Reader

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If I were forced to choose one single identity, it might well be that of reader.

When I was young, I read voraciously. I recall stacks of books from the library, the Oz books, Hardy boys, Nancy Drew, biographies, anything, everything. I excelled in my school’s summer reading programs.

My parents were readers, one wall of our living room was a big built-in library, but all I really remember is the shelf of Readers Digest Condensed Books. My grandfather subscribed me to Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club, and the day the new book was delivered was the very best day of the month. I’d tear open the package and devour the book, then often immediately reread it.

Forced to attend summer school every summer,  I was enrolled in a Power Reading program. I remember being required to read a color-coded text, then answer questions, before moving on to a “higher” color. A waste of time. I hated it, while the other kids were out playing. My grandfather also ordered a subscription to Readers Digest just so that I could study “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power.” Maybe it worked: as a teenager I loved living inside long  novels, the bigger the better: Michener’s Hawaii and The Source, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago...

When required to write book reviews in school, I was never quite confident about my opinion. So I turned to Readers Guide to Periodical Literature. Reading professional reviews culled from those thick green volumes helped me solidify my evaluation of the book in question. I don’t think I plagiarized as much as allowed myself to be inspired.  Ironic that I eventually became a professional book reviewer, publishing my reviews in a variety of venues, even winning an award from Library Journal.

Our family played Scrabble, and it took me a long time to realize that trotting out my 25-cent words wasn’t necessarily an advantage. Shorter, more boring words played strategically would earn more points. I may have worked crossword puzzles, but I don’t have strong memories of that,  I was quickly bored.

What I do remember, vividly, is Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics. I don’t know when (or why) my parents thought it would be a good idea to enroll me in this course. I didn’t like it at all. I was already a fast reader, and resented the techniques being taught. It, almost, turned me away from my love of literature. I vaguely recall repeatedly being driven to the classroom of an evening. I don’t remember how many times I had to attend. As soon as the course was over, I reverted to my previous habit and made snarky quips about the course for years.

Killing time yesterday at a public library, I serendipitously discovered a new book: Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked by Marcia Biederman. To quote the product description:

The best-known educator of the twentieth century was a scammer in cashmere. “The most famous reading teacher in the world,” as television hosts introduced her, Evelyn Wood had little classroom experience, no degrees in reading instruction, and a background that included work at the Mormon mission in Germany at the time when the church was cooperating with the Third Reich. Nevertheless, a nation spooked by Sputnik and panicked by paperwork eagerly embraced her promises of a speed-reading revolution. Journalists, lawmakers and two US presidents lent credibility to Wood’s claims of turbocharging reading speeds through a method once compared to the miracle at Lourdes. Time magazine reported Woods grads could polish off Dr. Zhivago in one hour; a senator swore that Wood’s method had boosted his reading speed to more than ten thousand words per minute. But science showed that her method taught only skimming, with disastrous effects on comprehension–a fact Wood was aware of from early in her career. Fudging test results, and squelching critics, she founded a company that enrolled one million. The course’s popularity endured even as evidence of its shortcomings continued to accumulate. Today, as apps and online courses attempt to spark a speed-reading revival, this engaging look at Wood’s rise from mission worker to marketer exposes the pitfalls of embracing a con artist’s worthless solution to imaginary problems.

How validating, vindicating, that this miserable technique was a scam. I am amazed and appalled that Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics videos and books remain on the market (“works like magic”). It is shocking really. Apparently it’s true that “There’s a sucker born every minute,” as attributed to P.T. Barnum. What is it about that post-war period that inspired such self-deception? On one hand, even though I was one of her dupes, I’m impressed that the little lady was able to pull the dust jacket over everyone’s eyes.

But now I have to go read another book.

