Dispatches from Boston on Interesting People, Places and Events

Cambridge Women’s Center Began With a Building Takeover in 1971

In American History, Women's History on February 17, 2014 at 8:43 pm

poz6fBWAt48auIYTkExuBxITEw5Vd2otRhH-zgBQaNs,UtIpdELO7cJGyPRHkZFWv8M6Mv00tpXMabJJxcMXenM,ZVChVNXTFqpvtPjkosuXeUz8FN-NsCb6Gl5NSkAi3F8Some decades linger.  The calendar read 1971, but Boston and Cambridge were still in the thick of the 1960s.  Protest marches regularly snaked through the streets and rallies were held under a purple haze on Boston Common.

 On Saturday, March 6, 1971, International Women’s Day, when Beacon Hill residents heard the amplified voices of another rally on Boston Common, it seemed business as usual. But it wasn’t.  The rally and subsequent march ended in a takeover by women of a Harvard-owned building at 888 Memorial Drive in Cambridge.  The women remained in the drafty building for 10 days under threat of arrest and forcible eviction by police.  The action led to the establishment of the Women’s Center in Cambridge, which exists to this day and is the oldest continuously operating community women’s center in the United States.

 Local women’s groups had discussed issues and possible actions for several months leading up to March 6.  One group, Bread and Roses, discussed taking over a building and turning it into a women’s center.  The discussions led to a list of demands: safe spaces for women, reproductive rights, equal pay, an end to incarceration of non-violent offenders, universal, free, community-controlled childcare, universal, free medical care, and ending corporate exploitation of women’s bodies.

 In 1971, abortion was illegal, newspaper employment ads were separated by gender, divorced women lost access to credit, and there was no place for a woman to go to escape her batterer.  Lesbians were all but invisible and trans-people and bisexuals had yet to be included in the gay and lesbian movement.

 The morning of March 6, began chilly, in the low 40s, but the uniform of the day, lumberjack shirts and jeans under parkas and overcoats kept many of the women warm.  Still, most were not prepared for a long stay in a cold building.  When the speakers had concluded, they marched past the Playboy Club, booing and chanting. As they approached the bridge to Cambridge, they shouted words of solidarity to the women prisoners at the Charles Street Jail, who responded in kind.

 When they arrived in Cambridge, Judy Smith, a participant, recalled in a blog post, hearing an “electrifying announcement… whoever wanted to, could join in a sit-in at a Harvard-owned building to demand that the University support a citywide Cambridge women’s center.”  The marchers were buzzing about the takeover as they continued down Massachusetts Avenue.  But then to the surprise of the police who attempted to corral them, the marchers took a left on Pearl Street, and marched into history.

 A small group of women had snuck into 888 Memorial Drive that morning to prepare for the arrival of the marchers.  The building was used by Harvard’s graduate design school.  When they came upon a male graduate student, they told him it was time for him to leave and he did.

 It seems likely that the evicted graduate student was the first person to inform Harvard officialdom about the takeover.  Before long, Mary Bunting, president of Radcliffe College, and Harvard Crisis Manager, Archibald Cox, (later of Watergate fame) became involved.  Harvard had just come through a tumultuous period of demonstrations and the administration wanted to avoid violence and the media coverage that accompanied it. Cox was in sympathy with some of the goals, if not the methods, of the protestors.

 Although counts are never easily verified, about 150 women entered the building.  As they gazed around the large, open space they felt exhilarated.   Laura Whitehorn, one of the women occupying the building, later recalled in a blog post that the first hours were exciting but tense.  “We expected to be arrested by police just hours after claiming the building…”  At one point, the police approached the front door.  The women fell silent and to their surprise the police departed.

As the hours went by, the women organized working groups for planning, cleaning, skills-building, and so forth.  According to Libby Bovier, a member of the 888 Memorial Drive Women’s History Project, the Harvard police may been reluctant to use force as Radcliffe students may have been inside. They also may have deferred to the Cambridge police, waiting for them to act.  But the Cambridge police were loath to get involved in a Harvard-owned property dispute.  In general, everyone was looking for a way to avoid a confrontation. This was after all, a building full of women and neither police force wanted to be on the news bashing through the front door.

 Harvard was not making it easy for the occupiers, however.  Archibald Cox reminded them via bullhorn that they were trespassing and that they risked arrest.  The electricity was turned off.  Friends brought space heaters and food.  Harvard-associated women, such as Susan Story Lyman, visited the building, seeking common ground.  The University sought and was given an injunction ordering the women to leave but they refused.

 Inside the building, an alliance between a local housing rights group was forged and a party for local children brought the women closer to the surrounding community.  Decisions were reached by consensus, which took time but spread power to more than the loudest participants.  For the first time in their lives, lesbian women expressed affection openly.

