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Archive for January, 2009

We’wha

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Zuni, N.M.

Zuni Pueblo
1203B State Highway 53 (off U.S. 40)

On the border of New Mexico and Arizona is the Pueblo of Zuni, which was once home to one of the most famous two-spirited people, We’wha (1849-1896). Today, the Zuni still relate stories about We’wha, an accomplished weaver and potter who was one of the first Zuni to sell wares for cash. Anthropologist Mathilda Coxe Stevenson described We’wha as “the strongest character and the most intelligent of the Zuni tribe.” In 1886, We’wha spent six months in Washington as Stevenson’s guest, becoming the hit of the capital’s social scene and being generally accepted as an “Indian princess.”

In Zuni culture, We’wha was a lhamana, an individual who combined male and female work and social roles and often dressed in women’s clothing. (Among whites, such individuals were commonly known as berdaches, a French colonialist word meaning “slave boy.”) A lhamana was neither exclusively female or male; of We’wha, they said, “She is a man.” Gay historians disagree about whether or not the lhamana role was exalted or lowly. Some contend that lhamana were holy people – priests and artists – while others say their role was one of humiliation and passivity.

As a child, We’wha lost both parents and was adopted into the family of an aunt. In many photographs at the Smithsonian Institution, We’wha can be seen weaving in front of the family dwelling, which was located in the southeast corner of the Zuni pueblo. The pueblo is open to “respectful guests” every day until dusk. (For more info, visit http://www.experiencezuni.org/home.html.)

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New Canaan, Conn.

Glass House
798-856 Ponus Ridge Rd.

Philip Johnson (1906-2005) – the celebrated architect who designed the sculpture garden and east wing of the Museum of Modern Art, among numerous other structures – built this home in 1949 in one of the wealthiest areas of Connecticut. The idea for a “glass house” came from an argument with his mentor, Mies van der Rohe – could it actually be done? The two competed to solve the problem at the same time, with Johnson finishing his house first. (Van der Rohe’s, located in Plano, Ill., was not completed until the following year.)

Johnson’s Glass House is located in a thickly wooded area on a knoll overlooking a pond. “I learned from the Japanese…[that] a shelf keeps good spirits from straying, and the evil spirits will be unable to climb up to you,” Johnson noted about the location. The Glass House is a simple, modern structure, a 32-x-56-foot rectangle with one door centered on each side. Eight black steel columns form the framework, holding sheets of clear glass between them. A central brick cylinder extending the height of the house contains a bathroom. When Frank Lloyd Wright visited the completed house, he reportedly asked, “Am I indoors or am I out?” Said Johnson, “With the lights out and the snow falling, it is almost like a celestial elevator.”

Over the next 30 years, Johnson added other structures to his 40 acres of land – a solid brick guesthouse to contrast with the glass structure; an arched pavilion in the pond; an underground art gallery; and a climbable tower in the woods, built to honor his friend Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet. One critic calls the compound Johnson’s “architectural autobiography”; he himself labeled it “the diary of an eccentric architect.” Johnson willed the property and all the buildings to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1986. The architect died in 2005, followed shortly thereafter by his longtime partner, David Whitney. The compound – complete with a visitors’ center designed by Johnson – opened to the public in April, 2007. 

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Grand Rapids, Minn.

Judy Garland home
2727 US Highway 169 South

This house in Grand Rapids was the first home of Frances Gumm/Judy Garland (1922-1969), the singer/actor/gay icon whose death has occasionally been credited with setting the flame that ignited the Stonewall Rebellion. Garland‘s father was reportedly gay, as was her second husband, director Vincente Minnelli, and there have been rumors about her own bisexuality.

The Gumms owned the New Grand Theater on Pokagama Avenue in Grand Rapids in the 1920s. Baby Gumm gave her first public performance there at age 2, singing “Jingle Bells” with her two older sisters. When she was 4, her parents moved the family to California to pursue their show business ambitions – and also apparently to escape the rumors of Frank Gumm’s sexual inclinations.

