Tag Archives: 1940s history

JULIANA, A NOVEL OF GAY AND LESBIAN HISTORY

The Story

It’s 1941, and Alice “Al” Huffman and her three childhood friends come from the potato fields of Long Island to make it on the Broadway stage. Al quickly learns that she has no talent. She meets Juliana, the glamorous, perpetually-on-the-brink-of stardom nightclub singer whose voice sounds to her like “warm milk slipping down the whole of my body.”

Juliana, a sexual risk-taker with a secret, easily reels in a mesmerized Al who has never felt a love like this before. Al is determined to hang onto Juliana no matter what she has to sacrifice. The only obstacle is that Juliana is more a woman of her times than Al could ever have expected.

Through Juliana, Al enters a secret world that includes men who wear frilly bathrobes and grass skirts and women who smoke cigars and wear pants with the zippers in the front. Cameo appearances are made by Liberace, Tallulah Bankheard and other 1940s celebrities.

About Me

I wrote my first novel when I was fourteen and I continued to write long fiction throughout high school and college. Then I stopped writing all together for too long a time. These were the dark years. When I returned to writing I wrote a play. I continued on as a playwright for many years. As a playwright I won a number of awards such as an Edward Albee Fellowship, First Place in Celebration Theater’s Best New LGBT Play Contest and First Place in Pride Screen and Stage’s Women’s Contest. One of my plays was a finalist for the National Lambda Literary Award. Recently my play, The Forgetting Curve, was optioned by Theatricum Mundi and had its world premiere at The Boston Arts Center in September, 2014.

I have also published short fiction and non-fiction in literary journals such as PRAIRIE SCHOONER, PENTIMENTO and THE OUTRIDER REVIEW.

Why I Chose to Write Juliana

About four years ago I felt compelled to write a novel about the hidden lives of gays and lesbians in the 1940s. With the onset of the extremely new freedoms I had found that young gays and straights were completely unaware of what gays in the past had sacrificed so that these changes could take place. They did not know that there was a time you could be arrested for merely entering a gay bar or that you could be committed to a mental institution indefinitely for the crime/disease of homosexuality. I felt that not knowing about the rights that gays and lesbians had been denied in our country for decades was as serious as not knowing about the impact of the Jim Crow Laws for African Americans. Just as there are African Americans living today who were seriously harmed by that system and other discriminatory practices there are many gays and Lesbians alive now who were damaged by what went on back then.

It’s important to note, however, that this is not a sad, angst-ridden book. It is filled with humor and lightness because no matter which decade we talk about it has always been fun to be gay.

Why the 1940s

The 1940s was a time when gays were just beginning to have a sense of their identity as ‘homosexuals.’ This was the first decade in which jams also more clearly held a distinct sense of being heterosexual, something different and better than homosexual. These definitions first began to take shape in the 1930s, but by the 1940s these categories were more firmly established.

The 1940s also foreshadows the beginning of the worst decades for hatred and discrimination toward gays: the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Characters Real or Fictional

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Walter Liberace before he became flamboyant

My characters are fictional, but real people make cameo appearances throughout the book. For instance, Angela Lansbury and Lauren Bacall, who were volunteers at the Stage Door Canteen before they were famous have, bit parts in my novel. Liberace is shown briefly in a nightclub where he actually worked early in his career. He played the piano, wore a traditional tuxedo, and was known as Walter.

What kind of research was involved in the writing of this novel?

Researching early 1940s in Greenwich Village was the most difficult research I’ve ever done because nothing happened. People often think of this time in the Village as an artsy time, but here’s a quote from the New York City Market Analysis, done in 1943: “Greenwich Village is not a neighborhood of artists and writers, although many of them still live in its old brick and brownstone houses.”

Greenwich Village earned its reputation as an enclave for artists and writers in the 1920s and 30’s and it would become so again in the mid 1950’s. Early 1940s Greenwich Village, however, was mostly a working class neighborhood where a great many people lived in rooming houses and “overflowing tenement houses.”

Artists actually did live in Greenwich Village at that time, but they were unknown. James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando often met for breakfast at the Life Cafeteria, which catered to gay boys and girls. Jackson Pollack struggled to find his own style in his rundown apartment at 46 East 8th Street.

Research specific to gays in the 1940s was much easier because of the many wonderful LGBT historians who have devoted themselves to gathering our stories.

