BREAKING FREE – Gay Life Before the Plague

Recently I’ve come to see my aged self as a writer of history, as a witness to and reporter on ancient gay history before the Plague. I just wish folks would take time to read what I’m writing.

Gay life in the 50s, 60s, and 70s of last century has only been nominally covered in coming out novels, erotic tales, and a few historical studies, mostly about the pivotal Stonewall Riot in 1969. Now I’ve fortunately found a 2018 book “TINDERBOX—The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation” by Robert W. Fieseler, another pivotal event that played a role in my life in the early 70s.

My own eye-witness reports on gay life in those decades before the Plague appear in my series of autobiographical novels and memoirs. I started writing 35 years ago about an unconsciously gay adolescent in 1957, and right now I’m into the unusual life of a mature gay man in 1976. The 25 years in these volumes span a sea change in gay life, and I was right smack in the middle of it.

My writing (fiction, memoirs, non-fiction, poetry, and plays), is all (with one exception) posted for free download on this website, and I watch the history of downloads closely to see how often they might get read. Every hit is a cause for jubilation and gratification.

I truly rejoice when somebody deigns to look at my short story, “Traveling Men,” or my play, “The Special Case,” and I cheer brave readers along from one memoir chapter to the next. Some download the whole text, but others just take a chapter at a time, some naturally getting more readers by simple virtue of their titles, like “Getting Naked” or “Hotter Than the Dickens.”

My book most frequently downloaded is “MS. YVONNE, The Secret Life of My Mother”—maybe because she was a survivor of Hurricane Katrina.  (It includes my own childhood, so is marginally relevant to gay history of the 40s and early 50s.)

The erotic chapters mentioned above are in my first novel, “BAT IN A WHIRLWIND,” about that unconsciously gay adolescent in the late 50s. This book, which downloads maybe twenty times a year with chapters a few times a month, is a look into the Stone Age of gay history.

My own coming out story, “DIVINE DEBAUCH—Chronicles of a Dissolute Youth in the French Quarter,” is about a newly fledged faerie named Tommy carousing in sailor bars in the early 60s. This is the exception mentioned before. At the moment it’s only available from an online publisher. Its webpage gets hits on the link, but there’s been no indication of any sales for some years… Really too bad—it’s a fascinating look into the Mesolithic Age of gay history.

My first memoir, “THERE WAS A SHIP,” about that wild faerie getting coerced back into the closet as husband and father, is downloaded a few times a month, both as a whole and as chapters. Right now some brave soul is moving through it, having just finished “Double or Nothing” and picking up “Honeymoon.” A going-back-in story, it portrays the heavy hand of homophobic society on out gays in the Neolithic mid-60s.

My recently posted memoir, “LORD WIND,” has been looked at so far only as occasional chapters, not necessarily in logical order. The past couple weeks I’ve been amazed by the huge number of downloads of its “Prelude” (a summary of my closeted marriage in the later 60s), sometimes as many as six times a day! I hope this surge will lead to another for its first chapter “The Jaguar.” The tale of my second coming out in the gay Bronze and Iron Ages of early 70’s, be warned that “LORD WIND” contains many graphic sex scenes.

And now we come to my memoir-in-process, “GAY GEISHA,” about the gay Golden Age of the 70s in liberated (and glamorous) Washington DC. Its chapters are now being posted as completed, and to date we’re up to Chapter 12 “Shameless.” (The sex scenes here are mostly handled metaphorically but nonetheless quite graphically.) Washington DC was, of course, at the forefront of history in the exuberant 70s, and I just happened to be right in the gay middle of it.

I’m tentatively considering another volume of memoir set in the early 80s—to wind up my histories with those few Renaissance years before the coming of the Plague, a new chapter that brought much to culmination in my long gay life. A great deal has already been written about the Plague itself, and I fear any reportage on it by me would just be redundant.

As a writer of gay history, I feel like Herodotus who probably wrote his histories without concern for publishing royalties. His upper class family (like me in my privileged retirement), very likely didn’t have to worry about earning a living. Like him, I don’t want to deal with copyrights or selfish issues of intellectual property.

I just want folks to download my public domain work and read it—because I think I’ve got something rather important and special to say about ancient gay history. Anyone who can make a buck by disseminating my work is welcome to give it a shot. Naturally, I’d love to know about any such efforts, and respectful attribution would be nice….  

People, especially our younger folks, need to learn about how their ancestors’ generations broke free from the oppression of straight society. Maybe my scandalous tales can help today’s fortunate youth truly appreciate their precious freedom and liberty to be themselves.  

After all, there’s really no excuse not to read my histories—they’re free!

