with the life that had been dealt her. Certainly she owned the hearts of her family. When we get together, her children, her grandchildren, her great and great-great grandchildren, the subject of our conversations sooner or later turns to her. We speak of her with abiding love, of course, and with a sense of awe as well.

She was a remarkable woman. I miss her.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Oddly, I think it was in part being poor that made our family so close. In a sense, I think the relationship that we share was much the same as the social “family” that gays share—poverty separates you from the crowd in much the way that homosexuality does. We stuck together because we were all we had.

When you live outside the borders of polite society, as homosexuals do and certainly did then; when you can be arrested at any moment just for being who you are; when you live hourly, daily, with the threat of violence, eviction, loss of job; when a flip of your wrist can cost you friendships, even family, you either cut your wrists early or you learn to take the laughs where you can find them. Like those earthquake survivors in the Castro you laugh at the circumstances of life, have a drink or two and sing out, Louise.

This is true today; it was even truer, it seems to me, in the fifties and sixties. We had parties. Parties were even more common than bars, though one had to be careful not to attract too much attention.

There were some peculiarly gay events, too, though these were usually truly underground and you had to know somebody to be invited. In Los Angeles, the GGRC, or Gay Girls Riding Club (which had nothing to do with riding horses) regularly filmed spoofs of popular movies and invitations to their screenings were harder to come by than presidential appointments. Their A Roman Springs on Mrs. Stone was hilarious. I wonder if any of these films still exist? I think they would make a great evening’s entertainment at a movie house but I haven’t a clue who might still possess them. Anyone know?

Gays have always bonded, creating friendship of the most intense nature. Gay friends are often, except for the lack of sexual relations, more like lovers than what the outside world considers friends. And often these relationships are life long. You need someone who knows what it’s like. You need someone to share the joke with you and sometimes point it out to you just in case you haven’t seen it yourself already.

All of this, of course, was far more underground then than it is now. Forty years ago gays had almost their own language. I’ve joked often that, when I was in my teens and twenties, you could ride with a friend to work in the morning and discuss just about everything you had done the night before without anyone else on the bus understanding what you were saying.

It was not until the mid-fifties that I even learned of the homosexual connotation of the word “gay”. It was the seventies before most heterosexuals caught on. “sixty nine” has long been in use, and “around-the-world,” but back then few heterosexuals understood “trade,” or “dirt,” “lace curtains” or “baldies” or even “going down” or “down in the valley.” “Punk,” yes, and “lag,” and most can probably figure out “golden screw,” and “brownie queen,” but I suspect there are still some who don’t know “rimming,” “shrimping,” “felching,” “clutch queen,” “tongue and groove,” “tea-bagging,”…well, there were entire glossaries published in the sixties and seventies or else I probably wouldn’t understand some of it myself.

And not all of this is exclusively homosexual either. I only recently read about “figging” in a heterosexual publication. Read with some astonishment, I might say, and so that you won’t spend a sleepless night wondering what hot (in this case, literally) new trend you are missing out on, I will explain that this involves slices of ginger and anal cavities. Who on earth dreams up this stuff, anyway? I mean, there you are in your kitchen, preparing a stir-fry and—well, that’s quite a leap of imagination, if you ask me.

I’m probably not the one to ask, however. As a small town boy in the big city I more than once found myself in strange situations because I had smiled and pretended to understand when in fact I hadn’t the foggiest idea what I was being invited to participate in. Who knew people did those things?

Sometimes it wasn’t ignorance of certain words, it was the ritual of censorship that prevented people from using them. The fallacy in that policy was never more dramatically revealed than in the dilemma faced by the New York Times in the case of Earl Butz.

It was 1976 before the Times convinced themselves to use the word penis in print. As late as 1985 the Times still refused to use the word gay to mean homosexual.

Imagine their dilemma then when Butz, Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary, made the racist statement that the three things most wanted by blacks in life were “loose shoes, a tight pussy and a warm place to shit.”

It was a story that had to be reported, an outrageously racist remark by a high ranking official in a presidential administration—but how to do so without resorting to those naughty words? It was certainly a powerful argument for my own view that censorship is generally more harmful than the words being censored.

Constrained as they were by censorship, albeit self-censorship, the Times ultimately changed a tight pussy to good sex. You don’t have to be a journalism professor to see the deficit in impact. The New York Times, perhaps the best newspaper in the world, had fallen flat in reporting a major scandal.

It’s easy to see why so much of our private language remained secret for so long. Imagine if they had tried to write about cocksucking?

It wasn’t just words in code either. There were, and still are, codes based on the color and location of one’s bandana or handkerchief—that one was always too complicated for me. All those colors… Yellow, I think, is obvious, but I never did get clear on who was the pee-ee and who the pee-er. (Just as an aside for those of you who are into alternative medicine, I recently read that peeing on your foot can cure athlete’s foot—but this is not a medical journal and I shall venture no further into that realm).

I even stopped wearing my usual white handkerchief lest someone misinterpret. What could it mean? That I was a virgin? That I had a hankering for snowmen? You can see where confusion might reign. I adopted Kleenex.

In truth I never had much in the way of secret desires to impart. I discovered a penchant for the basics in my early days. Yes, as friends will insist, in my cave with the brontosaurus bellowing outside. I will admit to the occasional experimentation, though I cannot quite say with Madam that I tried everything twice and enjoyed it both times. I am afraid I never went far beyond the early activities. Having read Freud and Kinsey and Havelock Ellis, and most of the other authorities on sexual behavior, I understand, intellectually, the point of S&M, for instance, but on a personal level I never could get beyond the reality that pain hurts.

That’s only my personal hang up, of course, and I have no desire to impose my personal sexual preferences on anyone else. As long as it is voluntary on the part of the participants it is really your business so far as I can see. Wilhelm Reich observed, “Underneath every bit of distorted, grotesque behavior, I always found a little bit of human simplicity.” There are better yardsticks for measuring people than what they do in the bedroom.

Anyway I have always been more attuned to the actor than the action. It early on became apparent to me that if someone was not the right partner for me, nothing that he brought to the occasion in the way of endowment, skill, or enthusiasm was truly going to do the job, though I sometimes faked it for the sake of courtesy; while on the other hand if he was the right one, holding hands in the dark at the movies could be an intensely erotic experience.

And despite what you might think, I have always preferred one quality partner to an army of pretenders. Nor has going home alone ever bothered me in the way that it seems to bother many others. On that subject, however, it is worth mentioning that I once met a young man, neither gorgeous nor unattractive, whose method of scoring on a Saturday night was both astonishingly direct and, on those occasions when I observed him in action, invariably successful. He would start at one end of a crowded barroom and ask each patron without preamble if they would like to “go home and fuck.” He admitted that he got a lot of turndowns, some of them rather hostile, but he never got through the room before someone blinked and said yes. I can only say that the man who will eat anything rarely goes hungry.

I have had my share of turndowns. I once found myself standing at a bar next to a tall, dark, tall, handsome, tall stranger. Aflame with desire, I racked my brain for just the right opening line and at last inspiration struck. I looked up at him and batted my lashes and in my best Marilyn voice said, “I just adore tall men.”

He looked down on me from his Olympian altitude and said, blank-faced, “so do I.”

Once again, however, I have gotten off the track. The point I meant to illustrate is that even in our dark ages there were always ways of signaling your interest or your preference. The thumb between the first two fingers was an invitation to anal sex that came, I’m told, from prison life, and if all else failed you could always blow someone a kiss. It’s unfortunate, in my opinion, that the quick little wink fell out of usage. It said so much with so little effort.

Incidentally someone once told me that the best way to determine the sexual orientation of a man of whom you are not sure is to say to him, “You wouldn’t be able to do these awful things to me if I weren’t still in this wheelchair!”

A straight man will look at you blankly, but a gay man can be counted on to answer, “But ya are, Blanche, ya are.”

And then ya know.

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Rae Bourbon – “The stipend must rally ’round here

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Spine Intact, Chapter 5.

That Was No Lady…

 

 

 

Drag is forever. Histories of Gold Rush California tell of saloons in which some male patrons donned aprons and assorted finery and danced as the female partner with the other men. But drag goes back much further than that. The early Greeks had young men who wore the make up and garb of women and worked as hetaerae, or “professional ladies.” Early Native American tribes had their berdaches, men who dressed and lived as women; of course they had no bars in which to hang out, but I’m sure they enlivened those evenings around the campfires.

In the fifties there were world-famous drag bars such as Finocchio’s in San Francisco, which had started as a speakeasy in the twenties and evolved into a show bar by the forties. Most of these bars, though, were more often tourist-oriented than truly gay bars. This is an example of the sort of psychology common to most comics—if they are going to laugh at you anyway, try to get them to pay for the privilege.

Let me tell you something else while I’m at it—many of those “straight” men in the audience who were laughing so heartily were getting plenty turned on. There are many, and I do mean many, men who would not dream of fooling around with a “queer” who have no reluctance in playing with a drag queen, even though they know without any doubt that the woman is a man. We all have ways of fooling ourselves, don’t we?

Now, I am not one of those gays who believe, as many seem to do, that all men are gay at heart. So far as I can figure out, the only thing that all men are is male. I do believe, however, and my entire experience has borne this out, that many, many more men than the statistics would indicate have been willing at one time or another to experiment. This would jibe with Kinsey’s sexual preference scale, which put absolute heterosexuals—a small percentage—at one end, and absolute homosexuals—ditto—at the other. The fact is, most men are really somewhere in the middle. They are just inclined to lie about it when asked by pollsters.

And not only to pollsters. I have had one-on-one conversations with many heterosexual men who talked frankly to me about homosexual inklings they had discerned in themselves—perhaps nothing more than a secret pleasure they took in being cruised by a gay man, or sometimes realizing that they thought another man was attractive, though not so much so that they would ever have acted upon it. More than once I have subsequently heard the same men vehemently deny to buddies, wives and girlfriends, that they could ever possibly have experienced such feelings. It is an area in which many men feel threatened.

Nevertheless the old expression remains true, a stiff willie has no conscience (yes, yes, that’s not the way I heard it either, but your mother might read this); and it can safely be amended to add, not much discrimination either. Especially in the dark.

There is a story told of Voltaire. He and a friend expressed their curiosity regarding sodomy and decided, in the interests of philosophy and solely as an experiment, to give it a try together. Afterward, they agreed that neither of them had enjoyed the experience.

Some years later the friend wrote Voltaire to tell him that he had performed the experiment a second time and found it no more enjoyable than the first. Voltaire’s swift reply was, “Once, a philosopher, twice, a sodomite.”

In a like vein, Ted Morgan, in his biography of Somerset Maugham, tells of a chat between Maugham and Winston Churchill in which Sir Winston confessed to trying it once with a man just to see what it was like.

I am inclined to think that most men, at the right time (read, when really horny), with the right companion (whom they are confident will be discreet), under the right circumstances (a cocktail or two can do much to loosen inhibitions), are agreeable to a little philosophy, if only just a little.