To get the flavor of the times and to learn about the more specific elements I read numerous contemporary magazines such as Vogue and Cue; I read novels and memoirs written during that time.  I also read books that tried to explain homosexuality to laypeople such as The Problem of Homosexuality and Female Homosexuality, in which we learn that Lesbians are prone toward crimes such as murder.

Creative License with Historical Facts?

Playwrights often bend the facts when they are writing a play based on history. Frequently, you are criticized by fellow playwrights in development groups if you are not willing to do this. Shakespeare’s Richard II is often cited as an example of historical facts being less important than “art.” That may be true, but I feel a responsibility to tell the true history of the LGBT people. It does not need embellishment; the historical facts are dramatic enough. I am not merely telling some story. I am telling the history of a group of people who overcame adversity. I must stick to the facts if I am going to tell this story. The “art” comes from how the individual characters in their unique ways cope with these historical facts.

What’s Next

My background as a playwright has led to a novel with a significant amount of dialogue. The only writers’ feedback group that I had during the writing process was the Oracles, my playwriting group. Since there was a great deal of dialogue in the novel and I had no other way of getting peer feedback I cast the chapters with actors as I would have done with a play I was working on and presented it to my playwriting group for feedback.

The group became so fascinated with the characters and the subtleties of the history that they encouraged me to take my novel to a public venue to be performed like a mini-series, a few chapters each month.
This past December the first installment of JULIANA was presented at the Stonewall Inn in New York City to an enthusiastic audience. We were invited back in January and as of February we will be performing further chapters of the book every first Tuesday of the month, 7pm. Everyone is welcome. Come to the upstairs room. Juliana-flyer

Juliana is not yet published, but I’m hoping these public readings will lead to that. I often get requests for the book.

I have begun work on Volume 2 of JULIANA (1945-1956). This time period begins one of the most difficult in gay history. Similar to August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle in which he wrote a play for each decade spanning from 1900 to 1990 exploring a different aspect of African American history, I plan to write a series of novels exploring LGBT history using the same characters.

Now I would like to introduce a wonderful historical writer,  Eleanor Park Sapia.

Eleanor Parker Sapia, a Puerto Rican-born novelist, was raised in the US, Europe and the colonial city of Ponce, Puerto Rico where she got the idea for her debut novel, A Decent Woman. She has lived in France, Greece, Austria and in Brussels, Belgium, where she spent 13 years. Ellie has degrees from Marymount University in Virginia and Philippi Trust Counseling and Training Center, Blackpool, UK. She makes her home in West Virginia.

Her debut novel, A Decent Woman, will be published with Booktrope in Spring 2015. She is currently writing her second novel, Finding Gracia, inspired by her journey on the medieval pilgrimage walk of El Camino in Spain. She focuses on writing stories that introduce the reader to Latin American and Spanish characters. You can find out more about her work on her blog, https://l.facebook.com/l/VAQHt0Yz5AQELierK8gmkNy45ZR4W5DnQKRoyxa5LM48u9g/https%3A%2F%2Felliesbookz.wordpress.com%2F

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Plane Spotters

Guest Post by Shareen Knight

My mother’s hands were shaking. It was a sunny summer afternoon towards the end of WW II when we heard the engine of a small plane as it came across the bay. We ran outside, her with the binoculars and me holding the chart of colored drawings of every kind of plane that existed in the 40s. It was her job to report any enemy aircraft, as there was a fear after Pearl Harbor that the Japanese carriers off the coast would send planes to bomb American cities on the West Coast.

Volunteers were organized to keep watch. Thousands of people, high school kids, retired folk, women whose husbands were still overseas fighting, and little kids like me who were unofficial helpers.

As the plane came closer, we held our ground, and soon the plane came into view flying very low. Oh my god, a red circle on the side could only mean one thing, we had spotted our first Japanese fighter plane. The pilot saw us and we saw him. I stood transfixed, a little afraid, but mostly excited. I wondered if he would shoot us. But, he didn’t shoot, instead he tipped his wing toward us and flew by in an arc, as if to say hello-goodbye, and then he headed back toward the Pacific Ocean.

Shareen Knight is a writer and artist/photographer who lives in the coastal mountains of British Columbia. She is writing a novel that takes place in the 40s and 50s in rural America where she was raised, and is also working on a comedic/drama full-length play about the Inuit people and Global Warming. She claims to live in an igloo, but nobody believes her because the snow has all melted.

