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Marie Equi: Her Fight for Women’s Equality

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2017 at 9:48 pm

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Article originally published in Boston Spirit Magazine, Dec. 2016.

Marie Equi wasn’t supposed to amount to much. Born in 1872 to immigrant parents in New Bedford, a Yankee city on the decline, Marie’s future was limited at best. There were two routes to a decent life for most immigrant girls then: marriage or education; Marie was not a promising candidate for either. Her teachers thought her intelligent but unruly and she had never shown the slightest interest in the opposite sex.

Under these circumstances, Marie looked forward to a harsh life in the textile mills and a mundane home life living with her parents and/or siblings. But that’s not how it turned out. Not at all.

Marie Equi went on to become a homesteader in the Far West, a medical doctor, out lesbian, labor activist, suffragist, and one of the most significant reformers of her era. How did it happen and why has such a great American story not been told? Fortunately, public historian Michael Helquist’s recent book Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions rescues her from oblivion. Equi now takes her place in the pantheon of LGBTQ heroes.

As a child, Marie suffered from tuberculosis which got so bad, she was sent to family friends in Florida to recover. She was a good student at New Bedford High School, forming her first significant female attachment with a teacher, Mary E. Austin. Austin may have been the first person outside of her family to sense Marie’s dynamic combination of energy, restless intelligence, and charisma. But like other working class girls, Marie was soon forced to drop out of high school to work in the textile mills where she experienced firsthand the dehumanizing drudgery of the work. She also saw how unsafe it was, as the factory air was so thick with floating cotton fibers that workers sometimes vomited cotton balls at the end of their shifts.

But Marie’s capacity for friendship was about to save her. Betsy Bell Holcomb was a high school friend from a well-off New Bedford family, who had been impressed with Marie’s intelligence and charm. Betsy was a Wellesley College student who took Marie on as a project and was determined to see her get a chance to attend Wellesley, too. But after a stint at Northfield Seminary for Girls (now Northfield Mount Hermon School) to prepare for college, Marie was forced to return to New Bedford as she could not afford the tuition. At 19, Marie Equi was at a crossroads.

It must have shocked Betsy Bell Holcomb’s family when she dropped out of Wellesley before graduating and moving to Oregon to homestead a piece of land. But that is exactly what she did and before long, she wrote to Marie, urging her to come out West and join her. Without hesitating, Marie joined Betsy in The Dalles, Oregon in September 1882.

At first, life was good on The Dalles, which was a town at the end of the Oregon Trail. The women lived as a couple and attempted to make a go of it as farmers. Betsy supplemented their income by teaching in town. Early on, it was clear that had both a fiery temper and a strong sense of justice. Betsy Bell Holcomb had taught at the local private academy run by a shady character named O.D. Taylor. When the end of the school year came, Holcomb had still not received her final salary of $100. The women went to Taylor’s office and demanded payment. Equi even threatened to horse whip Taylor in the middle of the street if payment was not made. A fight ensued and Taylor was restrained by men on the street while Equi “reigned blows” on him. Most onlookers cheered as Taylor’s reputation as a double dealer was well known.

Equi’s relationship with Holcomb combined with her relocation to The Dalles had given her a new-found confidence. She was no longer just an immigrant’s daughter. It was around this time, that she decided to become a medical doctor.

Equi established her medical practice in Portland, Oregon in 1905. She soon distinguished herself as a doctor, especially for women, for whom she performed a range of services, including abortions in a clean, safe setting. Oregon was a center of the Progressive and Suffragist movements. Equi soon met Abigail Scott Duniway, the leader of the Oregon Suffragist movement. Though some activists thought Duniway moved too slowly and quietly, Equi admired her and the two became friends.

When the San Francisco Earthquake struck in 1906, Equi, along with many other Portland medical professionals rushed to the stricken city to help in relief efforts. Her reputation as a humanitarian grew when her work in caring for a dozen pregnant women, new mothers, and babies, in the immediate aftermath of earthquake hit the newspapers. It is entirely possible that the first babies born in San Francisco after the earthquake were delivered by Marie Equi.

Equi soon met and fell in love with a young wealthy women, Harriet Speckart. The relationship did not sit well with Speckart’s mother.  Equi became embroiled in a legal case involving Speckart’s inheritance. Her mother charged that Harriet was under the spell of Marie Equi. Despite her mother’s disapproval, Speckart was Equi’s longest relationship and they eventually adopted a child named Mary. Speckart did most of the child rearing, while Equi’s medical work covered the expenses.

Other women also figured in Marie’s life and she never hid or denied the nature of the relationships. Even when Equi was called “mannish” or “an unsexed woman,” she never backed down.

Over the years, Equi never forgot her early life in the New Bedford mills. She championed a variety of causes including the eight-hour day,  the right to organize a union, and an end to child labor. But her primary cause was women’s suffrage. In 1912, Equi saw Oregon women gain the right to vote when a state referendum passed 52%-48%. It was the sixth Oregon referendum on Suffrage, the previous five having failed.

On the eve of World War I, Equi denounced American involvement. She was charged with sedition and spent ten months in prison at San Quentin State Prison. Her daughter Mary said that her mother was never the same after the imprisonment. Free speech was a protected right only if you agreed with the war effort.

At the end of her life, when she checked into a hospital in 1950, Equi received 13 red roses from local longshoremen who remembered when she had spoken out for them. Her friend Julia Ruutttila wrote of Equi: “Fighter and friend to valiant end/ our champion to revere and defend.” Equi died in 1952.

Recently, in thinking about Equi’s life, the book’s author, Michael Helquist said, “Lots of people struggle with obstacles that leave them feeling discouraged and alone. I hope they recognize in Marie Equi another outsider…(who) made progress by not giving up.”

