Gay Life Tips from a Retro Gay Sex Book!

posted by Madame Bubby

Gay Sex: A Manual for men Who Love Men old edition book cover

In 1991, Jack Hart published a book Gay Sex: A Manual for Men Who Love Men. Now, given the conditions of the time, when AIDS was still killing so many gay men and the Religious Right still holding power in a post-Reagan political and social climate, the book is both timely and groundbreaking.

By that time, safe sex was the norm, and I think the book reflects the want and the need for sexual activity that doesn’t always end in the ultimate, and to be honest, at that time, deadly fuck.

The book is divided alphabetically, and most significantly, it just doesn’t cover mechanics. It covers the complex thoughts and feelings that both cause and affect sexual relationships. It assumes a freedom to explore gay sex and perhaps find love.

For example, the letter L is divided into these categories: labels, leather, legal matters, legal trouble, loneliness, love, love at first sight, and lubricant. Those categories certainly cover a wide range. In this case, one could even claim the L section really covers life at all levels.

Here are some helpful and insightful quotes that transcend time from that section:

“Labels… The fact is, labels are useful. Without labels, we could end up at the Irish parade instead of the Gay and Lesbian Parade. Just don’t let labels get the upper hand. At one point in your life, you probably assumed you were straight. That label, however unconsciously it was adopted, limited your ability to explore your attraction to other men. You may now identify as gay. That’s fine, but if you find aspects of your personality that don’t fit that label, it’s the label that should be redefined – not your personality.”

“Legal matters… Sign power of attorney agreements, providing the authority to make the decisions and sign documents for one another should one of you become incapacitated. It’s important to have a will, and also a Living Will, which indicates what you want done if injury or illness leaves you unable to indicate your own desires.”

“Loneliness… The best antidote for loneliness is not finding a lover, or a date, but in doing things you enjoy, with other people, and through that, finding some new friends. Unfortunately, no one will ever believe this basic truth from reading a book. Some spend years learning it the hard way, and others never learn it all.”

“Love at first sight… There’s nothing wrong with that feeling. It’s enjoyable, and psychologists have even come up with the term limerence for that swept-off-your-feet sensation. But if you assume that a relationship has to start that way, you’ll miss some good opportunities that simply don’t announce themselves quite so loudly.”

“Lubricant… It’s best to use a lubricant that comes from a tube or squeeze bottle. Anything in a tub or jar easily becomes a repository for germs, as your fingers dip in and out."

Now, based on these quotes, one might think, yeah, we know, and we’ve come a long way since then. Perhaps in some matters, especially social and legal rights and recognition, but the complex feelings and actions that feed into one’s variegated social identities remain, transmuted as their context transmutes.

In fact, one could even claim that labels and loneliness have taken on even more complex, and perhaps, problematic dimensions in a life that now encompasses both cyber and physical space. There’s much more going on than choosing the right lubricant which can now be delivered to your door in a few hours for the hook up you scheduled on Scruff.

Perhaps the key words here also begin with the letter L. We physically lost a generation to AIDS. Let’s not socially and psychologically lose a generation to labels and loneliness.

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The Legendary Baton Lounge: Just a Few Steps Away

posted by Madame Bubby

Jim Flint in the Baton Show Lounge

A friend of mine sent me a link to a news item: the legendary Baton Lounge, long a fixture of the LGBTQ community in Chicago, has moved after 50 years in the same location. The entertainment venue, which has featured over the years so many famous drag queens (Chili Pepper, see below, was one of my favorites), had been located in what is now called the River North area. But, according to the news source, rents escalated, and Jim Flint decided to make the move north. And even north of the established Boystown, in the growing gayborhood of Uptown (and walking distance from my abode).
 

Family cast
Chili Pepper

Baton Lounge performers
Baton Lounge performers

Jim Flint
Jim Flint

What is significant here is Flint did not decide to just close up shop. Apparently the venue is still thriving; the entertainment he provides has not gone by the wayside like the great gay adult theaters (Bijou at the top of the list) or the bathhouses (only one is left in Chicago with the closing of Man’s Country).
 

Bijou Theater sign

It’s obvious Flint is not providing a venue of public sex or pornography in the stricter sense; he’s putting on live theater which does not focus on a naked porn star jacking off. Yet, remember, the Bijou used to do and was doing again broader forms of entertainment, rethinking the purpose and audience of the space, before its closure in 2015.

