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CRIME ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Death Comes Out

It always starts with a phone call. This one comes on election night from a detective in Chelsea’s 10th Precinct. Some gay man got knifed to death in the early morning hours in his West 21st Street apartment. His roommate was knifed too, but managed to escape. The room­mate’s in the intensive care unit at St. Vincent’s. It seems they had picked up two guys at a gay bar and gone home and smoked. One of the pickups pulled a gun and said, “Lay on the floor, face down, you motherfuckers.” A bloody battle ensued. Could I come to headquarters and dis­cuss the case? They’d fill me in on details.

At 7 p.m. I’m at the precinct. Under an Etan Patz Missing poster, one of those bulky Irish detectives, the kind Edmund O’Brien played in ’50s movies, asks if I’d visit the local bars with them. They want to distribute “feeler” notices, which begin “There was a homicide and fel. assault of two (2) gay members of our community.” What the cops know so far is the pickup look place at a new semileather bar on Eighth Avenue, the Rawhide, half a block from the victim’s apartment and just around the corner from the precinct. At 11 p.m. the night before, George Alvarez, 32, went to the Rawhide, drank, played pin­ball, and struck up a conversation with two young men who claimed to be visitors from out of town. They needed a place to stay the night. There was no reason for George to doubt their story; they appeared clean-cut and well-mannered. Besides, George thought the shorter of the two was real hot. He suggested they adjourn to the Pike where he was suppsed to meet his roommate.

At the Spike on West Street, George’s roommate, Jay Utterback, 35, played pin­ball with the taller man while George and the short one drank and talked. About 2:30, the quartet headed for George and Jay’s four-room fourth-floor apartment. Grass came out. Sex was discussed. The out-of-towners insisted that they all bed together or they wouldn’t bed at all. George and Jay decided they didn’t want it that way; they suddenly wanted to call the whole thing off. The guests, however, refused to leave. They continued smoking grass in the living room.

At 3:30, the taller man went to the john. When he came out, he waved a pistol and ordered his hosts to fall to the floor. Neither realized the gun was a toy. What followed happened so quickly there was no time to know whether robbery was the motive. In a spontaneous flash of bravery, George jumped up. He pounced at the shorter of the two, who slashed at him with a knife. George struggled to the door. He ran down the stairs — his assailant behind him, cutting him several times — and finally out into the street. Dressed only in slacks, shoeless and shirtless, he ran to the Rawhide, where he collapsed. “Get to my apartment,” he muttered. “My roommate is still there.”

When the cops arrived at 231 West 21st Street, they found Jay Utterback in the hallway outside the apartment. He had been stabbed six times: in his face, head, body. Jay wasn’t as lucky as George. He was dead.

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Early election night. Shifts are about to switch at the Rawhide. The day bartender is counting his change. The three detec­tives working the case seem as indigenous to the bar as Rollerena would be at the Policeman’s Ball. They stride in, politely place their conspicuous frames in an in­ conspicuous corner, and decline drinks. One of them pulls out photos of Alvarez and Utterback.

“This one seems familiar,” offers the bartender, pointing at the shot of Alvarez, “except his mustache and beard is gone.”

“Was he here last night?”

“I told the detectives who were here last night everything.”

At the Spike, one of the co-owners is somewhat friendlier. Although there may have been 80 to 85 people at his bar last night, he thinks he’d have noticed anyone unusual. Unusual at the Spike is under 30 and attractive — and not sporting leather.

“We showed The Great Catherine last night,” the co-owner said, “but the movie was over by 12:30. Look, I wasn’t really working. I was a customer. Bruce, Tony, and Ed were on. But this one’s face, I recognize.”

The co-owner says sure, he’ll tack up the notice of the killing, and he’ll keep his ears open.

“Can you tell me your full name and age so I can fill in this form?” asks a cop.

“About 40.”

“You don’t know your age?”

“42.”

To play it safe, the cops pull the same routine at the Eagle’s Nest and the Glory Hole. In each spot, the managers are veritable pussycats, offering every ounce of cooperation they can muster. The Glory Hole guy does a spot check of his member­ship list. It is too early in the evening to view that unique pleasure concept in oper­ation — there are many things you can do with a hole in the wall — but the officers are fascinated by the layout. They manage to convey, however, that they’re not here to do moral numbers. They just want the facts, ma’am. In turn, there is a “thank Jesus, it’s not me” sigh of relief from the dockstrip personnel, along with an in­satiable curiosity about details, especially sexual details. To them, the names are different, but it’s a variation on an old theme, and they’ll do anything they can to help.

Riding in the back of a police car, you become aware that murder can be ev­eryday work, like selling shoes or styling hair. For the cops, this day is unique only because it’s election day. The radio is turned up. Carter has won two states. Reagan’s winning everything else.

We drop off one of the detectives at the precinct and drive toward the Alvarez­-Utterback block. Across the street from their house, we enter a building where each bell is rung and each tenant grilled. “No, we didn’t hear anything,” is the refrain repeated in each apartment except one, where the melody goes, “It’s so noisy all the time, I don’t know whether I did or didn’t.” What’s unusual about Chelsea is that the neighborhood doesn’t change from block to block, it changes from build­ing to building. We head toward London Terrace to check out a separate case. Somebody’s penthouse apartment he’s been burglar­ized for the 12th time in 11 months. “We thought you’d get o kick out of this one,” says the driver. “This guy has had a Doberman Pinscher, barbed wire, you name it, and they still break in.”

When we get there, the color television, one of the few pieces of furniture left, is blazing and the middle-aged robbery victim is packing his clothes, declaring, “I’ve had it. I’m selling what’s left. I’m getting out.” He and the detectives are on a first­-name basis, and they discuss just how the perpetrator entered — as they have many times before. “If I had the money, I’d put up a fuckin’ execution fence, so that they’d touch it and die,” says the pen­thouse dweller. “Ssh,” says his friend from in front of the TV. “I think Carter’s con­ceding.”

Everything stops. We move close to the television and watch Carter give his speech. “History in the making,” says a cop. “I can’t believe it’s happening,” says the penthouse dweller.

“What? Reagan?” asks the cop.

“No. My fuckin’ robbery.”

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News of murder spreads faster than hanky codes in New York gay circles. It doesn’t matter that the papers didn’t re­port the Chelsea murders. All week, the phone rings.

“This killing is just part of a pattern,” says Jay Watkins of the Chelsea Gay As­sociation. The group installed a Violence Hot Line five months ago. In the past two months, they’ve averaged 10 calls a week. Most incidents involve ripoffs, beatings, or rape done with knives, pistols, pipes, baseball bats, or beer bottles. People work­ing with the organization often return to the scene of the crime with the victim and will act as a conduit between victim and police.

With the gentrification of Chelsea came trouble. Gay witchhunts abound, especial­ly in the area around the Ninth Avenue housing projects. There have been un­provoked attacks on gay males by bands of white teenagers, with robbery almost an afterthought.

Since 1977, Chelsea Gay Association has been meeting with the 10th Precinct to discuss community relations, but the meetings became less frequent and stopped altogether several months ago. As a result of the Utterback killing, they’ll start up again on a biweekly basis in December.

Another call at 3 a.m., from a stranger who seems drunk and wants to know ev­erything I know about the murder because he knew Jay. He finishes by saying he voted for Carter; he feels there’ll be an increase in violence toward gays with Reagan in office.

Yet another call, from an employee of Time-Life who lives in the building next to George and Jay’s. At 3:45 a.m. on election day he was awakened by shouts for help from the street. By the time he got to the window, he could see someone running and gripping himself around the waist. The runner looked as if he had been either cut or shot.

The neighbor went downstairs. In the entranceway of the building next door he saw blood all over the walls and floors. The super told him he had seen a man in a white T-shirt running toward Seventh Av­enue. (The doorman at the corner building of Seventh and 21st also saw the man. Later, a T-shirt with blood stains was found on the street. It’s been sent to the police lab for tests.)

Nick Yanni, host of Tomorrow’s Tele­vision Tonight on cable, calls, too. Jay Utterback was his announcer and floor manager. On the night of his murder, Jay had appeared on the show for a brief moment along with special guests Dina Merrill, Doug Ireland, Bob Weiner, and Quentin Crisp. Jay went directly from the show to the Spike.

“Jay was a smart and steady person,” reports Yanni, “certainly not flaky. He brought guests in and out, signaled cues, announced station breaks.

“His friend George had been to the TV studio twice. I never could warm up to him. None of the people from our show who knew George liked him. They seemed incongruous as a couple. They weren’t from the same background or culture. George struck me as a hot-headed individ­ual.”

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St. Vincent’s Hospital. So easy to get in. All you do is tell the receptionist you want a pass. The cops should be protecting George. The only protection on the fourth· noor is a bevy of night nurses, armed with thermometers.

George isn’t in his room. He’s slouched in a chair in the corridor, wearing a blue nightgown. One arm is in a board-sling, and his complexion is sallow. He volun­teers to show me his wounds. I graciously decline. There are six stab wounds in all, the most serious in his stomach, the deepest in his arm. His stomach wound is infected, and he’s afraid he may have to stay in the hospital another week.

Can George remember the names of the men he met election eve?

“Every time you meet people, they give you names,” he replies. “I wasn’t worried about them. I thought they were lovers. They weren’t dressed crazy either, like in leather or cowboy hats. The little one wore a white shirt with a black design and ordinary slacks. He wore a chain around his neck with an astrological sign. I don’t know what sign. What I remember most were his eyes. They were light brown, almost yellow, like cats’. I’ll never forget his eyes.”

George and Jay had been lovers for six years. They met in Puerto Rico, and George came to New York to live with Jay. The first two years were great but the sexual magic lessened in the third. They came to an arrangement. Every so often, each would have his night out. Sometimes they’d bring home a third party, and once before they’d brought home a third and a fourth. No big deal; if it happened, it happened.

George is a social worker. He earns very little. Apart from his sister, he has no family in New York. He’s petrified about going back to the apartment while the killers are on the loose. But he can’t afford another place. And he doesn’t know any­one who’ll take him in.

During the visit, George shows no par­ticular emotion when Jay’s name comes up. If there are tears to be shed they’re shed privately. If there is guilt to be faced, it won’t be with a visitor. The signs of regret are invisible.

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Propriety is the prevailing emotion at the memorial service for Jay Utterback at the Ethical Culture Center on Central Park West. Most of the guests are Show­time TV employees, bright, white, straight young men and women who knew the straight face of Jay — a face so well main­tained that they didn’t bother to look for another.

Some of them speak at the podium. They reminisce about his enthusiasm, his laughter. They tell how “shocked and angered” they are by his death, how they are “still too numb to feel the loss.” They ask, “Why did this happen? How did it happen? There is no rational ex­planation.” They bow their heads and pray.

A pianist plays “Tomorrow” and the bright young men and women touch each other’s arms, smile wistfully, and say, “Jay would have wanted it this way.” They leave the center and head toward the RT. One of them, Debbie Copeland, joins me for coffee at the YMHA cafeteria.

“I’ve been so depressed,” she whispers. “Jay was my friend. I attended his funeral in Bellvernon, Pennsylvania. It’s real Deer Hunter country.”

“Jay went to public school there, then Ohio State University. He was a lieuten­ant in Okinawa. He operated a disco, I think, in Puerto Rico. That’s where he met George.

“I wouldn’t say that Jay and George were lovers. I don’t know what I’d call them. Roommates? That’s the term Jay used. Jay chose discretion. He was a real ladies’ man.”

Ladies’ man?

“Well, he was dapper and dressed im­peccably. Socially, he had inner grace.”

Was Debbie in love with him?

“Everyone loved Jay as a friend. Noth­ing more. Nothing physical. I think inside we all knew about his relationship with George. George would go to company parties. Jay would introduce him by name: ‘This is my friend,’ he’d say, or ‘This is my roommate.’ We’d never whis­per anything behind his back. It’s im­polite. Everyone at Showtime loved him too much to embarrass him.”

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Back at the precinct, November 10. Detective Michael Churchill, who’s been working exclusively on the case, reports some progress.

On October 26, a Rutherford, New Jersey man met two strangers at Boot Hill,, gay bar at Amsterdam and 75th. They said they were from out of town and needed, place to stay for the night. He drove them back to New Jersey, where they smoked and drank until one of them excused himself to go to the bathroom. When he came out, he brandished a gun and snarled, “This is a robbery. We’re not joking. Lay down on that bed.” The second man had a hunting knife.

They proceeded to tie up their victim with telephone cord and neckties. Then they cleaned him out completely.

They took inconsequential items like salt and pepper shakers, thermal underwear, socks, the light from a fish tank, and a pair of Adidas sneakers, as well as an overcoat, suits, cameras, a Clairol hair. dryer, a Panasonic tape recorder, and a Sears color TV. Everything was piled into the victim’s 1980 black Toyota, New Jer­sey license plate 844-LXE, in which they made their getaway.

Later the victim described his attackers to the police.

The little one called himself Tony. He was white, between 18 and 23, five foot five, 115 to 120 pounds. His hair was black, complexion light, eyes almost yellow, lips sensuously thick, nose too small for the rest of his face. He had the face of a little girl.

The bigger one was called Michael. He was about five foot ten, 150 pounds, 20 to 25 years of age, sported a little mustache, looked Italian. Both had New York ac­cents.

They fit the description of Jay Ut­terback’s murderers.

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Early Thursday morning, November 20. The phone rings. It’s Chuck Ortleb, publisher of Christopher Street. A mad­man opened fire at the patrons of the Ramrod, he says. One man dead. Another dying. Several more in the hospital.

God, they could be people I know. We all hang out there.

It could have been me.

That night, Chuck and I meet at Sher­idan Square. We’ve met there many times before to march with love on Gay Pride Day and with anger each time our civil rights bill is defeated. Tonight we meet in sadness.

The Chelsea Gay Association is there. The Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights. But most of us—  about 1000 in all — are individuals who have heard the news, heard it too many times before, but never so blatant and violent as this time. The gunman, Ronald Crumpley, has told po­lice the reason for his shooting spree: “I just don’t like faggots.”

We hold lighted candles and march west on Christopher. The mood is somber. A man beats slowly on a drum. “Gay life isn’t cheap,” yells a marcher. The cry is picked up. “Gay life isn’t cheap.” Until it’s a roar.

We pass Ty’s. “Out of the bars and into the streets.” We stop at Trilogy. Patrons leave their drinks and join the procession.

Near West Street, we see a long trail of blood on the pavement — a vivid reminder of the massacre. A sign at Badlands says the bar is closed to honor the dead. We reach the Ramrod. The street is cordoned off. Dozens of bunches of daisies — blue, white, and yellow — are clustered in front of a window splattered with bullet holes the size of oranges. Mourners place their candles on the doorstep.

A man makes a speech. “There are now two dead,” he says, “and we can’t go on with life as usual when our brothers have been murdered … We have elected to office the new moral majority who preach bigotry. Things won’t get better: it’s going to get worse.”

The speaker asks for two minutes’ silent prayer.

And then the shout erupts again. “Gay life isn’t cheap.” Louder. Fists in the air. “Gay life isn’t cheap.”

At the Chelsea precinct the search for Jay Utterback’s killers goes on. ❖

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SETTING IT STRAIGHT

The evening after the Ramrod killings, Edward Thulman, a 21-year-old self-described hustler, showed up at the Post declaring he had been Ronald Crumpley’s lover. Thulman claimed the massacre took place because he wouldn’t go out with Crumley anymore — “He had gotten too crazy.” Their liaison, he said, had taken place at a fleabag hotel on Eighth  at 48th Street during a six-month period. The Post quoted Lieutenant John Yuknes, chief detective on the case: “We have no reason to believe Thulman’s not telling the truth. His story appears to stand up.” Reached by phone before press time, Yuknes insisted that the Post used only half his statement. “I told them we had no reason to believe that Thulman’s telling the truth either. Nothing has popped up yet to connect these two guys.”

Yuknes asked Thulman why he went to the Post before going to the police.

“Because they’d pay me.” Thulman said the Post paid him $100.

When told of the accusation, Steve Dunleavy, managing editor at the Post said that aside from $20 which the Post paid for taxis, no money was given Edward Thulman.

Jiog Wentz, doorman at the Ramrod, and Vernon Kroenig, organist at St. Joseph’s Church, were killed in the spray of bullets which hit the Ramrod. Richard Huff, Rene Matute, and Tom Ron are in fair condition at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Olaf Gravesen is in satisfactory condition at St. Vincent’s.

A fund is being started to aid the sur­vivors of the shootings. Contributions may c§ be sent to The November 19th Fund, care of Washington Square Methodist Church, 135 West 48th Street, New York, NY 0 10012. Approximately 1000 people at­tended a memorial service at the church.