I should probably add, however, before my straight male friends start running for the hills, that at this stage in my life I am very much hors de combat. Here is an item for those of you who used to thrill to The Shadow on radio or in comics. This is the secret of invisibility: get older and go to a gay bar. At least I am more fortunate than many others in this respect because I am entirely comfortable with my own company. To be honest, I mostly prefer it. And that is fortunate for a gay man of my years. It is as well to be at ease with the inevitable.

 

* * * * * * *

 

The laws regarding drag were often muddled to the point of inanity. In Los Angeles, even in the fifties, it was not illegal for a man to wear women’s clothes—else they would have had to arrest Milton Berle, Ray Bolger, Jack Benny, and countless other entertainers in a long tradition of movie and TV cross-dressers ranging to today’s Tom Hanks.

The litmus test was whether the individual was wearing men’s underwear. You could be ordered at any time to “hoist those skirts and show those skivvies.” If you had on your boxers you got the USDA stamp of approval. Panties got you a set in the slammer and very mixed doubles.

As an aside, I suppose it is worth mentioning that over the years I have run across quite a few entirely straight men who liked to wear women’s panties. I’m not going to try to explain this. I am only reporting it.

In general the authorities looked the other way when it came to performers in drag in nightclubs, but in most of those instances protection money was being paid. The Jewel Box Revue toured the South and New Orleans had its “feathers and finery.” Regardless of the city, however, you wore drag in public at your own peril.

Jay Little’s 1956 novel, Somewhere Between the Two, probably ought to be required reading for any drag queen, if you can find it—it is long out of print, but copies can often be found in used bookstores. Despite the period setting it is still the most realistic and sympathetic portrayal I have ever read of the world of the professional drag performer.

One thing Little does make clear as well is a fact not always known to those outside of that world—that many, maybe most, female impersonators are straight. Cross-dressing isn’t a question of sexual orientation. It has been said that the late Aristotle Onassis, beloved of Jackie and Maria, liked to dress up on his yacht, Skorpios. I can’t imagine it was a pretty sight, but so long as it made him feel pretty, who’s to complain. Bear in mind, his sailors were Greek.

Infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his partner, Clyde Tolson, were said to like dressing up. And according to Esther Williams, fifties he-man movie star Jeff Chandler had an entire dressing room full of dresses and wigs. Her only real complaint is that he was too big for the polka dots he apparently favored.

My point is, this certainly had nothing to do with his being “that way.” I recently chatted with a young straight man, a lawyer, who shyly and only after long conversation confessed that he liked to dress as a woman and thought he looked pretty good, too. Apparently, this had been worrying him. He was enormously relieved when I assured him that this did not mean that he had a queer streak in him. Which was unfortunate from my point of view. He was awfully cute.

Some of the drag queens of the past assumed the status of legends for those of us living under the cloak. T. C. Jones (straight, I’m told) played legitimate clubs in New York and even did parts in straight plays, almost unheard of then. I saw him only once towards the end of his career but he was a wonderful entertainer. The highlight of his act was a pantomime done to Ten Cents a Dance, in which he played the part of an over-the-hill taxi dancer spurned by customers looking for younger and prettier partners. Funny, and poignant.

Rae Bourbon was a gay version of Belle Barth, a practitioner of a type of bawdy humor that faded after the sexual revolution. Moms Mabley and Rusty Warren (“all right, ladies, get those knockers up”) had similar acts.

Rusty was younger than the others but mostly these were older women of one minority or another. They say all humor is based on pain. The foul-mouthed humor seemed all the funnier coming from a little old lady. It was funnier, too, because this sort of talk was forbidden, taboo, definitely no-no. Women weren’t supposed to talk about sex in those days—weren’t, in fact, supposed to know about sex—let alone tell dirty jokes in nightclubs. You didn’t hear those words or subjects on radio or television, or even stage shows. And maybe these ladies got away with it in part because the cops were reluctant to drag a grandmotherly looking old lady out of a club in handcuffs, though that wouldn’t have, and almost certainly didn’t, help the drag queens.

With the sexual revolution the barriers began to fall, and where they were slow to fall they were kicked over by people like Lenny Bruce. No longer verboten, the jokes seemed less funny and many of these careers faded and died. Madame, of Waylon & Madame (who started at The Academy in Los Angeles), was perhaps the last in this line of comics. With her pearls and feathered boas, Madame was a dressed up version of the working class bawd, a puppet Rae Bourbon.

Bourbon’s records could sometimes be found under the counter in the fifties, if you knew someone. The best known of these LPs was An Evening in Copenhagen, which featured such numbers as The Stipend Must Rally Round Here, and Sisters of Charity (“And don’t be stingy, give it all, what do you care what you are called, be a sister of charity”) and The Wedding, a long and hilarious account of a far underground gay wedding in San Francisco: “The one who was performing the ceremony—oh, he looked so lovely, you couldn’t tell who was the bride with him standing there—he looked down at the two who were getting married and said, Do you…? And before they could deny it, the law came in…” The comedy is raw, but for its type it stands up pretty well today, though the differences in the gay culture over the intervening years are immediately apparent.

I was part of a sad postscript, by the way, to the Rae Bourbon story. In the seventies Earl Kemp, my editor at Greenleaf Classics, called me to ask if I had ever heard of Rae Bourbon, and when I said that I certainly had he wanted to know if I thought there were enough fans to make a success of an autobiography. He had gotten a manuscript, badly written, and wondered if it was worth the time and trouble it would take to make it publishable.

I had to say in all honesty that I doubted there was much of a market for such a book. Bourbon’s heyday had been twenty years earlier—he was already old when I saw him in Washington, D.C., in the mid-fifties, and indeed I had heard nothing of him for a decade or more. Earl passed on the book and it wasn’t until later that I learned that Rae Bourbon at that time had been in jail in a small Texas town charged with murder, and was trying to raise money for his defense.

The circumstances of the murder were as bizarre as any of the stories he told in his nightclub act. It seems he had been touring in an old van with his “children,” an entire pack of dogs (I have heard estimates ranging from seven or eight up to fourteen of them) and playing gigs where he could find them. The van broke down and he boarded the dogs with a local vet. Time passed. The dogs were old and many of them ill. Convinced that Bourbon was never coming back to claim them, the vet eventually put the dogs to sleep.

Bourbon did return, however, and was so enraged at what he regarded as the murder of his “children” that he attacked the vet and beat him so severely that the man died from his injuries. Bourbon was arrested for murder.

Eventually Rae Bourbon died in his Texas jail before his case could be resolved. Would it have made any difference if I had advised differently regarding his manuscript? Maybe not, but it’s one of those things I’ve always wished I could go back and do differently. That’s not to say I condone what he did, but any gay who grew up before the sixties can understand it.

Whip a dog often enough and he will learn to bite.

 

* * * * * * *

 

I have to say, though, that there was a world of difference between these drag queen legends of the past and most of today’s performers. For one thing, too many contemporary performers feel that performing means that they need only lip-synch to a record and twirl about in yards of tulle. Each of the “old girls” developed her own character, often brilliantly realized. Most of them spoke and sang with their own voices, but often they trained and practiced for long hours to develop a voice convincingly female, not quite falsetto and not their usual masculine voice either. A third voice, as one performer once described it to me. How many drag queens today are willing to invest the time and effort to develop that third voice?

They had stage routines, usually with lots of funny patter, and many of them were very good at song and dance. All of which is to say, they were true entertainers who just happened to be wearing wigs and dresses.

Of course, there have been some very talented drag queens in recent years. Divine was special—his drag persona was certainly unlike any other.

Barry Humphries (so far as I know, straight) has created a readily identifiable character in Dame Edna Everage. This is far beyond just dressing up and he is as popular with straight audiences as with gay.

And I don’t want to sound either like I’m set against lip-synching, per se. If you are creative, if you have talent, you can make an asset of almost anything. Lypsinka has taken that all-too-common lip-synching to hysterical extremes, lip-synching not only song lyrics but dialogue as well, an entire show patched together from what must be a hundred different sources. For the record, by the way, his frantic stage persona is a far cry from his own quiet, laid back personality as John Epperson.

Charles Pierce, though his stand up routines were in his own voice (or one of several of his voices) lip-synched parts of his routines too, to wonderful effect. Anyone who saw him at the old Gilded Cage, soaring over the heads of the patrons on a flowered swing while tootling Jeanette’s recording of San Francisco, is not likely to forget the experience.

 

* * * * * * *

 

I suppose it is the fantasy of all cross dressers to be truly mistaken for the real thing. Drag queens tell me that the highest compliment they can be paid is for someone to say “I thought you were a real woman.” Drag is all about illusion, naturally, and on the stage it often works. D.L.E., as we used to say—distance lends enchantment. One even hears about impersonators functioning as women in the world outside the theater, but I’ve seen scant evidence of that.

Oddly, there have been a couple of famous instances of women living successfully as men, the most famous being that of Teena Brandon, whose story is told convincingly in Kimberly Peirce’s movie Boys Don’t Cry (1999). What for many people makes this story even more astonishing is that, far from avoiding the super-macho young men of the town, the ones who might have been perceived as the biggest threat to her, Brandon actually hung out with the toughest of them.

I myself don’t find that quite so surprising. As an effeminate young man who was always at risk of violence at the hands of straights, I very early on adopted a policy of setting out to woo the toughest of the toughs. If I came into a room, a bar, a party full of straights, I made it a habit to look around and find the meanest looking son of a bitch in the place and I made a bee line for him. I knew that if I could win him over the rest would be cream puffs. And if I was going to get the shit beat out of me, I might as well get it over with up front.

Most of the time my strategy worked and you would be astonished how many of those mean sons of bitches went on to become good friends, even after they knew the truth about me (or maybe some of them knew all along and just wanted to be wooed; men are funny that way).

Tragically Brandon’s ploy ultimately failed; it was two of those tough guy pals who, when they learned the truth, raped and eventually killed her—in large part, it seems, from anger that she had so successfully fooled them.

Why does it seem to be easier for a woman to create the illusion of being a man than vice versa? I think in part that may be because those women who have dressed and lived as men have often been content to assume an androgynous sort of masculinity rather than the super macho sort. It is not so much a matter of playing an effeminate man as a slick one.

The man’s world, after all, is filled with a wide range of “types.” Look at the men who have been movie superstars. Though both Ronald Coleman and David Niven are perceived as being heterosexual there is a great chasm between their sort of masculinity and, say, Bruce Willis’ or Steve McQueen’s. Even James Dean had an androgynous quality about him, which indeed was why he could appeal so powerfully to both men and women.

On the other hand, men dressing as women rarely try to appear as tom-boyish women, which would seem an easier act to pull off, but go for the ultra, the exaggeratedly feminine, which is harder to do successfully (older performers, such as Rae Bourbon, often go for the harridan look, which in fact is easier to make convincing). My friend John Beard performed regularly as Johnnie Adonis in the taverns in small Midwestern towns and cities such as Greenville, Ohio. I can attest that the farmers and working class patrons loved his act, as I did myself, but I hardly think it was because they thought he was really a woman.

