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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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John Horne Burns: Dissolute Genius

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.”

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]

Meet Me at Trafton’s

In Boston Individualists, Celebrities, Hidden History, History, Uncategorized on May 5, 2013 at 3:42 pm
August 31, 1967. Judy Garland performs on Boston Common

August 31, 1967. Judy Garland performs on Boston Common. Boston Globe reported crowd at 100,000.

 

Published in Boston Spirit Magazine, May/June 2013

Here’s one:  Judy Garland, Anthony Perkins and Liberace walk into a bar…

The bar was Charles Trafton’s place on St. Botolph Street, one of the most colorful and storied after-hours places in Boston. Through the years, it attracted sailors and stars, including Judy Garland, Liberace, Anthony Perkins, and a slew of bartenders and theater people who just did not want to go home.  For sheer stamina, Trafton was without peer.  Alone, he ran the illegal operation from his kitchen seven nights a week from the mid-1940s to the early 1990s.  The Boston police, to whom he made payments, raided him regularly, but perfunctorily.

Charles Edward Trafton was born in New Hampshire around 1913 and moved to New York City in the 1930s to become a dancer and chorus member.  At a little over five feet tall and reed-thin, Trafton resembled a sprite with wavy blond hair and large blues eyes.  He soon found steady work performing in operettas and dance productions along the Eastern seaboard.  He met and briefly roomed with actor Gene Barry, when they performed in Rosalinda and The Merry Widow.  The night of January 24, 1944, must have glowed for Trafton as he and Barry opened in Rosalinda, produced by Max Reinhardt, at the Schubert Theatre in Boston.   The History Project, Boston’s LGBT archive, has a rave review of that night’s performance.

What led Trafton to retire from dancing in the mid-1940s to open an after- hours bar is unknown.  As an ex-dancer, he may not have had other marketable skills.  An after-hours operation allowed him time and money to attend opera productions and plays in Boston and to earn a steady income while socializing with fellow gay people.  By all reports, Trafton was a unique character who created a world that adjusted to him and not the other way around.

Not everyone liked Trafton.  He was opinionated and grandiose.  Bill Conrad, who worked at many local gay bars in the 1970s, recently recalled their falling out. “I don’t even remember what it was over. It was kind of too bad because we had a lot of interests in common.” Jeffrey Miller, who worked at the 1270 disco and runs the “1270 Boston” Facebook page, saw a kind side.  He recalls Trafton taking gay men into his rooming house and lending them money.  “He took in lost souls and looked after people.”

During World War II, Trafton acquired a townhouse of single rooms at 124 St. Botolph Street where he rented only to gay men, according to his friend, Stephen Nichols. His bar patrons sat at a long oak table in the kitchen, listening to opera and Broadway show tunes (Trafton strictly controlled the music). The entrance was in the back alley where a row of trashcans were lined up near the door (to some, Trafton was known as “Charley Trashcan,” much to his disapproval).  Early on, patrons were mostly sailors and theatre people.  Later, when gay bars sprang up in the 1970s, Trafton’s clientele was mostly staff from The 1270, Sporters, and Buddies.

In a recent phone conversation, Nichols recalled meeting Trafton for the first time. “I was a doorman at Sporters and Trafton came in one night with Jimmy Boynton and Michael Buckley. Buckley talked like Tallulah (Bankhead), a real flamboyant queen.  He says to me, ‘Stephen dahling, I want you to meet Charles Trafton.’ There was this diminutive man, in his 60’s with wavy white hair and those thyroid eyes that looked like they would pop out of his head. He had this flowery shirt, open to the navel. He extended his hand to be kissed, saying ‘charmed to meet you.’ I was 26 at the time and I thought, this is a hoot.”

According to Nichols, Trafton ran a tight ship.  “Your hands had to be on the table. If you came in with a date, you couldn’t hold hands or put your arm on his shoulder.  And no kissing.  Charles would always say, “Don’t fool around. We don’t do things like that here.”

