ONE, the nation’s first nationally-distributed gay magazine, was pretty bold in the 1950s. If its reputation for being old-fashioned and timid in the 1960s contributed to its demise, that was only because the gay rights movement had moved forward while ONE stayed put. ONE’s founders consisted of disaffected former Mattachine members tired of its endless, aimless meetings and timid policy positions. ONE reveled in the rare gay rights victories and denounced its foes. It faced down the FBI and fought postal authorities, taking the Post Office all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — and won.
So ONE, at least in its early years, was aggressive, sometimes too aggressive in the view of some in the gay community. In a March 1959 editorial, ONE’s board chairman Dorr Legg pushed back against that criticism, hard.
“Too aggressive! Just asking for trouble!” Comments such as these have been thrown at ONE many times over the years by the timorous. As, for instance, the criticisms back in 1953 over an editorial which vigorously proclaimed, “ONE is not grateful.” The Los Angeles Postmaster had just released copies of an issue he had been withholding from the mails. The editorial continued, “ONE thanks no one for this reluctant acceptance… Never before has a governmental agency of this size admitted that homosexuals not only have legal rights but might have respectable motives as well. The admission is welcome, but it’s tardy and far from enough.”
Whether or not this was “too aggressive” it has always been ONE’s position that homosexuals are, first of all, citizens, and entitled to exactly the same rights and privileges accorded all citizens. Neither second-class citizenship nor discrimination could be tolerated, we devoutly believed. It was our indignation over police brutalities, the peephole spying, and other such incidents which supplied us with the energies and “recklessness” that kept ONE going in the face of all obstacles.
We have always felt sad, even a little ashamed, for those who “just couldn’t afford to be associated with such a group.” For this attitude showed how many Americans were forgetting that Constitutional freedom also included the freedom from being pushed around by public officials, and that if one class of citizens is deprived of its rights, all can and eventually would be.
However, in trying to be “the voice of U.S. homosexuals,” ONE Magazine had to steer a course between what only a rare few were discerning as an issue of the highest moral order, and the all-too-evident inability of most homophiles to get out from under the crushing load of guilt imposed upon them by a society which hated queers, laughed at fairies, or gladly beat-up homos, all with the deepest feelings of self-satisfied virtue. This same society could not and would not listen to the proposition that homosexuals were, by and large, no better or no worse than other people. “Preposterous,” they snorted, while the homophiles themselves rather pitifully asked, “Do we dare claim this?” or else struck back at ONE for even proposing such a heresy.
Legg noticed that all of the legal victories so far came about because heterosexual lawyers were willing to take up the causes that “homosexuals have hitherto been too spineless to do for themselves”:
When are American homosexuals going to stop sitting around pitying themselves, excusing themselves, hiding their faces and bemoaning their lot? When are they going to roll up their sleeves and do some of the hard work and the fighting that any segment of society must do to defend its own rights. These attorneys are pointing out some of the ways of going at these things. How embarrassing that this should be necessary! …
A salute to the attorneys for waking us up! Once awakened, what are we going to do about it? Let it never be forgotten that evils unchallenged grow even worse, nor that few evils are more vicious than the suppression of personal freedoms. ONE proposes to strengthen its battle for the social and civil rights of homosexuals. The ride may be bumpier from here on out. But what is anyone with a shred of self-respect to do about that?
Headlines for March 1959: Army launches Pioneer IV to orbit the sun. Russian tanks threaten West Berlin, warns against Western use of force to defend the city. President Eisenhower vows to protect West Berlin. President Eisenhower signs bill authorizing elections in preparation for Hawaiian statehood. Mid-March blizzard paralyzes the Midwest. Comedian Lou Costello dies of a heart attack at age 53. The Tibetan revolt against China spreads, Dalai Lama flees Lhasa for India.
On the radio: “Venus” by Frankie Avalon, “Stagger Lee” by Lloydd Proce, “Donna” by Ritchie Valens, “Charlie Brown” by the Coasters, “16 Candles” by the Crests, “Petite Fleur” by Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, “I Cried a Tear” by LaVern Baker, “The All American Boy” by Billy Parsons, “Alvin’s Harmonica” by David Seville and the Chipmunks, “The Hawaiian Wedding Song” by Andy Williams, “It’s Just a Matter of Time” by Brook Benton, “Come Softly To Me” by the Fleetwoods, “Never Be Anyone Else But You” by Ricky Nelson.
On television:Gunsmoke (CBS), Wagon Train (NBC), Have Gun, Will Travel (CBS), The Rifleman (ABC), The Danny Thomas Show (CBS), Maverick (ABC), Tales of Wells Fargo (NBC), The Real McCoys (ABC), I’ve Got a Secret (CBS), The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (ABC), Father Knows Best (CBS), The Red Skelton Show (CBS), Perry Mason (CBS).
London’s Daily Express made little show about being a newspaper that actually printed the news. It’s Canadian-born owner, Max Aitken (who, in 1917, became the first Lord Beaverbrook when he was granted a peerage), said bluntly that he ran the paper “purely for the purpose of making propaganda and with no other motive.” Despite supporting Chamberlain’s appeasement policies, Daily Express emerged from the war as the world’s largest newspaper by circulation.
Daily Express, with its crass moralizing, patriotic stories and jingoistic editorials, was aimed squarely at the conservative populist working class. He once warned in a headline that a Labour victory would bring about a “Gestapo in Britain,” a tactic that backfired. On April 9, 1959, journalist John Deane Potter warned Daily Express readers about another terrible menace lurking in London’s West End:
I read with dismay the news yesterday that a 31-year-old South African called John Cranko was fined £10 at Marlborough-street police court.
It was not the fine. It was the man and the offence. Because he pleaded guilty to a crime which has become known as the West Side vice.
Cranko is the latest on the list of famous stage names who have been found guilty of this squalid behaviour. He is a talented man of the theatre. He was the co-author of the spectacularly successful review “Cranks.”
The private lives of people, whether they are a brilliant ballet designer and author like Cranko, or an ordinary office worker on the 6.15, should, according to the Wolfenden Report, be their own business. But this question is public business.
It has become a sour commonplace in the West End theatre that unless you are a member of an unpleasant freemasonry your chances of success are often lessened.
For the theatre is far too full of people belonging to a secret brotherhood.
Most of them are not tortured misfits. They do not want psychiatric treatment or cures.
They live complacently in their own remote world, with its shrill enthusiasms.
But they are evil. For two reasons.
One is their PERSONAL POWER.
Corruption is an outmoded word that used to be thundered with hellfire vigour from Victorian pulpits. Now this West End weakness is the subject of sophisticated wit.
Their chi-chi world may seem remote from the normal theatregoer. Except for this.
If your son wants to go on the stage — what will his future be? It is a shivering thought.
So many talented young men have said to me: “It is no good in the theatre unless you are camp. You must be queer to get on.”
Those are just two expressions from the cryptic slang they use to describe the social disease from which they suffer.
The boy, whatever his talents, may become bitter and frustrated.
Or worse. He does not have to travel far along the corridors of the West End back-stage to meet the smooth, unspoken. proposition. He may, through ambition, try to play along with it. And, make no mistake, many of these men take pleasure in corrupting the young.
Danger number two is their PROFESSIONAL POWER.
Some of the stuff they produce is beautiful, witty, and clever. But too often they try to foist upon the public a false set of values.
What is often received with trills of praise by the closed West End set remains puzzling to the formal mind of the average theatregoer who is unaware of the lace-like intricacies of the decor or the obscure oddities of the plot.
And the theatre has an expensive flop on its hands.
No one likes to indulge in a Jehovah-like loftiness about other people’s lives.
But I repeat: these are evil men. They have spun their web through the West End today until it is a simmering scandal.
I say they should be driven from their positions of theatrical power.
Headlines for April 9, 1959: Eleven coal miners are trapped in two separate mine collapses at Trehafod, near Cardiff. British Board of Trade warns the U.S. over proposed tariffs on British goods. Engineering union leaders campaign for a 4o-hour work week. Chinese Communist troops move to block refugee escape groups from Tibet to Nepal and India. Hope fades for 11-month-old Jeremy, who was separated from his Siamese Twin Timothy at a London hospital seventeen days earlier.
On the radio (UK): “Side Saddle” by Russ Conway, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by the Platters, “It doesn’t Matter Anymore” by Buddy Holly, “As I Love You” by Shirley Bassey, “My Happiness” by Connie Francis, “Petite Fleur” by Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price, “A Pub With No Beer” by Slim Dusty, “Gigi” be Billy Eckstine, “Tomboy” by Perry Como.
On television:Army Game (ITV), Wagon Train (ITV), Take Your Pick (ITV), Spot the Tune (ITV), Double Your Money (ITV), Sunday Night at the London Palladium (ITV), Emergency Ward 10 (ITV), Criss Cross Quiz (ITV), Saturday Spectacular (ITV).
John Deane Potter. “Isn’t It About Time Someone Said This… Plainly and Frankly” The (London) Daily Express (April 9, 1959). As reprinted in The Mattachine Review 5, no. 6 (June 1959): 21.
One upon a time, a time when queers were afraid and the police, always on the take and always looking to haul the queers down to the station, those queers finally had enough and fought back. When the cops tried to arrest some drag queens, onlookers threw trash at police and forced them to retreat. The queers poured out into the streets and began rioting.
This uprising took place ten full years before Stonewall, in May of 1959. The exact date is lost to history. It took place in downtown Los Angeles, in a small three-block area between Pershing Square and Skid Row. “The Run,” as gay people called it, consisted of almost a dozen gay bars, and several small eateries and diners.
Two of those gay bars on South Main, Harry’s and the Waldorf, sat on either side of Cooper Do-Nuts, a 24-hour coffee and doughnut shop. Cooper’s was especially popular with transwomen and drag queens because Harry’s and the Waldorf routinely turned them away. They attracted too much attention from police. Cooper’s was also popular with butch lesbians, hustlers and other non-conformists. That May night, two Los Angeles police officers entered Cooper’s and demanded patrons show their IDs. This was a common practice. If an individual’s gender presentation didn’t match their ID, that person was taken to jail.
.The officers arrested two drag queens, two male sex workers and a gay man, and tried to stuff all five of them into the back of the police car. The detainees protested, and onlookers began throwing coffee, cups and trash at police. The detainees escaped and the police to flee in their car. People then begin rioting in the streets. Police backup arrive, block the street for the rest of the night and make several arrests.
Novelist John Rechy was one of those initially arrested. He gave it a brief mention in his 1963 novel City of Night. This riot predated Stonewall by a decade, It may have been one of the first LGBT uprisings in the U.S. In 2006, Rechy warned against ignoring pre-Stonewall uprisings like it:
But pride and courage were not born at Stonewall, although even the few history books that attempt to document our long but largely unrecorded struggles place the birthplace of defiance there and then. In doing so, they divide our resistance into two steadfast periods, “pre-Stonewall” and “post-Stonewall,” the former judged as repressive, the latter extolled as liberated.
Over-emphasis on that single event distorts our history and renders as lesser other acts of equal — and even greater — courage, when circumstances of the time of occurrence are considered.
Headlines for May 1959: Sir Winston Churchill travels to Washington for a private visit with his old friend, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Three-week long Foreign Ministers conference in Geneva ends with the Soviets and the West no closer to resolving the West Berlin stalemate. The daily deathbed vigil conducted by American newspapers ends on May 24 when former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles dies of cancer. After three members of the Little Rock school board walk out, the remaining three members, all segregationists, vote to fire 44 teachers who had supported integration. Three weeks later, Little Rock voters approve a recall against the three segregationists. Eddie Fisher marries Elizabeth Taylor just three hours after his divorce from Debbie Reynolds is finalized.
