After the first reading of the beginning chapters of JULIANA by my magnificent actors on December 2 at The Stonewall Bar I got a few questions that might be summed up as: “Where was the gay?” Patience. It’s coming. This question led me to write a series of blog articles to briefly elucidate the historical background that my characters live in. The following is the first article.
1940s & Homosexuality
1. People coming from the country as the four kids do in the novel don’t really know what “gay” is. (FYI: the word “gay” meaning homosexual was in use in the forties by gay people; it was generally not known to “normals” at that time).In 1941 Huntington, Long Island, where the kids come from, was the country, not the suburbs.
2. Back then homosexuals were an extreme out-group. Much further out than Roman Catholics, immigrants or African Americans. People believed that homosexuals, both men and women, were dangerous in general and especially dangerous to children. The terms homosexual and child molester were often lumped together as synonyms.
3. Nice people did not know any homosexuals or at least they thought they didn’t. And certainly you never expected to find such a thing in yourself. This is not to say that there were no gay people who knew they were gay and were comfortable with this knowledge. These people did exist, especially in the cities. Alice (Al), the novel’s protagonist, will be meeting some of these. But for the most part the folks in forties knew nothing about the reality of homosexuality.
The Experience of a “normal” who lived during that time period
I met Arlene Friedman Simone on-line through my research for this novel. She has been tremendously helpful in its development since she actually lived through those times. Arlene attended City College from 1948-1952 and while there acted and danced in some of their plays. She had the role of “Miss Turnstiles” in the musical, On the Town. If you’ve seen the recent revival of that play on Broadway then you know how demanding that role is. She also participated in an early sit-down strike at the college, protesting racial and religious injustice in 1949. I mention these details to show that this woman was no country bumpkin, and still she was not aware of “homosexuals” attending her school.
She said, “It wasn’t an open world then. Only later did I realize that Donald Madden, who was a close friend of mine and our best actor was gay. He was my Gaby in On the Town and there was no question for me that he was heterosexual. It never entered my mind that his relationship with Wilson Lehr, the director of our theater group, was extraordinarily close. Donald went on to become a highly respected stage and TV actor. He was acclaimed for doing a great Hamlet. It was either on Broadway or off, but they said it was a very effeminate Hamlet. We were all devastated when he died n 1983 at the age of 49. They claimed his death was from lung cancer, but this was 1983…”
Arlene went on to say that when “Herb Ross, who was the choreographer, brought in a group of dancers to dance the”Turnstiles” ballet with me, they certainly seemed very different from the boys I knew at school. I believe they were also comfortable with themselves, because I remember wondering why they talked so differently, and in my naivety, I thought they were cute and funny.”
I think this memory shows clearly how things were back then and I feel so sad for poor Donald Madden who had to stay in the closet to survive and have a career worthy of his natural gifts. Google him. He did a lot. And this is what my novel is for: to pay homage to those who went on before and created the miraculous changes we see today.
Next week’s blog entry: The Difference Between the 1930s & 1940s: The Pansy & Lesbian Craze.
Come to the next live reading. You’ll begin to see where the gay is.