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Archive for March, 2009

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Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Yaddo
Union Avenue (between racetrack and Interstate 87)

Originally the home of wealthy stockbroker Spencer Trask and his wife, Katrina, Yaddo was named by one of the Trask children – her mispronunciation of “shadow.” The Trasks had four offspring, all of whom died young, and Katrina’s grief made her try to envision a brighter future for the estate as an artists’ colony, after she and her husband had died. In 1926, following the Trasks’ wishes, Yaddo welcomed its first colonists and continues to sponsor writers who must apply for residence.

Yaddo is a gloomy, gothic estate, and on an overcast day, it’s easy to believe the rumors that it is haunted by the ghosts of the Trask children. It is also easy to imagine Patricia Highsmith creating her great psychological thriller, Strangers on a Train, in this “shadowy” setting. Yaddo was also a favorite writing retreat for other queer writers, including John Cheever, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes (fifth from the right, second row, in this 1942 photo), and Carson McCullers (three to the left of Hughes), who finished The Member of the Wedding while in residence. McCullers was a frequent visitor to the colony; on her very first visit, she was placed in the coveted “tower room” that had belonged to Katrina Trask. A few years later, Truman Capote worked on his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, in the very same room.

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Portland, Ore.

James Beard home
2223 SW Salmon Street (private)

Now an apartment building, this site was once the home of culinary great James Beard (1903-1985). His mother operated a boarding house at this location – she was, in Beard’s words, “a strong-headed, opinionated woman, addicted to theater and the art of entertaining.” She also ran a catering service for her wealthy friends, along with her business partner, Canton-born Jue Let. Beard recalled that his mother’s culinary colleague “taught me ‘taste memory,’ my trump card ability to recapture thousands of memories of eating, right back to my childhood.”

Beard studied locally at Reed College, but in 1922, was expelled from the school for homosexual liaisons with other students and with a professor. (Ironically, in 1974, he received an honorary degree from Reed, after he had become a celebrity.) After the scandal, Beard took voice lessons in London from Enrico Caruso’s coach and later returned to Portland, where he pursued a career as an actor.

Eventually, Beard relocated to New York City, where he achieved fame as the author of numerous best-selling cookbooks.

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The well-known culinary institute, the James Beard Foundation, was named in his honor and is located at the site of the Greenwich Village home he shared with his lover, architect Gino Cofacci.

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Washington, D.C.

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Oh, come on, you’re saying – the White House? A queer place?

Yes, the White House. The resident who comes immediately to mind is Abraham Lincoln, who, as a young lawyer in 1837, rode into Springfield, Ill., looking for a place to stay and found that storekeeper Joshua Speed had a large double bed that he was more than willing to share.

And then there’s James Buchanan, the 15th president, who enjoyed an intimate friendship with William Rufus King, whom he met when both were U.S. senators. King was referred to by Washington insiders as “little Miss Nancy,” “she,” and “Aunt Fancy” – need I say more?

But the person I was really thinking of in listing this most famous address wasn’t a president at all, but a president’s sister. When Grover Cleveland took office as president for the first time in 1885, he was a bachelor in need of a First Lady and White House hostess. His spinster sister, Rose Cleveland, a teacher and editor of a literary magazine, stepped in to help her brother during his first term.

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19th-century view of the White House East Room

Cleveland was defeated for re-election, and Rose was once again her own woman. In 1890, she met and fell in love with a young widow named Evangeline Marss Simpson. Gay historian Jonathan Ned Katz has written in detail about the two women’s passionate relationship, including their intimate correspondence: “Oh, Eve,” Rose wrote, “I tremble at the thought of you….Sweet, Sweet, I dare not think of your arms.” The two lived together until 1892, when Eve backed away from the relationship to seek a traditional heterosexual one. In 1893, Rose (once again ensconced at the White House, following her brother’s successful campaign in 1892) wrote to Eve on White House stationery, wishing her dear companion “my best blessing – whatever you do.” Eve went on to marry an elderly Episcopal bishop, Henry Whipple.