COVID Coping

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I am fascinated by how we’re all coping so differently with this unprecedented situation. Some folks are listening to politicians, physicians, pundits, journalists, and any/everyone else putting forth predictions. I can’t count the friends who have confessed that they’re “watching way too much news.” On the other hand, I am, as usual, the ostrich with its head in the sand, or up its butt, as the case may be. I have not listened to one word of verbiage, broadcast, streaming, or other forms masquerading as “news”. I monitor my reading intake, starting with the New York Times’s daily “California Today” feed, and clicking only on carefully selected links. I may well be missing important developments, but I’m also not spiraling into the pits of depression and panic by exposing myself to articles which do little more than fan the flames of fear. I do my morning meditation, read books (mostly historical nonfiction) and watch Netflix documentaries and movies of an evening. I’m snacking too much, sleeping a lot and not exercising enough. I’m unfocused, frequently discombobulated, and my flat is in untold disarray.  I am grateful for my privileged situation and grieving for the many losses of others. I’m inspired by the examples of thoughtfulness and generosity (one example: my in-laws are busily making masks for postal workers) and appalled by the hoarding, price gouging, and insider trading exhibited by others. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that people behave admirably or abominably in a crisis.

Some of my octogenarian friends are refusing to leave their living spaces for any reason at all. Others, in the same age bracket, are running what to me seem like non-essential errands, zipping around for the sake of getting out and about. I am fortunate to have a large flat and a lovely garden, so it’s easy to stick close to home, except for a weekly walk with a friend who lives a few blocks away (keeping six feet apart at all times, of course). My partner is sequestered separately across town, so we talk and text frequently through the day, but our time together has been limited to the romance of… grocery shopping. When I magnanimously offered to “kidnap” another nearby friend to stave off cabin fever, she declined, saying that she was in her 70s, asthmatic, and a caregiver, and didn’t want to take any risks.

Having co-hosted a Death Café for nearly five years, I was wary of attempting a virtual version in this new environment. While I have learned that people are starving for a safe place to share fears, beliefs, and resources around the stigmatized topic, I didn’t know what to expect. I needn’t have been apprehensive; my very first experience using Zoom was remarkably successful. I was anticipating that it might devolve into a COVID Café, and though the pandemic was a topic of conversation, the discussion amongst the 15 of us was balanced and respectful.  One unexpected advantage was that attendees didn’t need to be geographically proximate; one participant was in Santa Barbara, one in Sausalito, and the remainder of us in between.

I continue to volunteer for a national organization committed to supporting people exploring their end-of-life options. I talk to people throughout the Southwest who are terrified of going to the hospital, being placed on a ventilator, having CPR performed, or risking other invasive procedures. Many live alone and/or in what one caller described as her “rinky-dink town.” Now that travel is curtailed, the difficult decision was made to temporarily stop accepting new applications, leaving people one less option. I commiserate with each person’s unique predicament. I can recommend online resources for self-deliverance, but can’t offer the expertise and experience of our Exit Guides. I explain the pros and cons of Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking and discuss the challenges of identifying a hospice that might support such a plan. The irony is not lost on me that while most of the world is desperately seeking solutions to staying alive, I’m supporting others’ desire to hasten their own death. My brother is a palliative care physician in Tacoma and his son, my nephew, reports, “The COVID death now thought to be first in the nation occurred at Harborview Medical Center [in Seattle] where I was working at that time.”

Perhaps the worst part of all this is not knowing how long this situation will continue. Will it be weeks or months? And what will the world look like when we (some of us) are able to return to it? Only time will tell. Until then, I find solace in watching the birds soar across the sky, the clouds change color and shape, trees shimmy in the breeze. We can only take this moment by moment, one day at a time.

A slogan developed over eighty years ago, in response to another world crisis is still, or again, apt: “Keep calm and carry on.”

Easy Listening

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This blog should definitely have a soundtrack. I’m reading a book by Joseph Lanza entitled Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy Listening, and Other Moodsong. (Just so you know, there are copyright symbols next to Muzak and Moodsong) and I’m listening to Mystic Moods Orchestra’s 1966 album One Stormy Night, the pitter patter of pouring rain and train whistles of which I remember vividly and fondly from my youth. Perhaps because it rarely rained in Southern California (another song cue?) I loved rainy days, and not merely because we didn’t have to dress out for gym.

