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1950s Gay Boston

In American History, Boston Individualists, Cities, Gay History, Hidden History, LGBT History on November 21, 2014 at 10:50 pm

The ’50s are a strange period– so bland and conservative on the surface, but with a lot bubbling up as well that would emerge in the turbulence of the 1960s.

–Neil Miller, author, Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s


Lower Washington Street, 1950s. Photo: Nishan Bichajian, Courtesy MIT Libraries Visual Collections.

Article published in Boston Spirit Magazine September/October 2014

It was a warm day for a cold war.   The temperature reached 48 degrees in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 20, 1950. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) strode onto the stage with the down home confidence that endeared him to regular folks. To his audience, the barrel-chested former Marine was a welcome contrast to the effete Washington politicians with their East Coast superiority and secretive ways. The members of the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling were rapt as McCarthy dramatically claimed to possess a list of Communists working in the State Department. Over the next few weeks, his list of names fluctuated between 10 and 57 Communists.

In the end, McCarthy never produced a single one, but the fearful, repressive atmosphere his accusations created, hung over the country for years. Reputations, careers, and lives were ruined.

Labeled, “The McCarthy Era,” this period is a staple of high school textbooks as an object lesson in governmental persecution. Much less known was the mass interrogation and subsequent firings of thousands of gays and lesbians during this same period often called “The Lavender Scare.”

Within the federal government during the Cold War and extending into the 1970s, the assumption was that gays could be easily blackmailed by foreign agents who threatened to expose them as “sexual deviants” unless they provided secret information. Lesbians and gay men soon joined suspected Communists as the hunted. Unlike some of the accused movie stars and writers with leftist pasts, gays were easy targets because they could not retaliate. To complain to a newspaper reporter about forced interrogations and firings, meant admitting to being homosexual, something few people were prepared to do. By the end of the 1950s, over 5,000 federal workers were fired or forced to resign for being gay. Afterwards, some committed suicide, many others took lower-paying jobs in more accepting occupations like hairdressing and food service.


In the 1950s, the Waldorf Restaurant across from Park Street Station buzzed with gay people after the bars closed. Photo: Nishan Bichajian, Courtesy MIT Libnraries, Visual Collections.

The roundups soon spread to state and local governments and even to private companies. David K. Johnson writes in his book, The Lavender Scare, that a 1958 study estimated “one in every five employed adults in America had been given some form of loyalty or security screening.” But it was lesbians and gays who were singled out and fired. (The military continued to interrogate and fire LGBT people until the practice was outlawed on September 21, 2011.)

In the 1950s, suburban neighborhoods sprouted throughout the country, teeming with new families, who had fled the cities. The young medium of television portrayed heterosexual life as noble and natural, driving gays more underground then they were a decade before.

Given all of this, you would think 1950s gay life in Boston was a depressing combination of secrecy, loneliness, and self-loathing.

Except that it wasn’t.

Sure, it was risky and certainly underground. But for those who went to bars, nightclubs and restaurants that attracted a gay clientele, Boston gay nightlife was rich, varied and even glamorous.

With the exception of the late 1970s, the variety of gay nightlife during the McCarthy Era in Boston, has never been equaled.

Scollay Square still existed then, though its years were numbered. Located where Government Center is today, the area attracted gays to its bars, burlesque houses and theaters. John H. grew up just outside Boston in the 1950s, and recalls the burlesque houses as an introduction to Boston nightlife. “There was a group of gay guys in my high school who dropped out to move into town. We never said anything but we all knew they were gay. They took us to the old Howard and the Casino. It was dirty comedians followed by strippers. It wasn’t sexy for us but it was exciting. There was one stripper named “Countess Bareassity.” After the shows, we’d go to the bars.”

Boston was a more active port of call for sailors then and they where regular visitors to Scollay Square bars, especially the Lighthouse, Half Dollar, and Silver Dollar. Gay men and sailors could meet at one of these bars and take a room at one of the cheap, nearby hotels. And if you were down on your luck or too drink to go home, you could spend the night at the Rialto, a 24-hour movie theater where men met for sex.

