COURTESAN

For photos of this time, click here.

June, 1972—August, 1980

As I write this, the many stories about this persona are being told in my third gay memoir entitled “GAY GEISHA,” which I’m posting by chapters as they’re completed. We’re already up to chapter 6, so I’ll be very summary about the early parts of this section. Meanwhile, here’s a quick preview of coming attractions.

To re-commence, in May, 1972, old friend Lee and I moved to DC. On the trip Lee changed to his middle name Charles and asked to be called Chas. He was already set up with a basement apartment for us on Capitol Hill. I soon got a job at the Library of Congress with oxymoronic defense intelligence as a ‘reader’ of the press of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

After housesitting for new friend George for a month, I moved to the lovely house of Chas’s long ago lover John, a Marine Sergeant—where I slept on an authentic Civil War iron army cot. That was when I met sweet, handsome Robert. (Insert romantic tale.)

Then my other Charles, the one from Ann Arbor, arrived in DC for a great new job with the National Register of Historic Places—with a parrot. He moved in at John’s and right into our host’s bed. After the holidays, Charles, Robert and I started 1973 in a house on Independence Avenue working on remodel for rent.

1973 mustache

By the way, my reader job gave me the run of the stacks in the Library of Congress and the glitz of regular debriefings to the CIA in McLean, but mostly it was reading about all sorts of things in several languages, looking for references to our “classified” topics. I learned all about the people and geography of like a quarter of the earth’s surface! I was proud to be a minor spook.

four bellesIn later May, Charles found us a Victorian house at Logan Circle, 1320 Rhode Island Avenue NW, a four-storey, 16-room brick house with round tower-bay and much original detail still inside.  In the Logan Circle Historic District just off 14th Street, it was right in the middle of the wrack and ruin of the 69 riots, most other houses on both sides of the street boarded up.  I often called it Desolation Row.

Soon after moving in, Charles and I met several neighbors, including an Italian beauty named Lou restoring his own house on nearby Q Street.  (Insert an unromantic tale, including a few poems.) Charles and I set to work on restoration tasks, and once the house was habitable, we found other gay guys to rent rooms—and hosted great community dinners in faded Victorian glory. I sigh to recall the parade of housemates and neighbors, the stellar cast at our dinner table, and temporary guests in our various boudoirs.

Thus began seven years of hosting this community of queers, friends, and neighbors, an odd assemblage of urban pioneers.  All around our Historic District, the major “urban renewal” areas with the old architecture were disappearing, and I salvaged fantastic architectural details ahead of the wrecking balls.  Some salvage went into our house, but much went as welcome-wagon gifts to new neighbors moving into the other wracked-out houses around Logan Circle.  (The best prize of all came from salvaging a library, a venerable tome from 1841 which inspired my first book .)

That fall I finally got back to the dissertation drudge, and after all our work together that spring (with no reply from him for so long), my chairman now thought I should “broaden the sample,” i.e. run the material through more native speakers. I dumbly agreed to write it for the fifth time, using several Russians at my job.

Right now I’ve gotten only this far in GAY GEISHA, so I’ll leave the following verbiage roughly that same as it’s been (and will condense as new chapters get posted.) So here’s a running synopsis of a galloping saga of chapters.

In May of 74 I fired the fifth dissertation back at my chairman. He immediately wrote that a newly arrived Russian émigré prof had taken over as my chairman, and she felt that the scope of my work should be wider, i.e., like the second version—or was it the third?  I never responded.  Putting academia behind me, in August I decided to quit the reader job—coincidentally walking out the exact same day and time as Nixon left the White House!

That same fall before, Ken moved to DC and bought a house down Q Street from Lou.  Chas moved into his basement apartment, and suddenly I had old friends for neighbors.  Also in August, a visiting opera-singer in town for “War and Peace” at Wolftrap got me on as an extra/super.  My operatic debut!

Frustrated in my job search, I resorted to waiting tables at Gusti’s Italian Restaurant on M and 19th, apparently a Mafia joint, quickly becoming one of their best waiters for the next couple years.  We’ll leave the dalliances in those under-employed years for the memoir.

For some more cultural spice in my life, Chas got me in with the Paul Hill Chorale as Russian coach for a performance of Kabalevsky’s “Requiem” at the Kennedy Center (on my 33rd birthday).  The famous composer, a kindly elderly man, came to town for it, and I was his PR agent and interpreter for interviews.  Then I went back to slinging pizzas.