On the radio: “Come Softly To Me” by the Fleetwoods, “Kansas City” by Wilbert Harrison, “The Happy Organ” by Dave “Baby” Cortez, “Sorry (I Ran All the Way Home)” by the Impalas, “Pink Shoe Laces” by Dodie Stevens, “Guitar Boogie Shuffle” by the Virtues, “A Teenager In Love” by Dion and the Belmonts, “The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton, “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I” by Elvis Presley, “Tell Him No” by Travis and Bob, “Venus” by Frankie Avalon, “Turn Me Loose” by Fabian.
On television:Gunsmoke (CBS), Wagon Train (NBC), Have Gun, Will Travel (CBS), The Rifleman (ABC), The Danny Thomas Show (CBS), Maverick (ABC), Tales of Wells Fargo (NBC), The Real McCoys(ABC), I’ve Got a Secret (CBS), The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (ABC), Father Knows Best (CBS), The Red Skelton Show (CBS), Perry Mason (CBS).
A jury of ten men and two women agreed that Wladziu Valentino Liberace — just Liberace to his fans — was not a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.
That decision came on June 17, 1959, following a week-long libel trial at Queen’s Bench IV in London. Liberace had somehow convinced the jury that Daily Mirror and its columnist, William Connor, had libeled him by suggesting that he, Liberace, was not the man he pretended to be. That he, Liberace — of lilting voice, fluttering fingers, flamboyant costumes and an unusually close attachment to his mother — hadn’t been entirely straight with his fans. That he had misled those fans, most of them women of a certain age and matronly disposition, with his mediocre low-brow musicianship, his sickly-sweet reverence for God and mother, and his fluttering eyelashes and twinkling, winking eyes.
Of course, we know today that Liberace did, in fact, do all of that. But there was no malice involved. It was all done self-protection. Homosexuality was illegal throughout the English-speaking world, and just about everywhere else besides. And even a hint of feyness was career poison. This was true whether that career was in show business or the mail room of a government office.
If someone like Liberace were to make it in show business, he would have had little choice but to do as he had. He presented himself as dedicated family man to his mother and brother, and as a dashing lover on the constant lookout for a beautiful and perfect wife, just like mom. For more than a decade, he had managed to construct the world’s most glittering closet. But with just a few well-chosen words in a small column in a British tabloid, the security locks to his closet were very nearly picked.
Today, t’s hard to understand how Liberace managed to build his fabulous closet. Look at his 1952 syndicated television variety show. It was all there for anyone willing to look. Even in his pre-costumed era, his mannerisms and voice, his campy style, and his mother-fixation — all of this suggested something considerably less than red-blooded masculinity. To modern audiences, The Liberace Show looks more like a big bay window draped in chiffon and velvet instead of a dead-bolted closet door. And yet, that very program actually made his closet possible.
The Liberace Show was filmed before a studio audience, but Liberace understood that his real audience was at home. He broke the first rule of Hollywood by looking directly into the camera, thereby creating a direct, intimate link with women in their living rooms. As his fingers slid across the keyboard, he looked straight into the lens, smiled and winked. That wink, like Cupid’s arrow, shot into living rooms across America and found its target in the hearts of millions of nerdy teenager girls and their mothers. That wink was almost as much his trademark as his ostentatious candelabra.
The other trademark, of course, was his Polish-born mother. If she wasn’t seated in the front row, she was on stage where he could dote on her. And his brother George, Liberace’s bandleader and violinist, was never far away. And for good measure, Liberace often called children up from the audience and played for them.
And so there it all was: his ersatz sophistication, his ability to pronounce Rachmaninov (even as he butchered the Piano Concerto #2 In C Minor down from thirty-four minutes to four), his love of mother, brother and children, his reverence for God and family, his generosity and fun-loving nature, his wavy hair and dimples, his smile and wink. He was perfect in every way. All he needed was a wife.
Still Single, Still Available
This is where his over-active publicity team came in. They blanketed newsstands with stories about what he wanted in a wife, who his favorite dates were, and why he hasn’t married yet.
In 1954, Liberace’s people put out a rumor that he was engaged to a young dancer named Joanne Rio. His fans hated the idea. Letters ran four-to-one against it. A sixty-five year old widow wrote, “I feel sorry for your mother. The adoration you give her will have to be shared.” Another woman wrote, “How can you think of marriage? You belong to us.” One warned that Rio was too pretty. “Don’t forget Joe DiMaggio and the promises she (Marylin Monroe) made to him!”
His public had spoken. They didn’t want him to marry. Which suited Liberace just fine. He broke off the engagement. Actually, he claimed they were never engaged in the first place. Besides, he said, “There are too many things I want to do. I want to play in Europe and make movies. My kind of schedule won’t leave time for marriage.”
His movie, Sincerely Yours, stank up the few theaters that bothered to show it. He never made another film. But his chance to tour Europe came in 1956 after Britain’s brand-new commercial network, ITV, began airing his old Liberace Shows. Suddenly there were new lands, with a new legion of matronly fans to wink at.
Pandemonium at Waterloo Station
Five years before Britain gave America the Beatles, we gave jolly old England Liberace. The commotion was much the same: massive screaming crowds, sold-out concerts, two highly-anticipated appearances on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, ITV’s nearly-exact equivalent to The Ed Sullivan Show. In the middle of it all was a showman who critics struggled to understand but for whom fans needed no explanation. Liberace was even set to do the Beatles one better: he was part of the line-up for the Queen’s Command Performance. Unfortunately, the Suez Crisis forced its cancellation just hours before it was set to start.
The mania began on September 25, when the Queen Mary disgorged its passengers in Southampton. Its cargo included a grand piano with a glass lid, a chandelier, two candelabras (one was a back-up), and forty trunks full of sixty suits, eighty pairs of shoes, a white jacket with a million beads, six tall coats in white, black and blue, a diamond-studded silk mohair coat, a white beaver coat and a gold lamé dinner jacket. Liberace, his mother and brother George emerged, waved to thousands gathered at the dock, took a few questions from reporters, and made their way to a special six-carriage train to London.
Thousands of mostly matronly women squealing like schoolgirls greeted the train’s arrival at Waterloo Station. A station foreman said this kind of welcome was more typically reserved for royalty. Lest royalty be offended, he quickly pointed out the critical differences: “Liberace’s got no red carpet furnished by British Railways, and there’s no potted palms either.”
Nobody noticed the missing red carpet. Fans deluged Liberace with paper rose petals as he walked on the platform. Fifty bobbies strained to hold back the crowd as Liberace and his party made their way to two waiting Daimlers. The cars, attended by chauffeurs and footmen, were just like the ones Buckingham Palace used. So there was that.
“This Fruit-Flavored, Mincing, Heap of Mother Love”
Off in one corner of the station, a small contingent of boys and young men booed and waved banders reading “We Hate Liberace.” They weren’t alone. The next day, Daily Mirror columnist William Connor — using the pen name of of the Greek mythological prophet Cassandra — unburdened his bile duct. He began by describing a drink he had in pre-war Berlin in 1939. “Windstarke Fuenf” — Windstrength Five, a sailing term — “is the most deadly concoction of alcohol that the ‘Haus Vaterland’ can produce,” he wrote.
I have to report that Mr. Liberace, like “Windstarke Fuenf” is about the most that man can take.
But he is not a drink.
He is YEARNING-WINDSTRENGTH FIVE.
He is the summit of sex — the pinnacle of Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Everything that He, She and It can ever want.
I have spoken to sad but kindly men on this newspaper who have met every celebrity arriving from the United States for the past thirty years.
They all say that this deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love has had the biggest reception and impact on London since Charlie Chaplin arrived at the same station, Waterloo, on September 12, 1921.
This appalling man — and I use the word appalling in no other than its true sense of “terrifying” — has hit this country in a way that is as violent as Churchill receiving the cheers on V-E Day. He reeks with emetic language that can only make grown men long for a quiet corner, an aspidistra, a handkerchief, and the old heave-ho.
Without doubt, he is the biggest sentimental vomit of all time.
Slobbering over his mother, winking at his brother, and counting the cash at every second, this superb piece of calculating candy-floss has an answer for every situation.
…Nobody since Aimee Semple MacPherson has purveyed a bigger, richer and more varied slag-heap of lilac-covered hokum.
Nobody anywhere ever made so much money out of high speed piano playing with the ghost of Chopin gibbering at every note.
There must be something wrong with us that our teenagers longing for sex and our middle-aged matrons fed up with sex alike should fall for such a sugary mountain of jingling claptrap wrapped up in such a preposterous clown.
Cassandra’s blast reverberated around the world. Chicago Daily News correspondent Ernie Hill reprinted most of Cassandra’s screed, which got fed through the paper’s wire services to other newspapers across North America. Other news stories about the controversy over Cassandra’s column repeated those passages again. You know, for context. Before the week was out, hundreds of newspapers had printed highlights of Cassandra’s diatribe under one guise or another.
Liberace told reporters that Cassandra’s “vulgarity and underlying degenerate tone” shocked him to the core. But worse, the column had a terrible effect on his dear mother:
My poor mother, a simple sweet person, was exposed to these articles and has been confined to bed and has needed medical attention ever since. My mother, who arrived in England with such a light heart, told me: “I should have stayed at home.”
Liberace’s first London concert took place on September 30. It was for a live broadcast of Sunday Night at the London Palladium. After Liberace completed his afternoon rehearsals, a crowd of unruly teenagers outside the theater prevented him from leaving. He was forced to hole up in the theater for seven hours until the show. That night, he dedicated his under-four-minute “Warsaw Concerto” to his mom, now sufficiently recovered and sitting in the balcony. She threw kisses to her son.
But controversy continued to dog Liberace’s tour wherever he went. Pickets greeted him outside the Royal Festival Hall the next evening. Inside, Liberace went on before a packed house of 4,000 as though nothing was wrong, The Guardian’s Bernard Lewis wrote: “I was in the presence of a man who did not care how silly, how awful he looked and sounded, provided only that the adolescent girls, the middle-aged matrons, and the sprinkling of very queer-looking men rolled up, paid at the doors, and yelled the place down.”
Things got rougher at a concert at Sheffield City Hall. ITV’s signal hadn’t yet reached Sheffield, so Liberace’s fame there was more by word-of-mouth. The hall still managed to sell out. But local university students heckled his concert with cries of “queer!” On October 17, Liberace returned to London for an engagement at Royal Albert Hall. The next day, Cassandra got one last dig in:
In their daily programme of events called “To-day’s Arrangements” The Times was yesterday at its impassive unsmiling best. It said:
“St. Vedast’s, Forrest Lane: Canon C.B. Mortlock, 12:30. St. Paul’s, Covent Garden: The Rev. Vincent Howson, 1:15. St. Botolph’s, Bishipsgate: Preb. H.H. Treacher, 1:15. All Souls, Langham Place: Mr. H.M. Collins 12:30.
“Albert Hall: Liberace, 7:30.”
Rarely has the sacred been so well marshalled alongside the profane.
Later that day, Liberace’s attorney in Los Angeles announced an immediate libel action against the Mirror.
From Whispers to a Shout
Cassandra was far from the first to publicly impugn Liberace’s manhood. A number of critics and scandal magazines had long commented on his flamboyant outfits, lilting voice, fluttering wrists and his unusual devotion to mom. In early 1954, Sensation played on the rumors by teasing his “forbidden fruit.” It turns out the “forbidden fruit” were the two things denied him: music critics’ approval and a happy wife — he’s just too busy and too too picky to marry. But the cover very cleverly played with prevailing suspicions to pump up sales. Later that year, Rave and Insideadded their own insinuations, as did Suppressed in 1955.
