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Archive for September, 2009


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Sunny Valley, Ore.

Rootworks
2000 King Mountain Trail

Southern Oregon has a rich history of lesbian and gay back-to-the-land projects. One lesbian separatist community, Rootworks, was established in the 1970s by Ruth and Jean Mountaingrove, when both women were in their 50s. “The philosophy was that we would live without men, separate from the patriarchal world,” Ruth told me in the late ’90s. “That is still pretty much the idea.” (The photo above was taken by Ruth at the commune in the 1970s.)

At Rootworks, there were originally only two houses – the Moonhouse and the Kitchen cabin. In the years that followed the founding, Ruth and Jean added the Sunhouse, a barn (called “Natalie Barney”), and the All Purpose crafts cabin. In the barn is a study and a feminist library. From 1974 to 1984, Ruth and Jean also published the magazine WomanSpirit from an office in the barn, and The Blatant Image, a feminist magazine about photography, was published there from 1981 to 1983; back issues of both are stored in the barn.

Ruth has credited WomanSpirit with bringing a lot of women to the southern Oregon region, by encouraging their creativity and spirituality. Though the magazine folded, Jean said, “the main elements of WomanSpirit are still being lived in the community – feminism, spirituality, all forms of creativity, sisterhood, nature, art, music, dance, literature, healing and personal development.”

Gardens that are nestled around some of the Rootworks buildings are filled with vegetables, beans, and berries. Solar energy provides heat and hot water and also powers the community’s lights. Ruth noted that it’s “not easy in the winter, and that’s when women usually leave.”

In 2008, Linda Long, Manuscripts Librarian for the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon in Eugene, told Lambda Book Report:

Rootworks is a historical site that is a perfect exemplar of the feminist-lesbian dream. From the 1970s to today, the women’s back-to-the-land community in Oregon was, and is, a dynamic expression of the separatist dream. As part of that dream, women experimented with new ways to live and work together – and with all sorts of activities and rituals, from house-building projects and collective gardening to the sacred circle. Many of the women were aspiring artists of one kind or another – writers, painters, photographers—and they hoped to be able to combine life on the land with their creative work. All of this lesbian/feminist life and work is represented in Rootworks…The permanence of Rootworks and its status as a women-owned land trust in perpetuity makes it a perfect example of a historic site. I think a living museum would be an effective and dynamic way to preserve the lesbian land dream and the history of the lesbian community in Southern Oregon.”

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A Home by the Sea

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South Berwick, Maine

Sarah Orne Jewett house
5 Portland Street

Fiction writer Sarah Orne Jewett was born in 1849 in the smaller dwelling next door (“Haggens House”), but she lived much of her life in this comfortable frame house owned by her grandparents. Eventually, she inherited the house from her grandfather, who was a wealthy trader and sea captain. Jewett’s friend Willa Cather once wrote that she was “born within the scent of the sea but not within sight of it, in a beautiful old house full of strange and lovely things brought home from all over the globe by seafaring ancestors.” Today, the house – a national historic landmark that is open to the public – still contains the Jewett family furnishings, including many items Captain Theodore Jewett brought back from his extensive sea travels.

In the downstairs library hangs a portrait of Annie Fields, Jewett’s intimate companion of more than 25 years, with whom she lived half the year in Boston. (The two held a lively weekly salon at Fields’ home on Charles Street.) The months Jewett spent alone in South Berwick constituted her time for writing and contemplation. “Here I am at my desk again,” read one forlorn letter to Fields, “remembering that this is the first morning in more than seven months that I haven’t waked up to hear your dear voice and see your dear face.”

Upstairs in the writer’s combination bedroom and study is another picture of Fields, as well as a portrait of writer George Sand, given to Jewett by Cather. Next to her bed Jewett kept a container of pencils and pens so that she would have them at the ready in case she woke up with the desire to write. In this house, Jewett penned such novels as A Country Doctor (1884) and The Country of Pointed Firs (1896), which abound in local color. Inspired by the Maine landscape, her fiction focused on “the people who grew out of the soil and the life of the country near her heart,” as Cather phrased it.

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New Orleans, La.

Truman Capote home
Monteleone Hotel
214 Royal Street

A suite in this elegant, historic hotel at the edge of the French Quarter was the first home of Truman Streckfus Persons (later Capote) after his birth in 1924. Truman’s mother was a 16-year-old beauty queen, his father a traveling salesman, and the boy’s first years were spent in a variety of hotel rooms. When his parents went out, Truman recalled later, they locked him in the hotel room alone.

Truman’s parents were ill-matched and divorced after only a few years, leaving young Truman to the care of different eccentric maternal relative in Monroeville, Ala., where his childhood best friend was Harper Lee. His creative imagination was forged early on. “By the time I was ten,” he remembered as an adult, “I was sitting up all night long to write.” He was also already putting himself to sleep by taking a few swigs of whiskey.