Of course it is sort of like murder, isn’t it? You hear about the ones that don’t work, but if it did work, you”d never know, would you? Years ago, there was a dancer named Brandy, petite and very pretty, who appeared regularly at the Queen Mary, a drag club in the San Fernando Valley. I saw Brandy a number of times on and off stage—occasionally in brightly lighted coffee shops after the shows, where the truth is often sadly obvious; but I never could be sure about Brandy until I saw her being interviewed on television and learned that she was indeed a he who did live undetected in drag. He was the only one that I ever personally met, however, who was that convincing.

Now I suppose some of you are thinking, don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. I confess, I am very nearly a virgin when it comes to drag. I say very nearly, because I did indeed dress up one time, and that is the only other experience I have had with someone off the performing stage who was able utterly to fool the public—at least, some of the public. At least for a brief while.

I didn’t call it or think of what I did as “drag.” To be honest I doubt if I had even heard that term at the time, when I was fourteen or perhaps fifteen. It was Halloween and I was just “dressing up.” We had no money for Halloween costumes, but with so many sisters there was no shortage of dresses.

I bought a little black half mask and a blonde wig at the local Woolworth’s for twenty-nine cents, or perhaps it was fifty-nine. I ask you, how convincing could it have been? My sisters helped me with a bra, stuffed but not over done. Everything in good taste. A bit of makeup, some nail polish, a drop or two of Oh Dick Alone, and I was ready to set out in my smart pumps (I never have understood how real drag queens, or real women for that matter, can walk in high heels!)

My brother-in-law’s brother had a new convertible, black and plenty snazzy, and he gave me a lift to the local armory, where the town’s Halloween festivities were taking place. I started up the stairs—and ran into a covey of the school macho contingent.

I was not really popular with these guys to begin with, certainly not with Morris, as I shall name him here, who was the biggest, the loudest, the most fearsome of the bunch. Morris was the school bully. It was his role in life, it seemed, to make everyone else’s life miserable, and he dedicated himself to his task. I was his favorite target, and the way in which I earned that privilege was a strange one.

I was twelve or perhaps not quite that when Morris moved to our community and started in school, in my grade though he was perhaps a year older than I. A significant year older, as it turned out.

From the start Morris was friendly with me. Downright chummy in fact. I might have suspected something but I did not. You may titter if you like but I was still quite innocent. We lived not far from one another, as country boys calculate things and I was flattered when he invited me to his home one afternoon for his birthday party.

I was not even suspicious to discover that I was the only guest, though I suppose by then I should have been. His mother served us cake and ice cream and when he suggested we go for a hike in the nearby woods I skipped along merrily at his side. Picture Little Red Riding Hood traipsing into the woods with the Wolf, though in fact in this instance it was the Wolf who had the basket (I didn’t say absolutely innocent, mind you).

We soon found ourselves in the privacy of a secluded glade, a scene quite out of one of those romantic paintings from the eighteenth century. Now, I know some of you who know me will find this difficult to imagine, but when he proposed that we “do it,” I did not at first understand what “it” was. When he pulled a woodie out of his jeans, however, and started to massage it, I did finally begin to get the picture.

A picture which so startled me that I could only decline mutely. I don’t think I had yet discovered “it” as a private matter. It had certainly never occurred to me as a joint project. I was accustomed to spending time in the woods—I was a country boy, as I have explained. However, this was a far cry from Cowboys and Indians, or at any rate a variation on that theme that I had never before encountered.

My disinclination was the end of our growing friendship. I left and was not invited back. It never occurred to me afterward to tell anyone else about his propositioning me. It was not the sort of thing I supposed one brought up in polite conversation. I think, though, that he was afraid I might, and that when he was so nasty to me day in and day out over the next several years, it was a form of “self-protection,” or distancing himself from me in case I had told anyone and they might be inclined to believe me.

When I celebrated finishing high school, I was celebrating as much as anything the fact that I would henceforth be free of Morris and his antics.

A few years later I was home for a visit and an old friend called to say there was someone who would love to see me. When I arrived at his apartment that evening, who should be there but Morris. I was astonished to think that he had asked to see me and even more astonished by his friendly, his downright warm manner.

Right up until he followed me into the bathroom. By this time of course I was all grown up. I now knew, as I had not before, what “jism” meant, and I was quick to get the point when he yanked down his trousers in an effort once again to convince me to play.

And I must admit his argument was persuasive. The Wolf’s basket had been filled with goodies after all, as it turned out. Alas, the level of conversation hadn’t improved much: “take a look at this, why dontcha?” I swear it, if I had shown him two detailed photographs and asked him to identify them, he almost certainly would have been unable to say which one was the hole in the ground.

Of course it wasn’t this time, nor had it ever been, intellectual excitement that Morris was offering to share with me. I should perhaps add too that with the passing of a few years and the loss of some baby fat, Morris had grown into a rather good looking man, in a sort of King Kong way. Well, those brutes can be exciting, can’t they?

But wait, hadn’t we played this scene already? Moreover there was a principle involved. This man had made my life miserable for years and I was not about at this late date to reward his misbehavior with, well, rewards. I excused myself, I bade my host good evening, and departed.

I never saw Morris again and in a sense our entire relationship was book-ended by those two propositions, so entirely different from everything in between. His life was not a pretty one. He was later wounded in a robbery attempt and he died young in a bizarre drug incident.

Was it my refusal to play that sent him down the tragic path he followed? He had seemed a nice enough young man up until that fateful day in the forest. Could my love have saved him from himself? Might one kiss—well, I don’t really think it was kisses he was after on either of those occasions but all right then, might one blow job have made the difference?

Hmmm. Probably not. In any event, he was very much alive on this Halloween evening and obviously as smitten by my girlish charms as he had been before by my boyish charms—was there some bodily chemical I secreted? If only I had been able to discover it and use it at will. I can think of scores of times with others when I would have liked to be so irresistible.

This, however, was not one of them. Morris was not alone either. There were three or perhaps four others in his group, including Mister Touchdown, our dazzlingly handsome football hero.

Now, though he was never the sort of bully that Morris was, Mister Touchdown clearly had never had any use for me. This is not to say that he was entirely innocent of experimentation—I knew from conversations I had overheard in the locker room between him and some of his friends that he had at least once gone to visit a retired politico who lived in our town and was fond of paying the local boys for their time. (Morris was known to visit him as well, which I guess you could say qualified him as a “Pro-Magnon” creature.) I once heard Mister Touchdown boasting that he was bigger—“when I’m hard”—than a classmate who was famed for his endowment; which certainly indicated to me that he had seen our classmate hard and I could only wonder when and how.

But these were paying politicians and the recognized class standard for size and I was not in either party. I truly doubt that Mister Touchdown would have deigned to pee on me had I been on fire.

Which makes it puzzling that many, many years later I found myself sitting at a table next to Mister Touchdown, only to have him start to play “kneesies” with me under the table. What fun—except that our dazzlingly handsome hero was now older. Lots older. The years during which I had “laughed at time and defied the years” (I just know you will remember the source of that remark) had not been kind to him. Fat, flabby, balding, he was not likely to arouse passion in my heart. “Where were you,” I wanted to cry out, “All those lonely nights when I could have used you?” There had surely been in those years plenty of fires that he might have put out had he been of a mind. At this stage I had my doubts about the condition of his hose.

I should perhaps say that, if this experience were mine alone, I would not have included it here—face it, with the exception of a few of my old classmates, who would know the man in question or care?

But it is a classic, isn’t it? Haven’t we all, when we were young, wanted some classmate’s love, friendship—oh, hell, his body in the back seat of a car—and been spurned, often cruelly; only to have the self-same come back years later, when we are taller, heavier, thinner, blonder, pimple free, dripping with poise or money—which is to say, when “who-needs-you”? And aren’t they always astonished that we no longer want them?

Of course, gays often think this is their story alone but, sorry kids, it happens to straight boys and girls too. It’s what Tchaikovsky’s opera, Eugene Onegin, is all about, if you didn’t know, which has a near perfect ‘serves you right” ending. It is surprising, is it not, how often we share the same stories in our lives and yet how seldom we recognize ourselves in one another? It remains for the artist—the painter, the story teller, the composer—to help us understand our kinship.

On this Halloween night, however, Mister Touchdown was still entirely desirable, at least under other circumstances, still young and handsome—and all too frighteningly macho. I tried to slip by this little group unnoticed but apparently my sisters and I had done a better job of dressing me up than I had realized. The boys all thought I looked plenty desirable and proceeded to flirt with me, if you could call it that. It was along the lines of “Hey, Baby, have I got something for you!” The cool, sophisticated approach in other words.

Needless to say I did not reply. They might not recognize my shapely legs from gym class but there was surely a risk that they might recognize my voice and I felt certain they would not be happy knowing that it was I with whom they had been flirting so outrageously. At the very least I was, in the then current vernacular, “cruisin” for a bruisin’.”

The problem was, the more I tried to avoid these boys, the more excited they became. It was like playing hard to get. It only fanned the flames.

As it happened I had the means at hand to put out the flames. By this time I was fairly wetting my pants. And I didn’t dare go to the john. Which one would I have gone to? The men’s, giving the secret away? The women’s, where I might be recognized as an imposter (who knew, at fourteen, what mysterious rituals went on in those places anyway?)

With each passing moment my situation seemed to me to grow more perilous. The more ardently they pursued me, the angrier I realized they would be if they discovered the truth. In their minds I had no doubt they would look upon it all as a case of a queer trying to come on to them, never mind that I was wracking my brains for an escape plan.

I finally ended up slipping outside. My intentions were twofold—relieve my bladder and get away from my admirers.

Alas, it was not to be so easy. Someone raised the cry and the chase was on—literally. In my panic I no doubt only worsened the situation. I hiked up my skirt and ran, galomphing over lawns and about houses, leaping fences in a single bound, spilling trash cans and in a twinkling pursued by the neighborhood dogs as well as my erstwhile Romeos. I felt that I was running for my life—I had no doubt they would kill me if they caught me.

I was fast. I was used to making tracks. Indeed, if we had had track when I was going through high school, I might have been one of the jocks. I knew from lots of experiences that none of them could catch me. I had had plenty of practice outrunning some of these guys.

This was different, however: I was in a dress and pumps for one thing. I even worried about the weight of the stuffing in the bra. Anyway, I was a short distance runner, not a long distance one, and I was tiring. It was only the adrenaline of terror that kept me out in front for so long but I knew from the hue and cry behind me—and the barking of the hounds from hell—that they were gaining. I now knew exactly how much fun the fox could have at a hunt.

“Lord,” I prayed, “Get me out of this and I swear I will never again put on a dress.”

I rounded a corner, by now nearly back at the armory where I had begun—and there, in shining armor—well, a black Chevrolet convertible actually—was my earlier escort. I leaped into the car and we were off, before the hounds came into view.