 After 10 days of attempted negotiation, freezing temperatures and exhilarating solidarity, the women left the building.  A donation, anonymous at the time, by Susan Storey Lyman, was offered to the women for a down payment on a house for a women’s center Cambridge.  Added to the money the women already had raised, they were soon able to open the Center, which is on Pleasant Street in Cambridge.

A documentary film of the action, Left On Pearl, is being produced and several early versions were shown at venues in the Boston area and elsewhere. A recent successful, online fundraising effort will allow the producers to raise the production to PBS standards, where they would like it shown.  Clips of the film are on the website, leftonpearl.org.

 In looking back, Rochelle Ruthchild, a participant, is not looking for icon status for the women in the building in 1971.  “We want people to know that they can do it too.  This was part of a long struggle and the struggle continues.”

John Horne Burns: A Sodden Genius Flares Out

In Boston Individualists, Hidden History, History, LGBT History, Writers on December 10, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Originally published in October/November issue of Boston Spirit Magazine.

At the height of his fame. John Horne Burns

At the height of his fame. John Horne Burns

John Horne Burns was on top of the world.  It was 1947 and his book on World War II, The Gallery, was a smash hit. Gore Vidal told friends that Burns had beaten him to the punch in producing the first great book about the war.  No less than Earnest Hemingway praised the book and its first-time author. At 31, Burns was the toast of literary America.

Just seven years later, Burns was found dead in Italy.  He was broke, friendless, dissipated from drink, and artistically dried up.  Today, he is forgotten.

A recent New York Times story suggested that Burns was the “the great (gay) novelist you’ve never heard of.”  This is why readers of David Margolick’s new biography, Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns (Other Press, 2013), come away respecting his account of this troubled man for its own sake, but also grateful that an important, if brief, literary life is now saved from oblivion.

Burns came from an upper-middle class Irish Catholic family in Andover, a Boston suburb.  His mother Catherine, was a Smith graduate who suspected she had married beneath her “lace-curtain Irish” status to his father, although he was a Harvard-trained lawyer. Catherine doted on her oldest son from the start. Indeed, it seemed John and his mother stood apart from the rest of the family, poking fun at them while winking to each other.  Perhaps it was this example, set early in life, which caused John to take the outsider’s role of critic, never able to fully join any group. The brittle protection of the sarcastic barb made from the sidelines was a well-known technique of some gay men of the time (and even today).

After graduating from Harvard in 1937, Burns knew he wanted to write but work was a necessity and he found a teaching post at the Loomis School in Windsor, Connecticut. Though some students admired his passionate love of music and literature, Burns was not popular with everyone.  He ignored students who bored him and stood aloof from his fellow teachers whom he saw as minnows in a small fish bowl. Burns comments could be brutal. Gore Vidal would later call him “a monster.”

Burns was drafted in 1941 and although he and his family were pacifists, he was happy to leave Loomis.  At first, he was stationed in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Young men and his sex life improved considerably now surrounded burns.  Burns wrote letters to a gay student he had become close to at Loomis, David MacMackin, regaling him with stories of life in the service including his sexual liaisons with gay men, whom Burns referred to in jocular code as “dreadfuls.”

Burns was soon shipped overseas and after a couple of stops, landed in Naples.  Fluent in Italian, Burns’s job was to read the outgoing mail of Italian prisoners of war to detect intelligence or coded messages.  As the war was winding down, Burns  fell in love with Naples. His hit book, The Gallery, came from this experience.

The Gallery consisted of nine portraits of men and women whose common thread is a connection to the Galleria Umbreto Primo in Naples, a majestic shopping arcade with a glass roof that was mostly shot out from bombs.  GI’s passed through the Galleria everyday as many Neapolitans do – to shop, meet for espresso, or for intimate assignations in its darkened corners.  The portraits included frank yet mater-of-fact descriptions of gay men and lesbians.  The most notable portrait was of “Momma,” who ran a gay bar for GI’s in one of the storefronts of the Galleria.

After The Gallery was published to rave reviews, Burns suddenly found himself the writer of the moment at a time when novelists enjoyed the acclaim that movie directors have today.  But with the accolades came the pressure to produce another hit book. Burns moved to Boston’s West End to write and to frequent nearby gay bars in Scollay Square.  His second novel, Lucifer With a Book was a searing satire of prep school life with characters closely based on his former Loomis colleagues.  The book bombed with the critics. Despite the book’s good sales, Burns was devastated by the critical reaction and he decided to return to Italy, this time to Florence.

Day after day Burns could be seen drinking at the bar in the Excelsior Hotel in Florence, looking straight ahead and rarely spoke to anyone.  He had always been a heavy drinker but now it turned into a daily drunk.  Despite this, Burns managed to publish a third book A Cry of Children. This time, the critics savaged the book. Charles Lee in The Saturday Review called it an “omnibus of depravity.”  According to David Margolick, “Burns had made himself a target, by being bitchy both in Lucifer With A Book and in his general behavior.”

