By Barbara Riddle
As a born-and-bred “childhood survivor” of Greenwich Village in the 1950s, often engulfed in an almost-paralyzing nostalgia, I am drawn to any book title that promises revealing anecdotes or a new take on life in any Village subculture from the 1900s to the present. (A personal favorite is Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage.)
Thus, a few years ago, I picked up the imposing tome by James McCourt, Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985. I was working at the time on some short pieces about growing up between two households—one apartment on Perry Street and one on Washington Place—as I attended P.S. 41 and then P.S. 3. I was the child of divorced free spirits who could not imagine life anywhere other than the Village and vowed to keep me there as a pupil in the superb public school system.
As an adult, examining tiny details of my somewhat unconventional upbringing, I was beginning to suspect that my father, an Oklahoma-born transplant to New York City in the 1940s, might have had deeply-suppressed doubts about his sexuality. All those trips we took to Fire Island every Labor Day weekend, his handmade buffalo-hide Fred Braun sandals, swimming in the Olympic-sized pool at the Hotel Shelton in Midtown (which was apparently a favorite meeting place for Tennessee Williams and his pals), the Broadway musicals: Did they all add up to something that would explain his depression and suicide in 1963, when I was 19, almost exactly six years before the Stonewall Riots?
The activism that ensued from those “riots” would change the dynamics of gay life in America forever. McCourt, in Queer Street, chronicles the myriad clues and rituals that helped gay men navigate and even enjoy the risky pre-Stonewall culture. Leafing through his book, I came across a page entitled, “A Sample Free-Association Queer Syllabus.” Skimming the names, I recognized so many from the coffee tables and bookshelves of both my parents. They became the standard by which I measured true literature, true talent: Colette, D.H. Lawrence, Federico Garcia Lorca, Virginia Woolf, Hart Crane, Eudora Welty, Gerard Philipe, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Anthony Perkins, Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando, Truman Capote…to cite only a few. These were all sacred names to me, first glimpsed at age 10 or 11, or admired in French films like Dangerous Liaisons. (Gerard, how I worshipped you.)
But what did it mean?
And then the name Walter Rotan surfaced in my buzzing brain. He was a sculptor who lived in a Bing and Bing co-op (named after the prominent early 20th century apartment developers) with a green awning and a doorman, just down the block from the little park that now boasts a memorial to the Stonewall Riots. My father would take me to visit Rotan in his 1920s apartment with cast-iron railings. Inside, a little set of steps led down into the main living area, featuring several plinths on which sleek black gazelles or nymphs posed or gazed placidly into the distance. I seem to remember that salted peanuts, ginger ale, quiet conversation, and whiskey were involved, shared between my father and Rotan. Was it real? I bravely typed ‘Walter Rotan’ into Google, and, sure enough, he was real, but he had recently died.
Walter Rotan (1912-2001) was born in Baltimore, considered an “American Modernist,” and was the winner of many awards; his work was housed in numerous permanent collections. One piece, entitled Young Gazelle with Grapes, seemed to be his most famous sculpture.
It looked familiar. And Rotan, all my instincts now told me, was, of course, gay.
On Sunday nights, after visiting with Rotan, my father and I would often walk to Fedora’s on West 4th Street, and enjoy their home-style ravioli, preceded by generous shrimp cocktails. To me at age 10 or 12, it was just a friendly restaurant with delicious Italian food. When I visited in 2004 with my husband, eager to show him a remaining jewel from my youth, we were the only heterosexual couple in the place.
All the other customers were elderly men, nattily dressed in well-worn suits, fussed over by the eponymous Fedora. The walls were plastered with signed, glossy black-and-white photos of drag queens. The food was exactly the same. Only my awareness had changed.
My heart felt pierced by a thousand arrows.
WestView readers: What do you think? Did my father miss out by a few years on what could have been a whole new life?
Does anyone miss the subversive and unique nature of underground “queer culture” the way McCourt seems to….just a little bit?
Greenwich Village native Barbara Riddle is a frequent contributor to Westview News. Segments of her memoir can be found at talesfromagreenwichvillagegirlhood.blogspot.com. Her novel set in the 1960s, The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke, is available online at girlpretending.com. You may contact Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org.