The Punch Bowl in Park Square

The Punch Bowl in Park Square

And then there was Park Square. The Punch Bowl, Jacques, the Napoleon Club, and Mario’s were all within a few blocks of each other. Unlike the Scollay Square bars that were ostensibly straight but frequented by gay people, these bars were expressly for gay people. The Punch Bowl was not hidden or at all secret. You could not miss the bold, cursive letters on it’s front: “The Punch Bowl.” In an interview with the Lesbian Herstory Archives, activist, Barbara Hoffman spoke about going to the Punch Bowl in the 1950s, “I still remember walking into this packed bar. It was an hour before closing, and they were six deep at the bar. I asked (my friend) Rodney if everyone here was gay, and he said yes. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

Three blocks away, the Napoleon Club attracted a successful, older crowd. Liberace sometimes dropped by after a concert downtown. “The first gay bar I went to was probably was the Napoleon Club,” recalled the late Conrad Shumway in a 1995 interview with the History Project. “I think it was just one room downstairs (then) and a little entryway where you hung your coat. And of course, you had to wear a jacket and a necktie. The hatcheck girl, Ivory Rubin, would give you a beat-up old tie to put on. It would look like hell.“

Shumway had moved to Boston from Vermont in the early 1950s. One day, he walked into the Lincolnshire Hotel bar on Charles Street for a drink. “It was really a men’s bar for the hotel but the hotel’s business was fading away and it turned into a gay men’s bar. I met my partner there on June 27, 1952. He was in the real estate business.” Shumway and his partner ran boarding houses on Beacon Hill for the next 20 years.

Playland and the Chess Room were located in what later became the Combat Zone, Boston’s adult entertainment area in the 1960s- 1970s. The Chess Room served a dressy clientele of older men looking for younger men. It was in the basement of the Hotel Touraine. “The bartenders were hot as hell, but they didn’t like the gay clientele. To hold the job, they were told by the manager, ‘you’ve got to be nice to these people, they bring money in here. Behave.’ They wore white jackets with black bow ties, very proper. You had to wear a neck tie in there, too,” said Shumway.

Playland and 12 Carver Street attracted a more relaxed clientele. Blue-collar truck drivers mingled with Harvard students. Playland even had a few regular black patrons, unusual in Boston gay bars at this time. Phil Baionne, owner of 12 Carver Street (now replaced by the Transportation Building), was a large man who liked to mount a swing and glide over the crowd. Recalled Shumway, “He’d get all juiced up and get in his swing and say, “Now it’s time for Papa to swing. And she would sing “Summertime” and she’d wear a big straw picture hat with ribbons and bows and the ribbons hanging down and they would fly out and here she is, 300 pounds with this great big straw picture hat on… If she fell, she’d kill 300 people.”

After the bars closed, gay people went to the Waldorf Cafeteria and Childs — all-night eateries on Tremont and Boylston streets. Sometimes the noise level got so high the manger threw them out.


Hotel Fensgate, 534 Beacon Street.

The highlight of the gay social season in the 1950s was the Beaux Arte Ball. The ball began in 1952 at the Fensgate Hotel at 534 Beacon Street, according to Shumway. The hotel manager was not happy when men waltzed into the lobby dressed in chiffon and ladies arrived in tuxedos. The ball moved to the Punch Bowl for several years where it attracted giant crowds, including many spectators who waited outside to see the men in drag enter in their lavish outfits.

One year, according to Shumway, a cab driver brought his wife to view the ball attendees. After the oohs and ahhs died down, he was heard to say to his wife, “Some of them look better than you. With that, she slapped him.”

The bleakest hours of the Lavender Scare of the 1950s have something in common with the height of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Under siege, queer people still danced and partied even as they were scapegoated, punished and neglected by their own government and society. For LGBT people, perhaps “the band plays on” because celebration is our gospel music. It defiantly proclaims: we’re still here.

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.”

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.

Article originally published in Boston Spirit Magazine October/November 2013

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.”

Prescott Townsend: The Brahmin Who Became A Gay Rights Pioneer

In American History, Boston Individualists, Gay History, Hidden History, History, LGBT History, Provincetown on October 6, 2013 at 11:32 am

This story first ran in the September/October 2013 issue of Boston Spirit magazine.

by Mark Krone

Young Prescott Townsend_web.jpg

Townsend during World War I

Prescott Townsend may be the most influential Boston gay rights pioneer you have never heard of. If so, hang on; before we’re through, Townsend will cross paths with Andre Gide, 1960s hippies, John Waters and his star, Mink Stole. And that’s not counting the army of young men who lived with him on Beacon Hill and in Provincetown, as long as their waist sizes hovered very close to 30-inches.