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F. Holland Day: the Boston Art Photographer History Forgot

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2016 at 11:07 pm
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Fred Holland Day

February 1882

South Station, Boston

If seventeen year-old Fred Holland Day (1864-1933) had a hero in this world, it was Oscar Wilde. They both loved of the poetry of John Keats, whose death at such a young age only heightened the romance of his work. They believed in beauty for its own sake; art needed no moralistic message or advanced artistic technique to justify it. And both were enthralled by the male form. How was Fred to know that on a wintry Boston afternoon in February 1882, he would meet his idol in South Station? Casting himself in the third person, Day wrote about the chance meeting ten years later:

“…he approached the Unapproachable, and …requested the Sun’s God his autograph. The Great One looked down upon the youth with that sunny smile so often and cruelly maligned as ‘incubating,’ and taking the pencil, slowly traced his name in calligraphy rather more curious than his appearance. The gates swung open and the throng (along with Wilde) passed through.”

Wilde was in Boston to give a talk. His reputation for delivering insults wrapped in literary velvet had preceded him. But this time the joke was on Wilde. On that winter evening, 60 Harvard students came to hear him speak at the Music Hall on Winter Street (now the Orpheum) in downtown Boston. The Lowell Daily Courier reported that “all were in knee-breeches and black stockings.” Each carried a sunflower and affected a far-off gaze. They were mocking Wilde and he knew it. The Harvard Crimson reported that at one point, Wilde glared at them saying, “Save me from my disciples.”

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Day plays the role of Christ in The Last Three Words

Just ten years after the chance meeting in South Station, Day would sit in Wilde’s London study, tea cup in hand, not as a nervous acolyte but an equal. He’d become a leading book publisher, collector, and art photographer. He was well-known in art circles on both sides of the Atlantic. Day’s rise was fast but his most productive years were no more than a decade (1895-1905). More recently, his reputation has improved but only after many decades of silence among art historians. Why did this seminal figure in art photography and book publishing, sink into obscurity? Another question suggested but never answered in Day’s biographies since his death: was he gay? Just who was this artist, obscured by time yet central to the history of photography?

Author Estelle Jussim has called Day “a slave to beauty” but if he was, it was the only thing he was enslaved to. Day was born a wealthy Boston Brahmin and lived a life of wide choices and free thinking. The mild reticence expected of Bostonians of his class was mostly ignored by Day in favor of the personal expression that made his work seem scandalous then and groundbreaking now. Still, he kept his sexuality to himself. Day may not have wanted to make the same mistake his idol, Oscar Wilde, had made, the one that ultimately cost the famed playwright’s life.

Fred’s father, Lewis Day, a prominent Brahmin businessman, owned cattle ranches and leather companies. Although he was successful, Lewis Day passed none of his interest in industry to his son. The senior Day was often called away to tend his business enterprises, allowing Fred’s devoted mother, Anna, to raise him. When he was around Fred, Lewis Day was supportive and warm. As Fred was Lewis and Anna’s only child, he received all of their attention. While some historians have called his Anna “domineering,” others took note of her unusually progressive attitudes towards immigrants and African-Americans, which she passed on to her son. Anna took the democratic teachings of her Universalist faith seriously and her son inherited her world-view to great effect in his later work.

The Day’s home in Norwood, 23 miles southwest of Boston, was the center of their lives and always a touchstone for Fred. The family had an apartment on Boylston Street in Boston and Fred would later have studios there and in London but Norwood was always home.

In 1879, Fred’s mother, Anna became sick and was ordered to travel to Denver to recover in the fresh mountain air. Fred, a teenager, accompanied her. In Denver, he met Americans who were Asian and Latino for the first time, broadening his perspective. He purchased Chinese painting supplies and became fascinated by Asian-American art, which became a lifelong passion.

With his mother recovered, Fred returned to Boston, where he enrolled in the Chauncy Hall School (then located in Boston, now called Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School in Waltham). Fred was popular and his love of art and the artistic life was tolerated among his fellow upper-class peers. In his senior year, he embarked with fellow students on a European tour which included England, Ireland, Switzerland, Italy and France. He sent articles on his travels back home to the Norwood Review. Upon graduation, Day won a gold medal for best scholarship in English literature. This would be the end of his formal education.

Instead of following most of his friends to Harvard however, Day took a desk job in a book publishing company at the urging of his father, who thought his son’s high-flung artistic interests needed leveling. The working world did not alter Fred’s love of art or beauty but he did put the experience to good use when he later founded his own publishing house, Copeland and Day.

At 22, Day began taking photographs, mostly of the homes of local authors, thereby combining his two passions: books and photography. His early pictures were taken in dim gaslight which required his subjects to hold their poses for long stretches. The availability of electric light was not widespread until after World War I but wealthy families began using electricity for lighting as early as the 1890s. The evolution in lighting from gas to electricity influenced Day and other early photographers, opening the way to Pictorialism, which created satiny, dark, photographs.

When Day was 22 in 1886, he met Louise Guiney, who would quickly become his closest friend. They shared a love of literature and art, especially the poetry of John Keats. Though he published just 54 poems in his short life, Keats was a beacon to young romantics like Day and Guiney even though he had died 70 years before. Day and Guiney were part of the fin-de-siècle generation who reacted against the growth of sprawling, impersonal, cities, unchecked capitalism, and the bulldozing of forests. They wanted to reclaim what they saw as a more spiritual past when the accrual of money was the not main object of life. Over time, Day’s less orthodox religious outlook allowed him to experiment with art photography in ways Louise Guiney, a staunch Roman Catholic, could not always accept. An example of Day’s lighter attitude towards religion was a plaque he mounted over a door to his Beacon Hill apartment: ”This is the Day the Lord Hath Made.”