I had no idea about my parents’ taste in music, but I remember albums by Martin Denny (“Exotica”) and 101 Strings Orchestra (or was it Living Strings?), and the many Readers Digest boxed sets. I can hear the ubiquitous theme songs to Percy Faith’s A Place in the Sun and The Song from Moulin Rouge (Where is Your Heart?) as well as Mantovani’s Ebb Tide. I also recognized the names Ray Conniff, Bert Kaempfert, Andre Kostelanetz (here referred to as “Kosty”) and Nelson Riddle.

I loved the dueling pianos of Ferrante & Teicher and the campy keyboarding of Liberace. I didn’t know that Lawrence Welk’s ballad written on the birth of his daughter became “Bubbles in the Wine” to capitalize on his Champagne Music Makers. I only know that we watched his television program religiously, and that one of my few claims to fame was performing the accordion in 1960 (I was 8) with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra at Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica.

Was it because I was a Francophile that I was fascinated by Francis Lai and Michel Legrand? And because I was a movie nut that I loved Matt Monro crooning Born Free, the swelling themes of Ernest Gold’s anthem Exodus, and of course, the soaring strings and crooning chorus of Henry Mancini’s Moon River.

I later loved songs sung against Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, The Carpenters’ aural landscapes,  and Angelo Badalamenti’s lush orchestrations. Easy listening is supposedly distinguished from elevator music, mood music, or lounge music, because while it might have been popular in some of the same venues it was meant to be listened to for itself rather than as background sound. Call it what you will, I still love listening to it.

Mission mayhem

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Studying California Missions reportedly became part of the fourth-grade curriculum in the 1960s. I was a fourth grader at Buena Terra Grammar School in 1961. I remember my parents driving us to tour many of the missions along El Camino Real, or at least experience the ruins.  And I recall proudly constructing a model of San Juan Capistrano. I only wish I had a photograph of my plaster and paint masterpiece.5462136055_3a0deb21a7_z

It certainly couldn’t compare to the ones at Knott’s Berry Farm that my brother and I regularly visited. I’ve learned that the original mission models first appeared in the park in 1956, commissioned by Walter Knott to be placed along a trail next to the stagecoach ride to keep people from wandering in front of the horse-drawn carriages. Apparently Knott had heard about a set of mission models displayed at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition built by Leon Bayard de Volo, an Italian immigrant. De Volo worked for Warner Bros. for many years before beginning to build models on contract when Knott commissioned a larger set for the farm.

Over the years, one by one, the models were removed until the last two were taken away, placed in storage in 1998. In 2013 the models were rediscovered, lovingly restored or reconstructed, and reinstalled in 2016. Small huts were built to protect each mission model from the elements. Wired to provide light, with backdrops to represent the sky, the huts were placed in the same area along the stagecoach trail. Knott’s General Manager was quoted as saying, “The California Mission models hold as much educational value as they do sentimental value for many of our guests.”

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A model of Mission San Luis Obispo on display at Knott’s Berry Farm. The project to refurbish and in some cases, build from scratch, the mission models started in 2014, with most of the restoration done by Bob Weir. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG) Taken in Buena Park at Knott’s Berry Farm on Thursday, December 1, 2016.

The timing of this resurrection seems interesting given that Junipero Serra was canonized in September 2015. For years there has been increasing documentation of the missionaries’ mistreatment of the indigenous Californians. Rape, murder, incarceration, slavery, it is hard to reconcile these revelations with the Franciscan fathers I learned about in school. They may have been well-intentioned, but I am appalled that, without adequate contextualization, the missions and missionaries continue to be extolled.

