Len & Cub – A Relationship In Photos

A new book gives insight into a same-sex relationship in rural Canada a century ago.

Tinted photo of Leonard “Len” Keith (1891-1950) & Joseph “Cub” Coates (1899-1965) on a trip to Jemseg, New Brunswick (1916)

If it weren’t for the advent of the self-timing camera, we would not know anything about the relationship between Len & Cub. There are no surviving notes, letters or documents to provide any further evidence. Luckily, Len had an interest in photography and documented their intimacy in a trove of images spanning nearly 15 years. These photos serve to illustrate their story in the recently published book Len & Cub: A Queer History (Goose Lane Press) by Meredith J. Batt and Dusty Green.

Len & Cub features Len’s photos of the duo between 1916 and 1930 and tells the story of a relationship in early 20th Century rural North America. These photos provide the oldest known photographic records of a same-sex couple in New Brunswick, Canada.

The term “queer” seems a bit ill-fitting to describe the actions of individuals a century ago, when even the terms “homosexual” or “gay” were not part of the vernacular. The choice of language is explained by the authors, who dedicate the book to the queer youth of New Brunswick. As Green states in his preface, “… the record of their lives is a testament to the resilience of queer people and an affirmation that we belong in any place we choose to call home.”

Leonard “Len” Keith  was born in 1891 in Butternut Ridge (now Havelock), New Brunswick. His family enjoyed a moderate amount of wealth as the owners of a match factory and later a grist mill. Joseph “Cub” Coates was born 8 years later, the son of a farmer who was a neighbor to the Keith family. Together Len and Cub shared a love of the outdoors and documented their outings in photos. The pictures taken during hunting and canoe trips with their arms around each other or lying in bed together make clear the affection they held for each other.

When Len was called to service during World War I, Cub signed up as well, and the two trained together in Quebec.

Cub and Len in training at Saint-Jen-sur-Richelieu, Quebec (1918)

Photos of the duo are less frequent in the late 1920’s. Len’s camera captures several other unnamed male companions that accompanied him on trips and other outdoor adventures.

Len was also a car enthusiast and eventually opened a garage, which he later converted into a pool hall. Cub continued to make a living farming and then as a butcher.

In 1931, Len was forced to leave Havelock, allegedly due to his homosexual activities. He signed over control of his business and finances to his sister Lucy and headed to the United States. He later settled in Montreal, where he resided until succumbing to cancer in 1950. His sister arranged for his burial in Havelock.

It appears that Cub was not caught up in the scandal that forced Len out of town. He stayed in Havelock until 1940, when he married Rita Cameron, a nurse from the neighboring town of Chatham. After he served in WWII, the couple relocated to Moncton. He would go on to become a prominent figure in New Brunswick’s harness racing circles before his death in 1965.

Len & Cub, ca 1916

The photos were donated to the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick by John Corey, a local historian who purchased them at a Keith family estate sale in 1984. Corey’s father had been a classmate of Len’s and knew both families. When he donated the collection, John referred to Len & Cub as “boyfriends” and also identified a photo of an individual who was instrumental in driving Len out of Havelock.

As some of these photos began to circulate on the internet several years ago, curiosity about Len & Cub’s story grew. In addition to the recent publication of the book, the BeaverBrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, NB is featuring an exhibition of the photos from April 2 – July 29, 2022.

Click here to watch a short video about Len and Cub from the CBC.

Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me: John Weir

John Weir is pissed off. Rightfully so.

He has a new book out. An award winning book. It’s called Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me (Red Hen Press). It is described on the cover as “linked stories” and won the Grace Paley Prize for short fiction. God forbid you call it a memoir or a short story collection. But we’ll get to that later.

This month, his two previous novels: 1989’s The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket and 2007’s What I Did Wrong are back in print with Fordham University Press. You can easily order any of these titles on Amazon or Barnes Ignoble. However, if you want to throw your business to an indie book seller, or more specifically a gay bookstore, it appears that you will have to go to one that he has personally walked into and asked them to stock his books. He’ll come back and sign them, too.

The Strand also does not have copies in their store. He went there and asked. Something to do with distribution, although you can order them from their online warehouse.

John Weir on the cover of The Advocate (1990)

I have been a fan of John Weir’s work since Eddie Socket‘s original release. I purchased a copy at, uh, Barnes Ignoble, and was thoroughly captivated by this groundbreaking book – winner of the 1990 Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Debut Novel and one of the first to address the AIDS crisis.

The book kept me company on a miserable theater tour in the fall of 1991. I strongly identified with the protagonist, and when he contracted AIDS halfway through the book, it scared the hell out of me.

I wrote some of my favorite quotes in my journal:

Though he didn’t think that God existed, still, it was nice to just sit somewhere with people who believed that he did.

And

My feelings are clichés and that bugs me, so I try to hide it with other slicker clichés, and with everything in quotes, at least I can remind myself that I know better than my feelings, which are really the drippiest, most sentimental, self-pitying things.

I pored over it for so long that one of my cast-mates finally said “What the hell is with you and that book?!”

The many editions of Eddie Socket

John Weir was working with ACT UP on The Day of Desperation in January, 1991 when he and other activists (including fellow writer Dale Peck) interrupted the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather:

It’s interesting to hear him mention his mother in the clip above, as she is the subject of several stories in Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me, written 25 years later, after their relationship had evolved into an adult child/caregiver situation.

In the intervening years, Weir was Contributing Editor at Details magazine and published nonfiction pieces in The New York Times, Spin, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. In addition to his writing, he has been an associate professor of English at Queens College since 1993.

I have been following John on Facebook for years. He would sometimes post new material and share extended witty, hysterically funny conversations with his mother. I also followed Sukey Tawdry, Mrs. Weir’s beloved pooch who had his own Facebook profile and passed away just days after she did in 2018. (John’s tribute is posted here.)

For all of the platform’s faults, John’s connection to Facebook is evident: he dedicates Nostalgia to his 5,000 followers.

