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This story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, starts on the footpath of the Brooklyn Bridge at dawn, May 25, 1959. I was headed home, coming from a friend's birthday party on Willoughby Street in Brooklyn. After I came off the long ramp that led to the elevated footpath, I looked to my right, toward the Manhattan Bridge not that far to the north. There, at its Brooklyn edge, was a factory of gray bricks going black with soot that had a square clock tower. The clock read ten past five. I'd been out all night, partying. "I've got to change my life," I said to myself (not knowing it was about to change radically before I had finished crossing the bridge). The way I was living was not acceptable. It should be admitted that this was a familiar refrain.
There on the bridge I admitted to myself that "sex" had been central to my life going back to when, in the eighth grade, after I had crossed the threshold into puberty, I fell madly in love with a fellow student I'd known since the first grade.
I couldn't keep my hands off the poor guy. So obvious did my obsession become that my eighth-grade nun, the amazing Sister Adelaide, kept me after school one day. With quiet and unaccusing confidentiality, she told me that people were beginning to talk, hinting that I might be what she called a "softie."
"Do you know what a softie is?" she asked.
"No," I lied.
"It's a boy who does impure things with other boys."
"Oh," I said.
The conversation went no further. I had been duly warned.
(For Sister Adelaide, I've used the word "amazing" and with good reason. It can't have been easy for her, a nun, to confront one of her favored pupils with such a difficult, even forbidden subject. She had made no accusation. She had wanted only to warn and protect me. Amazing indeed.)
I lived in a tenement in the shadow of the bridge in a so-called coldwater flat in which there was plenty of hot water but no central heating. My building was angled against the bridge. I could, if I were so inclined, go from my roof onto the bridge. Of course, I'd have to brave the traffic, then climb up to the raised footpath. Small wonder I did it so infrequently. But if you stood on the toilet seat and reached out the window, you could touch some of the great gray stones.
If you're an aspiring writer and you come to New York, my apartment on Hague Street was where you would want to live. Among its many recommendations was a rent of twenty-four dollars a month. Then, too, because no heat was provided, I had a Franklin stove, a cast-ironen-closed fireplace whose doors could be left open so I could sit, transfixed, staring into the burning wood — wood I had scavenged from outside the industrial lofts that then lined Cliff Street nearby. I would gather up the discarded crates and boards as if I were foraging in a forest, take them home, bash and saw them into pieces small enough to fit into the grate in the stove.
Hague Street itself was less than a quarter of a block long — a diagonal from Pearl Street to Cliff — one car wide with sidewalks that could accommodate only one person at a time. My building shared this abbreviated block with a gutted pitch-roofed house with dormer windows that was, at the time, then doing service as a wastepaper warehouse. (It must have been a beautiful one-family home in the days of its former glory.)
My kitchen was the largest of the three "railroad" rooms. Six revelers could sit around the center-placed table. Also, there was the bathtub, lifted on four claw-footed legs so that its enameled metal covering could be used as a surface for preparing food as well as provide a drain-board space for washed dishes.
A sometime ambition never realized: with the bathtub right there near the kitchen table, I'd considered entertaining dinner guests by having a qualified someone take a bath during the meal, rinsing and rising at frequent intervals. It never happened. One of the more than several reasons I'd like to return to Hague Street.
An impossibility, of course. Number Eight Hague Street and the street itself no longer exist — all demolished and obliterated to make possible the automobile ramps connecting the bridge to the East Side Highway. The bridge, fortunately, survived, but the New York of that time is long gone. Let the twenty-four-dollar-a-month rent give an accurate measure of the change. Also, attitudes toward gays have been radically revised. Marriage equality says enough. Since this story takes place in a city so different from the one in which we live now and since it was experienced by a somewhat different person from the one I have become, allow me to set down some incidents and tell some anecdotes that, ultimately, are a necessary part of the tale I want to tell.
I decided to move to New York in the fall of 1950, after my honorable discharge from the Air Force and a few months spent at home in Milwaukee, as well as a summer in South Haven, Michigan, where I'd stage-managed a summer-stock theater company. I told my mother I was moving to New York to be in the theater, possibly writing plays. Her calm response was, "You have a right to make your own mistakes."
My older brother, Jim, objected. He was going back into the army, having served with the OSS during World War II. He pointed out that our mother, having given birth to and reared eight children, would be left completely alone, which was true. My oldest two sisters, Mary Ellen and Rosebud, had become nuns and my brother Tom had joined the Jesuits. My sister Sally had accepted a teaching job in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and my other sisters, Helen Margaret and Franny, had married.