In the summer of 75, out of the blue, a woman I’d met at Wolftrap named Ann called about a gig in New York with the Bolshoi Opera, Lincoln Center, for six weeks and then Kennedy Center for two.  I stayed at Kenny’s apartment.  (He was away touring in “Fiddler on the Roof.”)  My duties were to coordinate scene-change work between the Russian and the American stage crews for a repertoire of several operas, including “Eugene Onegin,” “War and Peace,” “Boris Godunov,” and etc., several times each.  It was a spectacular change of pace.

Of course, going back to Gusti’s Ristorante was a bummer, but I slogged along through another fall and winter of waiting table.  There were several affair-ettes, so I was apparently rather good at meeting fellows, but pretty awful at holding on to them.  They may have been short or futile, but they all will have a place in the memoir.  Wait for it.

We had a tradition of scandalous costume parties for All Souls’ Days, huge affairs with great themes like Science Fiction (when I was the Grand Whoremaster of Venus) or Comic Characters (with me as the Frito Bandito).  The one in the fall of 75 was Historical Folks, and I went as a quite handsome Christopher Columbus. These parties became part of the ‘legend’ of our gay household which we campily called the Four Bells for the carved hands ringing bells over the front door.  (I discovered more than 30 years later that the 1890 house actually was called the Four Belles by its original owner for his wife and three daughters.)

Naturally, the central element of our Four Bells society continued to be our community dinners.  At first, we were one of the few houses around Logan Circle with an operable kitchen, and several pioneering neighbors joined us regularly for sit-down meals in our grand dining room. Since we all took fiercely competitive turns cooking for the group, usually 12 to 18 with frequent guests, the fare rivaled fine restaurants.  We also took turns washing dishes. (Recently I met someone from DC in my time, and on my mentioning Logan Circle, he remarked on once having had an amazing dinner there in a grand Victorian.  Sigh.)

At our dinners, parties, and soirées, Charles was the always charming, charismatic hostess full of interesting and exciting stories, and I was the eccentric, intellectual hunk living upstairs in a jungle.  Early along I gave in to my budding passion for plants, using most of the windows in the house for my collection.  Upstairs, my room with skylight was a conservatory of exotic plants.  There was a sleeping alcove for entertaining my favored guests.

In the spring of 76 I had a customer at Gusti’s who took me by storm, a Panamanian mulatto by the surprising name of Giovanni.  Our affair, a joyous carnal frenzy that rocked my antique bedstead in afternoons between my lunch and dinner shifts, went on for several delirious months.  Voracious Giovanni also had a lover, whom I met and who didn’t care, and thus I inadvertently began my career as the ‘other woman,’ a mistress, or more politely an unpaid courtesan.  (I prefer that term over ‘hetaera’ or more vulgar words.)

In July while Giovanni was still courting me, I also fell into a paid career.  The same Wolftrap woman Ann popped up again as a new neighbor on O Street and offered me a “desk job” in an organization where she’d just started as Director.  Assuring her I could do whatever however, I went to work for the national service organization for opera, OPERA America.  The office was in a building just below Thomas Circle, only three blocks from home!

Giovanni and I worked around the kink in our schedule as best we could for a while.  Soon he brought a new friend to dinner at the Four Bells, a lovely Vietnamese soldier named Chi, who’d made it out of Saigon right at the end.  Chi started courting me at other dinners and soon was a regular welcome guest in my jungle.  (In a month or two Giovanni stopped coming up to see me because he had to get married, a cultural thing, he explained.)

The fall and winter of 76-77 were lovely with Chi’s affections, though in his many visits, he rarely stayed over, and he made several trips out of town for a week at a time.  Like a proper courtesan, I tried hard to be content with whatever moments he’d give me.  On an early May night in 77, Chi and I went to see Swan Lake at the Kennedy Center.  After our loving that night, as he was leaving, Chi said he wouldn’t be coming back.  He had to marry a girl named Beth.  I didn’t ask why, obviously another cultural thing, and just said goodbye.

Though devastated losing Chi’s company, I didn’t mope for too long.  Right after that, I got an amazing commission from the Canadian Opera Company to translate Tchaikovsky’s opera “Joan of Arc,” (otherwise known as “Maid of Orleans”).  Thrilled with an artistic challenge at last, I worked madly on it from that June through March, 78 with sporadic amorous visitors.  I went to Toronto for the performances in mid-September and very much enjoyed the celebrity of it all.  (Historical note:  Forty years later–in 2018–I reworked the translation for performance by the New Orleans Opera in February, 2020.)