Weir has a crankier social media alter-ego, whom he refers to as “The 3am Guy.” This allows him to rant about various topics at all hours of the night and then perhaps soften the edges or clean up the mess the following day – a tactic more people should adopt, IMHO.

It was Weir himself and not The 3am Guy who posted the following – a stinging encapsulation of what it is like to be a gay author of a certain age, on the first day of Gay Pride Month, just trying to get his work in front of its target audience.

This is his entire post, which I have reprinted with his permission:

The Self-Pitying Author Asks: Why Are None of My Books on the LGBTQ+ Pride Table at My Local Groovy BKNY Bookstore, Next to *The Town of Babylon* and *The Guncle*?

It’s LGBTQ+ Pride Month, and I plan to spend the month ashamed! Mostly because I have this new book out and I haven’t done enough to promote it. Here’s a funny thing about the book:

John Weir Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

What’s its genre?

Is that like asking a book its pronouns?

Maybe!

Well, *Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me* calls itself “linked stories” on the cover. That’d mean it’s a collection of short stories: fiction.

Somebody said maybe it’d get more notice if I had called it a novel, “because it reads like a novel” (presumably because the same dude is the narrator of all 11 stories, and the stories follow him – not in order! – from like 1974 to 2014); and the thing is:

It got published because I submitted it to a writing contest – the Association of Writers & Writing Program’s (AWP’s) Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction.

I submitted to a contest, which I’d never done before, because: my agent wasn’t interested in the manuscript, which meant I no longer had an agent; and of the *12 agents whom I queried to see if they’d represent me* – well: None. Of them. Even. Replied. Not even their harried assistants wrote back to pretend they were the agent and say, “No thanks.” No one. Not an email, not even a form-rejection email.

Then in fear and self-loathing I sent the manuscript to a friend, who is also an agent (generally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to have an agent who’s a friend), and they said, “Love this, can’t sell it.”

So I submitted to a contest.

Which specified: “Short Fiction.”

Author Grace Paley, photographed by Jess Paley

Like the kind of stories Grace Paley wrote. A prize in her name! And I was all, “Well, I’m not Paley, and not that the judge has to pick a Paley-esque collection, but: I do sort of do the thing Paley does of writing stories as if they were just what happened that day.” (Not to put myself on her level of genius!)

A lot of Paley’s stories are written as if they were unstructured suit jackets, they fit fine but without the expected ribbing: her work feels impromptu, copied from everyday ordinary life (even if that ordinary life is extraordinary); and so but then you realize that every word is deliberate, she has a distinct aesthetic and a project, her writing isn’t random, nor is it cinema verité, though it’s often presented as if a quirky documentarian were given a camera to record whatever is in front of her.

So my collection got picked for the Grace Paley Short Fiction Prize, the reward for which was its being published by a small press that partners with the AWP: Red Hen Press.

So it won a Story prize, so it’s Stories.

I guess it was my idea to use the phrase “linked stories,” because short story collections don’t sell that well, and I thought maybe people would be more likely to buy it if they thought it was gonna feel like a novel.

I don’t think it’s a novel. I don’t really care if it’s a novel. I don’t know what it is; but then some people have been:

It’s a memoir. It’s autobiography. It’s a series of essays with a dude in the middle saying “Ow.” It’s nonfiction misnomered as fiction!

“How dare you misgenre me!” it’s thinking, sitting un-bought on a low shelf in the Fiction section at your neighborhood Barnes Ignoble.

Well, but back to Paley: I can’t call it nonfiction because I lied about stuff; compressed 6 real people into one fictional character; took scenes from real life and put them in a different month, with other weather; invented conversations; collapsed 8 different events into one; made shit up; gave all my best lines to other people; left things out that’d make me look bad if you thought I committed them; mis-remembered the past; manipulated my mis-remembered past to satisfy narrative arcs. Gave stuff tidy endings that, in real life, are never-ending.

I used techniques of fiction, in other words.

But I wanted it to read as if it were happening right in front of you, happening *to* you, right now, in this moment that you’re reading it.

I wanted it to read like nonfiction. Or like a Frederick Wiseman documentary, maybe.

I wanted you to think, “He must have just written down what happened.”

Robert Lowell & Elizabeth Hardwick

“Why not say what happened?” Elizabeth Hardwick said to Robert Lowell, when he was stuck on a poem; and then he emptied all her letters into his book! Her aggrieved, enraged letters about his leaving her for another woman.

Sleep with a writer, wake up in print.

So I can see a person’s assigning my book in a course in, like, I dunno, “Personal Narrative?”

Argh, I think the term these days is “Autofiction,” which I hate. I always hear, under that name, the accusation that all a particular writer ever did was obsess about themselves; and that an “auto-fictionalist” was deficient because they could not make shit up.

Is there a notion lately that a “writer” is a person who works entirely from “imagination,” and that to base a story on true events is somehow not to be as glorious as a person who works solely from imagination?

As if “saying what happened” did not involve using your imagination.

As if “autofiction” is somehow ethically suspect because you’re invading the privacy of people whose lives your work is based on. But there is such a thing as an emotional autobiography, where the arc of feeling is lifted from your own life, if not the events. And even a science fiction writer is surely modeling characters on people they know in real life (see Philip K. Dick’s books where one of the main characters is clearly based on Bishop James Pike of California).

Argh, anyway.

John Weir Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

And then there is this thing of, If you’re a homo-dude like myself over age like 55 and you’re writing about stuff that happened in the first 15 years of the global AIDS crisis, 1981 -1996, you are automatically *historical*, and your writing is going to have no useful application to stuff that is happening today, it’s gonna be retrograde at worst, merely “interesting” at best, yet another traumatized recounting of an era that properly belongs in a theme park, AIDSWorld.