And drag is of course in the global spotlight. Hello, RuPaul (who actually appeared at the Baton). And whether one thinks this fact is unfortunate or not, a drag show is straight-friendly. It has been for some time. Think Victor/Victoria, which of course makes the illusion even more complicated. And that illusion was the basis of theatre for so many years. Women could not appear on the stage respectably in the West until the eighteenth century. The Greek tragedies and the plays of Shakespeare relied on men playing the women’s parts.

(I can’t imagine the Baton putting on a performance of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, though. It doesn’t lend itself well to parody or even camp, though one line in the play, “The queen is falling,” might get a laugh.)

And speaking of straight-friendly, I know someone whose date took her there on the first date. Now, both of us had met her date at a wine-tasting event, and we could not tell who he was attracted to. Still, it seems an odd, or rather, ambiguous, place for an ostensibly straight guy to take a straight woman on a first date, however original and exciting the venue. There was no second date. Que sera.

I was taken to the place on my birthday. I was not sure if that was a straight person’s “safe” idea of gay entertainment (the person who planned the event), but several persons from the office went (not all gay). I did enjoy receiving some attention from Chili Pepper, who was dressed up in some fabulous 1960s retro outfit (kind of a dress with a jacket with white buttons and trim). The host did not believe I was 28 (I wasn’t that young; so much for illusion).

Flint’s new location is in a beautiful building with a deco feel, perhaps an architectural landmark. Much of the area around it is either abandoned, waiting for or in the process of bland gentrification, perhaps diluting some of the illusion or edginess that feeds into that illusion.
 

Baton old and new locations
Baton old and new locations

Still, it’s not far from the legendary Green Mill cocktail lounge, and the Uptown Theater is in the process of renovation, or, more accurately, retrovation. That’s the paradox: idealizing and revisioning the past in a time when daylight too often intrudes upon magic and everyone thinks they are a star shining on the screen of a smartphone.

May the magical stars of the Baton reign for another 50 years.

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Coming Out in 1977: Viewing the Family Series Episode "Rites of Friendship"

posted by Madame Bubby

Family cast

I am surprised I did not remember this episode, as this series was approved viewing in our family (but then, maybe this particular episode was censored by the parents, as was the now legendary Maude obtains an abortion episode).

Family began as a six-part miniseries, and then it expanded to several full seasons, running from 1976-1980, corresponding perfectly timewise to my puberty. The Lawrences, an upper-middle class family in Pasadena, California, endures many joys and sorrows.

The central focus of the show is the inimitable Sada Thompson, who captures the unique combination of reserve and empathy of the family’s matriarch, Kate Lawrence (and she is always impeccably coiffed, definitely a throwback to June Cleaver). James Broderick, the father of Matthew Broderick, plays Kate’s husband, Doug. Meredith Baxter Birney plays their “troubled divorcee single mother” daughter Nancy; the hot Gary Frank (an early crush of mine) plays their nonconforming (mostly, you will see) son Willie; and Kristy McNichol plays their energetic tomboyish younger daughter, Letitia (aka Buddy).
 

Sada Thompson
Sada Thompson

Though one might claim the overall WASP social class of this family limits the show really serving as an accurate lens for many of the more troubling social issues of the time, the show dared to address in a realistic, often unflinching manner alcoholism, adopted children looking for birth parents, extramarital affairs, and in this groundbreaking episode, homosexuality.

The main plot of this episode is actually quite straightforward: Willie’s best friend from elementary and high school, Zeke Remsen (played by the hunky Brian Byers), returns home from college. He gets arrested in a gay bar for fighting with a cop (genteel shades of Stonewall, perhaps). Doug, a lawyer, manages to bail him out, and eventually get the sentence waived. Of course the incident forces a coming out for Zeke, an extremely attractive “straight-acting” basketball jock. (Note that the character doesn’t fit the gay stereotype of the period, and that fact shows overall genteel social milieu of the show.) Doug and Kate are sympathetic in perhaps a rather noblesse oblige way, but, most significantly, Willie starts to shun, at first coldly and then angrily, his childhood best friend.
 