Not everyone obeyed, however.  When Liberace  (Lee to his friends) came to Boston to perform about once a year, he would arrive at Trafton’s with a “pretty boy.” “Charles would tell Lee not to grope his friend and keep his hands above the table but he never listened. One time Lee got so sloshed, Charles had to put him to bed. He let Lee sleep it off until 8 am and then put him in a cab back to his hotel. Charles said after a performance, Judy Garland would go to the Napoleon Club and then to his place. Tony Perkins liked to dance at a gay club and then went to Trafton’s.  They all got sloshed.”

When Trafton first told Nichols about his famous patrons, Nichols made the mistake of expressing skepticism.  Out came a photo album with pictures of the stars sitting at the very same table where Nichols sat.  “Do you recognize the sink, do you recognize the table, (pointing to Garland) do you recognize her,” asked Trafton.

One night there was a knock at the door.  “Charles always knew it was the cops because they knocked instead if using the door bell.  All of the drinks were put away.  He opened the door, in walks a young cop.  Obviously, they knew each other and the cop says, ‘Oh, come on Charley,’ as if to say where are you hiding the drinks?  So, Charles said to us, ‘I’ll get my coat. Hold down the fort, I’ll be back.’ He was sashaying back into the kitchen within 90 minutes and said, ‘I’ll have to raise my drink prices for a month’ (to make up for the payment he had made).”

For all his individuality, perhaps Trafton was not much different from other gay men of his era.  He kept a low profile in the straight world but let loose within the safety of his bar.  “Charles loved the spotlight incognito.  In his kitchen, he was the center of attention, but on the street he wanted anonymity,” says Jeffrey Miller.

By the late 1980s, Stephen Nichols had quit drinking and hadn’t been to Trafton’s place in several years.  They bumped into each other at the old Star Market in the Prudential Center in the early 1990s. “He (Trafton) was looking fragile.  I told him the only reason I had not been in to see him was because I stopped drinking and went to bed early.  He told me to come on over anyway, just call ahead.  The man was one of a kind. He was up and serving right up to his final illness.  We won’t see anyone like him again.”

Rudy Kikel: Boston Poet Who Influenced How A Generation Saw Itself

In Boston Individualists, Hidden History, History, Reading, Writers on March 2, 2013 at 1:51 pm

DSC_0192Published in Boston Spirit Magazine January/February 2013

Before gay rights, there was gay writing.  Author Christopher Bram wrote recently that “the gay revolution began as a literary revolution.”

In Boston, no gay male writer has had more influence or staying power than poet, Rudy Kikel. Publishers Weekly called his work “in the tradition of Oscar Wilde, stylish, elegant, and clever.”  In 1992, Kikel won a Cultural Achievement Award from the Greater Boston Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance. In 1997, he won the Grolier Award for poetry.  He has published five books of poetry and edited two collections.

Kikel’s work is autobiographical and strikingly personal.  While gay men recognize themselves in the details (cruising, coming out) Kikel also addresses universal themes: school, dates, parental relations and finding one’s own path.  His poems are so accessible, it is easy to miss the double meanings and careful structure.  For example, in “Show Dancing,” Kikel reveals how he and an ostensibly straight member of his college fraternity, often ditched their dates early in the evening for quiet encounters together.

…(dates) had been deposited

at their homes, talks in the blue

sedan would ensue, during which

Bob’s hands would be innocently

called into play upon your

person — or your nerves — as on

a musical instrument…

Kikel’s poems consist of alternating lines of seven and eight syllables.  The lines roll along with ease of sound and meaning but the small variation in syllables prod the reader to look deeper.  Critic George Klawitter has dubbed these metered lines, “kikels,” in Rudy’s honor.