Another pivotal relationship in Day’s life was his friendship and business partnership with Herbert Copeland, described by Jussim as “a well-educated, debonair, sophisticated young bachelor,” though other accounts mark him as ineffectual and a drunk. They shared an interest in books and art. But there were marked differences, too. Copeland was probably not as smart as Day, nor as hard working.  Still, their partnership created one of the most respected publishing houses at the time. Between 1893 and the year it folded in 1899, Copeland and Day published about a hundred books by authors that included Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Later, Copeland became an alcoholic, often borrowing money from Day. Like Day, Copeland was almost certainly gay. He had relationships with men that he called “intimate.” In a letter to Day, complaining about a relationship with a married man, Copeland wrote, “I was desperately taken with him at first sight, and deliberately laid myself out to catch him…before I knew he was married.”

Day was famous for befriending young men from the slums of Boston. The most famous of these was poet Kahlil Gibran. He was generous financially and by all accounts, treated Gibran well. Another young man Day met was an Italian immigrant living in Chelsea whom Day used in his photograph, St. Sebastian. The boy was well aware of his good looks and the effect they had on both Day and his old friend Herbert Copeland who also knew him. When Copeland visited him, the boy’s mother, who did not approve of her son posing for the men said icily, “It’s very good of you Mr. Copeland to take such an interest in (my son).” The boy interrupted saying, “Nobody can help taking an interest in me, can they Mr. Copeland?”

In The Seven Last Words of Christ, Day uses himself as the model of a crucified Jesus with “Roman soldiers” looking on from below. He starved himself over several months to look the part. He purchased garments that matched those from the period. Even his father, on business in Florida, promised to buy large nails for the cross, if he could find them.

It’s difficult to know how to take the image. Is it a reverential reenactment of one of the most sacred moments in Christianity? Or is it an attempt at an homo-eroticized version of a central event in a religion that had condemned queer people? One suspects it is a little of both. Adrienne Lundgren, a senior photograph conservator in the Conservation Division of the Library of Congress, thinks it is not a reenactment of the crucifixion of Christ but a kind of performance art intended to elicit a response from the viewer. In short, it is art, not history.

The New York pioneering art photographer, gallery owner, and art critic, Alfred Stieglitz, began noticing Day’s photographic work in the middle 1890s. Steiglitz had founded The Camera Club and turned its newsletter, Camera Notes into the most influential publication on photography at that time. In some ways, Camera Notes took the place of the old art academies that dictated which artist’s works would be selected or left out of annual shows. If your work was in Camera Notes, you were good. In 1903, Camera Notes evolved into a full-fledged magazine called Camera Work, which was the authority on photography until it folded in 1917. Both Stieglitz and Day were proponents of photography as art. But Day was not as interested in following the methods of great painters as was the New York group of photographers that surrounded Stieglitz. When Stieglitz copied Cubist painters by making Cubist photographs, Day ignored it.

Perhaps it is inevitable that Stieglitz and Day would become competitors. When Day felt shut out by Stieglitz, he responded in kind with icy silence. This would prove costly. When Day refused to have his work featured in the first issue of Camera Work, it spelled the end of their relationship and may have been the worst professional move of Day’s life. He could not have known the status that Camera Work would earn through the years as the arbiter of great Pictorialist work. This is the major reason why Day is too little remembered today. As Priscilla Frank pointed out in a 2012 Huffington Post article, before artists Cindy Sherman’s multiple personalities or Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic images, there was Fred Day. It is long since time to base the position of Day’s work on more than his exclusion from one journal over 100 years ago.

By 1925, both of Fred’s parents and his close friends, Louise Guiney and Herbert Copeland had died. Now, Day spent long stretches of time upstairs in his bedroom at the house in Norwood. His last years were spent in increasing seclusion. Fred Holland Day died at 69, on November 12, 1933.

Was Day a gay man? We can’t know for certain but most everything points to it. He was unmarried and aside from his chaste friendship with Louise Guiney, all of his important adult relationships were with men. He used attractive young men in his photographs, befriended young men from Boston’s slums throughout his life. We know that his business partner, Herbert Copeland shared his interest in young men. His literary heroes were Oscar Wilde and Honoré de Balzac. The former carried on a public affair with a young man which was his ruin and the latter included gay characters in his realist fiction.

The 1890s were not a time for public pronouncements on sexual desire. But that didn’t mean Day was without desire.  Maybe it was better, more artistic, to remain silent. After all, his hero John Keats, wrote: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter…”

 

On the Cusp of Liberation

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2015 at 12:41 pm
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Sporters bar, 1960s. Bob McHenry (sunglasses) and friends enjoy an evening out in Boston. Image: History Project.

LGBT Voices From the 1960s

In memory, each decade has its own gallery of pictures. Think 1960s: long-haired protesters on Boston Common, young women dancing with flowers in their hair, and across the river, the sound of drums and the sweet scent of reefer on Sunday afternoons on Cambridge Common. These images flash like news footage that gets a little grainier with each passing year.

The fragile blend of euphoria, idealism, drugs and death, which defined the hippy period, was not very long. By the time the flower children arrived in San Francisco’s Haight–Ashbury neighborhood in the Summer of Love, the decade was more than half over. Much of what we associate with the 1960s occurred in the following decade.
For the first three years – until November 22, 1963 – the prevailing ethos was still button-down and conformist. The disillusion that had boiled beneath mainstream notice for years was unleashed on that afternoon when President Kennedy was assassinated. The nation mourned its president but if the majority white, heterosexual culture had known what was coming, it might have mourned its unquestioned dominance, too.

Imagine: an entire era ended in one day and nobody knew it.