O and alas. Call my book what you want, it doesn’t have a genre. But if it reads like nonfiction, that doesn’t mean it’s without an aesthetic; and if it reads like a novel, that doesn’t mean it’s not a series of stories carefully revised and assembled in a particular order; and if it reads like memoir, don’t expect it to be telling the truth about everything; and if it’s just some Wicked Aging Sodomite not letting go of the past, well:

Maybe we live in a country and moment when we are deeply aware of having *let go too quickly of the past*; and maybe the refusal to account for the past is a right wing strategy; and maybe the past is not even past, as Faulkner says; and maybe a book is not a weighted blanket, maybe it’s not meant to help you fall dreamlessly to sleep, maybe its point is to fling you into a stage of inconsolable grief at 3 in the morning.

Follow him on Facebook. Follow him on TikTok. He’s @jwierdo on Twitter.

Buy the fucking book.

Costello Presley and 80’s Gay Porn Guilty Pleasures

Amy Sedaris is the queen of Instagram – her offbeat posts highlight the weirdly funny and/or oddly sweet. I am just one of her million+ followers. If you need a daily pick-me-up – and who doesn’t at this point? – check out her feed.

A couple of months ago, she posted this:

This clip has more than 300k views, 23,436 likes and 897 comments…. but apparently I’m the only one who doesn’t just click the heart, post “LOL” and move on. No. I’m the gay porn nerd spewing info that the general population really does not give a shit about, pointing out that it’s Eric Manchester & Billy London admiring Dean Chasson’s talents in Head Of The Class (1988). Music by Costello Presley!

The comment garnered no “likes” or “responses” – it just dissipated into the air like a public fart as crickets chirped in the distance. Whoooo cares?

Taking my killjoy vibe to the next level, I would also like to point out that the blond, Billy London, was brutally murdered and dismembered in Hollywood back in 1990. He is sometimes referred to as the gay “Black Dahlia.” Circus of Books filmmaker Rachel Mason is currently working on a documentary looking into the unsolved crime.

I know I’m not the only one interested in finding out more about these videos. Amy Sedaris reposted this clip from Instagram user @homomacabre, whose followers also care about the minutia. His posts highlight the kitsch of old gay porn, with acting thinner than the flimsy sets, not to mention the tacky period clothes and hairstyles. And then there’s the music of Costello Presley.

I wanted to do a blog post about the mysterious synth-pop wizard who scored several dozen gay porn films in the 80’s and early 90’s, but have not successfully uncovered any info about him, including his true identity. I am not alone in my appreciation of Costello Presley: There are multiple soundcloud files and a reddit post with a filmography of approximately 40 titles that feature his music. A porn-adjacent friend of mine does not remember his real name, but assures me that Mr. Presley has left the building.

In 2017, synth band Parralox did a faithful cover of Costello Presley’s “Animal Reaction” from William Higgins’ Class of ’69.

In addition to Head of the Class, another Scott Masters/Catalina video in the Costello Presley oeuvre is John Travis’s Powerline (1989), which also starred Eric Manchester. This film features one of my favorite unintentionally funny scenes from that era.

I purchased a VHS copy of Powerline while on spring break from college. I had gone into New York City to see a Broadway show with some school friends and was about to head back to Long Island. I couldn’t manage to break away from the group and go into a porn shop, so I said my goodbyes at Penn Station and headed down to the train platform. Once the coast was clear, I ran back up to 8th avenue and went into the first smut shop I could find.

I made my way over to the video racks as a stripper in a silver bikini and stilettoes danced on the stairs to the upper level, beckoning shoppers to partake of something more tangible. I grabbed Powerline and headed to the register. With a $39.99 price tag, it was more than I would normally pay for a porn videocassette but my train was leaving in 5 minutes.

All the “acting” scenes are priceless but this one is my favorite, featuring gay-for-pay cover model Tom Steele as the cable guy with Lou Cass and Troy Ramsey as the couple from downstairs who catch him jerking off on the roof.

Porn legend and uber music fan Lou Cass was a frequent guest on The Robin Byrd Show in the early 90’s when he was dancing in New York. The Bay Area resident still has a strong social media presence and occasionally releases his own music. This is one of several versions of Pat Benatar/Nick Gilder’s “Rated X” that he has recorded through the years:

If and when I find out more information about Costello Presley, I will be sure to update the post.

See also:
10 Gay Porn Stars We Lost in 2020
Gay Porn Stars We Lost in 2021
Remembering Prolific Pornographer Robert Prion
RIP Porn Star Turned Activist Terry DeCarlo

Dusty Springfield Sings Kate Bush

It’s hard for me to believe that I am well past 5 years into this blog nonsense and I have never written a single post about Dusty Springfield. I am a huge Dusty fan – she’s my diva. When I had my public access show here in New York City, I ran performance clips of Dusty so often that I received condolence calls and letters from viewers when she died in 1999.

Too much?

Back then, there was still much to discover: whole albums of unreleased material were unearthed and LPs that had been out of print for decades were remastered and reissued. But now the cupboard is bare, with even incomplete performances cobbled together to produce somewhat finished products.

I do appreciate collections that present the tracks in different contexts. A couple of nice recent compilations: Real Gone Music’s Complete Atlantic Singles (1968-1971) and Ace Records’ Dusty Sings Soul are welcome additions to my dusty Dusty collection. And then there’s Goin’ Back: 1964-1971, a 2-CD set of radio and TV recordings that is about to be released in the UK.

With a career spanning close to 40 years and hundreds of recordings in genres from folk to disco and everything in between, it’s easy to forget about some of the lesser known Dusty performances. I was recently reminded of the time she covered a Kate Bush song.

Yes, Kate Bush.

And I’m also a huge fan of Kate Bush. But somehow, I had forgotten about this.

It’s like artists converging from different dimensions. Or maybe not. We live in an age where Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett duets are a thing.

Programme for the Drury Lane shows, 1979

Dusty always had a great ear for music, whether choosing her own material or introducing the Motown Sound to the UK. She was also instrumental in getting Led Zeppelin signed to Atlantic records. It’s not surprising that she would have taken notice of Kate Bush from the very beginning.