Following the bishop’s death in 1901, Eve and Rose renewed their correspondence and finally reunited in Italy, where they lived together until Rose’s death in 1918. Eve died in 1930 and requested that she be buried beside Rose.

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New York, N.Y.

James Baldwin home
131st Street and Fifth Avenue (private)

A housing project has been on this site in Harlem for almost 50 years, but the first home of writer James Baldwin (1924-1987) was once located here. Baldwin wrote vividly and movingly of the deteriorating neighborhood in his essay, “Fifth Avenue Uptown: A Letter from Harlem,” calling the avenue “wide, filthy, hostile.” “Walk through the streets of Harlem,” he admonished his readers, “and see what we, this nation, have become.”

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Baldwin remembered a bleak, poverty-stricken childhood, where his playgrounds were the roof of his building and a nearby garbage dump. He escaped a brutal stepfather and a troubled home life through books and writing. One of his junior-high teachers, Countee Cullen, spent much time working with him on his fiction and poetry. Baldwin also found solace in the church, becoming an evangelical minister at the age of fourteen. Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), his first novel, is an autobiographical work focused on his early life in Harlem.

Baldwin worked a number of after-school jobs to help his family, and at one such job in downtown Manhattan in 1940, he met the painter Beauford Delaney, who became his mentor and possibly his lover. Delaney introduced Baldwin to jazz, art, and to a circle of African-American artists. “The reality of his seeing,” Baldwin later wrote, “caused me to begin to see.” As a young man Baldwin left his family and Harlem for Greenwich Village, where he worked odd jobs to support his writing. In 1948, he took off for Paris, where he lived on and off for the rest of his life. Though he returned to live in New York for periods of time, he didn’t like to stay long, saying that the racism of the city made him too sad.

Baldwin addressed homosexuality and bisexuality in many of his works, most notably Giovanni’s Room (1956), Another Country (1962), and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968). His own life included affairs with both men and women, but the love of his life seems to have been a Frenchman named Lucien Happersberger, whom he met in 1949. “I starved in Paris for a while, but I learned something,” Baldwin later wrote. “For one thing I fell in love.” Happersberger became Baldwin‘s lover for a while but didn’t share the dream of two men building a life together; he eventually married a woman and named his son after Baldwin.

In addition to fiction writing, Baldwin authored numerous important nonfiction works exploring race and racism. He was himself active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and continued to speak out about racism until his death from cancer in 1987.

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San Francisco, Calif.

Harvey Milk home and Castro Camera
573-575 Castro Street

While we’re on the topic of walking tours…

Cruisin’ the Castro is a popular walking tour of the oh-so-gay Castro district of San Francisco, led by community historian Trevor Howard. The tour includes stops at many sites associated with Harvey Milk (1930-1978), the most famous openly gay politician of our time. Reservations can be made by calling 415-550-8110.

Originally from Brooklyn, Milk moved to San Francisco in 1968, where he worked as a financial analyst and eventually owned a camera shop in the Castro district. This Victorian storefront was the site of Castro Camera, which Milk opened with his lover, Scott Smith, in 1972 and operated for four years. The couple didn’t care that they knew little about cameras – Milk wanted to own a real neighborhood store, like his family back in Brooklyn had. The roomy store had a hand-painted shingle on the door that read “Yes, We Are Very Open.” Harvey and Scott lived upstairs.

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As Milk became increasingly active in local politics, Castro Camera functioned as an ad hoc community center and Milk was the “unofficial mayor of Castro Street.” Signs in the store’s large picture windows advertised demonstrations, protests, and neighborhood meetings; camera and film sales became secondary to politics (the store’s sorry financial picture led the couple to close it in 1976). At night, Milk transferred the addresses from every check written to the store into his own political mailing list.

Milk became involved in organizing gay voter registration drives, helping to establish the first Castro Street Fair, speaking out against Anita Bryant’s antigay campaign, and working against the Briggs initiative, a proposal to bar lesbians and gay men from teaching in California public schools. During the mid-1970s, he made several bids for public office, all of which were unsuccessful. His goal, he once told a friend, was to be mayor of San Francisco.