In December 1955, TV World played on those rumors with its teaser, “Those Liberace Whispers — True of False?” Maybe the ad for Liberace’s self-help book, The Magic of Believing, running in that issue influenced the answer. “It’s a crying shame that Liberace is the butt of jokes and sly innuendos,” wrote Peter Cored, before debunking “all the rumors” that made his cover story possible.
But six months later, in an issue that came out about a month before Liberace took off for London, Whisper raised the bar:
He loves to deck himself out in manly attire such as white fur coats and sequined dinner jackets. The wave of his marcelled locks would bring titters of admiration from Antione of Paris, and when one of his lady fans squeals at him in delight, Liberace can squeal right back at her in the same register.
Up to now, Liberace’s response was to just ignore them. These were, after all, second- and third-rate magazines that almost no one took seriously. As long as the mainstream press shied away from pressing the issue too forcefully, all Liberace had to do was sit back and wait for poor circulation and bankruptcy to kill them off for good.
But Cassandra’s column, appearing as it did in a mainstream tabloid, was a turning point. To be sure, the British press was always far more opinionated and rambunctious than its American cousins. That alone probably caught Liberace off guard. But when American newspapers reprinted substantial portions of Cassandra’s column in stories about the controversy, it became a much bigger problem. Cassandra’s accusation was now in print on both sides of the Atlantic, and that ink can never be unspilled.
Cassandra’s column now threatened to open the floodgates. Seven months later, on May 8, 1957,Confidential, the king of the Hollywood scandal magazines, struck hard. The semimonthly’s July issue hit the news stands with its cover story, “Why Liberace’s Theme Song Should Be ‘Mad About the Boy’.” Writer Horton Streete (probably a pseudonym) alleged that “the Kandelabra Kid” had relentlessly pursued a handsome press agent at three different hotels, in Akron, Los Angeles and again in Dallas. “The next thing the publicity man knew he was right back at it again with Liberace sitting on his lap!” wrote Streete. “A referee certainly would have penalized the panting pianist for illegal holds.”
Every word of “Mad About the Boy” was outrageous. Much of it was most likely true. Unlike other scandal magazines, Confidential’s publisher Robert Harrison was obsessed with avoiding lawsuits. He employed an army of private detectives, fact-checkers and lawyers to vet every article. Harrison believed that accuracy would be one of the magazine’s strong suits. He also had a practice of publishing less than he knew. The threat that the whole story might come out in court was often enough to deter libel suits.
That’s why Confidential’s punches landed so much harder. It was the most feared magazine in Hollywood, and the most talked about magazine in the country. Its circulation was at 4.6 million, larger than Time, which gave him the nickname “the King of Leer.” But despite the precautions, Harrison was already neck-deep in lawsuits by the time the Liberace issue came out. Liberace sued for $20 million, but he had to get in line behind Robert Mitchum, Doris Duke, Maureen O’Hara, Errol Flynn and Lizabeth Scott.
At the head of that line was the state of California. Under Attorney General Pat Brown, Confidential and its sister magazine, Whisper, were charged with conspiracy to distribute obscene material, conspiracy to commit criminal libel, and conspiracy to distribute material on abortion and male potency. (Confidential’s exposé on an abortion pill and a virility drug brought about that odd charge.) The six week trial, dubbed the “Trial of a Hundred Stars,” provided the very same prurient material Americans longed for, and that Confidential was being sued for. After the jury struggled for two weeks to agree on a verdict, it gave up, resulting in a mistrial.
Harrison had never lost a case, but the strain and legal costs were adding up. He settled with the state by paying a small fine and agreeing to change Confidential’s format away from Hollywood gossip. Harrison also settled the libel lawsuits. Liberace’s cut came to $40,000 (about $345,000 today). This meant vindication as far as Liberace was concerned.
Trial at Queens Bench IV
The Cassandra/Daily Mirror case finally reached a London courtroom in 1959. Their defense was not that Liberace was gay, but that Cassandra’s column didn’t say he was. Instead, they claimed that it fell under the defense of fair comment. This made Liberace’s offense doubly difficult. He had to first prove that Cassandra had actually made an assertion of fact and not opinion, while also convincing the jury that Liberace wasn’t gay.
The trial began on June 8. Gilbert Beyfus, Queen’s Counsel (Q.C.) for Liberace, described Cassandra as “a literary assassin who dips his pen in vitriol, hired by this sensational newspaper to murder reputations.” He repeated Cassandra’s words: that Liberace was “everything that he, she, and it can ever want.” He pointed out that the words were so integral to Cassandra’s thesis that they were included in an illustrated pull-quote at the top of the column. Beyfus said those words were “as clear as clear can be. Otherwise, I venture to suggest the words have no meaning at all.”
Liberace took the stand for three hours. After going over Liberace’s biography and details of his early career, Beyfus came straight to the point. “Are you a homosexual?”
“No, sir,” replied Liberace.
“Have you ever indulged in homosexual practices?”
“No sir, never in my life”
“What are your feelings about it?”
“My feelings are the same as anyone else’s. I am against the practice because it offends convention and offends society.”
This, of course, is perjury. Gerald Gardiner, Q.C. for Cassandra and the Daily Mirror, objected, not because Liberace lied, but because the question was irrelevant. Gardiner repeated the defense that the article made no such accusation. He also claimed, rather incredibly, that no one in their right mind could possibly read such an accusation into it. But Liberace countered that soon after Cassandra’s column appeared, “when I went on the stage (at Sheffield), there were cries from the audience of ‘queer’ and ‘fairy’ and such things as “go home, queer.”
In response to another question, Liberace claimed, “No one has ever intimated that I was a homosexual before this reporter accused me in his article so brilliantly and viciously.” Before Gardiner could continue with his questioning, Liberace addressed the jury directly: “Members of the jury, I am a performer who travels in all parts of the world. On my word of God, on my mother’s health which is so dear to me, this article means only one thing, that I am a homosexual, and that is why I am in the court.”
Word By Word
Because Cassandra’s and the Daily Mirror’s defense was that the column was fair comment, just about every word of that comment was subject to scrutiny:
Deadly. Cassandra: “he overwhelms one, he attacks the senses.” Liberace, when he is asked about comparisons with a British pianist known only as Semprini: “Evidently, he doesn’t do it quite as successfully because I have never heard of him.”
Winking, Sniggering, Giggling and Snuggling. Cassandra: “I have read a number of reports which contained these adjectives and I have observed him doing these very things on television.” Liberace: “I have tried in all my performances to inject a note of sincerity and wholesomeness because I am fully aware of the fact that my appeal on television and personal appearances is aimed directly at the family audience.”
Chromium-Plated. Cassandra: “He seems to have these light-reflecting surfaces such as a completely white suit of tails, a candelabra, an enormous ring on his finger.” Liberace, on the first time he wore a white suit: “I was greeted by an ovation when I walked on the stage and I was referred to in the newspapers as ‘Mr. Showmanship’. … This meant that…I had to dress better than the others who were copying me. One was a young man named Elvis Presley, who was coming up at the time.”
Scent-Impregnated. Cassandra: “The question of scent has been mentioned in previous reports in the Daily Mirror, Daily Express and Evening Standard.” Liberace: “I do not use scent, but I do use aftershave lotions, deodorants and eau de cologne. All well-groomed men do.”
Fruit-Flavoured. Cassandra: “That was part of the impression of confectionery which Mr. Liberace conveyed to me. Over sweetened, over-flavoured, over-luscious and just sickening.” Liberace countered that the expression is commonly directed to homosexuals. “People in England and in all parts of the world where I am dependent on making a livelihood have given it that interpretation. … Fruit-flavoured, masculine, feminine and neither — all this points to one horrible fact which has damaged my career and my reputation.” Cassandra, again: “I am well acquainted with many hostile words, including those imputing homosexuality, but I did not know that ‘fruit’ was one of them. It came as a bit of surprise to me.”
Heap of Mother Love: Cassandra: “When I see this on the stage of the London Palladium by a forty-year-old man in company with his mother, whom he may well love, I regard that as profane and wrong.” Liberace: “She is extremely proud of her children. Perhaps a bit more proud of me.”
The trial paused at the end of Thursday, June 11, and wouldn’t resume until the following Monday. The judge cautioned the jury against watching Liberace’s televised performance on the season finale of Sunday Night At the London Palladium — a tall ask for such a popular program. All week long, British papers had carried the trial’s every twist and turn, many of them reproducing pages upon pages of transcripts. Even in the Daily Mirror’s extensive coverage, Liberace came off as sympathetic and aggrieved, while Cassandra only added to his dour and caustic image. When Liberace completed his first solo number at the Palladium, the audience rewarded him with a full minute of sustained applause and cheers.
The trial resumed on Monday with more testimony from a variety of witnesses. Summing-up and jury instructions were given on Tuesday. The jury deliberated for three and a half hours before returning a verdict. They found Cassandra and the Daily Mirror guilty of libel. Damages were assessed at £8,000, or US$22,400 (about £176,000, or US$250,000 today.) UPI reported that “the curly-haired entertainer smiled weakly after the decision was announced.”
Traffic on the Strand outside the Royal Courts of Justice came to a standstill as a crowd of fans and reporters swarmed the entrance to congratulate the hero of the hour. When Liberace emerged, he had regained his famous smile to cheers of “well done” and “jolly good.” He said little as police escorted him to a waiting limousine which carried him off to the Savoy Hotel.
“I Felt So Sorry For Him.”
The Daily Herald noticed that the jury’s verdict “was disclosed in the High Court yesterday three minutes before it should have been — by a woman juror.” As the jury filed into the courtroom, the widowed Mrs. Jean Friend “smiled broadly at Liberace, smiled several times and gave a broad wink. Then she mouthed silently: ‘It’s all right’.” After the trial, she went to the Savoy — the same hotel where Liberace was staying — for tea with friends. A reporter followed:
Liberace? I do wish him the best of luck with all my heart. I like him very much. I felt so sorry for him all the way through the case. I felt for him all the time. I never wavered for a minute from the second I sat down. Afterwards I wanted to shake his hand and congratulate him. In the court corridor he told me: ‘Thank you very much.'”
She tried to get tickets for his show, but the receptionist said that Liberace wasn’t taking any calls.
The Show Went On
Liberace embarked on a another mini-tour of Britain, although this time press attention was much more muted now that the trial was over. One stop was in Manchester, where he was part of a very crowded bill for a charity Royal Performance for the Queen Mother. This time, there was no Suez Crisis to interrupt the show. But after three years, Liberace’s sartorial statement was no longer cutting edge. The Stage informed its readers that, early in the program:
The lights went up to reveal Harry Robinson conducting Lord Rockingham’s XI in “shocking pink” suits. The Dallas Boys in black and the Vernons Girls in multi-coloured frocks got into the groove with the “Strings of My Heart” and “Don’t Look Now” before Marty Wilde — in gold lamé jacket, and Cliff Richard, idols of the fans who were staging demonstrations in the street outside, put over their own special lines.
Comedian Arthur Askey came out with a miniature piano topped with a hurricane lamp. “You’ve got to have a gimmick and I can’t afford a candelabra.” Liberace may have been upstaged a bit, but he still worked his magic. His suit with diamond buttons and sequined vest was, he explained, “one of those that all the fuss was about.” His Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat came in at four minutes flat, as always. The Manchester Guardian said he got the loudest applause of the evening. Once you have a formula that works, why would you ever change it?
Liberace’s much-publicized victory did little to quell the rumors, but newspapers were much more cautious about what they put into print. Today, of course, we know what was true all along: he was as gay as gay could be. But in the 1950s and 1960s, such an admission was box office poison.
But even if he had managed to work out a Noël Coward-like accommodation, there was now another complication. Liberace perjured himself when he testified in London and denied his homosexuality. He also most likely perjured himself in Los Angeles when he testified before a grand jury investigating Confidential. And having successfully sued Confidential and Daily Mirror, he would now be liable for far greater civil damages than he won in either case if the truth came out.