For some, this new moment meant unwanted turmoil; for others, including queer people, it was a chance for liberation. Like other members of their generation, Bill Conrad and Helaine Zimmerman took tentative steps out of the closet early on, but by the end of the decade, they had found a community. In 1969, the Stonewall Uprising was the seed that fell on a ground made fertile by people like them.

Freshly discharged from the Army in 1961, Bill Conrad, returned to a welcome-home party in Somerville thrown by his family. At 22, lean, with dark Irish looks, Conrad should have been excited about entering gay life in Boston. But he knew no gay people in his hometown and felt lost. In Berlin, Conrad had come out, dating “a beautiful German boy.” He had also made a life-long friend of another gay soldier, Carl Banks, who had more experience in the gay world. When Conrad was about to be discharged, he asked Banks how he could break into gay life when he got back home to Boston. “There were no (gay) newspapers back then. No list of gay bars. I knew nothing of gay life in Boston. Carl told me to just go downtown where the department stores were and find a gay man. I was to follow him because sooner or later, he would go to a gay bar and I would be there to see where it was.”

The morning came, and Conrad headed downtown. Sure enough, he found his man. “This queen must have hit every department store in town. I was following him in and out of stores. He was walking with all these shopping bags down Cambridge Street and entered what looked like another store, but when I got up close, it had no name.” It took Conrad a few minutes to get up the nerve to walk through the nameless door. Once inside, he knew it was a gay bar. “It was Sporters and the bartender was Bob White,” who went on to run and own several bars in town. Conrad was home. A few years later, White hired Conrad and he worked at Sporters for many years. Over the next 30 years, Conrad was a fixture in the Boston bar scene working and managing at Sporters, 1270, Buddies, and Bobby’s.

In the early 1960s, Sporters was subject to police raids every couple of months. “They’d come in and line everyone up against the wall. The youngest cop would question us, ask for IDs and call us “faggot” and other names. It was scary. If you didn’t have ID, they’d arrest you and put your name in the paper.” For many men, this meant being fired from their jobs and even evicted from their homes.

Helaine Zimmerman, a social worker in the Boston area for 50 years, spoke to the History Project in 1995 about living in Boston as a lesbian in the early 1960s. (Zimmerman was the aunt of Boston Spirit Magazine publisher, David Zimmerman. She passed away in 2013.) In 1959, Zimmerman spent a year in Greenwich Village, where she danced, made out with girls, and partied all night. But intimacy with women never went further. There was a line that she was reluctant to cross. “I figured that if I could keep it contained, I was safe. Everybody that I knew who was out, was saying ‘if you’re straight, try to be straight.’ In those days, even some out lesbians, according to Zimmerman, saw being gay as “a terrible lifestyle. They just didn’t see any future in it at all.”

In 1960, Zimmerman returned to Boston to get serious about her career and life. “I decided I would get back on the right track. I was on the wrong track in the Village, hanging out with women, going to the bars until five o’clock in the morning. I got a job at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.” Since she didn’t know any gay people in Boston, Zimmerman figured the “lesbian stage” of her life was over. For a few months, things went as planned; Zimmerman settled in at her job and began dating some men she knew in high school.

“One night, I went to the Charles Playhouse with a friend and we were upstairs in a lounge and I saw people walking downstairs and they were gay. And I (thought) this is interesting, so I excused myself and said I was going to the ladies room. I went downstairs and opened the door and there were all these ‘Mafia’ guys standing there. I said I just wanted to take a peek. Well, that was the Midtown. There were hundreds of gay people in there and I thought, now I am really sunk. I knew I’d go back. I went back the next night.”

The Midtown welcomed men and women. Zimmerman described the lesbian scene as “very defined, either you were a butch or a fem.” She did not really identify with either but when she was confronted by a “butch” who asked what she was, Zimmerman said, “Well, since I have shorter hair then my friend, I guess I am butch.” According to Zimmerman, working class and poor women were more likely to classify into the strict roles of butch or fem then middle or upper class women. Since Helaine and her friends did not fit into either category, “the butches called us ‘the Beacon Hill crowd’ because they didn’t understand us.”

Like Sporters, police sometimes paid a visit to the Midtown. “They used to flash the lights in the bar when the police came in. You had to switch partners (on the dance floor) in one second, woman to man. It was always touch and go about the cops coming in and raiding the place.”

By the late 1960s, the sheer number of Baby Boom queer people made them more visible on Boston’s streets and clubs. At Sporters, the police raids stopped and it became the place to be. Recalls Conrad, “Sporters was perfectly positioned to attract the gay college crowd. MIT and Harvard were a few stops away on the Red Line. It was packed seven nights a week. It was really my home during those years… For me 1965-75, were the best years at Sporters.”

By 1964, Helaine Zimmerman had moved away from her family in Newton to an apartment on Beacon Street. It was at this time that she had her first romantic relationship with a woman. It lasted five years. “I still didn’t tell most people. I never told my parents (that I was gay).” Zimmerman did not come out at work until 1987. “People don’t realize it was a very different time.”

In the mid to late 1960s, Zimmerman and her friends went to Vicki’s and Cavana’s, two lesbian bars on Tremont Street with tough reputations. “Vicki would sit on a high stool and survey the crowd for troublemakers. The customers could get out of hand in a hurry. At the drop of a hat, they’d throw a beer bottle.”

In looking back, Zimmerman wondered what ever happened to the “butches” she met in the bars. “When Somewhere opened, I thought I’d see them. But I never saw them in there and never saw them in the Saint.”

House parties were an important place for socializing in the 1960s, especially for lesbians. They offered fun without the scrutiny and potential danger of the bars. Zimmerman attended parties hosted by women in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain and Cambridge. My friend Alice would say, ‘I’m having a party with all the fags and the dykes…’ and we’d just dance and it was hilarious. There was a real camaraderie …there wasn’t a separation between the men and the women. I loved it.”