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CRIME ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Fatal Consequences of the Secret Life of John S. Knight III

On December 7, 1975, three men entered the Philadelphia luxury apartment of John S. Knight III, bound him, gagged him, robbed him, and murdered him. Knight was special projects director of the Philadelphia Daily News, heir to the Knight-Ridder newspaper fortune, an honor graduate of Harvard and Oxford, a collector of modern art, and a friend of Henry and Cristina Ford.

When police conducted an investigation into the murder, they discovered sexual paraphernalia in Knight’s apartment which indicated Knight’s blue blood had more than a tinge of lavender. They also discovered that one of the assailants was Felix Melendez, hustler, procurer, and sometime lover of Knight. It took the final violence to bring Knight out of the closet.

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***

As expected, the gay press underplayed the Knight murder. An angry article in Gay Community News quoted a media spokesman as saying “Knight’s interests were not the normal average interests of a gay male at all.” I wish somebody would tell me what those normal average interests are. Another quote by a tambourine thumper in the same story was “No one knows the number of gay people who will be negatively affected by the murder.” Could that mean turn heterosex­ual? Give up fucking? Let the dishes pile? The Los Angeles Advocate, which, in the January 14 issue ran 238 classified ads for”model/masseurs,” headlined a news brief “Murder Probe Angers Gays.” Later on, we learn the anger was at the revelation by police of the homosexually incriminating evidence in Knight’s apartment. “Police sources said they found photographs of nude young men along with a diary that recounted ‘intimate homosexual encounters between Knight and various male prostitutes and hustlers.” Since when has the Advocate been so moralistic about nude young men and hustlers’?

If the motive was robbery and, lo and behold, the victim happened to be homosexual, I can see it strictly as a case of murder. But if the killing was an act of passion precipitated by jealousy and the victim’s gayness, or a get-rich-quick scheme to rob a closet homosexual, what else do you call it? Parcheesi? No matter how you slice it, the Knight murder comes out gay.

***

John S. Knight III was the 30-year-old son of the late John S. Knight and the only grandson of 81-year-old John Shively Knight, newspaper patriarch, modern day Citizen Kane, whose empire of  35 publications is the largest in the country. Columnists at the Daily News who knew young John wrote odes. Larry McMullen claimed, “I made him too simple. Now that he’s dead, I have come to know that he was more complex than that.” Jonathan Takiff, the News‘s theater critic, panned “Murder Among Friends” which opened the night following Knight’s death. “The last thing I wanted to see was a murder mystery with frivolous comic overtones … Never have I felt that killing was amusing. And just now, the tragic, senseless death of a friend and fellow newspaperman has left me baffled, bitter, and shocked.”

Knight’s death was shocking, the circumstances behind the killing macabre, and the underlying social implications horrifying. The killing took place on a Saturday night. The evening started with a dinner at La Truffe, a fine French restaurant on Front Street. Knight had been to South Dakota a few weeks before — he was a huntsman and had shot pheasant and arranged for four of the birds to be roasted and served in a wine sauce. His guests were Ellen Roche, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Janensch (Janensch was Knight’s boss and is the managing editor of the Philadelphia Daily News), and Dr. and Mrs. John McKinnon. If the dinner had a purpose, it was to celebrate the McKinnons’ visit to Philadelphia (Dr. McKinnon and Knight had been roommates at Harvard). According to Janensch, there was just enough to drink. Everyone had a nice glow on but no one was drunk, and “the evening was one of the most pleasant imaginable.” Around midnight, the Janensches said goodnight, took Ellen Roche to her car, leaving Knight and the McKinnons free to return to his $1050-a-month apartment at the Dorchester on Rittenhouse Square.

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Once home, Mrs. McKinnon retired to a guest room. Her husband and Knight drank brandy and reminisced ahout college days. The phone rang a couple or times. Knight explained to McKinnon that the caller was someone who procured women for him. About 2:30 a.m., McKinnon retired. A half hour later, the doorbell rang, and Knight answered: it was the phone caller. Knight explained he couldn’t let him in — he was entertaining guests. The caller pleaded with him and made a ruckus in the hallway. Knight eventually opened the door, and the man pushed past him, followed by two other men. According to a statement made later by one of the men, 25-year-old Steven Maleno, the man who made the call was Isais (“Felix”) Melendez. Melendez and the third accomplice, Salvatore Soli, forced Knight to his bedroom and began to beat him. Knight was a strong, muscular man and didn’t give in easily, but the intruders, using belts, ties, and socks, eventually tied his legs and hands behind his back and gagged his mouth. They then started ransacking the apartment. At this point, Maleno claims, they discovered the McKinnons in a guest room at the far end of the apartment. Mrs. McKinnon was ordered naked from her bed. She was forced to open drawers in Knight’s desk, which were searched for valuables. Mrs. McKinnon remembers that two of the men had handguns, one had a shotgun.

According to Salvatore Soli, Felix Melendez “was marching up and down with a spear in one hand and a scuba-diving knife in the other.” Soli decided to return to Knight’s bedroom to check him out. He saw Knight on the floor “looking like he was asleep.” About 90 minutes into the holocaust, the Dorchester’s night attendant came to the apartment door and complained about the noise. Felix Melendez told him that hc was Knight’s brother-in-law and that they were practicing karate. Maleno and Soli opted to get the hell out with the goods they had collected. Melendez remained guarding Mrs. McKinnon, who somehow persuaded him to untie her. When he did, she ran to the guest room, grabbed one of Knight’s hunting rifles, and gave it to her husband. Dr. McKinnon allegedly had been asleep through much of this. The doctor rushed into Knight’s bedroom and attempted to revive him. As he leaned back from his efforts, he saw a man standing on Knight’s bed. “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it,” the man screamed. McKinnon and the man wrestled. The assailant pushed the doctor into another room and fled.

Meanwhile, Mrs. McKinnon, now covered hy a robe, had escaped to the outside hallway where she waited for an elevator to take her to the main lobby and safety. Just as the elevator opened, the man leaped into the car with Mrs. McKinnon and attempted to stab her. She kicked at him and was finally able to run off the elevator when it stopped at the third floor. By the time the police arrived, the attacker had vanished.

In Salvatore Soli’s statement to police, he said that when he and Steven Maleno were out of the Dorchester, Malena told him, “Felix stabbed the guy.” Maleno claimed that Melendez confessed he had stabbed Knight five or six times. Police reports said that Knight had died of knife wounds, four in the back and one in the chest. The wounds in the back outlined compass points: north. south, east, and west, and appeared ritualistic.

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The following day, the story broke in the media. Identities of the assailants weren’t known. Composite sketches of three white men — one with a skullcap, one with a Zapata mustache, one with a Gainsborough Blue Boy haircut — were distributed to detectives. Mrs. Mckinnon told police that one of the men had needle marks on his arm. She said she was certain another was a homosexual.

Evidence in Knight’s apartment indicated that he moved in three worlds: the world of wealth and comfort to he was born, the creative world of artists and writers, and the underworld of teenage hustlers. He kept the worlds separate. Recordings of gay encounters with Knight’s own voice (one contained “moans and screams” that led a police official to suggest the recording may have been made during a “sadomasochistic sexual encounter”), a diary, and Polaroid photos of nude young boys were clues to a life that Knight kept buried by day and hidden by night.

Billy Sage appeared on the scene, like the bereaved widow of a daddy who died too suddenly to remember his sugar in his will. Sage, now 20, spoke freely of a relationship that to began when Sage was 16. Sage boasted how he taught Knight to “be aware,” how he always beat Knight at wrestling because he was stronger, how Knight “financed” him and then suggested that he settle down with a good woman when Knight moved from Detroit to Philadelphia (Sage later married), and how Knight continued flying Sage to Philadelphia for weekends.

By Tuesday, December 9, the heat was on the gay world. Detectives appeared in bars, questioning owners and patrons. Hustlers in Center City were treated to the third degree. Dennis Rubini, a university professor, past president of Philadelphia’s Gay Activists Alliance, and active in sadomasochistic “consciousness raising” was picked up because he resembled a sketch of one of the men. Rubini was taken to Homicide, fingerprinted, photographed, and submitted to a polygraph test. He was asked if he had or ever engaged in “abnormal sex.” Rubini replied, “My definition or society’s definition?”

On Wednesday evening, a news conference was called by Chief Inspector Joseph Golden. In the proud manner of a father about to announce the marriage of a favorite daughter, Golden announced the identities of the men sought in the Knight murder. He announced that all three were residents of South Philadelphia and that warrants had been issued for their arrests. Five hours later, Steven Maleno telephoned police saying he wanted to surrender. He said his father and his brother persuaded him it was the right thing to do. Eight hours later, waiting for Maleno’s arraignment at police headquarters, word filtered to the press room that Felix Melendez, a “homosexual procurer,” had been found with a bullet through the back of his head near the site of a Boy Scout reservation in Camden.

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***

December 11. Rittenhouse Square is quiet. A police car is parked in front of the Dorchester, its occupants on the 23rd floor still sifting through the debris of Knight’s possessions. Amazing how life goes on. No signs in the lobby proclaiming “we had a heavy one last weekend.” Well-turned-out women chat with each other about the soaring price of avocados. Amazing, too, how easy it is to slip into the Dorchester. The doorman outside is interested in hailing cabs. The concierge at the front desk will put through a house call only if you ask him. The woman in the front office has her nose in her books. I show her the police photos of Knight’s accused assailants. She recognizes Felix Melendez immediately. She says she has seen him with Knight in the building on several occasions. She calls the mail attendant have a look. He also recognizes Melendez. They shake their heads. The world’s gone cuckoo.

I leave them and poke around the neighborhood. Pretty town houses, interspersed with high-rises. Sort of Brooklyn Heights without the dogs. Faked up old-world charm mixed with new-world gelt. Plenty of gays, laundromats, fish restaurants, boutiques, yogurt pal­aces. Knight with his millions bought his medicine and shaving supplies at a wholesale outlet three blocks from the Dorchester rather than at the retail store in the building. He bought his sex toys at the Pleasure Chest. He bought his tricks on Spruce Street, a couple of blocks away. In the park, too. It’s a self-contained neighborhood.

The house where I stay is near the Dorchester. It belongs to a young man who majored in German at college but is making a living as a house painter. Often this young man gets assignments from Andrew Liberty. Liberty decorated Knight’s apartment and was his closest friend in Philadelphia.

At the time, Knight struck Liberty as sophisticated but not ostentatious. His clothes were quality and English-tailored but well­worn. He looked like a compact teddy bear and acted slightly reticent. Knight told Liberty that he knew no one in Philadelphia. They struck up an immediate friendship.

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They began lunching at the Latham. Three-hour talks that began with furniture, shifted to psychology, and ended with self-revelations. Layers of Knight’s personality unfolded. He told Liberty about his background at Harvard and Oxford, about his travels, about the call he received from an anonymous tipster when he was working the newsroom at the Detroit Free Press. The call described the mental problems of then Democratic vice-presidential nominee Senator Thomas Eagleton. Knight initiated a series of articles that forced Eagleton off the McGovern ticket and won the Knight-Ridder papers a Pulitzer prize.

As their friendship developed, Knight opened up about his relationship with his grandfather. The old man worshipped Knight and clearly, wanted him to take over the newspaper chain. But first he wanted Knight to learn the business from the ground up. So, at the Detroit Free Press, Knight delivered papers by truck to familiarize himself with routing. He covered the police heat, wrote editorials, and toiled in advertising, which he hated, always keeping in touch with Knight Senior. Knight once invited Liberty to accompany him on a visit to grandfather’s winter estate in Bal Harbour, Florida. This visit never came off.

In Philadelphia, the young heir earned a weekly salary of $350 and worked eight-hour shifts. He moonlighted a review of the Rolling Stones when they played town, an achievement he was exceedingly proud of. Music was his love, just as hunting was his hobby (he would not shoot deer because he couldn’t stand to see their eyes), weight lifting his tsuris (he had a weight problem but was strong enough to bench press 250), and cooking his way of communicating. Two weeks before the knifing, he had Andrew Liberty and a friend up for “the best breakfast of my life: freshly squeezed orange juice with Dom Perignon, Canadian bacon, filet mignon and eggs, coffee.” Generous to a fault, Knight nevertheless was shrewd with money. He traded his speedboat for an original Picasso print on the theory that the boat would depreciate while the Picasso increased in value. Money meant security. Lately he felt very secure: His Philadelphia bank account showed a total of a million and a half. Rarely did he keep more than $200 in cash at the apartment. He drove a workingman’s 1972 Grand Prix. Politi­cally, he was moderate leaning toward conservative. His upbringing was Republican. Grandfather was a Nixon supporter until the last election. In a conspicuous spot in a walk-in closet, Knight kept a photo of himself with Nixon. That it was in the closet, Liberty thinks, was a statement.

And then there was the gay thing. “I suspected it,” says Liberty. “He was beating around the bush and I brought it up. One night he said, ‘look, I’m new in town, I’m a newspaper man, I should know the nightclubs. You know them. Why not take me around?’ I said, ‘John, what gay clubs do you want to see first?’ So we went on a tour, the Steps, the Allegro, the PBL. We drank and talked and danced a little, but there was a holding back. John compartmentalized himself. His life was like a long hallway with a lot of closets. None of the closets were connected, and each time he would have to go back to the hallway to get from one to the other.”

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The gay thing gnawed at Knight. It bothered him because of his stature, the potential publicity, and the possibility that if Grandpa found out, he’d get cut off. Consequently, he dated “respectable” women. Bright women who were his social equals. Eventually, he thought he’d marry.

The men he dated were overaged children. “He would find a poor waif,” says Andrew Liberty, ”and father him.” Knight’s own father died in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II a couple of months before he was born. Billy Sage was typical of Knight’s relationships with males. So was 20-year-old Felix Melendez, whom he knew four months. Knight looked for the baby face and the big blue eyes. If they didn’t speak proper English and were poverty-stricken, they’d get points. He’d take them to the Dorchester, give them food, let them fool around with his stereo and camera equipment, talk to them like a father, wrestle with them — and then down to the nitty-gritty where paternalism took the form of incest. Never would Knight seek out a male peer as a sexual partner. He considered himself bi. Openly gay was threatening. Gay liberation was something he couldn’t espouse. He admitted that he’d be hypocritical if he did. Yet he knew that the sexual part of his life was fly-by-night, destructive, impossible to reconcile even with the help of an analyst. He acknowledged the hypocrisy of his life.

The night before his death, Knight phoned Liberty and asked him to come over to watch Tora! Tora! Tora! on television. When the film ended, Knight bubbled like a schoolboy because McKinnon would be visiting with his wife and staying for the weekend. He assured Liberty that McKinnon was straight as an arrow. Would Liberty join the party for dinner the following night’? Liberty said he’d love to but had another engagement. At 2:00 A.M., Andrew Liberty said his last good­bye to John Knight.

Early Sunday morning, the phone rang with the news that Knight had been murdered. Liberty thought the call might be a joke. He drove to the Dorchester. The first words from the police were “Did you know John Knight was a homosexual?” They let him into Knight’s apart­ment. The place was in shambles. Blood on the navy-blue rug, metal lamps crushed, plants torn, clothes scattered, glass shattered. “The stench of death surrounded me,” says Liberty, “and my reaction was hate. I lost my orientation. I got sick. Two days ago, we were sitting here drinking champagne.”

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***

The early patrons at the 247 Bar are drinking beer straight from the bottle. Mark Segal, Philadelphia’s Gay Raider, tells me Knight was a patron. He tells me the bar is pseudo S&M which means that it tries but doesn’t quite make it. Vinyl as opposed to leather. Stances instead of stunts. Mark tells me to use his name. They know him there. They know Mark everywhere in Philadelphia. He’s the one who burst in on Walter Cronkite during a newscast to protest lack of gay coverage. He also handcuffed his wrist to a camera on “The Mike Douglas Show.” I mention Mark’s name. The manager says he doesn’t want to talk about Knight. I amble up to the bar. Place myself near a distinguished-­looking cowboy. Ask the man if he’s been following the Knight murder case. “Was there a killing?” he responds. “I’ve only been here a week. I’m from Baltimore. My business is in Baltimore. How terrible. A homosexual murder?” He lights a Salem and gazes at my lower lip. I smile and move on to a younger man dressed in flannel and jeans.

“Do you live in Philadelphia?”

“Yes,” he replies.

“Come here often?”

“I’m a Republican and I don’t have much time for fun.”

“What do you make of the Knight murder?”

He shrugs and soliloquizes about hustlers, talking about gay people in the third person plural. “Keep away from the hustlers,” he advises. “Gay people are unreliable.” I’m not sure whether he’s serious or joking. Then he asks if I’m gay.

“What do you think?”

“Are you political?”

“Yes and no.”

“Good.”