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Making Lemonade

            Despite historic obstacles, 2020 turned out to be a very successful and productive year for me, both artistically and personally. It started with a celebration for completing Aztec Icon #18 – XOCHIPILLI, the Prince of Flowers on the last day of 2019. I’d first drawn this sun god thirty years ago for my book of days. The black and white icon, infinitely more complicated than this old four-color image, breaks all sorts of Aztec iconographic norms and conventions. Go to the link above to see this iconoclastic addition to the coloring book YE GODS!

Xochipilli – The Prince of Flowers – (God of pleasure, feasting, and dancing)

            On New Year’s Day, 2020 I posted the Flower Prince but still had much to do before adding his icon to my “travelling” exhibition YE GODS! Icons of Aztec Deities. In mid-January I mounted this show of large-scale banners at its seventh venue in a conference center—with the help of a tall French fellow I’d met during its sixth appearance.

            We’d hung the show by January 18 (for my mother’s 101st birthday), and I turned to our trip for the New Orleans Opera premiere of my new translation of Tchaikovsky’s heroic opera JOAN OF ARC on February 2 & 9. My clan gathered for the occasion at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre, and I enjoyed their acclaims, as well as those of appreciative audiences. I believe my linguistic work has turned the composer’s simply inspired piece into a masterpiece.

            By Monday, February 11, I was gratefully back in Santa Fe for my comfortable retired life in my eyrie apartment, my Casa Arriba penthouse high above the world. With a gratified sigh of relief, I slipped back into my splendid routines of writing/drawing, gym, dinners out, and especially the ecstatic dancing on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.

Casa Arriba

            After a couple leisurely weeks, I started on my second memoir, picking up my sordid tale of after marriage when I came out for the second time. Covering the next two traumatic and extremely sexual years of my fourth persona (the HIPPIE POET, footloose and feckless), I pretentiously included my own poetry, a device stolen from “Dr. Zhivago.” My routines and retrospective writing trance held me nicely right up almost to the middle of March.

            In my Mesoamerican fascination, I consider Friday, March 13, 2020 or the Aztec day Four Rain to have been the emphatic end of the Fifth Sun, the Sixth Sun starting on Saturday.  Suffice it to say that Friday the Thirteenth brought enormous turmoil into my life when my gym closed down due to a virus they were already calling a pandemic.

            On March 14, 2020 everything locked down (my show as well), and since then I’ve fortunately been living safely and comfortably in Casa Arriba. The loss of gym, dinners out, and ecstatic dancing has left me with only the splendid routine of writing and drawing. Right away I replaced my gym workouts with walking/running around the nearby track, but I could do nothing about the sauna except miss it miserably. Cooking simply, I didn’t miss restaurant food—just my regular companions at meals. I was driven to solo dancing to radio reggae and salsa in my living room and to sorely missing all the young bacchantes at Paradiso.

            I joked about going into solitary confinement but didn’t really feel that way. I deeply appreciated being made to step away from the world’s sound and fury, to take care of my physical needs simply in solitary peace, and to do my work on my natural schedule without distractions. I found it fascinating to watch my hair grow, now longer than it’s ever been, and I rather like it. Perversely, I didn’t feel lonely, isolated, or confined at all, but instead felt blessedly secluded, a secular anchorite. Six decades later, this new Sixth Sun feels like a confirmation and redemption of my solitary youth in backwoods Arkansas.

            Staying snugly at home (except for walks at the track and to grocery stores), let me focus on the memoir, which I titled LORD WIND, alternating between writing it and drawing on Icon #19 – TEZCATLIPOCA, The Smoking Mirror. By mid-May I’d finished and posted the icon, which went much deeper into the god’s story than this old drawing for the book of days.

Tezcatlipoca – Smoking Mirror – (Lord of the Night Sky)

  And by early June I’d finished the memoir. Rejoicing, I posted LORD WIND on the web as individual chapters or entire text.

           On the urging of my French friend, in June I began conjuring up visions of Tlaloc, the God of Storms, and at the same time started the third volume of memoir, soon entitled GAY GEISHA, about my stylish gay life in Washington DC in the 1970s. Once again, for sanity’s sake, over the next months I switched back and forth between creative processes.

            Meanwhile, a few important things happened in the solitude of October. First, I rode my bike to the Convention Center and voted early against the scumbag, whereupon I put it and its filth out of mind. Next, I finally struck my icon show after nine months’ lockdown—with the kind assistance of my tall grandson. Then, accepting that my life was utterly changed for the foreseeable future, I gave him my little red car and happily became a true pedestrian.

            In mid-November I started posting chapters of GAY GEISHA serially and by mid-December had published eight covering about a quarter of the decade. The switch then back to the icon was for a final push, aiming to finish it by New Year’s. I didn’t quite make it though. Only the other day, almost two weeks into 2021, I finally wrapped Tlaloc up, though he doesn’t look much like my first fanciful drawing of him for that old book of days. Still, that goggle-eye and fangs are standard features.

