Archive for May, 2009


St. Louis, Mo.

William S. Burroughs home
4664 Pershing Avenue

Author William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) was born on this quiet, tree-lined street, and the large, 3-story house belonging to his family is still standing. Burroughs’ family was wealthy: in 1885, Burroughs’ grandfather had invented the adding machine.

Young Burroughs began writing at age 8, and his first effort was a 10-page “novel” entitled “The Autobiography of a Wolf.” From then on, he wanted to be a writer, and penned everything from westerns to adventure stories to horror. As a teenager, he became obsessed with true crime and began writing detective and gangster fiction.

It was also in his teens that he first experimented with drugs (he later became addicted to heroin), and formed a romantic attachment with another boy at his boarding school. Drug addiction and homosexuality would become the primary themes of his adult fiction. Living off a monthly stipend from his family, he moved to New York City, where he and pals Jack Kerouac (above, right, with Burroughs) and Allen Ginsberg formed the core of the Beat Movement.

After Burroughs was arrested for possession of narcotics, he tried to start a new, drug-free life as a cotton farmer in Texas. But he was on and off junk and in and out of rehab, and when he was arrested a second time, he and his wife, Joan, decided to relocate to Mexico. There, in 1951, he accidentally shot and killed Joan during a drunken game of “William Tell.”  He lived much of the rest of his life in self-imposed exile in Europe and Tangiers.

Burroughs later claimed that his wife’s tragic death “motivated and formulated” his writing, but Kerouac and Ginsberg – who considered him a genius – were instrumental in spurring him on. Ginsberg (Burroughs’ occasional fuck buddy) helped get his first novel, Junkie (1953) published. Burroughs’ most famous novel was Naked Lunch (1959), a title suggested by Kerouac. It was a surrealistic account of an addict’s life, which was banned in Boston and was at the center of a famous censorship trial.

In all of his work, Burroughs drew on the genres that had fascinated him as a child writer in St. Louis and transformed them, creating his own distinctive and subversive brand of literature.


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De Force

Lodi, Calif.

De Force Avenue

This street is named for Laura de Force Gordon (1839-1907), a suffragist with a laudable string of accomplishments to her name, who owned a farmed just outside of Lodi. Originally from northwestern Pennsylvania, she was once married (hence the “Gordon” part of her name), but the union ended in divorce.

A Stockton newspaper owner, one of the first two women admitted to the state bar, a women’s rights litigator, and a stunning orator sometimes called the “Daniel Webster of Suffrage,” she was also a woman-loving woman. When a 100-year-old time capsule was unearthed and opened in San Francisco in 1979, a pamphlet written by Gordon on California geysers was found inside. On the flyleaf, she had written: “If this little book should see the light after its 100 years of entombment, I would like its readers to know that the author was a lover of her own sex and devoted the best years of her life in striving for the political equality and social and moral elevation of women.”

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De Wolfe

New York, N.Y.

Elsie de Wolfe / Elisabeth Marbury home
“Irving House”
122 East 17th Street

Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950) had two careers, first as an actress and then as the first professional interior decorator. In 1892, she and her lover, Elisabeth (Bessie) Marbury, a theatrical agent and producer, made a home together at this address, a residence that had been built in 1830 for writer Washington Irving – hence called “Irving House.” (Today, a plaque on the building mentions Irving but not de Wolfe.) Though East 17th Street was not fashionable at that time, their block was situated firmly in the elegant Gramercy Park district, which held a certain cachet for the two women.

De Wolfe tired of touring in theatrical productions in the late 1890s and began spending more time at home. Marbury suggested that she focus her attention on the remodeling of Irving House, her first interior decoration project. De Wolfe removed the dark woodwork and wallpaper, velvet curtains, and heavy furniture that had marked the tastes of the mid-Victorian era. She had the walls painted ivory and light gray and the house completely refurnished in 18th-century French style.

When the remodeling was finished, “the Bachelors” – as de Wolfe and Marbury called themselves – established a Parisian-type salon at their residence. Each Sunday afternoon from 1897 to 1907, an eclectic assortment of guest met at Irving House for literary talk, gossip, tea and snacks, and an exchange of wit. Guests included such personalities as Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, Oscar Wilde, Nellie Melba, Henry Adams, and Isabella Stewart Gardner. “You never know who you are going to meet at Bessie’s and Elsie’s,” one salon-goer remarked, “but you can always be sure that whoever they are they will be interesting and you will have a good time.”