Although not overtly political, Kikel’s poems fostered an emerging gay identity. Scholar Michael Bronski met Kikel in the late 1970s.  Bronski stands by a statement he made in a 2004 interview, “…while other people who saw themselves as artists were adamant in always distancing themselves from any political movement, Rudy saw his art as part of – I don’t know whether he’d use this word – part of the enormous upsurge of gay literature.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1942 of immigrant parents, Kikel came from a family of outsiders.  His parents came from Gottschee, a tiny province in what is now Slovenia.  Gottscheers are a distinct ethnic and linguistic group whose dialect resembles medieval German.  Over the centuries Gottschee was invaded by Turks, occupied by Napoleon, and swallowed up by Yugoslavia.  This outsider perspective served Kikel as a gay poet.

After attending Catholic schools, Kikel entered St. John’s University in Queens, NY in 1960. On the outside, he was a conventional student majoring in English.  He joined a fraternity and had a girl friend.  But on weekend nights, he frequented gay bars in nearby Jackson Heights and on Long Island.  It was around this time that he brought his sister (his only sibling) to a gay bar called the Hayloft.  He wanted to introduce her to his other life.  When she saw Rudy kiss another boy, she cried and ran out of the bar.  Later, she called him a “faggot” in front of their parents who had no idea what the word meant.

After college, Kikel earned a master’s degree from Penn State and in 1975, he completed a PhD in English from Harvard. He taught at Suffolk University for a short time but disliked it and soon quit.  He moved to an apartment on Charles Street on Beacon Hill where he became the building’s superintendent, while he wrote poetry.

For Kikel, the 1970s were filled with bars, sex, and dinner parties.  He was still writing and hanging out with other writers.  Kikel still recalls the night he attended a party on Beacon Hill at which the late writer Paul Monette, famously met his future partner Roger Horowitz.  (Monette wrote about the meeting in Becoming A Man: Half A Life Story). As they left the party, Monette turned to Horowitz and said, “Welcome to the rest of your life.”

By 1983, Kikel was ready for a change.  He wanted to move to New York City to be closer to family and to ramp up his sex life at the clubs along the Hudson, including a favorite, the Mineshaft, which even by the standards of the time, was notorious.

But as Kikel prepared to leave, local entrepreneur, Sasha Alyson asked him to stay.  Allyson was starting a gay weekly newspaper focusing on local news from a mainstream progressive perspective.  The other gay paper in town, Gay Community News, founded in 1973, had a national focus with a militant tilt. Alyson’s newspaper became Bay Windows, New England’s weekly GLBT newspaper, which will turn 30 years old this year.  Allyson ultimately convinced Kikel to remain in Boston, a decision Kikel says may have kept him from succumbing to the AIDS epidemic that took many lives, including his lover Craig Rowland who died in 1991.

Alyson, who now lives in Southeast Asia, recently recalled a brain storming session with Kikel about the naming of the new paper. “(Rudy and I) looked through a list of words and phrases associated with Boston and came upon “bay windows.”  Kikel argued that in addition to being a familiar Boston architectural element, “bay windows” suggested multiple views on Boston’s GLBT community.  The name stuck.  Kikel served as the paper’s arts and entertainment editor for many years.

Slowed by illness in recent years, Kikel’s sense of humor is undiminished.  When asked where he met his husband, Sterling Giles (they married in February 2012), Kikel eyes brighten and he laughs quietly, “We met on the Esplanade about 25 years ago – during the day!” Long seen as a night time gay cruising area, the Esplanade runs along the Charles River.  Life in the shadows was never for him.

John Mitzel Isn’t Going Anywhere

In Boston Individualists, Hidden History, Reading, Writers on September 9, 2012 at 4:23 pm

By Mark Krone

(Article originally published in September/October issue of Boston Spirit Magazine)

Owner of One of the Last Gay Book Stores in America Presides Over Small Intellectual Kingdom on South Street

For gay bookstores, these are the last days of disco.  Legendary outlets such as Lambda Rising in Washington DC, A Different Light in San Francisco, and the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York have all closed. But in downtown Boston, on South Street, Calamus Book Store stubbornly remains open. “As long as I am here, this will be here,” says owner John Mitzel.