Zimmerman missed the old days when people danced instead of dined. After a pause, she said, “the world got more serious, don’t you think?”

Penny Arcade

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2014 at 1:06 pm
Penny Arcade

Penny Arcade (photo: pennyarcade.tv)

December 31, 2014

Tonight, Auld Lang Syne (roughly, for the sake of old times) will be sung in pubs, parties and in, God help you, Times Square. It’s all a bit maudlin but this message is about the future and how one person totally remade herself in order to be herself. On this New Year’s Eve, I give you Penny Arcade.
“I am just coming into my own now,” she says. “What I’ve realized is that at 60, if you had a rigorous inquiry into your life, then you get to start all over again, as if you were 20, but this time raised by you — your values, your ideals, you!”
Penny Arcade was an original from the get-go. She and a few of her friends left their home in New Britain, CT and visited Provincetown.  This was the mid-60s.  She was 14.  At the end of an eye-popping and fun weekend, her friends jumped back into their car and called to her to join them to return home.  She yelled back, “I’m staying.”  No money, no place to stay.  For the next 5-6 weeks, she slept on porches and in doorways.
And even though she was 14, homeless, broke and living in P-Town (where she had hung out with John Waters and others) she wanted more.  Still broke, she moved to the East Village. How was she so brave, careless, self-sufficient and risk-taking, I wonder?
 
By the 1980s, she was a well-known performance artist and writer. She had acted at the legendary Theater of the Ridiculous and at Warhol’s Factory.  
Since she has just begun anew at 60, I look forward to seeing what else she has in store for a society in need of nonconformist creation.
So, a toast to Penny Arcade on this New Year’s Eve.

Gay Life in 1940s Boston

In Uncategorized on November 16, 2014 at 11:23 pm
Wellesley House Party

Wellesley House Party 1940s/Courtesy: The History Project.

Published in Boston Spirit Magazine

What was it like to be queer in 1940s Boston? It’s impossible to fully capture the diverse experiences of LGBT people at any given time, much less a decade as momentous as the 1940s, but by reaching into the archives of The History Project, Boston LGBT archive, we can get a glimpse into the lives of five people who lived in a place and time that is at once familiar and alien.

The South End in the 1940s was a densely populated neighborhood of bars, restaurants, cheap hotels, and rooming houses. Prostitutes mingled with bookies at joints like the Junee Café (“When It’s Thirst, Come Here First”). On Washington Street, you could take in a floor show at the Hoffman Grill, which specialized in the “Finest Italian American food.” In was perfect for anyone who wanted to live anonymously.

Charles Gautreau stands in front of his mirror over the sink in his room in the New York Streets area of the South End. He applies mascara and lipstick, puckering his lips and widening his eyes, he slowly turns into his drag persona, Thelma. Charles shares the room with another man, Peter Seifried, whose drag name is May. They have trouble paying the meager rent and often spend what money they have on drinks and makeup. One time, they got so hungry, they captured a swan in the Public Garden and attempted to cook it in their room until the landlady found out and stopped them, or at least that is how the story went. If life was not easy, it could at least be glamorous with just the right touch of make-up and attitude.

Thelma and May liked to promenade up and down Tremont and Washington Streets, looking for men. Sometimes they ventured to the bars in Scollay Square but their bars were Playland and The Empty Barrel on Broadway in Bay Village. One night, a drunk man on Castle Street, asked May for a light. Two nearby undercover police officers jumped out from behind a lamppost and arrested May on suspicion of solicitation. While in jail, she was also charged with armed robbery. May had no involvement in the robbery and after providing an alibi, was released.   From then on, she believed the police were out to get her.

During this time, James Lord, aged 20, had just arrived at the Army Specialized Training program at Boston College where he was ordered to study everything related to France: its language, culture, history, and customs. This was not hard duty for an intellectual like Lord. As a young gay man, he was also delighted to explore the pleasures offered by World War II Boston. A friend told him about the bar at the Statler Hotel (now Park Plaza). “The lobby was long and high, expensive and gold-plated, busy with war-time visitors. The friend recommended that Lord book a room and then proceed to the bar and pick someone up. ”It was packed with servicemen, several rows deep, standing along the crescent-shaped bar, too many to count…Crowded tight together, jostling back and forth, not one lady…among them.” When he squeezed into the bar, a sailor turned to Lord and said, “Hey, cutie, you must be new. I could blow you out of the water.”

Jean S. knew she was a lesbian but still she was “very naïve in those days.” She joined the WAC, an auxiliary corps of the Army, and was stationed at Fort Devens. She was then assigned to the Boston Army base and lodged at the Franklin House in the South End, which served as a barracks. “My commanding officer turned every head at the Boston Army base – 5’6”, curly blond hair, cute as can be and a smart cookie. She played around but she had a partner in Georgia.” Jean and her fellow WACS frequented a bar Bernstein’s, a few blocks away. Even though she knew there were other lesbians in the detachment, she did not cruise them or get cruised by them. “You just didn’t at this time. You just wouldn’t make reference to it.”

Preston Claridge, scion of a Mayflower family stood in his Harvard dorm room, knotting his tie. Everyone at the party he was invited to that evening in Wellesley would be gay and he was excited. “I always thought being gay was fun.” His friend Bernard, an older man, gave “tea parties” in which scotch was served to his gay friends and visiting servicemen. “It was there I danced with a beautiful young blond sailor named “Veronica,” because of his Veronica Lake style of hair falling over one eye.”

Claridge later attended a party at the Copley Plaza for sailors from the Baltimore, a ship stationed in Boston Harbor. There were about 40 Marines assigned to the Baltimore and Claridge estimated that between him and his friends, they slept with 90% of them. “”Once they discovered they could get a little cash and free food…they seemed to fall all over themselves to meet us.”