De Wolfe’s first public commission came through Marbury’s contacts. Marbury was the first successful theatrical agent, who represented many of the big playwrights of her era, including Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. Marbury pulled some strings to land her partner a job redecorating the Colony Club in Manhattan, the first private club for women. (It’s now the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.) After that, more and more work came de Wolfe’s way, and a commission to decorate the mansion of Henry Clay Frick made her a millionaire.

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Lancaster, Pa.

The Demuth Museum
120 East King Street

Born at 109 North Lime Street in Lancaster, the artist Charles Demuth (1883-1935) moved at the age of 7 with his family to this location. Demuth’s family was wealthy, owning the oldest tobacco and snuff factory in the country; their tobacco shop was next door to their home.

Demuth suffered from a childhood disease that left him lame, and he spent several years confined to his bed. But he showed an early talent for painting, and as a young man, was able to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Later, he came under the aesthetic mentoring of gay artist Marsden Hartley. Inspired by Hartley’s work, Demuth developed a precisionist style of painting, and his depictions of modern city architecture are what many critics consider his greatest contributions.

But gay critics are more interested in Demuth’s renderings of the early homosexual community in New York City. In 1918, Demuth accomplished a series of paintings depicting gay men at bathhouses in lower Manhattan (see above). Another group of paintings from 1930 bear names such as “Two Sailors Urinating” and “Three Sailors on the Beach,” and also have a strong gay sensibility. Even Demuth’s later still-life paintings of fruits and flowers are amazingly phallic.

According to one biographer, Demuth was more a voyeur of gay life than an active participant. He traveled in bohemian circles, frequented Mabel Dodge’s salon in New York, was an ancillary members of the Provincetown Players, and spent several summers rooming in Provincetown with Hartley. Eugene O’Neill patterned the sexually ambivalent Charles Marsden in his play Strange Interlude (1928) after the closeted Demuth.

Demuth’s home on King Street is now The Demuth Museum, but at the website, you’ll find scant reference to his homosexuality.

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Chicago, Ill.

Henry Gerber home
1710 North Crilly Court

In December 1924, at a cost of $10, the Society for Human Rights incorporated as a not-for-profit organization, listing its business offices in this rowhouse, the home of its leading force, Henry Gerber (1892-1972). With this move, the Society went into history as the first homosexual rights organization in the country.

Gerber had been to Germany as part of the Army of Occupation after World War I, and had seen firsthand the early German homosexual rights movement there. Back home, he founded the Society to “protect the interests of people… abused and hindered in the legal pursuit of happiness” – coded language for protecting gay people from discrimination, harassment, abuse, and arrest.

The Society published two issues of Friendship and Freedom, written by Gerber, before running out of money for printing and distribution. The group disbanded after just one year, when the police caught wind of its activities and arrested Gerber, confiscating his typewriter, diaries, and all the Society’s literature. Although a judge threw the case out because the police had not obtained search warrants, Gerber lost his job when the newspapers reported his arrest. But he continued to write about gay rights throughout his life. Chicago’s LGBT library and archives, founded in 1981, is named in Gerber’s honor, and in 2001, the city of Chicago bestowed landmark status on Gerber’s rowhouse.

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Juliette, Ga.

Whistle Stop Café
443 Mccrackin Street

Ninety miles south of Atlanta, this site was used for the filming of Fried Green Tomatoes, the 1991 big-screen version of Fannie Flagg’s novel, starring Mary-Louise Parker and Mary Stuart Masterson. Originally a general store, it was transformed for the movie into a 1920s café. After the movie was released, the location spot became a tourist attraction (I picture busloads of dykes descending on the small town), and the owners decided to capitalize on its popularity by turning it into an actual café.

In Flagg’s novel (she herself is a lesbian), café owners Idgie and Ruth were a couple, but the Hollywood version blurred the lines of their relationship (at least for straight audiences; gay viewers knew what was what). Still, the film has some clear lesbian moments – as when young Idgie dresses in boy-drag for her sister’s wedding – making it a lesbian classic.

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San Francisco, Calif.

Daughters of Bilitis / The Ladder
693 Mission Street

Started in 1955 as a social group providing an alternative to the bars, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first U.S. lesbian organization, expanded rapidly into a lesbian rights organization. The name “Bilitis” was taken from a poem by Pierre Louys about a lesbian of the ancient Greek poet Sappho’s time.