Brian Byers

However, Zeke’s father coldly, even casually, disowns him after Doug shows up with Zeke to obtain some needed information for the court case. Doug and Kate, I think, would make excellent candidates for PFLAG. Kate reveals, in a particularly touching scene, that Zeke is a person who needs love, a mother’s love, and not in a sentimental way. Her moral imperative here is striking, even more so after her rather sardonic comment to Nancy, “at this point I can’t think of worse things.” She is a product of her generation, but the concern is genuine, even though she feels powerless and disoriented.

But rather than rejecting or concealing, she opens up in the only way she can do, she must do: love. And food and shelter, too. For her, one can’t separate these basic human needs. And she’s not afraid, because of this imperative, to call out Willie on his behavior toward Zeke. She really cuts to the heart of the matter in her indomitably classy way when she claims Willy will suffer a “meagre existence” because of his refusal to just accept Zeke as a person.

Yet the main relationship here is that between the renegade Willie and Zeke. Willie resents that Zeke had not told him, but now he knows, Zeke rightly accuses him of treating him like he suffers from a “social disease.” During that period, in the throes of all types of sexual liberation, the Eisenhower era social norms were really starting to crumble, and with crisis more overt scapegoating tends to occur.

Now, one could easily argue that Willie’s reaction is his discomfort with his own orientation, and in one of the episode’s final scenes, Doug picks up on this, claiming, and unfortunately this idea represents one of the common psychological views of the time, that all boys experience these “feelings,” but grow out of them, that is, normal boys, a “rite of passage.” A rather cringeworthy statement in hindsight, but Doug admitting to his son that he crushed on one of his classmates one could claim is rather groundbreaking.

But the ultimate lesson here is that heterosexual boys grow up to get married to girls. Gay males don’t and thus they tend to get into all sorts of personal and social troubles. (And the token confirmed bachelor the family knows, Emory Pope, we find at the end gets married. To a woman. Oh well. It’s 1977.)

But ironically, Zeke ends up being the mature one (and Buddy too, in a tear-jerking moment which I think shows one needs to be carefully taught bigotry, it is not innate), rather than Willie, trying to reach out to him, but failing miserably. Only after the conversation with Doug does Willie realize not just how selfish and immature his behavior has been, but that the real issue here is friendship.
 

Willie and Zeke
Willie and Zeke

And friendship here is not a double entendre for anything else. It’s a series of passages that acknowledge the past, embrace the present, and hope for the future. Willie knows he will not be able to get back the friendship of his childhood, but the show ends with a hope that his childhood friendship can grow into the friendship of his adulthood.

And an ironic P.S.: Both Meredith (now just Baxter) and Kristy McNichol are lesbians. Baxter came out late in life, while McNichol has been open for some time.

The entire episode is currently here on YouTube.

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Casey Donovan on Stage: The Theater Career of the First Gay Porn Superstar

posted by guest blogger Miriam Webster


 

Tubstrip poster

 


Casey Donovan, who became a legend after his lead performance in Wakefield Poole's Boys in the Sand, was easily the very first true gay porn star. Released in 1971, the film made its debut in the early days of gay liberation as well as the early days of hardcore (the era of “porno chic”), making a significant impact. It premiered at New York City's 55th Street Playhouse, which typically screened foreign and art house cinema, and was the first gay porn film to achieve crossover success, to garner considerable attention from the press, and to be reviewed by Variety, even making it onto their listing of the top fifty grossing films its opening week. The wild success of Boys rapidly helped to launch Casey, with his charm and glowing good looks, into underground fame and turn him into a gay icon. There was talk, at the time, that Casey might be the adult star who could fully break into mainstream film. Casey had aspirations of realizing this potential, and also of appearing in Broadway productions. He had been, and continued to be, involved in theater all his life, as an actor and as a lover of the medium.

Casey, born John Calvin Culver and typically known (and credited outside of his adult career) as Calvin Culver or Cal Culver, was raised in upstate New York. He did theater throughout high school and college, after being encouraged and mentored by his beloved high school English and drama teacher, Helen Van Fleet. (Roger Edmonson's biography Boy in the Sand: Casey Donovan, All-American Sex Star, source of the majority of this material, says he called her Auntie Mame, writing to her and sending her tickets to his plays throughout his life. “He took her backstage to meet Ingrid Bergman when he was in a play with the legendary actress. He took her to the Tony Awards, arranging for her to sit front and center in the audience.”)