Judy’s best-loved role is undoubtedly as Dorothy Gale in the classic 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz. Every June since 1975, Grand Rapids has celebrated its most famous resident with a Judy Garland Festival, complete with bands and floats. In 1989, the 50th anniversary of the movie, the town dedicated its very own Yellow Brick Road, a pathway of 5,000 bricks, about one-fifth of which have been engraved with personal messages (at an average cost of about 50 dollars).

The Gumm house has been restored to look like it would have in the 1920s, and is open to the public, with family items and photographs and Wizard of Oz memorabilia on display.

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Beaumont, Texas

Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum and Visitors Center
1477 N. Martin Luther King Parkway (at I-10)

Beaumont was home to the young Mildred “Babe” Didrikson (1911-1956), one of the greatest athletes of all time. The Didriksons moved here when Babe was a child, after a flood destroyed their Port Arthur home. As one biographer put it, the Didrikson home (at 850 Doucette Avenue) was in an area “full of rednecks and roughnecks, hard-knuckled families living in washboard poverty.” The busy, noisy street had an oil refinery at one end and a trolley line running down the middle. Around the neighborhood, Babe wore boys’ pants, overalls, and athletic undershirts. Her boyish manner made her a social outcast at school, but she later advised that “a girl that wants to become an athlete and do some winning should…start by being a tomboy.”

And she was indeed an athlete who did “some winning.” From 1930 to 1932, Babe held the American, Olympic, or world records in five different track and field events. After her stunning gold-medal victories at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932, one newspaper headline declared, “Babe Breaks Records Easier Than Dishes.” When she returned from her Olympic triumph, Babe’s father built an apartment for her and her sister on the second floor of the Doucette Avenue house, consisting of two small rooms, a hallway, and a bathroom. Her sister called the bathroom “Babe’s Hollywood bathroom…the most beautiful bathroom in Beaumont,” complete with a bright green tub like one that she had seen and admired in Los Angeles.

Babe went on to excel in numerous sports, including softball, bowling, javelin throwing, boxing, billiards, tennis, and diving. But her greatest distinction by far was as a golfer. In 1935, she came under the protective wing of Bertha Bowen, a powerhouse in Texas golf, who not only helped her game but transformed her looks and physical demeanor as well. Babe – whose “masculine” appearance and competence in male sports had given rise to the suspicion that she was a lesbian – went from cross-dressing to cultivating a traditionally feminine look, including skirts, waved hair, rouge, red nails; she even acquired a husband, the wrestler George Zaharias, in 1938. During her short career, the “ultimate Amazon” won 82 professional and amateur golf tournaments; was named Associated Press’s Woman of the Year six times; and was a founding member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA).

The museum documents Babe’s life and achievements, housing many of her athletic trophies. Don’t be surprised when you don’t find any reference to her bisexuality, or that her intimate companion, the young golfer Betty Dodd, is treated as solely a friend. Babe, Betty, and George all lived together in Florida from 1950 until Babe’s death from colon cancer in 1956. Of Babe’s husband, Betty later said, “We always had a lot more fun when he wasn’t around.”

Babe is buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, 5220 Pine Street, in Beaumont. The state of Texas maintains a historical marker at her gravesite.

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San Francisco, Calif.

Black Cat Cafe
710 Montgomery Street

Like many early gay bars, the famous Black Cat didn’t start out that way. Just a few blocks from the center of North Beach, the Black Cat was first distinguished as a bohemian hang-out (it billed itself as Bohemia of the Barbary Coast) and provided the backdrop for part of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Following World War II, when gay men and lesbians swarmed San Francisco after service in the Pacific, the Black Cat assumed a “gayer” personality. The poet Allen Ginsburg, who knew it in the ’50s, described it as an enormous bar with a honky-tonk piano that “everyone” went to: “All the gay screaming queens would come, the heterosexual gray flannel suit types, longshoremen. All the poets went there.”