And so he steadfastly denied his sexuality throughout his lifetime. And yet, he all but dared anyone to state simply what they plainly saw. Liberace died in 1987, and for years afterwards, his estate and many of his remaining fans tried to deny the coroner’s report that it was AIDS that killed him. The Daily Mirror’s headline had the last word though: “Any Chance of a Refund?”
Headlines: British Army Reservists are being called up for a possible response to Egypt’s seizure of the Suez Canal. Tense negotiations over the Suez Crisis continues at the U.N. Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies urges the Commonwealth to forcefully unite with Britain against Egypt. Thousands of ecstatic fans greet Liberace at Southampton and London. Electricians at the Standard Motor Company works in Coventry go on strike, forcing the idling of 5,000 workers. The Bolshoi Ballet considers coming to London. Bread prices rise as a government subsidy ends.
On the radio (UK): “Lay Down Your Arms” by Anne Shelton, “Que Sera Sera” by Dorris Day, “Rockin’ Through the Rye” by Bill Haley and his Comets, “The Yong Tong Song/Bloodnok’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Call” by the Goons, “The Great Pretender/Only You” by the Platters, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, “Sweet Old-Fashion Girl” by Teresa Brewer, “Walk Hand in Hand” by Tony Martin, “Bring a Little Water Sylvie” by Lonnie Donegan, “Mountain Greenery” by Mel Torme, “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley.”
On television:Sunday Night at the London Palladium (ITV), Take Your Pick (ITV), Double Your Money (ITV) Saturday Showtime (ITV), The Roy Rogers Show (ITV), Highland Fling (BBC), I Love Lucy (ITV). Boxing (BBC), The Adventures of Robin Hood (ITV), Movie Magazine (ITV), Hancock’s Half Hour (BBC).
For June 17, 1959:
Headlines: Royal Ascott begins its annual four days of racing and fashion. Court awards Liberace £8,000 in damages. General work stoppage in the printing trades to begin tonight. Labor dispute at Triumph idles 4,700 workers. Ten thousand more poised to strike at Standard Motors over redundancies. Labour party struggles to bridge the pro-H-Bomb and anti-H-Bomb wings. Federation of British Industries endorse a free trade arrangement with seven European countries as a first step toward expanding the Common Market
On the radio (UK): “A Fool Such as I” by Elvis Presley, “Roulette” by Russ Conway, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” by Buddy Holly, “It’s Late” by Ricky Nelson, “Dream Lover” by Bobby Darin, “I’ve Waited So Long” by Anthony Newley, “Side Saddle” by Russ Conway, “A Teenager In Love” by Marty Wilde, “I Go Ape” by Neil Sedaka, “Come Softly to Me” by Frankie Vaughan and the Kaye Sisters.
On television:Wagon Train (ITV), Play of the Week (ITV), The Army Game (ITV), Spot the Tune (ITV), Sunday Night at the London Palladium (ITV), Emergency Ward 10 (ITV), Take Your Pick (ITV), Double Your Money (ITV), The Jack Hylton Monday Show (ITV), Juke Box Jury (BBC).
In chronological order:
Before Liberace’s 1956 trip to Britain:
Bob Thomas/AP “Hollywood wonders: Will Liberace get married?” Tucson Daily Citizen (October 6, 1954): 18.
Aline Mosby/UPI. “Liberace stands firm against weepy females.” San Mateo (CA) Times (October 13, 1954): 22.
During Liberace’s 1956 trip to Britain:
Reuters. “Isn’t he gorgeous? British women fans mob Liberace.” Baltimore Evening Sun (September 25, 1956): 3.
“Our London correspondent.” The Manchester Guardian (September 25, 1956): 6.
The “Beat Generation” started as a small group of writers and artists in New York’s Greenwich Village. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1957), and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) set the mood. Bebop jazz and bongo drums were its soundtrack. The Beats, as they were called, were always small in number, but they were very influential. They defined what it meant to be avant-garde in the American 1950s.
The Beats saw themselves as innovative artists and free thinkers. Their credo mixed modernism, romanticism, existentialism, anti-authoritarianism, surrealism, absurdism, chemical experimentation, and hedonism. They worshipped at the temples of City Lights bookstore, Cafe Trieste and Vesuvio, the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, the Six Gallery. The Beats more or less picked up where the Lost Generation left off when the blitzkrieg chased them out of Paris.
By 1957, the movement’s leading lights, for the most part, had relocated to San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. That’s when the San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen dubbed them “Beatniks,” a take-off of the Soviet Sputnik satellite that had been launched just months before. The Beats hated the nickname. But it stuck, especially among conservative detractors who thought that they detected a whiff of anti-American and Communist sympathies. The Beats’ overall rebellion against the straight-laced norms of the McCarthy-era Fifties marked them as dangerous. And fascinating.
Pop culture found it easy to satirize them. CBS gave America the ultimate Beat stereotype, Maynard G. Krebs, a character played by a pre-Gilligan Bob Denver on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. It ran from 1959 to 1963. Maynard started out as a sidekick to all-American girl-crazy Dobie. By the time the series ended, Dobie was often playing second fiddle to Maynard, such was the strength of the Beatniks’ appeal.
The Beats had already left the scene by the time Dobie Gillis debuted. What replaced them — and what Dobie Gillis exemplified — was Beatnik as fashion, a style shorn of its substance. Goatees, berets, black sweaters, bongo drums, roll-your-own cigarettes (sometimes using tobacco) all became signifiers of being hip. People spent money to look like the Beats, and other people made money pretending to be Beats. The original Beats didn’t die out. They were commodified.
But while it lasted, iconoclast movement drew all sorts of non-conformist, including the ultimate of non-concormists, gay people. In 1959, ONE magazine, the nation’s first nationally-distributed gay-themed publication, featured an article on “The Homosexual and the Beat Generation.” The author, Wallace de Ortega Maxey, embodiment counter-culturalism before it was cool. A former priest and Archbishop of the breakaway American Old Catholic Church, he collected consecrations from a bewildering number of pseudo-Catholic churches, in addition to his first one from the Episcopal Church. He finally abandoned independent Catholicism in 1954 and established a Universalist Church, first in Los Angeles and then in Fresno. Maxey’s interests were very small-c catholic. He was an early Mattachine member, and in 1958 he self-published Man Is A Sexual Being.
When Maxey wrote his article for ONE, tourists and wannabe weekend Beats descended on San Francisco to gawk at the real articles. Maxey contrasted these poseurs with the “real” Beats:
This gang of “kix” hoodlums consist of heterosexuals in the larger number. They are those who like to “cash-in” on the daring and non-conforming Beats. Havihg money in their pockets, they think they can out-buy, out-bid and out-sex the Beats. The few homos in this tribe of week-enders are of the timid sort who can’t make it in their own everyday world and in despair hope to find “satisfaction” in the world of the beat generation. …
There is a distinction to be made between the beat-homo and the nonbeat. The beat-homo has no inhibitions. Within his own consciousness he has accepted himself and is completely integrated. He is not fighting himself, much less the rest of the world. This applies to the male as well as the female of the species. He doesn’t give one god dam what the world thinks about him. Like the rest of the beat generation he simply wants to be left alone. He has closed his mental door to the rat-race. He has cut himself off from the shams and shamans of the competitive world. He is usually of the aesthetic type, psychologically, not necessarily so physically.
I have seen some gangling seamen and longshoremen, truck drivers, woodsmen and cement-construction workers, that would surprise all hell out of you when you listen to their conversation. In their particular fields of interest and study they are extraordinarily well informed. There is one chap I am thinking of who has been a seaman all his life, who can keep you spell-bound when telling about the “history of erotica”. Another, a female, could write a book about the world’s historic prostitutes and how they have influenced political thought. Still another homo-beat has been in several mental institutions under observation, but can reel off anything you want to know about the religions of the Orient. Of course, I am speaking of the real Beats, the ones who have severed all ties with the square world, as far as it is humanly possible to do, and still live.
It has been said that Allen Ginsberg is the St. Peter of the beat generation. He has been quoted in the New York Post (3-13-59) as saying: “I sleep, with men and with women. I am neither queer nor not queer, nor am I bi-sexual. My name is Allen Ginsberg and I sleep with whoever I want.” It has been my experience in discussing life in general with a considerable number of Beats, that these words of Allen Ginsberg voice quite accurately the opinions of the majority of the real Beats.
It’s a shame that Maxey didn’t contrast Beat-homos with Beat-heteros. In fact, he remained silent about what the interaction was like between the two. Indeed, the Beats and the gay communities overlapped considerably in North Beach. They patronized many of the same clubs, coffee houses and book stores.
But as with the culture at large, Beats-homos tended to operate as a separate subculture within the Beat culture. Beats generally held femininity — and the effeminate male — in disdain. “Beat culture permitted one to be kooky,” one San Francisco gay resident once noted. But the gender-bending nature of gay culture, with its embrace of drag and camp, was generally very distinct from the mystical and masculine image embraced by Beats.
Maxey went on to describe two particular “Beat-homos.” Neither of them, interestingly enough, embody Maxey’s ideal “Beat-homo” in the least. “Tom Doe” had been kicked out of the Army for his homosexuality, and he had trouble finding work thanks to his less-than-honorable discharge. He lost his home, turned to alcohol, and “ended up three months later on a pad in Beatnik-land” where he discovered Maxey’s book:
When finally he was able to stop his self-deception and admit to himself he was what he was, all other matters took their proper place. When this bug-a-boo was disposed of and he could see his “whole self”, not just the phantom side, it was not long before he had re-established himself. However, he still thinks of himself as a Beatnik and has never moved away from Beatnik-land. At present, after much struggling and hardship he owns and operates a “shop” making a moderate living off the “squares” that come to stare at the Beats.
The second example, “Jim Doe,” came off as a confident, outspoken gay man who “freely and frankly admitted to such tendency” — at first. First impressions can be deceiving. First of all, he was probably bisexual, as this sketch reveals. But it also turned out that he wasn’t all that “completely integrated” within his own consciousness.
What was his problem? Doubt. Underneath all the social relationships there was ever present a constant fear of someone betraying him. Of misplaced confidence. He never completely trusted anyone. Basically, when he got right down to the subject he was so damn lonesome, at nights after social events he usually went home alone, locked himself in his room and cried.
Doubt was his problem. First, I learned that he really doubted himself. After considerable discussion with Jim, I came to the conclusion his acceptance of his homosexuality was not as he made it appear. From his reading of abnormal psychology he wondered about his sex. As he said to me, “Am I a man or a woman?” “Who really was my father?” (He had never been able to find a birth record.) “Have I ever loved anyone?” “Does anything have any real meaning-or is life just an illusion?” “Dare I really trust anyone, completely?” “Must I go through all my life in doubt?” “The only reason I’m a Beatnik is that none of them try to pry into my personal life … I can get along with the other Beatniks because they don’t ask ‘personal questions’.”
Naturally it took considerable time and effort to bring about a change in his outlook on life. After exploring the various psychological “excuses” he presented for his condition, we assumed none were satisfactory by way of explanation. He had experienced a rotten home life in his youth. So have thousands of people. Examples were cited of heroic characters who began in pot-sheds. Switching to the existentialist treatment, in a few words I made it clear to him quoting from Jean-Paul Sartre: “Whereas the existentialist says that the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always the possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero. What counts is the total commitment, and it is not by a particular case or particular action that you are committed altogether.”
…The final outcome in Jim Doe’s story is interesting. He met a girl named Dora, a confirmed Lesbian. They got married and now have two children, a boy and a girl. Jim still says he is an homosexual and Dora affirms she is still a Lesbian, and they both live in Beatnik-land.
