Archive for February, 2009

Spine Intact, Chapter 9

A first for me

A first for me

The Godfather Virgin

 

 

 

 

It was a dispirited group who waltzed their way back to Sioux City shortly into the new year of 1966. It didn’t help that we found ourselves on the flight from hell. Mel Friedman and I opted for the last possible moment, timing our arrival for the very morning we were to appear in court to hear the Judge’s decisions on the various motions that had been filed before we left.

Cutting it this close meant leaving Los Angeles on a ridiculously early morning flight on I don’t remember what airlines. In Kansas City we connected with a Braniff Airlines flight. Our rickety prop jet couldn’t have gotten more than a hundred feet in the air before it was obvious that something was amiss and the pilot announced that we were returning to the ground.

We sat on a runway for about fifteen minutes while the pilot revved the engines and the plan shuddered and shook—and nary a repairman came near us. I was even afraid they had forgotten to load the drinks, since it was becoming clear to me that we would need them. I have never been the happiest of flyers. Once, though, on a Tinker Toy plane from Provincetown to Boston, the pilot asked if anyone wanted to sit in the cockpit. I was there in a thrice, before I learned that it was to be in the seat next to him and not sharing his. As if I wanted to watch us fall into the ocean and nothing to occupy my hands!

After our short stay on the ground and with no further explanation our Braniff flight began once more to taxi for take-off. “We’re going to try again,” the single stewardess announced cheerily—not, in my opinion, the most comforting of words.

This time the takeoff went smoothly. And they did have drinks. I had several. The stewardess (these were the days before flight attendants) with some friendly prodding from yours truly whispered that there had been a problem with the ailerons, which had been sticking but had worked free while we were on the ground.

I have always been a skeptic when it comes to mechanical items that mysteriously repair themselves but I kept my silence. For good reason. By this time, I had had enough drinks that talking had become difficult. And all seemed to go well—right up until the time the pilot banked the plane for a turn as we approached the Sioux City airport.

I am no aeronautical engineer, but my limited understanding of the ailerons is that they are an essential part of this turning process. Which on a practical level comes down to, if you have started into a turn, and the ailerons get stuck, you can’t come out of the turn.

The reason I know that is because we did, and they did, and we couldn’t. We turned. And turned. And turned some more. Items began to fall out of the galley. Our stewardess did what I considered the sensible thing—she dropped to the floor, screaming hysterically. This quite set the tone for the passengers. Next to me Mel Friedman asked frantically, “What should we do?”

I, however, had already done it.

Needless to say we did finally get to the ground intact, if not unsoiled. I vowed that I would never again set foot in an airplane. We arrived at the Federal Courthouse only a few minutes late—and within a few minutes more the judge had dismissed the conspiracy count of the indictment. Which meant effectively that he had dismissed me. Acquitted, I was free to go—to spend several days returning back to Los Angeles by bus or train, or renege on my vow and hop a plane.

I opted for the plane and for the next few hours I was truly, in the old cliché, higher than the plane. I drank all the champagne I could hold, got rid of much of it in the lavatory in the manner of Lupe Velez and came back to drink some more.

Now, I know the young among you are asking yourselves about that Lupe Velez bit, so I might as well take a moment to explain. She was an old-time actress who apparently got just a tad overly-inebriated on one occasion and found herself with her head in her toilet bowl. Dorothy Parker is said to have remarked that she saw nothing surprising in this action as her bitches often drank from the toilet—but that does sound a trifle mean-spirited even for Dorothy.

Be that as it may, the toilet seat apparently came down upon poor Lupe’s head with a whack and, presumably stunned into unconsciousness, she drowned in her own barf.

This is very high on the list of unglamorous ways to go in my opinion. I was more fortunate than poor Lupe. The toilet seat stayed up but I was admittedly walking liquid by the time I finally fell into the arms of my partner at LAX.

Still I was free. My co-defendants proved not so lucky. They were convicted by the Sioux City jury, those uptight—sorry, I meant upright—men and women who had declined even to look at the evidence presented to them. In time those convictions were overturned on appeal, as our attorneys had foreseen, but my co-defendants would spend the intervening time wondering if they were on their way to prison and live out their lives with the stigma of a federal conviction. Was Justice served, I asked?

