Archive for February, 2009


Pittsburgh, Pa.

Billy Strayhorn marker
Westinghouse High School
1101 North Murtland Street

Billy Strayhorn home
7212 Tioga Street Rear (demolished)

Born in Ohio, composer Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) lived in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh from his early years until he left for New York as a young adult. In those days, white families lived on the main streets of Homewood, while blacks lived in the alleys behind them (the “Rear” in the Strayhorn address). The Strayhorn home was “a four-room shack,” according to one of Billy’s childhood friends, with two rooms on each floor and a toilet in the basement. The kitchen was the biggest and most significant room in the house. Because of the crowded living conditions and Billy’s father’s alcoholic binges, Billy’s mother often sent her eldest son for long stays with his grandparents in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Billy’s grandmother owned and played a piano, and it was in Hillsborough that Billy first learned to play.

Though he was a musical prodigy, Strayhorn’s family could not afford lessons to further his talent. As an adolescent, Billy found odd jobs selling papers and working as a soda jerk to purchase his first piano, a broken-down upright. “All the money he [Billy] could get hold of,” a friend remembers, “he bought [sheet] music….the house was swamped with music.”

At Westinghouse High School (where there is now a historical marker honoring him), Strayhorn pursued music, becoming first pianist in the Senior Orchestra and playing at local social events and banquets with the school’s Orchestra Club. Though he was often made fun of at school for being a “sissy,” the shy, withdrawn Strayhorn concentrated on his work and his passion for music. After graduation, Strayhorn formed his own interracial jazz trio, The Madhatters, and played local nightspots. But he still had to work days at the drugstore soda fountain and pick up extra money by arranging music.

His big break came in 1938, when a friend of a friend got him an “audience” with Duke Ellington, who was playing with his band at the Stanley Theater in downtown Pittsburgh (now the Benedum Center, a performing arts space). Ellington was impressed by the talented young pianist who could seemingly do everything – write music, lyrics, and arrangements. But he didn’t have an opening in his band. Ellington made Strayhorn a promise of a job if the young musician ever got to New York and gave him exact directions to his home in Harlem. Eager to please Ellington, Strayhorn turned the directions into a song – “Take the A Train” turned out to be his most famous composition and eventually became Ellington’s theme song.

Strayhorn did indeed make it to New York, where he hooked up with Ellington and worked with him for the next 30 years. While Ellington was the public artist, Strayhorn worked behind the scenes as collaborator and arranger. Ellington supported Strayhorn’s career, but he also occasionally took credit for the younger man’s work. Strayhorn consoled himself with drink and died of cancer and alcohol abuse at the age of 51. His song “Lush Life” (1936) sadly defines his own short, intense life.

Strayhorn knew early on that he was gay and was open about his sexual orientation. According to his biographer, he never even danced with a girl. Ellington, who was straight, seems to have been supportive and tolerant of his collaborator’s homosexuality. Strayhorn had a number of significant relationships in his life, most notably in his final years with a graphic designer, a white man named Bill Grove. Grove was the only man Strayhorn ever brought home to meet his family.

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Lawrence, Kan.

Langston Hughes home
732 Alabama Street (demolished)

Langston Hughes statue
Elizabeth Watkins Community Museum
1047 Massachusetts Street

Poet and memoirist Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Joplin, Missouri, but his earliest memories were of living at his grandmother’s house in Lawrence, Kansas, at 732 Alabama Street after his parents’ marriage fell apart. The house is no longer standing, but the one pictured here, which was just next door to his grandmother’s and possibly similar in style, is being renovated.

Hughes was one of Lawrence‘s most celebrated residents, and a bronze statue of him at the age of the age of 13 stands in the local Watkins Community Museum. Hughes spent most of his childhood in his grandmother’s simple, two-bedroom house with a wood shed and outhouse in the back, plus a pump for water. Occasionally, his grandmother rented out a room to make money, and sometimes she let the entire house, moving herself and Langston to the home of friends James and Mary Reed, who lived at 731 New York Street. Later, Langston remembered “the mortgage man…always came worrying my grandmother for the interest due.”

Langston endured a solitary boyhood in a mostly white Lawrence neighborhood; he did not play with many other children and felt his loneliness like “a dull ache.” One of his favorite pastimes was visiting the morgue at the nearby University of Kansas, where he snuck in and watched, fascinated, as students worked on cadavers. Langston attended predominantly white schools and though he rarely studied, he was always near the top of his class.

Langston’s grandmother died in 1915, and he lived briefly with the Reeds. When his mother remarried, he moved with her to Lincoln, Ill., where her new husband had secured work. It was in Lincoln, Langston later said, that he first started writing poems and was chosen class poet in eighth grade, where he was again one of only a few black students. “My classmates,” he recalled, “knowing that a poem had to have rhythm, elected me unanimously – thinking, no doubt, that I had some, being a Negro.”

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New York, N.Y.