Tlaloc – (God of Rain)

            Please allow me to count Aztec Icon #20 – TLALOC, God of Storms, as an accomplishment for wretched but productive 2020. (I’ll post it very soon.) I’m tremendously gratified by creating my three icons, memoirs of gay liberation, and the operatic masterpiece.

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My Third Gay Memoir

What with increasing urgency in the Corona virus calamity, it has become clear to me that I’m going to have to change my mode of operation in writing my memoirs. Before, I always waited until a volume was complete before publishing (posting) it on my website—in order to have the luxury of skipping back to earlier sections to add, delete, or tweak the material.

Now that I really can’t predict hanging around on this planet long enough to finish the current (or any future) volumes, I’m going to post chapters serially as they’re completed, adding them to the Table of Contents for individual access. Too bad for second-thought revisions, but that’s how this wretched Covid cookie is crumbling.

Recently writing on Chapter 6 of the current volume, I’ve only just now found the title for this memoir. It’s the registered name for a spectacular variety of iris I used to sell at the Farmers Market a long time back when I was the famous Iris Man:

GAY GEISHA

As I told a dear friend, these two words are the most cogent description I can imagine of who and what I was in the 1970s in Washington DC. My third real memoir (actually the sixth volume in the story of my unique life), GAY GEISHA covers 1972-80, a time of glorious gay liberation, when I lived and graciously entertained gentlemen in a grand Victorian mansion at historic Logan Circle.   

GAY GEISHA provides the dramatic and often lurid details behind that old summary of my fifth persona which I prophetically entitled “Courtesan.” With this posting, I’ll provide now the first five chapters covering my arrival in DC, finding a job and places to live, encounters with old and new paramours, moving into the mansion, our historic neighborhood, sudden social whirl, and a remarkable affair with a friendly neighbor. Shortly, I’ll add the next chapter and forge on from there. (As of 4/19/21, I’ve now posted thirteen chapters covering up to August, 1976.)

To start reading, just click on GAY GEISHA.

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Memoir of My Second Coming Out

Over the past few years I’ve switched back and forth between drawing Aztec icons for my coloring book and writing on my second memoir. At last I’ve wrapped the latter up and have just added it to the growing list of my Writings. Note that I don’t copyright my writing; people shouldn’t have to pay to enjoy my art, graphic or literary. So I post it for free download and avoid noxious commercialism. The more folks to read or see my work the better. Or to do something with it if they so feel like…

LORD WIND is the memoir of my second coming out in Milwaukee in 1970. My first coming out was in New Orleans in 1961 (in the gay Stone Age when we lived in caves of secrecy), and I’ve written about my unusual life as a gay man both in my (semi-fictional) novels BAT IN A WHIRLWIND and DIVINE DEBAUCH and in my first (also semi-fictional) memoir THERE WAS A SHIP. The latter (1964-66), was my scandalous tale of going back into the closet.

Now the purely non-fictional LORD WIND (1970-72), picks up again after years of wedlock when I escaped from my cage—and discovered that gay life had evolved into a (Post-Stonewall) Neolithic Era. As a former French Quarter faerie/slut, and now a divorced father and esoteric scholar of 28, I had to deal with the realities of the strange gay “civilization” and make a new life for myself in it.

Richard Balthazar in December, 1970–newly come out for the second time

No longer an outlaw, I still wasn’t exactly socially condoned, but in the new gay atmosphere of openness and promiscuity, I quickly found romantic/sexual entanglements to complicate life. In those two years I learned a heck of a lot about loving men and several hard lessons in maturity.

I’m trying a new format with this book on the web—for ease of access. The webpage is actually its Title page and chapter list, and each can be directly accessed through its link. No more bulky .pdf files of entire texts. I’ll try to convert the others to it too. Early on I issued each chapter of BAT IN A WHIRLWIND separately in blogposts, so that one will be easy to convert.

Wrapping up this book is a really great feeling for me. With it I’ve now built a four-volume saga (epic?) of my life from innocent adolescent through lascivious, debauched youth and responsible, though philandering, husband to a maybe more mature, but at least way more experienced, gay man of 30. This is gay ancient history according to moi… Now I can start the third memoir covering the 70s in Washington DC. In many ways that decade was a Classic Age of gay life and DC an epicenter, and I was right in the middle of it.

However, before I write a word of it, I’ve got to make some good progress on the next icon (#20) of the God of Storms, Tlaloc. While on that subject, you’ll notice that I simply had to use my drawing of Ehecatl, Aztec God of the Wind as a most appropriate title image for LORD WIND.

BTW, my YE GODS! Show is still under lockdown at the Ohkay Conference Center. There’s nothing else I can do with it, so why not?

