Archive for February, 2010

“The Larky Life”

S.I. Historical Society

Staten Island, N.Y.

Alice Austen home

“Clear Comfort”

2 Hylan Boulevard

When photographer Alice Austen (1866-1952) lived there, Staten Island was a quiet, bucolic, upper-middle-class suburb of picturesque “cottages.” The Austen family home, Clear Comfort, was a 17th-century Dutch farmhouse purchased by Austen’s grandfather in 1844 and renovated and added on to over the years. When Austen’s father abandoned them, she and her mother came to live at Clear Comfort, where Alice was surrounded by a family of supportive relatives, including an uncle who presented her with her first camera when she was 10 years old. One of the country’s earliest female photographers, Austen was also the first woman to take her camera into the streets of New York City, producing an invaluable record of life at the turn of the 20th century. Her earliest documentary photographs predate those of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, whose work is now renowned while that of the gifted Austen, who died in obscurity, is largely forgotten.

Austen frequently focused her camera on the upper-class world she knew best, recording what she referred to as “the larky life” – tennis matches, bicycling, swimming, amateur theatrics, auto races. But her subjects also included the poor of lower Manhattan – street vendors, immigrants in Battery Park, shoeshine boys, ragpickers – who were far removed from her comfortable life. Austen took photographs almost every day, at a time when cameras and photographic equipment were heavy and bulky and glass plates cost about two dollars each. During her lifetime, she produced about 9,000 photographs, and the extant glass plates and negatives are today part of the collection of the Staten Island Historical Society.

Austen shared more than half of her life with an intimate companion, Gertrude Tate, who came to live with her at Clear Comfort in 1917. Not surprisingly, the curators at the historic house steer away from “the L word.” Visitors at Clear Comfort view an introductory video that labels Austen “a personality” who led “an unconventional lifestyle” – code words that attempt to explain why, as the video puts it, “Alice Austen was never to marry.”

Austen’s home is a National Historic Landmark. The first floor is open to the public, but only one room, the downstairs parlor, looks much as it would have in Alice’s time. As her finances dwindled after the Crash of 1929, Austen began selling furniture and art objects to New York museums, and some of these have been retrieved for exhibit at Clear Comfort. Fortunately, Austen, for posterity, left a complete record of both the interior and the exterior of the house, which made the restoration process much easier.


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Harry Hay

Los Angeles, Calif.

Harry Hay home/Mattachine Society

2328 Cove Avenue

This split-level house located in a cul-de-sac in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles was home to Harry Hay (1912-2002) and his wife, Anita, beginning in 1943. The living room boasted a grand piano and a view of the lake that was the Hays’ “pride and joy.” In those days, Hay was a member of both the Communist Party and the folk music movement, and his home was the site of numerous meetings and soirees.

But even while married, Hay began acting on his same-sex desires, becoming lovers in 1950 with Rudi Gernreich, future designer of the topless swimsuit for women. Because Hay had a wife and Gernreich lived with his mother, the lovers met clandestinely at the home of a friend at 313 Alta Vista Drive in Hollywood to be together. Hay later said that he and Gernreich formed a “society of two” that became the Mattachine Society.

It was at this Cover Avenue residence that Hay, Gernreich, and two of their friends, Chuck Rowland and Bob Hull, began meeting every week to discuss homosexuality and homosexual disenfranchisement. Hay discovered the name “Mattachine” in his research into folk songs. The Mattachines had been all-male troupes of jesters during the Middle Ages in western Europe, who boldly dressed as women and performed songs and dances throughout the countryside for the poor and oppressed.

The Mattachine meetings of the early 1950s were always secret. If a guest was invited, he would meet a member in public and be driven around to disorient him before being taken to Hay’s home. Eventually, as the group grew in size, public meeting sites were chosen. In 1953, a Mattachine convention at the First Universalist Church at Ninth and Crenshaw, a rift in the membership forced out Hay and other founders and brought in a more conservative leadership. The group became less political and eventually disbanded in L.A., resurfacing in a new form a few years later in San Francisco. Other Mattachine Societies sprouted up in cities across the country.

