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Archive for May, 2009

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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Abbott

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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dean

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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Hughes

Lawrence, Ks.

Langston Hughes Statue
Watkins Community Museum of History
1047 Massachusetts Street

Poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Missouri, but his earliest memories were of living with his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas, after his parents’ divorce (click for more on his grandmother’s house). A statue of Hughes at age 13 – the year his grandmother died and he moved in with friends of hers until his mother remarried – stands in this local history museum. Sculpted by local artist James Patti in 1975, the statue shows Hughes delivering newspapers and with a book by W.E.B. DuBois tucked under his arm.

Other tributes to Hughes, one of Lawrence’s most famous residents, include a plaque at City Hall and a professorship at the University of Kansas. The school he attended, the Pinckney School (801 West 6th Street), named its library for him in the 1990s.

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Rachel Carson Sites

Environmentalist/scientist/writer Rachel Carson, the author of the historic Silent Spring, is generally credited as inspiring the modern environmental movement. She is also the most famous alumna of my own alma mater, Chatham College (when she attended, it was the Pennsylvania College for Women – see below).

Now, we can’t “prove” that Carson was a lesbian. It may be more accurate to call her a “woman-identified woman.” But see the story regarding her intimate friendship in Maine with Dorothy Freeman below.

Here are a few of the most significant sites associated with Carson:

Springdale, Pa.

Rachel Carson birthplace
613 Marion Avenue

Once surrounded by woods, this sweet farmhouse in the Allegheny Valley was the site of Carson‘s birth on May 27, 1907. Both her rural upbringing and her mother’s teaching instilled in her a deep appreciation of nature’s beauty and mystery. “I can remember no time,” Carson wrote, “when I wasn’t interested in the out-of-doors and the whole world of nature.” Her childhood love of the natural world translated into a career of interpreting environmental science for laypeople and exposing the harm being done to the physical environment by humans. “The beauty of the world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind – that and the anger of the senseless, brutish things that were being done,” Carson wrote to a friend after the publication of Silent Spring, her attack on the use of pesticides. “I have felt bound by a solemn obligation to do what I could – if I didn’t at least try I could never again be happy in nature.” Each May, the Carson homestead hosts “Rachel’s Sustainable Feast,” featuring food and music in a day-long event.

 

Pittsburgh, Pa.
Chatham College
Woodland Road

Founded in 1869 and formerly called the Pennsylvania College for Women (PCW), this women’s college claims Carson, class of 1929, as its most celebrated alumna – the school’s science building and a scholarship are named for her. Born in rural Pennsylvania, Carson developed a love of writing early in childhood, which continued throughout high school and college. At PCW, Carson started as an English major but switched to science after an inspirational biology course with Professor Mary Skinker. “I have always wanted to write,” she affirmed, “and biology has given me something to write about. I will try to make animals in the woods and waters, where they live, as alive to others as they are to me.”

And she succeeded at that. Carson‘s brilliant exploration of sea life, The Sea Around Us (1951), won the National Book Award and was an instant bestseller that made her a celebrity and earned enough royalties to secure her living as a writer. The Sea Around Us remained on the bestseller lists for 86 weeks and prompted a reissuing of an earlier book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941), which also achieved success. The Edge of the Sea (1955) and her masterpiece, Silent Spring (1962), ensured their author a place in the annals of both science and literature.

White Oak, Md.
Rachel Carson home

11701 Berwick Road (private)

The phenomenal success of her book The Sea Around Us (1951) allowed Carson to purchase this Maryland home, “Quaint Acres,” and a summer cottage off the coast of Maine. It was at Quaint Acres that she feverishly wrote most of Silent Spring (1963), an attack on pesticides, while suffering from what she called “a catalogue of illnesses,” including breast cancer and heart disease. There has been speculation that Carson suspected environmental causes for her own cancer and that of a beloved college professor, which fired her to continue working tirelessly to expose the chemical industry. Between her hospital confinements, Carson worked late into the night on what was to be her final book. “No time for anything,” she wrote to her intimate friend Dorothy Freeman, “unless it is somehow related to the great projects that are uncompleted.”