He gulps his last drop of Schlitz and disappears into the night. Feeling like a fish out of water, I stare at my soda glass, stand alone for a while, and become increasingly depressed. Memories of what it was like sixteen years ago in Montreal when each night I’d toddle out of my parents’ home in suburbia, take my Hillman Minx downtown to the Tropical Room, nurse a gin and tonic, play the mirror game, and listen to “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men.” When the last call came, I’d leave with whatever was left and interesting, but more often than not by myself. It took a long time to learn another song. Ten years. “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.”

Desist. Do your duty. Flee. I ask the bartender if I can have a word with him. He stops polishing the counter. He’s got that Paul Bunyan look, the look that’s popular on Christopher Street. I identify myself. I ask if he had seen Knight during his visits. He replies, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He turns his back and continues polishing. I’m alone in the bar now, except for three gigglers and a Hell’s Angel candidate. The music is “What I Did for Love.” Yesterday is not much different from today.

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***

Flash forward a week. They’ve seized Salvatore Soli in Miami. I think if I were Salvatore Soli, I’d flee to Miami, too. It’s chilly in Philly. I read Soli’s story and decide to call my parents in Florida. They want to know when I’m coming to visit them at their new house on a golf course. They want to know what I’m up to. I ask if there’s been anything about Soli’s capture in the Miami papers. My father’s heard about the tsimmes. He tells me I should move from my cold dump in Manhattan. He’ll help with the rent.

Parents, commitments, obligations, umbilical cords that are tough to sever even after the prodigal son leaves home. Do orphans and bastards have it easier?

Soli’s parents live in South Philadelphia in a two-story house. They were closer than Dun is to Bradstreet. Mama says her 37-year-old son would call her every day no matter where he was. He hadn’t called since the Knight murder. Mama Soli went on television and pleaded “Salvi, please come home or get in touch with me … Let me know you’re all right. You may be dead like the other boy [Melendez].”

A mother’s tears were less effective than a stripper’s fears. Linda Mary Wells, an 18-year-old blonde “burlesque dancer” met Soli, Felix Melendez, and Steven Maleno a few days before Knight’s murder. She told detectives she was with the group in Philadelphia on December 6 when Melendez said he knew a “friend” from whom they could get money. The “friend” was a homosexual. Soli had a habit of beating up homosexuals. Maleno had a habit of rolling them. Melendez had a habit of pimping for and/or fucking with them. What could be more natural than a rip-off job on a Saturday night?

So the men took off for an area somewhere near Rittenhouse Square. Several hours later, according to the young stripper, Soli and Maleno met her and told her that Melendez had gone berserk. Later that night, they met Melendez and questioned him carefully about what had happened at Knight’s apartment after Soli and Maleno left. The men had coins, rings, bracelets, and other items Wells assumed were taken from Knight.

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For the next few days, Wells and Salvatore Soli took it on the lam, checking into an assortment of motels in New Jersey. Wells was frightened. She imagined if she didn’t play her cards right, she’d end up in the can or at the bottom of the river. On the night of December 11, near the time Inspector Golden was announcing the identities of Knight’s alleged assassins, Wells said that she, Soli, Maleno, Melendez, and two other people drove to a “wooded area” in New Jersey. Steven Maleno and Felix Melendez got out of the car. Moments later, she heard three shots. Maleno came back alone. “You didn’t see a thing,” she quoted Maleno as saying. Later that evening, she and Soli set out for Florida. Soli’s car broke down near Florence, South Carolina. They boarded a Greyhound bus, arrived in Miami where Soli shaved his mustache, dyed his hair strawberry blond, sold some of the jewelry for $150, and bought a pair of platform shoes (Soli is five feet four). On December 14, Wells called Miami police from the South Winds Motel. She told them she was traveling with a hunted fugitive and was “panicky.”

Linda Mary Wells was described by police as a “juvenile” who was a “chronic runaway.” A neophyte on the bump-and-grind circuit, she was billed as “Tarri” at the Troc in Philadelphia. The Troc’s manager claims he’d like to have her back. He’d make her an attraction on the order of Fanne Fox. “Linda Mary Wells,” he says, “reminds me of the ‘Woman in Red’ who turned in John Dillinger.”

On her return to Philadelphia, Wells collapsed and had to be carried by stretcher from the plane. Several hours later, she appeared in court. She was charged with assisting a fugitive in an unlawful flight. She explained her parents would supply an attorney from Syracuse. Bail was set at $100,000. Soli was held without bail. He has a record going back to his teens, mostly burglary and drug convictions. (Track marks are evident on his right arm, as is a tattoo that says “father and mother.”)

Soli’s mother showed up at the hearing in a wheelchair. The same day, the Philadelphia papers reported that John Shively Knight, editorial chairman of the Knight-Ridder Newspapers, would be marry­ing again after the first of the year. His third bride. Mrs. Frances Elizabeth Augustus, seventy-four, is the widow of a Cleveland mil­lionaire and former president of the National Council of Boy Scouts.

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***

Earl Wilson remembers old man Knight as “tough” and a “playboy.” Wilson worked for Knight in 1935 covering the state legislature in Ohio for the Akron Beacon Journal, the first newspaper in the Knight chain. Years later, Knight asked Wilson if he’d return to the Journal as an editor. Wilson had had a whiff of Broadway, so declined the offer (Wilson’s Broadway column runs in the Philadelphia Daily News).

Wilson also remembers Knight’s eldest son, John S. Knight, Jr. (the murder victim’s late father). Tragedy has always haunted the Knight clan, he claims. Just look at the record.

Knight’s first wife, Katharine, whom he married in 1921, died eight years later of a brain tumor. They had three children. John, Jr., died in 1945, Frank died — also of a brain tumor — in 1958, Landon suffered an attack of infantile paralysis when he was young and is paralyzed from the waist down. He is president of the Portage Newspaper Supply Co., part of the Knight organization. Knight remarried in 1932. His second wife, Beryl, died last August. “Knight is bearing up rather well,” claims the present publisher of the Akron Beacon Journal. Yet an acquaintance in a top-level job at the Detroit Free Press reiterates the fact that all of the old man’s hopes and dreams rode on his grandson.

Newpapermen who have worked for old man Knight describe him as close-mouthed, well-dressed, defiant, and aggressive. They say he’s puritanical when it comes to sex. Vigorous and athletic, he still works out with a set of barbells each morning and rides his bicycle for a couple of miles near his Akron home. They say that editors and writers on all the Knight-Ridder papers have substantial freedom. The one thing Knight insists on is reportage that tells both sides of the story and writing that produces short sentences. His column, “The Editor’s Notebook,” has appeared in his papers off and on for years. Though generally conservative in tone, many of his columns argued against United States involvement in Vietnam. In 1960, he told a New York Herald-Tribune reporter, “I’m going to vote for Nixon and will probably support him. I like Nixon, but I must say he hasn’t fired me up very much.”

What did ignite Knight was a series of articles in the Detroit Free Press condemning conditions at Wayne County Jail. The articles were supervised by John Knight III and led to a prison cleanup. Grandpa burst his buttons with pride; It was chip-off-the-old-block time.

To most of the newsroom staff at the Detroit Free Press, Grandpa is an enigmatic distant figure, a cross between Santa Claus and God, while Grandson was the sleek-haired, ordinary-looking Joe who happened to be an heir and kept to himself.

Once, though, Knight Jr. dated the newsroom’s gorgeous recep­tionist. “All men lusted after her, but when John took her out, he never made a pass, which made her think she was a front. This woman was accustomed to the type of man who’d buy her a drink and rip her clothes off.”

Knight treated Billy Sage as a back-street romance, but there were occasional phone calls and sometimes they were spotted on the street together. A co-worker guessed there was something gay about the coupling, but there was no office gossip to that effect.

The Detroit Free Press employs open gays and has run editorials and pro-gay stories, including a piece on lesbian mothers. None of these stories were initiated by John Knight III during his four years at the paper.

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***

At the Philadelphia Daily News, Managing Editor Paul Janensch beckons me into his office. He leans back in a chair, hand behind his head, and asks if I’ve read his paper’s coverage of the Knight killing. Janensch was Knight’s boss and frequent lunch companion. He and his wife were among Knight’s dinner guests that fateful night.

Sure, I’ve read the coverage. Would Janensch care to comment on a report that Felix Melendez knew that the McKinnons were set to spend the weekend with Knight, that Melendez suspected Knight and McKinnon of being lovers, and, in a jealous rage, killed Knight? “Judging from the few hours we spent together, there was no indication of a romance between McKinnon and Knight.” says Jannsch. “None at all. There was nothing more than a conventional friendship.

“In fact, revelations of Knight’s homosexuality took us all by surprise. We just assumed that he was straight. Everybody we’d see him with was from the straight world.

“I think if John’s grandfather discovered his tendencies, he’d certainly be upset, but I doubt if he’d do anything drastic. I think he’d want to help John and send him to a psychoanalyst.” I leave Janensch’s office wondering why I didn’t tell him I’m gay. Why shouldn’t he know it? I get better interviews when, en passant, I put my cards on the table. Maybe he thinks I’m a closet case.

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***

The sorrow and the pity with Knight was not that he used hustlers. It’s that he was unable to sever himself from the umbilical cord that bound him to a patriarchal society. Cut it, and there was the possibility of losing his patrimony. To go against it would be to go against everything he was ever taught in all those fancy schools. For Knight to accept what he was meant he might not be accepted by the hierarchy that expected greatness of him. Greatness meant strength. Strength meant masculinity. Masculinity meant heterosexuality. Heterosexuality meant facade. Maintain facade for the world to see. Cheat in the dark abyss of your soul. Cheat in a dimly lit backyard.

Of course, there’s no telling what might have been had Knight played another card. Impossible to surmise whether he’d meet his equal at the Pines or if he’d search the Rambles for a Billy Sage replacement. The truth is, when you’re rich and the sex urge beckons, it’s easy to dial a whore. But there are as many varieties of male hustlers as there are Baskin-Robbins flavors. Many call themselves “models.” They’re not the runaway kind.

Hustlers who advertise in the Advocate are the household variety. Some are college kids who need the bucks to get them through school. Some are recession victims. Others are actors and dancers who can’t hold steady jobs because they need time for auditions. Still others are lazy and find whoring a way to pay the rent. They sit at home, wait for the phone to ring, and charge $30 to $50 a throw. The majority are gay and claim to be “versatile.” They find hustling a way of meeting interesting men they wouldn’t ordinarily meet. A house hustler is usually between 18 and 30. If he’s good, he’s not bothered by age or weight or kink. Unwashed bodies bother, as do obscene phone calls and bargaining. The house hustler is usually safe.

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The street hustler has a tougher time of it. Lilly Law is always there, breathing down the neck. A kid can freeze his ass off and come up with a $10 john, if he’s lucky. Generally, street hustlers are sexually passive, hate what they’re doing, hate who does it to them. Many are straight scrawny kids who still find hustling better than working the messenger route. They are younger than the house models. Often, they have nowhere to live. Pill-popping and hard drugs are part of the scene. Homophobia is, too. Like: “I hate it but I’m doing it and if I continue doing it, I may turn out to be one of them.” It is not uncommon for a straight street hustler to turn gay. More common, though, is when a straight street hustler becomes monetarily and especially emotionally dependent on one man who is nicer to him than anyone else he knows. The hustler can become possessive and demanding. Indications are that that was the case with Felix Melendez and John Knight.

Felix Melendez was a regular at Fifteenth and Spruce. I talked to straight hustlers who knew him, a gay hustler who claimed he balled with him, and a groupie who swears on the Liberty Bell that he and Felix climaxed simultaneously more than once. Felix obviously liked John Knight. Andrew Liberty claimed that he had been in Knight’s apartment at times when Melendez called. Knight had spoken about him. Melendez’s name was in Knight’s diary. Melendez also received frequent phone calls from Knight at the apartment he shared with a baker in South Philadelphia.

Where Melendez actually met Knight is not known. But in the summer of ’75, Felix had already taken that 15-minute bus ride from the tight-assed machismo of South Philadelphia to the cellophane glitter of Center City. He had the face and body to stop traffic. He was purchasable — and cheap.

Background? Felix was born in North Philadelphia, the son of an itinerant Pentecostal minister from Puerto Rico. He left home in 1972, quit high school, and joined a Neighborhood Youth Corps center in South Philadelphia. His co-youths found him warm-hearted, full of life, and fun. So did Donna Leone, the daughter of a truck driver. In November, 1974, she had his baby. He wanted to marry Donna, but her father told them to wait until he made something of himself. Felix told his poolroom and pizza parlor pals that he would “be somebody, just wait and see.”

Just wait and see.

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***

A faded blue poster of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus decorates the saloon window on the corner where I get off the bus. The poster announces a rummage sale at the Church of Our Lady of something or other. Philip Janison, the lover of Gay Raider Mark Segal, meets me at the corner. We’re a block away from his house. It’s the neighborhood where Soli, Malena, and Melendez lived. It ain’t “The Philadelphia Story” or Grace Kelly. We do a walking tour.

Philip is slight. Wool hat, scarf, and heavy winter duds cover his tiny frame. Prominent are two buttons: “Gay Rights Now” and “I Am a Zionist.” (He’s Italian, but there are no buttons that read “I Am an Italian Zionist.”) How does he get away with it? “I carry a Mace gun.”

As we walk, he explains the makeup of the neighborhood. Reactionary. Mostly working-class Italians. Countless two and three­-story houses, identical in design, forming a monotonous architecture interrupted only by a candy store or a social club or church. The houses are immaculate. Obviously, the women spend hours scrubbing and sweeping their parcels of concrete and asphalt.

Mayor Rizzo hails from South Philly. He’s the big hero, supported by most of the natives. They love it when he returns in a limousine and waves at them. “Rizzo claims he supports a gay rights bill,” says Philip, ”but he’s unable to get it out of committee.” Rizzo’s power is strong enough, however, to allow recently deceased City Councilman O’Donnell to run for office. The man was one of Rizzo’s allies. Believe it or not, the dead man won the race.

Family honor is big in South Philadelphia. “People are into protecting relatives. You call someone’s sister a whore and you find your head smashed in.” The Mafia family is taken for granted. They support the community. Better the Mafia than the liberal politicians, is the feeling. Tradition has it that a young man “investigates” the family about the time he has his first lay. Some of the great hoods in the city hail from South Philadelphia.

Everyone accepts the drug problem. There’s not much you can do about it. Few accept blacks. On the block where Philip Janison lives, a black family moved in. “Nigger” was painted on their front door. They moved after six months.

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Homosexuality in the neighborhood means drag queens. Philip is a problem because he isn’t obvious, but is open about his lifestyle and appears on radio and television shows. Philip’s family is having a tough time living with Philip’s gayness. He claims his father calls Mark Segal “your Jew faggot leader.” Once he pulled a gun on one of Philip’s gay friends and ordered the man out of the house. There’d be far less of a problem if Philip were effeminate. Then you’re not bothered, es­pecially if you grew up in South Philadelphia. You’re considered a freak of nature. Machismo is all.

The streets arc quiet. The weather’s below freezing. It’s early noon. We pass the saloon where Maleno hung out. Philip points out the last house where Felix Melendez lived. The blinds are drawn at the home of Salvatore Soil’s parents.

Evening now, and I’m alone outside the Pullo Funeral Home. There’s a small congenial crowd hovering around the entranceway. I decide to go in.

I bow my head and nod solemnly at the pomaded mortician’s aide at the door. He gestures for me to sign the Felix Melendez guest book. I don’t. I find a seat near the back of the parlor. The mourners are mostly young girls in mini-skirts, craggy-faced mamas, babies, and teenaged boys with Philadelphia Flyers jackets and acne. They occupy twenty rows of bridge chairs which come to a halt a yard away from an open casket. There’s sobbing. A young girl whimpers and a baby cries and another girl cries and another. Who are they? Friends of Donna Leone? Past acquaintances from the neighborhood center? They make me feel out of place and I am out of place, conspicuous to myself because I shouldn’t be here, somewhat guilt-ridden, somewhat paranoic.

I notice a plainclothesman from police headquarters. He notices me, too, and his eyes hit the floor. Another intruder, I think, thank the Lord.

The place soon fills to capacity. From where I sit, it is difficult to see Felix Melendez’s death-face in the open coffin. There’s a line of fifteen people waiting to get a view. One of the viewers is a repeater. I get in line.

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The moving to the coffin is a slow process. Once there, the procedure is to look at the body for as long as you like, then get back to your seat or leave the parlor. Most of the viewers sneak a quick glance. One viewer gazes and prays for what seems an hour. The line in back of me is long.

Now it’s my turn. The coffin is plushed up with white silk-satin. Melendez is clad in a tan summer suit. He is long and lanky. His tie is tied in a tight Windsor knot. His hands are folded across his chest. His hair is sleeked back. The cosmetician has done a remarkable job restoring whatever damage the bullet wound did to his head. He looks like a waxwork of Rudolph Valentino. He sports a half-smile. Or is it a silent snicker?

