Archive for the ‘poets’ Category

Cleveland, Ohio

2266 East 86th Street

The home where queer poet Langston Hughes lived while he was in high school – and began developing his voice as a poet – has fallen victim to the recent wave of foreclosures. The East 86th Street house was sold at a sheriff’s auction earlier this year for under $17,000. Read the complete story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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Harpers Ferry, W.V.

John Brown’s Fort
Shenandoah and Potomac Streets

On a recent trip to the Harpers Ferry area, I didn’t expect to find any “queer places.” But sure enough, there was a tangential one.

Among the men who joined abolitionist John Brown in his famous raid on Harpers Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859, was Lewis S. Leary, an African-American harness-maker from Oberlin, Ohio. Brown’s plan was to seize the federal arsenal, arm African-Americans for an uprising, and rid the country of slavery.

At first the plan seemed to work, as Brown’s “army” stormed the town and took captives. But then the U.S. Marines, under the command of J.E.B. Stuart, were called in, and Brown and his men holed up in this “fort” (above), which was actually the town fire house. The raid was squelched, Brown was executed, and Leary died at age 24 of wounds he suffered during the raid. The event, which has its sesquicentennial this year, is widely considered a prelude to the Civil War.

So what’s the queer part? Leary’s widow, Mary Patterson Leary, went on to marry a second time, to abolitionist Charles Henry Langston. Among her grandchildren was queer poet Langston Hughes, who lived with her in Lawrence, Kansas, during his early childhood.

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America the Beautiful Plaque

Colorado Springs, Colo.

“America, the Beautiful” plaque
Pikes Peak

With a height of 14,110 feet, Pikes Peak is a formidable challenge for any climber, but in 1893, a young Wellesley College English professor named Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929) made it to the top. That summer, Bates had taken a teaching position at Colorado College to supplement her income, even though it meant lonely months apart from her life partner, Katherine Coman. Bates and Coman were part of a community of “Wellesley marriages,” and were a couple for 20 years.

After scaling Pikes Peak and admiring the breathtaking view of “spacious skies” and “purple mountains’ majesty,” Bates was inspired to write the poem “America the Beautiful” in just one day, penciling four verses quickly into her notebook. Bates once recalled that she was “disheartened” with the poem. But when it was published in 1895, it became an instant public hit and was later set to music. With the royalties, Bates built “a dear little house” in Wellesley for herself and Coman. Today, a plaque at the summit of Pikes Peak memorializes Bates’ poem.

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Brookline, Mass.

Amy Lowell home
70 Heath Street

Poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925) was born in Brookline to a wealthy and prominent New England family. Her father, Augustus, was, among many other things, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here at the Lowell’s 10-acre estate, young Amy – who was born late in her parents’ lives and was much younger than her siblings – had a lonely childhood, roaming beautiful gardens landscaped by her father (see photo). She lived in the elegant mansion all her life, redecorating many of the rooms according to her own taste after the death of her parents. For example, she combined the front and back parlors to create a magnificent library with built-in bookshelves and imported carved paneling. There in a plush leather chair with matching hassock she would spend hours reading and thinking.

Lowell has been painted by critics as a homely, obese, cigar-smoking spinster who never knew passion. But in fact, she met the love of her life, Ada Dwyer Russell, in 1912, and the two were constant companions for a dozen years. It took Lowell two years to convince Russell (whom she called her “very intimate friend”) to come and live with her at Sevenels, which Russell finally did in 1914. Forsaking her own career as an actress, Russell concentrated instead on Lowell’s – she read the proofs for all of Lowell’s books and listened to all of her compositions in the evenings, serving as both audience and critic. Lowell often stated that she wanted to put a sign over the door at Sevenels that would read: “Lowell & Russell, Makers of Fine Poems.” Russell was not only Lowell’s critic, she was also the inspiration for much of her poetry. Lowell was always careful, though, to make her love-themed poems gender-neutral. Only those who knew both the women suspected the identity of Lowell’s “muse.”