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Filed under 1940's history, Pearl Harbor, Plane Spotting, World War II, WWII

When The US Government Told Us What to Wear

During World War 2, in an effort to save precious materials needed for the war, The War Production Board (WPB) was in charge of rationing civilian goods. The first to be rationed was sugar and gasoline. Gradually other items were added like rubber, coffee and meat (somehow poultry didn’t count as meat so it wasn’t rationed). You couldn’t buy a refrigerator or a Bendix washer during the war, but these companies regularly advertised in the popular magazines, reminding customers of all they were giving to the war effort.
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The WPB came out with Limitation Order L-85, which dictated how much cloth could be used to make clothing. Although clothing wasn’t rationed in the US (except shoes*) as it was in Great Britain the WPB made regulations on how much cloth could be used to make any one outfit. The sleeves of dresses now had to be 3/4 length, dresses with no collars were favored. Double breasted suits for both men and women became single breasted. There were no more women’s pleated skirts. (Stanton, 2009a) The WPB’s slogan was,”Control without regimentation,” meaning they didn’t want to tell designers how to initiate their regulations, but they did expect them to be followed. After all, this was being done “for the boys.” Everyone was behind it. Muriel Johnstone, a dress designer, advertising her new regulation dresses used the slogan: “Conserving material for victory.” (OldMagazineArticles.com)

In the interest of following the mandate to use less material—or so they claimed—designers started raising women’s skirts from the mid-calf to just below the knee. The amount of clothes women wore during this time became less and less, especially in Hollywood. Watch the films made during the war. First, you’ll see a lot of those collarless dresses along with the shorter lengths. Also, you’ll note how scanty many of the women are dressed, lots of bare legs, bare arms, cleavage. Compare these outfits with the clothing worn in films made before the war and after. It was “all for the boys.” (Stanton, 2009b)

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*Each individual was allowed 3 pairs of shoe a year, which doesn’t sound terribly harsh to me. Stage Door volunteers were permitted and extra pair of shoes because their shoes wore out quickly from all that dancing.

Stanton, S.L.(2009a) Limitation Order L-85: General restrictions. The United States in War and Peace (PDF)

Stanton, S.L.(2009b) Limitation Order L-85: Fashion and Morale, The United States in War and Peace

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Filed under 1940's history, 1940s Fashion, clothing 1940s, gay, Juliana the Novel, Lesbian, Uncategorized, World War II

Brunch in New York in 1943

The Fifth Avenue Hotel, 24 Fifth Avenue 9th Street Antique Postcard

The Fifth Avenue Hotel at 9th Street, Sidewalk Cafe, 1935


Last night I was with my writing group, The Oracles, some of the most amazingly talented writers I have ever known.  I am so thrilled to be included in their number.  I’m always grateful for the helpful feedback they give me. They’re all playwrights. I am too, only now I’m finishing up a novel. The novel has so much dialogue in it that they graciously let me cast it with fabulous actors so that it can be read at the group for feedback. Last night we finished reading one of my chapters from JULIANA and someone in the group asked if they had “brunch” in New York City in 1943. An excellent question and one I had not considered. (They often send me back to the drawing board to check my facts.) This set me on a course of late night researching until I came up with the answer to that question.

Here is the answer:

There actually was a guy who started the whole thing.  In England in 1895, Guy Beringer thought there should be an alternative to the “postchurch ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies” (Grimes, 1998).  He thought there should be a meal served at noon that consisted of tea or coffee, and marmalade.  He considered this later, lighter meal would make it easier for the Saturday late night “carousers.”  Well, the idea took off.

Brunch didn’t come to the U.S. until after World War I,  but they definitely had it in 1943.  In the forties, the Fifth Avenue Hotel and Ninth Street had what they called the “Sunday Strollers’ Brunch.”  They served sauerkraut juice, clam cocktails, chicken liver omelets in Madeira and calf’s liver with hash browns (Grimes, 1998).

Finding out about the Fifth Avenue Hotel brunch caused me to change the location of my characters’ brunch from the general “nice little cafe around the corner” to the more specific Fifth Avenue Hotel.  This change had significance for me since I lived with two roommates in a one bedroom apartment in the Fifth Avenue Hotel when I first came to the city.

Thank you, Oracles!

References: Grimes, W. (July, 08, 1998). At brunch, the more bizarre the better. New York Times.

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Filed under 1940's history, brunch, gay, Juliana the Novel, lesbian, World War II