Enough. My eyes shift to his shoes. Cheap, with those tiny ventilated airholes. Heels in A-1 condition. Big feet. No sign of socks.

Below his feet is a pretty heart-shaped bouquet of white gladioli. Tied to the bouquet is a card. The card reads “Daddy.” That’s all. “Daddy.”

***

The gladioli and the Daddy card were buried with Felix. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Why The Warriors Rumble

Wild in the Aisles

On Church and Flatbush avenues in Brooklyn, directly across the street from a graveyard where scenes in Arsenic and Old Lace took place, stands the RKO Kenmore. It was once a plush old movie palace, but it’s been sliced into four tiny portions. Each plays a different film. Su­perman, The Brink’s Job, and The Wiz are getting the family trade this frigid Sunday. The Warriors is getting the kids.

Bundled up next to the ticket tearer is Inspector Isaacs, the head security guard for the International Bureau of Investi­gation. “There have been fights this week,” he admits, “but we move them outside. Probably every youth gang in Brooklyn has been here for this one. They go in noisy, they try to take over the theatre. The movie makes them do bad things. Some of them come in with weapons. But it wouldn’t be wise for them to threaten us with guns because we have guns and we know how to use them. When they get real rough, we kick them out and they threaten to come back. But talk is cheap.”

During the late afternoon show, there’s plenty of noise but only one inci­dent. A guard, who weighs in at about 350, escorts a kid to the lobby and curses under his breath. “They don’t like to be called kids, so we treat them as adults. They don’t come here looking for trou­ble, but they see this movie and it ends up trouble.”

“RKO went to a lot of trouble,” claims the Kenmore’s manager: “They gave us extra se­curity guards for The Warriors. It cost the company $1800 for the week. This is a bad one.”

In the lobby, a 16 year old, who claims to be a member of the Tomahawks, remarks that “the movie makes me wanna do the same things the Warriors do.” What things? “You know. Bopping.”

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Paramount pulled the Warriors ad for six days last week. The illustration showed a vast mob of black and white teenagers in various postures of menace. They had skinned skulls, Arab turbans, hippie vests, leather jackets, black glasses. Some held baseball bats and scowled, ready to attack. “These are the armies of the night,” read the copy.

Three killings have been linked to show­ings of The Warriors during the first week of its release. An 18 year old was stabbed to death during a rumble in the Esplanade Theatre in Oxnard, California. In Palm Springs, a 19-year-old Hells Angel was shot in the head at the snack bar of the drive-in where the film was playing. And in Boston, a 16 year old was killed with a hunting knife by assailants who had just seen the movie.

Isolated incidents have occurred in New York, too — mainly minor skirmishes inside and outside theatres. And subway token at­tendants in the Times Square area report an increase in the amount of turnstile jumping this past week. Much of The Warriors takes place in the subways, and a key scene fea­tures a choreographed escape to an oncoming IRT, in which the Warriors leap over turnstiles. It’s a scene that has adults as well as children rooting for the gang.

The actor who plays Rembrandt, the graffiti artist in The Warriors, is Marcelino Sanchez. A Sal Mineo look-alike, he accom­panied me to three different theatres where his movie is playing. Although Sanchez has had his Afro cut to standard disco length, he is still recognizable. At the RKO Kenmore, he wears a Sly Stallone F.I.S.T. cap and a coat large enough to hide Robert Morley. Yet the manager is apprehensive, sneaks him in and sneaks him out.

Sanchez lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn with his parents. He’s the oldest of four children. The family came to this country from Puerto Rico when Marcelino was six. “I grew up in a rough ghetto,” he says. “When I attended junior high school, I was ripped off almost daily for nickels and dimes. If I took money to school, I had to hide it in my socks.”

A gang called the Devil Rebels operated a clubhouse two doors away from the Sanchez home. “The Rebels didn’t terrorize the neighborhood. If anything, they protected us. They’d bum cigarettes from my mother: she’d throw them one or two. You couldn’t treat them badly, because they weren’t really bad at heart. They kept other gangs from coming to our neighborhood. I remember watching the Rebels take off in a large group, one day, to rumble. It was frightening and stimulating.”

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While the Rebels were cleaning their cuti­cles with switchblades and smoking a sub­stance stronger than his mother’s cigarettes, Marcelino enrolled at the High School of Art and Design. He studied graphics then switched to acting. A couple of years ago, he toured Spain in Hair. When his agent heard about The Warriors, he arranged for Mar­celino to audition for writer-director Walter Hill. Hill signed the 21-year-old actor im­mediately to play the passive but quick-wit­ted Warrior.

All through production, the cast worked as a unit. No one was a star. Sanchez declares, “We had no idea of the waves the film would make. The original screenplay had more real­ism and moralistic views. It was crude, vio­lent, and hit the gut. They switched it to a fantasy script, with super heroes and Star War-type confrontations. The end result is like a cartoon.”

Most of the players in The Warriors are card-carrying Screen Actors Guild profes­sionals, though some of the extras are chartered members of neighborhood gangs. Word of real trouble reached the Voice during the shooting of the conclave scene in Riverside Park last summer: muggings and threats of physical violence among the extras. But no gang warfare.

Sanchez admits he was oblivious to trou­ble. “I found myself loving those guys in the movie who were my Warrior brothers. It was a family unit, like being part of a gang: a gang that cared for each other. The surrogate family has to be a reason for gangs in the first place.”

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Far from Brooklyn, Tom Esty, age 14, white, precocious, from a well-heeled family, says he’s seen The Warriors twice at the Kips Bay Cinema and once at Loew’s Cine on East 86th Street. He keeps going back because “my generation seems to be inspired not by violence, although there are psychopaths, but by stories of people who overcome trou­ble. Like odysseys. The movie is like a mod­em-day odyssey.”

The movie is also R-rated. Ostensibly, anyone under 17 is not admitted unless accompanied by an adult. According to Tom Esty, that’s no problem. He’ll ask a young man or a couple in line if they’ll take him in as their kid brother. Naturally, he pays his own way. Many of his school chums at Trini­ty do likewise.

At the Loew’s Cine, there were “too many guards and a feeling of apprehension in the audience, like something might happen,” recalls Esty. “During certain parts, people threw beer cans and bottles toward the screen.”

If taken realistically, The Warriors is a silly film with extraordinary visuals. But repeated viewings reveal a revolutionary and romantic movie that subliminally canonizes gangs. The world inhabited by the Warriors is adolescent, with not a single adult to wag a moralistic finger. Yet the kids emulate their oppressors. There’s an assassination of a Malcolm X type which the Warriors are accused of committing. The black gang leaders represent an outraged formal government. They send out other gangs — or armies — to get the wrongdoers. The pursuit is a fight to the death for both sides. We know the Warri­ors are innocent, and we root for them. They’re basically sweet, sexy kids. We want them to win. But we also like the pursuers. The real villains are in another film, much as they’re at another theatre, like Cinema I, say, watching Agatha.

Appealing, too, are the artifacts of the movie — the children’s toys used in warfare. Roller skates become terrifying. Baseball bats menace, especially in light of the beat­ings that erupted at the Ramble in Central Park last summer. A scene with a girl gang­ — the Lizzies — starts off with the Lizzies sympathetic to the Warriors. But it’s just an act; they turn against them with guns. The wom­en’s movement could do plenty with that one. And sociologists could have a field day with the fact that the Warriors gang is inte­grated — the movie never mentions race. It doesn’t have to. The authority figure is black and compassionate. The assassination victim is black. The assassin is a demented white.

On the surface, The Warriors is cowboys and Indians, and, to this viewer, the most lovingly moral and beautiful film of the past year. It’s also the most disturbing.

The New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street, just off Broadway, is a throwback to the days of Ziegfeld. Its architecture is early birdbath, with cherubs, curliques, gold mir­rors, bas reliefs, stars, moons, all the little necessities that signaled posh during the ’20s.

Those in line waiting to catch the 5:15 show on Washington’s birthday are black, male, and young. Had they arrived a couple of hours earlier, they would have smelled a peculiar odor: two stink bombs had been tossed in the theatre. The smell is hardly no­ticeable now. Grass is a better deodorant than Airwick.

Inside, a nonstop game of ants in the pants takes place, featuring moving, shuffling, drinking, and bumming of cigarettes. Men wander through the house calling out the names of other men whom they’ve lost.

Suddenly, from the back of the theater, a shout.

“Security!”

Two cops, followed by an usher, run up the balcony stairs, and roughly drag two kids — each about 13 — to a basement office. The office door locks in back of them. An older man, about 22, follows. He’s scream­ing:

“That’s my cousin and his friend, you mo­therfuckers. Hit him and you’ll have to ac­count to me.”

“What happened?” I ask.

“It was snowing outside,” he says, “and I told my cousin and his friends I’d take them to The Warriors, see. We didn’t have enough money and some of them sneaked in. If these fuckers throw my cousin in jail, there’s gon­na be blood. Hear me. Their blood. They’re gonna account to me. What are you writ­ing?”

“Just what you said. Why did you come here?”

“I’ve come every day since The Warriors started.”

“Do you belong to a gang?”

“Fuck that. I used to be with a gang that protected the 79th Precinct in Bed-Stuy. All those cops knew us. Don’t write down the name of the gang. Then I served 2½ years. They’re gonna throw my cousin in jail, those fuckers.”

The door to the basement office opens. A security guard comes out. The older man pulls at the door. He’s muttering obscenities. He yells at the cop, “What are you gonna do to my cousin?”

The guard tells him to get out of the lobby. He starts to push the manager, too. The old­er man shouts, “You don’t care about my cousin, you motherfuckers. You’re gonna get it.”

He’s thrown out of the theatre.

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High up in the Gulf+Western Building, Gordon Weaver, senior vice-president of worldwide marketing for Paramount, ex­plains the violence. “There are events, such as a rock concert, or a political rally, or a sports happening that by their very nature bring together groups of people from diverse backgrounds, individuals who wouldn’t or­dinarily be at the same place at the same time. Bringing them together creates kin­dling wood. Anything can trigger trouble. Whether it’s throwing popcorn in the air, or, as in Oxnard, where someone in line asked for money, and the next thing you know, someone else is dead.”

Did Paramount brass have any idea of the violence that the film would cause? “None whatsoever,” answers Weaver. “And we are not naïve. We previewed the film for a mixed audience in Long Beach and showed it a number of times at the studio. There was simply no indication.”

Yet the movie was not shown to critics in New York until the day before it opened. Ac­cording to a report in Variety, Paramount claimed the screenings were late due to last-minute editing and unavailability of prints. “That explanation doesn’t hold up,” notes the trade paper, “since Paramount opened the film in 670 theatres on February 9. It takes at least two weeks for that many prints to be struck.”

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Does the studio have a moral obligation to pull The Warriors? The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, in a front-page story, insists that it does. Gordon Weaver is evasive. “Every­thing we do,” he says, “has the potential to influence great numbers around the world. Our obligation is to make sure that our films can withstand a reasonable moral-ethical test.” Can The Warriors withstand that test? Weaver responds that the company doesn’t have a position, but his personal feeling is that the film’s intent is not to be inflammato­ry, “no more than the movie of Superman is responsible for making children fly.”

Nevertheless, Superman has made one lit­tle boy attempt to fly, just as The Eddie Du­chin Story made people fall in love, as The Exorcist made the queasy vomit, as Top Hat in­spired the nation to buy black and white fur­niture. The trend for Madame Curie and The Life of Louis Pasteur inspirational biography died with Louis B. Mayer.

In fact, we may be in for a rocky summer since a gang-war film cycle is in full swing. Rumbles are big business — The Warriors grossed $12 million in its first 16 days — but movie moguls have already pressed the panic button. Universal has scheduled Walk Proud for June release. Until last week, the film was titled Gang. It was shot in Marina Del Ray and Venice, California; is “a romantic drama set against a background of Chicano rivalry”; has a screenplay by Evan Hunter, whose sen­sitivity quotient you can fit into the bellybut­ton of a cockroach; and stars Robby Benson, whose acting ability you can squeeze into the same navel.

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Orion has The Wanderers, directed by Phil (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) Kaufman, set for a July 10 multiple-theatre release through Warner Brothers. Gabe Sumner, Orion’s senior vice-president of distribution and mar­keting, calls The Wanderers “a stylized and funny bigger-than-life look at a group of gangs in the New York area.” Like The War­riors, its cast is made up of unknowns. And like The Warriors, the action is heavy on street fights. “The public tends to lump things together too easily,” insists Sumner. “Our film is a satire.” Does he foresee trou­ble? “There could be, but I want to emphasize that the violence is in the context of something far greater than just violence, like in West Side Story, Rocky, and Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Sumner didn’t explain just what that con­text is.

Meanwhile, a “good” gang, the Magnifi­cent 13, is picketing theatres showing The Warriors, contending that it glorifies street violence. Last week they took to the Lexing­ton Avenue No. 4 IRT train, making like a vigilante patrol unit. They happened upon a knifepoint robbery and broke it up, though not without casualties. One of the Magnificent 13 was hit in the jaw, knocked senseless, and taken to North Central Bronx Hospital. The gang insists they’ll continue the struggle, but the Transit Authority cops aren’t pleased with their “good” intentions.

Thursday, February 22. An evening subway ride on the No. 4 IRT to the RKO Ford­ham in the Bronx. Torn pages from the Daily News cover some of the crud on the floor. Graffiti on the doors, on the windows. Blank faces on the young men who sit with their legs spread apart. “WABC wants to make you a star,” reads an overhead poster. Under the poster sits Marcelino Sanchez.

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At the theatre, he is spotted. A mob forms. It’s as if a local warrior has returned to the scene of his conquests.

Boys in imitation leather treat him with subdued respect. They want to know how much money he earns. They talk about their gangs: the Reefers, the Skulls, the Savage Nomads, the Playboys. A girl says, “I want to ask you a question, but I don’t know what to ask you.” Another asks if he’ll come to her sister’s wedding.

In the outer lobby a fracas occurs. A kid in a red jacket is refused admission. He keeps trying to break through the guard brigade. Another child, no more than 12, curses and paces, ready to pounce. He is handsome — a dwarf version of Robert De Niro — tough, mean. Saliva forms at the side of his mouth; he’s furious. But there’s no way he can get in.

A clique follows Marcelino into the theatre, and sits behind him in the balcony. Several groupies say they’ve lived at the Fordham since The Warriors opened, nearly two weeks ago. Because they know exactly what to expect, they’re not as hostile as the New Amsterdam audience. The Warriors is a cultural event to them, in the tradition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, except this is not a trendy piece for downtown wimps. The Warriors, man, is family.

They hoot and holler, recite lines with the actors, talk back to the screen, but they keep the peace. Sure, last week someone pulled a knife, but no one got nicked. Sure, they come in with their joints, and tell the security guard to fuck off when he warns “you better chill that racket,” or “take your feet down from the furniture, you with the shirt.”

Ten minutes before the final scene, the guard approaches Marcelino. “See that wheelchair over there,” he says. “Sit in it, and we’ll push you out so you won’t attract attention.”

Marcelino looks at the guard as if he’s crazy. These are the guys who make the rules?

Onward with the armies of the night. ■

Categories
Equality From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Gay Rights: Forget It

I go through life’s little traumas. My book isn’t in Brentano’s window, so I get de­pressed. A playwright I met in San Francisco uses me, but can’t stay the night. Copy is cut, so that the original point of my story is lost. I don’t know whether or not to tell someone I love that I love him. Then Guyana happens. Then Moscone and Harvey Milk are assas­sinated. Then the gay-rights bill fails again at City Council. And everything that’s big seems inconsequential. I go to glamorous parties and wonder why I’m there. I taxi to a screening of The Deer Hunter and walk out when a deer is shot. I make a fish stew and can’t eat it. The avocado I bought last week is rotting in the fruit bowl. This month life is frightening, and death too real. Here are some thoughts on gay rights, politics, and life.

There was yet another City Council hear­ing November 29. The idea this time was to get the full council to decide whether it should vote as a body on Intro 384, the bill which would legally protect gays from being discriminated against in employment, public accommodations, and housing. On Novem­ber 8, Intro 384 lost in the General Welfare Committee by a vote of 6 to 3.

Little advance notice of the hearing had been given. The night before, the Daily News ran a short story in which gay lobbyist Allen Roskoff stated that he was certain of 18 discharge votes and “quite hopeful” that four more would be secured. “Quite hopeful” in city council jargon means “forget it.”

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Hopelessness permeated the air even be­ifore the hearings began. The usual rah-rah gay-rights supporters were missing. No more than 15 (the tiniest number ever) cluttered the balcony, while about 30 assorted “normal” types were there to applaud the opposition.