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A Trans Deity

Suddenly I’ve found something dramatic and significant to add to the burgeoning trans phenomenon. As a plain old faggot I haven’t been involved, but I’ve always welcomed the T in our LGBT acronym.  The QA+ETC simply go without saying…

Anyhow, this goes back to that book I mentioned in an earlier post called Chinese Myths and Legends, edited by Jake Jackson. Sorry I can’t give a full citation or authoritative quotes because I gave the book to the library at my grandson’s high school.  After some horrific legends of dragons, monsters, vengeance and murderous arbitrary fury, I was pleased to come upon a very curious legend of the goddess Kwan Yin.

Some may not be familiar with this goddess, who is known and venerated all across the orient and even India. I’ve been collecting her statues/figurines for lo these many and gathering her lore.  Kwan Yin is a complex deity:  goddess of compassion, travellers, sailors, children, motherhood, wisdom and enlightenment.  She’s the female Buddha—who achieved nirvana but declined to go “there” until all humanity can accompany her.  In that respect, I think we should also call her the goddess of patience.  She’ll need it!

Back to the curious legend. It struck me on the reading, but only now have I realized what an important piece of LGBT cultural history it is.  At some time way back in ancient history among the imperial BC dynasties, a virtuous young prince took to the spiritual/religious life and became a nun, who eventually got deified.  That’s right:  The young man became a young woman.  As I recall, the legend didn’t go into any detail about this primordial transsexual process, but he became the goddess.

Representations of Kwan Yin (unless heretical), always show her dressed as a beautiful woman without breasts. Many show her bare-chested, and there are no mammaries there.  Here are six such figures of the legendary trans deity:

The Trans Deity Kwan Yin

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Fictional Truth About Gay History

I’ve been trying to control my urge to blather about whatever, mostly focusing on things Aztec, but occasionally—out of desperation?—holding forth on things political. Of course, the latter is just more hot air.  But this time I’m going to indulge in things literary.  (In the distant past I had some experience in critiquing various classic works of Russian literature.)

Recently, my old friend Don turned me on to a novel by an Irish writer, “A Long Long Way” by Sebastian Barry, about a young man from Dublin in the trench warfare in Flanders during WWI. With little exposure to contemporary literature, I was stunned by both the writer’s ability to render that horrendous time rather long before his own birth—and the character of a youth in a situation unlike anything he could have personally experienced.  Without exaggeration, it was a tour de force.

Just as I finished reading the novel, Don and I went to a lecture (one of a long series sponsored by the Lannan Foundation) featuring none other than Sebastian Barry. It was an inspiring presentation including readings from both “A Long Long Way” and Barry’s newer novel “Days Without End.”  The author explained that he’d written that in honor of his son who had courageously come out as gay.

Don quickly bought us a copy of “Days Without End,” and I read it with scarcely a pause for breath. The story of two young men experiencing America in the mid-19th century, it’s even more stunning in its reality, in its humanity, and in the finesse of its narrative technique.  I can only concur with one of its cover blurbs that the work is a ‘masterpiece.’  Elsewhere someone has astutely remarked that it is the ‘great American novel’—written by an Irishman!

Above and beyond those kudos, I have to say that Barry’s novel opens an entire chapter in gay history with the truth only fiction can achieve. It should be put at the top of any LGBT+ reading list!  And at the risk of sounding politically stupid (but with a lot more justification than certain recent claimants), I think it should be nominated for a Nobel Prize!

Corroboration of my opinion has also come from a different quarter. While I’m not so sure about the predictive nature of horoscopes, I’ve found that the weekly sign-based messages in Rob Brezsny’s “Free Will Astrology”  are often right on as insightful interpretations of the immediate past.  For the week after I finished “Days Without End,” the astrologist suggested that I (as a Taurus) seek out stories that have the power to heal.  If ever a story has had that power, it’s “Days Without End.”

Please forgive me now for a brief vanity break: About 30 years ago I wrote a story called “Traveling Men”.  I can’t claim that it has the power to heal but do believe it’s fictionally true about gay history.  I’d be honored if you’d care to read it and agree.

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Souvenirs of Logan Circle

On reading my most recent blog about gay life in Washington DC in the Neolithic (the 1970’s) in our faerie castle the Four Belles (1320 Rhode Island Ave NW), a friend suggested that I write more about the Centennial chandelier. I’m happy to do so, but actually I want to write more in general about memories of Logan Circle and my salvage activities.

(At that time, DC was in the throes of urban renewal and tearing down entire blocks of abandoned Victorian houses. Our most urgent battle around Logan Circle was to keep that from happening to the mansions and apartment buildings there.)