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In mid-May 2015, my review of Elias Castillo’s A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions appeared in the San Francisco Examiner:

School students and tourists may have a romantic vision of California’s missions and the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Franciscan friars who headed them. Journalist Elias Castillo’s book, “A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions,” challenges the notion, charging that forced labor and physical punishment ultimately led to the annihilation of California’s early inhabitants.

Twenty-one missions stretch across the state, from Mission San Diego de Alcalá, founded in San Diego in 1769, to Mission San Francisco de Solano, founded in Sonoma in 1823. Derived from mission records, it is estimated that the state’s indigenous population before the mission period was as high as 350,000, with an estimated 500 to 600 tribes or tribelets with their own cultures, traditions and languages. (After the period, the population is estimated at 150,000.)

Castillo succinctly traces the life of Miguel Joseph Serra (he later took the name Junípero to honor Saint Junipero, a companion of Saint Francis), including the iconic figure’s self-inflicted lashings and self-loathing. Serra subscribed to the contemporary view that indigenous people were demonic and their culture must be destroyed, replaced with “belief in a single God and the complex accompanying Catholic morality, theology and rituals.”

The details of this well-meaning, if misguided, cultural confrontation are an important, and painful story, adding immeasurably to our understanding of a complicated and contested chapter of California’s history.

The book’s publication is timely, with Pope Francis’ plans to canonize Father Serra, who was beatified in 1988, in September.

Castillo, a three-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and the Associated Press, researched the book using primary sources, including material from little-known church and Spanish government archives.

His heavily footnoted text is fascinating in its detailed accessibility, and 14 pages of bibliographic sources, eight pages of color plates, a five-page index and various appendices solidify the documentation, which is not undermined by the few minor typos.

Lest one think that this history is no longer relevant, Castillo ends with this reminder: “The Bureau of Indian Affairs is playing Russian Roulette with the heritage of the United States. Each year that passes as the agency, perhaps deliberately, moves at a ponderous snail’s pace on petitions for recognition, Indian elders die and along with them the history, language, knowledge, and traditions of the First Americans…”

“Reflections in a Golden Eye”

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I was a movie-crazy teenager, eagerly anticipating each newly-released star-studded movie. The books from which they were adapted were often re-issued in a movie tie-in edition, promising “soon to be a major motion picture” and “including 16 pages of photographs from the forthcoming film.” In 1967, at the age of fifteen, in anticipation of Reflections in a Golden Eye, I bought a paperback of Carson McCullers’ 1941 novel, and read it surreptitiously in my bedroom so it wouldn’t be confiscated by my parents.th (1)

I didn’t realize I had never actually seen the movie. I do remember being fascinated by The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the 1968 film adaptation of McCuller’s 1940 novel and but I didn’t know much about McCullers’ complicated life.

I learned that Lula Carson Smith was born February 19, 1917 and suffered from several illnesses throughout her life, including alcoholism. She had rheumatic fever at the age of 15 and suffered from strokes that began in her youth. By the age of 31 her left side was entirely paralyzed.
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In 1937, at the age of 20, she married an ex-soldier and aspiring writer, Reeves McCullers. Carson and Reeves McCullers divorced in 1941, then remarried in 1945. During this period of separation, Reeves had a love relationship with the composer David Diamond. McCullers fell in love with a number of women and pursued them sexually with great aggression, but seems not to have succeeded in having sex with any of them. Her romantic obsessions included Gypsy Rose Lee, Katherine Anne Porter, and the Swiss journalist, travel writer and novelist Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1908-1942) to whom she dedicated RGE. “She had a face that I knew would haunt me for the rest of my life.” Queer cultural critic Sarah Schulman has suggested that “had McCullers been alive today, not only would she have probably been in A.A. and on antidepressants, she might have been living as a transgender man.”

Reflections in a Golden Eye first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1940, serialized in the October–November issues. McCullers wrote the piece in 1939, originally using the title “Army Post”. She said the story had germinated when, as an adolescent, she had first stepped into the alien territory of Fort Benning, Georgia. A more direct inspiration came from a chance remark from her husband about a voyeur who had been arrested at Fort Bragg — a young soldier who had been caught peeping inside the married officers’ quarters.