Then the election of the liberal, gay-supportive mayor George Moscone in 1975 paved the way for Milk’s election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, making Milk the first openly gay elected official in the city’s history. Sadly, both he and Moscone were gunned down by the radically conservative supervisor, Dan White, the following year. White’s lawyer pleaded the infamous “Twinkie defense” – that eating too much junk food had diminished White’s ability to reason. White went to jail anyway, but on the charge of manslaughter rather than murder one. After he was released in 1985, he committed suicide.

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I received this press release today, so I’m excerpting it here – those of you living in Southern California, or visiting the area, will be interested, I’m sure:

Frontiers Magazine, Southern California’s oldest and largest gay magazine, will be launching a series of audio walking tours on the gay & lesbian history of Los Angeles beginning March 28 and available online through the magazine’s website or iTunes. Frontiers readers will be able to download the tours onto their portable media devices and explore the hidden and mysterious history of gay life in downtown Los Angeles, as well as Silver Lake and West Hollywood.

Frontiers partnered with Stuart Timmons, a Lambda Literary Award nominee and co-author of the first comprehensive history book on Los Angeles gay life, Gay L.A., to produce the series. Listeners will join Stuart as he shares sordid tales of backroom trysts, cruel oppression, and defiant struggle at the very places these events occurred. An accompanying map and guide will be printed in the magazine, and will also be available online to download.

Arts & Entertainment Editor Japhy Grant explains the program, saying, “We wanted to present the history of gay Los Angeles in a way that would be compelling and fun for our readers. Much of our history has been covered over, both physically and through ignorance and homophobia. L.A. is such a dynamic and transient city that we don’t have a real sense of the past. Through the Frontiers Historywalk program, we’re helping people find a new way to connect to their community on foot and online.”

Frontiers Historywalk is not only the first audio walking tour of gay Los Angeles, but the first professional audio walking tour of gay history anywhere.

Frontiers Historywalk consists of three audio walking tours: Downtown, Silver Lake and West Hollywood. This progression matches that of the gay community in Los Angeles.

The release dates of each tour are as follows:

Frontiers Historywalk- Downtown – March 28
Frontiers Historywalk- Silver Lake – April 11
Frontiers Historywalk- West
Hollywood – April 25

Each tour will be available through the website at tours.frontierspublishing.com, as well as on iTunes. They will be available in a variety of formats, including a format that will display photos of the sites as the tour is playing (requires video iPod).

 

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Key West, Fla.

Elizabeth Bishop home
624 White Street

Poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was born into a wealthy family from Worcester, Mass. After her graduation from Vassar, she used a family inheritance to live a nomadic life in New York City, Europe, Florida, and other places. In 1938, she and her lover at the time, Louise Crane, purchased a house in Key West. Bishop lived at this residence off and on for the next nine years, first with Crane, then with a subsequent lover, Marjorie Stevens.

In letters to friends, Bishop described her island home this way: “It is very well made, with slightly arched beams so that it looks either like a ship’s cabin or a freight car.” The house was located right on the beach and was to Bishop “perfectly beautiful…inside and out.” Bishop’s first volume of poems, North and South, was published during the time she lived in Key West.

It may sound idyllic, but Bishop battled alcoholism throughout her adult life, and the relationship with Stevens did not last. After they broke up, Bishop sold the Key West house and returned to an itinerant life, eventually being hospitalized for both depression and alcohol-related problems. In 1951, with the help of her mentor, Marianne Moore, Bishop secured a fellowship from Bryn Mawr College that enabled her to travel around the world.

But Bishop never got farther than Brazil, where she met the wealthy Lota de Macedo Soares, who became her lover and tried to nurture her away from alcoholism. Bishop kept postponing her return to the States, until her stay in Brazil had lengthened to 16 years. At her home, Lota built a studio for Bishop that was separate from the house and had a stream running beside it. In that peaceful setting, Bishop was very productive and composed some of her greatest poems. But Bishop eventually returned to the United States after Lota committed suicide in 1967 and her own alcoholism worsened.

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