COURTESAN

For photos of this time, click here.

June, 1972—August, 1980

This fifth persona I call Courtesan simply because that’s what I totally turned into in the 70s in Washington DC.  That important decade for gay history will, with luck, be my third memoir.  I doubt that courtesan will be in the title…  So I won’t go too deeply into this summary and save the goodies for your later reading.

To re-commence, it was late May, 1972, when old friend Lee and I went to DC in a U-Haul truck. On the trip, much as I had just changed personas, Lee changed to using his middle name Charles and asked to be called Chas.  Chas was already set up with a basement apartment on Capitol Hill, and I stayed a while with him, sleeping on the floor and looking for a job. In the matter of a few days I had found first Chas a job at the Library of Congress and then myself a job (Catch this oxymoron!), with defense intelligence as a ‘reader’ of the press of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, working through the Library of Congress as well.

The next couple months I moved around a lot–to housesit a place on Constitution Avenue, and then to the nearby house of John, once Chas’s lover long before.  One evening at a nearby gay bar, I successfully snagged an attractive blond named Robert for constant companion with benefits.  Then my other Charles friend, the one from Ann Arbor, arrived in DC for a great new job and moved in at John’s house too–and directly into our host’s bed.  In a few weeks Charles, Robert and I moved into a house on Independence Avenue to help on the remodel.

Being with Robert was my first time to live with a lover, not just visiting or staying over, knowing Robert would be there when I came home from work.  And not even wondering where the relationship might be going.  I wasn’t particularly surprised or torn up when a few months later he moved into romantically with Chas.

The reader job was great for having the run of the stacks in the Library of Congress, like the Mines of Moria!  The greatest part though was working with the other guy in the Slavic section, a Pole named Rysza.  We chattered with each other in Russian incessantly, leading the bosses to think we were discussing ‘intelligence.’

1973 mustache

Come November, I finally heard from my dissertation chairman that he now wanted me to “broaden the sample,” meaning to run the material through more native speakers that just dear old Nina in Milwaukee.  I numbly agreed to do it for the fifth time, using some Russians at my job in the research division.  By mid-May, 1973 I fired off a completed dissertation with a stern comment that five times in as many years would suffice, and with my usual facility put it easily out of mind.

Mere days later, Charles found a Victorian house at Logan Circle that he wanted us to buy together.  The next day we went to see 1320 Rhode Island Avenue and bought it for a mere $40,000, a four-storey, 16-room, 8,000 sq. ft. brick house with round tower-bay and much of the original detail inside.  It was just off 14th Street, in the middle of the wrack and ruin of the ’69 riots, with most of the other houses on both sides of the street boarded up.  I often referred to our Avenue as Desolation Row.

four belles

Thus began seven years of urban pioneering.  Once the house was vaguely habitable, Charles found some other gay guys to rent rooms.  When I recall the parade of housemates and neighbors, I marvel at the cast of characters waiting on the sidelines to appear in the coming memoir, not to mention untold numbers of temporary guests in our various rooms.

While hosting this community of queers for several years, Charles and I worked on the endless restoration tasks.  All the while, as we lived near the major “urban renewal” areas with the old architecture disappearing, I salvaged elegant mantles, mirrors, woodwork, plaster medallions, ornamental tiles, etc., even a copper-ball cap for the peak of our round bay.  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.)

After moving in, during June Charles and I met several neighbors, including an Italian beauty named Lou who was restoring his house on nearby Q Street.  Lou and I went hard at it for some weeks and then turned into close friends for the rest of my DC time.

In late July I heard back from my dissertation committee.  You guessed it:  a newly arrived Russian émigré prof had taken over as my chairman, and she felt that the scope of the work should be wider, i.e., like the second version (or was it the third?).  I never responded, and I haven’t missed the meaningless degree one bit.

By August, 1974 I’d gotten terminally fed up with the job.  Having to debrief at the CIA was no fun.  So I quit and coincidentally walked out the door at the exact moment (as I heard on a nearby cab radio) that Nixon was leaving the White House.  I love feeling propinquity with such famous (or infamous) folks.

That same summer, 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.  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.  At least life on Rhode Island Ave was great in our gay household which we campily called the Four Belles for the carved hands ringing bells over the front door.  (I discovered more than 30 years later that the 1890 house actually was named that by its original owner!)

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.

Another part of the legend of the Four Belles were 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.

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 Belles, 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 20’s) 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 Belles.

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 Belles 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 Belles.  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?  The answer will probably have wait till I write this volume, but I suspect it has something to do with creating one’s identity.

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