She later said : “I am so immersed in my characters that their motives are my own. When I write about a thief, I become one; when I write about Captain Penderton, I become a homosexual man. I become the characters I write about and I bless the Latin poet Terence who said, ‘Nothing human is alien to me.'”

The book was published by Houghton Mifflin on February 14, 1941, to mostly poor reviews. In 1948, severely depressed, she attempted suicide. She lived the last twenty years of her life in Nyack, New York, where she died on September 29, 1967, after a brain hemorrhage, at the age of 50. Only two weeks before the film adaptation of her novel was released.

In 1956 producers Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster planned to adapt the book with a script by Tennessee Williams, with Michael Anderson directing. Tony Richardson hoped to direct this film with Marlon Brando and Jeanne Moreau in the lead roles. In 1964 Ava Gardner was announced for the role of Leonora Penderton.

John Huston enlisted Chapman Mortimer, “a fine Scottish novelist, not well known,” to write the screenplay, then reviewed it with Carson McCullers. In Huston’s 1980 memoir, An Open Book, he writes “The strokes had slowed her speech, and some words were slurred, but her observations were acute and pointed. She approved of the script.” Huston and Gladys Hill then incorporated McCuller’s suggestions and sharpened some of the dialogue. At some point Francis Ford Coppola is reported to have contributed some uncredited writing on the screenplay.

The role of Major Penderton was extremely physically demanding and the insurance company underwriting the production required proof that Montgomery Clift –the original choice for the Pemberton role–was fit enough for the role after his years of illness. Clift’s long-time friend Elizabeth Taylor committed her large salary as insurance in order to secure Clift for the role. However, Clift subsequently died of a heart attack before filming began. The role was reputedly turned by Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, William Holden, and Lee Marvin, before Marlon Brando was cast. When Huston asked if Brandon could ride a horse, “he assured me that he had been raised on a horse ranch. Later, during the filming of the movie, I noticed that he exhibited such a fear of horses that presently Elizabeth Taylor, who is a good horsewoman, began to be afraid also. I wondered then, as now, if Marlon got this fear because he had so immersed himself in his role. The character he played had a fear of horses. It could well be.” (Still photographs of Brando as Major Penderton were used later by the producers of Apocalypse Now, displayed in the service record of his character Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.)

The completed film stars Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, with Julie Harris, Brian Keith and Robert Forster. Julie Harris also played Frankie Addams, 12-year-old tomboy in The Member of the Wedding, the 1950 play McCullers adapted from her 1946 novel, and was nominated for an Academy Award in the 1952 film version. Private Williams was Robert Forster’s first role. He went on to appear in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), The Delta Force (1986), and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), for which Forster was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This marks the only film performance of Zorro David (Anacleto).
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Some of the film was shot in New York City and on Long Island, where Huston was permitted to use the former Mitchel Field, then in use by Nassau Community College. Many of the interiors and some of the exteriors were done in Italy. It is interesting to note that the story which takes place on an army post, was published during WWII and released as a film in the middle of the Viet Nam war.

Toshiro Mayuzumi composed more than a hundred film scores between  1951 and 1984. The best-known is probably John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score.

Huston recounts the story of the different versions of the film:

“Reflections is a psychological story. Vivid Technicolor would, I felt, get between the audience and the story — a story of minds, thoughts, emotions. So I was looking for a particular kind of color. Weeks and months [of experimentation by the Italian Technicolor lab] were involved, starting well before the commencement of the picture and continuing after the final shots. What we achieved was a golden effect — a diffuse amber color — that was quite beautiful and matched the mood of the picture.

When I sent the final print to the United States, I thought it was something of a triumph. Warner Brothers thought differently; they didn’t like the color. I fought this, and finally, using every threat, contact and influence I could muster, I got the studio to agree to make fifty prints in the amber color and to release these first to theaters in major American cities. The remainder would be make in standard Technicolor.