Maxey compared the Beats to the Lost Generation before it, and found the Beats lacking in some key respects:
I think the Lost Generation placed more emphasis on the social and civil liberties interests than the Beats are doing. I think the Beat generation is more nude than the Lost Generation was. There is little to discover among the Beatniks. As a matter of fact, they have a certain amount of juvenile crudeness in their art work and writing, with exceptions of course. They, the Beats, are not forced to starve while many of the Lost Generation were, during the long siege of the depression.
However, with all their vices and virtues if they can teach the world by example the evils of social conformity, I feel they will go down in history as having made a worthwhile contribution.
The Beats were already a spent force by the time pop culture discovered them. But they did leave behind an example of social-noncomformity that inspired the 1960s generation of peace activists, hippies, psychedelia and the Summer of Love.
David Hughes profiles the enigmatic Wallace de Ortega Maxey here.
Headlines for July, 1959: Soviets continue to demand Western withdrawal from West Berlin. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev engage in the “Kitchen Debate” at an American exhibition in Moscow. New 49-star American flag flies over Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and Baltimore’s Fort McHenry to celebrate Alaska’s statehood. Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion resigns. Two U.S. soldiers are killed in South Vietnam, the first Americans to die in the war. A half million members of the United Steelworkers of America launch the largest strike in U.S. history; it will last 116 days. Jazz singer Billie Holiday dies at the age of 44. Federal judge strikes Post Office’s ban on mailing Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Hawaii holds state and Congressional elections in preparation for statehood.
On the radio: “The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton, “Lonely Boy” by Paul Anka, “Personality” by Lloyd Price, “Dream Lover” by Bobby Darin, “Lipstick on Your Collar” by Connie Francis, “Waterloo” by Stonewall Jackson, “Tallahassee Lassie” by Freddy Cannon, “Bobby Sox to Stockings” by Frankie Avalon, “Frankie” by Connie Francis, “Tiger” by Fabian, “A Big Hunk O’Love” by Elvis Presley.
On television: Gunsmoke (CBS), Wagon Train (NBC), Have Gun, Will Travel (CBS), The Rifleman (ABC), The Danny Thomas Show (CBS), Maverick (ABC), Tales of Wells Fargo (NBC), The Real McCoys(ABC), I’ve Got a Secret (CBS), The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (ABC), Father Knows Best (CBS), The Red Skelton Show (CBS), Perry Mason (CBS).
Like most San Francisco mayors before him, George Christopher won election in 1955 on a platform of cleaning up the town. But unlike mayors before him, Christopher delivered. He appointed Francis Ahern as chief of police, and charged him with reforming the corrupt and inefficient force. Ahern professionalized the department’s upper echelons and launched a massive anti-vice campaign. For too long, San Francisco had enjoyed a reputation as a “wide open town” where anything goes: liquor, gambling, graft, prostitution, licentious entertainment and other sexual vices that dared not speak their names. Christopher and Ahern aimed to close it all down.
Ahern established the “S-Squads”, so named for “a strategy of saturation and selective enforcement.” For two to four nights a week, a squad of sixty-four undercover officers hit the city streets and interrogated anyone who looked suspicious. Those S-Squads dramatically changed San Francisco’s character in very short order. Ahern died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1958, and Christopher appointed Ahern’s deputy, Thomas Cahill, to replace him. Cahill promised to continue Ahern’s policies, which, to Cahill, meant “strict departmental discipline, heads up efficiency and a ‘closed town.'”
The S-Squad’s targets included the city’s gay bars and neighborhoods in North Beach, along the Embarcadero, and South of Market. The gathering holes had enjoyed several years of relative calm after a 1951 California Supreme Court ruling ended police efforts to shut them down. The calm was shattered in 1956 when a re-energized police Department and the state’s Alcohol Board of Control (ABC) found new ways to put these businesses in legal jeopardy. Dubious closures and arrests soared so high that even the city’s district attorney complained about the police’s “Gestapo” tactics.
Police also targeted suspected muggers, prostitutes, public drunks, and kids who had no business being out at night. For the most part, San Franciscans were happy with the results. A few thought the clean-up went a bit too far. They enjoyed the city’s reputation as a wide-open town. They just didn’t like the crime that went with it. But Christopher had solid support from the business community and the three major newspapers. And besides, he had successfully lured the Giants from New York to San Francisco. The city was, literally, in the big leagues.
So in 1959, the San Francisco mayoral race was looking like a real snooze-fest. The Chronicle complained, “Challengers can find nothing to sink their teeth into.” Christopher’s main challenger, City Assessor Russell Wolden, Jr., was a particularly weak candidate. His problems began with his blundering switch from Republican to Democrat. Everyone saw it as a naked attempt to ride the rising party’s coat-tails. To the average voter, this was unseemly; the Mayor’s race was nominally non-partisan. Ordinarily, endorsements rested on precisely those affiliations, and Christopher had the Republican’s usual line-up of supporters in his camp. But Democrats and labor unions mostly ignored this interloper. Their endorsements, when they came, were late and perfunctory, if they came at all. Wolden’s campaign was becalmed in a sea of boredom. He needed a bold move to pull ahead.
Wolden’s October Surprise
On October 7, the tiny and obscure San Francisco Progress, in obvious coordination with Wolden’s campaign, opened a new front in the fight for city hall. The headline read, “Sex Deviates Make S.F. Headquarters,” and the paper hit directly at Christopher’s strength: his law-and-order cred:
A just-completed survey of vice conditions in San Francisco discloses that this city, during the Christopher administration, has become the national headquarters of the organized homosexuals in the United States. It is a sordid tale, one which will revolt every decent San Franciscan, but one which the San Francisco Progress believes is of vital importance to our city, and therefore must be told.
The survey was made in an effort to determine the truth or falsity of George Christopher’s claim that he has given the people a “clean city.”
The facts are that some of the big call girl operations and a number of minor bookmakers have been put out of business. But in their place another form of vice — homosexualism — has been allowed to flourish to a shocking extent, and under shocking circumstances.
Last month at a convention of deviates in Denver, Colorado, a resolution, passed unanimously, praised the mayor of San Francisco — by name — for an “enlightened administration” which has permitted the group to flourish here.
The Progress published a photocopy of the notarized resolution. The sentence expressing appreciation “to Mayor George Christopher and Police Chief Thomas Cahill” by name was circled for emphasis. Wolden, told The Progress:
“This is a matter of grave concern for every parent,” Russell L. Wolden, assessor and candidate for mayor, declared today. “It exposes teenagers to possible contact and contamination in a city admittedly overrun by deviates. For a city administration to permit this situation to exist is nothing less than scandalous. The whole rotten mess cries for investigation.”
For those who missed the tiny paper’s exposé, Wolden took out a fifteen-minute paid political spot on KNBC radio. His speech began at 6:45 in the evening, just as families were eating dinner. “This is not a political speech,” he began, “but a heart-to-heart talk with the people of San Francisco, especially mothers and fathers.” He then listed his “facts.” “The number of sex deviates in this city has soared by the thousands.” There were more than twenty bars and restaurants downtown catering to “crowds of young men conducting themselves in a repulsive manner. They move from place to place. … They accost normal young men and boys.” He was just getting warmed up:
I say San Francisco is not a closed town! And it is not a clean town! And I charge that conditions involving flagrant moral corruption do exist here which will revolt every decent person. … Under the benign attitude of the Christopher administration, those who practice sex deviation operate in San Francisco today to a shocking extent, under shocking circumstances, and in open and flagrant defiance of the law. So favorable is the official San Francisco climate for the activities of these persons that an organization of sex deviates known as The Mattachine Society actually passed a resolution praising Mayor Christopher by name for what the resolution described as the enlightened attitude of his administration toward them.
…Pick up your telephone book. You’ll see the Mattachine Society — spelled M-A T-T-A-C-H-I-N-E — listed in it. The Mattachine publish and sell sex literature of the most lurid, distasteful and disgusting variety. The Mattachine Society is the national voice of organized sex deviates. … (Its) principles and objectives are subscribed to by the thousands of deviates who do not care or dare to join it. From these thousands come the sex gangs whose abnormal appetites are catered to by these bars and other joints whose operations I have just described. …
This is a matter of grave concern for every parent. It exposes teenagers to possible contact and contamination in a city admittedly overrun by deviates. … Every San Francisco neighborhood is threatened by the bold shadow they cast over the entire community.
The Poisoned Resolution
These accusations hit Hal Call like a ton of bricks. Call was officially the editor of the Mattachine Society’s magazine, The Mattachine Review. Unofficially, he was the de-facto leader of the Mattachine Society through the Review’s influence and with his allies installed in key positions in the organization. Call immediately recognized the man behind this attack. William Patrick Brandhove had just joined the Mattachine Society in August, and he accompanied the San Francisco delegation to its annual convention in Denver over Labor Day weekend. Brandhove made a huge splash, unusually so for someone who had only joined a couple of weeks before. He bought drinks for the conventioneers, paid for hotel rooms for several delegates, and even sprang for the cost of stenographic services. The tiny organization was never able to afford a stenographer before. This was pure luxury! San Francisco delegate Henry Foster, Jr., later told reporters, “He was spending money as if it was going out of style.”
Brandhove’s lavish spending didn’t arouse any suspicions. The Mattachine Society was chronically broke. Call was just grateful for Brandhove’s generosity. Besides, Call’s bigger concern was a push by East Coast chapters to loosen his grip on the Society. They wanted to remake the organization into a much looser federation. Brandhove, with his expensive bar tab, lobbied on Call’s behalf. Call admitted at the time, “Brandhove’s room became sort of the headquarters for the San Francisco delegation.” Call also installed Brandhove as the official parliamentarian for the Monday business meeting. And with Call armed with a pocketful of proxies, the Easterners didn’t stand a chance. One by one, their proposals were voted down.
With that danger now passed, Call moved on to lighter fare. He offered a resolution on behalf of his new friend. It was a watered-down resolution that Brandhove had proposed earlier. This resolution read:
WHEREAS the goals of the Mattachine Society call for tolerance and understanding of the problems and rights of certain minority groups within a community, and
WHEREAS the Mattachine Society is cognizant of basic constitutional principles in America which guarantee these groups the rights of lawful and peaceful expression of their sincere aspirations of improvement and acceptance of the sometimes different groups, and
WHEREAS the Mattachine Society is deeply appreciative of the efforts of law enforcement authorities in San Francisco based upon an officially administered entity, enlightened, and just City Government and Police Force,
NOW THEREFORE BE IT HERE RESOLVED that the Mattachine Society go on record as recognizing and expressing its appreciation to Mayor George Christopher and Police Chief Thomas Cahill for their persistent and consistent efforts to conduct their administration with these high ideals foremost in mind and congratulate them for favorable results in the sociological problem.
The almost-apologetic resolution was pretty standard Mattachine copy. Brandhove’s original resolution was much bolder, but Call rejected it as “too political.” In this newer watered-down version, “homosexuals” appear nowhere — just “certain minority groups.” The gay community was reduced to a “sociological problem.” Christopher’s anti-gay campaigns were re-cast as “enlightened and just.”
Given the realities on the ground, it’s hard to believe a self-styled gay rights group would approve such a resolution. But all of this was in line with the Mattachine’s goal of currying favor with leaders that society deemed respectable. Call urged its passage “to butter our bread with a couple of areas in San Francisco … it will do the entire organization a lot of good.” The convention went along, and approved it unanimously.
“We thought it was just an innocent expression in favor of tolerance in San Francisco, ” said Mattachine General-Secretary Don Lucas, soon after the resolution hit the papers. “We had no idea that it was intended or might be used for any political purpose.”