Four Belles carving and 1 & 2 Logan Circle

The photo on the left is a close-up of the carving of four hands with bells from which we took the name of our house. In fact, I found out several years ago from the current owner that the original builder had indeed named it the Four Belles—for his wife and three daughters.  The Second Empire wedding cake house on the right was owned by Lewis Kleiman, the guy who took my publicity shot mentioned before.  I occasionally helped him work on restoring the place, like stripping woodwork and such—but it was like spitting in the sea.

Copper Peak, 1320 RI Ave NW

Lewis also helped me in my salvaging. Early one morning we went in my old blue van (Lavenia Van Dodge) to a ruinous house on Sixth Street and rescued its copper peak to put on the Four Belles.  To get to it, we had to climb the bannister of the collapsed staircase and scramble through a rotten hole in the roof!  The peak is 4 or 5 ft. tall and maybe 6 ft. across the base.

 

 

 

But to return to that Centennial chandelier: As remarked before, it was a gift from France along with the Statue of Liberty.  My housemate Charles, being a historic preservation bigwig, got inside on the renovation of an area in Independence Hall where the Centennial chandelier had been hung and nabbed it for our castle.

Victorian Elegance at the Four Belles

In the photo, the huge Eastlake mirror behind the chandelier was rescued from a doomed house on M Street, along with two fabulous mantles and another mirror in black lacquer. When found, it and its beveled glass had been painted white! It now lives in the Library at Santa Fe’s posh inn and spa at La Posada. So I can occasionally visit my old friend.

In the middle is one of the Baccarat prisms (about 18 in. long) hanging on my porch.  On the right is a lamp (purchased in an antique shop), which is also here in my apartment.  By the French sculptor Auguste Moreau, it sat on the newel post of the tiger-eye oak staircase in our grand reception hall.  A few shadows of the Victorian elegance of the Four Belles.

And to return to my salvage activities: Another piece I still have is a trunk I found in 1974 on like the sixth floor of the wracked-out Iowa building also previously mentioned.  I had to remove its shredded canvas covering and live with the raw wood, but after all these decades, it still holds my blankets and linens.  Like that beautiful building, it has survived!

Trunk Found in the Iowa, 1974

There are naturally many stories to be told about salvaging, but I’ll only impose on you with a few. The first was an adventure of saving a plaster ceiling medallion like the one shown below, though I recalling it being a bit more ornate, if you can imagine that:

Victorian Ceiling Medallion

The derelict house was just a few doors down M Street from the one with the mirrors and mantles. I hauled my ladder into its crumbling dining room and proceeded to the cautious work of removing the ceiling medallion.  In the middle of the job, the entire ceiling of plaster and lathe let go of the joists.  There I was standing at the top of the ladder like Atlas holding up a very heavy sky!  With extreme trepidation and caution I tilted the slab to rest one edge on the floor, and with the other side propped on the ladder, I climbed down.  Then it was a fairly simple job to remove the prize and haul it away in trusty old Lavenia Van Dodge.

After untold hours of cleaning and restoration, I gave the medallion to one of the new urban pioneer neighbors around the Circle. Can’t recall who…  That’s what I did with the mantles, fancy woodwork, and such that I salvaged as welcome-wagon gifts.

A major salvage accomplishment was getting into a gorgeous Greek Revival building at, I believe, 12th and O (former home of DC’s black Masonic Lodge), the day before it came down.  They’d abandoned their library, and my friends and I loaded it out of the back window into Lavenia.  In the horde I found among other fascinating volumes a huge tome called “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley” by Squier and Davis, which led to my 1992 book “Remember Native America.”  (I’d just seen the old public library on Maryland Avenue get knocked down with all the books still in it!)

And one more anecdote: After salvaging some mantles and sets of fabulous glazed tiles from the fireplace surrounds from another house, I went to a dinner party with the family of a lady friend in Alexandria.  Her aged grandmother was our hostess and was fascinated to hear about all my salvaging activity.  When I mentioned the address of that day’s rescues, the grandmother almost had a cardiac:  It was the house where she’d been a little girl, and the room with the green tiles had been her bedroom.  I came back the next day and gave her one of them as a souvenir.

Victorian Glazed Tile from Fireplace Surround

Later, in 1982, I installed several of the tiles around the kitchen sink in my next Victorian, a little Queen Anne in Denver, with this one left over.

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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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Stone Age Gay History

It’s always bittersweet to gaze down the deep well of the past and spy ancient moments still fresh and vivid after many decades. That happened just now as I started reading a book by Jim Downs called “STAND BY ME, The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation,” Basic Books, 2016.

So far I’ve read only up to page 7 of the Introduction. In those first pages I was touched that a guy probably born around 1980 found it important in 2005 to research gay history from the 70’s—and amused how the author considered that decade “ancient” gay history.  Taking that view, I guess I came out in the Stone Age (1961).