When he eventually relocated to New York City in the late '60s, Cal made sure to attend as many plays as possible, from Broadway to small productions. He briefly moved to New Hampshire to do summer stock and joined the reputable Peterborough Players as an apprentice before returning to NYC, where he was chosen as a replacement for an actor in the off-Broadway play Pins and Needles. The success in 1968 of Mort Crowley's play The Boys in the Band, which directly focused on gay characters, paved the way for gay-themed plays. Cal was hired as an understudy in an early gay-themed play, And Puppy Dog Tails, in 1969. Around this time, Cal says (in a TV interview on Emerald City) that he was broke and searching for jobs in a paper and saw an ad hiring performers for non-hardcore roles in straight sex films. He wound up doing two "very strange little films" called Dr. X and Twin Beds, making $20 a day.

In 1970, he was cast in a raunchy low-budget thriller, Ginger (dubbed “a female James Bond”), with Cal in a role featuring some nudity. The film was critically panned, but Cal's performance received one of the few positive mentions: “Only Calvin Culver as the thrill-seeking jet set blackmailer shows any indication of better things to come.” Following Ginger, he was featured in a short run of the play Brave, following which he met Jerry Douglas. The two would go on to work together numerous times and in several capacities over the years. Douglas was directing a production of Circle in the Water, another gay-themed play, and brought Donovan on board. Douglas was impressed with how professional and charming Cal was, but commented that he was mysterious: “He always vanished promptly after each performance, not to be heard from until his next call.” Cal had a busy social life, was hustling and cruising after hours, and still making time to frequently see plays and operas.

Just before Boys in the Sand, Cal broke into the hardcore porn world at age 28 when he starred in the 1971 film Casey, originally produced by Palm Features, later picked up by Hand in Hand Films, and currently distributed by Bijou Video. This film, though produced before Boys, wasn't substantially screened until after the release and success of Poole's landmark film. A co-star from one of the sex films Cal made in 1969 had a friend (Donald Crane) who was writing and directing a gay hardcore film and was looking to cast the lead. Cal needed cash and they were paying well, so he took the job. Though he described the shooting of Casey as uncomfortable because of its largely straight and tense crew and cast, Cal carries the film, attempting to create eroticism in the (mostly faked) sex scenes, exuding plentiful charm, and expertly delivering the film's clever and incisive dialogue, full of commentary on gay life in the era. Casey was well-reviewed when it did get distribution. Edmonson's biography says, “Aside from Cal's timelessly watchable good looks, there was his performance. It was a tour de force of its type... Cal not only plays the callow hero, but he also plays [in drag] the role of Wanda Uptight, his own fairy godmother... He played the role to the hilt without a trace of embarrassment, making it one of the more memorable star turns in the history of porn films.”
 

Stills from Casey
Images from Casey

Casey is notable not only for being Cal's first hardcore porn – as well as one of the few films to properly make use of Cal's acting chops – but also, significantly, for giving him his pseudonym and alter ego. As he was modeling for a “legitimate agency” at the time and acting, Cal took the name Ken Donovan for his credit in this film, modifying it to Casey Donovan for his later porn appearances.

Because of Casey, Cal received a call from a friend who knew someone - a former dancer, theater director, and choreographer - who was making "some experimental movies" on Fire Island. This was Wakefield Poole. Cal met with him, saw some of what he'd been shooting, and agreed to take part in this beautifully photographed porn film, which was ultimately to become the classic, Boys in the Sand, that would transform Cal/Casey's life. He received glowing reviews of his performance and his image in the film and there was talk all over New York City (and, eventually, across the nation) about him.
 

Boys in the Sand still
Boys in the Sand poster

 

In 1972, Cal was cast in a small part in the George Bernard Shaw play Captain Brassbound's Conversion starring Ingrid Bergman, who described Cal as “having the same kind and as much charisma as Robert Redford.” A photograph of them together during this production became one of Cal's prized possessions and he said he learned a great deal from getting to watch Bergman act.
 

Cal with Ingrid Bergman

 

Cal with Ingrid Bergman

Jerry Douglas, his Circle in the Water stage director, contacted Cal about appearing in his porn directorial effort The Back Row (1972) co-starring George Payne. In Douglas' Manshots article “The Legend of Casey Donovan” in April of 1992, Douglas, who worked with Cal multiple times in both theater and porn productions, describes how Cal “approached stage and film work in much the same way. He began by creating the character... and by studying the script, even on porn films. Rehearsals and shoots were always filled with his laughter, easy and laid back, even in the middle of an intense sex scene. But performing or filming was always a job to him, and a job he took very seriously.”