But that was exactly its purpose. A few weeks after the convention was over, Brandhove contacted Darlene Armbeck, the Denver stenographer who Brandhove had so generously hired. Armbeck also just happened to be a notary public. Brandhove asked her for three notarized copies of the resolution. Just one week later, one of those copies showed up in the Progress. And a scandal was born.
The Undercover Is Uncovered
But the scandal that grew wasn’t the one Wolden and Brandhove intended. First of all, Brandhove apparently counted on the Mattachine Society being cowed and timid. But that wasn’t Hal Call’s style. He relished a good fight. And if that fight included a spotlight, it was all the better. Call launched a million dollar lawsuit against Wolden, charging slander against the Mattachine Society. That move alone was guaranteed to generate publicity. But Call had another card to play. He knew all about Brandhove’s role in getting the resolution passed. Call shared everything he knew with the three major dailies, The Chronicle, The Examiner and the recently-merged News-Call Bulletin.
Reporters recognized Brandhove’s name immediately. He was no stranger to bare-knuckeled politics. Brandhove had been involved in smear campaigns during a 1948 congressional contest and the 1949 mayor’s race. He once testified before the state’s Un-American Activities Committee, claiming to be an ex-communist. He then changed his testimony, fought with the committee, and wound up in jail on contempt charges. Brandhove had been entangled in a local blackmail trial involving Jimmy Tarantino, a small-time publisher of a local scandal magazine. Tarantino extorted large sums from local businessmen in exchange for keeping allegations of homosexuality out of the magazine. The Chronicle reported that Brandhove was “known to police and the underworld as an unreliable stool pigeon.” It also noted that he had been arrested in 1930 in Jersey City, New Jersey on a sodomy charge.
When reporters tried to find Brandhove for comment, they found that he had quickly checked out of the fleabag Grand Hotel in the Tenderloin. They tracked him down, with his car “plastered with Wolden stickers.” Brandhove admitted that he had, in fact, attended the convention. “I’m not a homosexual but I joined the Mattachine Society only to find out about its activities.” He also admitted to turning over the notarized copies to his lawyer, Ralph Taylor — who just happened to be Wolden’s campaign treasurer. Brandhove told Taylor, “Make sure it’s used.”
With those details now out in the open, the papers quickly branded the entire operation a smear. But the smear wasn’t on homosexuals or the Mattachine Society. It was a smear on the city’s good name, its honorable mayor and its upright citizens for supposedly tolerating all of these sexual deviants.
And the fact that Wolden’s radio address came at dinnertime only made things worse. One letter writer to the News-Call Bulletin complained that Wolden’s speech had “invaded San Francisco homes at the very time the family is assembled — the dinner hour.” Picture it: whole families sit down at the kitchen table. The radio is playing in the background. It’s 1960; television censors are still struggling with the word “pregnant.” And children all over San Francisco simultaneously look up from their meat loafs and ask, “Daddy, what is a homosexual?”
The papers rushed to prove that San Franciscans certainly did not tolerate homosexuals. The News-Call Bulletin reminded readers, “A special unit of the vice squad is detailed to keep tabs on possible deviate colonies, and is augmented from time to time by special squads of plainclothesmen from districts — notably North Beach and South of Market — where homosexual invasions may begin.”
Deputy Police Chief Al Nelder told reporters, “The San Francisco Police Department has always had a special squad to check on sex deviates. They are doing a good job. Since the first of January they have made over 150 arrests. San Francisco is not the headquarters for sex deviates.”
“If anything,” added Chief Cahill, “they know from our sustained drive they’re not wanted here, and most take the hint.” He also added that police police had cracked down on seventeen gay bars in the last two years.
The Chronicle took severe umbrage that Wolden would stain the city’s reputation so carelessly. Wolden’s “charge that San Francisco officially condones flagrant moral corruption is preposterous. … He has degraded the good name of San Francisco. A man who would recklessly and spuriously do this shows himself unfit for the office he seeks.”
The Examiner fumed, “He succeeded only in smearing the city he professes to love.” It added, rather defensively, “The situation here differs not one whit from that in any large city of like size and makeup. … Mr. Wolden’s taking of this socio-police problem to make of it a piece of political sensationalism was an act of the most sordid and unforgivable kind.”
The News-Call Bulletin just screamed, “Get out, Wolden!”:
Russell L. Wolden has slandered San Francisco in a radio speech containing an amazing perversion of fact and has thus disqualified himself as a serious candidate for mayor.
He should withdraw from the campaign.
The speech was the most distasteful pottage of slime, innuendo and falsehood ever cooked up and piped into San Francisco homes at the dinner hour.
His wild charge that a moral offender finds easy tolerance in San Francisco is a resort to the extremes of irresponsible demagoguery and an affront to the truth.
Wolden has deviated from the path..of political responsibility and shown himself incapable of the role of sober civic servant.
He has insulted San Francisco with gross and desperate distortions. He should get out of the race.
Mayor Christopher defended his city and everyone in it. “In a blind drive for office, my opponent has degraded the city,” he charged. “I am deeply regretful that his sordid campaign material has been thrown on the doorstep of every home.” Christopher cancelled a planned televised debate on KQED. “I want no formal arrangement with Mr. Wolden of any kind.”
Wolden claimed he didn’t know Brandhove. “I wouldn’t know him if I saw him.” The News-Call Bulletin published that denial under a friendly-looking photo of the two together. Wodlen’s financial backers began wishing they didn’t know Wolden. Ben Swig, owner of the Fairmont Hotel and Wolden’s finance chairman, was in Sacramento when the story broke. “I don’t want any mud slinging,” he said. “I don’t want any part of it.” Adolph Schuman, a prominent women’s clothing manufacturer, remained a Wolden supporter. But he complained, “If I’d known we were going to go around saying how many homosexuals were running around San Francisco, I would have stopped it.” Those Democrats and labor leaders who had endorsed Wolden quickly, loudly, and angrily withdrew their support.
“And You Parents of Daughters”
There’s a cynical saying: when you dig yourself into a hole, dig deeper. That’s what Wolden did. But now, his campaign’s desperation became glaringly obvious. He took to the airwaves again, and accused the downtown papers of conspiring against him. He claimed they were suppressing public opinion polls showing him in the lead. “San Franciscans,” he pleaded, “if they destroy me, we will never have another free and open democratic election in this city in your lifetime, or in mine. … then, Russian-type elections have come to San Francisco.”
Meanwhile, his ally, The Progress, printed another “exposé.” This one named most of the gay bars and cited arrest statistics. His campaign printed up transcripts of his radio speech and sent them to PTAs, religious groups and civic leaders. He also distributed leaflets door-to-door with another warning about deviates. This time, it was the lesbians’ turn:
And you parents of daughters — do not sit back complacently feeling that because you have no boys in your family, everything is all right as far as you are concerned. To enlighten you as to the existence of a Lesbian organization composed of homosexual women, whose purposes are the same as the Mattachine Society, the male counterpart, make yourselves acquainted vlith the name “Daughters of Bilitis”.
The Examiner responded to all of this with a retraction of sorts. Its first editorial called on Wolden to withdraw from the race. Now the Examiner said Wolden should stay in. “The public should not be denied its right to pass judgment on a man … who would openly defame his city. … on the basis of ‘evidence’ planted by one of his supporters.”
San Francisco’s judgment was harsh. On November 3, Christopher won in a landslide, 141,644 to 90,268. Another 8,231 votes were split among six minor candidates. Interestingly, about 9,000 voters cast ballots for the Board of Supervisors, municipal judges, bond proposals, and city charter amendments, but left the choice for mayor blank. Mayor Christopher reassured the city in his victory speech: “It is time to forget the unpleasantness that has occurred in the past few months. San Francisco is on the move in the eyes of California, the nation and the world.”
The newspapers’ lining up against Wolden meant that they wound up being more or less on Mattachine’s side. This was a very unusual position for Mattachine to be in. This was the first time homosexuality was injected into a major city’s political campaign, and Mattacahine (and to a lesser extent, the Daughters of Bilitis) received neutral to positive coverage.
The Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society both were happy to publicly report that neither organization suffered from the campaign. The Ladder, the DOB’s official magazine, bragged, “Actually, the publicity brought the groups to the attention of potential members who had not otherwise been aware of their existence.” Hal Call, in a letter to Wardell Pomeroy of the Kinsey Institute, said much the same thing:
None of our members have resigned or panicked. All are behind us. We have gained some 10 memberships in the past three weeks. We have continued our schedule of activities as planned, canceling nothing — and we even had a fund-raising party last Saturday night at which 64 persons were present (including a UPI feature writer and his wife). … The telephone has run incessantly. Many have called seriously — to learn about the Society and to ask for help with problems. Many others, though, have been cranks and crackpots, some of them shouting obscenities when we answered.
Despite the bravado, there were some tense moments behind the scenes. Historian Alan Bérubé wrote in 1981:
Such hostile publicity, while certainly bringing DOB to the attention of many lesbians for the first time, also made DOB more vulnerable to attack. The organization responded by calling an emergency meeting to prevent a panicked exodus from their ranks. But instead of an exodus, the crisis brought together an unexpectedly large number of DOB members, who voted to put out a special issue of The Ladder, their national magazine, and to remove mailing and membership lists from their office. For the duration of the mayoral race, DOB operated out of the back of a station wagon, with boxes of their papers hidden under a blanket. DOB founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon later discovered that San Francisco police had in fact attempted to search their empty office as a result of Wolden’s expose.
Bérubé also wrote that Brandhove’s actions drew the FBI’s attention:
Recently uncovered US Justice Department memos, though heavily censored, suggest FBI involvement in the Brandhove affair. Following Wolden’s broadcast, the FBI monitored Brandhove’s activities in Denver and San Francisco, and stepped up their ongoing surveillance of both the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.
San Francisco did move on from that election, just as Christopher promised. And Christopher learned a valuable lesson. Never again would he leave himself vulnerable to accusations of being soft on homosexuals. The police department’s anti-gay campaign intensified. In the next two years, nearly every gay bar in town saw its license revoked or threatened. In 1962, police arrested more a hundred men and women in the biggest gay bar raid in the city’s history. By 1965, police antagonism towards the gay community reached its zenith with the California Hall raid. That raid would finally unify the gay community with religious leaders to demand substantive changes in police relations.
Russell Wolden, Jr., returned to his job as City Assessor. He held that post from 1940 to 1967. He had taken the office over from his father, Russell Wolden, Sr., who held the office since 1916. In l965 rumors began circulating that dozens of businesses were enjoying lower property taxes due to “arranged” assessments by Wolden’s office. Deputy assessors were undervaluing property in return for bribes. A portion of the payments were then kicked up to Wolden. A grand jury indicted him for bribery and conspiracy, and he was convicted on nine felony counts. Wolden was sentenced to state prison from one to 14 years. Authorities gave him a medical release after only eight months due to a heart condition.
Headlines for October 7, 1959: President Eisenhower invokes the Taft-Hartley Act and asks for an 80-day back-to-work order in a bid to end a dockworkers’ strike on the East and Gulf coasts. A summit between steel executives and union leaders collapse, ending efforts to end a twelve-week strike; Eisenhower is expected to invoke Taft-Hartly to reopen the mills. Herbert M. Stempel and James Snodgrass, former contestants on the TV quiz show Twenty-One, testify before Congress that the show had been rigged.
The Soviets extend their lead in the space race by launching Lunik III, a satellite which is expected to allow people on earth to see the dark side of the moon for the first time in human history. It’s the last full day of campaigning in Britain as voters prepare to retain Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government. Popular opera singer and actor Mario Lanza dies of a heart attack at the age of 38. Berkeley’s Board of Education approves a policy allowing corporal punishment. An unidentified woman leapt to her death off of the Golden Gate Bridge; it is the 189th known suicide from the span.