Every now and then someone comes up to me and says I’ve seen Reflections in the original color, and it is magnificent! Why did they ever release it in straight Technicolor?” So far as I’m concerned, the reason is that the sales department of Warners was headed by a man whose taste in color was shaped by early B pirate films: “The more color per square foot of screen the better the picture.

I like RGE. I think it is one of my best pictures. The entire cast turned in beautiful performances, even better than I had hoped for. And Reflections is a well-constructed picture. Scene by scene — in my humble opinion– it is pretty hard to fault.”

The film was released October 13, 1967 to mixed reviews and was unsuccessful at the box office: Variety called it a “pretentious melodrama” but praised Keith’s “superb” performance as the “rationalizing and insensitive middle-class hypocrite.” Time magazine described it as a “gallery of grotesques,” with the poetry of the novel missing from the film.  “All that remains praiseworthy is the film’s extraordinary photographic technique.” And Roger Ebert observed that the film was released without the usual publicity, despite its stellar cast and director. “Was the movie so wretchedly bad that Warner Bros. decided to keep it a secret? Or could it be, perhaps, that it was too good?” Ebert concludes the latter, praising all aspects of the production, but notes that the audience he saw it with greeted the film’s emotional moments with guffaws and nervous laughter.

Note the film’s advertising tagline: “In the loosest sense he is her husband. . .and in the loosest way she is his wife!”

In The Celluloid Closet Vito Russo writes that Reflections in a Golden Eye was released with a seal of approval despite John Huston’s refusal to make a series of cuts requested by the Catholic Office for Motion Pictures and the Motion Picture Association of America. In spite of a “C” (Condemned) rating the film gained wide distribution, something that could not have happened a decade earlier. One year later, in 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code was abolished altogether in favor of today’s “alphabet soup” rating system.

And the trailer ends: “Suggested for mature audiences. Leave the children home.”

IMG_9637A version of this essay was originally presented on August 15, 2019 to introduce a (35-mm Technicolor) screening of Reflections in a Golden Eye as part of SFMOMA’s Modern Cinema series, “Haunted: Gothic Tales by Women”.
The DVD announces “The restoration you are about to see replicates the Director John Huston’s original, stylized color design which uses muted color and warm golden tone to reflect the atmosphere and drama of this story. The feature appeared in theatres for just one week with this original color design before the studio imposed a full color treatment for general release, which did not reflect Huston’s original vision.”
I’d be curious which version readers prefer.

Name Dropping

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Everywhere one turns this month the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot is being commemorated and celebrated. The series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by disenfranchised queer people against a police raid in Greenwich Village, New York, in June 1969, is now considered the incident that sparked the modern lesbian and gay civil rights movement.

I was 16 in June 1969. A clueless kid who knew he was different, with no idea what that really meant. I never heard about them, not on television, not in history books, nothing. I don’t even remember when this event crept into my consciousness. And I certainly never dreamed that I would have crossed paths with so many activists over the intervening fifty years.

Chatting recently with a young woman working on the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, I mentioned that I’d met a few of the people she was historicizing.  When she was obviously impressed, I realized that in my role as librarian, researcher, writer, and archivist, I was a bridge between these important pioneers, many of them now gone, and her generation.

I met most of these activists in my role as the founding Program Manager of the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian (now LGBTQIA) Center at the San Francisco Public Library. To celebrate the Center’s opening, renowned transgender scholar and activist Susan Stryker and I co-authored Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. We included information Susan had recently uncovered about a riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in August 1966, documented in her award-winning film Screaming Queens, which brought attention to similar pre-Stonewall actions around the country. It had fallen to me to ask Armistead Maupin to contribute an introduction to Gay by the Bay, but my nervousness was unnecessary as the always-in-demand author charmingly obliged. Our paths crossed occasionally in the intervening years, before he and his handsome husband, Christopher, recently decamped to London.