Key sponsor Carol Bellamy overlorded the proceedings. Clearly playing favorites, Coun­cil President Bellamy pounded her gravel, made final crisp judgments, and jutted her jaw in the best Smiling Jack tradition whenever the minority seemed most out of favor. She ran a tight, mean show.

Challenge time began when a councilman spotted a photographer in the hearing room and demanded that he be thrown out. Bella­my didn’t buy. Then Michael DeMarco of the Bronx told her that she was ruling against the house protocol. Bellamy ordered him to shut up. “If you persist, I’ll have a sergeant-­at-arms remove you from the chamber,” she hissed. House majority leader, Tom Cuite (long the leading opponent of gay rights) en­tered the picture and recited parliamentary procedure. It was clear to the blind what was taking place: the debate was not about cam­eras, but old thinking versus new, censorship versus opennness, anti-gay forces versus pro­-gay. Censorship won: 28 votes to toss the photographer out, 12 to allow him to stay.

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Councilman Leon Katz of Brooklyn, with no understanding of the gay-rights issue, claimed that “we can’t enact legislature ad­vocating homosexual conduct as acceptable and as the desirable correct way.” Katz­ — along with many of his colleagues — was un­able to differentiate between doing it and be­ing it. The act defined the issue.

Throughout the endless debate that fol­lowed, mini-melodramas took place offstage. Tom Cuite put his arm around Councilman Fred Samuel, and led him, buddy-like, out of the chamber. Later, when it came time to vote, Samuel, a sponsor of the bill, voted no. What was said — or offered to Samuel — is a mystery that undoubtedly will be solved in the weeks to come. Also a mystery: why Koch wasn’t there to lead a few councilmen to his inner office for a game of friendly per­suasion. Instead, an aide distributed paper­back copies of Laura Z. Hobson’s Consenting Adults as a meaningful gift from the mayor to the council. He’d have done better with Scru­ples.

In all fairness, several 384 supporters spoke quite elegantly. Manhattan Council­man-at-large Henry Stern claimed that if the bill was to be voted down, City Hall would be in backwater, that the private sector was ahead of the public sector. He added that a “no” vote would be a reflection on the city council. Brooklyn Councilman-at-large Rob­ert Steingut offered that he was not con­cerned with millions, but with a handful of people who have no redress to a legislative body. Manhattan Councilwoman Jane Trichter hit the nail on the head when she claimed that “what is operating here is a fear of that which is different.”

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That which is always the same, was pro­vided by Bronx Councilwoman Aileen Ryan, whom Murray Kempton called “a most un­movable, hard, dumb woman.”

Ryan wailed, “I am proud that the General Welfare Committee has bent over backwards to give fair hearings … In the name of family and stability, defeat this motion to dis­charge.”

Vincent Riccio of Brooklyn offered good cause for the city to do away with the council completely. “I was told City Council was an easy job,” he complained, “but I spend all my days going to committee meetings.” He proceded to attack the gay community with a viciousness indigenous to tyrants who build support out of hate. From the balcony came hissing, but the sound was like rhumba mu­sic to Riccio’s ears. He took little square steps with his feet when the hissings broke into boos.

“I believe New York should have a refe­rendum,” he continued. “If this bill passes, I shall make such a move.” Apparently he was unaware that a different kind of referendum is being discussed in top gay political circles. One which would allow the voters next year to decide whether the City Council should be abolished. Only 50,000 signatures are needed to get it going.

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Riccio concluded his tirade by noting that he had received letters calling him dirty names “because I represent family and reli­gion.” Since reporter feedback was prohibit­ed, I could not tell the councilman that he does not represent my own father and mother, who are originally from Brooklyn, or Morty Manford’s father and mother from Queens, or Vito Russo’s parents from Man­hattan. The Bells, the Manfords, and the Russos happen to love their children. They also happen to be supportive of their beliefs.

But it wouldn’t have mattered if Oscar Wilde’s mother served as the councilwoman from Staten Island. The bill was doomed. Fi­nal vote: 16 for, 26 against — the most re­sounding defeat for gay rights in New York since the bill was first introduced in 1971, approximately seven hearings ago.

The brainchildren who decided to rehash the vote this time are as much to blame as the councilpeople who voted against it. They include members of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights and the New York Political Action Council (NYPAC), who met with In­tro 384 supporters, such as Bellamy, Jane Trichter, Tony Olivieri, Carol Greitzer, and Henry Stern. All of them knew it would lose, for not only were they dealing with the bill, they were suggesting a change in council procedure. Change is the last thing the mori­bund council would consider. The gay-rights politicos, then, are to be faulted for inflicting further psychological damage to the collec­tive gay psyche. According to NYPAC’s Nick Bollman, “We did it to get the votes on record. The major defeat was when Intro 384 went down a couple of weeks before.”

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So now we have a record, and what are we to do with it? Send Kool-Aid popsicles to Ai­leen Ryan and Vincent Riccio? And petunias to Henry Stern?

Threatening, boycotting, educating is not the way to get power from political assholes. Money and favors are. If offered a house in Quogue or a judgeship in Queens, there is no doubt in my mind that several zealot anti-gay gnomes would suddenly open their hearts, if not their homes, and allow the gay vote to tiptoe in.

The morning after Proposition 6 was de­feated — a victory that was more a vote against witchhunts than one for gay rights — I appeared on the Mid-Morning Show in L.A. John Briggs called the TV station. The sena­tor, in the best Douglas MacArthur tradi­tion, swore he and his forces would return. He attributed his loss to the fact that the pro-­gay forces had a million-dollar kitty for ad­vertising while the Briggs guys had a small fraction of that amount. The host asked him if politics was a matter of money, and, in his roundabout way, Briggs admitted it was.

Why gay people insist on being part of this corruption is something I just have come to analyze. Why should our anger erupt because of a defeat that came about through lack of funds or poor advertising or dumb planning? None of this has anything to do with who we are.

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The gay-rights bill should be a matter of common decency, not one of political ma­neuverings — from either side.

In Manhattan, Koch doesn’t have the clout to buy off the handful of bigots who claim to represent their constituents, while those gay millionaires and denizens of fashion and high society who own sage brush homes in the Pines wouldn’t think of contributing to “the cause.” I no longer blame them. Gay politics is not the way.

Perhaps it once was. Once there was hope. Once gay power was a joyous cry in this town. Then the thrust toward radicalism died. The stuffed-shirt gay politico appeared. Lethargy set in. Anger followed the Bryant defeat. Sorrow follows Milk.

For gay people the war is on, but the way to fight is not through politics. The way is through pleasure. So when things get tough, my advice to readers is don’t run to the Task Force. Forget about City Hall. Go to Christo­pher Street. And handle matters your own way. ♦

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March for Mass

About 250 women and men congregat­ed at Sheridan Square in the rain last Sunday night to form a candlelight procession mourning the death of Harvey Milk. They marched through the West Village to Metropolitan Duane Metho­dist Church, punctuating the quiet night with shouts of “enough shit,” the new gay slogan.

In many ways, the march was similar to the candlelight vigil that followed the Snake Pit raid in March 1970. At that time, a young immigrant, Diego Vinales, fearful of deportation, jumped from a po­lice station window, only to be impaled on a picket fence. Many of the same acti­vists who anended the Vinales vigil were present at the Milk procession, including Jim Owles, first president of the Gay Ac­tivists Alliance, and Craig Rodwell, own­er of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Book­shop.

Rodwell, who knew Milk from the ear­ly ’60s, spoke at the church. He said, “Harvey was an atheist, and I also think he will forgive us for meeting here tonight.” Rodwell suggested that gun con­trol be added to the list of gay issues. Trish Williams, a lesbian folksinger, sang, “You’ve pushed us back/you’ve pushed us back/but you will push us back no more.” The congregation sang along with Williams, as if it were a hymn.

— A.B.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Mike Umbers: Christopher’s Emperor

A week ago last Monday, Mike Umbers sat on the deck of his Gay Dogs on Christopher Street, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon in one hand, a Lark in the other, and talked about prostitution and pornography and real estate —  and himself. He said he was worried that the feds would soon be cracking down on him. Late Thursday, Christopher’s End, his heavily patronized all-male after-­hours bar, was raided and cleared out for the night for ABC liquor violations. Sunday morning, 4 a.m., the place was raided again, this time by the feds as well as city cops. Two of Mike’s employees were arrested and charged with failure to have the $56 federal tax stamps required for retail liquor dealers. Mike, who was not on the premises, escaped arrest.

Mike’s three big Christopher Street operations are Chris­topher’s End, when it’s open, the Studio Book Store, and Gay Dogs. All right-out exploitative. Mike calls himself a gay catalyst and flesh peddler. He deals in boy-boy sex. He describes Mark Litho, his publishing house, as a means to produce paper flesh that his Stu­dio Book Store peddles. Gay Dogs is cruising flesh. And Christopher’s End, with its backroom and nude boy shows, is climax flesh. Mike is also rumored to have his finger in the controver­sial Stonewall Inn. It was boarded up June 27, 1969, and won’t be re­opened until a liquor license is issued. Negotiations have been going on for several months. Right now, the second floor of the two-story Stonewall is occupied by a bevy of young men. The Stonewall proper is in construction limbo.

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Mike Umbers may be the “soft­-spoken maverick looking for sexual and financial freedom” described by Women’s Wear Daily, but he’s hardly the Umbers they depict who left his security analyst job at Hayden Stone eight years ago because “I disliked the coat and tie, the pretentiousness of the scene, and hated being packed into subways.” Eight years ago, Mike wasn’t riding subways. He was serving time on a first degree attempted grand larceny charge. Five years, from 1961 to 1965, shuttling between Clinton and Greenhaven and Auburn and Sing Sing. He says he went up on an insurance fraud and it was his first arrest, in fact the first time anyone from his Long Island family ever went to jail. In all four prisons, he worked for psychiatrists, pulling $5 a day. Prison was a tuition-free educa­tion for Mike, “the best education you can get.” When he came out, he had a grand total of $86 in his pocket and owed $40,000.

Contrary to Women’s Wear Daily (“after Wall Street, he began his own construction busi­ness”) Mike went into the boy-girl whoring racket. He says he was “the best male madam in New York with three houses on the East Side, all very luxurious.” One wonders how an ex-con up to his neck in debt, with no credit rating, can make it big and quick in the world of high-class uptown prostitution. The way Mike tells it, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of this good looking broad. The deal was for $300. The money came in dribbles. The broad would intermittently ex­cuse herself from the sitting, disappear for 20 minutes or so, come back, and pay Mike a little more.

The way fate has it, the broad was a whore, a high-class one, the highest in town. She and Mike took to shacking up together. He became her man. She gave Mike a daily allowance of $100. For some reason or other, they went off to Canada. He got busted on a white slavery charge. They came back to the States. But there was a long period when Mike was left alone with Susie’s fancy apart­ment and a ringing phone. So Mike took it upon himself to meet Susie’s girl friends and a few new girls to help satisfy Susie’s clien­tele. Soon Susie returned to reclaim her turf. Mike slipped into the male hustler scene. It’s a heavy scene. Mike got tired of fucking different women three or four times a day and got tired of playing the head games, telling this one I love you truly and as soon as she’s departed, telling that one I’ll marry you. Mike’s energy petered just in time. Three weeks after he got out of the business, the local cops busted down doors of apartments he’d moved out of. The FBI produced a two-inch dossier on him. He says, “I saw it when they tried to make me do something I didn’t want to do.” For the record, the blotter shows 10 Umbers arrests in addi­tion to the larceny term. The ar­rests include procuring and obs­cenity and criminal receiving and petty larceny.

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Mike in the summer of ’71 is not the slim Lothario he was a few summers back. He’s a little paunchy, a little tired, an air of defeat underneath the bravado. All things considered, though, he looks good at age 36. He’s got great pearly white teeth, short salt and pepper hair, kind green eyes, and a native intelligence that would work for him in any business, including security ana­lyst. Plus, he listens. The kids who fetch his cigarettes and sweep his Gay Dogs floors and fix his peep show machines react to Mike like kids trying to please a father. Mike in turn gives them a verbal pat on the head. But his eyes are miles away.

Mike Umbers is not the only one who is having his share of troubles. The July 18 raid on Christopher’s End was one of nine that took place on after-hours bars that night.

The Daily News labels the raids “a move to cut off one of or­ganized crime’s sources of in­come, estimated at $2 million an­nually from nine after-hours clubs alone.” It’s unlikely that income will be cut off for long. The cop at Christopher’s End figures the place could re-open in a few days. And the fed at Christopher’s End figures this is just small pickings in the over-all big syndicate scheme.

“What’s the next step,” I ask Mike Umbers. “Are we heading toward legalized prostitution?” Mike says he’s been approached by a buddy, a super cop on the In­telligence Division, a cop with only a few more years before ret­irement. The cop propositioned Mike about setting up a house. “He claims it’s the next thing Lindsay will do. He’ll legalize prostitution in special districts, maybe within the next year or two, allowing houses to exist. It’ll be a terrific source of revenue, and the Intelligence guy is smart enough to want to get into it at the start.” I ask Mike if he’s into prostitution now. Yeah, sort of, soft sell, through the Studio Book Store. He calls it a male escort service. It works like this. A dude hits town and heads toward the bookstore. He buys $40 worth of porno. So the next question to the clerk is “where can I score?” Out comes the models portfolio. Shots of 10 boy beauties, available at $25 to $50 an hour. The connec­tion is made. The customer pays. And Mike splits 50-50 with the model. All nice and clean, no hassle, everybody’s satisfied. What the model does on the job is his business. Mike doesn’t want to know from it.

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Mike, however, knows his sex business well. Well enough to give an impromptu lecture on the as­cending ladder of whoring. At the very bottom is the streetwalker. It’s the lowest form. The boys peddle their wares on Third Ave­nue in the 50s and West 42nd; the girls play the 40s and West 70s. They trick out of hotels, they do a lot of stealing and beating up of johns for money. They work the hardest and still earn nickels and dimes. “There’s little whoring in the West Village,” says Mike. “It’s the land of boy hustlers and the land of the freebies.” Next step up is the massage parlor. A girl works in the back room of a storefront that’s been converted. Mr. Customer walks in, gets a massage, and if he sounds right, gets more than a massage. The masseuse averages $100 a day. Step three is the man or woman who toils under a madam(e) in a house. The average pay is $150 a day and life is easy. Top of the heap is the call boy or call girl who has his own apartment and his own clientele. If his stamina and business sense are good, he can pull $300 a day.

Mike’s West Village real estate holdings include 714 Greenwich Street, a five-story residential building between West 10th and Charles, and 178 Christopher Hotel, which houses the Krone Gallery and is adjacent to the Christopher Hotel, home of Christopher’s End. He claims he owned these buildings before he went to prison. He also owns two East Village buildings (one is the former STAR house — see last week’s Voice) and East Side. The Christopher Hotel was one of the last addresses of Jerome John­son, Joe Colombo’s attempted killer. Did Mike Umbers know Johnson? “I’d seen him around,” he says. “He was a junkie. He used to hang out at the Keller Hotel. Like most junkies, he’d do anything to hustle a score.” Had Umbers been questioned about the Colombo shooting? “The cops were here three or four hours after it hap­pened. They got what I know.” (On Monday afternoon, after the weekend raids, Chief of Detec­tives Albert Seedman, who has been investigating the shooting of Joe Colombo, announced that Umbers was the link between Di Bella of the Mafia and Johnson.)

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I ask him what’s to become of the STAR house. “I plan on making it into a gay hostel” he says. ”It’ll have three floors of dormitory, and I’ll charge $1.50 a night. Anyone can stay there. I’m not interested in making money. I have gay businesses and I employ gay people. I started this whole empire myself, and I’m doing more for the gay community than any organization.”

I wonder what Mike means by “any organization.” Is he talking about gay liberation?

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Backstage at the Oscars: “Raging Bull” and Raging Bull

Backstage at the Oscars: ‘Raging Bull’ and Raging Bull 
April 8, 1981

Early spring, they descend upon Hollywood like snow in Tibet: producers with horror films to hustle to the studios, emaciated writers with screenplays to peddle to the pro­ducers, press agents, foreign press, unemployed actors, fans from all over the globe who want to wallow in the glamour of it all, and the Oscar nominees. The lucky ones stay at the Chateau Marmont, which is as close to civilization as you can get in a town where nothing’s close to civilization. From a Chateau window, you can see the Yoga Center on Sunset Boulevard, the Liquor Locker, Schwab’s Drug Store of Lana Turner fame, and a mammoth billboard advertising The Final Conflict.

John Hurt of The Elephant Man is registered at the Chateau, as is the Raging Bull contingent. Robert De Niro is a recluse in the penthouse, Joe Pesci occupies a fifth-floor suite, and Martin Scorsese has rented a bungalow near the pool as an office where he auditions actors for The King of Comedy (De Niro and Jerry Lewis will star).