Carson lived to see both the serialization of Silent Spring in the New Yorker and its publication as a book late in 1962. She was heartened by the public’s strong response and hoped it would bring about a ban on the use of DDT. But Carson quickly became too sick to enjoy the great acclaim that Silent Spring brought with it. “Now all the ‘honors’ have to be received for me by someone else,” she wrote to Freeman. “And all the opportunities to travel to foreign lands – all expenses paid – have to be passed up.” Carson died at her Maryland home in the spring of 1964. Two years later, the Environmental Protection Agency was born after a presidential commission corroborated Carson‘s findings about the hazards of pesticides.


Wells,
Maine
Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge
Route 2

Beginning in the early 1950s, Carson spent summers in a cottage on Southport Island off the Maine coast, studying local ecology and wildlife. It was there that in 1953 she met Dorothy Freeman, a Massachusetts native who vacationed on the island with her husband and who was a fan of Carson‘s The Sea Around Us. Both women were intensely interested in sea life and the environment. Carson and Freeman became intimate friends who exchanged voluminous correspondence during the three seasons of the year they were not together, right up until Carson‘s death. As Rachel Carson wrote to her friend early in their relationship, “I think that the rapid flowering of our friendship, the head-long pace of our correspondence, reflects a feeling, whether consciously recognized or not, for the ‘lost’ years and a desire to make up for all the time we might have enjoyed this, had something brought us together earlier.” Those are pretty strong emotions for “friends.”

Freeman’s granddaughter was the recipient of the women’s correspondence, and she published it (hesitantly) in 1995. She explained that on one of Freeman’s visits to Carson‘s home in Maryland, the two women burned packets of Freeman’s letters together in the fireplace. In addition, each women independently destroyed some of the other’s letters. They were concerned how the intensity of their relationship might look from the outside. The “lesbian question,” however, was never raised by Freeman’s granddaughter.

In Wells, a wildlife refuge was dedicated to Carson‘s memory in 1970, six years after her death. In her best-selling Silent Spring, the book that helped launch the environmental movement, Carson decried the “senseless destruction” of Maine’s natural beauty, its “evergreen forests, roads lined with bayberry and sweet fern, alder and huckleberry.”

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St. Louis, Mo.

Statue of Beatrice Cenci (1856)
St. Louis Mercantile Library
Thomas Jefferson Library Building
One University Blvd.

Originally from Watertown, Massachusetts, Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908) applied to study anatomy – as preparation for sculpting the human body – at Boston Medical School and other eastern schools and was refused admittance. Wayman Crow, the father of one of her school friends, got her into the Missouri Medical College in St. Louis, where Hosmer lived with his family while she was a student. Crow, a prominent St. Louis businessman, became a lifelong benefactor of Hosmer, and his influence helped obtain important commissions for her. Among her public sculptures in the city are the Senator Thomas Hart Benton statue, Lafayette Park, and “Beatrice Cenci” at the Mercantile Library.

Back in Boston, Hosmer ran with a lesbian crowd, including Charlotte Cushman, the actress and art patron, and her lover, sculptor Emma Stebbins. While touring the country, Cushman was invited to visit the Crows, Hosmer’s second family, and became infatuated with Emma Crow, Wayman’s daughter, addressing her in letters as “my darling little lover,” much to Wayman’s dismay. When Cushman traveled to Rome, Hosmer went with her to study sculpture, writing to her worried benefactor: “I shall keep a sharper lookout on Miss Cushman and not allow her to go on in this serious manner with Emma – it is really dreadful and I am really jealous….” Knowing Wayman would disapprove, Hosmer used the convenient excuse of “keeping a lookout” on Cushman to justify living with her in Rome.

Throughout her life, Hosmer claimed that all she wanted to do was get married, but she never did. In a letter to Wayman, she joked, “I have been searching vainly for Mr. Hosmer.” In 1858, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife visited Hosmer at her studio in Rome, and the writer gave a telling description of her: “She had on a male shirt, collar, and cravat…. She was indeed very queer….”

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