Born in 1894, Townsend was Brahmin from head to toe. He claimed relation to no fewer than 23 Mayflower passengers and bragged that his third great-great grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Author Douglass Shand-Tucci quotes a sardonic Townsend who referred to this relative as “the only man to be so inconsistent.”

Townsend’s early life followed a prescribed Brahmin path of prep school, Harvard, and military service. That path soon veered sensationally.

At Harvard, he had his first homosexual encounter “with a polo player.” Restless after graduation, Townsend decided to travel in search of a more vital world. He worked at a logging camp out west where he lived among men who seemed not to miss the company of women. That some of them were members of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies), which opposed capitalism must have influenced Townsend, though he was never particularly sympathetic to organized labor and was a lifelong Republican.
Returning to Boston, Townsend moved to Beacon Hill where he met Elliot Paul, an experimental theater producer. Writer, Lucius Beebe, a contemporary of Townsend’s, described Paul as the quintessential 1920s Bohemian who wore a Van Dyke beard and favored broad-brimmed hats. He and Townsend quickly became inseparable. Together, they created The Barn Experimental Theatre in 1922. Townsend’s steady if modest trust income came in handy. Beacon Hill during the Roaring Twenties bristled with Bohemian culture.

Soon, Townsend and Paul traveled to the tip of Cape Cod were they met members of the Provincetown Players, who were also staging avant-garde productions, including those of Eugene O’Neill, that helped create modern American drama. If O’Neill and Townsend ever met is not known, but he became friendly with other members of the group, including journalist, Mary Heaton Vorse and playwright, Susan Glaspell. Again, Townsend’s trust fund was tapped. Adrian Cathcart, Townsend’s authorized biographer, noted that Vorse “gave (Townsend) to know in no uncertain terms, just how his money could best be spent.”
Townsend loved to travel. In the early 1920s, he and Elliot Paul visited Paris, which was at its Bohemian peak. Since Paul already knew Gertrude Stein, Picasso and Earnest Hemingway, it is impossible to imagine that Townsend failed to meet them. But for Townsend, his most significant encounter was with André Gide. Since coming out in print in 1926, Gide was already known as a potential successor to Oscar Wilde. Years later, Townsend claimed that Gide had presented him with a Bedouin cloak first owned by T.E. Lawrence.

During the 1930s, Townsend entered history by testifying at the State House for a gay rights bill. As a Brahmin, he was politely received but swiftly dismissed. He was back the next year and the next after that, meeting with the same polite indifference. The Depression did not slow Townsend down. He opened several “tea rooms” on Beacon Hill: the Joy Barn, the Brick Oven, and the Saracen’s Head. Though he had no license, liquor was served discreetly.

The year 1943 marked another turning point for Townsend. He was arrested for “committing an unnatural and lascivious act” and sentenced to 18 months hard labor at Deer Island House of Correction. As it turned out, he was released on VJ Day. He said later, when he saw the celebrations in town, he thought they were for him. This arrest severed ties with most members of his family and got him thrown out of the Social Register, which delighted him.

In the 1950s, Townsend started the Boston chapter of the Mattachine Society, the first national gay rights organization that had began in Los Angeles under Harry Hay. He organized meetings, wrote letters and subscribed to One Magazine, an early gay publication. He also developed his “Snowflake Theory” which essentially posited that a person’s sexuality is as unique to them as one snowflake is to another.

When the 1960s arrived, Townsend enthusiastically welcomed hippies and runaways to his Lindall Place and Phillips Street buildings and his house made of driftwood in Provincetown, called “Provincetownsend.” Joe McGrath recently recounted a story from his time as “one of the boys.” At 15, he had gone to Provincetown in the summer of 1962 with some friends. Somehow, he had gotten separated from them. Without enough money to get back home, he sat dejectedly on a bench front of Town Hall when another young man approached him. “He asked me why I looked so sad and I told him my story. He said, ‘I know where you can stay for 35 cents a night.’ He took me to Prescott’s place. When I got there, Prescott welcomed me and showed me to the second floor where I slept.” There were always boys coming and going. A few years later, John Waters met his future star, Mink Stole, who was staying at Provincetonsend. Waters later described the house and its occupants as “a lunatic Swiss Family Robinson,” meaning of course, that he loved it.

