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Archive for the ‘New York’ Category

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It’s LGBT Pride Month, and you will definitely want to take a look at something very cool. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s website features a first-ever Gay Pride Month slideshow with a sampling of designated LGBT historic sites. My book The Queerest Places (1997) is quoted in the entry about Louis Sullivan.

Which is your favorite site? Vote here! I’ll start it off. My fave has to be the Elsie de Wolfe-Bessie Marbury House on E. 17th Street, very close to where I used to live. They were a lesbian power couple if ever there was one — Elsie an interior designer, Bessie a theatrical producer. They called themselves “The Bachelors” — you can read my post about them here.

Happy Pride!

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Photo by Fred MacDarrah

New York, N.Y.

GAA Firehouse

99 Wooster Street

Gay Manhattan’s first social and community center was the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) Firehouse, which opened in 1970 during the blossoming of gay liberation activity following the Stonewall riots. GAA was one of the leading groups of the early movement, and initiated the infamous “zap,” a short, quick political action, usually the disruption of an event or a confrontation with a gay-unfriendly politician. When it wasn’t engaged in zaps, GAA held meetings and dances at this abandoned firehouse. Vito Russo, who would later author The Celluloid Closet, ran “movie nights,” screening such gay faves as The Wizard of Oz. Arson ended activities at the firehouse in 1974, although GAA continued its work until the early 1980s.

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She Saw Hitler

Eleanor Roosevelt with Dorothy Thompson in 1942

New York, N.Y.

Dorothy Thompson house

237 East 48th Street

Dorothy Thompson (1894-1961), one of the most intrepid foreign correspondents of her day and the author of I Saw Hitler, was once married to writer Sinclair Lewis, but the great love of her life was Christa Winsloe, author of the novel upon which the classic lesbian film Mädchen in Uniform was based. After the break with both of them, Thompson lived alone in this three-story brownstone in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of Manhattan from 1941 to 1957. She spent more than $20,000 for renovations to make it, as she wrote, “the most perfect small house I have ever seen.”

Thompson’s “small” home included a library with more than 3,000 books, five fireplaces, and a third-floor study for writing. In the drawing room, a wine-colored satin sofa could hold, she bragged, five of “the most distinguished bottoms in New York.” When the renovations were complete, Thompson invited a reporter from Look magazine to inspect the final product, and he remarked admiringly on the many telephones, intercoms, and labor-saving devices throughout the house.

In the front door were eight painted glass panels showing Thompson in medieval attire performing various tasks – writing, lecturing, greeting guests. There was also the house’s motto: “Gallus in sterquilinio suo plurimum potest.” (“The rooster on his own dunghill is very much in charge.”) New York’s Historic Landmark Preservation Center placed a medallion on Thompson’s brownstone in 1995.

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“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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I know, I know…  there’s been lots of New York City on this blog recently. But things just keep presenting themselves to me, and hey, I did live there for two decades. Here’s an article I just found in the New York Times in which biographer Joan Schenkar talks about novelist Patricia Highsmith’s comings and goings in Manhattan.

And while you’re reading about Highsmith, check out an interview my friend Jill Dearman recently did with Schenkar.

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New York, N.Y.

Herman Melville plaque
104 East 26th Street

After giving up on farming in 1863, Herman Melville moved his family to New York City, into an apartment building at this address. Though the building is no longer standing, a plaque marks its location, and the intersection of 26th Street and Park Avenue South, which is just west of here, is called “Herman Melville Square.” From this address, Melville commuted daily to his job in lower Manhattan as deputy inspector of customs, earning about four dollars a week. In the evenings, he worked on Billy Budd, which remained in manuscript at his death and is the only known fiction he wrote during his time in New York.

In 1891, Melville died at home in relative obscurity. Many of his contemporaries thought he had died years earlier!

His brief obituaries labeled his first book, Typee (1846), his most famous. At Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, his small marble tombstone also has remarkably little to say about a man whose work has passed into the literary canon: it simply gives his name and dates.

A personal aside: I lived on East 26th Street from 1991 to 2003, just east of this plaque, and used to pass it every day on my walk across town to work.

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From the Dark Tower

New York, N.Y. (Harlem)

“The Dark Tower”
108-110 West 136th Street

This was the site of A’Lelia Walker’s (1885-1931) home and famous salon, “The Dark Tower,” which she hosted for writers, musicians, and other artists during the 1920s. It was named after a sonnet by queer poet Countee Cullen, which has been said to capture the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance (see below).

A’Lelia Walker’s fortune came from her mother, Madame C.J. Walker, an enterprising woman who created a million-dollar empire from beauty salons and hair-straightening products for black women, and who died in 1919. With her inheritance, A’Lelia purchased these two Stanford White-designed town houses on West 136th Street in “Sugar Hill,” combined them into one residence with a new façade, and furnished them lavishly. Here the woman dubbed “the Mahogany Millionairess” hosted cultural soirees for the Harlem and Greenwich Village “glitterati,” white and black, serving caviar and bootleg champagne and providing entertainment by queer performers Alberta Hunter and Jimmy Daniels. Langston Hughes later wrote that A’Lelia’s parties “were as crowded as the New York subway at the rush hour.” She herself was a striking figure, whom Hughes called “a gorgeous dark Amazon.”

Sadly, Walker’s historic home was demolished by the city in 1941. Appropriately, the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library now stands on the site.

We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute,
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made to eternally weep.

The night whose sable breast relieves the stark,
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.

– “From the Dark Tower,” by Countee Cullen

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