In the next couple pages Downs immediately placed the libertine gay lifestyle of the 70’s in the context of the ensuing plague of the 80’s. My memories of the 70’s aren’t distorted by knowing what was to come.  I saw a future promising ever more joyful liberation.

My experience of that decade was hardly as wild—or sordid—as what the author read about, largely in New York. In DC where I lived, things were more civilized:  We lived exactly the kind of gay culture and community that Downs will probably describe in pages to come.  He wrote, “I wanted to show how the 1970s was more than a night in a bathhouse.” So I look forward to reading his view of the history I lived.

He included New Orleans in his research, which pleased me much, and after another paragraph hit me over the head with “the fire in New Orleans that killed 32 people on June 24, 1973.” I then noted that the Up Stairs Lounge is to be the subject of Chapter I:  The Largest Massacre of Gay People in American History.  Tragically, scarcely a year after his book came out, that was no longer true.  There was that horrific slaughter at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

I haven’t yet read beyond that mention of the Up Stairs Lounge because I’ve found myself once again staring down that well. Living in New Orleans in 1972, I hung out in the Up Stairs Lounge, but a year before the atrocity, I moved to DC…  I’m almost afraid to read Chapter I.

Already on page two, Downs had remarked that “…gay people across the country had a responsibility to document the past and to tell our own history.” For more than 30 years I’ve taken that responsibility quite seriously in two novels.  First drafted in 1985, one was rewritten a number of times and eventually became “Bat in a Whirlwind.”  About an unconsciously gay teenager in the backwoods in the 50’s, you might say it was set in the Jurassic era of gay history.

My second novel, “Divine Debauch,” is about the gay Stone Age, that decade before Stonewall, in the fairyland of the French Quarter. There was definitely some gay history going on even then.  I’m a veteran victim of the infamous raid on the Quorum Club in June, 1964.  Just like the episode in my recent post “Got Laid,” I marginally fictionalized that raid in the novel.

Briefly, my Quorum experience happened like this: A female friend Linda and I shared a horoscope, and that day in the newspaper we were stringently warned to stay at home.  We usually went out dancing in La Casa de los Marinos but decided to do as we were told and sat around my apartment listening to records and reading.

Getting rather bored later that evening, Linda convinced me to walk her over to the Quorum Club on Esplanade to look for our friend Gia. The club was a small, low-key coffee-house which scandalously also served black folks.  As a matter of fact, that evening a black musician named Babe Stovall was playing on his guitar.

Because of defying our horoscope, Linda and I walked in a bit apprehensively and looked around for Gia. She wasn’t there, but a (black) friend of mine mentioned that she might be upstairs at George’s party.  So we trudged up the stairs and mingled our way through those also racially mixed festivities without finding our friend.

We were standing out on the rear balcony when folks in the front room started yelling, “Police!” I made to escape by climbing down into the neighbor’s patio, but Linda was too scared.  So I gallantly stayed with her, and we nervously awaited our fate.

The cops herded us all out of the apartment (past poor George lying on the carpet with blood all over his face) and downstairs to the Club, where they separated the men and women and loaded about 75 of us into various paddy-wagons. At the jail they put the sexes and races into separate cells, whites on one side of the aisle and blacks on the other.

In my white guys’ cell I got into a bridge game with some others, including a drug dealer who was awaiting transfer to Leavenworth. Meanwhile, the girls started singing “We Shall Overcome!” and the black guys all stripped butt-naked and started swinging on the bars.

The cops kept yelling at us to shut up, to no avail, and then with a fire hose they washed us up against the bars. That ruined our bridge game and swept away most of the black guys’ clothes.  The pile of glistening black bodies was better than a wet dream.

Finally they let us each make our one phone call. I called my apartment and asked my lover Eric to get my stash of money and come bail us out.  When he got there, he said, “I can’t believe you hide your money in your bedpost!”

The next day the story was on the front page of the newspaper. It began:  “Last night the New Orleans Police raided a noted center of communist, homosexual, integrationist activity…” and reported that we were ridiculously charged with “being loud and boisterous.”  Ironically, at the time I was a student (and teacher) of Russian at Tulane, and so the cops figured me for the translator for the local communist cell.

For the next couple weeks till our hearing I lived under police surveillance as a suspected commie. They apparently didn’t care that I was a flaming faggot.  Cop cars tailed me down the streets of the Quarter, but I’d walk on the wrong-way streets to evade them.  And they didn’t dare follow me into my sailor dives on the “Wild Side” of Decatur Street.

Just before our hearing, miraculously, the Civil Rights Act passed, and the DA Jim Garrison (remember him?), quickly got the charges against us dropped. Apropos of Jim Garrison, in the summer of 1963 when my then lover Alphonse got thrown in jail, I had to call up his father’s friend Clay Shaw to spring him from the clink.  That was only about three months before the Kennedy assassination, another of my close brushes with fame, or infamy as the case may be.