Jim Hormel made history when, against considerable right wing opposition, he was named the first openly LGBTQ American ambassador, to Luxembourg. Jim was always supportive of me personally and professionally, and I was thrilled when a profile in the local paper depicted him peeking over the cover of Gay by the Bay. I learned a lot about the rest of his life by reading his fascinating memoir Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador.

In 2006 I attended the very first LGBTQ Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections (ALMS) conference cohosted by the Quatrefoil Library and the Tretter Collection at the University of Minnesota. Among the many activities the international attendees were treated to, we were squired through the massive archives by the inveterate collector Jean Tretter himself. Minneapolis native Phil Willkie, founder of the James White Review, hosted a party where I met Frank Kameny and somehow ended up giving him a ride to the airport. At the time Frank was trying to find an archival repository for the protest picket signs reading “First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals” that he had hand-lettered and carried in 1965. I don’t think I fully understood how important he was to the movement, and how disappointed he was that no one seemed to understand the historical significance of his material. Through hard work and negotiations, he was able to see them persevered for posterity at the Smithsonian Institution. Years earlier I had become friends with Dick Hewetson, co-founder of Minneapolis’ pioneering Quatrefoil Library. The former minister moved to San Francisco where he encouraged the San Francisco Public Library to enhance its collections on atheism. During the ALMS Conference, Dick generously arranged for a friend to drive us all around Minneapolis and Saint Paul so that I could see the sights.

Over the years I spent a considerable amount of time with library activist Barbara Gittings and her partner, photographer Kay (Tobin) Lahusen, mostly at events related to the American Library Association. I was impressed with their commitment to the cause. They flew separately, they once told me: in case of a plane crash, the survivor would continue their important work. The last time I saw Barbara, we were on a panel together in Los Angeles, and she was not well. That didn’t stop her from doing her utmost to impart her considered perspective on the proceedings.  Influential MCC minister Jim Mitulski and I once arranged for a historic reunion of Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon, co-founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, with Barbara and Kay. There had been some bad blood back in the day, but this time these fierce little old ladies seemed glad to reunite.

I encountered the handsome and irascible Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, and his winsome partner, John Burnside, many times while working with the cadre of volunteers dedicated to ensuring his papers were preserved and made accessible at the Library. These included his biographer Stuart Timmons and radical faerie Joey Cain, among others. I also became good friends with John Gruber, the last surviving founding member of the Mattachine Society, the person who had covertly snapped the sole, now-famous, photograph of the group.

I never met Harvey Milk, but I visited the home he once shared with Scott Smith, and worked with his friends, including photographer Dan Nicoletta, to secure the Harvey Milk-Scott Smith Collection for the Hormel Center. After we included Danny’s work in Gay by the Bay, he and I became friends. As I did with Cathy Cade, Rich Gerharter and Chloe Atkins.

I have stories about Barbara Grier & Donna McBride, starting with a visit to the Naiad Press compound in Tallahassee, FL. Suffice it to say that Barbara was an important figure in promoting lesbian literature albeit quite cantankerous. I remember once  sifting through one of the many boxes Barbara had sent, and almost tossed a lone salt shaker, until I realized it was the salt shaker used on the cover of Naiad’s reissue of Patricia Highsmith’s classic lesbian novel (using the pseudonym Clare Morgan) The Price of Salt. Tee Corinne, who designed many of Naiad’s covers, also became a friend while we were both involved with instigating a Queer Caucus at the College Art Association.

Other literary figures include Ann Bannon, the charming author of the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, who has over the years become a dear friend. She embraces her moniker of “Queen of the Pulps” as she reminisces in documentaries and on panels about her experiences in the early 1960s. Many women tell her that her books saved their lives by providing a road map to their sexual identity.  I also befriended one of her male counterparts, the late Victor Banis, the prolific pioneering pulp writer who used many pseudonyms. When Katherine V. Forrest, beloved mystery and science fiction author, and I co-edited Love, Castro Street, we included a lovely reminiscence by Victor. I also became friends with Katherine’s pal, Michael Nava, author of the award-winning Henry Rios mysteries, who also contributed to the anthology.