A tawdry little story and I tell it neither to amuse nor enlighten but only to make a point—that when I speak of drag, of its successes and its failures, I speak from a perspective of some experience. I have been there. I have run in those pumps.

There is a postscript to this tale, too. At school the following Monday I heard tales of a mysterious beauty, reportedly from one of the towns down the road, who had appeared at the Halloween festivities on Saturday night and who, like Cinderella, had inflamed the passions of all the young men present before disappearing, leaving behind no glass slipper but a bevy of disappointed suitors.

I never revealed her identity. And I never again put on a dress. A promise is a promise.

 

The reality is, drag queens have always been on the front lines. A gay in civilian garb, even an effeminate gay, had some chance of passing. You could, as Quentin Crisp recommended in The Naked Civil Servant (1968), simply try walking faster: “It might help.”

It was ironic that if a man was wearing a dress he was automatically going to be taken for queer even though in fact he quite often, perhaps most often, might not be. And the ones who are gay are usually, in my experience, tops—I suppose a corollary to all those macho macho marines with helium in their heels, so beloved of many gays.

I would be surprised to learn that there were very many, if any, drag queens in the fifties and sixties who hadn’t been the target of physical violence, and the situation is not greatly improved today. Through the years drag queens have earned a reputation for being tough. They have to be.

Which explains in part why it was largely drag queens who stirred up that hornet’s nest at Stonewall.

Greenwich Village in New York had always been one of those places favored by gays, though it would probably have been an exaggeration to describe it in the sixties as a gay mecca. It was a place where alternative lifestyles were, if not embraced, generally tolerated. Uptown, there were bars and restaurants and certainly apartment buildings where gays were pointedly not welcome, but no one bothered much in the Village and there had always been a few hangouts.

One of the oldest was the Stonewall Inn on Sheridan Square, where Seventh Avenue intersected Christopher Street. The bar had been around for years and though its decor was decidedly tacky and you didn’t want to look too closely at the bar glasses, it was nonetheless probably the most popular spot in town, packed to the rafters most nights with an assortment of drag queens, leather boys, lesbians (both butch and lipstick), frat boys and the occasional tourist—bars in those days weren’t as specialized as they would become later. You were so glad to have one you didn’t want to be too particular.

The Stonewall was Mafia run, which meant the owners made pay offs regularly to ensure that the bar was left open by the police. Nevertheless it was necessary that the police made token raids from time to time, to save face. The usual procedure was for the police to provide advance notice to the bar’s proprietors. ID checks were made of all the patrons and one or two ordinary gays might find themselves arrested for public drunkenness or lewd behavior, but it was usually only the drag queens, regarded as the most vulnerable of the helpless, who were detained.

For whatever reason someone failed to give the advance warning that Saturday morning, June 28, 1969, when a modest raiding party—two detectives, two uniformed patrolmen and two policewomen—showed up for a token raid and inadvertently set history in motion.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Judy Garland, the gay icon, had been buried just the day before and emotions were running strong. It was the second raid in just a few days and it was one o”clock in the morning, the very height of madness for those out on the town.

The lights went up, the signal for the male couples on the dance floor to separate. The always resented ID checks began. One by one the customers were released onto the street outside, though as usual the drag queens were held back. On any other night, those outside would probably just have drifted to another bar or headed for home. This time, however, they hung around and a crowd began to form.

At first the atmosphere was festive. Gays can generally be counted on to find the humor in any situation and this was no different. Campy remarks flew back and forth, poses were struck and a few brave souls flirted with the detectives.

When the paddy wagon arrived, however, the mood began to change. There were boos and catcalls while the bartender and the doorman and three drag queens in full regalia were loaded inside. The paddy wagon departed quickly, perhaps the driver sensing that something was afoot. In its wake an ominous silence descended.

The uniformed officers reappeared struggling with a butch lesbian who, in a startling departure from the usual routine, was resisting arrest. When they tried to force her into a police car, the lesbian threw a punch.

This was decidedly not the usual thing to do. According to one reliable source it was Marshall Olds (the only heterosexual member of the legendary performing group, the Cockettes) who threw the first beer bottle. “That’ll radicalize ‘em,” he is alleged to have said.

The crowd was indeed radicalized. They began to throw more bottles and coins at the police; even, as it was termed in one newspaper report, “canine feces.” Dog poop to you and me. The officers fled back inside the bar but the crowd pursued them. Someone ignited a fire. Outside the crowd was growing, numbering in the thousands as news of this unheard of resistance spread.

Backup arrived and the terrified police were eventually able to put out the fire and escape but the melée was far from over. The Tactical Patrol Force, who had certainly never before faced, or imagined facing, a crowd of gay rioters, marched up Christopher Street in wedge formation. The retreating crowd continued to pelt them with whatever they could find to throw.

At the Stonewall itself a chorus line of queens kicked their heels and sang, “We are the Stonewall girls, We wear our hair in curls, We wear no underwear, We show our pubic hair.” All right, it’s not Rogers and Hart, but rehearsal time was limited and there was no piano.

The Force broke up the crowd brutally but within hours the entire Village—indeed much of New York City—knew of the raid and its aftermath. By Saturday night a crowd of thousands gathered outside the Stonewall bearing gay placards and chanting a heretofore undreamed of chant: “Gay Power.” The rally lasted through Sunday and into the early hours of Monday morning.

The gay world would never be the same.

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Spine Intact, Chapter 4

Michael Greer as La Gioconda

Michael Greer as La Gioconda

There Is a Tavern…

 

 

 

 

Things hadn’t gotten much better by the time the sixties rolled around either. Showing or describing the human body was still invariably illegal—murder wasn’t, at least not murdering a gay man. A gay hustler could, and did with grim frequency in those years, murder his john and in order to be acquitted had only to plead that his victim had been homosexual and had tried to molest him—usually after paying the young man for his favors. If you were assaulted, or “bashed,” you didn’t call the cops—they would be more likely to arrest you than your assailant, as my friend Ernestine had so painfully found out.

I was brutally beaten in 1960 in Louisville, Kentucky—by a cop. Nothing sexual. I was in the wrong place and opened my mouth when I should have kept it shut—a lifelong habit, I’m afraid.

In 1961 I spent most of a night with a gun at my head in a gay related robbery. It really is more frightening in retrospect than it was at the time. In all candor, when you have been to some of the gay dinner parties that I have attended, you get over your fear of death. Could it be more painful than another bad impersonation of Prissy?

It was certainly uncomfortable, however. And there were some possible complications that were worrisome. My man with the gun considered the idea of going next door and raping my female neighbor; and I had a roommate who might come home at any time and step into a volatile situation. Mostly I was thinking about how to avert either of these tragedies. He already had my entire stash of cash—twelve dollars and some change. Talk about petty thievery.

I did what I generally do at times of crisis—I talked. And talked. And talked. He was disappointed with the paltry sum of money at hand. “I could write a check,” I offered. Yes, of course, I understood that he had no bank account into which to deposit a check. Perhaps we could go out—away from neighbors and roommates though I didn’t say that—and find a place to cash the check.

As the night progressed, I am afraid the situation deteriorated into a rather sad farce. Of course no one was going to cash a check in the middle of the night in Los Angeles. I was counting on that—what was open? Filling stations. A rare convenience store. Coffee shops.

The check started at one hundred and fifty dollars. After a few stops I scratched out those numbers and changed it to one hundred. I thought it was certain that now no one would cash an altered check, though that seemed not to occur to him. I was still talking, bear in mind. By now we were friends, brothers under the skin. I can be very convincing when I talk.

Dawn came. He treated me to breakfast—with the money he had taken from me earlier. We talked. He was, I swear it, beginning to get a romantic glint in his eye by the time Sears opened their store on Saturday morning. The check had been altered yet again. It was now for fifty dollars and looking like hens had been scratching at it. Both the one hundred dollar amount and the one hundred and fifty dollar amount had been exed out. I handed this pathetic scrap of paper to a cashier at the service window at Sears where, I should add, I did not even have an account (there is, I believe, a certain threshold of taste below which one should not descend, no matter the circumstances).

The cashier studied the check. I twitched, I winked, I flung glances over my shoulder in an effort to convey to her that there was something wrong, that the man behind me had a gun, that this was not a kosher situation.

Bear in mind I had been up all night. Those of you unfortunate enough to have seen me in the wee hours know that I could not have been a pretty sight. At the least my clothes were rumpled and my hair on end. I don’t want to think of the state of my make up.

She stared at me, seeming to note my twitches, if not my dishabille. She stared at the check, with its multitude of shrinking amounts. She stared at me some more. Behind me people were shuffling impatiently. I was all too aware that one of them was armed.

“I guess it’s okay,” she sighed. She put the check into her drawer, and handed me fifty dollars through the window cage. Never before nor since have I cashed a check with so much ease at a department store cashier’s window.

Well, at any rate, that ended our night’s adventure. He was apparently satisfied with the fifty dollars pay for his time, or perhaps he was just tired of my incessant chatter. He dropped me off at home, by which time we were such good buddies that he even offered to come back some other day and teach me self-defense so that no one could again take advantage of me this way.

Self-defense? Self-defense was talking. Boxing was what you did at Christmas, and wrestling was for fun. I survived, without the boxing lessons, but the point of the whole story is, I didn’t call the police.

When I was gang raped by a trio of uniformed police officers—men who had sworn a sacred oath to protect and defend—I could hardly have called the police. To have lodged a complaint would have been to invite almost certain reprisals from their fellow officers. My lesbian friend, Joy, whose rapists called her “dyke bitch” and other endearments while they raped and beat her, didn’t call the cops either. Nor did my friend Don, after a nightmare night of multiple rapes combined with physical abuse that left him covered in blood and looking like so much raw meat.

Women today decry—and rightly so—the judgmental attitudes they sometimes get when reporting rape to the police. Multiply that a hundred-fold and you’ll have an inkling of what it is sometimes like for the gay male even today, outside of the gay capitols like San Francisco and New York City.

And that’s an improvement. In the fifties and sixties, they would have laughed us out of the station without even bothering to take a report—perhaps, as sometimes happened, after taking a turn of their own. To whom would we complain? Gays didn’t enjoy police protection in those days. We solaced and succoured one another. We were all we had.

Well, we had our bars, of course. Much has been written about the incidence of alcoholism among gays, but that is hardly surprising when the focus of our social life for so many years was the gay bar. In Los Angeles the biggest concentration of them was in L.A. 69—West Hollywood or, as we called it, Boy’s Town. The Hollywood Hills were the Swish Alps and Robertson Boulevard was Suckleberry Lane. I don’t know why we bothered with postal codes.

Although West Hollywood was not then its own city, it was outside the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Police Department—county territory, in other words, and patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who for whatever reason tended to be more tolerant of gays and gay bars.

Which is not to say that the West Hollywood bars weren’t occasionally subject to raids, though less often. You always ran the risk of picking up a vice officer, and no dancing or untoward behavior was allowed.