Launched in 1956, DOB’s magazine, The Ladder, started with a post office box number but by its fourth issue was listed at this Mission Street address. Its masthead listed Phyllis Lyon as editor and Del Martin as assistant editor. Lyon and Martin were a couple, and remained so until Martin’s death in 2008. They were the first couple to be legally married in San Francisco after the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.

Early issues of The Ladder contained articles such as “A Citizen’s Rights in Case of Arrest” and the regular column “Lesbiana,” which briefly reviewed books of interest. The magazine’s subscription coupon specified that is cost “$2.50 a year, mailed in a plain, sealed envelope.” The Ladder also included a monthly calendar of DOB events.

The Ladder remained at this location until 1958, when DOB membership and magazine subscribers had grown so much that the group found new, roomier quarters on O’Farrell Street. (Did they know that Alice B. Toklas, lover of Gertrude Stein, had once lived on O’Farrell Street?) The magazine remained in publication until 1972.

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Nichols & Kameny 1965

Washington, D.C.

Frank Kameny house (private)
5020 Cathedral Avenue, N.W.

The house that gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny (b. 1925) has called home since 1962 won’t win any architectural prizes; it’s just a modest, two-story brick house built in 1955. But in February 2009, it was designated a Washington, D.C. historic landmark, in recognition of its significance, as the Washington Post put it, as “the epicenter of the gay rights movement in the nation’s capital” for 13 years.

Kameny served in World War II, earned a doctorate at Harvard, and came to D.C. to work as an astronomer for the Army Map Service. But in 1957, he was fired for being gay. He didn’t give up, and took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961. The discrimination he experienced turned him into a lifelong activist for gay rights. One of his many accomplishments was helping head up the struggle to have homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental illnesses.

Kameny’s papers are now at the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution houses artifacts related to his gay activism, such as placards used in protests (like that shown above, in 1965). Many of those placards, Kameny has said, were made in the living room of this house. His home has now been nominated for recognition on the National Register of Historic Places.

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New York, N.Y.

Berenice Abbott studio
50 Commerce Street

Photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) is probably best known for her portraits of artists and writers in the 1920s expatriate community in Paris. Born in Ohio, she left the Midwest at age 22 to study in New York, Berlin, and Paris. While in Paris, she was assistant to the celebrated Man Ray, from 1923 to 1925. She later set out to do her own photographic portraits of such subjects as Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, and James Joyce.

In 1929, Abbott returned to New York and began a visual chronicle of the city. For years, she lived and worked here on one of the most charming streets in Greenwich Village, above a restaurant called The Blue Mill Tavern, which is still there.

Much of the city’s old architecture was scheduled for demolition, and Abbott wanted to capture it on film before it disappeared. Her important volume, Changing New York (1937), recorded the shifting cityscape before the advent of World War II.

In the years after the war, Abbott became fascinated with new technology, particularly with using photographs to illustrate the laws of physics. Much of her later work was done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Though she never openly identified as gay, Abbott had several intimate relationships with women during her life. In the early 1920s, she was lovers with Thelma Wood, whom Abbott introduced to writer Djuna Barnes (Nightwood). Wood and Barnes subsequently had a stormy, alcohol-driven love affair. Barnes once commented: “I gave Berenice the extra ‘e’ in her name, and she gave me Thelma. I don’t know who made out better.”

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Fairmount, Ind.

James Dean sites

Actor James Dean (1931-1955) was a native of Fairmount, growing up in a 13-room frame farmhouse that dates to 1904 and is still standing at 7184 South 150th Road East. He left Indiana for California and an acting career in 1949; over the next six years, although he made just three films, he established himself as one of the leading young actors of his day. His sexuality has been much debated, but today most of his biographers agree that he had sexual relationships with both men and women.

After his fatal car crash in 1955, Dean was buried in Fairmount’s Park Cemetery, on the same road as the farmhouse where he grew up. Three thousand people attended his funeral. Dean’s gravestone is simply engraved with his name and dates. (There is a more elaborate memorial in Cholame, Calif., near the site of his accident, which was installed on the 50th anniversary of his death.)

The Fairmount Historical Museum, 203 East Washington Street, maintains a James Dean collection to commemorate the town’s most famous resident. On exhibit are such artifacts as his first motorcycle and the boots he wore in Giant. Each year on the anniversary of his death, fans gather in Fairmount for the James Dean Festival, which is hosted by the museum.

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