While maybe not strictly gay history, this tale was definitely the historical experience of a gay boy in the Stone Age. You’ll find another, the story of my getting finessed back into the closet, in my first memoir “There Was a Ship.”  The second, set in the fabled 70’s, will be the story of my second coming-out into that newly liberated world.

I guess I’m now ready to read on in Jim Downs’ history book.

Got Laid

My new online friend Walter recently posted about his basically traumatic “coming out” experience and made me realize that I had sunken that piece of my history in my novel and memoir, which so few folks will ever read. So I’m going to follow his suit and give you the following brief narrative of my deflowering.

GOT LAID

            In the upside down year of 1961, there I was:  19 years young and a student at wonderful Tulane University in incredible New Orleans, but—to my immense regret—with my cherry still intact.  In fact, my cherry was not only intact but immaculate and overly ripe.  I was getting sick and tired of the whole boring condition.

During my freshman year I’d gotten to know a guy down the hall in my dorm.  David was a good-looking blond kid from Houston, who let me in on the secret that he was “gay” and introduced me to his lover Paul, a florist.  Once they invited me to dinner at Paul’s apartment in the Garden District along with some other gay guys.  They all seemed so normal except for calling each other ‘dear’ and ‘sweetheart’ a lot.

The concept of two guys loving each other was utterly new to me, though not particularly disturbing.  Telling myself to be open-minded about it, I recalled the confusing love I’d felt for my best friend in high school.  After the party, reasoning it through as logically as I could, I came to the inescapable conclusion that I too must be gay.  Suddenly I appreciated all the cute guys around campus with different eyes.

After some months of waiting impatiently for true love to find me, my newly awakened longings soon became torments. Soon, I told myself, soon I will meet a beautiful boy, fall in love, and kiss him. The fantasy played like a rock and roll romance.  Many were the imagined scenarios I spun around naked guys in the showers and infatuations with angelic classmates, but all spring semester and into summer school, no beautiful boy ever showed up to love me.

One Wednesday evening late in sweltering June, I went with my roommate Roger and a couple other dorm guys to see Ingmar Bergman’s movie “Virgin Spring.”  It was traumatic for a sensitive college student like me, and the brutal images of the rape of that young girl haunted me on the sidewalk back to our dorm.  My friends were all quiet too.  Riding up in the elevator with them, I finally decided emphatically that I didn’t want to be a virgin anymore.

Once back in our double dorm room, Roger immediately went about his mathematical studies, which consisted of playing solitaire.  I showered, shaved, and put on my green corduroy jeans and fancy blue nylon shirt.  This was as fashionable as a country boy could manage.  Without looking up from his cards, Roger asked, “Got a date?”

“Maybe,” I replied mysteriously and left.

I already knew where to meet somebody.  David and Paul had once taken me into the wicked French Quarter to a dark little bar on St. Peter St. called the Gaslight Inn.  (One of the most marvelous things about New Orleans back then was that the legal drinking age was 18!)  So I hopped on the Freret bus to Canal Street, intent on finding a guy to cure my acute virginity problem.  Walking into the Quarter down noisy Bourbon Street through the jostling crowds and ignoring brief glimpses of bare, gyrating dancers in the strip joints, I felt my whole world turning upside down.  I was stepping off into the unknown, and it was exhilarating.

The Gaslight Inn was nestled right next door to the bustling collegiate bar Pat O’Brien’s.  When there before with David and Paul, I was nervous at first, but it turned out to be not at all intimidating.  The strangest thing had been a Hawaiian boy called Pineapple, who looked and talked just like a girl.  After a moment’s trepidation, I walked alone into the bar.

It was dark and full of smoke with men milling about.  No Pineapple.  How very dashing I felt walking right up to the bar and ordering a vodka and tonic.  Without looking directly at anyone, I took my drink over to a stool along the wall under the window—with no idea of what to do next.  Even though I was a nice looking kid with a good build and big blue eyes, no one seemed to be paying any attention to me.

Maybe I should just watch for someone attractive, I reasoned, and go up and introduce myself. No, that’s too forward—and too embarrassing.  It’s not very easy to see anyone in the dimness anyway.  By the time I’d finished my drink, my courage was definitely flagging, and I thought sadly of heading on back home to the dorm.

“Need another drink?” a voice asked from my blind side.  I turned to find a young man in the shadows, smiling at me.  “What was it?” the fellow asked, taking my glass.

“Vodka and tonic,” I managed to remember.  He went off to the bar before I could really make out what he looked like. Probably just a waiter pushing drinks, I figured.