In his last years, Townsend’s adamant eccentricity began to backfire. Hustlers and drug addicts replaced the arty young men who had for so long delighted him. In 1968, “Provincetownsend” burned to the ground, some say, suspiciously. His Beacon Hill buildings, which for years, had failed to meet city code, were also destroyed by fire. With nowhere to live, Townsend moved to a friend’s apartment where in 1973, he was found dead near his bed, in a kneeling position.

Prescott Townsend’s death effectively ended the Boston branch of Bohemia. Power politics had replaced the satiny metaphors and masked allusions of art that had sustained, but failed to protect, LGBT people for generations. [x]

Ferry to Freedom: The Boston – Provincetown Ferry

In American History, Hidden History, Provincetown, Provincetown Ferry on July 7, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Provincetown II in New York Harbor.

It’s been one of those weeks.  Your boss revealed yet another irrational side, you can’t seem to please your partner, and you had so little time to pack for this trip to Provincetown, you must have forgotten something.  When you arrive on the dock, you decide the perfectly quaffed men-boys in front of you are a little too self-consciously handsome and the high-spirited young women in front of them are too happy for this time of the morning.

Looks like you need a little Provincetown.

With the engines grumbling, the boat slowly makes a 180 degree turn and heads away from the city.  When it passes Nix Mate into the Outer Harbor, the seas swell, the breeze cools, and your body slackens.  You lean on the railing facing seaward for the rush of salt air.  Suddenly, you know why the women were laughing and the men-boys were smiling.  The truth is, you’re all lucky to be alive, on this boat, and heading to the unique seaside town you’ve come to love.  Transformations like this do not happen in traffic on Route 6, but are a regular event on the historic Boston-Provincetown ferry route. If you’re a veteran P-Town ferry rider, memories of prior trips dip and dart in the boat’s wake like seagulls chasing tossed pretzels.  For LGBT passengers who came of age in less welcoming times, the boat was a freedom ride to sexual and personal liberation where they could escape landside’s harsh stares.  Though only 55 nautical miles, it seemed like a trip over the rainbow.

Although schooners and steamers have carried supplies and people between Boston and Provincetown since the 18th century, one of the earliest boats dedicated to the tourist trade was The Longfellow in 1883.  Happy passengers in bloomers and stiff collars rode to the tip of Cape Cod for a stroll and some seafood.  They could not know how The Longfellow would meet its end in 1904.  Set to retire after twenty years of service, The Longfellow was given one final mission: to carry a lode of dynamite from Wilmington, Delaware to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  It was fall and a nor’easter was brewing off the coast of New England.  The boat’s seams stretched and broke. Leaks sprouted.  The terrified crew was sure the boat would blow up from a rouge wave or by running aground.  Fortunately, neither happened as the crew was gingerly plucked one-by-one from the ailing ship and put in lifeboats to shore. The boat was left just off shore, wedged between some rocks.  A year later, Truro residents heard a great explosion.  It was The Longfellow, finally blowing up.

The list of Boston-Provincetown ferries that followed The Longfellow reads like a roll-call of New England: The Yankee Clipper, The Romance, Naushon, The Dorothy Bradford, Acorn, Cape Cod, Northern Light and the pious-sounding, Truth. To Provincetown residents, the “Boston boat” has meant crowds and a welcome infusion of tourist dollars.  Provincetown native, Clement Silva remembers looking forward to the boat’s arrival, “As a kid growing up in the East End (in the 1950s), we’d get excited when the boat came in. We’d wait for the big waves it made and body surf them. It was true fun.” Another P-Town native, Peter Robert Cook, remembers diving for coins when The Steel Pier and The Boston Belle brought passengers from Boston in the 1950s and early 1960s.  “My friends and I dove for coins and bought lobster knuckles at the fish market at the end of the pier.   We also used our change to play the pin ball machines, shoot pool, or bowl a few strings at Anthony Perry`s Bowl A Way on Commercial Street.”

Paul J. Asher-Best recently recalled being in his 20s, working the lunch shift at the Post Office Café in the 1970s.  “We’d watch for the boat in the second floor lounge.  (When it arrived), it was our busiest hour of the day.  Bo (of the Bo Winiker Band, which got its start playing on the Provincetown ferry) used to bring a boatload of blue-haired matronly passengers with him.  I remember a woman who brought her grandchildren over on the boat.  At the end of the meal, she did not have enough money to pay the bill, and was mortified. A gentleman at the next table paid the check for her, and told her to save her money for ice cream for the kids. I started weeping right there on the floor, earning the reputation for not being tough enough to handle the boat rush.”