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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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Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Union Avenue (between racetrack and Interstate 87)

Originally the home of wealthy stockbroker Spencer Trask and his wife, Katrina, Yaddo was named by one of the Trask children – her mispronunciation of “shadow.” The Trasks had four offspring, all of whom died young, and Katrina’s grief made her try to envision a brighter future for the estate as an artists’ colony, after she and her husband had died. In 1926, following the Trasks’ wishes, Yaddo welcomed its first colonists and continues to sponsor writers who must apply for residence.

Yaddo is a gloomy, gothic estate, and on an overcast day, it’s easy to believe the rumors that it is haunted by the ghosts of the Trask children. It is also easy to imagine Patricia Highsmith creating her great psychological thriller, Strangers on a Train, in this “shadowy” setting. Yaddo was also a favorite writing retreat for other queer writers, including John Cheever, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes (fifth from the right, second row, in this 1942 photo), and Carson McCullers (three to the left of Hughes), who finished The Member of the Wedding while in residence. McCullers was a frequent visitor to the colony; on her very first visit, she was placed in the coveted “tower room” that had belonged to Katrina Trask. A few years later, Truman Capote worked on his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, in the very same room.

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Key West, Fla.

Elizabeth Bishop home
624 White Street

Poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was born into a wealthy family from Worcester, Mass. After her graduation from Vassar, she used a family inheritance to live a nomadic life in New York City, Europe, Florida, and other places. In 1938, she and her lover at the time, Louise Crane, purchased a house in Key West. Bishop lived at this residence off and on for the next nine years, first with Crane, then with a subsequent lover, Marjorie Stevens.

In letters to friends, Bishop described her island home this way: “It is very well made, with slightly arched beams so that it looks either like a ship’s cabin or a freight car.” The house was located right on the beach and was to Bishop “perfectly beautiful…inside and out.” Bishop’s first volume of poems, North and South, was published during the time she lived in Key West.

It may sound idyllic, but Bishop battled alcoholism throughout her adult life, and the relationship with Stevens did not last. After they broke up, Bishop sold the Key West house and returned to an itinerant life, eventually being hospitalized for both depression and alcohol-related problems. In 1951, with the help of her mentor, Marianne Moore, Bishop secured a fellowship from Bryn Mawr College that enabled her to travel around the world.

But Bishop never got farther than Brazil, where she met the wealthy Lota de Macedo Soares, who became her lover and tried to nurture her away from alcoholism. Bishop kept postponing her return to the States, until her stay in Brazil had lengthened to 16 years. At her home, Lota built a studio for Bishop that was separate from the house and had a stream running beside it. In that peaceful setting, Bishop was very productive and composed some of her greatest poems. But Bishop eventually returned to the United States after Lota committed suicide in 1967 and her own alcoholism worsened.

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Camden, Maine

Edna St. Vincent Millay memorial
Whitehall Inn

52 High Street

A local girl born at 200 Broadway in Rockland, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) used to work at this tourists’ inn during the busy summer season. In 1912, “Vincent,” as she preferred to be called, did her first public reading here for guests and employees at the inn’s end-of-summer party. The first lines of the poem she read, “Renascence,” described the view of the Maine countryside from nearby Mount Battie, which Vincent loved to climb. “All I could see from where I stood,” the poem began, “was three long mountains and a wood.”

Fortuitously, a professor who was vacationing at Whitehall Inn was so impressed by Vincent’s poem that he arranged to have one of his wealthy friends pay for the girl to study at Vassar College, from which she graduated in 1917 and where she wrote her play The Lamp and the Bell, the most overtly lesbian of all her works.