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Tradition has it that at 5 p.m., on Oscar night, while the sun is still shining on the Freeway, the lucky ones descend the Marmont’s carpeted staircase in thousand­-dollar tuxes and evening gowns. They lean against rococo balustrades in the lobby making light conversation while chewing their fingernails to the cuticles. An uniden­tified idiot bangs out “Hooray for Holly­wood” on the Baldwin. Limousines arrive. And in a puff, the nominees are off to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where their fates are revealed on national television.

“After they leave, we have the quietest night of the year,” says Marmont manager Sam Heigman. “But when they return at midnight, the switchboard lights up like a Christmas tree:”

•••

It is three days before the ceremony. Joe Pesci, a short, fluffy-haired New York actor who’s been nominated for supporting De Niro in Raging Bull, is quietly chewing his nails while seated on a piece of Moorish sectional in his Chateau suite. Although Pesci’s onscreen performance is full of sound and fury, offscreen he’s shy and reticent. He says he was signed for Bull after he had given up acting. He was working in a restaurant when old pal Rob­ert De Niro told him he thought he was the right guy to play his brother in the movie.

Pesci’s not sure about the mechanics behind his nomination. “No one said any­thing directly, but I think it started when Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times had some good things to say about my performance. After that, United Ar­tists took out ads every few days in the Hollywood Reporter.”

How did he find out he was nominated? “I just heard it on the radio while I was driving my car,” he says. “Then a couple of days later, I got a telegram from Marty Scorsese wishing me congratulations.”

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Supporting Oscar nominations can be death to actors. It’s known as the Mercedes McCambridge syndrome; instead of being a step up, it’s a step to nowhere. Pesci received a few offers after his nomination but most were for roles in television films. He wasn’t interested. Before Raging Bull, he would have taken commercials, but tel­evision, he feels, is 10 steps backwards. He’d rather wait until another good film part comes along.

Three weeks ago, Pesci came to Califor­nia to see a friend, get some sun, play golf, and just hang out. Then United Artists moved him into the Chateau Marmont. They’re paying his rent for a week, but he’s reluctant to talk up the picture. He especially doesn’t like the idea of hyping Rag­ing Bull on TV.

“I’m not an excitable person,” he says between short telephone conversations with Scorsese and De Niro. “I can’t be doing flips for six months because I’m nominated. I grew up with the Oscars and I’m proud to be honored, but I still can’t help feeling that they made a big mistake.”

Was Pesci preparing himself for the emotional trauma of Oscar night? Yes. By not thinking about it. Should he win, he says, “I’ll not make a speech. If I did, I’d have to think of a lot of nice things to say to a lot of nice people. What I’ll probably do is talk to the actors who never receive recognition and say something inspirational to them. I’d like to say it without being dramatic.”

Joe Pesci lost to Timothy Hutton, who won for Ordinary People. He didn’t have a chance not to be dramatic.

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•••

No one is busier, glitzier, sillier, stodgier, or more sincere than Miss Rona. She is the Ed Koch of tinseltown, the populist, the moralist, the kid to kid. She is phony. She is real. She is Hollywood.

“Now, Carol,” asked Miss Rena on TV the morning after Carol Burnett won her libel suit against the National Enquirer. “Was there ever any time when the suit affected your relationship with your hus­band?”

“No, Rona,” answered Miss Carol, even ­more sincerely. “Joe has always been very supportive.”

Burnett’s victory has divided Hollywood. Drugstore cowboys at Schwab’s feel the jurors were predisposed to hate the ­Enquirer, If you live in Hollywood, you’ve got to be. Perhaps the Enquirer was punished far too severely, but to quote director Arthur Hiller (he’s making Making Love at Fox), “They’ve unfairly maligned so many celebrities, I’m glad Burnett responded and got her million-six.”

Yet one can’t help wondering if there is a correlation between Burnett’s suit during this Reagan conservative period and the innumerable lawsuits instituted against Confidential magazine during the McCarthy era. Ten celebrity suits are pending against the Enquirer. The L.A. Times reports “there may be an even more determined effort by the tabloid to defend itself against them.”

Burnett’s victory knocked Oscar out of the news, the weekend before the telecast. It was the talk of Hollywood.

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•••

So much tension, so much excitement, so much activity during Oscar week. Visiting here is like spending a day at the Club Baths. United Artists invites the press to meet its “new star in town,” Mrs. Frisby, the animated rat heroine of a feature-length fantasy now in production. MGM opens its Culver City gates to journalists and and sneaks scenes from Pennies from Heaven (Christopher Walken doing a bump-and-grind strip, Bernadette Peters shaking her ninotchkas in Steve Martin’s  face, Steve Martin dancing incredibly well for a comedian), followed by a luncheon on a sound stage (lox, shrimp, strawberries, cheesecake, and columnist Aaron Gold), followed by a set visit (Herbert Ross directing Steve and Bernadette in a replica of Fred and Ginger’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance number)”.

Filmex is about to open with Atlantic City, the American Film Market at the Westwood Marquis Hotel has been run­ning for a week, and the Publicists Guild gives a luncheon at the Beverly Hilton (chicken fried in canned pineapple, broc­coli spears, publicist Renee Furst) at which Mary Crosby, Ron Howard, John House­man, Natalie Wood, and Linda Purl present “showmanship” awards. Goldie Hawn gets one as “the motion picture showman of the year,” a sexist title to numb Goldie’s feminist consciousness. Accumulating pre-Oscar awards has an effect on Academy voters, but no one expects Goldie to win for Private Benjamin. And she doesn’t.

Academy voters are desensitized and lobotomized by trade paper ads: Oscar winners are judged less by the the amount of money a studio will spend to plug what it’s pushing. Warner Bros. can take out approximately 20 Hollywood Reporter ads between Christmas and Oscar night lauding Goldie for Private Benjamin (the ads undoubtedly helped her get a nomination), but Universal will top them with 30 hailing Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter (an entirely new Oscar ad campaign was mounted). Major consideration is a studio’s investment in future projects for the nominee. Sissy is currently looping Raggedy Man for Uni­versal, which the studio feels could be as big as Coal Miner’s Daughter.

If an actor doesn’t play ball with the studio, he’s forgotten at Oscar time. Barry Miller got the best reviews for Fame and should have been pushed for a supporting nomination. He bad-mouthed the film. MGM didn’t hype Miller in any of Fame‘s innumerable trade paper ads; Two years ago, Paramount took out a paltry three Hollywood Reporter ads promoting Susan Sarandon in King of the Gypsies. Susan felt she was shafted: this was her finest moment. However Paramount was pushing co-star Eric Roberts as their Trav­olta of the future. Susan bought a couple of ads with her own money. Neither she nor Roberts was nominated, and Roberts’s movie career came to a standstill. (Ironically, his first film since King of the Gypsies is Raggedy Man, and the word is that he’s excellent.)

At the Publicists Guild luncheon, a Universal executive explains that “it’s all up to the gods. We can only push a little.” He thinks the Academy voters might choose Eva Le Gallienne for Resurrection because she’s old and she’s got lines like “If we could only love each other the way we say we do.” If, by some fluke, Ellen Burstyn wins for Resurrection (she doesn’t) her Oscar would bring the crowds in. Moviegoers adore Resurrection, he says, but the problem all along has been getting them to see it.

“Whatever it’s worth, whatever the cynicism, Oscar symbolizes the mystique and glamour of Hollywood,” proclaims Camille Lane, Universal’s advertising di­rector. “For those of us in the business, it is our one reaffirming moment of glory.”

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•••

Oscar means different things to dif­ferent people. To the owner of the Blue Parrot in West Hollywood, it’s renting a six-foot screen and listening to customers wonder if Angie had a face lift and why Sissy doesn’t get a good hairdresser. To the display designer at Ah Men on Santa Monica Boulevard, it’s a window with a Raging Bull poster and a mannequin in red boxer shorts. To Swifty Lazar, it’s hosting yet another star-studded bash up­stairs at the Bistro. To William Morris super agent Joan Hyler, “Oscar night is not just another business evening, but a rit­ual.”

This is Hyler’s second Oscar night. In 1975, she sat next to a nominee “who was drunker than anybody I’ve ever seen. I spent the entire evening worrying whether he’d throw up on my new Halston.”

Hyler’s date this year is client Peter O’Toole, nominated for The Stunt Man. She believes that a nomination separates  an actor from his peers. It’s prestigious, of course, but you can also up a performer’s price: With some actors, like De Niro and Robert DuVall, a nomination will Solidify what they’re already earning. Mary Steen­burgen’s worth should be affected because she’s new and young and on the brink of becoming a major movie star.

“For Peter O’Toole, the nomination makes Hollywood happy to have him back again. Peter’s been gone too long: he has an enormous talent. Unfortunately, you’ve got to keep reminding them. Hollywood’s a town with a very short memory,” says Hyler, whose clients include Patti Davis. The president’s daughter has done a very effective reading for a part in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, and is supposed to be in the audience at the Oscar show.

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•••

Monday morning, March 30, the day the Oscars are scheduled. The Tuxedo Center on Sunset Boulevard resembles Mamie Stover’s whorehouse in Guam during World War IL Male customers line up outside. They all look anxious. Inside, they’re measured. They fork out $50 for a day’s tuxedo rental. The price includes studs.

At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the bleachers are filled. The broadcast is still eight hours away. Fans are young. Many have brought sleeping bags, blankets, food, and portable television sets. Greg Aiken., 21, from Del Mar, arrived 36 hours ago and has been sleeping on a bench and using bathroom facilities at a nearby service sta­tion. Seven women from San Diego arrived the afternoon before and waited outside the stage door to see the stars come in to rehearse. Sissy Spacek was real nice. Donald Sutherland wore red shoes. Peter O’Toole looked tired and worn. Lily Tomlin signed autographs. Diana Ross was rude, Angie Dickinson asked, “Are you from the Enquirer?”, Robert Redford rushed in with his head down. “You can bet we won’t ski at his lodge,” says the den mother of the San Diego group, “and we’ll remember his behavior when we see his movies.”

It’s an innocent, good-spirited, picnic­ — more Woodstock than Day of the Locust. Several fans carry posters: “We love you Jane Fonda.” “Hooray for Sissy.” “Why isn’t Madeline Kahn nominated?” whines a bobby-soxer. “Because she doesn’t de­serve to be,” snaps a teeny-bopper.

Everyone has an opinion.

Back at Schwab’s the visiting reporter asks Barbara the cashier if the drugstore’s gone Oscar crazy today.

“No, it’s gone Ronald Reagan crazy.” Has he decided to appear in person instead of on film? “No. He was shot in Washington an hour ago.”

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•••

Televisions blare from every room in the Chateau Marmont. Reagan’s in surgery. Jim Brady’s near death. Maureen Reagan is furious. Michael Reagan is sad­dened. Dan Rather’s in tears. The coun­try’s gone crazy. The world’s about to col­lapse. Again.

The telephone rings: Joan Hyler’s sec­retary to say they’ve just gotten word from the Academy that the Oscars have been postponed until tomorrow. Marilyn Beck goes on ABC News to explain that the Oscar ball scheduled for the Beverly Hilton will now conflict with the closing night banquet of the American Film Mar­ket on Tuesday — caterers and florists are facing a major dilemma, and beauticians in Beverly Hills are going crazy. Later, a press agent, who’s scheduled a private par­ty for 50, phones complaining that he can’t fit all that quiche into his freezer so he’s giving a Reagan-watch party instead. A publicist from United Artists calls explain­ing that he’s having a terrible time rescheduling limousines: At the Chateau’s front desk, the manager cries, “I’m in trou­ble. I won’t have rooms for tomorrow.” An actor in the lobby (not nominated) won­ders if the assassination attempt is con­sidered an Act of God and if Tuxedo Cen­ter will charge him another day’s rental.

Oscar nominee Mary Steenburgen calls, too. She’s feeling “real disturbed.” Mary and her husband, Malcolm McDowell, have decided to watch television and eat in. “I’m glad they cancelled the show,” she says. ”It’s inappropriate that performers receive awards tonight. Right now, I feel a great deal of rage about the lack of gun control in this country. Like everybody else, I’m feeling real sad.”

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•••

Tuesday. The themes of politics, assassination, celebrity, and movies have never been more dramatically visible than backstage on Oscar night. A block away from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a bomb squad truck blares its way toward the arena. Security has been stepped up. Usually 200 guards are on duty. This year, 350 policemen, sheriff’s deputies, and private plainclothesmen patrol inside and outside the hall. Many actors bring along their own bodyguards. Richard Pryor is always within thumb’s reach of his Man Mountain Dean.

An hour before the show, word filters to the press about John Hinckley’s letters to Jodie Foster, including the final one, not mailed, confessing his unrequited love and stating, “There is a definite possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan.” The immediate reaction is life imitates art: Taxi Driver with Hinckley playing De Niro, minus Marty Scorsese’s direction. Especially in Hollywood, this sort of news upstages the Oscars.

Each year, before the Oscar show, Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd greets celebrity arrivals and pulls them up to a makeshift stage below the bleachers. He exchanges small talk with heavy-duty nominees as well as stars of yesterday like Cesar Romero and Gale Sondergaard. They wave at the fans (Angie Dickinson: “Thank you for being so patient”) and the fans, in turn, wave back and scream their approval. Hawn, Burstyn, Spacek, Moore, Duvall, Redford, but no De Niro or Scorsese. Would they attend? As it turned out, they either arrived hours early, or sneaked in a side door.

From the sidelines, one gathers that Oscar is an affair for those giving and getting awards, their families, Los Angeles society matrons, and studio executives. It is not an all-out industry celebration. Stars in disfavor this year, such as Barbra Streisand, Raquel Welch, and Al Pacino, stay away. Actors in TV series appear by the limousine-load. Bleacher babies know their faces and their TV names, but don’t know their real names

At 7 p.m., the press is allowed to enter the backstage area. We hear Reagan’s vid­eotape welcoming speech, while 200 of us wait patiently for a lone elevator that holds 10. The press room is Kafka interpreted by Bobby Short: men in tails and women in silken gowns beat out copy on 50-year-old Remingtons in uninterrupted rows of For­mica tables. Four 19-inch TV sets telecast the show, and a public relations woman keeps track of winners on a huge scoreboard, the way Nathan Detroit did in Guys and Dolls. In the TV media room, Miss Rona occupies a front row space (to Jack Lemmon: “Do you have any advice to give Timothy Hutton?” “Make Rona hap­py,” says Mary Tyler Moore to Lemmon. “Give Tim some advice”). In the photogra­pher’s room, Ron Gallela leads a brigade of accredited paparazzi (free-lancers are treated like dirt and kept the same dis­tance as the fans) all bringing their own unique vision to the very same photo­graphs.

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Had God given each journalist four eyes and ears, we’d watch the Oscars on the monitor screens at the same time we photograph or interview an entirely dif­ferent set of celebrities. Instead, we have to be selective. Nastassia Kinski and Sigourney Weaver in person gorgeously win out over the best short subject presen­tation on the tube.

Only award winners and presenters make the backstage rounds. Losers are spared the embarrassment. Sissy Spacek is the only star to make two backstage ap­pearances, having doled out an award for art direction, then winning one herself for best actress. Sissy says she’s relieved the awards are over: she isn’t in a celebratory mood.

Because there is so much glamour and power to select from, lesser award winners are ignored completely while their pres­enters are lauded and interviewed to death. Lily Tomlin appears in the press room with the winner of Special Optical Effects, but he might as well have been the incredible shrinking woman in the kitchen sink. Lily wonders why the Academy hadn’t junked the Reagan tape. “They should have made a new one from his hospital bed. That would have been an unqualified up for the people.”

Some reporters hog the stars. Radie Harris of the Hollywood Reporter hugs Tomlin. Peter O’Toole kisses Radie. Shirley Eder of the Detroit Free Press asks Lesley-Anne Down if she can check out the label on the inside of her dress — and does. Will Tusher of Variety yells, “It isn’t fair for others if the stars only talk to their friends in the media,” which prompts an­other journalist to yell, “They should only talk to their friends.” (Tusher is the most persistent interviewer, and asks the most inane questions. Radie and Shirley want to kill him.)

How each celebrity is treated depends on how he is perceived by the press. Mary Steenburgen, overjoyed with her support­ing award for Melvin and Howard, is met with affection. Diana Ross with goggle­-eyed awe. Lillian Gish with respect.

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Best screenplay winner Bo (Melvin and Howard) Goldman is chatting with the press when suddenly someone says, “Hold it.” Twenty newsmen turn their backs on Goldman to watch Robert Redford deliver his acceptance speech for best director (Ordinary People). They never get back to Goldman.