Capote first achieved literary recognition in his early 20s with a number of critically acclaimed short stories in major publications. He wrote much of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), the story of a young homosexual Southerner, while living in a rented room in New Orleans, also on Royal Street. His subject matter was considered scandalous and offensive, and a reviewer in The New York Times complained, “The distasteful trappings of its homosexual theme overhang it like Spanish moss.” Capote went on to an active literary career anyway – his most famous works included Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and In Cold Blood (1966) – though one that was marred by alcoholism and ill health.

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Washington, D.C.

YMCA
1736 G Street, N.W.

Though never intended as such, since the early 1900s YMCAs provided gay men with places to meet, live, and have sexual encounters. For that reason, though, they also became targets of the police, as in the following incident.

In a crackdown on “tearoom” sex in October 1964, members of the Washington, D.C., vice squad began a stakeout of the men’s room in the basement of this YMCA (no longer standing), just a few blocks from the White House. Concealing themselves behind the locked door of a shower room that was no longer in use, they spied through peepholes that afforded them a clear view of activities in the men’s room, which the New York Times later described as “a 9-ft. by 11-ft. spot reeking of disinfectant and stale cigars.”

Did they expect to catch big game? Arrested were Walter Jenkins (1918-1985), President Lyndon Johnson’s chief of staff, and a Hungarian immigrant named Andy Choka, who were charged with “disorderly conduct.” Jenkins was at first calm, but soon was admitted to George Washington University Hospital and put on a 24-hour suicide watch.

Though few of us know of him now, Jenkins was a household name at that time. A married man described as “retiring and camera-shy,” he had worked for LBJ for 25 years. He was forced to resign from office when the incident was reported in the Evening Star. (LBJ had tried unsuccessfully to get the news report killed.)

“A great deal of the president’s difficulties can be traced to the fact that Walter had to leave,” Johnson’s press secretary, George Reedy, later said. “All of history might have been different if it hadn’t been for that episode.”

Johnson never replaced Jenkins, but simply parceled his duties out to other staffers. Jenkins returned to his home state of Texas, where he worked as an accountant. Reportedly, he was frequent visitor to LBJ’s ranch after the president left office; to his credit, Johnson didn’t shun his friend.

Here’s a link to an interesting contemporary report on the scandal in Time magazine, dated October 30, 1964.

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Camden, N.J.

Walt Whitman house
328 Mickle Street

In 1873, after suffering a stroke in Washington, D.C., poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) moved to Camden to live with his brother George, who nursed him back to health. George’s house was located at 322 Seventh Street, and it was there that Oscar Wilde famously visited Whitman on his 1882 lecture tour. Wilde remembered later that the poet’s room was filled with dusty newspapers.

In 1884, at the cost of $1,750, Whitman purchased his own clapboard row house on Mickle Street (now Boulevard), which he called his “little old shanty.” This was the only house he ever owned and the place where he lived out his final years. Whitman was considered an eccentric old lecher in the neighborhood. From his knapsack he peddled copies of his book, Leaves of Grass, on the street. For five years, Whitman’s “special friend” was William Duckett, a teenaged orphan who lived with him. When Duckett moved out, Whitman had a second stroke that left him virtually bedridden for the remainder of his life. The companion of his last years was Howard Traubel, who served as his scribe, confidante, and go-fer.

Whitman’s house is now a museum (see photo above) and looks much as it did when he resided there. His bedroom, which he described as a “low-ceilinged room something like a big old ship’s cabin,” still holds his carved oak bed and assorted piles of books, newspapers, and manuscripts. Also on display are the knapsack in which Whitman toted his books for sale, and a rare first edition of Leaves of Grass, with its tooled green leather cover and embossed gold leaves.

Whitman is buried at the Harleigh Cemetery, 1640 Haddon Avenue, in Camden.

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A Forgotten Writer

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Clover Bend, Ark.

Alice French bell pavilion
4679 Highway 63

This 500-pound bell (see photo) was given to the town of Clover Bend by writer Alice French (1850-1934), who spent winters here with her life partner, Jane Crawford. French was a novelist and essayist who wrote under the name Octave Thanet, which she used to avoid anti-female bias in the publishing world. Though one of the highest paid writers of her day (money she invested wisely in banks and railroads), French’s work has now fallen into obscurity.

French and Crawford first lived in a lavish plantation house, but it burned to the ground in 1895 and was rebuilt not far away, on a curve in the Black River, as “Thanford.” French spared no expense for the 15-room house, bringing building materials up the river and importing shrubs for the garden from England. The couple lived there during the winters until 1909, making it the site of literary and social activities. French also pursued her interests in woodworking and photography at Thanford.

The U.S. government purchased the Clover Bend land in 1937 and moved the house back from the river for safety. It is no longer standing; a marker on State 228 (6 miles west of Mentura) notes its location.

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