Shortly thereafter, Douglas was adapting his swinger play, Score, for the screen and Cal was cast. The film – a talky and very entertaining, nearly-hardcore softcore bisexual film – was made by notable director Radley Metzger. Metzger had come from straight and lesbian softcore films and was soon to move into glossy straight hardcore films (including one of his more well-known works, 1976's The Opening of Misty Beethoven, which would feature Cal in a small role). The sex scenes between Cal and co-star Gerald Grant are the most explicit and erotic in the film, the chemistry and tension between the two palpable, and Cal – here, as in Casey – deftly handles a significant amount of dialogue and delivers a compelling, nuanced performance.
 

Cal Gerald Grant in Score
Cal Gerald Grant in Score
Cal with Gerald Grant in Score

In the following few years, Cal appeared in a handful of small non-porn film parts and met with a number of producers in mainstream film about potential large-scale projects. Stage and screen co-star Michale Kearns said, “He was really, seriously talked about as potentially crossing that invisible line into the mainstream world of Hollywood films. His acting was immaterial. He was a star. He had that ineffable quality...” A Variety article said Cal could be “the bridge from hardcore to legitimate features” and Cal believed he could make that transition. His friend and then-roommate, Jake Getty, says, “He really didn't see – and I honor him for it – the difference between the two mediums. To him it was all an expression of theater... There was a great deal of legitimate theater with nudity and sex, implied sex in any case. Cal felt that there was no difference, that it was just a matter of how you perceived it. For him it was all a matter of the expression of emotion. He saw no difference between the nudity in Hair and the nudity and sex in Boys in the Sand.” But Cal's Hollywood roles never quite manifested.

In 1973, Cal played a series of small parts in a Lincoln Center production of The Merchant of Venice starring Rosemary Harris and Christopher Walken. One of his roles was as Jesus Christ, wearing only a crown of thorns and a g-string and carrying an 8-foot cross. This production featured, also in small parts, Robert Tourneaux of the theater and film versions of Boys in the Band. Tourneaux was in a similar predicament to Cal, even without a porn career – his notoriety as a gay actor and from a well-known gay role was putting a stop to his film career.

As Cal was beginning to realize, the dual stigmas against porn and out gay actors were preventing his Hollywood aspirations from manifesting. Wakefield Poole said he also experienced this inability to move into mainstream film directing because of his porn work: “The legit film line couldn't be crossed. They would exploit you, but they didn't dare let you do a legitimate movie. The ugly truth was that there was no crossing over. None at all.”

Cal, in a 1983 Men in Film interview, said “Perhaps I was naive but it was a rude awakening for me to find out that Hollywood is one of the most closeted and hypocritical cultural centers in the world. I learned that an openly gay actor like myself was not welcome to gay directors and producers who believe it is essential to keep their sexuality a secret. Once an actor has made a porn movie, it is very difficult to 'cross over'. And it all has nothing to do with how much talent one has. It is all about how an actor is perceived and prejudged. In a limited sphere, my films made me famous, but in another sense, they were a handicap. I tried to maintain separate names and identities at first... It got increasingly confusing... Besides, the secret could not be perpetuated endlessly.”

Cal gave up his Hollywood hopes eventually, but continued to perform in porn and in theater. He was dropped from a production of Frederick Combs' play The Children's Mass, in which he was to co-star with Sal Mineo (also a friend of Hand in Hand Films heads Jack Deveau and Robert Alvarez), but he worked with Jerry Douglas once more in 1974 in his bathhouse play Tubstrip, also starring Score's Gerald Grant and a fellow early porn star, Jim Cassidy.
 

Tubstrip playbill

Cal was the biggest attraction and the play had a long run in New York, then runs in L.A. and San Francisco, and Cal performed in it to the end. Fans were excited to see Casey Donovan live and Cal “made time to meet with fans who gathered at the stage door every night after the performance.” During this era, he would reportedly screen his porn films for his theater cast-mates at after parties (Boys in the Sand for the Merchant of Venice cast and Poole's 1974 film Moving, co-starring Val Martin, for the Tubstrip cast). Michael Kearns commented on one of these viewings: “He acted like it was Gone with the Wind. He really behaved like a star – not temperamental but like a real star. He didn't feel a bit of shame about what he did on the screen. Even when he was getting fisted, there was a certain elegance about him. He had incredible aplomb.”