When it comes to post-Stonewall gay activism in Boston, John Mitzel was there. He was there at the first organizing meeting of Gay Pride in 1971.  He was there at the beginning of gay publications such as Fag Rag and Gay Community News.  And there, too, when gay people turned to the courts in 1978, establishing the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD). He was also an early author of books primarily for the gay market. His new collection of short stories, Last Gleamings, on friends he lost to AIDS, will come out this fall. Considering his impact on gay Boston, Mitzel should be better known.

On a recent afternoon, Mitzel, 64 is sprawled on a burgundy futon sofa just below the store’s window.  He is wearing his signature police officer’s uniform, shirt with shoulder epaulets, black tie with tie clasp, dark blue pants, and black oxford shoes. His white hair is combed back, parted on the left side.  As customers descend the few steps into the store, the first thing they hear is Mitzel’s voice, deep and precise. He sits facing the main book display that features selections for the serious reader, an Edmund White novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend stands next to Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws, a look at post World War II gay writers.Scattered throughout the store are large photography books with iconic male beauties looking at distant horizons or longingly at each other.  In a small corner at the back of the store, where coal was once stored, the porn section is shelved. Mitzel is holding forth on subjects from the recent legal fight over the late philanthropist Brooke Astor’s estate to Boston’s wrenching busing wars of the 1970s. One of the few rules at the store is, don’t interrupt Mitzel.

Raised outside Cincinnati, “a beautiful city but very right-wing”, Mitzel’s parents divorced before he reached his teens.  Both parents went on to marry two more times. In high school, Mitzel was popular and his grades were good.  He had every reason to expect a bright future. There was however, just one problem.  He began disappearing on nights and weekends, often returning in the early morning hours. At first, his mother was puzzled.  She soon decided to hire a private investigator, who informed her that John was going to gay bars and bus stations and picking up men. Determined to halt his nocturnal activities she decided to forcibly admit him to a mental hospital.  A distraught and confused Mitzel sought out the hospital psychiatrist assigned to him. “I asked him, why am I here? He said, ‘Well, obviously your mother does not like you being homosexual.’  If you were queer back then, psychiatry and institutionalization was very standard.”  Mitzel was institutionalized twice more that year until finally, he ran away from home, moving to Boston in 1965.

In 1968, Mitzel was drafted and had to return to Cincinnati.  As he stood in his underwear with several dozen other men, he was handed a questionnaire that included the famous line asking about homosexual tendencies — not asking if you were a homosexual — but if you had homosexual tendencies. “I thought, clever writing — someone had read Kinsey.”  Mitzel checked the box “yes” and was promptly sent to the psychiatrist.  “So I sat down in his office, and crossed my legs. I tried to do my best Natalie Wood impression.  And he said, ‘You have homosexual tendencies.  Are you actively homosexual?’  And I looked at him and flirted with my eyelids, and said, ‘Not as active as I’d like to be.’ He laughed and said, ‘You’re 4-F Freddy.” Deemed unfit for service, Mitzel was free to go. It was one year before the Stonewall uprisings. “It was good timing because Judy Garland died six months later and the gay revolution started.  I didn’t want to be off in Danang shooting Vietnamese.”

Mitzel enrolled at BU, where he studied with Howard Zinn, among other professors. He attended a Student Homophile League meeting there in 1971, where he met gay scholar Charley Shively. Mitzel and Shively both believed that the Boston gay community needed newspapers. They co-founded the radical newspaper, Fag Rag in 1971.  “We published political essays, manifestos, movie and book reviews, and lots of poetry.”

Mitzel, Shively and David Peterson (co-founder of Gay Community News) and several others organized the first Gay Pride March in 1971. “The first (Pride) meeting occurred in one of our apartments in the Fenway.  After Stonewall happened in New York, the idea of doing a march in Boston was in the air, but we were the only radical gays in town; no one else was going to do it. The route began at Jacques because the lesbians demanded clean toilets in gay bars. Then it moved to the State House for obvious reasons and over to Police Headquarters (then on Berkeley Street) and finally to St. Paul’s Cathedral.”

