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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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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

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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]