Between porn and theater gigs, Cal continued to work as an escort, periodically served as a gay celebrity tour guide on international trips (including to Italy, Egypt, China, and Peru), and did a stint running a bed and breakfast (“Casa Donovan”) in Key West. In his porn career, he worked with with major directors, stars, and studios, including Falcon (The Other Side of Aspen, 1978, co-starring Al Parker and Dick Fisk), the Gage brothers (L.A. Tool & Die, 1979, and Heatstroke, 1982), Christopher Rage (Sleaze, 1982), Poole again (Hot Shots aka Always Ready, 1982, and Split Image, 1984) and Steve Scott (Non-Stop, 1984), and he performed in the 1985 safe sex films Inevitable Love (with Jon King) and Chance of a Lifetime.

After a break from the stage and from New York City, Cal planned a return with a 1983 off-Broadway revival of the Terrence McNally play The Ritz. The play, which originally ran on Broadway in 1975 starring Rita Moreno, Jerry Stiller, Jack Weston, Kaye Ballard, and F. Murray Abraham, was based on Bette Midler's rise to fame at The Continental Baths in the early '70s. (An additional connection to Cal: McNally originally called the play The Tubs, but when it was to be produced on Broadway, its name had to be changed because it was too similar to that of Douglas' Tubstrip.) Cal was brought onto the play's revival as a co-producer, as well as a star, and helped to finance it. Cal played detective character Michael Brick, who spoke in a falsetto voice throughout, and Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn was cast in Moreno's leading role. The revival wound up a critical and financial disaster, the director receiving the largest amount of backlash, and only ran one night. Woodlawn said, while that performance was a mess, “Everyone panicked too soon. The opening night was a horror, but if given a chance, things would have settled in and worked out... We just needed more time to make it work.”
 

Poster for Woodlawn and Donovan in the revival of The Ritz
Holly Woodlawn and Cal

After this disappointment and its financial impact, Cal returned to Florida and was never to appear on stage in New York again. However, he couldn't give up on theater and – when not away traveling – attended and began acting in community theater productions in Key West. There, he was in a production of The Prime of Miss Jean Broadie and in William H. Hoffman's pioneering play about AIDS, As Is.

Woodlawn called Cal “the most gracious man I've ever encountered.” His friends remarked upon how dedicated he was to his fans and, while an enigma and a mass of contradictions, how sensitively he received the people he interacted with – strangers, fans, clients, co-workers, lovers, friends. Douglas' Manshots article says Cal “knew that he was a pioneer, a role model, and a superstar with obligations to his public. And so, he took great pains always to appear in public well-groomed and sober. He charmed his fans in every public appearance by listening, again and again, to their personal tales as if each of them were his closest friend. He corresponded with many, sent out hundreds (maybe thousands) of photographs at his own expense, and was never in too much of a hurry to sign one more autograph.” Bijou owner Steven Toushin similarly recalls Cal's appearance at the Bijou Theater. He was booked there to promote a film, dance on stage, and to meet fans and sign autographs. He says Cal had a great time interacting with the customers and stayed hours beyond the time he was scheduled and paid for, enjoying having conversations with his fans.
 

Signed Casey Donovan headshot from his Bijou appearance

Cal's hardcore and softcore films serve to immortalize his charm and his talent, as both an actor and a sexual performer. Though his porn roles modified his acting career, in a Men in Film interview, Cal said, “I enjoyed the idea that I was doing something that very few people had ever done... My life was made much more exciting by having done those films... I did plays, I was on magazine covers, in national fashion ads... I think porno worked in my life because I was so honest about it... Once I realized that my appearance in gay films was held against me in some quarters, I decided to put sex to even greater use – not less – in augmenting my income. We live in a society with deeply rooted feelings of guilt and shame about sex of any kind. If somebody makes a porn film, they are automatically beyond the pale. If somebody hustles, there must be something wrong with him. Maybe for some, not for me. I'm the living proof that it doesn't have to be that way. I'm still pretty much 'the boy next door' that I always was... I think my greatest accomplishment so far is something that doesn't show up in lights or get reviewed – and that's simply the sexual sanity that I have tried to contribute to over the past twenty years... I've tried to be honest, kind, and understanding with as many different people as possible, and I think that's much more important than just being gay.”