In 1973, Mitzel, along with two other Fag Rag writers, Steven Abbott and Tom Reeves, snagged an interview with Gore Vidal.  Mitzel sent a Fag Rag up to Vidal at the Ritz where he was staying. “He gave us an hour and we interviewed him in the (Ritz) Café; it was fun. I’ve communicated with him over the years.”

The Vidal interview came in handy several years later when in 1978, Mitzel helped arrange an appearance by the famous author at a fundraiser for the Boston-Boise Committee.  The committee was created to defend a group of gay men arrested at the Boston Public Library bathroom for illegal sex acts they did not commit. The Boston-Boise Committee spawned two organizations with very different reputations, according to Mitzel: the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), a group that lends legal support to members of the LGBT community and the National Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA).  “It was a little yin and a little yang,” says Mitzel, flashing a covert smile.

In the 1980s, Mitzel was a projectionist at the South Station Cinema, the first gay porn movie house in Boston. “Some people slept there, others played. It was both recreational and residential.” One night, a man came in wearing a mink coat.  He had a heart attack and somehow his coat was left in the theater. The next day, his wife stormed into the theater demanding the coat.  She was more interested in the coat than what her husband was doing in the theater. Time in the projection booth allowed Mitzel to write.  He’s written 10 books, nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and short stories.

Still on the sofa, Mitzel and a customer talk about Sarah Schulman’s latest book, Gentrification of the Mind, as customers, mostly men with graying or white hair, trickle in to the store to browse.  Most are not buyers.  “In the first few years, sales increased steadily but not anymore,” says longtime Calamus employee, Brian Gale.  According to Mitzel, the decline is not all due to the Internet. “I lost a whole group (of customers) to AIDS. They’d come in and were curious about everything – and they’d buy books on everything. That reading culture may be gone.”

But the Internet’s effect on retail sales generally is undeniable. For young people, the convenience of the electronic market place has rendered going to a bookstore to buy a book akin to churning their own butter. But when a book store closes, gone too, are the book signings by authors you admire, community meetings, chance encounters, or exposure to the distinct personality of the store’s owner, who rules over an intellectual kingdom, where customers take refuge from life’s boredom and brutality. If Calamus Book Store closes, there will be no app for what’s been lost.

Bulger Update. File Under: You Won’t Read this Anywhere Else

In Boston Individualists, Criminals on July 1, 2011 at 9:02 pm

Revere Beach. Wikimedia Commons Image. Photo: Luciof

I bumped into someone this evening who offered a surprising view of Whitey Bulger, the reputed South Boston gangster.  This individual, who shall remain nameless, spent a considerable portion of life on both sides of the law.  When a drinking and drug problem pushed a wretched life even lower until nights were spent sleeping on the beach in Southie, Bulger made his approach.  With no strings attached, he paid for a room and urged my acquaintance to a renewed commitment to sobriety.  It worked.  To this day, all is better — much better.   As I walked away, I heard my acquaintance say, ” I cannot judge him.”

Still, the man who allegedly killed 19 people will be judged in a court house in South Boston not more than a mile from that beach.

Bulger’s Boston is Gone Baby Gone

In Boston Individualists, Criminals on June 24, 2011 at 11:53 am

South Boston High School. Bulger attended but did not graduate.

It’s impossible to avoid the news that local gangster, Whitey Bulger, was arrested in Santa Monica yesterday.  I was listening to the radio at 5 a.m. when the BBC reported it. I came downstairs and one of the people I am staying with was already up.  The third person, who grew up in South Boston, was still asleep.  I wrote “Bulger caught in L.A.” on a piece of paper and passed it under his door.  In a few minutes, he came out holding the paper, saying “I got an alert on my phone last night.”  So, he already knew.

We three sat around the TV watching images of his cozy, rent-controlled, hideaway a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean.

Bostonians interviewed on TV said they would not have recognized the aging Bulger if they saw him on the street.  But I don’t think Bulger would have recognized Boston either.  The city he terrorized is gone.  Gone baby, gone.