Cruising continued along the paths on Boston Common during the war. Then, as today, encounters did not always turn out well. Headlines in The Midtown Journal, a South End scandal sheet, announced, “Down Maine Man Meets Buddy on Common. Loses Bankroll, Pants, and Confidence.” Another one: “Lonesome Man 23, Beats Friend for $3 In Snatch From Drawer in Room.”

——————————————————————————————————

Whatever happened to Thelma, May and the others portrayed here?

Thelma and May’s story was serialized in The Midtown Journal in the early 1940s, by writer and publisher, Frederick E. Shibly. According to Libby Bovier of The History Project, Charles Gatreau (Thelma) later worked as a housekeeper for gay bar owner, Phil Baione. The Midtown Journal’s serialization claims that Peter Seigfried, (May) was accidentally killed in Detroit soon after moving there from the South End. Preston Claridge served as an assistant headmaster at a private school for many years. The late James Lord became an art critic and author and was friends with Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and Picasso. Jean S. and her partner Louise Y. (names withheld at their request) became successful photographers in Boston. Louise worked at Bachrach Studios and with legendary photographer, Bernice Abbott.

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.”

Election Eve Poem

In Uncategorized on November 8, 2012 at 9:43 am
ELECTION DAY

You rabblement. 

Who answered the call of a thousand filthy posters
on darkened lampposts
In Peking and Manchester
In Berlin and Minsk.

Railroad Jobs!!!

You rabblement.

Who followed your uncles and cousins
On icy grey seas to Tammany’s City
Only to end up sewing buttons on dresses 
from dark to dark. 
Your enemies: fire and locked doors.

You rabblement.

To speak of it, to think of it.
Lined up in the hull of ships. 
Yes, like sardines. Fatigued silence.
Shocked by waking up alive. 

You rabblement.

Who offered nothing to a new nation.
But yourselves. 

Vote. 

Mark Krone
November 6, 2012

 

As Appropriations Dry Up, Arts Infrastructure Is Dismantled

In Arts Funding Cuts, Uncategorized on November 17, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Published in Chronicle of Higher Education November 14, 2011

Municipalities across the country have slashed arts education in schools. Many have wiped it out completely. Small community arts organizations have valiantly attempted to replace what schools used to provide.

In some towns, a children’s community theater program replaced drama classes, while a community music center replaced the middle-school band. While these local arts organizations often received private support, they depended on state and local grants. But now this funding is also drying up. In many communities, there is nothing to replace eliminated school arts programs.

In the U.S., public funding for the arts is done mainly by the states. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies reports that arts appropriations by all state agencies amount to $0.96 per person.

Though arts appropriations are much too small to affect budget shortfalls, politicians repeatedly target the appropriations anyway. In the year ahead, Texas plans to reduce its arts budget by 77 percent; Wisconsin by 67 percent. Kansas will eliminate arts funding altogether. Even New York, with an economy that is driven by culture, will cut funding by 12 percent.

Since National Endowment for the Arts statutes don’t allow a state to receive a distribution without an arts budget, Kansas will receive no appropriation from the NEA either, leaving the arts without a penny of public support in that state.

Over all, the arts-agencies organization reports that “legislative appropriations to state arts agencies are expected to decrease by 5.8 percent (nationally) heading into fiscal year 2012.” It may not sound like a lot, but “between 2011 and 2012, state arts agencies’ funding will drop by a projected $15.9-million.”

On the federal level, the NEA doles out about half as much money as do the states. In 2011, the NEA was appropriated $155-million by Congress, approximately $0.49 per person. The NEA plans to reduce its annual request by 11 percent in anticipation of increased Congressional hostility. When total state and federal arts appropriations are combined, they come to about $1.45 per person. Since they have a negligible effect on overall budgets, we question whether any cuts to arts funding are wise at time when economic activity is slackening.

Nonprofit arts organizations should be viewed as what they are—small businesses that incubate new enterprises such as theater companies, cultural centers, and performance spaces. These in turn support a multitude of ancillary jobs in local businesses, including design firms, restaurants, and shops of all kinds. Arts organizations keep local dollars local.

These cuts strike at the heart of who we are. Our national and local arts infrastructure, painstakingly built over the last few generations, is being dismantled. We urge you to protect it by contacting your elected officials.

Benjamin E. Juarez
Dean

Mark Krone
Manager, Graduate Admissions

College of Fine Arts
Boston University

Busy Monsters — Hot Even Before It’s Published

In Uncategorized on July 21, 2011 at 6:57 pm

As I write, it’s 95 degrees at 6:53 PM.  I mention this because I read the passage below while waiting for the bus this afternoon in the dizzying heat.  I laughed out loud.  When you laugh out loud in such heat, something needs to be said about the book that made you do it.

It’s Busy Monsters by William Giraldi and it won’t be published until August.  The Boston Phoenix excerpted a few pages in its current issue which is where I read it.

Here is the passage:

STUNNED BY LOVE and some would say stupid from too much sex, I decided I had to drive down South to kill a man. Gillian and I were about to be married and her ex-beau of four years, Marvin Gluck — Virginia state trooper, boots and all — was heaving his psychosis our way, sending bow-tied packages, soilsome letters, and text messages to the bestial effect of, If you marry that baboon I’ll end all our lives.

I, Charles Homar, memoirist of mediocre fame, a baboon?

The Business Plot To Overthrow Franklin Roosevelt

In Uncategorized on July 18, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Robert Sterling Clark. Image from clarkart.edu.

When President Franklin Roosevelt spoke of the forces of wealth alligned against him, it was not just campaign rhetoric.  In 1933, a plot was hatched by powerful Wall Street insiders to ease Roosevelt from power in favor of a fascist-friendly administration.  A Congressional Committee, headed by Congressman John McCormack (who later became Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives) later verified that the plot was real.