“Justice was served,” Dick Geis answered me with understandable bitterness. “She was served her head on a platter.”

For me, the bottom line was that my innocence was gone forever. I had been screwed in no uncertain terms. And we all know what that means for your virginity. I felt sore and violated. I came home from Sioux City with a burning resentment for the callous disregard that the government had displayed for what I considered some pretty fundamental rights I thought guaranteed by our constitution. There’s a reason that the founding fathers put freedom of speech right up there at the beginning. Without that, the rest doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, does it?

And it had all been for naught, as I saw it. It can be a mistake attempting to explain the thought processes of others, but one would have to suppose that in part, at least, the governmental individuals involved in indicting me must have assumed that they could discourage me from any further activity in the paperback business. Ironically, the result was exactly the opposite.

Under other circumstances, I’m not sure that I would have had much interest in pursuing a paperback writing career; Gloria had been fun but a whim, really. Certainly I had no interest in a career writing of faux lesbians.

I was still hurting, however, and I felt practically compelled to write at least one or two more books, to show the Federales (and myself) that I had not been intimidated. Well, if I am going to be entirely honest, I have to mention that I quickly discovered that the books were easy to do, for me at any rate. And they paid money.

The only problem was, I had decided I wanted to write gay books, and if lesbians incited government censors to action, writing about gay males doing the deed was like waving red panties in front of a horny bull. The postal authorities and the courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court, had already proclaimed that sort of dalliance a no-no. Two men holding hands were enough to render a book obscene, as these folks saw it. Holding anything else was blasphemy, at the very least.

I continued to write for Brandon House Books, heterosexual and lesbian-bisexual novels, none, I’m sure, of any real merit. Not even out of respect for our common travail, however, would Milt Luros venture into homosexual waters, nor was I able to generate any interest among the other paperback publishers of the day. By now they all knew who I was. Paperback publishing in those days was a small town and I had paid my dues by taking my lumps along with Luros and company. Everyone was eager to see something from me in the heterosexual or lesbian vein, but even the bravest of them were convinced gay books would be like dropping their pants with little hope of satisfaction.

Well, as everyone knows, when a guy gets really hot for something he isn’t usually much inclined to be discouraged. I remained stubbornly convinced that there was a large and largely untapped market for gay books. The Stonewall uprising wouldn’t happen until 1969, but already by 1965 gays were coming out of their closets.

In 1965 I wrote my first gay novel, The Why Not. The Why Not of the title was a bar my friends and I frequented, actually called The Castaways but dubbed The Why Not by my secretary, Lady Agatha, because the usual conversation on a weekend was, “Are you coming to the bar tonight?”—“Why not?” The book was essentially a collection of vignettes describing my experiences with the bar and its habitués.

There may have been a publisher in 1965, hard- or softcover, who did not get a query from me regarding The Why Not, but they must have been obscure indeed. I could have papered my apartment walls with the rejection slips and letters—some of them encouraging, I must say, but none of them interested in publishing. There was a general opinion that there was no market for gay material. “Who would buy it?” was the usual response to queries.

More telling, however, was the conviction of two Fresno publishers, Sanford Aday and Wallace de Ortega Maxey, for distribution of obscene material. Although they published both gay and straight novels, the “obscene material” was largely gay paperback novels and it was not the sexual frankness of the books—frankly, they were tepid even by the standards of the time—that rendered them obscene, it was simply their homosexual content.

In 1963, Aday and Maxey were sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, which sent a chill throughout the publishing industry. Barney Rosset of Grove Press published John Rechy’s City of Night in 1964, but that was an exception. Rosset had already fought his freedom-of-expression battle—over the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover—all the way up to the Supreme Court, so he was not easily intimidated. But the rest of the publishing world had been scared away from homosexual material, as I had certainly learned in trying to peddle The Why Not.

After investing a fortune in postage and envelopes, I found myself once again in that adult bookstore in Hollywood where my paperback career might be said to have begun, and this time I found a lone gay novel on the racks. Aha, here was a publisher I had overlooked. To be honest, one I had never even heard of, but at this point I wasn’t inclined to be picky. I sent my manuscript off to that publishing house. The house name has long since fled my memory, and I recall only that it was located somewhere in Indiana, though that address was probably only a mail drop.