Cal's friend Jay McKenna wrote in a memorial article in The Advocate, “To myself and other young boys who were coming out in the early '70s, Cal Culver was a gay Adam – the first widely embraced gay symbol to appear during the post-Stonewall years. Back in 1971, when Cal's first film, Casey... was released, the gay movement was just beginning to amass some collective energy and wider acceptance, but gay existence was still underground and closeted. Coming out was a heartfelt and courageous choice. It was a calculated professional and social risk. So to teen-age boys like myself who were struggling to come to terms with it, Cal's spectacular emergence as Casey Donovan, unapologetic star of gay films, bordered on the heroic... My memory of him isn't obscured by false nostalgia. Cal had star power. He celebrated his gayness. He made me and others proud to be gay, so contagious was his spirit. Of course, like any human being, he had good days and bad days. But to be in his presence was to breathe a rarefied atmosphere.”

In 1985, two years before his death of AIDS-related complications, Cal returned to his home town to help his beloved drama teacher, Helen Van Fleet, celebrate her retirement. He visited with old high school classmates who all knew about his career in “the legitimate theater” and some about his porn career. Cal wanted to play a big part in Mrs. Van Fleet's celebration. Her daughter said, “it was really wonderful. He had written a parody of the title song from the musical Mame, and he sang it to her. It was an account of all the things they had experienced together over the years. It meant the world to her” and it received a huge ovation.

Sources:

Roger Edmonson, Boy in the Sand: Casey Donovan, All-American Sex Star

Jerry Douglas, “The Legend of Casey Donovan,” Manshots, April 1992

Jay McKenna, “Casey Donovan: To an Idol Dying Young,” The Advocate, October 27, 1987

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casey_Donovan_(actor)

https://newyorkcityinthewitofaneye.com/2013/05/20/mondays-on-memory-lane-1981-one-night-only-at-the-ritz-with-holly-woodlawn-2013/

Emerald City TV #47, Wakefield Poole & Cal Culver

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Queens and Rough Trade: The Enigma of James Pope-Hennessy

posted by Madame Bubby

London in 1974 was a turbulent place. The 1970s inflation global crisis was in full swing, and thus the average Briton was suffering more than usual difficulties in making ends meet. Disillusionment with the welfare state was beginning to show, and the monarchy, not immune to criticism but still beyond the reach of the tabloid culture, was viewed as either dowdy and out-of-touch or useless and decadent (compare Queen Elizabeth to her sister Margaret).

On January 25, the New York Times laconically reported that James Pope‐Hennessy, the writer, died in a hospital of injuries received in a knife attack at his home. He was 57 years old. The police said they believed he was the victim of a gang that raided his house in Notting Hill. His valet escaped from the house and raised the alarm. Mr. Pope‐Hennessy was found bound and gagged with knife wounds and head injuries.
 

Pope-Hennessy murder headline

James Pope-Hennesy was gay, or rather, using the term more suited to his cultural milieu, homosexual. Born on November 20, 1916, the son of an army general and an author, he was most famous for his still seminal biography of the current Queen’s grandmother, the indomitable Queen Mary (yes, the ship was named after her, and her fabulously jeweled tiaras will soon become the properties of Kate and Megan). He began writing after choosing not to pursue, like most males of his class, an education at Oxford.
 

Queen Mary book by James Pope-Hennessy

Lately some interest in his career has resurfaced, as notes he made while researching his famous biography have been published by another Royal historian, Hugo Vickers. In these notes, James reveals a detached yet deliciously insightful perspective on who were the celebrities of that day and those who interacted (or didn’t) with them.
 