The post below is from huppi.com.

In the summer of 1933, shortly after Roosevelt’s “First 100 Days,” America’s richest businessmen were in a panic. It was clear that Roosevelt intended to conduct a massive redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. Roosevelt had to be stopped at all costs.

The answer was a military coup. It was to be secretly financed and organized by leading officers of the Morgan and Du Pont empires. This included some of America’s richest and most famous names of the time:

  • The plotters attempted to recruit General Smedley Butler to lead the coup. They selected him because he was a war hero who was popular with the troops. The plotters felt his good reputation was important to make the troops feel confident that they were doing the right thing by overthrowing a democratically elected president. However, this was a mistake: Butler was popular with the troops because he identified with them. That is, he was a man of the people, not the elite. When the plotters approached General Butler with their proposal to lead the coup, he pretended to go along with the plan at first, secretly deciding to betray it to Congress at the right moment.

What the businessmen proposed was dramatic: they wanted General Butler to deliver an ultimatum to Roosevelt. Roosevelt would pretend to become sick and incapacitated from his polio, and allow a newly created cabinet officer, a “Secretary of General Affairs,” to run things in his stead. The secretary, of course, would be carrying out the orders of Wall Street. If Roosevelt refused, then General Butler would force him out with an army of 500,000 war veterans from the American Legion. But MacGuire assured Butler the cover story would work:

    “You know the American people will swallow that. We have got the newspapers. We will start a campaign that the President’s health is failing. Everyone can tell that by looking at him, and the dumb American people will fall for it in a second…”

The businessmen also promised that money was no object: Clark told Butler that he would spend half his $60 million fortune to save the other half.

And what type of government would replace Roosevelt’s New Deal? MacGuire was perfectly candid to Paul French, a reporter friend of General Butler’s:

    “We need a fascist government in this country… to save the nation from the communists who want to tear it down and wreck all that we have built in America. The only men who have the patriotism to do it are the soldiers, and Smedley Butler is the ideal leader. He could organize a million men overnight.”

Indeed, it turns out that MacGuire travelled to Italy to study Mussolini’s fascist state, and came away mightily impressed. He wrote glowing reports back to his boss, Robert Clark, suggesting that they implement the same thing.

If this sounds too fantastic to believe, we should remember that by 1933, the crimes of fascism were still mostly in the future, and its dangers were largely unknown, even to its supporters. But in the early days, many businessmen openly admired Mussolini because he had used a strong hand to deal with labor unions, put out social unrest, and get the economy working again, if only at the point of a gun. Americans today would be appalled to learn of the many famous millionaires back then who initially admired Hitler and Mussolini: Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, John and Allen Dulles (who, besides being millionaires, would later become Eisenhower’s Secretary of State and CIA Director, respectively), and, of course, everyone on the above list. They disavowed Hitler and Mussolini only after their atrocities grew to indefensible levels.

The plot fell apart when Butler went public. The general revealed the details of the coup before the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, which would later become the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. (In the 50s, this committee would destroy the lives of hundreds of innocent Americans with its communist witch hunts.) The Committee heard the testimony of Butler and French, but failed to call in any of the coup plotters for questioning, other than MacGuire. In fact, the Committee whitewashed the public version of its final report, deleting the names of powerful businessmen whose reputations they sought to protect. The most likely reason for this response is that Wall Street had undue influence in Congress also. Even more alarming, the elite-controlled media failed to pick up on the story, and even today the incident remains little known. The elite managed to spin the story as nothing more than the rumors and hearsay of Butler and French, even though Butler was a Quaker of unimpeachable honesty and integrity. Butler, appalled by the cover-up, went on national radio to denounce it, but with little success.

Butler was not vindicated until 1967, when journalist John Spivak uncovered the Committee’s internal, secret report. It clearly confirmed Butler’s story:

In the last few weeks of the committee’s life it received evidence showing that certain persons had attempted to establish a fascist organization in this country…
There is no question that these attempts were discussed, were planned and might have been placed in execution if the financial backers deemed it expedient…

MacGuire denied [Butler’s] allegations under oath, but your committee was able to verify all the pertinent statements made to General Butler, with the exception of the direct statement suggesting the creation of the organization. This, however, was corroborated in the correspondence of MacGuire with his principle, Robert Sterling Clark, of New York City, while MacGuire was abroad studying the various form of veterans’ organizations of Fascist character.
Needless to say, the survival of America’s democracy is not an automatic or sure thing. Americans need to remain vigilant against all enemies… both foreign and domestic.

Major players in the business plot:

  • Irenee Du Pont – Right-wing chemical industrialist and founder of the American Liberty League, the organization assigned to execute the plot.
  • Grayson Murphy – Director of Goodyear, Bethlehem Steel and a group of J.P. Morgan banks.
  • William Doyle – Former state commander of the American Legion and a central plotter of the coup.
  • John Davis – Former Democratic presidential candidate and a senior attorney for J.P. Morgan.
  • Al Smith – Roosevelt’s bitter political foe from New York. Smith was a former governor of New York and a codirector of the American Liberty League.
  • John J. Raskob – A high-ranking Du Pont officer and a former chairman of the Democratic Party. In later decades, Raskob would become a “Knight of Malta,” a Roman Catholic Religious Order with a high percentage of CIA spies, including CIA Directors William Casey, William Colby and John McCone.
  • Robert Clark – One of Wall Street’s richest bankers and stockbrokers.
  • Gerald MacGuire – Bond salesman for Clark, and a former commander of the Connecticut American Legion. MacGuire was the key recruiter to General Butler.