Redford generates a feeling of being either above it or below it all and is not a favorite in the press room. He exudes in­telligence, but his answers to questions are vague. He insists he’d never act in and direct the same film. He derides Holly­wood for “the current trend toward pyrotechnics,” and says he wants to make more intimate films which deal with emo­tions and social conditions.

There’s something about Redford — the blondness, the coolness, the good looks, everything that’s been written about before — that must be as awkward for him as it is for the person dealing with him. He makes you feel a little grubby. No one asks him to speak out about the assassination attempt or comment on Johnny Carson’s crack about Fort Apache, Charlie Chan, and Cruising (“It was a bad year if you were a gay Chinese from the Bronx”), or about Carson’s comments on Reagan’s cuts in arts funding or about the Burnett National Enquirer decision. So you talk direction and Ordinary People.

On the other hand, Robert De Niro is painfully shy. He rarely gives interviews. The press — at least, in New York — respects him and leaves him alone. Redford directed Ordinary People but De Niro is ordinary people, and what should have been one of the most gratifying evenings of his life turns into a nightmare.

When he accepts his Oscar for Raging Bull, De Niro concludes his speech by ac­knowledging “the terrible things that hap­pened in the world.” Then he takes a deep breath, clutches his trophy, and makes the backstage rounds. In the photo room, Ron Gallela asks him to hold a photograph of himself as Jake La Motta close to his face. This is not De Niro’s style, but he com­plies, with embarrassment. He enters the print media room as Sissy Spacek is being interviewed, and, as inconspicuously as possible listens to ebullient Sissy dispense quotes like “I’ve had the longest adolescence known to man or beast.”

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Then he faces the firing squad. Because of his distance with newsmen, there is no “hi, Bob, kiss, kiss, congratulations, kid­do.” Formalities are dispensed with in­stantly. The topic is assassination.

Somebody asks him to comment on the reports that Hinckley had used De Niro’s part in Taxi Driver as a model for his one­way relationship with Jodie Foster.

“That’s a whole different thing that happened,” he mutters. “It’s a loaded question.” De Niro’s eyes dart around the room, avoiding the eyes of journalists. The faint smile he had offered on arrival has disappeared. So has any semblance of joy. He looks terrified.

“It’s a question I don’t want to be asked. It’s hard to answer something like that. It’s an assumption. It’s not what it is.”

But isn’t it’true that … but didn’t CBS report that … but didn’t Hinckley say that …

Piranha time.

De Niro mumbles “I said what I had to say when I accepted the award. You’re really all very nice, but I have to go.”

And De Niro goes. He bypasses the TV room. He is spared the obligatory emo­tional content questions by Miss Rona. He skips the Beverly Hilton ball and heads straight back to his penthouse at the Chateau Marmont.

At midnight, the Chateau’s switchboard lights up like a Christmas tree. De Niro isn’t taking calls.

Oscar night is over. ■
Categories
From The Archives From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized Violence

Littlejohn & the Mob: Saga of a Heist

Littlejohn & the Mob: Saga of a Heist

Tuesday, August 22. Home about 10 p.m. A message from a friend on my cassette phone unit. “Just heard a couple of homosexuals are holding up a bank in Brooklyn and they’re holding people hostages. Thought you’d be interested. Bye.” I made a couple of quick calls and got through to the CBS local newsroom. “Yes, two men have been holding seven hostages at gunpoint since 3 this afternoon at a Chase Manhattan branch in Brooklyn. We have the bank’s phone number.” I called. “Hello, this is Arthur Bell from The Village Voice. Can you tell me what’s happening?” The voice at the other end said, “Arthur, am I glad it’s you. This is Littlejohn.” “Littlejohn, what the hell are you doing down there?” “I’m one of the robbers.” “Jesus Christ!”

John Wojtowicz, whom I’ve known through Gay Activists Alliance as Littlejohn Basso (Basso was his mother’s maiden name), proceeded to tell a bizarre story. He said he met a Chase Manhattan bank executive at Danny’s a Greenwich Village gay bar, some time ago. The executive told him how he could rob a branch of $150,000 to $200,000. The money was expected to be delivered by armored truck at 3:30 that August afternoon. John said that he and a couple of friends, Sal (Natuarale) and Bobby (Westenberg) entered the bank shortly before 3. They discovered that a mistake had been made: the big money had been called for at 11 a.m. So instead, they took the $29,000 on hand. As they were about to leave, several cop cars pulled up and surrounded the bank. Somehow Bobby managed to escape. But Sal and Littlejohn were stuck inside. They had no alternative but to hold the bank staff hostage until they cleared out. They had six women and one man and now the place was surrounded by cops and FBI and onlookers and Littlejohn was sure the boys in blue wanted to pull an Attica. They wanted him dead.

So he had issued a list of demands. One of them was to release Ernie Aron from Kings County Hospital. Ernie is the part-time transvestite whom John had married in a $2000 mock Roman Catholic ceremony in December. John wanted Ernie to enter the bank in exchange for one of the hostages. Another demand was to bring hamburgers and Cokes to the bank. The third was to provide transportation to Kennedy Airport and to have a plane waiting there to take Sal and Littlejohn and the hostages to points unknown. They would release two hostages at a time at stops along the way, until they reached their final destination. The FBI, he said, was reneging. They brought Ernie from Kings County, but Ernie didn’t even get near enough to kiss John. Littlejohn couldn’t believe Ernie was that terrified, and thought it was an FBI plot to keep Ernie away. The hamburgers didn’t come. Instead they brought pizza, which he didn’t like. He said he paid for the food anyway. He tossed a lot of bills out the bank door. Now he was afraid that the cops would screw him up with the plane plans. “We’ve got guns and rifles and bombs here and I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just want to get out of here alive.” He told me that Sal was uptight and mad as hell because the radio reports were labeling him a homosexual. “Sal’s not gay. I’m the only gay one here.”

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Could I do anything, I asked. Could I come down and talk to him? John said, “Yes, you come down and be our mediator. Tell the FBI chief that I want to talk to you, and I’ll tell him at this end. He’ll let you in.” I confessed it’s been a long time since Flatbush Avenue days and I didn’t know how to get to Brooklyn and it might take a while. John said, “Grab a cab. I’ll throw a few $100 bills out the window.” “Sit tight,” I said, “don’t do anything. I’ll call you back in a few minutes,” and hung up.

I then called Voice City Editor Mary Nichols at her home and explained the situation to her. Mary made a few phone calls. Twenty minutes later, Sergeant David Durk, the honest cop who testified before the Knapp Commission, and Ed Powers, another efficient cop, showed at my apartment. They were to have guested on the Barry Farber radio show that night and minutes before showtime they were called off to whizz me down to Brooklyn. I phoned John at the bank again to tell him I was on my way. He gave me the phone number of the female wife whom he had separated from, to call in case anything happened. “I’ve got news for you,” he said. “I think they’re going to give us the boot. We’re not going to walk out of here alive.

“That money, I wanted it for a sex change operation for Ernie. Now I can’t even see him to kiss him. Come here as quick as you can. Do you want to speak to a hostage?” He put on Mrs. Shirley Ball, a teller from Brooklyn. “It’s a damn shame that nothing’s being done and the FBI are sacrificing seven lives for two. They’re backing John against a wall and I don’t know how long our luck is going to hold out.” Mrs. Ball said that John was okay, that Sal was trigger happy. She’d been allowed to call home and spoke to her husband who was waiting outside the bank with the rest of the mob.

About 11:15 p.m. a radio car from the 19th Precinct showed up in front of my apartment. David Durk phoned Brooklyn FBI headquarters to tell them we were on our way. We zoomed down FDR Drive, sirens blazing, about 90 miles an hour, got off at Houston Street, picked up Mary Nichols, and whizzed down the drive again to Brooklyn. Twenty minutes later, we were in the thick of the hubbub. Thousands of spectators. Hundreds of cops. Dozens of city officials, and hordes of reporters. David Durk directed us through the mob to the FBI chief of operations. No dice. Change of plans. He wouldn’t let me near the bank. Why? He shrugged his shoulders. Was he afraid of my safety? No answer. Had they a master plan afoot? No answer.

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So I broke and tried calling the bank again, but this time Littlejohn wasn’t answering. Mary Nichols and I mingled among the crowd of reporters and spectators. A radio guy, from a network better left unmentioned, said, “I never thought I’d see the day when fags could pull the punches. Grab the little punks.” Obviously the whole reverse macho trip was part of the street excitement. Homosexuals are supposed to be victims. And here’s a tough guy John Dillinger victor. Instead of demanding his Lady in Red, Littlejohn was asking for his transvestite in pajamas.

John’s male wife (I don’t know how else to describe Ernie Aron — they were married) sat in a barber chair at the Palestinian Barbershop, which was set up as police headquarters. Wan, despairing, his eyes two blank sockets, his face white, his body weed thin, clad in hospital garb, a bedraggled bathrobe, bunny slippers, a Kings County guard constantly at his side. Two days before, Ernie had taken an overdose of sleeping pills. He refused to go near the bank because of John’s bad temper, “but he was also good-natured, and that was the problem. John and I couldn’t live together because of mental problems on both sides. It would never have worked out. John was sadistic in his sex habits. He could control himself, but sometimes he went overboard with such things and he terrified me.” When I told Ernie about John’s admission to me that the money was to pay for a sex operation, Ernie claimed he wasn’t aware of this at all. He broke down. And he insisted he’d go to the bank with me to speak to John. I went to fetch an FBI officer again, and again the answer was “definitely no.”

I spoke to John’s former male mistress. Earlier in the day, he had been called by Littlejohn to come to the bank, and in front of an approving crowd they kissed smack in the mouth at the bank doorway. The mistress believes that John loved Ernie but wanted him. “John robbed the bank for two reasons. First for Ernie’s sex change, second to run away with me. But I don’t think he had the brains to mastermind a plot like that.”

According to at least two intimates, the real story is as follows: Alleged soldiers in the Gambino organized crime family were behind the hold-up. (This is not the first foray of the Gambino family against the Chase Manhattan Bank. The big boss, Carlo himself, is under indictment for conspiracy to rob a Chase armored truck a few years ago.) Ernie knew it, others around town knew it, and the hold-up was in the planning stages for a long, long time. Ernie, however, found out only last Sunday, when Littlejohn received at least one of the guns used in the hold-up from Mike Umbers (long involved in the Mafia gay bar and pornography and prostitution scene). Ernie tried to stop Littlejohn and threatened to kill himself if his lover-husband went through with it. John didn’t buy. Ernie took an overdose of sleeping pills and was rushed to Kings County Hospital. The following day, Umbers gave himself up to the police department on an unrelated charge. The charge dated back a couple of weeks and involved promoting obscenity. It stemmed from a police raid on two of Umbers’s buildings and the discovery of a treasure trove of pornographic movies, photos, books, and magazines. Umbers told the police he surrendered because things were just too hot in town. Those close to the situation speculate that Umbers’s real reason for surrender was so as not to be implicated in the robbery planned for the following day. Nevertheless, Umbers was released on $2000 bail.

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According to the informants, the senior Mafia members’ share of the big heist was to have been 50 per cent, or $75,000 to $100,000. The other 50 percent was to have been divided among the three robbers (originally five were involved; two chickened out). The sex change story, said Voice sources, was peripheral to the motive.

To digress a little, my own recollections of Littlejohn date back to May 1971 when John first came to the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse. He brought his little son with him and claimed the kid was the youngest member of GAA. John was pleasant, spunky, a little crazy, and up front about his high sex drive. Once, during a Firehouse dance, he balled with a guy on a mattress in the basement. The next day, the mattress was removed, and there was talk about removing Littlejohn from membership. In June 1971, he requested that the members allow him to use the Firehouse for his wedding to someone who wasn’t Ernie. A heated floor debate followed: is a homosexual marriage against the goals of gay liberation, or did the goals of gay liberation encompass all life styles? I supported John’s marriage, but Arthur Evans, one of the big guns at GAA protested vehemently about John’s use of the Firehouse to perpetuate the worst of heterosexual life styles. I believe the marriage motion passed, but John decided to postpone the wedding. Interestingly, about two weeks later, John in his dumb, earnest way asked Arthur Evans if he could deliver Arthur’s nominating speech for his delegate-at-large platform. John did a beautiful job — an homage to Arthur, “it’s better to love and forgive.”

About a month later, I interviewed Mike Umbers for The Voice (“Christopher’s Emperor,” July 22, 1971). Mike’s mouth ran diarrhetic. He described himself as a veritable Joan of Arc, a straight man who was a “gay catalyst” providing jobs for down-at-the heels teenagers, such as running messages for him and helping out at his Christopher’s End. He talked about his porno connections, his real estate involvements, the call boy service he operated from his Studio Book Store, and touched on his acquaintanceship with Jerome Johnson, the man who hit Colombo and was subsequently killed by an unknown assassin. (The genesis of Johnson’s gun has never been discovered. Johnson, incidentally, roomed for a while at the Hotel Christopher, where Christopher’s End was located, and was involved in the making of porno movies.) A few days later, Umbers’s Christopher’s End was raided by the New York Joint Strike Force Against Organized Crime. The End was closed down for a couple of days, then reopened. Umbers advertised “Weird Sex — Now.” Gay Activists didn’t like it, and threw together a demonstration to protest Mike and the Mafia and the exploitative ripping off of the gay community. Littlejohn attended the protest plan meetings. He relayed secret GAA information to Umbers. When the march took place (plans were formulated and carried out in one day), John stupidly placed himself outside Christopher’s End with a “Mike Is Good” sign, thereby blatantly switching affiliations. He was rarely seen around the Firehouse thereafter. I bumped into him on Christopher Street a few times. He was always friendly and open and never with Ernie. Last April I asked him if I could interview him for a story I was doing on gay marriages. He said Ernie had left town and the marriage was on the rocks. The last time I saw Littlejohn before the Brooklyn escapade was at the Christopher Street Liberation Day march at the end of June.

To get back to the scene in Brooklyn, about 3 a.m. the crowd heard a shot. We were told it was a prankster’s firecracker. Later, a cop leaked that the shot came from within the bank — fired shoulder-high through the back door. Apparently Sal thought someone was breaking in. At 3:50, Littlejohn came out of the bank with a rifle strapped around his shoulder, a peacock strutting, a little man holding a magic wand. He talked with U.S. Attorney Robert A. Morse. Not long after, John ordered all of the cops, including the brigade in bulletproof vests, to drop their guns. A grin crossed his face. “I want them all down on the ground, please.” Guns fell, and John slipped back into the bank. Then one by one, the hostages walked the tightrope from the bank to vehicle — the magic carpet that was to take them to Kennedy and to faraway lands. Noises erupted from the crowd behind. A man tried to push through. “Who are you?” asked a cop. “I want to see if my wife goes into the car.” “I’m sorry, you’ll have to step back.” “But she’s my wife.”

All but one hostage hopped into the vehicle. The car zoomed away, and the crowd cut loose and rushed the bank. Dozens of officers blocked the entrance. Only the fingerprint squad and officials high in FBI and police circles were allowed inside.

An hour later, David Durk, Ed Powers, Mary Nichols, and I rode back to Manhattan. And not long after — it was dawn — I turned on the radio to hear that Sal Natuarale was shot dead by an FBI agent at Kennedy while waiting for the airplane. Littlejohn was taken into police custody, and the hostages were all okay.

***

A couple of days later, I attended a Gay Activists Alliance meeting at the Firehouse. The attendance was about double what it usually is. After the usual order of GAA business, I was to moderate a discussion on the bank robbery. Did it or didn’t it, should it or shouldn’t it relate to the gay liberation movement? I couldn’t effectively participate as a speaker because the discussion was based on the facts that the papers had carried to that point and my knowledge about the organized crime hook-up could not be divulged on the GAA floor. However, someone I’d never seen before, a former bartender at Danny’s named Gary Badger, showed up to make a plea for money to bury his best friend, Sal Natuarale. Gary’s plea came before the general Littlejohn discussion, and met with a less than enthusiastic response from the membership. Gary said he had to talk to me, and we left the general meeting and climbed up to the third floor of the Firehouse. Gary discussed what he knew about the robbery. His information jibed with the information I received from Littlejohn’s friends. When I asked him “why are you telling me all this?” his answer was “because after Sal’s death, it hit me that Umbers and the Gambino people were using young kids without giving a fuck about life or death to rake up money and power.” We returned to the meeting proper, Gary sat next to me. He did not sit quiet. Following an inane statement by a long-winded GAA filibusterer, Gary shouted, “It’s not as simple as that. The robbery was planned in April. You’ll know a lot more when next week’s Village Voice comes out.”