Still, in general, the atmosphere here was more relaxed. Sometimes one saw a celebrity or quasi celebrity. Dorothy Parker and on-again-off-again husband Alan Campbell lived around the corner from The Four Star and he was frequently wont to linger at the bar of an afternoon, occasionally with, and more often without, wifey.

In the seventies comedian Michael Greer and actor Don Johnson, then appearing at the Coronet Theater in Fortune and Men’s Eyes, were a regular twosome at the West Hollywood watering holes. Lovers? Friends? I can’t say with one hundred percent certainty. Mr. Johnson invited me to go with them as they were leaving one night, but neither our destination nor our intentions were made entirely clear. I declined. Of course, had I know then what I know now…but of course he may just have wanted my already legendary recipe for cheese balls.

In those days Don Johnson was pretty nearly an unknown and Michael Greer had established himself as a coming star, at least in the gay community, and ‘star” is our game. Nobody does it better.

My first exposure to Greer was on a rainy weeknight in (I believe) 1965, at the Academy, a bar on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. I stopped on a whim and found a talent competition in progress. The crowd, a dozen or so besides myself, took to a drag trio lip-synching none too successfully to a Supremes number but I—and I alone—applauded long and loud for the tall, gangly comic on stage.

It was a year later when I saw Michael Greer again. By this time he was starring at a near-downtown bar called the Redwood Room, as lead in a group called Jack and the Giants. The Giants included a then unknown Jim Bailey, who did an eerie impression of Barbra Streisand among others (“Do you like my nose? I had it fixed. It used to be here.”)

The main events of the evening, however, were Greer’s monologues, as the Mona Lisa (“I knew Toulouse Lautrec when he was this high”) or as Tallulah Bankhead hosting a kiddies” television show (“he hid under a toadstool, and toads being such nasty creatures, you can just imagine what their stools are like.”)

I chatted with him afterward and when I reminded him of that earlier talent show he dubbed me his “original fan,” by which title he often introduced me afterward. We had another fact in common as well: we both of us admitted to serious crushes on an SAS airline steward named Anders—a crush we shared, we both understood, with vast numbers of men in several countries. Anders was, shall we say, generous of spirit.

Michael became an habitué of the West Hollywood scene and by this time I lived just off Santa Monica Boulevard, so we met often. As time went by he appeared more and more in the company of Don Johnson.

The Redwood Room show played to packed houses for the better part of two years. Greer did some appearances on Laugh In (not altogether successfully; he really needed more than the few seconds they allotted him to build up momentum). He appeared in an early gay movie, The Gay Deceivers (1969), which is available these days on video, and I think is funny despite the fact that, yes, it does play to gay stereotypes. In 1970, along with Sal Mineo and Don Johnson, he appeared on stage as Queenie in the prison drama, Fortune and Men’s Eyes, with a then infamous gay rape scene.

Sal, by the way, lived right around the corner from me, on Holloway Drive and we chatted often in a neighborly way. Interestingly enough, only a few weeks before he was murdered in the garage of his apartment building, he mentioned surprising an intruder in that very garage, apparently trying to break into a car.

“It’s made me a little nervous,” he confessed. I recommended that he keep his eyes open and exercise extra caution coming in and out at night, but I wish now that I had made my advice a bit more forceful.

At the time Sal was already a star but Michael appeared marked for real stardom as well. Then everything seemed to come to a halt. Part of the problem was no doubt an appearance he made at a fundraising party in a Valley bar, where he made some remarks that were taken as patronizing and were booed by the audience. I must admit I was startled when he announced that, despite what anyone might have heard, he himself was not gay (luckily our sas steward was not there at the time); but if the gay men present would allow him to climb to stardom on their shoulders he would do all he could to pull us up after him.

This was not, by the by, an auspicious night for celebrities. The other “star” in attendance, Barbara Nichols, got so drunk that she literally had to be carried out of the bar horizontally. Her career was short-lived.

Michael appeared at Ciro’s as lead singer to a rather dreadful rock band, and faded from sight. The last I saw him was in the movie, The Rose (1979), where he appears briefly as Baby Jane in the drag-bar scene. Michael died in 2002. Still, I expect audiences somewhere are still laughing at La Gioconda.

Gay bars in L.A. weren’t limited to West Hollywood, however. There was scarcely a neighborhood that didn’t have its bar, some of them nothing more than a hole in the wall selling beer only, some of them quite posh. Spago, overlooking Sunset Boulevard, was St. Genesius before it changed hands and names. I might have sipped my cocktails in the exact same spot as the most famous of stars. I might have even, in the very same spot…oh, never mind, I’m sure nothing racy went on at Spago.

The leather crowd tended more toward Hollywood or the Silverlake district, another gay-popular neighborhood. Lee Majors was said to frequent one of the Silverlake bars. I never saw him, but a friend, whose word I never had reason to doubt, insists they got to be very close friends on one occasion and that he was, in my friend’s words, “built like a beer can.” That strikes me as what authors call “a telling detail.” I can’t imagine my friend would have described the actor’s torso in those words if he had not seen it.

Victor Buono liked the bar at the Gallery Inn, on Santa Monica Boulevard, and was about as pleasant a drinking companion as you could ask for, smart, funny, and unpretentious. We passed many a rainy afternoon sipping the grape and discussing old movies and stars. Victor’s talent was huge, but so was his size, and that was a handicap to stardom, though he did a lot of theater work in Los Angeles, including a sparkling Falstaff at the Ahmanson.

Joanne Worley and Ruth Buzzi, both of Laugh In fame, could sometimes be spotted around town—not together, I hasten to add. Later I heard of John Travolta sightings (à deux) at the bars far out in the Valley, which is to say, off the beaten track. He was also spotted in Big Sur, at the Highland Inn, which of course is not a gay hangout, but he was said to be making goo-goo eyes at an attractive male companion. I wasn’t there, mind you, and can only repeat what I was told—by not one but two generally reliable sources.

“You can tell,” one of my friends put it, “when two guys are looking at one another that way…”

There were lesbian bars as well, though they were fewer—the income gap which still exists between men and women was horrific in those days and the obvious (or even suspected) lesbian usually was lucky to earn enough to pay for her daily bread, let alone a night out with “the boys.” Still, most large cities had at least one. Elaine’s, in San Francisco, was legendary. In Los Angeles, the If Café on Vermont was ground zero. They did not welcome men, and these dykes could be ferocious. It was a rare Saturday night that didn’t see at least one physical brawl, sometimes punctuated with broken beer bottles.

If you were clearly gay, however, you could get away with accompanying some of the “guys.” I went occasionally with friends, and I made it a point to be as obviously gay as I could. I didn’t use either restroom, since you never knew who might be in one, and ridiculous though it might seem, I wanted no one to suspect I was there to hit on lesbians. I sipped my beer and sat, if necessary, with legs tightly crossed, until time to go home.

Almost every city of any size had at least one gay bar—usually, the owner made payoffs, to mayors, police chiefs, judges—and often to the mob, in the cities they ran. Dayton, Ohio was, I was told, one of the mob-protected cities. There were always one or two secondary bars to visit, but for many years, Dayton’s chief watering hole for the gay set was the Latin Lounge. Oddly, unlike many gay bars, which tended to be hidden away on back streets or industrial neighborhoods, the Latin Lounge was smack dab in the middle of downtown Dayton—cities all had downtowns in those days.

A long narrow bar with a tiny dance floor in the rear, the Lounge was packed on Friday and Saturday nights, a mixed crowd of guys and girls—the two mingled then and there as a matter of discretion. A mixed group going in and out of a bar was likely to attract less attention. Usually, about midnight, one of the regulars would go around the bar collecting money and in a little while, a mountain of pizzas would be delivered, to be shared by all and sundry. I can’t imagine that happening in a gay bar today.

For the most part these bars were safe so long as behavior remained discreet, though election years usually brought raids as candidates vied to show that they were “tough on crime.” We were usually the crime they were tough on. Everyone knew how dangerous we could be.

Sometimes the physical set-up of the bar was a bit strange. In Cincinnati one neighborhood bar divided itself down the middle. The students from the nearby university went to the right as they entered, the gay patrons to the left, and ne’er the twain did meet—except, perforce, in the restrooms. And no one knows what goes on behind closed doors. Unless, of course, one peeks, but I personally have always adhered to the rules of etiquette in such places.

I ran across a similarly odd set-up once on a first time visit to Philadelphia during an Army-Navy game weekend, when I visited a bar recommended by a friend—the Pirate’s Cove, if memory serves me. I wondered at the recommendation. The place was near empty and achingly dull, until I got ready to leave.

“You should stop at the gent’s,” the bartender suggested, “before you head out into the rain.”

It seemed an odd suggestion, but I took it. To my surprise, the restroom itself and the long corridor leading to it were crowded with handsome young men, many of them actively involved with one another. It took me a while to discover that just around the corner from the entrance to the bar I had visited was the entrance to another bar, this one a straight bar and popular with the cadets. It seemed the two establishments shared the same facilities. The cadets, of course, could not be seen going in and out of a known gay bar, which was off limits to them—but their M.P.s apparently hadn’t checked on the toilets, an oversight that clearly delighted many of the cadets. I might add that I was pleased as well, for several good reasons.

Larger cities had multiple bars. The major ones each had at least one bar of a particular sort—ostensibly heterosexual but frequented by young, straight acting gay men (if you were the “swish” or obvious type and happened into the establishment, you would almost certainly be refused service and asked to leave) and the older, well-to-do gentlemen (many of them married) who wished discreet introductions—as a rule arranged by an accommodating bartender.

These were often hotel bars, for a good reason. Conventional bars were more likely to be frequented by friends meeting for drinks, or opposite sex couples, but single men were commonplace in hotel bars and no one was likely to raise an eyebrow if a friendly conversation was struck.

Many gay gentleman of a certain age will remember New York’s Astor Bar with fondness. In San Francisco, it was the bar at the St. Francis Hotel. (Indeed, the corner outside the St. Francis was a common working ground for hustlers of both sexes until the seventies, when a fifteen-year-old girl prostitute was found murdered in a hotel room and the vice squad started cleaning things up.)

This was long before anyone would have dared to publish a gay guide, but an underground network of gay intelligence kept one surprisingly well informed. Long before I left behind the divorce courts of Ohio for the lights of Los Angeles, I knew of the “bird circuit” in New York City and the Four Star Saloon in West Hollywood, even Les Trois Cloches in far off Cannes, France, which so far as I know is still setting them up.

And of the once infamous standing room at the old Metropolitan Opera in New York City, or “Kiss me Quick, I’m Carmen” as we used to call it. Some of the regular standees allegedly wore special trousers, with zippers in the rear for convenient access. It was largely because of the blatant sexual activity that Rudolf Bing, when he became general manager of the Met in the mid-fifties, tried to eliminate standing room, but the chorus of objections was too great, and he relented. Time and the advent of friendlier places for get-togethers has eliminated the problem—so far as I know. I was never comfortable singing if I couldn’t see the baton.

