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Archive for the ‘Pennsylvania’ Category

Pittsburgh, Pa.

LeMoyne Billings grave

Allegheny Cemetery

4734 Butler Street

Jack and Lem became best friends as teenagers, bonding over a shared sense of humor and fun and hatred of their strict, stuffy school. Jack was a “ladies’ man” from his youth; Lem was a closeted gay man, deeply devoted to and in love with his best friend. When Lem propositioned Jack, the latter’s response was a curt “I’m not that kind of boy.” Sounds like the story of many gay men and their crushes on straight male friends, right?

Except in this case, Jack grew up to be John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States, and Lem was his lifelong pal, Kirk LeMoyne Billings (1916-1981). And in this case, Jack didn’t discard his friend when he learned he was queer. Rather, he invited him on family vacations, sought his advice on matters of state, and even gave him his own room in the White House. Ted Kennedy once said that, as a young child, he used to think Lem was one of his older brothers, too.

If your estimation of President Kennedy just went up a notch, it’s not surprising. Jack and Lem met in 1933, when being homosexual was a deep, dark secret, a criminalized status in our society. Jack would not have been alone in turning his back on a queer friend, especially when he moved into the political arena. When he became president, he showed even deeper loyalty to Lem by offering him a position in his administration. Instead, Lem–who worked as an advertising executive in Manhattan, à la Mad Men–seemed to prefer the unofficial role of “First Friend.” His intense friendship with Kennedy is chronicled in David Pitts’  2007 biography, Jack and Lem: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship.

Lem remained close to the Kennedys after Jack’s assassination, and was also a friend and confidant of Bobby Kennedy. When Bobby, too, was murdered, Lem became increasingly despondent and alcoholic. He died of a heart attack at age 65; he is buried in historic Allegheny Cemetery in his hometown of Pittsburgh, next to his parents.

Jack made a big difference in my life. Because of him, I was never lonely.”

-LeMoyne Billings

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Fonthill

Doylestown, Pa.

Henry Chapman Mercer home

“Fonthill”

84 South Pine Street

So I’m sitting in the vet’s office, waiting for my dog, Lucy, who’s in the back getting an X-ray. (Don’t worry – she’s okay.) And they only have two magazines to read – Parents and Bark. Since I’m not a parent (well, not of a child, at least), I pick up Bark and start thumbing through it. It’s one of those content-light glossies crammed with pictures of cute dogs, the kind that make you say “Aw-w-w” right out loud.

I get to an article called “A Dog’s Castle: Delightful Discovery in Doylestown,” and suddenly I’m interested enough to read more than the first paragraph. The story is about Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930), a rich guy who, in the 1910s, built a concrete castle for himself called Fonthill, which is today a big tourist draw in Doylestown. The author of the article talked about how cold the castle seemed to her, until she learned more about Mercer. “He may have been a bachelor and an eccentric,” Sally Silverman wrote,” “but he also was an avid dog lover and advocate for all creatures.” That’s when my gaydar started going off, so I read on: “Mercer was a private man and destroyed much of the personal information that might have given historians a window into his life…” Ding ding ding ding ding!

Fonthill is apparently something to see, with 44 rooms, 32 stairwells, 200 windows, and 18 fireplaces. It’s filled with pottery and tiles, which Mercer collected. It turns out that he was also an antiquarian and archaeologist, a founding member of the Bucks County Historical Society, and the founder of the Mercer Museum and the Moravian Tile Works, both also in Doylestown. When I got home from the vet, I tried to locate any source that suggested he was gay, but all I could find was a small reference to him in Will Fellows’ excellent book, A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture.

Mercer deserves more study by gay scholars, although probably much of what we would have found useful was in those files he destroyed (as did so many other queer personages of the past). I did find a reference to his having come down with gonorrhea after a trip to Europe as a young man (and the suggestion that that was why he never married). If anyone has other information about Mercer, I’d love to hear about it.

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Thanks to Steven Reigns of The Gay Rub, I had enough materials to go out into the field yesterday and do a rubbing of artist Andy Warhol’s tombstone. If you missed my post about Steven’s project, click here. Directly behind me in the photo is the grave of Andy’s parents.

And here’s what the decorations and mementos on Andy’s grave look like right now. In addition to the soup cans and Coke bottles, someone left an envelope of their writing at the side of the stone, and there’s a plastic egg for Easter, too. For more about Andy, see my earlier post.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.

