Neolithic Gay History

Some months ago I started reading a book by Jim Downs called “STAND BY ME, The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation,” Basic Books, 2016. I was touched that a guy probably born around 1980 found it important in 2005 to research gay history from the 1970’s—and was amused that he considered that decade “ancient” gay history.

Of course, I’m even older than ancient, having come out for the first time in the Stone Age (1961). I wrote about that period in my second novel, DIVINE DEBAUCH. When I came out for the second time in 1970, which is the subject of my second memoir (in progress), it was essentially the Neolithic epoch.  The 1980’s were actually our “ancient” history.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I have to say that for me the 1970’s were hardly as wild, sordid, intellectual, political, or stylish as what the author described, largely in New York, Toronto, and San Francisco. In Washington DC where I lived, things were almost conventionally civilized.  Since Downs wrote, “I wanted to show how the 1970s was more than a night in a bathhouse,” I really hoped he would describe the kind of gay culture and community that I experienced.

He didn’t. Not a word.  But then I suppose that’s because there was no documentation of our liberated lifestyle in newspapers or magazines.  To make up for that deficiency, I’ll point out the rather detailed outline of those years in this site’s Life section (Courtesan). It’s going to be the basis for my planned third memoir, which I’m now thinking of as “The Faerie Castle.”

That memoir will center on a splendid Victorian house at Logan Circle:

Logan Circle in the 21st Century

In this picture, the little red arrow indicates where the house sits at 1320 Rhode Island Ave NW. When I lived in it in the 1970’s there were many fewer and smaller trees. We called the house the Four Belles for the stone carving of four hands ringing bells over the front door—and for us several gay belles who lived there.  In our time, the corner with 14th Street was the epicenter of the slum, but nowadays it’s turned into the epicenter of the chic area of upscale shops and fancy restaurants. Sic transit gloria!

1320 Rhode Island Avenue NW and the Centennial chandelier

In the photo there’s a copper ball on the peak of the roof which I salvaged from a house the city tore down on 6th Street for “urban renewal.”  The drawing (by famous architectural artist Robert Miles Parker), was done before I snagged that detail.  My friends and I lived there in splendor, as shown by our chandelier in the dining room—which was Baccarat crystal and came from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a Centennial gift to the US from France (along with the Statue of Liberty)!  I still have two of the crystal prisms hanging on my porch here in Santa Fe.

The Four Belles was an almost infamous center of DC’s gay society in that decade. Virtually daily we held sumptuous dinners in our grand dining room with perhaps a dozen guests and frequently hosted parties and costume balls.  Gay people of all artistic, political, and social persuasions passed through our “salon.”  A few years ago I ran into a fellow who well recalled having gone to a spectacular dinner party there.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember him…

My best friend and “sister” from the early 60’s at Tulane, Charles Herrington, was the true Queen in our faerie castle who presided over the banquets and salons. A major official with the National Register of Historic Places and an incomparable raconteur, Charles was a force of nature who attracted crowds of gay men into our circle (and bedded many of them).

Charles Herrington, 1976

Meanwhile, I was a sluttish Princess, or courtesan if you will, entertaining admirers in my sky-lit jungle suite on the third floor. Apart from such romantic activities, I also worked in an opera organization, salvaged architectural details from doomed Victorian houses, and was very active in the Circle’s community association. In the latter respect, I’m most proud of having saved a beautiful beaux artes apartment building, the Iowa, from the wrecking ball.

The Iowa, designed by T. F. Schneider

My other major accomplishment was translating Tchaikovsky’s opera “Maid of Orleans” for the Canadian Opera Company to sing in English. (See:  Another rather large whoop.)  A neighbor from the big white house on the Circle, Lewis Kleiman, took my press photo for that occasion:

poster art for Canadian’s “Joan of Arc” and translator Richard Balthazar

But to return to my courtesan activities, besides a parade of short-term suitors, I entertained a series of long-time admirers, most of whom were married or otherwise partnered. I was quite comfortable with always being “the other woman.”  There was the Panamanian mulatto Giovanni Gonzales (who had both a lover and a wife); the Vietnamese soldier and war hero Lai Minh Chi (who left me to marry a woman); the Arts Endowment official Jim Ireland (whose friendly lover apparently never suspected); and the museum administrator Guy McElroy (whose lover probably knew all about me).

Guy McElroy, 1979

As an epilogue to this tale of gay life in the Neolithic, for all I know, Giovanni and Chi may still be alive in DC. But I lost contact with Jim, who went “into the field” to work with opera companies and recently deceased.  While visiting me in New Mexico in 1985, Guy had an auto accident which paralyzed him; in that condition, he curated a show at the now-defunct Corcoran Gallery and then passed away.  In 1979, on the other hand, my alter-ego Charles lost his magnificent mind (went manic-depressive in that era of unmanageable lithium), and brought the fabulous world of the Four Belles to an end; after many years of suffering, he succumbed to AIDS in 1992.  And I’m now an unbelievably old man in comfortable retirement in Santa Fe.

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