There were the gay meccas—Fire Island has probably been gay since before the coming of the pilgrims and New Orleans has always been famed for its tolerance. Key West came to gay prominence in the late sixties but I doubt that it was ever entirely lavender free. By the seventies Saugatuck, on the shores of Lake Michigan, had quite a name for itself, though I personally never ventured into those sand dunes.

Then there was San Diego. All those military installations, all those men—and right across the border, Sin City itself, Tijuana. It’s hard to imagine these days when you stroll around in quiet, ultra conservative—oh, let’s face it, dull—San Diego that Broadway downtown was once a carnival of locker clubs, peep shows and bars (gay ones, too—one infamous one right smack where Planet Hollywood sits these days). And men, dozens of them, hundreds, lining the streets, time on their hands, fire in the blood, and nothing to do but, well, find something to do. On a Friday night, or a Sunday afternoon, you could just go shopping, and pick out whatever you wanted in the way of size, color, uniform, whatever.

I say Friday or Sunday, because the conventional wisdom was that Friday night, they had just gotten leave and were very horny and weren’t going to be picky. By Saturday night, having somewhat mollified their biological urges, they were likely to be more selective. On Saturday they wanted women. Sunday, however, leave was almost over. This was no time to be too choosy. The same boys who sneered at your offer on Saturday were often amenable to a quickie before they headed back to the base or the ship.

It wasn’t just American sailors either. San Diego saw ships from almost every country you could imagine and many of their crews were even less inhibited than our own boys in blue. I visited on one weekend with a friend and at a coffee shop we soon struck up conversation with a pair of officers from a Greek ship. For reasons we needn’t go into, they were not at the moment available to retire to our rooms for a bit of cross-cultural fraternization. They told us to wait at the coffee shop, however, and were soon back with not two but three enlisted men, to whom they introduced us before going about their own business. Now that’s what I call noblesse oblige. Yes, of course the numbers weren’t quite even, there were three of them and only two of us, which makes dancing awkward, but we overcame that difficulty. I felt the reputation of our nation’s hospitality was at stake. Sometimes you simply have to swallow your pride.

Not every city could offer the sort of smorgasbord that San Diego did in its glory days but every city had at least one hangout. In Muncie, Indiana, it was the three or four stools around the end curve of an otherwise straight bar in an otherwise straight restaurant. The knowing bartender sort of directed traffic on Saturday nights to see that everyone found his right place. It worked better than you might imagine.

Some of these bars were known on the underground network, many were not—which meant that when you came to visit you had to find them for yourself. Everyone had his favorite method of finding a bar in a strange city. A tip to a hotel bellboy was often effective; indeed, more than once I found that I needn’t go out at all, which is always convenient in inclement weather and so could be considered a boon to one’s health. Cab drivers could usually tell you where to go, though you ran the risk of finding one who was homophobic. If you were lucky you would be ordered from the cab. Once or twice I wasn’t that lucky—this was not so healthy.

Some individuals favored bookstores and antique shops for striking up a friendly local acquaintance who presumably would know the spots, and others just lingered on a street corner and followed a likely looking passerby, though there were obvious pitfalls in that method. Most cities had at least one bathhouse where not all the steam came from water pipes.

Some travelers automatically headed for the YMCA when they arrived in an unfamiliar city. You did understand, didn’t you, why the Village People chose to celebrate that institution? In those days the Y was exclusively male, often with a nude-only pool in the basement, and most were known for their, ahem, fellowship. Some of them, such as the Embarcadero Y in San Francisco and the Sloane House in Manhattan, were downright legendary. I shall always fondly remember walking into the men’s room at the Sloane House to discover a little old Jewish man naked at the urinals and masturbating energetically while singing, with gusto, Happy Days Are Here Again… There’s something about seeing another person really enjoying himself that truly warms your heart.

I think the most unique approach I ever heard of to finding the local gay spots was that of the gentleman who, upon arriving in a new city, called the police department to explain that he was looking for his younger brother who had disappeared from home and who he thought might be found in a gay hangout—could the police suggest where he might look? I never tried this method but he swore it was infallible. Who would know better than they?

Then there was the friend who just hung around at a Lane Bryant store. Sooner or later, he insisted, a rather fey gentleman was certain to ask about dresses for his sister—who happened to be “about my size…”

 

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Spine Intact, Chapter 3.

the lovely and legendary Christine Jorgensen

the lovely and legendary Christine Jorgensen

 

 

Where the Bee Sucks, There Suck I

 

(Shakespeare, If You Want to Know)

 

 

 

We knew from the very first, from the moment we saw them on the sidewalk outside, that they were going to come in, though we tried to reassure ourselves otherwise.

Roughs, some called them. Punks by any name, under age thugs whose growing bodies had left their redneck minds behind. You could follow their thinking by watching, as we did from a darkened window, their changing expressions: A party. Maybe they’ll invite us in. Wait, what kind of party is this? Hell, it’s a bunch of queers. We oughta go in their and kick their asses

Which they do, kicking down doors, smashing dishes, glasses, bottles, throwing food on the floor, demanding money and watches and rings, punching a few noses here and there and even breaking a window before departing, not entirely unscathed—one walks with a pronounced limp, as a result of a bad kick in his crotch, and two are bleeding, one profusely. They take the beer and the booze with them, and threaten to come back another time.

The Indianapolis police arrive just minutes later. “They can’t be more than a block or so away,” Ernestine, our hostess, naively insists, but the cops, two burly, sweaty men in blue—older, bigger versions of the boys who have just left, it occurs to me—take their time surveying the damage and questioning the remaining guests. They want to know who phoned the police, but no one says. I stay carefully out of sight. I am underage, just sixteen, and sure to be taken in if noticed.

Finally, they tell Ernestine that she is under arrest. Ernestine is straight, but she likes to hang out with the gay boys. She is disbelieving at first, but finally comes to realize the cops mean what they say; this isn’t a joke on their part—do they look like they are kidding?

They take her away. When they are gone, a chorus of voices wants to know who called the police. I did, but I make no admission and avoid all eyes.

Lesson learned. Our kind don’t call the cops. They will never, ever, be on our side.

 

Of all the decades of the twentieth century, probably none has taken a worse rap than the fifties. Yet, having lived through them, I can tell you that there was much about that period that was wonderful indeed.

It was the last “Golden Age” of opera, for instance. Callas and Di Stefano were knocking audiences out, as were Milanov and Bjoerling, Tebaldi and Tucker, De Los Angeles and Del Monaco, and an astonishingly long list of others.

If you liked your music on the lighter side, you could listen to Sinatra, Sarah, Ella, or Rosemary (we had Perry Como too, and he was a fine singer, but let’s face it, when your career peaks at “hot diggety, dog diggety, boom what you do to me,” the chances of your becoming a legend are slim). Patsy Cline and Hank Williams were going Crazy, and crossing over from the country charts, while a whole new breed of performers—Elvis and Little Richard (with a little known guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, backing him up), Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly—were setting the stage for the rock and roll era.

At the movies, we had Marilyn and Ava and Lana and Rita, not to mention Rock and Marlon and Montgomery and the endless rebel himself, James Dean. You could drive to your favorite theater in one of those fabulous cars; American cars ruled the world, great metal sculptures with names that sang to the ageless boy in all of us—Wildcat, Clipper, Hawk. (Who could possibly get excited about cars like Escort or Prizm? Or, worse yet, Passatt? That sounds like someone breaking wind, doesn’t it?)

Didn’t feel like going out? Stay home. It was the “golden age” of television, too. Lucy and Jackie were blowing home audiences away and Dinah Shore was blowing kisses. Playhouse Ninety and Lux Video Theater and others offered the likes of The Days of Wine and Roses and Twelve Angry Men and Requiem for a Heavyweight, all original live tv dramas. And every Sunday night came with its own “really big show.”

Alternatively, you could curl up and read. Say, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, or Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Or if it was more to your taste, Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious.

Julia Child had not yet ignited that whole foodie thing but there were good restaurants where you could count on a real steak and maybe pan-fried chicken, practically non-existent by the end of the twentieth century. Every bartender knew how to make a real martini and the banana sidecar and Sex-on-the-Beach had not yet sullied that noble profession.

All of which is to say that, contrary to what you might have heard, the fifties were practically a time of Heaven on earth. Unless, of course, you needed to think or feel or give in to your sexual urges. Well, nothing is quite perfect, is it?

For the gay man or woman these were the dark ages, only more so. Homosexuality had always been officially frowned upon but in the twenties and thirties no one seemed to give it much mind, and in the forties the war made everyone horny, the way wars do.

Unfortunately, by the fifties everyone had gotten their rocks off. Like the randy jock who agrees to a blow job and when it’s over remembers that he disapproves of that sort of thing, by the fifties some of the same men who had paused a decade earlier in a dark doorway for a quickie were now pounding their pulpits and denouncing those who had knelt before them so adoringly.

It’s difficult for those who grew up after the sixties to comprehend the world in which gays lived before the revolution. It wasn’t just gay activities that were illegal—the simple fact of being or even appearing gay was often enough to get you arrested; indeed, in some states, Florida for instance, it was against the law just to be homosexual, practicing or not.

In San Francisco, one of the country’s more tolerant cities, a homosexual could be arrested for loitering at a place of business—which is to say, if a police officer thought you were looking with too much interest at the wrong buns you could be pinched at your local bakery, whether anything was cooking or not.

In California a third arrest required you to register as a sex offender and that label was with you for life. Sadly, you didn’t have to engage in sexual activity to become a “sex offender.” I had one friend who was cruised in a park restroom. He told the individual who approached him, “Honey, don’t you know that you can get arrested for that in a place like this?” And, boom, next thing he knew there were handcuffs on his wrists. It wasn’t safe even to turn down a pass in those places.

It was dangerous just to be in a gay bar. You could be sitting in a beer bar on a rainy weeknight, alone and speaking to no one, when the police, uniformed and plain clothes, might appear, going along the bar and picking patrons at random—”You—and you—and you” who were arrested for lewd conduct.

In those days before court-appointed attorneys it could be all but impossible to find anyone to represent you on a gay-related charge. Even in Los Angeles there were only one or two attorneys you could turn to. One of those, a woman who was known as much for her flamboyant hats as for her legal skills, automatically pleaded you to disturbing the peace. The fine was $600.00, but you avoided jail or sex registration and had only a misdemeanor charge on your records.

I was lucky. I avoided public restrooms except in direst emergency, when I neither spoke to nor looked at anyone. And I was at a couple of those “walkthroughs” in the bars so I know whereof I speak, but I was not arrested. I liked to think, “There but for the grace of God,” but I was ever so mindful of his evident lack of grace for the less fortunate. Nevertheless, until Sioux City, as I have said, my only real legal difficulty was that divorce case back in Dayton.