Picture it: London, April 1979. Dusty has just turned 40 as she returned to the UK after living in the US for most of the 1970’s. Meanwhile, 20 year-old Kate Bush had released her first two albums within the previous year. Dusty was performing several shows at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Unfortunately there are no official recordings of the performances but we do have a couple of bootleg audio recordings. Dusty introduces the song:

“When I came here last year, I was surprised and mostly pleased at the musical changes that had happened here. I like things like (Ian Drury’s) ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ just as much as you do…. anyway the thing that impressed me most was that so much originality was around. In particular one young lady came through with a song called ‘Wuthering Heights’…. Kate Bush has an immense amount of originality and I was absolutely staggered by her. I’d like to sing a song that I think is one of the prettiest ones ever written, certainly by her. It’s called ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes.'”

She then goes on to, as Neil Tennant would later say, “Dustify” the song. It’s a beautiful performance of an unexpected song choice:

Dusty was not alone in her praise of “The Man With The Child In His Eyes”. Besides reaching the #1 spot on the UK pop charts, the song also won an Ivor Novello Award for songwriting.

Later that year, Dusty’s performance at Royal Albert Hall was properly recorded for posterity. Unfortunately, by that time the song had been removed from the set list.

Today would have been Dusty’s 83rd birthday. She is still sorely missed and I’d trade my eye teeth to hear her sing a duet with Lady Gaga.

Revisiting Kate Bush’s gayest songs.

Gay Times #69 (1978)

I recently came across a 1978 issue of Gay Times, East Coast Edition – Issue #69 (ahem).

The news section was dominated by California’s Briggs Initiative, aka Proposition 6 – the first attempt to restrict gay and lesbian rights through a statewide ballot measure. Thankfully, it was defeated that November with 58% of the vote, but the stakes were high when this issue went to press.

It was the importance of this vote which also inspired the centerfold:

Caption: Register To Vote – Your right to live may depend on it!

The photo is from Robert Bresson’s 1957 film A Man Escaped, a WWII drama based on a true story of a French resistance fighter portrayed by Francois Leterrier (center).

Elsewhere in the issue, an editorial calls for the continued boycott of Florida Citrus due to the anti-gay efforts of their spokeswoman, Anita Bryant.

Welcome to 2022, when it all seems painfully current, domestically and abroad.

Ah, but it wasn’t all politics and protests. Editor Pat Pomeroy interviewed The New York Man: Damian Charles. He’s described as an Aries ram, former school teacher, author of 49(!) books of erotica, and a centerfold model. He inspired orgasms in 17 countries! (I have to wonder who collects such statistics and where does one find the raw data?) And also – what quote could encapsulate the era better than “… as I have sex with a succession of lovers under the strobe lights at Studio 54”?

I reached out to photographer John Michael Cox, Jr. to see if he had any recollections of this dynamo. “Charles Herschberg was a very close friend & the writer I most used to conduct interviews – I didn’t like to transcribe interviews so I employed writers. For his nude modeling, he decided on the name Damien Charles, which I never liked. He never had the ambition to do much & mainly posed for me. He never did films but I did shoot some hardcore pix of him with his lover Richard Allan. Chuck died around 1990 in Florida.

“These photos are from the first session we did. I never worked for Gay Times, so Chuck must have given them the prints to use.”

I asked about Chuck’s work as a writer. “I met Chuck when he was writing a piece on (gay porn star) Roger. I came over to the Eros to photograph him and Roger’s manager Jim Bacon introduced us. Typical of Chuck – he never finished the article.”

Click here for the January 1977 Omega cover story on Jobriath – written by Charles Herschberg with photos by John Michael Cox, Jr.

Regarding the many porn books Chuck wrote: “He probably wrote under many different names. He worked for an outfit that used many writers. They churned out huge amounts of paperback porn.

“Harlequin offered him a deal to do books & said he could alter his porn stuff. $5,000 per book. He couldn’t bring himself to do it.

“Years ago I tried to do a tribute to Chuck on my website, which has since been taken down. Like everyone who knew Chuck, I adored him & also wanted to hit him over the head.”

Charles Herschberg with Jayne Mansfield backstage at the Latin Quarter (1965)

Thanks to John Michael Cox Jr. for his recollections of his friend.

Mme Spivy: I Brought Culture To Buffalo In The 90’s

Ladies and Gentleman, it is time once again to revisit that late great dynamic lady of song, Madame Spivy LaVoe or LeVoe (1906-1970), also known simply as Spivy. A lesbian entertainer, nightclub owner and character actress, Spivy has been described as “The Female Noel Coward” – to which I add “…. if he had been born in Brooklyn as Bertha Levine.”

In case you missed them, these are our previous Madame Spivy posts:
The Alley Cat
The Tarantella
Auntie’s Face
100% American Girls
A Tropical Fish

Our latest offering is one of her signature songs: “I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s”. Curiously, on the recording Spivy introduces the song as “Intimate Memories of Buffalo In The 90’s.” This is the fourth side we have profiled from her 1939 album Seven Gay Sophisticated Songs. The lyrics were written by Everett Marcy, who also co-wrote (with Spivy) “Why Don’t You,” another song from the album. Marcy also had a few Broadway writing credits including New Faces of 1936.

Prince Paul Chavchavadze

The music is credited to Prince Paul Chavchavadze (1899-1971), a writer, translator, and deposed Georgian royal living in New York City. And with that nugget of information, I have to say… whenever I look into the eclectic array of international bohemians associated with Spivy, I am reminded of the party scene at the beginning of Auntie Mame. This is also a fitting scenario considering Spivy later played Mother Burnside in the Broadway production.

Oscar Wilde plays a part in the lyrics of the song, as a guest in the home of our fictional hostess. It should be noted that he did conduct several lecture tours across the U.S., including speaking engagements in Buffalo. One of the topics was “The Decorative Arts.”