On the radio: “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin, “Put Your Heard On My Shoulder” by Paul Anka, “Sleep Walk” by Santo and Johnny, “(‘Til) I Kissed You” by the Everly Brothers, “The Three Bells” by the Browns, “Teen Beat” by Sandy Nelson, “I’m Gonna Get Married” by Lloyd Price, “Mr. Blue” by the Fleetwoods, “Red River Rock” by Johnny and the Hurricanes, “Poison Ivy” by the Coasters, “Sea of Love” by Phil Phillips with the Twilights.
On television: Gunsmoke (CBS), Wagon Train (NBC), Have Gun, Will Travel (CBS), The Andy Griffith Show(CBS), The Real McCoys(ABC), Rawhide (CBS), Candid Camera (CBS), The Price is Right (NBC), The Untouchables (ABC), The Jack Benny Show (CBS), Bonanza (NBC), Dennis the Menace (CBS), The Danny Thomas Show (CBS) The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS), My Three Sons (ABC), Perry Mason (CBS) The Flintstones (ABC), 77 Sunset Strip (ABC).
In 1957, a British governmental committee chaired by Sir John Wofenden issued its landmark report. The Wolfenden Report recommended that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private be no longer a criminal offence.” One part of the report directly addressed the medical profession: “…homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects.”
The report launched a decade of some fairly enlightened discussions about homosexuality in Britain. But those discussions occurred with the Sexual Offences Act of 1885 still on the books. Under that law, a man convicted of “gross indecency” with another man faced up to two years’ imprisonment with hard labor. This law that sent Oscar Wilde to prison and persuaded computer mathematician Alan Turing to accept chemical castration in lieu of incarceration. In addition, the older, more severe law of Buggery still loomed as a possibility, with its possible lifetime sentence. Buggery convictions were much rarer because the standard of proof was much higher, but they still occurred with disturbing regularity. (Lesbian relationships, by the way, have never been illegal in Britain.)
Ater Parliament declined to adopt the Wolfenden proposals in 1958, police took their cue and redoubled their efforts. Arrests and prosecutions for gross indecency rose significantly. Meanwhile, the debate continued, almost all of it by straight people with straight people. It may have been about gay people, but it took place largely without gay people because it was still too dangerous for most gay men to speak up.
Those who did often found ways to do so anonymously. On December 12, 1959, an anonymous doctor — we know him only as “A Medical Practitioner” — did just that through the pages of the prestigious medical journal The Lancet.
If Only We Had More Data
For several years now, The Lancet, and other medical and psychiatric journals like it, were all abuzz about homosexuality and the Wolfenden Report just like everyone else. But these journals tackled this subject like they did every other one: in strictly clinical terms. Articles, filled with charts, graphs, definitions and arcane terminology, tackled homosexuality with the same rigid discipline as those about polio and juvenile diabetes. Researchers plowed through body measurements, hormone levels, sperm counts, psychological and I.Q. test scores, family medical records, school records, and police records, looking for clues to how this condition came about. And then they combed through the results of clinical trials for chemical castrations, hormone injections, electric shock aversion therapy, and other touted treatments in the search for that elusive cure.
As these journals studied homosexuality, they largely steered clear of moral considerations. That was the job of churchmen; these journals were for scientists. And these scientists didn’t really care much about the law either, except to say that, to their scientific way of thinking, the law was obviously the product of medieval thinking and not science. Science, they said, proved that these patients were’t criminals. They were sick. And if this were truly a modern society, it would treat them as such.
The Wolfenden Report tried to challenge that assumption. And occasionally, a doctor here and there wrote in to agree. Homosexuals weren’t sick, they said. This was just a natural variation of human existence, even if they still thought that existence was the result of some kind of conditioning or developmental error. Now, if only there was some data somewhere to prove that…
Out of the Lab and Into the World
But Dr. Practitioner (let’s call him) had an entirely different purpose in mind. He didn’t include a single chart, measurement, or test result in his article. Not one dot or comma came from a laboratory. His tasks required no slide rules, adding machines or graph paper. Instead, he wanted to move the conversation away from clinical observations derived from institutional settings, to challenge his fellow doctors to look at, and listen to, gay men in the real world:
A true picture of male homosexuality in the community cannot be given if — as in most medical publications — it is based on material drawn only from psychiatric practice, prisons, mental hospitals, and venereal-disease clinics. So long as the only doctors who write on this subject are heterosexual, so long as public opinion is based on emotional prejudice, so long as the law makes it dangerous for the homosexual himself to express an opinion, the present profound ignorance of the subject — both inside and outside the medical profession — will continue.
As a general practitioner and a homosexual, I have over the past thirty years discussed the subject intimately in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and confidence with several hundred homosexual men of many nationalities, colours, cultures, and creeds. The following case histories provide, I believe, a typical cross-section of male homosexuality in the community.
His sixteen brief sketches of gay men gave doctors — and us — a marvelous peak into their hidden lives. Their ages ranged from 21 to the mid-80s. Most lived in secret, but some lived their lives out openly. Some had married and later divorced, and some were bisexual and successfully married, more or less. Some were in stable relationships with other men, while others were not so stable. Some were faithful to their wives or partners, others sought discreet affairs, and others still were wildly promiscuous.
They came from all walks of life: doctors, businessmen, an airline pilot, a farmer, an artist. One was a house-husband, of sorts, for his partner. Most appeared relatively well-adjusted, given the circumstances, although two battled depression. Today, we would recognize one of those two as transgender. At the time, gender dysphoria hadn’t yet spoken its name, and just about everyone thought of it as just another way of being homosexual.
“This Is The Only Way I Can Live”
It’s the little details that stand out. “A” didn’t discover his sexuality until age forty. When F was fifteen, his mother warned him that his friends might think he was gay. He replied simply and confidently, “But I am homosexual,” and that was that.
J knew he was gay before he left school. Now in his late thirties, he had recently had sex with a woman who knew about his sexuality. “It was awful,” he said. “It brought me out in a cold sweat… the trouble is that a woman lacks the only thing I find sexually exciting… It was quite hopeless but luckily she understood.”
C, a married airline pilot, played only when when he was away on duty, typically for two to four weeks. Now, he was dreading retirement. “What’s going to happen when I stop flying and have to remain at home all the time? I don’t think I could ever be exclusively heterosexual.”
O, at 48, had been with a man for 28 years. They were contented, monogamous and “do not mix in any homosexuaal coterie,” wrote Dr. Practitioner. “O said to me recently, ‘This is the only way I can live.'” But P’s case was a sad one. Now in his mid-80s, he came from a “socially prominent and prosperous family”:
As he became older he realised that he was predominantly homosexual in orientation, but his family background and training had taught him that this was reprehensible; so he did not allow any homosexual behaviour to occur. He tells me that he never discussed his inclinations with any person until about five years ago when he did so with me. His knowledge of the subject up to that time was derived from reading Greek and other classical writers. It appears that not until after his 50th year did he have his first experience of sexual activity with another person. He is now obsessed by the thought of his “wasted youth”. … He says that if he had had some sexual fulfilment during his youth and maturity he would now be content to “grow old gracefully”.
These sixteen men had very little in common. This was probably by design. It showed the heterogeneous nature of gay men. They also refused to conform to stereotypes. This too, was probably intentional. After all, if one wanted to confirm stereotypes, there were already plenty of well-known examples to turn to. They broke another cliché by never having been in trouble with the law:
None of them has ever been on a police charge for a homosexual offence. None of them knows of any reason why they are homosexually orientated, and all agree that seduction in childhood by older persons was not the cause. I have attended most of them professionally, but none of them consulted me because of homosexuality.
Claims Have Been Made
If any of them had come to him seeking treatment for their sexuality, Dr. Practitioner’s only ethical recourse — and, by extension, that of the rest of the medical profession — would have been to dissuade them from undertaking such a futile effort:
The words ” cure ” and ” treatment ” are used too freely by doctors, judges, magistrates, and lawyers, with little regard to the facts. … Chastity, adopted for moral, religious, or legal reasons or enforced by chemical castration, is not a cure for homosexuality. As far as I am aware homosexually deviated instincts have never been permanently reorientated into heterosexual channels. Claims have been made but none have ever been submitted to the criteria for other medical claims — namely, independent scrutiny and adequate lapse of time to prove permanence. To accept marriage, or an intention to marry, as a criterion of cure is unrealistic.
Another factor often overlooked when cures are claimed is that the homosexual who goes to a psychiatrist for treatment is usually already in trouble with himself (feelings of guilt, depression, or inferiority), with his family (scandal or disgrace), or with the police. He is desperately anxious to be cured and only too glad to accept the psychiatrist’s assurances. Disillusionment comes later.
Dr. Practitioner wrapped up his discussion by criticizing the public’s perceptions about the morality of male homosexuality:
In discussions of homosexuality the physical aspects tend to be overemphasised while the emotional aspects are overlooked. Yet these may be as intense as those experienced by heterosexuals. Many homosexual friendships, like many heterosexual friendships, do not include physical acts. The homosexual liaison — unlike marriage — is unsupported by legal, social, economic, or family considerations tending to encourage permanency. I do not believe that homosexuals are inherently more promiscuous than heterosexuals would be if they had to live under similar conditions of loneliness and sexual insecurity.
Lesbianism, fornication, adultery, rape, even murder can usually be discussed calmly and objectively, but male homosexuality rarely. It seems likely that the illogical and disproportionate emotional reaction produced in some people — usually men, not women — by this subject is caused by unresolved conflicts. It is widely believed among homosexuals that exaggerated revulsion is an indication of latent homosexual tendencies.
Homosexual problems are often the cause of alcoholism and suicide, though the basic reason for these tragedies is rarely disclosed and usually unsuspected.
I make no attempt to defend the immorality disclosed in many of the case-histories, beyond suggesting that it should be judged alongside heterosexual immorality.
Headlines for December 12, 1959: Four R.A.F missile bases, armed with about sixty American Thor nuclear missiles, are now in a state of “readiness” and will be declared operational soon. Three thousand Jaguar employees in Coventry are sent home after about 100 workers in the finishing line strike for an additional 6d an hour. Eight trade unions representing cotton weaving mill workers agree to added Saturday morning work for the first time since 1946. U.S. Gen. Nathan Twining drops diplomatic bombshell in blaming French President Charles de Gail for NATO’s weakened military strength. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, during a stop in New Delhi during his world tour, appeals for a “world-wide war against hunger.”
On the radio: “What Do You Want?” by Adam Faith, “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin, “What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes At Me For?” by Emile Ford and the Checkmates, “Travellin’ Light” by Cliff Richard and the Shadows, “Red River Rock” by Johnny and the Hurricanes, “Oh Carol” by Neil Sedaka, “(‘Til) I Kissed You” by the Everly Brothers, “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Back Seat” by Avons,”Put Your Head On My Shoulder” by Paul Anka, “Teen Beat” by Sandy Nelson, “Snow Coach” by Russ Conway, “Rawhide” by Frankie Laine.
On television:Wagon Train (ITV), Sunday Night at the Palladium (ITV), Armchair Theatre (ITV), Emergency Ward 10 (ITV), Concentration (ITV), Take Your Pick (ITV), The Army Game (ITV), Knight Errant (ITV), Juke Box Jury (BBC), Spycatcher (BBC), Bleak House (BBC).
Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1957): 14, 115. An abridged version of the report is available online here. Part 3 of the report, which deals with prostitution and its related offenses, is not included in this scan.
On December 22, 1959, Ann Arbor, Michigan, witnessed a wave of arrests for “homosexual actions.” The arrests came after a seven-week investigation involving “local bars, taverns, and non-University buildings,” according to the University of Michigan’s student newspaper, the Michigan Daily.