1950 was a black year in gay history (it was also not a very gay year in black history but that’s another subject). In that year the chief of the vice squad in Washington, D.C. charged publicly that the federal bureaucracy currently employed what he estimated at 3,500 sex perverts—300 to 400 of them in the State Department.

When Senator Clyde Hoey (a classic name-freakism if I’ve ever seen one) of North Carolina looked into the matter, he found no fewer than 4,954 perverts, mostly in the armed services. And to think military heads in the nineties were worried about their boys showering with homos! In 1950 you dropped the soap at your own peril.

Not to be outdone by anyone’s Hoey, J. Edgar Hoover came up with a staggering 14,414 federal workers whose backgrounds were “suspect.” Armed with these numbers, he got additional money from Congress to start his “Sex Deviates” program. Handsome FBI agents in sexy costumes began to spend their time cruising in gay bars and clubs—a tactic that police would employ right into the present era. Talk about a cushy job. Soft lights, good music, the occasional blowjob—and no nasty robbers taking potshots at you. Oh, a jealous queen might try to scratch your eyes out, but you have to expect some downside.

You can be sure that some of the information these dedicated cruisers gathered went into their own little black books. You never knew when you might be faced with a cold, lonely night.

The rest of it went into Hoover’s files and was used to warn colleges and law enforcement agencies, among others, of the dangerous perverts within their organizations. The rationale for this was that as homosexuality was illegal, the knowledge of an individual’s homosexuality made him subject to blackmail. That this threat could be negated by removing the legal constraints on homosexuality seemed not to have occurred to anyone at the time.

It was not until 1977, by the way, that the Sex Deviates files were destroyed—or at least we are told they were destroyed. No one ever said what happened to those little black books. By that time the official files numbered between a quarter and a half million pages. To put that in perspective, think of each page as the potential ruin of a life, the destruction of a career. Sadly, there were many for whom the tragedy was more than “potential.”

Things got worse. In 1954 the crusaders turned their attention to the comic books, beloved of the nation’s youngsters and not a few oldsters as well. As early as 1948, New York psychiatrist Fredric Wertham had launched his attack on the comic book industry, charging that comic books created juvenile delinquents and made perverts of their youthful readers. Wertham was a senior psychiatrist for the Department of Hospitals of New York City, and treated mostly troubled children. He found that without exception these children were reading comic books—nearly all children did in those days. Wertham saw a cause and effect in action. Comic books were teaching these youngsters that crime pays, good doesn’t always win over evil, and authority figures needn’t be taken too seriously.

At first no one had taken him too seriously. Undeterred, in 1954 in his book Seduction of the Innocent he broke the news to the unsuspecting world that Batman and Robin were gay, pointing out their “sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases.” Even the presence of Alfred, the butler, was somehow proof of the pair’s perversion, though personally I don’t recall a single comic book that showed the three of them in bed together. “Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown,” Wertham pouted. “It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” Well, yes, now that I think of it, if it weren’t for that pesky Penguin…

Robin is described as “a handsome ephebic boy, usually shown [with] bare legs […] devoted to nothing on earth […] as much as to Bruce Wayne. He often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident.”

Frankly, it would seem to me that a genital region “discreetly evident” would be preferable to one flagrantly evident but what do I know about costumed ephebes? I’ve never had one devoted to me in that way. Certainly not one in tights.

As for the presence of women, there is only “the Catwoman, who is vicious and uses a whip.” I can only thank God the man never visited San Francisco’s late September Folsom Street Fair, high holy days for the leather set. I shudder to think what he would make of some of those ladies and I am sure many of them have never even seen a comic book.

Don’t think it was only this lavender duo who were corrupting innocents, either. Captain America had his young Bucky, the Torch had Toro and the Green Hornet almost never went out at night without Cato. Practically every superhero had his little boy wonder. Granted, Cato was the Green Hornet’s servant, but we have all heard about back stairs romances. What is certainly apparent is that adoption agencies in those days were quite liberal when it came to pairing up bachelors and young male wards.

Nor did the women come off Scot free. In Wertham’s opinion, Wonder Woman was “a frightening image […] her followers are the gay girls.” To be honest, most of the gay girls I knew got turned on to Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. I think it was the animal skin teddies, which you have to admit are sexier than bulletproof bracelets.

Wertham made no mention of Superman but I think we can agree that those blue tights and the red skimpies were a giveaway. Be honest now, how many genuinely straight men can you picture gadding about town in that get up? The cape alone would raise eyebrows almost anywhere west of Greenwich Village.

Seduction of the Innocent launched a full scale investigation in Congress, headed by Senator Estes Kevauver. Can you see the scene? The busy Senator comes home for the evening and his wife asks, “Estes, darlin”, what matters of world importance did you deal with today?” and he replies, “Little honey, today my fellow Senators and I got into that Rascally Robin’s padded tights. That’s the last time he’ll give Batman a hand.”

Well, all right, what he actually did say, in addressing the opening session of the Senate Subcommittee to investigate Juvenile Delinquency, in 1954, was “The Subcommittee wishes to reiterate its belief that this country cannot afford the calculated risk involved in feedings its children a concentrated diet of crime, horror and violence.”

With that, they were off and running. It’s hard now to think anyone could have taken all this seriously, but Wertham had proved to be good at exploiting the press and arousing librarians, teachers, parents and churches.

Wertham described comic books as a “correspondence course in crime […] a distillation of viciousness […] the world of the strong, the ruthless, the bluffer, the shrewd deceiver, the torturer and the thief.” Frankly, I think that is rather a harsh description of Donald Duck, though those nephews could be pretty feisty.

Yes, true, there was stronger stuff, too, and admittedly the comic book industry didn’t put many limits on their writers and artists. “Don’t chop the limbs off anybody,” DC Comics advised its authors. EC Comics—i.e., William Gaines—had practically no restrictions. In EC Comics, people suffered being devoured by rats, chopped up, skewered, buried alive, and countless other degradations, limited only by the authors’ imagination. Gaines argued before that the subcommittee that even children could tell the difference between fiction and reality.

 

* * * * * * *

 

In 1952, George Jorgensen, an ex-GI, set aside his Batman comics long enough to travel to Denmark for a sex-change operation, coming home as Christine Jorgensen. This only fueled the anti-gay hysteria sweeping the country. In the 1956 presidential race Walter Winchell would cry that “a vote for Adlai Stevenson is a vote for Christine Jorgensen,” which truly made no sense at all. It’s doubtful if the two even met, and so far as I know Stevenson had no plans to name Jorgensen to his cabinet had he been elected. What post would it have been? Secretary of Lingerie and Make Up? (“My fellow Americans, I want to speak to you frankly about the Menace of Mascara…”)

The problem had become, who was a real man to trust? Not his Washington bureaucracy apparently, where perverts skulked beneath every desk, like early Monica Lewinskys in long pants. Not the men in military uniform, any one of whom might be a WAAC at heart, nor the comic book superheroes, when the increase in pulse rate they inspired might rouse Walter Winchell’s suspicions. And now not even his women, who might merely be physically altered male sex perverts.

Elvis Presley’s hip shaking caused him to be labeled “morally insane.” In San Francisco, poet Allen Ginsberg was charged with obscenity and put on trial for his Howl. Almost everywhere they looked the crusaders found someone at whom to point a finger. Holy Moley, was everyone a deviate?

Well, yes, probably so, since the media made a habit of lumping together every sort of sexual nonconformity under the general label “sex deviates.” So adulterers, peeping toms, flashers, cross dressers, masturbators, homosexuals, foot fetishists, and users of dirty words were in the same boat as rapists and those who molested and murdered little boys and girls.

And, oh yes, Seduction of the Innocent and the ensuing Congressional hearings all but destroyed the once booming comic book industry. In the forties a comic book might sell as many as six million copies, sometimes even more—and remember, the population was much smaller then. Today a bestseller means 100,000 copies. This was done, you understand, in the name of wiping out juvenile delinquency.

And it worked, didn’t it, at least in part? You can prowl the streets today of almost any major American city and you will be hard pressed to find a single juvenile delinquent wearing a cape.

Shazam! Welcome to the fifties, Beav!

(And I still say Spiderman looks like he’s humping in most of those pictures.)

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why no comments?

I am happy to hear from quite a few people telling me that they are enjoying the excerpts from Spine Intact (in answer to one query, they are in reverse order because when I post a new selection, it goes to the head of the pile, so to speak; just scroll down to the beginning, which is, as I recall, Preface to the 2nd edition); one question which has been asked a few times is about posting comments. Regrettably, when I first started blogging here, I was immediately overwhelmed with spam – nearly 700 in only a few days. There seemed no sensible way to stop the spam and allow legitimate comments to go through.

 

But, anyone wishing to comment directly to me may contact me at vjbanis@verizon.net. And I think many of you belong to the same internet groups that I do, so you can comment there as well, if you wish.

 

Meanwhile, I hope you will continue to read, and enjoy (and if you’re not enjoying it, I probably don’t want to hear your comments anyway. I can walk through the supermarket and get cussed out; you take your life in your hands beating some of those little old ladies to the check out line.  Or I could log on to my mystery writers’ group, we have a fire breathing dragon there who can always be counted on to rag somebody.)

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Spine Intact, Chapter 2.

Gloria in excelsis

Gloria in excelsis

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Paperback Virgin

 

 

 

By the early sixties I had tried on a number of different hats. Acting, for one. I sang vowels over burning candles, the idea being not to make the flame flicker. I was pretty good at non-flickering but I was paralyzed by stage fright. Anyway, I was willowy and a bit effeminate. My drama coach kept the candles burning but warned me I had to be prepared to be limited to character parts. Later I would have welcomed that suggestion but at the time I thought he was insulting me. My real ambition was to play Lady Macbeth and I still believe I would have been fabulous in the part—but outside of Harvard there weren’t a lot of theater companies casting men in women’s parts in the fifties.

I moved on to dancing—I wasn’t bad for a guy with a questionable sense of rhythm. High on my list of Things-I-Never-Imagined is that time when I danced in Swan Lake with the La Scala Ballet Company.

Well, tee hee, that is a not-quite fib. I was only a super—a supernumerary, to be exact (or a spear carrier to make it clearer)—with the Company, and I had signed on mostly because the legendary Carla Fracci was dancing Odette and Odile.

What happened was, in the big wedding scene I was the friendly innkeeper and when I asked in rehearsal what we supers should do with ourselves, the director said, “It’s a wedding. What would you do at a wedding?”

I thought about it, and each night when the festivities began I grabbed my stage wife and we whirled around the big wedding table. So it’s not quite a fib to say I danced in Swan Lake with the La Scala Ballet Company, which is more than a lot of serious dance students can claim.

That, however, was pretty nearly the extent of my dancing career. I tried singing as well, with not much more success. I did get to appear with the San Francisco Opera Company but it was, again, only as a super. I met some fabulous people, including Placido Domingo, who couldn’t have been more charming. I had lots of fun but unfortunately this does not exactly constitute a career in music.