Soon he returned with a drink in each hand.  Apparently he wasn’t a waiter.  Now I could see that he was pleasantly good looking, with dark hair in a crew cut.  After a polite thanks for the drink, I hadn’t a clue what to say.

In my silence, he said, “My name is Harry.”

Actually, I hadn’t thought about having to identify myself.  Not to give out my name in a gay bar, I lied, “I’m Roger.”  Meanwhile, I looked Harry over some more:  fairly tall, grey-green eyes, older—at least in his mid-20’s.  My next lie was that I was visiting my aunt here in New Orleans and lived out in the woods in Mississippi.  With that basic adjustment, I told him about things from back when I was a kid in Arkansas.  Harry told me he worked in an insurance office and used to live in Pensacola on the beach.

At his insistence, we each had another drink.  I was already feeling a buzz.  We engaged in further pleasant conversation, but it didn’t look to me like Harry was interested in me romantically.  And while I liked his company, there wasn’t that crazy kind of desire I’d felt for certain gorgeous guys at school.  I started to feel a little put out.  All this talking had kept me from watching out for a pretty boy.  I began to have more disconsolate thoughts about going home. Can’t catch a fish every time you go fishing.

Then Harry asked, “Can I take you home with me, Roger?”

Taken aback by the strange name and surprised to have come so suddenly upon this Rubicon, I forced back the fear and said, “Yeah, that would be nice.”

“Then let’s go!” Harry left his half-finished drink on the windowsill and pulled me by the hand.  I followed him out the door onto crowded St. Peter, not even checking if anybody at Pat O’Brien’s might have seen me coming out of that shady little place.

#

            Amidst the slumber of the late-night city, all was quiet, candlelit amber and cool in Harry’s apartment at the Claiborne Towers.  The room was full of plants with only a low light in one corner.  I lay naked on the sheets beside Harry, by no means asleep.  He was definitely dozing, draped over my arm.  I couldn’t fall asleep because I felt I really had to go home to the dorm—it must have been 3 or 4 o’clock, but I had no desire to move.  The warmth of Harry touching my shoulder and thigh was so new and delicious.  Finally, I’d tasted a man’s body, smelled his cinnamon fragrance, and it was far better than I could ever have imagined.

It had been nothing at all like the struggle and violence in that disturbing movie.  Funny how easy everything was when I’d worried so much about what to do.  Like a bumpkin at a banquet, I’d simply done whatever Harry did—which meant a lot of incredible caresses on tender, secret places I’d never touched before.  All that symmetry naturally led to the infamous sixty-nine position.  I must have done it right because we came together, and I didn’t even choke.  Stunning, the sheer reality of sucking on a guy’s cock.

I was glad, too, that there hadn’t been any kissing. Kissing is something for being in love, I figured, and all this with Harry was simply sex.  Still, he’d been tender, and so I was too.  Now I felt so amazingly happy having this wonderful connection with another guy and holding him close.  After a bit, Harry awoke, and I said, “I’ve got to go home.  My aunt expects me back.”

Harry didn’t protest, probably used to strange boys leaving in the night.  I got up on the window side of the bed.  The man still lay there, lithe in the shadows and amber light, the plants vague, soft masses of light and dark around him.  There was a tiny glint in his eye as I stood there naked—oddly without shyness.  “Roger, you sure are hot!” he sighed.

Embarrassed by his compliment, I dressed while Harry watched me from the bed with appreciative smiles.  I wondered about telling him that this was my very first time.  Tying my second shoe, I decided not to. Better just a pleasant goodbye, I decided, and drift out into the night like all the other boys who must have been hot in his bed before me.

While Harry still lay there naked, I gave him a friendly handshake and let myself out the door.  Out in the hallway, I chortled to myself, Well, that was that—another virginity nicely disposed of in the Claiborne Towers.

After Harry’s great air-conditioning, outside on the street the New Orleans night startled me with its sultriness.  On the empty early-morning bus I dozed contentedly in the heat until my stop at school.  Only when stumbling down McAlister Drive did the full import of it strike me right between the eyes with a blow of wonder and happiness. No longer a virgin! I rejoiced.  That painful, troublesome barrier is now behind me!”

As I tiptoed into our dorm room, the real Roger rolled over on his side in his narrow bed, waking enough to mumble, “What you been doing?”

Walking out of my clothes on the way from the door, I answered, “Got laid.”  Then I crawled into the sack, and there wasn’t another peep from the miserable virgin.

I never saw Harry again, nor did I ever go back to the Gaslight Inn—largely because it closed down soon after.  Instead I went out to Dixie’s Bar of Music on the opposite corner of Bourbon and St. Peter or hung out in the Latin and Greek sailor dives on Decatur Street, where my carousing was a depraved combination of Fellini’s movie “La Dolce Vita” and the novels of Jean Genet.

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