But I had to go to New York. The theater, yes, but I also needed sexual freedom, despite my successful covert activities starting in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at Marquette High, when I'd found in a movie theater in downtown Milwaukee a ready possibility where I might offer what I had to offer. Out of the Air Force, I was now twenty-one. I had to break free. For me, it wasn't even a dilemma.
But my mother eased my way. I remember her words: "All my children have done what they wanted to do when the time came. Just because you're the last doesn't mean it should be any different." And that was that. Still, I would have gone no matter what.
(Years later, while at Yaddo, the artists' retreat in Saratoga Springs, Rosemarie Beck was also in residence. Becky, as we called her, was a painter but also an astrologist. As a project, she did each of our charts to see if there were an astrological constant among creative people.
I've forgotten most of what she said in our session together except for one encouraging discovery: "You have a ruthless streak in you.")
Two actors from South Haven, Lenny Rosenson and Loretta Leversee, and I set out for New York in Lenny's Willys, a "compact" car, made even more compact by our stacked worldly goods sharing the back seat with the one whose turn it was to be squashed in while the other two luxuriated in the front seat, their legroom intruded upon only by bags and pouches stuffed with intimate needs, like toiletries and Twinkies.
We arrived on September 12, 1950, and checked into the Arlington Hotel on West Twenty-Fifth Street, now more aptly named the Heritage Hotel. After three or four days and nights, we found an apartment at 539 West 49th Street. Furnished (sort of), its rent was eleven dollars a week, a sum divided equally among the three of us. I was in New York. No. I was home.
We did all right for ourselves. Loretta, the first to succeed, got a lead role in a Henry Aldrich TV sitcom, then two Broadway plays and several performances as understudy for Shelley Winters in the Broadway play A Hatful of Rain, before going to Los Angeles with her husband to start a theater of her own.
Lenny changed his name to Mark Lenard and, among other roles on stage and television, was cast as Spock's father on Star Trek. (In the Arlington Hotel, Lenny and I shared a room with a double bed, and in the apartment for a brief time, before the three of us split up, a pull-out couch. I take wicked pleasure in telling any Trekies I might meet that I'd slept with Spock's father. To calm them down I would assure them that the operative word is "slept.")
Possibly the greatest gift New York has offered me is an experience I hadn't known since the disruptions of puberty, the most valued of human needs: friendship. For the first time I could forge an honest and unreserved friendship that had been impossible all those years throughout high school in Milwaukee, two years of college and the Air Force. I had friendly acquaintances and, in the Air Force, buddies. But I was forced in all of this to be withholding. Sexuality, central to one's identity, meant that the shared friendly experiences could go only so far.
Keep in mind my "secret" wasn't some near-inconsequential scandal. My secret was ugly and shameful. It was as though it disqualified me from inclusion in the human family. Believe me, please; this is not an exaggeration. We had all been condemned by no less than the inerrant word of God. (See Leviticus, Sodom and Gomorrah, and possibly Saint Paul.) We were abominations, repellent and beyond rescue. No wonder that we clung so close to each other. Who else would have us?
My secret therefore was an insurmountable barrier to the easy intimacy between "best friends." The openness, the accessibility, the emotional generosity were restricted within very specific bounds that could never be crossed — until I came to New York.
Lenny introduced me to his WWII army friends, Roy and Marie Poole. They took me to a party where I met Don Wagner. Don Wagner took me, at another time, to a gay bar. I met Douglas Brabizon, an Englishman. I went home with him. His roommate was Basil Howes, an English actor who had come over here as understudy for a lead in a Broadway play. Basil took me to a party. I met Jimmy Throneberg. Jimmy later introduced me to my first gay couple, Roddy and Diffy. He also introduced me to the poet, Howard Moss. Howard introduced me to Van Varner and Eddy Parone. Eddy introduced me to the playwright and novelist, Jess Gregg. Starting with Jimmy, I have named those who would become my closest best friends until death us did part.
From the beginning, Roddy and Diffy (Robert Rademacher and Robert Diffenderfer) invited me to dinners that were made significant by our conversations. With them I could talk about the opera, the theater, the ballet, concerts. And sex. They defined for me the word "sophistication."
They had cocktail parties, that vanished institution (or am I just not that popular anymore?).
But these were hardly the most important elements that nourished our growing friendships. There was, of course, the secret society in which we'd all been enrolled at birth, but, looking back, I realize that it was, to our mutual good fortune, books more than anything that bound (no pun intended) us to each other — what we read, what we admired, what we discussed.