The “Millay Room” of the Whitehall Inn (shown above), which still operates as a bed and breakfast, contains a display of Millay’s books, a manuscript, and a facsimile of the original draft of “Renascence,” which was published in 1912. The exhibit also holds a scrapbook of articles about the poet and photographs of her at various ages. Just north of Camden, on top of the inspirational Mount Battie, an 800-foot tower bears a plaque honoring Millay. Though Millay lived most of her adult life in New York City and upstate New York, Maine remained a second home to her. (She and her husband, Eugen Boissevain, once owned a home in Camden at 31 Chestnut Street.)

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Lawrence, Kan.

Langston Hughes home
732 Alabama Street (demolished)

Langston Hughes statue
Elizabeth Watkins Community Museum
1047 Massachusetts Street

Poet and memoirist Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Joplin, Missouri, but his earliest memories were of living at his grandmother’s house in Lawrence, Kansas, at 732 Alabama Street after his parents’ marriage fell apart. The house is no longer standing, but the one pictured here, which was just next door to his grandmother’s and possibly similar in style, is being renovated.

Hughes was one of Lawrence‘s most celebrated residents, and a bronze statue of him at the age of the age of 13 stands in the local Watkins Community Museum. Hughes spent most of his childhood in his grandmother’s simple, two-bedroom house with a wood shed and outhouse in the back, plus a pump for water. Occasionally, his grandmother rented out a room to make money, and sometimes she let the entire house, moving herself and Langston to the home of friends James and Mary Reed, who lived at 731 New York Street. Later, Langston remembered “the mortgage man…always came worrying my grandmother for the interest due.”

Langston endured a solitary boyhood in a mostly white Lawrence neighborhood; he did not play with many other children and felt his loneliness like “a dull ache.” One of his favorite pastimes was visiting the morgue at the nearby University of Kansas, where he snuck in and watched, fascinated, as students worked on cadavers. Langston attended predominantly white schools and though he rarely studied, he was always near the top of his class.

Langston’s grandmother died in 1915, and he lived briefly with the Reeds. When his mother remarried, he moved with her to Lincoln, Ill., where her new husband had secured work. It was in Lincoln, Langston later said, that he first started writing poems and was chosen class poet in eighth grade, where he was again one of only a few black students. “My classmates,” he recalled, “knowing that a poem had to have rhythm, elected me unanimously – thinking, no doubt, that I had some, being a Negro.”

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San Francisco, Calif.

Black Cat Cafe
710 Montgomery Street

Like many early gay bars, the famous Black Cat didn’t start out that way. Just a few blocks from the center of North Beach, the Black Cat was first distinguished as a bohemian hang-out (it billed itself as Bohemia of the Barbary Coast) and provided the backdrop for part of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Following World War II, when gay men and lesbians swarmed San Francisco after service in the Pacific, the Black Cat assumed a “gayer” personality. The poet Allen Ginsburg, who knew it in the ’50s, described it as an enormous bar with a honky-tonk piano that “everyone” went to: “All the gay screaming queens would come, the heterosexual gray flannel suit types, longshoremen. All the poets went there.”

At a time when homophile organizations like the Mattachine Society were largely conciliatory to the police and to city officials, the Black Cat was noteworthy as a site of resistance. Its owner, Sol Stoumen, refused to pay off the police for protection against harassment, and his bar was routinely raided and fined from the 1940s through the early 1960s. During the 1950s, the Black Cat’s flamboyant drag performer, Jose Sarria, sang campy parodies of torch songs, giving them political twists, and finished each set by leading the bar’s patrons in his rendition of “God Save Us Nelly Queens,” even when members of the vice squad were present. His brand of activist theater made him extremely popular among gays, and in 1961 Sarria decided to campaign for city supervisor, knowing that he had no chance of winning. Though he received only a few thousand votes, Sarria said later that his intention had been to show his peers that a gay man had the right to run, whether he won or lost.

The Black Cat was closed in 1963. Said the attorney for the club, “That place is like an institution. This is like closing the cable cars or the Golden Gate Bridge.” There is now an upscale tapas and wine bar called Bocadillos on the site.

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