I Brought Culture to Buffalo In the 90’s

I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s. When Wilde was there, he visited my home
I showed him all the glories I’d bought so cheap in Greece
and all the wonders I’d brought home from Rome.
He was spellbound at the splendor of my whatnot and the cigar butt Papa got from General Grant.
He couldn’t tear his eyes from my bay window and the maidenhair beneath the rubber plants.

I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s – the year I took the iron dog off our lawn.
In its place I put a Venus in a nightie and a rather naughty but authentic faun.
I completely reproduced the Versailles garden though the Erie claimed they had the right of way.
I swore I’d die before a tie was laid to desecrate Versailles. I made Buffalo the place it is today.

I was the first to have a Turkish corner though plenty followed suit, you may be sure.
I produced a pageant based on Jackie Horner and the deficit was given to the poor.
I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s. I made the natives conscious of the nude.
In my dining room I put “Boy Extracting Thorn From Foot” and my guests that winter scarcely touched their food.

The season that I gave my talks on yoga was one I felt I never could surpass.
I had a negligee cut like a toga and all my candelabra piped for gas.
I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s. When Wilde was there, he visited my home.
Filled with all the treasures of the ages and a nugget Uncle Nate had sent from Nome.

I showed him all the house right through the garret and said “What one thing does it still require?”
When Oscar looked at me, I could not bear it.
“A match,” he said, “Madame, a match to set the goddamn place on fire!”

This newspaper blurb (courtesy of the Queer Music Heritage page) mentions the song being “rented” to singer Bea Lillie:

The Lion In The Emerald City: Promise Of A New Day

Eagle’s calling and he’s calling your name,
Tides are turning, bringing winds of change
Why do I feel this way?
The promise of a new day…

Paula Abdul still reigns supreme on Lite-FM, if my trips to the pharmacy and grocery store are any indication. Her #1 hits from the Forever Your Girl LP are still in heavy rotation there, yet her chart-topping follow up album, Spellbound, seems to have been forgotten along with its two #1 hit singles: “Rush, Rush” and “Promise Of A New Day.”

“Promise Of A New Day” – the lead track on the album – was my unofficial theme of the Summer of 1991. Not the edgiest choice, but it perfectly captured the energy I felt as I moved into my first New York City apartment. I picked up a used promo CD of Spellbound at St. Marks Sounds and played it as I hung posters and organized my books and records on unstable milk crate shelving units.

So I wasn’t a rebel through and through, but I loved the East Village. I felt like I belonged there more than anyplace else, even if I was content to spend most nights in my apartment getting acquainted with Robin Byrd and leased access television rather than going over to Avenue B to watch GG Allin roll around in his own poop.

I previously wrote about my first professional theatre job as the Cowardly Lion on a children’s theatre tour. It was a big adventure with a little romance and a lot of angst as the tour drew to a close. Most of the other cast members had theatre jobs lined up for the summer, while I was about to wake up on the black and white side of the rainbow with no prospects other than crawling back to Carle Place Tower Records and asking for my job back.

I had to get to Manhattan. It was looming in the distance like the Emerald City. As I wrote in another post about this period… Dorothy may have been happy to go back home, but the Lion, with his newfound courage, stayed in Oz.

It turned out that Glinda the Good Witch didn’t have a job lined up, either. She lived in a women’s hotel on Gramercy Park South but was ready to make a move. When she suggested that we find an apartment together, I jumped at the chance.

I knew this might not be a perfect fit. Glinda’s nickname on the tour was Eeyore – partly because she carried the stuffed animal around with her, but also because it matched her personality. She was a lumbering sad-sack with a constant cloud of doom over her head. It was much more amusing when we were on tour than while apartment hunting in the summer heat.

We looked at one apartment after another – she would hem and haw and say that she needed to think about it. Any halfway decent place was taken by the time she made up her mind. In the meantime, she continued to live in the women’s hotel while I kept schlepping into the city from Long Island. This went on for almost two months.

By the time I found the apartment on East 6th street and Avenue A – a converted 2 bedroom in a 5th floor tenement walkup for $750 a month – I felt that this was our last chance. If she didn’t go for this one, then I needed to come up with an alternate living situation. Perhaps she sensed that this was the end of the line, because she agreed fairly quickly and we got it.

There was a clause in the lease – a standard apartment lease – that says something about the tenant being responsible for carpeting 80 percent of the floors to reduce noise for the downstairs neighbor. When we asked the landlord about this on the day of the lease signing, he started to laugh. A little too long. Then he simply said; “Don’t worry about it.”

Our first night in the apartment, we were startled awake by the blood curdling screams that sounded like a woman being attacked. This quickly escalated into a shrieking, incoherent babble that echoed inside and outside the building. I immediately thought of Kitty Genovese and the nightmare of urban apathy. It abruptly stopped before we could find the source. We soon learned that the neighbor right below us had frequent schizophrenic episodes – usually in the middle of the night, although they would happen at any time. So no, we did not need to carpet our floors to limit our noise for the downstairs neighbor.

Despite its flaws, I loved that apartment. It was above this derelict bar called the Cherry Tavern. 20 years later, the NYU kids were lining up to get in. We had no door buzzer so visitors would have to call from the pay phone on the corner – this was pre-cell phone, of course. One of us would have to walk down all those flights to let them in. The floors in the apartment were so slanted that we had to put a 2×4 under one end of the kitchen table to keep it level. The ceiling leaked. The exposed brick wall in the living room was actively crumbling. Anything placed near it was subjected to a coat of debris.

Our living room furniture was purchased by chance at a garage sale on moving day for a total of $8: a $3 wood coffee table with a wobbly leg and a $5 foam couch which folded out into a bed. Suddenly, we had a guest room.

Unfortunately, the couch would collapse sideways if you leaned on the armrests. Our heavy foot lockers were placed on either side to act as end tables as well as bookends.

Before the move, I had started working in the city. Technically, it wasn’t a telemarking job, but it was pretty close: trying to persuade doctors to take part in phone conferences sponsored by drug companies. My friend worked there and made tons of money in commissions. He loved it.