Despite the investigation’s city-wide scope, all of the arrests — of twenty-five adult men — occurred on university property. By January 5, the number had risen to twenty-nine, including one juvenile. They were arrested, allegedly, for indecent acts in campus restrooms. Those caught in the dragnet included fourteen students, an associate professor, two former students, a former school teacher from neighboring Ypsilanti, a local radio disc jockey, eight businessmen, and several other university employees and townspeople. The faculty member was expected to resign. The students were brought before “a group of University officials, who will consider their cases individually.”
Ann Arbor police detective Lt. George Stauch praised the university for “cooperating very well.” Curiously, an unnamed university official said, “We did not know about this search when it began and were not consulted until very recently.” Stauch explained to Michigan Daily, very briefly, how his operation worked:
Lt. Stauch praised the work of a trio of special plainclothes officers who made the arrests. The officers reportedly lingered in campus restrooms, making verbal and written agreements with various individuals. The individuals were later arrested.
This is a curious detail. It tells us that at least some of the arrests were based solely on conversations or passed notes, the same kind of communications that routinely took place between straight students in classrooms, cafeterias, on the Diag and in the library.
And furthermore, they weren’t arrested in the act, but sometime but later — after they made their “agreements” but before any actual “gross indecency” occurred. As Stauch described it, this is all that happened: some guys saw a good-looking guy with nothing better to do than to hang around the restroom for hours on end. They either struck up a conversation or passed a note to him. Sometimes they tapped a toe in his direction which, according to later testimony, “started a chain of events that led to note writing.” And for that, they wound up getting arrested for their trouble. The entire operation clearly relied on entrapment, as California gay rights activist and Mattachine Review publisher Hal Call later confirmed:
In one of the opening examinations of one of those arrested at Ann Arbor, this exchange occurred when the lawyer questioned the arresting officer:
“What time was the arrest made?”
“What time did you enter the restroom?”
“That’s a hell of a way to make a living, isn’t it?”
A reporter, who states that he knows two of those arrested in Michigan, added that it was the plainclothesman in each instance who started the conversation and made the advances. [Emphasis mine]
All those arrested faced charges of gross indecency or attempted gross indecency, which under Michigan law was more or less the same thing. The law provided a penalty of up to five years in state prison or a fine of up to $2,500 (about $21,200 today). Repeated offenses could incur life in prison.
Student reactions, as shown in the pages of the Michigan Daily, ranged from humor to sympathy for the poor homosexuals. The sympathy, however, disguised an entirely different kind of condemnation. The first letter published the paper published shows how that worked. That letter, apparently signed by multiple people, was so sympathetic that it required anonymity. “Names withheld by request” found the punishment wrong-headed:
In our opinion, these actions are inappropriate retaliation for homosexuality. Homosexuality is a psychological illness or mental disorder and should be treated as such. If the state has reformed to the point of establishing mental institutions to help those who are mentally ill, why cannot these homosexuals, who are also defined as mentally ill, be admitted to mental institutions and given special care instead of being committed to criminal institutions?
When these homosexuals are not given proper care but are put in criminal institutions where they are confined to a small area in an all-male population, there is greater opportunity to further their homosexual activities. We feel that if the state is going to take any action, it should take the proper action and confine these individuals to institutions that would help to cure them rather than to institutions that would contribute to their illness.
Another letter writer, unafraid to sign her name, called the police actions “humiliating” — not for those arrested, but for her. She was mortified that the arrests flew “in the face of modern medical knowledge.” She wanted the law changed before police “begin setting up traps for obsessive compulsives and/or senile depressive neurotics.”
“Of Dubious Value”
The Michigan Daily let it be known that it, too, was similarly concerned. Staff writer Thomas Hayden’s editorial, “Homosexual Crackdown of Dubious Value,” appeared on January 9. By then the arrest tally had risen to 34. These men, he wrote, were victims of entrapment. What’s more, police used methods designed to exploit their “psychological problems”:
The methods, although police have been reticent to explain them in detail, boil generally down to this: three special officers were selected about two months ago to linger day after day in restrooms around the city, waiting to make contact with homosexuals, then arrest them.
More critically, stated, they have been paid with public funds to aggravate the psychological problem of the homosexual, first by enticement, then by arrest, arraignment, trial, and perhaps a prison sentence.
He found the department’s motives puzzling. None of the conditions — none of the stereotyped conditions — existed to justify such a crackdown.
No major incident — such as an attack on a child — triggered it. The police themselves admit no organized ring exists. Since the state law against indecent conduct between males has been on the books for many years, the suddenly renewed enforcement for no specific reason seems curious. It leaves one to guess that an irrational force in Ann Arbor is overly interested in keeping the city “a decent place to live” and that the police are hypersensitive with regard to the public image.
Hayden then repeated the criminal-versus-sickness argument that was clearly in vogue on the progressive campus:
The situation once more illustrates the cultural lag which puts the homosexual under the heading of “criminal” when he is most often an individual with serious psychological difficulties. …What must be questioned most basically is the state statute itself. It simply is not consistent with advances in modern psychiatry. It is based on an absurd conception of homosexuality as the immoral behavior of stable rational individuals. It makes little attempt to understand such individuals as anything other than criminals, and most frightening of all, it sentences them to state prisons where their environment is hardly conducive for cure.
Who Is Really Sick?
Ann Arbor’s nickname, “the Athens of the Midwest,” traces back to the 1850s, soon after the university set up shop there. The university shared its progressive reputation with the likes of U.C. Berkeley, Oberlin, Antioch, and Sarah Lawrence. With this abundance of liberalism and scholarship on hand, was there no one in this aspirational Athens to speak up for gay people?
Yes, finally. On January 13, Barton Meyers, a grad student, wrote a letter to the editor that cut through all of the crocodile tears that fellow students were shedding on behalf of those poor, sick homosexuals:
Although homosexual solicitation is defined by the laws of Michigan as a criminal offense, citizens of the “Athens of the West,” enlightened as they are in the ways of psychology, are quick to point out the pathology rather than the criminality involved in this behavior. They are sick people who must be hospitalized, not institutionalized.
How very easy these thoughts of Freud come to mind; how reassuring they are. At once, one is allowed to have compassion for the homosexual and have him removed. Perhaps the very tranquility induced by conceiving of the homosexual as sick should arouse one’s skepticism. Is it he who is sick, or is it the society which, not able to tolerate his deviation from its norms, chooses to arrest him?
Will his lack of procreation endanger the survival of the species? Hardly. Birth control is the problem. Is deviation from standards ipso facto pathological? Of course not. Deviation is merely a normative statement, not one pertaining to value judgements.
But can this particular deviation be indicted as pathological by psychoanalysis? Again, no. Normative statements can be made detailing wherein development resulting in homosexuality differs from that resulting in heterosexuality, but it should not pass value judgement in the phenomena which it studies. And is the homosexual dangerous to members of society? To say that attempts to form homosexual relationships are intrinsically wrong or dangerous as contrasted to attempts to form heterosexual relationships is to beg the question of whether or not the relationship itself is wrong or pathological.
Finally, were one to attempt a somewhat simplified definition of pathology such as prevalence of psychotherapy, it might possibly be true that homosexuals would appear to be sicker. But is this so startling in light of society’s scorn, repudiation and persecution of them? Treat any person harshly enough for an appreciable duration and the same effects will be witnessed. Perhaps it is indeed the society which, fearful of the disruption of its irrational standards and overly ready to mete out punishment, is the source of pathology.
On March 12, attorneys for nine of the men asked for jury trials. Judge James R. Breakey, Jr., warned that if the defendants insisted on wasting his “valuable time” and the jury found them guilty, he would sentence them to six months in Southern Michigan Prison in Jackson, and add increased fines for good measure. But if the defendants changed their plea to guilty and “throw themselves on the mercy of the court,” he would only sentence them to thirty days in jail, and five years’ probation, and $375 in fines and court costs (about $3,200 today). One man committed suicide two days before he was due in court for sentencing.
For most of the students, the standard sentence was ten days in jail, five years’ probation, and $275 in fines and court costs (about $2,350 today). The university suspended them. They could re-register only after they sought private psychiatric care and were considered “good social risks.”
There was one tiny silver lining in all this: the press did not publish the names of those arrested. “What we are trying to do is fit these individuals back to society,” explained defense attorney Henry T. Conlin. “Publicizing their names will have the opposite effect — that of driving them out of society that much more.” Apparently the Ann Arbor News and the Michigan Daily agreed with that reasoning. The only name published was that of the man who committed suicide, and his name only appeared after his death.
Despite the suicide, the crackdown was considered a success. In May of 1950, Ann Arbor was selected as a pilot city for a four-day police school on sex crimes sponsored by the FBI. Police Chief Casper Enkemann said, “The course will include talks on the apprehension and detection of peeping toms, child molesters, obscene phone calls and letters, and homosexuality.” Another wave of arrests took place in 1962.
Michigan Daily staff writer Thomas Hayden was the very same Tom Hayden who co-founded the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In 1962, he drafted the Port Huron Statement, a foundational document of the emerging New Left, which called for a “radically new democratic political movement.” In 1968, he was one of the Chicago Seven arrested during protests outside the Democratic National Convention. Hayden and four others were convicted of crossing state lines to incite a riot, but the charges were reversed on appeal. He became a member of the California State Assembly in 1982. He joined the state Senate in 1992, where he remained until 2000. He died in 2016 at the age of 76.
Hayden’s editorial today looks ill-informed, at best, or outright homophobic. But in 1960, it didn’t differ a whole lot from some of the articles appearing in ONE and the Mattachine Review, two of the three nationally-distributed gay and lesbian magazines at the time. Hal Call published Hayden’s full editorial in the Mattachine Review — complete with the “psychological problems of homosexuals” and the nods to attacking children and homosexual rings — because, as Call put it, Hayden “states the case as understandingly and as sensibly as possible.”
Which makes Meyers’s letter so incredibly ahead of its time. He managed to stake out a position that many gay rights activists themselves were unwilling to embrace. Frank Kameny encountered this resistance in 1965 when his resolution denouncing the homosexuality-as-sickness model provoked outrage from many fellow activists. They warned that challenging credentialed professionals was an absurd arrogance. We’re not experts, they said. Who are we to say we’re not sick? Kameny countered that, in fact, we are our own experts about everything concerning ourselves. The direct challenge to mental health professionals finally began in earnest in the closing years of the decade, and the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders in 1973.
Headlines for December 22, 1959: A Western Summit of leaders from the U.S. Britain, France and West Germany concludes with a statement affirming Western resolve to protect West Berlin from the Soviets. President Eisenhower returns home from a twenty-day goodwill trip to eleven nations on three continents. U.S. agrees to close all four military bases in Morocco by the end of 1963. The Shah of Irans weds for the third time, seeking a wife who will give him a male heir. Pravda accuses former Soviet leaders of hiding or downplaying Stalins crimes. Connecticut Supreme Court unanimously upholds birth control ban.
On the radio: “Heartaches By the Number” by Guy Mitchell, “Why” by Frankie Avalon, “El Paso” by Marty Robbins, “The Big Hurt” by Miss Toni Fisher, “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” by Freddy Cannon, “It’s Time to Cry” by Paul Anka, “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin, “We Got Love” by Bobby Rydell, “Among My Souvenirs” by Connie Francis, “Hound Dog Man” by Fabian, “Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale.
On television:Gunsmoke (CBS), Wagon Train (NBC), Have Gun, Will Travel (CBS), The Andy Griffith Show (CBS), The Real McCoys (ABC), Rawhide (CBS), Candid Camera (CBS), The Price is Right (NBC), The Untouchables (ABC), The Jack Benny Show (CBS), Bonanza (NBC), Dennis the Menace (CBS), The Danny Thomas Show (CBS) The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS), My Three Sons (ABC), Perry Mason (CBS) The Flintstones (ABC), 77 Sunset Strip (ABC).