Sources:
Jonathon Vankin and John Whalen, The 60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time (Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1997)
Jules Archer, The Plot to Seize the White House (New York: Hawthorne Books, 1973)
George Seldes, Even the Gods Can’t Change History (Secaucus, N.J.: Lyle Stuart, Inc., 1976)
John Spivak, A Man in His Time (New York: Horizon Press, 1967)

“I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match.”

In Uncategorized on July 15, 2011 at 10:25 pm

FDR. Wikimedia Commons image.

In the New York Review of Books blog, a July 7, 2011, entry by Ronald Dworkin states the current case very well regarding Obama vs. congressional Republicans.  And he  does so by quoting FDR speaking on the eve of his first re-election campaign in 1936.

Obama’s careful patience and mature stance in the face of GOP intransigence is probably good politics with independents whom he is determined to carry.

But I’d like to hear more passion from him. Dworkin points out that FDR won re-election by the largest margin in history.

Reading these words by FDR’s feels like someone just opened a window letting in a lakeside breeze.

For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up. We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred. I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

–President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Madison Square Garden, in 1936

Finlandia (variation)

In Uncategorized on July 4, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Kern County, CA, 1937. Photo: Dorothea Lange

This is my song, oh God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine.

This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine; but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.

But other lands have sunlight too and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

This is my song, thou God of all the nations; a song of peace for their land and for mine.

Words: Many variations exist.  This one is by Lloyd Stone.

Music: Jean Sibelius

This performance is by students from Kearsney College (high school level in U.S.) in South Africa.

Knots

In Uncategorized on July 2, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Are politicians and Wall Streeters the only ones still wearing ties?  If so, they may come to signify people you can’t trust.

Russian President Demitri Medvedev favors a full windsor knot.  Very full.  A knot that fat has not been seen in the United States since Dustin Hoffman portrayed Carl Bernstein in All The President’s Men.

President Obama and French President Sarkozy favor the moderate half-windsors.

While Ryan Seacrest represents the Mad Men craze by going non-windsor.

Friendships Lost; Windham’s Legacy

In Uncategorized, Writers on June 22, 2011 at 10:01 pm

In 1939, a Greyhound bus pulled into New York City, dusty from its trip north from Atlanta.  On board was Donald Windham, a young man of 19, full of literary ambition and gifted with the ability to befriend important people with astonishing speed.

Within two years of his arrival in New York, Windham was hired as an assistant by the brilliant Lincoln Kirstein for his magazine, The Dance Index,  and was collaborating with Tennessee Williams on a play, You Touched Me.

Windham seemed to know “everyone” in literary circles from Gore Vidal to Truman Capote, E.M. Forster, and Alice B. Toklas, among many others.

As a writer, he worked hard during his first 15 years in New York, yet got little published.

In 1962, Windham’s short story collection, The Warm Country, was published.  Three years later, a novel, Two People, was published to poor reviews, perhaps due to its gay theme.  It was not until he began publishing his memoirs, mining adventures with famous friends, that he received warm notices.  But not all of his friends were happy.  When Windham published Tennessee Williams’ Letters to Donald Windham, 1940-1965 in 1977, the great playwright cut all ties.  (Information mostly from Windham’s New York Times obituary by William Grimes.)

Windham died in 2010.  He and his partner, Sandy Campbell, who died in 1988,  left a substantial gift to Yale University to fund literature prizes.  Campbell and Windham were together since 1943.

The Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes will be funded by the estate of American writer and memoirist Donald Windham, who died in May of 2010 at the age of 89. Seven to nine grants will be awarded each year starting in late 2012 or early 2013, and each grant will be worth $150,000, making the prizes some of the largest in English literature.

The program will award seven to nine $150,000 prizes annually to recognize both established and promising writers in fiction, non-fiction, and drama. Poetry may be added as a fourth category at a later time. Windham did not attend college, and therefore his will stated a particular interest in ensuring that writers who are not connected to an academic institution are included for consideration.

According to his will, Windham also wished to ensure that the prizes would be substantial enough to enable each recipient to spend a full year writing, unencumbered by financial concerns. —Yale Daily News

Where He Learned To Read

In Uncategorized, Writers on June 12, 2011 at 3:24 pm

The End by Salvatore Scibona

If like me, you had a series of mind-numbing jobs in your teens and twenties, you might like Salvatore Scibona’s piece in the current New Yorker (June 13 & 20 2011).

Before I was 22, I had been a bus boy, waiter, bartender, doorman, janitor, Christmas tree salesman, delivery boy, movie theatre usher, bellman, messenger, dishwasher, elevator man, and cashier.  Like Scibona, I had no clear career path but I daydreamed about a lot of careers:  actor, politician, radio personality, writer, singer, baseball player.  I’d fantasize about hitting a grand slam out of Yankee Stadium, as Mickey Mantle, near retirement,  stood at home plate waiting to congratulate me.  Other times, I pictured myself striding toward the podium at the Americana Hotel in midtown Manhattan to declare victory in my race for mayor.  I’d graciously thank my opponent who I said, had fought a “spirited campaign.”  Leaving the ballroom, I’d wave, enjoying the grudging respect of hardened street reporters and the adoration of volunteers.  Finally, I’d turn and kiss my….that’s where the daydream ended.  I didn’t have a wife and the chances were not good that I’d ever have one.    All of this danced in my mind as I scraped crust off dishes or wrapped prickly Douglas Firs for delivery on Christmas Eve.

Scibona writes of his journey from KFC worker to student of the Great Books at St. John’s University, but his story is not so much that he was saved from menial jobs.  Education, especially a classical one,  offered him a chance at a romantic life, lived for ideas, not for a wage.   Intellectual curiosity and menial jobs are more compatible than some people think.  While you are allowing muscle memory to pay the rent, your thoughts are as free as summer mustangs.

Salvatore Scibona’s New Yorker story