Caffe Cino
31 Cornelia Street

From 1958 to 1967, Joe Cino ran a coffeehouse at this address that has gone down in performance history as the place where both gay theater and Off-Off-Broadway were born. The Beat generation cafe was not intended at the beginning as either a theater or a gay hangout, though Cino himself was gay. “My idea,” he said in a Village Voice interview in 1965, “was…to start with a beautiful, intimate, warm, non-commercial, friendly atmosphere where people could come and not feel pressured or harassed. I also thought anything could happen. The one thing I never thought of was fully staged productions of plays.” But that’s exactly what happened. On a dark, narrow street in Greenwich Village, in a room described by one reporter as a “shoebox,” gay playwrights such as William M. Hoffman, Doric Wilson, Robert Patrick, and Lanford Wilson got their start, as did gay-friendly writers Sam Shepard and John Guare.

Sadly, the accidental death of his lover, lighting designer John Torrey, sent Cino into despair and drugs. Cino committed suicide in 1967, and the “magic time,” as William Hoffman called it, came to a close.

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Salt Lake City, Utah

Ada Dwyer Russell home
W. North Temple Street

Born in 1863, actress Ada Dwyer (later Russell) was raised as a Mormon. Her father, James Dwyer, had come west in a covered wagon and opened the first bookstore in the far west. He also helped found the Latter Day Saints University. The Dwyers’ residence is listed at this location on North Temple Street beginning in 1867, when Ada was four, but the building is no longer extant.

Ada grew up to be an actress who first performed at the Salt Lake Theater (corner of South First and State) and later on the Broadway and London stages. She married the British actor Harold Russell, and was later widowed. In 1912, she met poet Amy Lowell, a cigar-smoking butch 11 years her junior, at a women’s luncheon club in Boston. The two were instantly smitten; Lowell wrote that “between us lept a gold and scarlet flame.” Two years later, after much coaxing on Lowell‘s part, Russell moved into the Lowell family estate, Sevenels, in Brookline, Mass. She gave up her own career for Lowell‘s, organizing her partner’s life, and became the subject of Lowell‘s explicit lesbo-erotic poetry. Lowell died in 1925, leaving her fortune to Russell; still, Russell maintained until her own death in 1952 that the two of them had only been “friends.”

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Baltimore, Md.

Gertrude Stein residence
2408 Linden Avenue (private)

Gertrude Stein’s (1874-1946) first ambition was not to be a writer, but a psychologist. After studying psychology with William James at Harvard, Stein was accepted at the John Hopkins Medical School, where her brother, Leo (with whom she was very close), was also enrolled. She lived with relatives at this address (on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985) for about a year, then moved in with Leo at 215 East Biddle Street.

Stein was unhappy and unfulfilled in medical school. She was also on the brink of discovering her lesbianism. While living in Baltimore, Stein ran with a lesbian crowd, a group of Bryn Mawr College graduates led by a young woman named Mabel Haynes. Sadly for her, Stein fell unrequitedly in love with Haynes’ “romantic friend,” May Bookstaver. The experience made a deep impression on Stein, whose first novel, Q.E.D., completed in Baltimore in 1903, was an autobiographical account of this lesbian love triangle.

Unlike most of Stein’s work, Q.E.D. was openly lesbian in content and language. Stein put the finished manuscript away for 30 years, and then, in 1932, unearthed it and showed it to her agent, who advised against trying to publish it because of its “controversial” theme. Q.E.D. was finally published in 1950, four years after Stein’s death.

Stein left Baltimore in 1903 to visit Leo, who had moved to Paris, and to try to forget May Bookstaver. Paris agreed with her, and she lived there the rest of her life, meeting Alice B. Toklas, her life companion, in 1907. And May Bookstaver and Mabel Haynes? They both pursued much more traditional lives, ending their affair and marrying men.

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Newport, R.I.

Army and Navy YMCA
50 Washington Square

Since the early 20th century, YMCAs have been gathering places for gay men. Newport‘s Army and Navy YMCA, a Beaux Arts-style building, opened in 1911, and when the fleet was in – Newport was home to an important naval training station – the building was often filled beyond capacity. Here soldiers and sailors could bank, shop at the canteen, and eat a homestyle meal. Activities included swimming, bowling, and jogging (and numerous other “indoor sports,” to be sure). The administrators also showed movies and sponsored cabaret evenings of song and performances.

In his article, “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era,” historian George Chauncey relates the story of an official navy investigation in 1919-20 of homosexuality in Newport. Under orders from then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt, young enlisted men acted as decoys to entrap homosexuals, gathering information and later testifying before a naval court of inquiry and at several civilian trials. Twenty sailors and sixteen civilians were arrested as a result of the “investigation.”

The decoys reported that the YMCA, as well as nearby beaches and wharfs, were havens of homosexual activity. Some gay sailors lived at the Y, while others just rented rooms for the night. “Fagott” [sic] parties, the investigators found, were commonplace at the Y in the evenings. The gay men who frequented the Y also engaged in homosexual activities in other cities and maintained contacts with gay men in New York, Providence, and Fall River. But, Chauncey found, in addition to the men who identified as “queer,” there were men who regularly enjoyed homosexual sex but thought of themselves as heterosexual.

Newport‘s YMCA reached its peak in 1951, during the Korean War. When the Navy began downsizing during the Nixon administration, attendance at the Y fell off, and it was closed in 1973. It is now an apartment building for low-income residents.

“The Army and Navy Y.M.C.A. was the headquarters of all cocksuckers [in] the early part of the evening…. everybody who sat around there in the evening…knew it.”

–Navy investigator, 1920

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