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What a Babe

San Francisco, Calif.

Babe Bean birthplace

806 Green Street

Babe Bean, a cross-dressing woman who lived on a houseboat in a lake near Stockton, was born Elvira Virginia Mugarrieta in 1869 at this address in Russian Hill. Bean’s father was the former Mexican consul to San Francisco, while her/his mother was the daughter of a former U.S. Congressman and Louisiana Supreme Court Justice.

Bean came to fame in the fall of 1897, when detained by police in Stockton for wearing men’s clothing. The Stockton newspaper published Bean’s picture in a man’s tie and hat, along with a series of sensational stories in which Bean was referred to “the mysterious girl-boy man-woman.”

After a brief stint as a newspaper reporter in Stockton, Bean enlisted in the army during the Spanish-American War and served in the Philippines. Later, Bean moved to San Francisco and served for three decades as a caretaker of poor and homeless men, until her/his death in 1936. Other names that Bean went by included Jack Bee Garland, Beebe Beam, and Jack Beam.

Although beginning in the late 1970s the lesbian community claimed Bean as a butch lesbian, according to community historian Liz Highleyman, Bean does not appear to have shown any romantic interest in women. In 1990, transman Lou Sullivan wrote a biography of Bean in which he speculated that he was a fellow transman with a sexual affinity for gay men. But the evidence remains murky. “From today’s vantage point,” wrote Highleyman, “it is impossible to know how Garland—who sometimes seemed to straddle the genders purposefully—would have identified.”

As a man, I can travel freely, feel protected and find work.”

–Babe Bean

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Baltimore, Md.

Diana Press

12 West 25th Street

First housed in this brick building in Baltimore, Diana Press was one of the earliest lesbian-feminist publishing companies in the country. Established in the mid-1970s, it was committed to publishing openly lesbian material, which was not available from mainstream houses. Before she became a mass-market star with Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown published her collections of lesbian poems, Songs to a Handsome Woman and The Hand That Cradles the Rock, and a volume of essays, Plain Brown Wrapper, with Diana Press. Other titles from Diana included Elsa Gidlow’s Sapphic Songs and Judy Grahn’s True to Life Adventure Stories, as well as early poetry by Pat Parker. In the late ’70s, Diana Press relocated to the San Francisco area. If not for the efforts of this pioneering press, along with Naiad Press, Persephone Press, Daughters Inc., and many others, a lot of openly lesbian writing would have never seen print. As a writer who is also a lesbian, I’m grateful.

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St. Louis, Mo.

International Shoe Company

1501 Washington Avenue

International Shoe Company warehouse

701 N. 15th Street

In 1931, Tennessee Williams’ father secured his son a summer job as an office clerk at the show company where he himself was sales manager. Later, when the Depression leveled the family’s finances and Cornelius withdrew his son from the university, Tennessee lived at home and labored full-time as a clerical worker at the company’s warehouse during 1934 and early 1935. Because he hated it and dreamed of being a writer, Williams later exaggerated his employment time there, saying it dragged on for three or four years. (Or maybe it just felt that way to him?) Williams wrote after work and late into the night at the kitchen table, getting by mostly on cigarettes and coffee.

At International Shoe, there was a brawny worker named Stanley Kowalski, a “ladies’ man,” who became Williams’ closest companion. According to one biographer, there is no evidence that the two men had a sexual relationship, but it is clear that Williams was infatuated with his co-worker, much as Blanche DuBois was drawn to the fictional Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Williams’ employment records at International Shoe list “ill health” as the reason for his resignation in the spring of 1935. Suffering from anxiety attacks that felt like cardiac arrest, Williams went to recuperate at his grandparents’ house in Memphis.

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