Hard to believe now, but between 1965-1972, there was no ferry service between Boston and Provincetown as auto travel reached it zenith.  In 1972, Dick Nakashian revived the route by starting the Bay State-Spray and Provincetown Steamship Company.  In an interview with writer, Laura Shabott, Nakashian said that when he launched The Provincetown in 1973, there was pent up demand for water travel.  The Provincetown carried 600 passengers and made the round-trip in nine hours.  Nakashian hired the Winiker Band to provide entertainment and opened two snack bars that served liquor.  Eight years later, Nakashian launched The Provincetown II, which held 1100 passengers and cut the round trip to six hours, making it more popular with day trippers.

The top decks of the Provincetown and Provincetown II were nicknamed “Steel Beach” by the crew as passengers, gay and straight sun-bathed and lounged with a languor that is fondly recalled by writer Dermot Meagher,  “On the top deck on sunny days the muscle-boys used to strip down and work on their tans. There were 2 or 3 bars. On the way back to Boston there were some strange couplings as the booze and the music did their tricks.” In 1987, Nakashian sold The Provincetown II to a corporate shipping company. It changed hands several times as ridership decreased.  By the mid-1990s, the future of the Boston-Provincetown run was in doubt as the company went in and out of receivership.

Enter Mike Glasfeld, the current owner of Bay State Cruises.  Glasfeld, a true believer in the history and magic of sea travel (he may be one of the few ferry owners given to quoting Mary Oliver poems), began as a deckhand on the Spirit of Boston in 1985 and by 1998, had risen to become president of marine operations of the boat’s parent company.  One of his assignments was to find a buyer for the ailing Provincetown II operation.  He did – himself. “They had faith in me and knew I was going to leave the company anyway to do something new and different.  …Bay State Cruises was bulked up to six boats at the time and I pared it down to (just the Provincetown II) and we were able to make a go of it.” Glasfeld now leases a “fast ferry” high speed catamaran Provincetown III and says he will add a second fast ferry, the Provincetown IV, this summer. He is committed to maintaining the Provincetown II, which makes selected runs to Provincetown.

In 2000, Boston Harbor Cruises began service to Provincetown from Long Wharf.  The 7,200 horse-powered Salacia, is the largest fast ferry to Provincetown.   The Salacia can reach 40 knots, equivalent to 45 MPH.  Alison Nolan and Christopher Nolan, carry on the family business, begun in 1926.  On a recent sunny afternoon, Christopher Nolan, pronounced business “great.” And Alison gives a lot of the credit to the town of Provincetown.  “They’ve done a lot to make it a place people want to go to.”

Revolutionary War: Why We Fought (Zinn vs. Wood)

In American History on August 3, 2011 at 11:35 am

The New Yorker  briefly reviews Gordon S. Wood’s new book The Idea of America in its  current issue (July 25, 2011).  Wood, respected and decidedly mainstream, argues that “the Americans revolted (against England) not out of actual suffering but out of reasoned principle.”

George Washington. Wikimedia Image. From the National Archives. http://www.archives.gov/research/american-revolution/pictures/

The late, respected, and non-mainstream historian, Howard Zinn, saw it differently in his A People’s History of the United States.  Zinn portrayed the Founders as intent on wresting control of the vast wealth of the colonies from Britain and merely used high-flown rhetoric (“liberty for all,” etc.) to arouse the masses to assist them. Implementation of these principles was not the true end of the Founders, money was.

Zinn saw the American Revolution as a dispute between the upper classes of both countries for control of profits earned by the  labor force, including slaves.  Rhetoric about individual rights was a tool to inflame, not a goal of the Revolution.

Where do I stand?

Some of the wealthiest Founders (Washington was reputed to be the wealthiest man in the colonies) were indeed motivated by money but Thomas Paine, whose pamphlets inflamed more people than any speech made by the Founders, was of humble origins and background.  He believed what he published and so did thousands of his readers.

War can have many reasons, some of them contradictory.  World War II was good for munitions makers on all sides but this did nothing to diminish the moral clarity of the Allies’ determination to rid the world of Nazism.

In no way should this suggest that I view all or most U.S. wars as morally justified.  I don’t.  Indeed, the majority were of questionable necessity and many were  fomented by corporate interests and their Congressional servants.

The Revolutionary War and World War II were clear in purpose and therefore, exceptions.