Two weeks after the move, I was fired. My success rate wasn’t high enough.  I didn’t have a strong, assuring voice that was able to convince doctors that spending an hour on a conference call talking about Cardizem was a particularly good use of their time.

I tried not to panic. I had bills now. REAL bills. Shit. What the hell was I going to do? Hit the Village Voice want ads. I applied at St. Mark’s Sounds, which would have been my dream job if the $4.25 an hour they paid would cover my expenses.

My next job was a temporary night time position filling laundry carts at the Midtown Sheraton Hotel. I was in charge of the 36th through 50th floors, filling housekeeper’s carts with freshly laundered sheets, towels, little shampoos and soaps. I climbed a lot of stairs. I never saw any guests or housekeepers. It was solitary work but it paid well.

Although this was supposed to be a three month position, I was let go after three weeks. Was it my earring? It had been suggested that I not wear it to work, as the head of housekeeping would not approve. But I never SAW anybody while I was working, so I left it in. I crossed paths with her one day, and was let go at the end of my shift.

On the plus side, I had acquired a linen closet full of Sheraton sheets and towels and a year’s supply of sundries.

I had to remind myself that I didn’t move to Manhattan to be a housekeeper or telemarketer. I continued to audition but that went about as well as the employment prospects.

Meanwhile, Glinda was having her own issues. She was in full Eeyore mode: Unhappy in her day job. No theatre job prospects. No social life.  She would stay in bed all day watching television with the lights off in her windowless room. I tried to include her when I went out with my college friends, but she complained that we all talked about the past and she felt left out. She became increasingly petty and jealous.  She was not the kind of person who would be happy for me when I got a job or a callback audition or went on a date. Her first response was always some variation on “Why don’t I have that?” She also seemed quite pleased when the job, callback or date didn’t work out for me. Years later she was diagnosed as clinically depressed and went on medication, but we didn’t know about that at the time.

One day I came home, opened the apartment door and walked into the Amityville Horror. She had painted the 5’x5’ entryway high gloss blood red. But she didn’t do it carefully. There were red spatters on the black and white tile floor and red smears along the ceiling. It looked like a slaughterhouse. If she had ever mentioned that she wanted to paint, I certainly would have helped… first and foremost by explaining that a simulated bloodbath in the vestibule might not give guests a favorable first impression.

In late August, I got the call from the children’s theatre company that had done our Wizard of Oz tour. They were lining up their Christmas shows – would I like to do a New England tour of Babes in Toyland? Hell yeah. Of course, Glinda was not happy, because they didn’t call HER. And now she would be living with a subletter.

I needed two months of employment to get me to the start of the tour. My sister worked in the main office of the Petland chain of pet stores and directed me to an open position at their 14th street location. I would clean out the bird room every day – scrubbing bird shit off the cages with a wire brush. I learned how count out bags of 20 live crickets, and how to hold mice by the tail, flick them on the head to knock them out before feeding them to the snakes. Every day I acted like this was my career choice – nobody knew I was just biding my time.

I was barely making enough money to get by. I still feel a little queasy when I see those cheapo Table Talk individual dessert pies, which were 50 cents each. The Wendy’s dollar menu was also a big treat. And I was in New York City! I was sitting in Union Square eating my sad little lunch rather than a suburban mall parking lot. One day I watched Harvey Keitel film a scene from Bad Lieutenant and then went back to work and sold a bag of live crickets to Ellen Greene. Besides, I knew I would be back onstage and out on the road again soon. I was a New York City Actor now, with my own apartment to come back to.

One of my favorite memories of this period was a hot summer evening when I took my dinner plate of spaghetti out on the fire escape to catch a little breeze. I was wearing cut-off shorts and a t-shirt, eating off of a paper plate, while five stories below was the rear garden of a pricey Swiss restaurant on 7th street – an early sign of how the neighborhood would eventually change. A string quartet serenaded the outdoor diners.  Every once in a while, one of them would notice me, up on my perch. They would point and whisper to their dinner companions while I pretended not to notice.

In my head, I heard the tremulous voice of Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch saying “It’s all right… it’s just one of the little people who live in this land…”

I didn’t care. I was as happy as a clam on my city balcony with the Empire State Building off in the distance. I felt like I was exactly where I wanted and was supposed to be. I had come to the end of one road and felt a sense of accomplishment, knowing how hard I worked to get there. There was a whole other adventure up ahead, but for now I was in the East Village, and I was home.

Blueboy 1980: Gays of NYC

It’s not nice to stereotype. This may be especially true of homosexuals, who have borne the brunt of unkind pinpointing for so long that they believe it themselves.

…so begins an outrageously stereotypical article from the May, 1980 issue of Blueboy Magazine, titled “Is There A Typical New York Faggot?”

Now… before you lose your shit over the title, keep in mind that those were different times. The “F” word wasn’t taboo. Larry Kramer’s book by that name had been published just a year and a half earlier. So let’s put that sticking point aside. There’s plenty more to discuss.

Another caveat: This is from Blueboy. A gay porn magazine. It ain’t the Advocate or The Village Voice. Presumably author “J. Greller” was the pen name of a jaded queen with his tongue firmly planted in his own cheek and his head up his own ass. Who can say for sure? I wouldn’t want to, you know, stereotype… but Harold from Boys In The Band could deliver this piece as a monologue.

It’s mean and bitchy, but not in a fun way. It’s like the author had one martini too many and his New York City rant went to a dark place that was no longer funny or clever. The specificity of many of the “types” described gives the indication that he had an axe to grind with very particular unnamed individuals.

Have a read:

To be fair, the entire piece isn’t completely tone-deaf. There are glimpses that ring true, especially in the downtown neighborhoods. This is due in part to the quotes from others – Doley the Third’s observation on Harlem, for example.