Book - The Quest for Queen Mary

For example, his description of Queen Mary’s mother, Princess Mary, Duchess of Teck, a granddaughter of Geroge III of American Revolution fame (Fat Mary; she was, unusually so in a day where one mostly burned off calories despite a high calorie diet) waving to the adoring crowds. The Duchess of Teck with her popularity and tireless charity work, as well as her spontaneity and love of children, made her a kind of proto-Diana without the physical beauty:
 

Princess Mary, Duchess of Teck
Princess Mary, Duchess of Teck

The eye-witnesses recall the Princess’s quick, graceful movements, despite her bulk; the nimble way she stepped from a carriage, the easy gesture with which she would give her hand to be kissed. It was part of her charm that she herself made jokes about her weight and would allow small relatives to test it on her velvet-covered scales…

Or, his description of the Duchess of Windsor, which one could argue is horribly elitist, remains quite vivid, and given James’ penchant of detail, accurate in its evocation of her unique appearance and personality:

I should be tempted to classify her simply as An American Woman par excellence, were it not for the suspicion that she is not woman at all. She is, to look at, phenomenal. She is flat and angular and could have been designed for a medieval playing card. The shoulders are small and high; the head very large, very large… the expression is either anticipatory (signaling to one, “I know this is going to be loads of fun, don’t yew?") or appreciative – the great giglamp smile, the wide, wide open eyes, which are so very large and pale and veined...
 

Duchess of Windsor
Duchess of Windsor

All in all, he evokes in words a non-PC world long-gone, of which the Queen is perhaps the last representative, of shooting parties, armies of servants, German princelings, hyphenated last names, gilding, and real, painted, yes painted, pictures that hang in actual homes, not museums or galleries. And lots of smoking and drinking.

But all the while, despite his success, he was drinking and spending (he mentions in his notes of knocking out two Blood Marys in quick succession, and that was just the beginning of a long, long day and evening) prodigiously, and apparently, picking up rough trade or other unsavory characters. Despite the originality of his writing style, his personal life seemed to have followed the pattern for many well-heeled gay men of that time, split between the grand (and one might say campy) artistic and café society circles and the sexual underground of back alleys and dark bars.
 

Gay London, 1950s/1960s

And, to add another layer to the portrait, he went to Mass. He was staunchly Catholic in a culture that moved in his lifetime from the establishment Anglican of the deeply religious current queen, her mother, and grandmother, to a secular nihilism.

By the early 1970s, despite his social and literary successes, James was broke, and he had lost his somewhat dashing good looks (I find the photo of him by the campy gay photographer Cecil Beaton enticing), but he had just gotten a cash advance for a new book on the late Noel Coward (one can see a confluence in this paragraph of three “old queens.”) James’ killers assumed the money was in the house, but they were wrong.
 

Younger James Pope-Hennessy
Younger James Pope-Hennessy

After the murder, over the next few days three men were arrested and charged with the murder.  They were: John James O’Brien (aka Sean Seamus O’Brien), 23, Ladbroke Grove, Edward John Wilkinson: 22, Arlington Road, Southgate Terence, Michael Noonan: 25, Tisdall Place, Walworth. They eventually stood trial and were each found guilty of murder and burglary.  

But it turns out that these guys hung about in the rough trade or rent boy set of those days, “Dilly Boys.” O’Brien had been living at Pope-Hennessy’s flat for a few months prior to the incident.  He had been in a sexual relationship with both Pope-Hennessy and his valet Leslie Smith (who also lived there).  In fact, Pope-Hennessy and Smith were both users of the ‘rent boy’ scene in Piccadilly.
 

A Dilly Boy
A "Dilly Boy"

And what was even more humiliating, it turns out that James did not die of actual stab wounds, but from choking on his own blood from a lip wound suffered in the attack.

According to Smith, he was lying on the floor with three men standing over him.  One was hitting him with a ‘wooden thing’ whilst the other two were holding him down by his arms.  He then heard one say “Kill him, Chris,” and “You are going to die."  Standing over him with a knife, one said, “Do you want this in you?"

Smith escaped, but by the time he returned with the police, the perpetrators had fled.

James’ legacy as a writer remains untarnished despite his frankly sordid end, but one wonders in these days of unsafe Grindr hookups, social media shaming, and Instagram if something of the schizophrenic split between talent and celebrity and public and private James suffered has resurfaced, but in a more virulent way.

I think the appeal of James to me is his way with words, painstakingly detailed but not pedantic, which really stands out in a time when reality becomes a nanosecond photo or a quick video on a smartphone. James struck, in his life and in his death, to the heart of realities that were built on illusions. Can we do the same?

Sources:

James Pope-Hennessy, Queen Mary

Hugo Vickers and James Pope-Hennesy, The Quest for Queen Mary

https://scepticpeg.wordpress.com/2017/07/12/the-soho-connections-murder-of-the-royal-biographer-1974/

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