Pegasus
818 Liberty Avenue

Pittsburgh’s longtime gay men’s bar, Pegasus, has closed in the location it occupied for the past 30 years; it has moved across the river to a new space. “If you ever saw Queer as Folk on TV, that’s what Pittsburgh was like back then [in the ’80s],” according to one bar-goer.

Read the complete story here.

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Wheatland

Lancaster, Pa.

James Buchanan home
Wheatland
1120 Marietta Avenue

James Buchanan (1791-1868), the 15th president of the United States, was also this country’s only confirmed bachelor chief executive. His sexual orientation has frequently been questioned, primarily because of his intimate friendship with William Rufus King, whom he met in 1834 when both were U.S. senators and with whom he shared a flat in Washington. According to historian Jonathan Ned Katz, their relationship was the source of many biting comments in the nation’s capital. King was perhaps more “queen” than “king,” and was referred to by Washington insiders as “Miss Nancy,” “she,” and “Aunt Fancy.”

Buchanan bought this estate in 1848, when he was James Polk’s secretary of state. He had greater political ambitions, and Wheatland, a 17-room federal-style mansion, seemed to him more “presidential” than his Washington digs. Running for president in 1852, Buchanan lost the Democratic nomination to Franklin Pierce, and party bosses selected Senator King as the vice-presidential candidate in a bid for Buchanan’s support (and the votes he could deliver). Pierce and King won, but King died of tuberculosis after only a few weeks in office.

Buchanan became his party’s compromise candidate in the 1856 presidential election, and Wheatland served as his campaign headquarters. Unlike today, when candidates traverse the country in search of votes, Buchanan stayed at Wheatland, receiving visitors who could help his bid for election. This proved a good P.R. move, since newspapers across the country carried accounts of Buchanan’s beautiful estate and of the many dignitaries who passed through Wheatland.

Buchanan served only one uneventful term as chief executive. After his retirement, he returned to Wheatland, which is today run by the National Park Service. Buchanan is buried nearby at the Woodward Hill Cemetery.

 

I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a- wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

–James Buchanan, 1844,
when William Rufus King was on a trip to France

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Moylan, Pa.

Anna Howard Shaw home
240 Ridley Creek Road (private)

This picturesque stone house with blue trim, now a private residence, was built in 1908 by suffragist Anna Howard Shaw (1847-1919), who lived here with her intimate companion, Lucy Anthony, niece of Susan B. The house was “a realization of a desire…No one could ask for a more ideal site for a cottage,” Shaw wrote in her autobiography, The Story of a Pioneer, in which she noted a nearby stream and forest, and the hilltop view. Shaw was a brilliant orator who traveled extensively on behalf of the suffrage movement. “From every country I have visited I have brought back a tiny tree,” she noted, and the pine grove she started planting at her home is now full grown.

While she lived here, Shaw, a minister by profession, was president of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association. Her early activism focused on temperance, but she was lured to the suffrage movement by Susan B. herself. It is estimated that Shaw gave about 10,000 speeches on suffrage during her career, mesmerizing her audiences with her powerful voice, dramatic delivery, and sharp with. She died here in Moylan, a year before the 19th Amendment passed, giving women the right to vote. The New York Times reported that “her secretary, Miss Lucy E. Anthony, a niece of Susan B. Anthony, who has been with Dr. Shaw for thirty years, … [was] at her bedside when she died.”

Q: Why does the Scripture say there shall be no marriages in heaven?
A: Ah, my dear friends [drawing a long sigh], someone has answered that by saying, because there will be no men there.

–Anna Howard Shaw, during a Q&A after one of her speeches

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philly

Philadelphia, Pa.

Annual Reminder marker
6th and Chestnut Streets

This state historical marker, erected in 2005 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, was the first in the country to recognize and celebrate LGBT history. It commemorates the “Annual Reminder,” the first public demonstration for LGBT rights, which began on July 4, 1965 – four years before the rebellion at the Stonewall Inn in New York. The peaceful, orderly protest – in which the lesbians wore dresses and gay men wore suits and ties – circled in front of Independence Hall, the placards bearing slogans such as “Homosexuals Should Be Judged as Individuals.” The “Annual Reminder” continued at this location through 1969, but after the Stonewall riots moved to New York City.

Behind the protest was Barbara Gittings (1932-2007), who had moved to Philadelphia in the 1950s and became one of the country’s most important LGBT activists. (That’s her in front in the photo above.) She also helped organize picket lines at the White House and the U.S. State Department. Among her many accomplishments, she was instrumental in getting the American Psychiatric Association to drop homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1972.

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