The manuscript came back with a note from an editor telling me that they were just folding up shop, but suggesting that I send it to Greenleaf Classics, a San Diego publisher just getting started.

It was at this point in time that my manuscript landed on the desk of Earl Kemp at Greenleaf Classics. My personal history, and the history of gay publishing, were changed forever.

I have often wondered how Earl Kemp, a resolutely heterosexual editor working for a firm whose output had not yet even flirted with bisexuality, was persuaded to buy The Why Not. Here is the explanation he gave me many years later:

 

“From those approximate 4,000 paperback titles that we published I can remember around four manuscripts only of truly significant worth, both as literature and as a viable portrayal of our liberated times. These are manuscripts that almost from the minute they arrived at the office began making ripples of excitement that flowed instantaneously from editor to editor.

“Such a day happened when Bill (our reader) opened the package containing the manuscript for The Why Not. He barely even began his customary quick-eyescan-and-quicker-rejection routine when something grabbed him and he stopped reading. When he realized that he didn’t need to read the manuscript, he brought it directly into my office…the first time he had ever done any such thing (actually office protocol dictated that he follow procedure and pass anything to me through the editor in chief.)

“‘I think you need to look at this manuscript yourself,’ he told me.

“And I did, and I agreed with Bill and I also recognized it as something remarkable, timely, and apt to be rather popular. I bought that manuscript right then without even reading it all the way through and I’ve never regretted that decision for a moment.

“I feel it was a pivotal book that opened doors too-long closed and one of the major building blocks in Greenleaf’s ongoing fight for First Amendment realities.”

 

Needless to say, I thought his taste far superior to that of those other editors who had spurned my advances.

Earl, by the way, was a well-mannered Southern Boy of the old school. He has told me that when he first took on the position at Greenleaf, he had to practice for hours in front of a mirror before he could manage to say “fuck” without turning beet red. I of course was a Midwestern Boy from the Bible Belt who was thirty before I could bring myself to say “damn” aloud. It is ironic certainly that we should have ended up partners in the sexual revolution.

In time Publishers Weekly gave The Why Not a good review (and believe me in those days Publishers Weekly didn’t often review gay novels, good or bad) as did Joe Hansen writing in One magazine.

Reading it now I don’t think that The Why Not was an especially good novel. Certainly it stayed too close to the sad-young-men school of writing that I later refuted—but historically it was certainly a significant one, setting a precedent as it did for the coming groundswell in gay publishing.

The real groundswell came soon after, however, when I suggested to Earl—timorously, I admit; I still had no inkling of how big that gay market would prove to be—that I was working on a gay spy spoof.

Enter The Man from C.A.M.P. Frankly, if it had been difficult to find a publisher previously for The Why Not, The Man from C.A.M.P. might as well have come from another planet so far as anybody publishing books in those days was concerned.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Let me cut ahead to the finish line here: Earl Kemp is Il Capo di Tutti Frutti. Mind you, when I say that, I’m only talking about the Tutti of publishing Frutti. On any more personal level I have always considered Earl’s “business” none of my business, and vice reversa, I’m sure. My point is, though, that Earl Kemp is the Godfather of gay publishing, which is what I started out to say. What’s really nutty about this is that Earl was as much a virgin to the Godfather business as I was to the publishing business. It seems like you could hardly turn around at Greenleaf Classics without tripping over a virgin. Who knew?

But I have gotten ahead of myself—that is the finish. The start was all the way back in the early days of those “swinging sixties,” the heady days of marches, of sit-ins and love-ins. We were defiantly burning our draft cards and our bras and our jock straps—well, all right, truth to tell, my jock strap wasn’t having such a spectacular career anyway. Just once I would like to have been able to cry in triumph, “my cup runneth over!” But that is certainly not the point of this story. The point I’m making here is, when one thinks back on the social and sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies, one conjures up images of all sorts of goings-on and demonstrations on the public stage.

It wasn’t all public, however, and it wasn’t all so overtly dramatic. Some of it, far more than one might suppose, took place off stage as it were, in the offices and at the desks of writers, publishers and editors. Some of it took place at Greenleaf Classics.