In the 1990s on a visit to the ONE Institute I was introduced to W. Dorr Legg and Jim Kepner. I indirectly interacted with Morris Kight, when my partner-at-the-time’s artwork was accepted into a group exhibit, only to be nixed by Kight. Speaking of Southern California, I became friends with activist, author and therapist Betty Berzon and her partner Terry DeCrescenzo, ultimately contributing an essay about this power couple to an anthology about gay men and their divas.  And I always enjoyed chatting with their good friends author and minister Malcolm Boyd and his life-partner, journalist, photographer, and therapist Mark Thompson.

Other names to drop: Allan Bérubé, the historian, activist, author of Coming Out Under Fire : The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two. We would sometimes meet for coffee while he was at the SFPL doing extensive research for his next project. I admire FTM activist Jamison Green and remember fondly our time together on the Frameline screening committee, sometimes rolling our eyes as the elders in the group. I’d never heard of Peter Berlin when two friend separately said someone should make a documentary about the pioneering porn star. So I introduced Jim Tushinski and Lawrence Helman, who went on to co-produce That Man: Peter Berlin. There have been many others important figures, some of them still with us.

I’ve just read We are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation by Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown. Unfamiliar with the relatively young authors’ @lgbt_history Instagram account, I was expecting a standard-issue coffee table book and was therefore surprised and delighted to discover that I’d never seen many of the photographs and the nuanced stories enhanced my understanding of the queer civil rights movement’s complicated path over the past five decades. This new book reminded me of the many losses and gains, fits and starts, how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go, in the struggle for our basic human rights.

It also reminded me of how many of these pioneers have enriched my own life.

“I could have danced all night…”

Standard

“Last dance, it’s my last chance for love…” The disco diva’s voice soars. I smile with memories of moving to the relentless beat. Suddenly I realize my eyes have filled with tears and I am weeping. What? Why?

I am remembering all my dance partners, seeing them raise their arms, swing their legs, shake their booties. Full of life, desiring love. We are filled with the bone-marrow loud music, and likely some drugs. The lights flash, a glitter ball twirls, colors shoot in every direction. I am here and I am there, but they — most of them — are no longer here: Randy, John, Joseph, Frank, Matt, Tom… My heart can’t hold the names of all the friends cut down in their prime.

But it can, and it does. They are here now with me in the music, their souls in the sound waves, their smiles in mine, their dance floor moves never sharper, more focused. I smell their sweat, the poppers, patchouli, stale beer. And I dance with them, without them.

“I need you by me, beside me to guide me, to hold me…”

Transported across the decades, I am laughing and crying and knowing I’ll be joining them someday soon. We’re all moving in the same direction, different timing, different steps, but the beat is the same. It’s a heart beat, the rhythm of our breath, partly from one too many high energy songs back-to-back, the unseen DJ unwilling to give us a chance to catch our breath.

I miss these men. They were my brothers We were in this together. Until one by one they were taken away like some macabre version of musical chairs.

“Disco is dead” proclaimed those who didn’t understand. They were wrong. As long as disco was alive so were we. So were the flamboyant queens with huge shiny fans preening, cavorting, presenting themselves to the world, night after night.  And though they’re gone, they’re not really. I am grateful for the grief. Grateful for their return on Donna Summer’s vibrato. They show their ID, order a drink, and sashay on to the dance floor of my heart, one more time. “Last dance…”

It’s happening again, right now, as I write this. I am laughing and sobbing simultaneously, making an imaginary rainbow. And that too makes me smile, at the corny cliché that’s perfect, as I remember my departed dear friends dancing.

And now I realize it’s not only them I’m remembering but myself. The cute clueless guy looking for love, not just sex like everyone else, and never quite finding it. And now I know I have, thanks to Donna Summer. “It’s my last chance for love…”