I find the piece to be out of sync with the NYC neighborhoods as I have known them since the early 1990’s. But this is my perception over a 30 year period. I wasn’t there in 1980, but I have to wonder if the author has based his observations on, say, a 30 year period prior to that. Were there were really still old vamps & flappers on St. Marks in the CBGB era? Did 57th Street really have its own gay male type that needed dissection? Did nobody ever travel out of their own neighborhood to socialize? Were the streetcars not running?

Interesting to note that, for all this compartmentalizing of Midtown East neighborhoods: Kips Bay vs Turtle Bay vs. East Side…  there is no mention of Murray Hill. At the time, according to older gay New Yorkers that I have known, it was referred to as “Mary Hill” due to the large number of gay bars and homosexual residents. J. Geller missed a golden opportunity. 

Kudos to the graphic artist Favio Castelli, though.

Artist’s Muse: Randy Jack

While scrolling across the internet in search of photographs by George Platt Lynes, I came across one that I had never seen before – a handsome shirtless young gent sitting cross-legged on a bed. Initially I was dubious of its authenticity, as the subject looked so casual and timeless. There is nothing dated about the guy or his surroundings: the image could have been captured at any point in the last century.

I decided to do a little investigating and found that it was, in fact, an authentic Lynes photo. The handsome subject was a fellow named Randy Jack, Lynes boyfriend circa 1947-48. A new Lynes biography also helped to fill in the blanks.

Homer Randolph Jack was born on April 5, 1926 in Lake Clinton, Illinois. He attended Waukegan High School where he enjoyed singing and performing. As a senior, he starred in the high school’s production of the comedy Best Foot Forward. Upon graduation in 1944, he joined the Navy.

After WWII, with his Naval tour of duty completed, Randy Jack settled in Los Angeles, where he embarked on a relationship with ice cream parlor impresario Wil Wright Jr.

Californians of a certain age still swoon at the memory of Wil Wright’s frozen delights, decades after the last shop closed its doors.

In the recently published George Platt Lynes bio The Daring Eye, author Allen Ellenzweig refers to Randy Jack as “Wil Wright’s favorite.” In August of 1947, the two of them rented a room in Lynes’ Hollywood home. The New York-based photographer was in the midst of his “Hollywood period” working for Vogue magazine. Lynes – who always lived beyond his means and was notoriously bad with money management – decided to take in roommates to share chores and expenses.

Randy Jack with George Platt Lynes (1947)


This arrangement did not last long because, as Lynes wrote to a friend, “Wil can’t bear not to be boss and that is one thing he can’t be. Not here.” Wright also resented George’s influence on Jack, encouraging him to pursue a career as a dancer. When Wil moved out after a couple of months, Randy stayed…. and found his way into Lynes’ bed as well.

Randy Jack committed himself to a vigorous regimen of ballet classes. Although Lynes was aware that Jack was a bit long in the tooth to start training for a career as a dancer, he supported his efforts nonetheless. He wrote to his friend Monroe Wheeler; “He’s too old, 21, but he has a ballet dancers body and a ballet dancer’s soul.” 

Randy Jack’s protruding ears – called “bat like” in several accounts – were viewed by Lynes as a further hindrance to attaining success as a ballet dancer. While he could not erase Jack’s advanced age, he could do something to remove this obstacle, so the cards would be “stacked in his favour, to remove whatever flies there may be in the ointment.” He agreed to barter with a plastic surgeon: Lynes would photograph the surgeon’s glamorous wife in exchange for the operation to pin back Jack’s ears. Lynes wrote to his mother at the time: “…I can’t leave things alone but redecorate or remodel anything I can lay my hands on, people as well as houses.”

The photos of Randy Jack taken in Lynes’ library are understandably the most popular.

Ears firmly clipped, Lynes photographed his roomie en tenue de danse at Vogue studios, creating this striking series of photos:

In May of 1948, Lynes’ contract with Vogue ended and he returned to New York City with Randy and their dog Bozo in tow.

Portrait of Randy Jack by Bernard Perlin, June 5, 1948

As mentioned in our profile of Ted Starkowski, Lynes and his artist friends often shared models. Like Starkowski, Randy Jack was the subject of several other artists’ work, including Bernard Perlin.

Soon after their move to New York, Jack abandoned his ballet studies and began to find work as a fashion model. This proved to be a far more attainable and lucrative goal.

In mid-summer, George wrote to Katherine Anne Porter that he was troubled about the young man, “… I wonder what New York has done to him, or what I have done.”

Whether or not Randy left George or their cohabitation ended by mutual consent is debatable. The fact remains that he moved out in the Fall of 1948… and Lynes’ next boyfriend and muse, Chuck Howard moved into the apartment 10 days later.

David Leddick writes “Jack became one of the most successful fashion models in an industry that was just becoming big business, posing for both photographers and the many illustrators of the time.”

When I look into the life of an artist’s muse from the past, there is always a point in their story that brings to mind the Kirsty MacColl song “What Do Pretty Girls Do?” The answer, she sings: “They get older just like everybody else.”

As his modeling career waned, Jack began his third act as an interior designer. His work with commercial / hotel spaces led him to the Middle East, where he settled on the island of Bahrain and became a restaurateur, opening the Upstairs Downstairs restaurant in 1977.

In 1982 Jack published Upstairs Downstairs Cookbook, featuring favorite recipes from the restaurant’s menu alongside his own illustrations.

In the mid-90’s, Intimate Companions author David Leddick reached out to Randy Jack to talk about his early years with George Platt Lynes. Leddick recounts being tipped off that Jack was living in Bahrain, and that he was able to simply call the local information to get his phone number. Strangely, Jack’s birth name in the book is listed as Randolph Omar Jack, as if the author misheard “Homer” on a poor telephone connection.

A current photo of Randy Jack appeared in Leddick’s 1997 book Naked Men: Pioneering Male Nudes. Shortly after the book’s publication, on June 5, 1997, Jack died in Bahrain. He was 71 years old. The Upstairs Downstairs restaurant is still in operation today. The restaurant’s Facebook page has comments from patrons recalling Randy Jack’s hospitality and the good times they had there.