One could debate endlessly, I suppose, the good and bad aspects of the brief publishing history of Greenleaf and that company’s other brand names, but on one point there can be no argument, and that is the impact of Greenleaf Classics on gay publishing and, by extension, on the then nascent gay revolution. And they did it publishing “dirty books.” Or in any event, what some people considered dirty books, though personally I agree with Stanley Fleishman’s assessment: there are no dirty books, only dirty minds.

The history of gay publishing divides rather neatly into two eras: BG (Before Greenleaf) and AG (After Greenleaf.) Or, to be more accurate, Before Earl and After Earl. True, there were gay novels published before Greenleaf came on the scene. They were few, however; and let’s face it, with rare exceptions they were mostly a sorry lot. For the most part, the theme was cure or kill. If we weren’t converted to heterosexuality by the final chapter, we could expect to be bumped off. And in between, we were miserable, guilty, ashamed, skulking in and out of “twilight” places. We were mostly freaks and monsters, alcoholics and wimps.

Patricia Highsmith, who (as Claire Morgan) in 1952 published one of the early lesbian novels, The Price of Salt, once remarked (before 1952): “homosexuals male and female in American novels have had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality.”

By the fifties, too, the rather frank sexuality that could be found in early works like The White Paper (1928) or The Hustler (1926) had become so discreet as to be all but unintelligible. Once these characters went into a clinch, it was pretty hard to know who was doing what to whom and how deeply.

In the years leading up to and including 1963, there were perhaps two or three dozen gay books, surely no more than that. With only the rarest exceptions, they were all pretty much of the same ilk.

A decade later, by 1973, there were at least a thousand gay books published—some estimates say as many as four thousand. What is even more striking than the numbers is the fact that, aside from their homosexual characters—and the new bluntness of their sexual content—these books have little in common.

By this time, a gay man wandering into a bookstore could choose from entire shelves of gay related material. There were nonfiction works, of course, some of them scholarly studies, some of them thinly disguised porn. There were cookbooks, astrology books, how-to books.

Mostly, there were novels, but of a variety unimaginable a few years earlier: mysteries, histories, comedies and tragedies. There were romances, books with happy characters and by this time even—astonishingly—happy endings. There were books about old men and about little boys. Science fiction, war stories, cowboy and gangster novels. It is hard to think of a category that wasn’t represented. In short, there had been a genuine and very dramatic revolution in gay publishing.

When I said a few lines earlier that these books had little in common beyond their gay and sexual elements, I wasn’t quite telling the truth. One thing that very many of these books had in common was Earl Kemp.

To be sure, by 1973 others were producing gay material. Sherbourne Press (aka Medco Books), Milt Luros’ Brandon House Books, Lynn Womack’s Grecian Guild (mostly forgettable pieces, but they did publish Phil Andros, a pen name for Sam Steward who was a respected member of the Stein/Toklas set in Paris) and others eventually contributed to the gay boom.

All of these publishers, however, jumped on the cart after it was rolling merrily along, which is to say, when they sniffed the scent of money in the winds blowing from the south of California. The one who first cried Giddyup, however, was Earl. And what really got the horses agallop was The Man from C.A.M.P.

I don’t want to overstate my contribution to the revolution that was happening. I was no hero. I didn’t set out to change the world. At this late date I can’t even tell you how I came to dream up that particular book. The camp phenomenon was in full swing, of course. As a twenty something I was out and about in the gay world at the time, and there may have been a tang in the air from the sea change that was coming. As much as anything, though, I was lucky. I got Earl Kemp.

I suppose there must have been a certain serendipitous element, even a touch of naiveté, in Earl’s decision to publish The Man from C.A.M.P. I doubt that he had even read any of those earlier novels. He probably did not fully realize that we were supposed to be miserable and kill ourselves off in the end.

It would be grossly unjust, however, to attribute Earl’s contribution to nothing more than ignorance. If he was not familiar with the content of the gay books that had been published before, he was surely aware of their scarcity. He knew that he was pushing the boundaries.

And he certainly knew the risks involved, knew of Aday and Maxey and their convictions and prison sentences. If the government considered the hangdogs of the fifties obscene, they surely weren’t going to approve of a book with happy homosexuals, espousing the gay cause, jumping in and out of bed, and getting their men in the end. Which is to say, when he decided to go with The Man from C.A.M.P., Earl knew full well that he was putting his fanny on the line, and it wasn’t a chorus line, either. There simply wasn’t another editor in the business at the time who would have opted to go with this book.

With all that was going on in the sexual and social atmosphere of the sixties, it was probably inevitable that someone would tackle the gay issue. Alas, after the Aday and Maxey disaster, even the bravest souls were afraid to venture into the homosexual arena—until Earl jumped in and grabbed that particular lion by the tail.

Earl has described the publishing circus of the sixties as a game. In a sense, gays had always seen their situation in life in much the same way. You dug under the compost pile for the humor and though it might stink, you laughed anyway.

But if the pulp publishing of the era was a game, it was one with far more serious and far reaching consequences than any Super Bowl or World Series outing, and we were all of us, all the time, conscious of those consequences.

For some taking part in the revolution, it happened in the streets, at marches and demonstrations. I did that too. It takes courage, but there is the adrenaline rush to keep you going, and the group energy to keep your spirits from flagging.

Others fought at their desks and, all too often, in courtrooms, and that takes a different kind of courage. Sometimes in that war you lost a round. Some of those soldiers—Earl was one of them—went to prison for pursuing their ideas of what “freedom of expression” meant. Well you can’t make brownies without cracking your nuts, as any girl scout can tell you.

Sometimes, too, as veterans of other wars learned, you came home wounded to realize that your efforts were little recognized and less appreciated. For you there would be no medals, no parades, no monuments. What you got for the most part was the satisfaction of looking around at the changes that had been wrought, and knowing that you had helped to make them happen.

And there were a few—mostly those who had been in the trenches with you—who understood what you had contributed, and knew what it had cost you. Who honored, and were grateful.

Which is to repeat what I said earlier: virgin or not, Earl Kemp was and is the Godfather of gay publishing.

Viva Il Capo.

 

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Spine Intact, Chapter 8

roller derby girls

roller derby girls

 

 

 

Let’s Dance

 

 

 

What is it about gay boys and dancing, anyway?

Dancing, of course, must surely be an instinctive act on the part of humankind. Little children dance. I swear I’ve seen babies in their cribs swing their tiny feet to the beat of music. Football players dance when they score a touchdown, which I quite understand. I personally have danced a time or two after scoring. Traffic cops dance, sometimes quite unconsciously. Esther Williams danced in the water. Even straight men dance, though not as well. In the fifties they hardly danced at all so they lost practice time.

I’m willing to venture that the earliest cavemen danced around their cave fires. And you can bet your booty that the one leading the Conga line was the one who was nervous and boy crazy.

Gays have always managed to find ways to get together and trip the light fantastic but today’s young gays, who literally dance in the streets at the slightest provocation, have difficulty in imagining how truly underground it was in the past.

They didn’t like our standing around in bars—hell, they didn’t like our breathing! They certainly were not going to tolerate our gliding about the dance floor cheek to cheek, head to toe. Navel encounters, as they were sometimes known in the days of closed dancing.

It really is evidence of our truly indomitable spirit that even in the darkest past gays danced away the night. I never lived nor visited anywhere in the closeted fifties that didn’t have an underground dance club within a reasonable distance. In Ohio there was Jerry’s, on a back country road midway between Dayton and Cincinnati.

Except for its isolated location Jerry’s might have been your typical fifties roadhouse—large gravel parking lot, a full bar with overpriced booze and understaffed bartenders, and a large dance floor surrounded by tables and booths. And of course a jukebox. It was open only on Saturday night, and was packed until closing time, two in the morning. I think you could assume that someone paid protection. I never saw any cops show up at the club but the Sheriff’s deputies sometimes waited along the roads after closing to nail speeders or drunk drivers.

My old friend Crazy George drove a TR-3, the latest word in British sports cars. Slung low to the ground, it could negotiate those curvy country roads with speed and aplomb impossible to the Sheriff’s aging Plymouths. They never caught us though they tried once or twice. On one occasion, for the sake of discretion, we eschewed the road and followed a country path. Suddenly mysterious shadows loomed ahead, blocking our trail.

“There’s something in our way,” George said, slowing to a halt.

“George,” I said, “We are among the cows.”

And so we were, in the midst of a herd. It was eerie to find ourselves looking up at a sea of bovine posteriors and praying that a rain of patties did not descend upon us. The unexpected perils of low-slung sports cars. It is the only time in my life I have ever gotten worked up over the swish of a tail. Hmm. Perhaps I should word that, “felt threatened by.”

Jerry’s was close to being the real thing but many of these underground dance halls weren’t bars or roadhouses at all, just someone’s home, invariably out in the sticks where there were no neighbors to complain. You paid a fee at the door and sometimes drinks were for sale but more typically you brought your own booze. The proprietor charged you for ice and set-ups and you took your chances with the law. There were occasional raids and you might find your picture in the local newspaper the following day. The press was especially delighted to feature drag queens, usually photographed after the cops had made them remove their wigs and falsies—the more disheveled, the more grotesque looking the better, don’t you know?

I hadn’t been in Los Angeles a week before I heard about the Topanga Canyon Club. The pass through Topanga Canyon in the hills north of L.A. is one of those mean twisty roads beloved of hotrodders and movie stuntmen. You’ve seen it in scores of movies and television commercials.

About midway between the San Fernando Valley and Pacific Coast Highway a dirt lane cut up into the hills and about a mile up that road, surrounded by nothing but mesquite and scrub pines and a spectacular view of the city, was The Club.

Like Jerry’s it had the look of a real roadhouse, in this case a somewhat grander version. It might have been Mildred Pierce’s without the pies or Eve Arden. Outside, the pool and patio were the spots to be on a warm Sunday afternoon. Inside, there were not one but two dance floors and no fewer than three bars plus a restaurant.

The restaurant alone would probably have made a success of the place. Not that it was so great, it was only passable actually, but in those days gay restaurants had a more or less captive audience. If you were the slightest bit “obvious” you were often made to feel unwelcome in straight restaurants. Even the fact of several males dining out together was enough to make you suspect.

If you were lucky enough to live in one of the cities that had gay restaurants—Los Angeles say, or San Francisco or New York City—you were more likely than not to patronize them simply because you felt more comfortable. Though there were exceptions the food was rarely more than fair, but you could usually do all right if you stayed with the basic steak and potato and the prices were invariably downright cheap—the restaurant counted on making its money from the drinks. Cocktails have always mattered in the gay world.

In Los Angeles the Klondike went “cheap” one better. The Klondike wasn’t really a restaurant at all, just a neighborhood bar done up in Alaska-Victorian, a hybrid spot that had a daytime crowd of neighborhood oldsters and that turned gay at sundown. On Sunday evenings the owners served up an enormous buffet spread—in this case, really good food. All you could eat and free.

Or at least it was free until the city fathers found some little-known loophole in the law that said the bar couldn’t give food away. This was nothing more than harassment, of course, but after that the bartenders sold buffet tickets for twenty-five cents, though nobody bothered to check tickets at the food tables.

Seeing the success of the Klondike’s buffet, other bars began offering their own foodstuffs. For a time you could eat out every night of the week and eat pretty well, too, for ten to twenty-five cents a meal. Of course, it was your civic duty to spend all you could afford on cocktails but one certainly had little incentive to stay home and slave over a hot plate.

The food, however, was really not the draw at the Topanga Canyon Club, though the dining room was popular at dinner and at Sunday brunch. People went to dance. And, not incidentally, to see and be seen. You could not just walk up to the door and go in, you had to be a member or be with a member or, at the very least, convince them that you were there to meet a member who was already inside or late arriving. In the latter case you had better look gay. Fortunately that was never a problem for me. I was never turned away, though I occasionally heard of those who were. It was one of the rare instances when it did not pay to be too butch.

A large glass ball hung from the middle of the ceiling in the main dance room. Everyone was informed when they arrived that should the glass ball light up and begin to spin it meant that “company” had arrived, in the form of some Sheriff’s deputies or perhaps Highway Patrol. Boys were immediately supposed to find girl partners and vice versa.

I was there only once when this actually happened. As it turned out there was also a large contingent of lesbians from the Roller Derby then popular on TV—a good natured group but not, you might imagine, the most feminine bunch. To be honest, in a room filled with gays, they may have set the masculine standard.

Everyone was having a grand time when the glass globe lit up and began to spin. Before I had time to register my alarm, the most enormous, toughest-looking dyke I have ever seen suddenly appeared at my table.

“Let’s go, Sweetie,” she said. “Time to cut a rug.”

There was not even time to curtsy and bow and there was certainly no question about who was going to lead. I found myself yanked to my feet and virtually tossed over her shoulder. We looked like she was celebrating a successful hunt and I was food for the barbecue back at the cave. She began to spin me around the floor in what was surely the most spirited waltz those boards had ever seen. Cut a rug? I swear it, my feet never touched the floor.

In a blur, between glimpses of my life passing before my eyes, I could see that throughout the room equally unmatched couples were tripping the not-so-light fantastic. I cannot imagine that the sheriff’s deputies who were making an inspection might have been fooled but apparently they were. The warning light went out and I was deposited back at my table, breathless, my hair hanging in my face, my clothes dripping sweat. I looked as if I had just fled the house of Usher. Worst of all, no one had asked to cut in. At the Club, we considered it a not very successful turn on the floor if no one tried to cut in.

“Let’s do it again sometime,” she said, giving me a hearty slap on the back.

“Sure,” I said with a laugh. “Anytime.” And while we are at it, I added mentally, I’ll have my tonsils out. Why stop at half the fun?

Once when the doorman was briefly away from his desk a pair of deputies waltzed unannounced into the club proper and returned to the lobby in some consternation, to tell the doorman, “there are men dancing with men in there.”

“It’s all right,” he assured them without missing a beat, “It’s an Arthur Murray party.”

Surprisingly they bought that explanation and left without further ado. These were not very bright police officers apparently.

Or perhaps the right inducement changed hands on these occasions. As I have already described, the Club was in a particularly isolated location. These gentlemen were certainly not there as a result of complaints by the neighbors and they must have had some good reason to go so far out of their way up those dirt roads.

And a few extra dollars in pocket on Saturday night were never unwelcome, I’m sure.

The Topanga Canyon Club remained the chic spot for a decade or more but there were other private dance clubs that came and went. The most lavish of these was not a gay hangout at all. Highland Springs Resort Hotel, about thirty miles from Palm Springs in Southern California’s high desert, was more commonly visited by blue-haired matrons wanting to get away from it all.

Four times a year, however, a gay entrepreneur rented the entire resort for a gay outing. The cost to guests was thirty-five dollars, a bargain for the weekend, Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. Meals were included and they were excellent and all you could eat. There was a bar, crowded day and night. There were always a few bridge games in progress and if the weather was inclement a fire burned in the lobby’s cavernous fireplace. You could dip into the Olympic-size swimming pool, ride the hotel’s horses, or stroll the beautifully landscaped grounds where peacocks greeted you noisily, and a small collection of sheep, llamas, and the like waited to be petted. Needless to say there were always guests waiting to be petted as well.

It was a pretty swell way to spend a weekend and the price was right. Oh, yes, the dimly lit bathhouse with lots of little rooms and alcoves was popular all weekend long. It is so important to keep oneself well-steamed, I always say.

These were gay men, however, and come evening you could expect to see everyone in the dance hall. Saturday night a live band provided the music and the guests provided their own entertainment, dancing the night away. Gay boys being gay boys, there were always a few Fred and Gingers to provide the rest of us with inspiration—or envy. My jitterbug usually cleared the floor, though I am not sure how many were moving back to watch in awe and how many simply trying to avoid flying arms and legs—mine was a spirited version of the dance.

By the late sixties the taboos against dancing had begun to fade away and by the early seventies there were gay dance clubs everywhere. Akron, Ohio, Melbourne, Florida, Denver, Colorado—there was hardly a city of any size that didn’t have at least one, and places like West Hollywood and Greenwich Village were throbbing to the disco beat. We started shaking our tails and the moves have never stopped.

As gays came increasingly out of the closet and were more accepted and more comfortable in mainstream society they began to feel more comfortable too in straight restaurants. The need for the exclusively gay restaurant began to fade. To be sure, there are still restaurants in most of the gay enclaves, but the patrons at the next table are often straight. Slowly but surely our society was becoming a mixed one.

Once you could go out anytime you wanted and dance wherever, the private dance clubs faded quickly as well. For all its elegance, the Topanga Canyon Club was a major drive from the city and the mountain road dangerous even sober, let alone after an evening of drinks. The doors soon closed and the Highland Springs weekends faded into memory.

The music lingers on.


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