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At 10:30 that evening, Gary and I split. I went to the Barry Farber show where Farber quizzed me about the events of last Tuesday and where, again, I could only speak up to a point. Farber raised the question several times. Had the FBI allowed me to see Littlejohn, would events have been different, would a life have been saved? While I was verbally gymnasticizing with Farber, Gary Badger, in his raw-nerve state, visited New Jersey, then went back to the Village. He called me early the following morning to claim that he had been pot shot at the Morton Street pier and he wanted to see me because he had a lot more to tell. I called The Voice. Mary Nichols and Assistant City Editor Alan Weitz picked me up at home and we drove to Gary’s place in the Village. We whisked Gary into the car and headed toward The Voice office. The place was teeming with cops and firemen. There had been two bomb threats at The Voice from the time Mary left the office to the time we returned — a period of no more than an hour. With Gary and me stooped low in the car, we drove to FBI headquarters, where Gary told the feds what he had to tell. We returned to The Voice again later in the day. There was a phone call from Ed Powers of the New York City Police Department. Powers said the police had raided Mike Umbers’s Mark-Litho Printing Plant earlier in the day and confiscated printing press material valued at $500,000. A new warrant was out for Umbers’s arrest on that charge.

Here’s how it stands, this Tuesday morning, August 29. Mike Umbers, the “gay catalyst,” is roaming the streets somewhere or sitting tight, his heart in his mouth; a 19-year-old kid is dead, his body on ice, about to be removed to Potter’s Field; Littlejohn is under federal custody; several dozen people are stuck with sewer hole memories in their heads; organized crime, like the March of Time, marches on; homosexuals continue to frequent bars run by the Gambinos since there are few alternatives (ironically, the Stonewall, the bar that precipitated the first gay riot and the beginning of the gay liberation movement, was a Gambino operation); and members of the gay liberation movement, including yours truly, are having a helluva time figuring out how the whole Littlejohn thing relates to gay liberation — and it does — and what we can do about it, if anything.

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Equality From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Four Decades Ago, Harvey Milk Was the Victim of a Homophobic Homocide

Before the world ever heard of the “Twinkie defense,” author Randy Shilts reported on what residents of the Castro District felt led to the murders of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk: “It was just plain, old-fashioned homophobia.”

Published a week after the murders occurred on November 27, 1978, Shilts’s article included a brief bio of both Milk, the first openly gay elected official on the national scene, and his murderer, Dan White, a conservative member of San Francisco’s board of supervisors. Shilts’s concise report (he would go on to write three bestsellers, including 1987’s And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic) ends with a bitter quote from a young man on the street: “You just can’t do a thing like this without somebody doing something back.” (Those words would prove prophetic when White was found guilty on the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter, which led to the White Night Riots in May of 1979.)

A week later, Voice columnist Arthur Bell reported on a local vigil for Milk, as well as efforts to pass Intro 384 through the New York City Council, a bill “which would legally protect gays from being discriminated against in employment, public accommodations, and housing.” He quotes debate from the hearings: “Manhattan Councilwoman Jane Trichter hit the nail on the head when she claimed that ‘what is operating here is a fear of that which is different.’ That which is always the same, was provided by Bronx Councilwoman Aileen Ryan, whom [journalist] Murray Kempton called ‘a most unmovable, hard, dumb woman.’ ” Bell also paints a portrait of Councilman Vincent Riccio of Brooklyn: “He proceeded to attack the gay community with a viciousness indigenous to tyrants who build support out of hate. From the balcony came hissing, but the sound was like rhumba music to Riccio’s ears.” 

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In the aftermath of the Milk and Moscone killings forty years ago, Bell took a cynical look at politics that still resonates today: “Threatening, boycotting, educating is not the way to get power from political assholes. Money and favors are. If offered a house in Quogue or a judgeship in Queens, there is no doubt in my mind that several zealot anti-gay gnomes would suddenly open their hearts, if not their homes, and allow the gay vote to tiptoe in.”

 

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Making Sense of “Cruising”

William Friedkin’s Cruising first appears in the Quad Cinema’s exhaustive Al Pacino retrospective this week, unspooling unassumingly on Wednesday night — atypical for a movie that has made, over the course of its history, quite a bit of noise in the Village. Starting with its production in 1979, and on through its release the following year, this sweaty cop thriller, set in the world of waterfront leather bars, would become the focal point of a heated debate that raged throughout New York City, its gay community, and the pages of this very publication.

Friedkin, who also penned the screenplay, based the film on three primary sources: a 1970 novel of the same name by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, about an undercover cop investigating a serial killer of gay men; Friedkin’s conversations with Randy Jurgensen, a former NYPD detective (and a consultant on Friedkin’s The French Connection) who spent several months undercover in the city’s s&m clubs and proclaimed the experience “messed up his mind”; and a series of Voice articles by Arthur Bell detailing several grisly, unsolved killings of gay men picked up in leather bars. In 1977, Paul Bateson was arrested and charged with those crimes. In the kind of coincidence that wouldn’t make it past your average script’s first draft, Bateson had appeared as an X-ray tech in Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist.

The writer-director made several trips to the Mineshaft and the Anvil, two of the most notorious hardcore bars on the scene; introductions and protection were provided by Genovese crime-family member Matty “The Horse” Ianniello. (Those s&m-inviting businesses, like most gay bars and clubs of the era, were under mob ownership.) But Friedkin remained an aloof observer of gay life, and Cruising was undeniably a script written from a straight, Other-ing perspective — a fact that sounded alarms when news of its existence leaked to gay activists just as the film’s production commenced in New York during the summer of ’79.

The first salvo in the battle came, ironically enough, from the same Voice writer whose columns on the gay serial killer had caught Friedkin’s eye. In the July 16 edition of his “Bell Tells” column, Arthur Bell wrote that Cruising “promises to be the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen, the worst possible nightmare of the most uptight straight and a validation of Anita Bryant’s hate campaign.” Bell opined that Friedkin was “not only playing with a keg of dynamite, he’s throwing a match to it,” and offered up a suggestion for action: “I implore readers — gay, straight, liberal, radical, atheist, communist, or whatever — to give Friedkin and his production crew a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhood.”

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Bell’s readers, to put it mildly, took him up on the challenge. In his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, the filmmaker recalls, with against-type understatement, how “attempts to prevent the film from being made became a cause célèbre in New York.” Pamphlets were distributed, rallies were held, streets were blocked, bottles and bricks were thrown, demonstrators were roughed up, and arrests were made. Friedkin, who didn’t like working in the studio, shot the film’s many apartment scenes in real buildings; residents in adjoining units played music so loud it drowned out the dialogue. (Most of it had to be re-recorded after the fact.) People on the streets did their part by blasting air horns and whistles.

Activists also took more official routes to stifle the picture. Appeals were made to Mayor Ed Koch to withdraw the tax incentives provided by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting, or to cut off the support of that organization (which issued permits for shooting in the city). Koch, unsurprisingly, denied the request. “To do otherwise would involve censorship,” he explained. “It is the business of this city’s administration to encourage the return of film making to New York City by cooperating to whatever extent feasible with film makers.”

But the company was inconvenienced in plenty of other ways. Gay bars that had granted Friedkin and his crew permission to shoot withdrew their cooperation. (“I couldn’t blame them,” Friedkin shrugged.) Bell had also called upon gay men the production had hired as extras and background color to “be aware of the consequences” of the picture; about twenty of those men quit, and some who remained served as spies for the community, leaking valuable, confidential information about the company’s movements, which allowed activists to better disrupt location shoots. In a later column, Bell relayed, with relish, the trouble the company had in shooting a simple scene of Pacino’s character leaving a building on Jones Street. Residents refused to leave the stoop, and then ruined each take by making faces at the camera or blocking the actor’s movements. (Bell subsequently reported retaliation against troublemaking residents by the film’s crew.)

The disruptions came to a head on the night of July 26, when (according to the Times) about a thousand protesters gathered at dusk, moved to the film’s production headquarters at Pier 40, and then marched through the Village, chanting “Cruising must go!” The protest ended with a sit-in that stopped traffic in Sheridan Square for a half-hour before the protesters were broken up by about a hundred police officers. Two arrests, per the Times report, were made. “One cop was kicked in the balls,” wrote Richard Goldstein in the Voice’s August 6 issue. “It made page one of the Post.”

“It was a surprise, you know, to me,” Pacino tells the Voice now, of the protests. “You’re an actor, really. You’re going into what the role means, what that means, and you’re not looking around at who you are in relation to the whole thing. You just aren’t. Or at least I wasn’t. I try to do that now. If it taught me anything, it taught me that. You have to know what you represent and what you’re doing and how it affects the world around you. A little bit, you need to know that stuff. Because if you don’t, that kind of thing can happen.”

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Reporting on the march for the Voice, Goldstein opined, “Assuming it’s finished, Cruising will go down in history, if only because it marks the first time a citizens’ protest has been mounted against a film before it’s in the can.” Whether one agrees that protesting a work of art sight unseen is a net good, Goldstein’s objections have the kind of nuance and insight badly missing from Friedkin’s script, which, by the maker’s own admission, saw this gay subculture as “just an exotic background for a murder mystery.”

It’s a question, to dip into the current lexicon, of representation. Goldstein explains that the city’s waterfront bars were “designed to resemble a filmmaker’s fantasy of dangerous sex. Illusion — not danger — is the point. The people who go to those bars know they are visiting a Luna Park of the libido; most of the people who patronize Cruising will think they are seeing ordinary life. Billy Friedkin wouldn’t know ordinary gay life if it hit him in the face — which, apparently, it has.”

Yet as the anti-Cruising movement was gaining steam, other voices stepped up with their own objections. Right alongside Goldstein’s extended commentary in the August 6 issue of the Voice, John Rechy made “A Case for ‘Cruising,’ ” as the piece was headlined on the front page. In the article, Rechy granted the foundation of his colleague’s concern, while noting carefully, “It would be naive to deny the special impact of films. It is also risky to predict that impact; and it may prove dangerous, based on such prediction, to move into the quagmire of prior censorship.”

Nat Hentoff did not hedge his bets, or mince his words. The founding Voice columnist and First Amendment absolutist took to the paper on September 24, after the completion of Cruising’s New York photography. Noting that he had “resisted adding a broadside to the sulfurous polemics about Cruising because there has been no scarcity of comment on the matter in this paper,” Hentoff nonetheless granted that “one would have to be an utter dolt not to understand the anger and fear of homosexuals at what they thought it was about (and what it actually may be about, for all I know).” Yet Hentoff, in sharp contrast to his Voice cohort, saw such understanding as doing more harm than good. “There are often extremely honest, powerful motivations for censorship,” he wrote. “And that is precisely why thought control has to be resisted at every point, because once one group does succeed in obliterating expression it considers intolerably threatening, then another group will insist on lighting its own pyre.”

Yet Hentoff’s rhetorical remove, or for that matter our own historical one, cannot downplay the validity of the fears and concerns voiced by gay activists that summer. It wasn’t like mainstream Hollywood movies had a sterling reputation for nuanced characterizations of LGBTQ people. Was there a place for a film that explicitly dramatized gay life as a sordid bacchanalia of rough sex and blood lust? Should there be?

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And thus, Cruising became a rallying point, and perhaps one the gay liberation movement needed. It had, after all, just passed merely the tenth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising (also covered legendarily in the Voice), and the movement’s signal cause (AIDS activism) was still on the horizon. Outsiders raising their voices against a potentially incendiary Hollywood production, from a superstar actor and an Oscar-winning director, made for a story, and a sexy one. As Goldstein noted, the picture “brought the gay community its most potent organizing tool since the murder of Harvey Milk.”

Pacino and Friedkin on the set of “Cruising”

Or did it? In a cover story for the February 1980 issue of the gay magazine Mandate, editor in chief John Devere visited the set — as an extra, recruited (as so many were) in New York City gay bars, and without divulging his status as a journalist — and deflated some of the narrative around the production. “More than 1,600 gay men participated in the filming of Cruising,” he wrote, while “significantly fewer gays protested the filming, and the protestors, day after day, were usually the same basic group of people, about 25 in number, who were of course joined by others daily.” And to the concerns of suburban moviegoers viewing the version of gay life depicted in Cruising as disproportionately representative, Devere offered up a counterpoint: “One recurrent observation was that the men who frequent the world being depicted — the Eagle, the Spike, the Mineshaft, the Anvil — were in the movie, and did not object to their world being depicted. Middle-of-the-road gays, they thought, were the ones who didn’t want the leather fringe seen by Middle America, even though the world certainly exists. Many felt that the protests were as much a protest against the leather world itself as they are a protest against Friedkin’s film.”

The elemental questions surrounding Cruising — of who is permitted to tell a culture’s stories and who is not; of the limits of free speech and peaceful protest; of the significance and consequences of representation in popular art — haven’t gone anywhere in the nearly forty years since the film’s release. But they weren’t contemplated much in the original reviews, which mostly dismissed it outright. In the February 11, 1980, issue of the Voice, Geoffrey Stokes summarized it (perhaps accurately) as “a hopelessly garbled film,” while reporting on a post-screening Q&A with members of the media in which Friedkin seemed unable to explain entire swaths of his plot. (He insisted, “The violence in this movie is by a heterosexual killer,” and confessed, “I myself was not sure whether there was one killer or more than one.” Huh?). “That Friedkin has made a tedious movie is too bad, but he has gifts and will make a decent one again,” Stokes wrote. “That he lacks even the courage of his bad convictions is shameful.”

Other critics were even less charitable. New York’s David Denby wrote, “The movie is sordid and depressing because it’s been made without insight or love and from the depths of a soul about the size of a thumbtack.” The Times’ Vincent Canby called it “exceptionally unpleasant, not necessarily because of the subject matter, but because it makes no attempt to comprehend it. It just stares.” And Daily News’ Rex Reed, while insisting Bell’s “hysterical columns have done more harm to his fellow gays than anything in Cruising,” nonetheless wrote that the film “sickens, insults, and distorts.” (And that last one is saying something, considering the source.)

But what of those early, dire warnings that helped sound the alarm for the Cruising protests? Bell predicted Cruising would “negate years of positive movement work and may well send gays running back into the closet and precipitate heavy violence against homosexuals.” Goldstein believed its release “will endanger the political viability of civil rights legislation without which no homosexual can live a full and candid life.” While neither of those predictions is necessarily false, when one looks at the struggle of LGBTQ people in the Eighties and beyond, determining the causality or culpability of Cruising is a complex task. An argument can perhaps be made that because Cruising was so effectively protested, it was denied the commercial success that might have brought dire repercussions for the community to pass.

And yet, in the decades that followed, something curious happened. Critics — particularly gay critics — revisited Cruising, and came to find value in it through the lens of (ironically enough) representation. Several such pieces greeted its long-delayed DVD release in the fall of 2007. Christopher Wallenberg of the New York Blade wrote, “It remains a curious cultural artifact remarkable for its bold, graphic depiction of an underground gay subculture — something you’d be surprised to see in a mainstream movie even today.” The Voice’s Nathan Lee doled out the strongest praise ever seen in these pages: “Cruising is a lurid fever dream of popper fumes, color-coded pocket hankies, hardcore disco frottage, and Crisco-coated forearms. Nowadays, when the naughtiest thing you can do in a New York gay club is light a cigarette, it’s bracing — and, let’s admit, pretty fucking hot — to travel back to a moment when getting your ass plowed in public was as blasé as ordering a Red Bull.”

And in the New York Sun, Grady Hendrix offered up this thought: “With over 72,000 AIDS deaths in New York to date, it stands to reason that a large slice of the men you see in the club scenes are no longer with us. But here in their disco grottoes, behind their mustaches and muttonchops and leather, behind their tough-guy masks, they’re smiling. They’ve found a place in the world where everything finally makes sense.” And maybe, through that prism, Cruising finally does, too.

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Go Behind the Scenes on the 1975 Set of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”

Film Forum is currently presenting “Ford to City: Drop Dead — New York in the ’70s,” a series devoted to the classic, history-making movies made during some of the city’s darkest years. To celebrate the retrospective, we are sharing some of the stories and reviews that ran in the Village Voice during that time.

Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver might just be the greatest New York film of the Seventies. It was made during some of the city’s darkest days — there was a garbage strike and a heat wave during production, and Scorsese was in the edit room when the famous “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline ran in the Daily News.

The Village Voice’s Arthur Bell was there on set as the film was being shot all over the crumbling, sweltering city. His piece for the paper included anecdotes from some of the movie’s most notable scenes, including the final confrontation between Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, as well as revealing glimpses of Scorsese and the people around him (including, touchingly, his mother, Catherine). Also making an appearance were the panhandlers and sex workers and other folks who looked on curiously as the cast and crew went about their business.

Interestingly, Bell notes that Scorsese was concerned some would find parallels between the film’s events and the 1972 assassination attempt on George Wallace; instead, in 1981, John Hinckley Jr. would be “inspired” by the movie to shoot then-president Ronald Reagan.

You can read Bell’s story, which ran in the August 18, 1975, issue of the paper, below.