In the past few years, the seamy side of Boston has provided fodder for a string of movies.  It is not a side I am that familiar with.  I do know that the city is no longer the atavistic, inward, suspicious place it was when I moved there in 1975. Through the movies, the city is becoming famous for being a place it no longer is.

Sometime around 1995, Boston opened.  It could finally make eye contact with the outside world.  Race relations were better as first Mayor Raymond Flynn and then Mayor Tom Menino, provided the healing leadership missing in years past. Economics played a big roll, too.  Gentrification pushed working class rivals out of the city while those who remained, were the ones less parochial, less fearful.

Busing had inflamed racism in some but not all of Southie’s residents.  It was never the racist place it seemed.  Politicians and gangsters like Bulger, played on fears that were more economic than anything else.  The irony was that the drugs, suicide, crime, and unemployment that was eating away at Southie were doing the same to the  predominantly black neighborhoods of Roxbury and Mattapan.

In 2008, I was in a car driving down Broadway, the main street in South Boston, and saw a giant poster on a building, “Obama-Biden 2008.”  I did a double tack.  A poster for a black candidate, even the Democratic nominee, was unthinkable in that spot just a decade before.  Times had indeed changed.

When Mayor Menino was asked his reaction to Bulger’s arrest, he congratulated the FBI and other agencies and said, “He’s arrested.  Let’s move on.”

The Fens: Then and Now

In Boston Individualists, Hidden History on May 30, 2011 at 11:29 am

A Frederick Law Olmstead creation, the Fens is a marshy park a mile from downtown Boston. The Fenway neighborhood which got its name from the park, is comprised of college students, longtime residents, and the Red Sox.   According to an article on Boston.com, Olmstead came up with the name, “Fens” because he wanted people to think of it as a place to see, rather than a place to use, according to an article on Boston.com.  Parks are for running around, frisbee, and walking dogs.  As a verdant, marshy area, The Fens is more of a vegetative tableau vivant.

What is not stated in this article is at least as interesting as what is.

For generations of gay men (and on occasion, their bashers), the Fens has had a different connotation. It is a well-known meeting place for men looking for sex with other men.  The tall reeds that invaded the park years ago, provide them with that most elusive urban amenity, privacy in a public place. Now, the city plans to irradicate the reeds and along with it, a slice of social history that remained hidden just as it did in this article — in a public place.

The irradication effort makes sense since what is meant to be seen is now clogged with reeds that grow like crab grass.  A greater acceptance of the gay community may make public assignations less urgent.  Is the use of the Fens in this way a relic of a more closeted society?  Time will tell.

James Allen, Highwayman, Who Bound His Memoir in Human Skin

In Boston Individualists on May 27, 2011 at 12:13 am

James Allen’s memoir of his days as a highwayman is one of the rarest books in the rare book collection of the Boston Athenaeum, America’s oldest private membership library.  The one man who fought back when Allen attempted to rob him was John Fenno.  This impressed Allen so much that he asked to have a copy of his memoir bound in skin from his own back and presented to Fenno.

But is this true?

Yes, within the past several years, the Library had a visitor:

The interpretation always accepted here has been that the highwayman’s own skin was used (as the book binder). This belief has recently been confirmed in a striking manner. A visitor to the Athenæum a few months ago announced himself as the son and namesake of one George Arnold, who did cataloguing work at this Library some ninety years ago. The visitor’s grandfather, Peter Low, had come to Boston from London, where his father and grandfather were in the book business. Here he was engaged in bookbinding, for the Old Corner Book Store and other clients. The grandson relates the story that the skin used for binding Walton’s book came from Massachusetts General Hospital on the very day of his death. Walton was a Jamaican mulatto, and the skin, taken from his back, had been treated to look like a gray deer skin. Peter Low had not realized at first the precise nature of the material placed in his hands. By the time his day’s work was done, however, he was in great distress of mind and nightmares filled the night that followed.

–Boston Athenaeum Website