After spending the day on a boat with his lover and friends, Burns suffered a severe form of sun poisoning which landed him in the hospital. He died several days later.  Did he want to die? Margolick does not think so: “Though Burns was slowly killing himself with drink, I don’t think he wanted to die…he wanted desperately to write something great again. …Even the tone of his last letter, describing the relish with which he was cooking and eating at his seaside resort, suggests he still very much enjoyed life.”

When Earnest Hemingway heard about Burns’s death, he wrote to a friend, “There was a fellow who wrote a fine book and then a stinking book about a prep school and then just blew himself up.”

Lifetime Companions: JFK and Lem Billings

In American History, Gay History, Hidden History, History, LGBT History on November 19, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Jack and Lem by David PittsHere is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, threeshots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting.

Fifty years ago this month, on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, Lem Billings had just returned from lunch when he heard the news. He was an advertising executive at Lennen and Newell in New York and as he approached his office building at 380 Madison Avenue, Billings saw immediately that something was wrong.  Waves of people rolled out of the building onto the street, some looked confused, others wept. According to David Pitts, author of Jack and Lem: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship, a face in the crowd approached Billings and said, “I’m so sorry about the president.”

John Kennedy kept many secrets during his lifetime: poor health, drug use, and countless affairs with women. But one secret is still largely unknown today: Kennedy’s oldest and dearest friend, Lemoyne Billings, was a gay man.

Why would Kennedy risk having a gay man as his closest friend? According to Pitts, Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post and JFK friend, said Kennedy thought he could take care of any political damage that might occur, including a possible “outing” of Lem.  “(JFK) thought he could handle anything.”

Lem Billings and Jack Kennedy met as teenagers at Choate, a prep school in Wallingford, Connecticut, where they were boarding students. Neither boy took the rules and traditions of the school very seriously.  Jack was still in the shadow of his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. For now, Jack would coast on his considerable charm and goodwill. Lem too, got by academically without too much effort or ambition.

As a teenager, Jack seemed to go from one illness to the next, usually involving stomach and back ailments. In early 1934, while at Choate, Kennedy became seriously ill. According to Billings, Jack had contracted a blood condition that almost took his life. Jack’s mother, Rose, never visited him while at Choate. It was left to Lem to care for Jack, cheering him up, getting him books and talking to him late into the night.  “We used to joke about the fact that if I ever write a biography, I would call it John F. Kennedy, A Medical History.  At one time or another, he really did have almost every medical problem – take any illness Jack Kennedy had it, Lem recalled later. This intimate caretaking, when both boys were away from parents, was a major factor in their lifelong loyalty to each other.

There was however, one problem, Lem was falling in love with Jack.  By senior year, they were roommates and Lem’s desire for Jack was too powerful for him to ignore.  He wanted to tell Kennedy but didn’t know how. Pitts describes what happened next: “There was an unspoken tradition at Choate …boys who wanted sexual activity with other boys…exchanged notes written on toilet paper…Toilet paper was used because it could be swallowed or easily discarded to eliminate any paper trail.”  Lem sent the toilet paper note. Jack wasn’t interested. While was recovering from another illness at a hospital in Rochester, Jack sent a letter to Lem full of news about his medical condition. Almost as an aside, he included the following line, “Please don’t write to me on toilet paper anymore. I am not that kind of boy.”

Kennedy’s rejection failed to cause even the smallest change in their relationship.  As far as anyone knows, the matter was never discussed again.

Given John Kennedy’s powerful attraction to women, it is noteworthy that all of his closest friendships were with men. “We don’t really have a word for that…for a man who relates to one sex sexually but the other emotionally. Of course, this was a time when women were seen as sex objects, perhaps it was not that unusual at the time to use women for sexual purposes and discount them in other ways,” says Pitts.

When Jack married Jackie Kennedy, Lem was never far away. Though they developed a warm relationship, it sometimes frustrated Jackie that she had to share her husband with Lem. Even in the White House, he had his own room and often showed up unannounced on weekends. His presence was a tonic for Jack, who almost never discussed politics with Lem, instead, they laughed and gossiped.  When Jackie declined to go on foreign trips Lem went along as he did to Berlin when Jack made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.

Lem was extremely careful to hide any sexual encounters he had in order to protect the president. While he had lovers, there is no evidence of a long term relationship.

Even though his romantic feelings were never requited, Lem’s devotion to Jack remained complete until the day of the assassination. BU Professor James Whalen calls Lem’s life a cautionary tale, “If you devote your life entirely to someone else, is it worth the price, I would argue, no.”





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