While I was translating away in early October, 77, I was pointedly asked to come along with Charles and a bunch of the guys on an outing to Marietta PA in the gorgeous autumn.  It soon became apparent to me that Charles was, as they say, off his rocker.  At home, I called the psychiatrist he was consulting for depression and was instructed to get him to bed and come see him in the morning.  Well, in the morning, Charles was a blanket-draped, be-feathered shaman mumbling in some strange language.

For the next couple years, Charles was in the hospital off and on and at home trying to function on uncertain doses of lithium for his manic depression.  Somehow he managed at his job, and though he was still a great hostess, eventually our fabled dinners slowly fell apart.  I found it horribly disturbing to watch his disintegration, even to the point of doubting my own sanity, but simply did what I could to keep the household going.

On a work trip to Santa Fe in August 78 I met a sharp young man named Jim who had just started in a big position at the National Endowment for the Arts.  We first did it in his hotel room at the Inn at Loretto, and back home in DC he became a constant suitor in my flowery alcove for a year and more, also with lots of time together in meetings and on trips.  As Jim lived with his lover in Virginia, I was again the “other woman,” a true courtesan entertaining gentlemen not my own.  Fine by me.

Early in 79, I met up through work with a young fellow at the Baltimore Opera Company by the wonderful name of David, a tall dark-haired beauty.  Over the next few months, unable to entertain him in my room, I actually took tickets to ride the train for weekends with him in Baltimore.  (Jim of course didn’t make any noise about this sideline.)  The boring train trips got to me and eventually just stopped.

In April at work Ann resigned, and consequently, I became acting director of the organization.  By early summer I got a new boss named Tom, a bright, cheerful, handsome young man (late 20s) from New York.  On our annual July trip to Santa Fe with Tom, I very unprofessionally let him have his way with me, the older but still attractive man, and then again at Snowbird in Utah.  Then back in the office, in September Tom got the boot for reasons unknown to me.  My acting director duties resumed.

Sometime later that fall of 79, my Jim moved away “out into the field” to work with an opera company.  Missing my constant admirer, I joined a gay camping group and shared a tent with a dark-haired youth name of Phil in the Shenandoah Mountains.  For a while we kept intimate company, but like Scott some years before, Phil wanted “more than sex.”

To digress from work and amours, I must comment on my involvement in the Logan Circle Community Association, which struggled with the urban renewal demolishing things all around our Historic District.  Our main concern was for an exquisite Beaux Artes apartment building on the corner of O and 13th, the Iowa, that they wanted to raze, claiming no evidence of historicity.

Well, at the National Archives looking into building permits, I found that the Iowa permit had been checked out six years before by the agency itself and never returned.  Undeterred, I dug up an entry log for permit applications with a note from 1901, “architect:  T. F. Schneider,” a preeminent architect who did the Cairo, my own house, and loads of big mansions and public buildings.  It’s one of my life achievements that the Iowa still stands in its restored beauty.

The Iowa, designed by T. F. Schneider

I should also digress to mention my addiction to running which I believe started in 77.  I’d run  3-4 miles almost every day, all over the wide neighborhoods, Rock Creek Park, the Mall, and the Arboretum.  It was also special on business trips to run in strange and beautiful places like New Mexico, New York, Portland, and Utah.  Jogging along in runner’s euphoria, I kept in fairly good physical shape in those later thirties.  Apparently running replaced the raptures that I used to feel in dancing.  (I danced only on rare nights out at the Eagle or such.  Socializing was at home:  Suitors came to see me.)

Over the fall and winter of 79 Charles started bottoming out with more stints in the hospital, but nothing seemed to help.  At the end of January 80, a wreck of his former glorious self, he left his great job and moved away to San Diego to live in the care of his folks.  The loss was a horrible blow for me.  Though we’d never had physical relations, our rapport over the years was so complete and fulfilling, like kindred souls from previous lives.  Bereft of my best friend, my other half, I was left to preside alone over the fall of the House of Four Bells.

In April 80, I met a devastating black guy named Guy, an exquisite Ethiopian type of equally exquisite physical proportions.  A soft-spoken museum administrator living with a lover (also named Charles), near DuPont Circle, Guy and this lucky courtesan were constant companions for a while after work each day, with frequent dinners at the Four Bells or out, and intense relations in my alcove.

Splendid Guy was my emotional support during the spring and summer of trying to sell the Four Bells.  Early that summer, when the director of the Santa Fe Opera suggested for the fourth time that I come and work as his assistant, I finally decided like Jim to go out into the field.  In August when the house sold, an era ended.  Guy and I said our goodbyes at my train in Union Station, and I moved to New York as a new persona.

Okay, what’s the lesson here?   I suspect it has something to do with creating one’s identity because that’s exactly what I did–as a GAY GEISHA.

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