Long, long — possibly centuries before — the historic Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. The Board of Education, integrating American schools, the secret society in which I'd been enrolled as a defining component of my birthright was fully integrated. Would that the country that gave me unquestioned citizenship were equally diverse and nondiscriminatory as was — as is — the gay community.
For me, the poster boy for this claim was Jimmy Throneberg. During the time in which he was a highly active participant in the club, he had extended alliances with, in sequence, a black ballet dancer, Louis; an Asian, Susumo; and a Mexican Indian, improbably named Stephen.
My own experience of diversity is somewhat feeble if nonetheless memorable. For a brief period in the mid — nineteen fifties, I was part of a quartet loosely formed around another Jimmy, Jimmy Baldwin. (Pardon me if I can't use the more respectful "James." That wasn't the name I knew him by.)
Included in the quartet were Themistocles Hoetis, who'd already had a novel published, and Peter Panos, a Greek-American painter considered at the time to be ascendant, which, by our reckoning, we all were. Jimmy had, in addition to shorter magazine pieces, a novel published by Knopf, Go Tell It on the Mountain. My own inclusion was generously justified by my having won the Arts of the Theater Foundation Award for my first full-length play, The Bridge, about which more later.
In no way was this assemblage central to Jimmy's life at the time. Quite possibly it was a respite from the more important intensities such as his love life and his career. It was Themistocles who introduced me to Jimmy at the San Remo — long gone — a bohemian hangout on the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker Streets in the Village (where I sometimes played word games with the lifelong lover of the poet W. H. Auden, Chester Kallman).
When I mentioned to Jimmy that I had come to New York to distance myself from family restrictions and obligations, I asked him where could he possibly go when he was already in New York. Jimmy: "I go to Paris." The other response — which should have been enraging but was said with a laugh: "When a cop tells me to move, I move!"
Usually the four of us would gather at Hague Street, then go to a bar on Park Row, just below Chinatown, called O'Rourke's. There were stained-glass windows. Behind the long and sparsely inhabited bar was what was reputed to be Al Smith's brown derby. Also, a large glass receptacle filled with peeled hard-boiled eggs, a concession to the law that required food to be available in all places where alcohol was being served. Especially enjoyable was a sizable school bell with a long string that the amiable woman who tended bar would pull whenever she got a tip.
Our choice of O'Rourke's was largely influenced by its low prices (a glass of beer was a dime) and its insidious and most welcome practice of — from time to time — giving us a free round, the welcome part. The insidious part was an unspoken protocol: the house never buys the last round. At least one more beer was required, with no resistance from any of us.
Against the southern wall was an upright piano known for its habitual silence. One evening, however, a woman, beautifully gowned, came in, sat down, played some Chopin, got up, and left to our perplexed applause — which went completely unacknowledged.
Somewhere along the line Jimmy gave me a copy of his play that had been informed by his evangelical childhood, The Amen Corner. It was thrilling and could only have been written by Jimmy — the first sign of a worthy work. A large portion of my response was envy at his ability to find the lyricism that is innate in colloquial African-American speech.
Although the play had its premiere at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., it wasn't until a decade later that it was finally given a somewhat threadbare production on Broadway, but with a stunning performance by the great African-American actress, Beah Richards, an artist who, for obvious reasons, never experienced the major career her gifts deserved.
Jimmy, during all this, was writing Giovanni's Room, his second novel. Just like Go Tell It on the Mountain, it is beautifully written, and its publication announced the arrival of an exceptional talent, even if some of the critics failed to recognize this simple truth.
In this second novel the main character is a gay white man. Ultimately, time would prove that even with the book's gay prominence, it was the "white" presence that was more important.
Jimmy was making no secret of his determination that he not be categorized as "a Negro writer," which he considered an imposed limitation he had no intention of obliging. History, however, had other plans. And Jimmy, in the racial ferment roiling the country, fulfilled those plans with the full force of his genius, descending into the depths of our human nature and searching out all the truths that had to be applied to any understanding of the complexities — ultimately very simple — that had corrupted our country from its beginning.
But all of this was to come after our brief time together. Close to the end, rumor reached us that Judy Garland's recently released epic movie, A Star Is Born, was going to be cut to accommodate the attention span of straight moviegoers.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In the Shadow of the Bridge"
Copyright © 2019 Joseph Caldwell.
Excerpted by permission of Delphinium Books, Inc..
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