I made a stab at modeling. Somewhere out there surely copies remain of Army & Navy Times with yours truly in Navy blues (I’m afraid the white socks rather spoiled the illusion). Anyway, despite my best efforts—gazing into mirrors, glancing back at the camera from under my armpit—the shots they used avoided my face. A bad omen for any aspiring model, I fear.

Oddly enough, what I hadn’t pursued was writing. Oh, I still wrote, for my own pleasure. I was even published here and there. Some poetry in One magazine and a short story in Der Kreis, an early gay magazine published in Zurich (Switzerland) in three languages and also called Le Cercle and The Circle. In 1963 they announced an English-language short story competition, to which I submitted a gem titled “Broken Record,” which came in fourth and got me no prize, but was published. The magazine is long defunct, the story long out of print, and you are highly unlikely ever to see it anywhere—which is perhaps just as well.

“Broken Record” was not my only writing effort at the time. I worked for a while on a novel, Perry for President, in which a cartoonist launches a presidential campaign for his main character, Perry the Ostrich, and the campaign becomes a real one. I think the “Pogo for President” campaign was running at the time. I thought it was a funny idea—I still do actually—but I don’t recall that I ever finished it. Be my guest.

So it wasn’t that I didn’t write, but it really didn’t cross my mind to try to write for a living. I hardly bothered with getting my efforts published. Looking back it seems as if it just didn’t occur to me that a boy from Eaton, Ohio, could be a real writer—which is truly puzzling. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) was in fact Camden, about nine miles down the road from Eaton, where I grew up. So there was precedent, as the lawyers say.

It was my good friend, George, who first suggested that I try writing for a living. However, I should explain that we have always called him Crazy George. The idea intrigued me but I still didn’t take it too seriously.

In any case, what happened was, I went into a paperback bookstore one day. Now, this in itself was a rather new development at that time, an entire bookstore devoted to paperback books—mostly sexy paperbacks, though I have to say again that the sex was tepid indeed compared to what gets published today.

Anyway, there were these racks and racks of sexy books—heterosexually sexy books, with the occasional nod in the direction of lesbianism but nary a gueen to the realm. I looked through a few of these books and said to myself, “Gosh, I could do this.”

I bought an armful of them, seven or eight I suppose, took them home, read them, and sat down to write my own. It was intended to be a spoof, but not too pointed in its spoofery; I didn’t, after all, want to offend these potential publishers. I sent the manuscript off to the publisher of three or four of the ones I had read, the publisher who seemed to offer the most variety—Brandon House Books in North Hollywood. Milt Luros’ company as it happened, though I did not know this at the time.

In a short time I got a letter back from a Brandon House editor—I’m afraid time has robbed me of his name—telling me he liked the book but it was too short for their purposes. Would I be interested in expanding it?—in which case he would like to see it again and thought probably they would buy it.

I did and they did and within a few months I had in my hands copies of my first novel—The Affairs of Gloria (“The uninhibited story of a free-loving, free-wheeling nympho!”)—or as Fanny later described it, Dolly-Do-Good in the Boudoir.

Now, she had a point. Gloria did do lots of good deeds—I wanted a virtuous heroine—and she also did lots of moaning and writhing, and some of the latter was with women instead of men; but the strongest words in the book, if memory serves, were one “damn,” and elsewhere, “to hell with it!” Furthermore, Gloria did not have tits. She had melons. So far as any other anatomical questions were concerned, for all the details I provided she could have had a feather duster down below; the only thing I made clear was that it tickled many people.

I found the cover rather fetching. I cashed the check (five hundred? seven hundred?) and rushed off another two or three manuscripts to Brandon House, the titles of which have long since fled my memory, and sat by the phone to await the call from the Pulitzer people.

I should perhaps have remembered the advice I had so often offered others, that there are few things in life more fraught with peril than getting what you thought you wanted. The call that came was not from the Pulitzer people but from one Mel Friedman, who worked at Brandon House in a position that never did become altogether clear to me.

“We have been indicted,” he told me, “and are invited to meet for our arraignment tomorrow at the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles.”

Just at that moment I was standing at my balcony window. In the park across the way the spring flowers made a riot of color. Couples lolled on the grass. There was the thwack of tennis balls from the court nearby. It was, in short, a glorious spring day, except that my toast was burning in the kitchen.

Mister Friedman made his statement with such nonchalance that it took a while for his words to register. “Indicted?” I asked this unfamiliar voice on the telephone. Thwack went the tennis ball. A whiff of smoke reminded me of the toast, but this was no time to put down the phone.

“On Federal obscenity charges,” he explained, in a voice that suggested I ought to have known that.

Obscenity? I was not entirely naïve. Even in those days you could get stag movies, if you knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody. There were still pictures too, that left nothing to the imagination. Often they were said to be this or that famous person. I saw nude pictures of actor “David Hardison” (not that I would have recognized him) and “Burt Lancaster” (maybe) and “Andy Griffith” in naked horseplay with a couple of other guys (it really did look like himself but who could be sure? I had certainly never seen anything personally by which I could identify him in this sort of situation).

You could buy little comic books, Tijuana Bibles we called them, featuring rip-off Popeyes and Greta Garbos and Flash Gordons in grotesque sexual contortions, and everyone had one or two of the typed or often mimeographed sex stories that passed from hand to hand, sometimes for years, and sometime also called Tijuana Bibles. Please understand, we had no reference books to clarify these points.

But what did any of that have to do with my lovely Gloria, with her “melon shaped breasts” and her admitted penchant for “manhood”?

Curiouser and Curiouser. I kept the appointment as arranged and found that I was to be charged, along with ten others, with Conspiracy to Distribute Obscene Material. I met my fellow conspirators—Milt Luros and his wife, Bea, the owners of Brandon House and a number of other publishing operations; Mel Friedman, of course; Bernie Abramson, who headed their shipping department; Stanley Sohler, Harold Straubing, and Paul Wisner, who were editors; Elmer Batters, a freelance photographer; and two other freelance writers besides myself—Sam Merwin and Richard Geis. The others were each of them hit with a variety of charges, but I was included only in the first, blanket conspiracy charge, a fact which would ultimately prove significant.

Conspiracy? Didn’t that require some form of communication among the conspirators? I had never met any of these people before, nor communicated with them in any manner. Indeed, until we met at the Federal Building, I had never even heard their names. The only person from the Luros publishing business with whom I had communicated—except for the call the day before from Mel Friedman—was the editor who had written regarding my book, and his only suggestion had been to expand its length. There had been no suggestions, veiled or otherwise, to “spice up” the book in any way, as would later be suggested in court, or to address myself to anyone’s prurient interests. Gloria’s melons were entirely my own. Anyway, that editor wasn’t among my indicted co-conspirators.

It was all a bit Kafka-esque. The more so when, as we were leaving the courtroom, I was met by a man who introduced himself as Donald Schoof, Chief Postal Inspector for the Los Angeles area. I later learned that it was Mister Schoof who had headed the so-called investigation and brought the charges against us. Mister Schoof asked to speak with me alone; apparently the others were all known to him but I was a paperback virgin, so to speak. Or almost, anyway, which I have always thought ought to count in those matters. Mister Schoof muttered (muttered, I swear it, just like a bad gangster movie) that he could make things easier for me if I would care to switch sides and cooperate with the government.

Now, at the time, I had no problems with cooperating with the government. I had always considered myself a good citizen, if not a model one, and had never set out to commit any crime. Up until now my only courtroom experience was in Dayton, Ohio in 1956, when an angry wife named me as co-respondent in a divorce case.

This was shocking stuff for Dayton in 1956, and created quite a furor. If I live to be normal, which is only the scantest of possibilities, I shall never forget that day. The courtroom, hot and close, a disoriented fly trying to find an open window, and the scent of too much, too musky perfume. Not, certainly, my Chanel, though I was not one to point fingers. And not, I am sure, the Judge’s. A no-nonsense Midwestern burgher, he took his solemn place at the bench. He heard the petition. He looked over his glasses and asked, in innocence, “Is the other woman in the courtroom?”

There was a quick intake of breath and a long silence as he looked from one to the other of us. When finally his gaze rested upon me, I smiled and tootle-waved with my fingers. To say that he blanched would be an understatement. Nonetheless, regardless of what anyone may have heard, I did not blow him a kiss. Yes, all right, my lips did pucker, entirely of their own accord but only slightly; no more, say, than if one had tasted a lemon. I kept them tightly pursed and only nodded to the question he could not quite get into words.

Still and all, co-respondent was guaranteed to get you laughed at by the visitors in the courtroom, as it did, and dirty looks from the judge, but it wasn’t likely to land you in jail. I dressed defiantly for the occasion. I would like to tell you I opted for a broad brimmed hat with a veil and large cabbage roses but I was not quite that defiant. I settled for a fire engine red blouse and black jeans. I had only recently seen Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar. If anyone knew how to dress to show disdain for convention, it was Joan Crawford. Incidentally, the divorce was granted. The moral is obvious—always dress for success. Also, you might want to think twice about dating a married man.

 

* * * * * * *

 

But it did seem to me that if this Mister Schoof’s interest was in making things easier for me, the best time to have approached me might have been before I was charged with a crime of which I was so patently innocent. I have always been a devout coward. And after that debacle in the divorce court I certainly wanted no more legal entanglements. To be honest, had someone taken the trouble to romance me beforehand (candlelight and soft music are givens in this scenario) I would probably in the afterglow of consummation have blabbed everything I knew about Milt Luros—which was of course absolutely nothing. But didn’t they already know that?

Looking back, I can see that what I was really guilty of was criminal innocence. I hadn’t a clue. In my defense, I might point out that I had not bought those initial paperbacks from “under the counter”; no plain brown wrappers, no hasty swaps in darkened doorways. I had walked into a store in broad daylight, had taken them directly from the racks on the walls, and forked over my money. How could I have guessed that forking so openly might involve anything illegal?

I scorned Mister Schoof’s advances. Anyway, his approach struck me as a bit too “after the fact.” I was indignant at being so falsely charged, and kiss me where he might, Mister Schoof was not going to have me on his mattress willingly. I thought then—and think still—that if they had done a sufficient investigation to bring all these charges against all these people, they must certainly have known that this was a first time effort from me and that I had never met with—let alone conspired with—any of these people.

Besides, when I went home and reread Gloria, I was convinced that someone from the other camp had only to get around to reading this lovely book to realize at once what a mistake had been made.

This was America. Indivisible. With liberty and justice for all…

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Something is happening

With my blog. I’ve started posting excerpts from my memoirs, Spine Intact, Some Creases, and people are actually reading them, because I’ve heard from several of you. So, I’m going to continue, and I will try to add them twice a week instead of once, as originally promised, so no one will have to wait a full week for your Victor fix. In the meantime, my next project is to try to figure out how to do links – starting with my good friend, Rick R. Reed – and if I can manage that, then, I’ll add lots of you. But, don’t get too excited yet, I am Mister No-Tech. This could take a while

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