At a time when homophile organizations like the Mattachine Society were largely conciliatory to the police and to city officials, the Black Cat was noteworthy as a site of resistance. Its owner, Sol Stoumen, refused to pay off the police for protection against harassment, and his bar was routinely raided and fined from the 1940s through the early 1960s. During the 1950s, the Black Cat’s flamboyant drag performer, Jose Sarria, sang campy parodies of torch songs, giving them political twists, and finished each set by leading the bar’s patrons in his rendition of “God Save Us Nelly Queens,” even when members of the vice squad were present. His brand of activist theater made him extremely popular among gays, and in 1961 Sarria decided to campaign for city supervisor, knowing that he had no chance of winning. Though he received only a few thousand votes, Sarria said later that his intention had been to show his peers that a gay man had the right to run, whether he won or lost.

The Black Cat was closed in 1963. Said the attorney for the club, “That place is like an institution. This is like closing the cable cars or the Golden Gate Bridge.” There is now an upscale tapas and wine bar called Bocadillos on the site.

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Harlem, N.Y.

267 House
267 West 136th Street

Zora Neale Hurston once wryly dubbed the rooming house that queer writers Wallace Thurman, Bruce Nugent, and Langston Hughes all called home “Niggerati Manor.” The tenement building (also known as “267 House”) was owned by Iolanthe Sydney, a black philanthropist who offered rooms rent-free to artists in order to support their work. Nugent – a painter as well as a writer – reportedly painted brightly colored phalluses on the interior walls.

It was at this address that Thurman, Nugent, Hurston, Hughes, and others started the experimental literary journal Fire!! in the summer of 1926. Each of its seven founders pledged 50 dollars to the effort, but, according to Hughes’s memoirs, only three ever paid up. Since Thurman was the only one with a steady job, his checks paid for the printing bill for the first and only issue.

The journal had a high price tag for the day – one dollar. Hughes later remembered that Fire!! never seemed to make money because Bruce Nugent – who was unemployed at the time – distributed it to booksellers on foot, using the little bit of cash he got from its sale to buy food. (Nugent’s “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” the first published piece with a homosexual theme by an African-American, was one of the notable pieces included in Fire!!) Ironically, several hundred copies of the journal, which were being stored in the printer’s basement, were burned in an actual fire. It took Thurman four years to pay off the printing bills.

Within two years, the inhabitants of 267 House had all moved elsewhere; but Thurman’s 1932 novel, Infants of the Spring, still provides a glimpse into life at artists’ residence.

“… they walked in silence … Alex turned in his doorway … no need for words … they had always known each other . . .”

–from Richard Bruce Nugent, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” 1926

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St. Louis, Mo.

Tennessee Williams home
4633 Westminster Place  (private)

Born in Mississippi, Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams (1911-1983) spent most of his childhood and young manhood in St. Louis, after his father, a shoe salesman, secured employment there. But Williams’ father often drank or gambled away his paycheck, forcing the family to live in a variety of crowded, rented rooms, moving a dozen times in just a few years. In 1921 a small, dark apartment on the third floor of this building was home. A rear window was blocked by a fire escape, allowing only minimal light into the rooms. Williams’ parents were openly hostile to each other, and his mother was increasingly unhappy to be so far removed from the genteel life she had known as a Southern minister’s daughter.

Williams set his first successful play, the autobiographical Glass Menagerie, here on Westminster Place, though the actual events he depicted in that play happened at a later time in another apartment in St. Louis (see below). According to Williams’ stage instructions, the building in which the Wingfields lived was “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population.” This building was later named “The Glass Menagerie Apartments,” in recognition of its place in theatrical history; in 2006, it was gutted, converted into luxury condos, with a starting price of $220,000 each, and renamed “The Tennessee.”

During his last years of high school, Williams and his family moved to five small rooms at 6254 Enright Avenue. Though Williams went off to the university in Columbia in 1929, he returned to the apartment for summers and to live in 1932, when his father could no longer afford to finance his education. It was events at this address that Williams depicted in The Glass Menagerie. His older sister, Rose, who suffered from phobias and hysteria and had twice been hospitalized, was living at home and retreating more and more into herself. The social call that is at the heart of The Glass Menagerie occurred in 1933, when Tennessee’s mother tried unsuccessfully to set Rose up with one of her son’s college friends. Williams’ younger brother, Dakin, later recalled that “the events of The Glass Menagerie are a virtually literal rendering of our family life at 6254 Enright Avenue.”

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