The kid from Waukegan had come a long way.

See Also:
George Platt Lynes models / bedfellows John Leapheart & Buddy McCarthy profiled here
Artist’s Muse: Ted Starkowski
Artist’s Muse: Chuck Howard
Fire Island PaJaMa Party

Girl Group Heaven: Ronnie, Rosa & Wanda

Back in the summer of 2001, I was living up in Spanish Harlem when soul singer Aaliyah died in a plane crash. I was walking down the street and heard this guy on his cell phone saying “Aww man! All my divas are DYING!” Although I wasn’t a fan, I felt his pain.

I thought of this recently with the passing of three key members of top 60’s girl groups: Wanda Young Rogers of The Marvelettes, Rosa Lee Hawkins of The Dixie Cups, and Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes. The latter two groups now have just one surviving original member.

It was Wanda who gave The Marvelettes their second act. Gladys Horton sang lead on their early hits, including Motown’s first #1 hit “Please Mr. Postman” and “Too Many Fish In The Sea,” but as their chart success waned, Wanda transitioned into the lead vocalist position on more smooth and sophisticated material – usually written specifically for her by Smokey Robinson. At the time, she was married to Bobby Rogers of Smokey’s group The Miracles.

Robinson recalled, “In the groups I worked with, I always felt these ‘sleeping giants.’ I felt the same way about the Temptations with David Ruffin when I did ‘My Girl’ on him… I knew if I could get a song for her it would be a smash.” She sang lead on such Motown classics as “Don’t Mess With Bill” “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” and “Destination: Anywhere.”

Post-Marvelettes, her life was plagued by tragedy, addiction and mental illness. She recorded briefly for Ian Levine’s Motorcity label in the late 80’s. Wanda was 78 when she passed away on December 15, 2021.

The Dixie Cups did not have a distinct lead singer, but they had a sound: all three members usually sang in unison or tight harmony. Rosa Lee Hawkins was 1/3rd of the New Orleans trio, which also featured her petite older sister Barbara and cousin Joan Johnson.

Phil Spector originally recorded “Chapel of Love” with Darlene Love and the Ronettes but was never satisfied with the results. The Dixie Cups version was chosen as the premiere single for Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s Red Bird Records. Produced by the songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, it was a smash – knocking the Beatles out of the #1 spot in June of 1964.

The combination of The Dixie Cups with the Barry/Greenwich producing/songwriting team resulted in girl group gold for Red Bird Records with classics like “People Say”, “Iko Iko”, “Girls Can Tell” and many others.

It was just last year when Rosa Lee Hawkins released her memoir Chapel Of Love, in which she wrote about her career in The Dixie Cups as well as the abuse she suffered at the hands of Joe Jones, their manager. She felt a great relief in finally telling her story. “I did not write my book to hurt anyone;” she said “I just wanted to get it all down on paper.” Rosa was 76 when she passed away of complications following surgery on January 11, 2022 in Tampa, Florida.

And then there’s Ronnie.

Meeting Ronnie at The Bottom Line, NYC, March 23, 1991

I waited to write about Ronnie Spector’s passing because I knew it would get ample press coverage, her career examined and appreciated with the florid language utilized by Professional Rock Critics. Why would I race to compete with that? Please don’t make me use the word “zeitgeist”.

Rolling Stone magazine posted a list of 15 Essential Ronnie Spector Recordings. Of course I disagree with some of the choices, which I envision being compiled on a post-it note-covered bulletin board with equally weighted choices from one old fanboy and four baby rock critics who had to Google her name when they got the assignment.

Here are five choices that I would have preferred to see on the list:

1) The Ronettes – “You Baby” (1964)
This Barry Mann / Cynthia Weil classic first appeared on the Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes LP. It was subsequently recorded by Linda Scott, Len Barry, Jackie Trent, Sonny & Cher and The Lovin’ Spoonful, just to name a few.

The Ronettes sing “You Baby” on Hullabaloo.

2) Ronnie Spector – “It’s A Heartache” (1977)
Ronnie’s recording of this song was released in the U.S. the first week of November, 1977 alongside competing versions by Bonnie Tyler and Juice Newton. Tyler ultimately won the battle with a #3 pop hit.

Ronnie Spector – “It’s A Heartache” (1977)

3) Ronnie Spector – “Any Way That You Want Me” (1980)
The Rolling Stone “15 Essential” list features no tracks from Ronnie’s first two solo LPs: the Genya Ravan-produced Siren and 1987’s Unfinished Business. This Chip Taylor composition from Siren was originally recorded in the 60’s by The Troggs and then Evie Sands, but Ronnie makes it her own.

Ronnie Spector – “Any Way That You Want Me” (1980)

4) Ronnie Spector – “Something’s Gonna Happen” (1989)
In 1989 Ronnie recorded a handful of Marshall Crenshaw songs with Crenshaw and his band backing her up. These Alan Betrock-produced tracks are among the best of her solo recordings – it’s hard to choose just one, as the artist and material worked so well together. Unfortunately, plans for an entire album were halted and the recordings stuck in financial limbo until Ronnie bought them back and released an EP in 2003. As blogger Denis Pilon recently wrote; “In a better world, the release of this EP would have marked Spector’s triumphant return to the spotlight.”

Ronnie Spector – “Something’s Gonna Happen” (1989)

5) Ronnie Spector – “Don’t Worry Baby” (1999)
Brian Wilson wrote the song for The Ronettes as a follow-up to “Be My Baby” but Phil Spector would not let them record it. 35 years later, Ronnie finally gave it her best on the Joey Ramone-produced EP She Talks To Rainbows. Entertainment Weekly wrote; “She sounds more fragile than belligerent now, and her bruised, cracked vocals work wonders on (the song).”

Ronnie Spector – “Don’t Worry Baby” (1999)

Brian Wilson hears Ronnie’s version of “Don’t Worry Baby”: