By Robert Heide
The Stonewall uprising began under a full moon in the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969. It followed a raid, generally a once a month activity for the TPF (Tactical Police Force) which usually ended after female police officers examined some of the ‘women’ and arrested those who weren’t. (It was illegal for people to wear clothes that did not fit their gender.) This night the customers of the bar who had been pushed out into the street did not disperse as they usually did; they remained on Christopher Street taunting the police. At one point, when a paddy wagon arrived, the crowd threw heavy metal garbage cans at the bar, breaking the windows and doors. Somewhere fires had been started. Overwhelmed, the police retreated inside the bar and barricaded themselves. By then, the 6th precinct had responded and with sirens blaring, the street erupted into a full fledged riot which lasted for days.
I was having a party that night, at my apartment on Christopher Street and we—including my soulmate John, Lovin’ Spoonful lead singer John Sebastian, neighbors Spoonful drummer Zalman Yanovsky and his girlfriend Jackie Burroughs, Margaret Wilcox, and Sally Kirkland—were listening to rock and roll at full volume. During a pause in the music we heard sirens and shouting and screaming and as it was about 3 o’clock in the morning we turned off the music and went out into the street to see what was happening. Sheridan Square was a maelstrom of smoke and fire. From our position behind the fence in Christopher Park we saw some of the action at the Stonewall, watching it like it was the storming of the Bastille. On the corner across from the Park were the offices of the Village Voice and our writer friend, Howard Smith, who wrote the Scenes column was burning the midnight oil. It seemed he had a spontaneous relationship with TPF Deputy Inspector Pine who had marshaled the raid and Smith followed him around taking notes for his next column. This is what he wrote:
“At one point after a cop was hit in the head, Inspector Pine asked me in a paternal way if I wanted to come with them inside the Stonewall—I agreed—the cops looked very scared and I knew it would be safer after they barricaded the door; once inside they all pulled out their guns. At this point I wasn’t sure I was more afraid of the rioters than the cops. Pine glances over toward me. ‘Are you all right, Howard?’ I can’t believe what I am saying: ‘I’d feel a lot better with a gun.’ Finally, we hear the sirens of the backup from the 6th precinct and Pine who had been on the verge of shooting someone through the door said, ‘Put away the guns.’” Howard Smith’s remembrances were of a different sort from Holly Woodlawn, one of the three drag superstars of Andy Warhol film fame, the others being Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis. In her autobiography A Low Life in High Heels Holly writes, “I ran into Miss Thing (Candy) at Judy Garland’s laying-out in a glass coffin, just like Snow White’s, at Campbell’s Funeral Home uptown the day before the Stonewall riots. ‘It’s such a shame,’ Candy said softly, wiping a tear from her eye. ‘Judy, gone. It’s so sad.’ When I returned to the Stonewall the next night there was so much commotion —cops, smoke, bottles and rocks sailing through the air. I hear the raspy, swearing voice of a street queen named Crazy Sylvia who had just broken a gin bottle over a cop’s head! A tall, skinny queen named Miss Marsha called to me from the crowd. ‘Holly, girl, honey dawlin’, get over here, child! Mmmmm, girl, the queens are holdin’ the cops hostage. Here, have a drink!’ And she handed me a bottle in a rumpled brown bag. ‘Drink it, dawlin’, it’s the Pride of Cucamonga!’ And so I was introduced to the Pride of Cucamonga at only $2.98 a gallon. Miss Marsha, who called herself Black Marsha, was the Hedda Hopper of Christopher Street, always in the know, doling out the filthiest tidbits of gossip I had ever heard. Once she had filled me in on what was happening, she snatched the cheap red wine out of my hand and headed straight for the police while ranting and raving, ‘Oh, dawlin’! Oh, honey! Let me tell you—.’ These were the Stonewall riots, and Miss Marsha was the debutante! It was a hot night, people were hopped up, Judy was dead, and the cops were out busting heads. Well, they went too far this time, and before they had a chance to get a grip on the situation it had snowballed into the gay movement. It was the first time Miss Marsha got on TV! Darling, she made the six o’clock news, and she appeared so worldly for a girl of the gutter. Even her wig was on straight.” (Editors Note: Marsha “Pay it no mind” Johnson was pulled dead out of the Hudson in 1992. ‘Crazy Sylvia’—Sylvia Rivera—died of cancer in 2002. They are both in line for a monument being planned in Greenwich Village in honor of their activism.)
Stonewall became a symbol of resistance and the following year, on the anniversary of the riots, the first New York gay pride parade was held. Today, there are Gay Pride Parades in towns and cities in America and around the world. In 2015 the Supreme Court declared marriage was for everybody, period. In the final days of the Obama administration, the first African-American president declared the Stonewall, Christopher Park, and the streets around it The Stonewall National Monument. Following the sixties, in the decade of the 1970s there was another kind of American revolution going on, a sexual revolution being acted out in bars with dark back rooms and cellars where groups of gay men congregated to indiscriminately play at sex, sex, and more sex. Along the waterfront in Greenwich Village in the abandoned and dilapidated piers was where more furtive sex took place. Danger was the name of the game, and many wound up in the river following anonymous sexual encounters. One of the most far-out places, just for men, was the Anvil—an after hours dive at 14th Street and the Hudson River where ‘the amazing Yuba’ consumed actual fire and Mr. Slit, wore only a silver lame jockstrap with a zipper and a miner’s hat with a searchlight cavorted on the bar top—attracting such as Princess Lee Radziwell (Jackie O’s sister) accompanied by Truman Capote and the filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder who was said to have flown in from Berlin for three days of debauchery. Other bars in that decade included Peter Rabbit, Keller Hotel Bar, Boots and Saddles, The Eagle, The International Stud, The Mineshaft, a very low place (obviously) called The Toilet, and more.
After 1980—sometimes referred to as the ‘AIDies’—with the arrival of AIDS, it was time to straighten up and fly right. Death was knocking at the door. The good-time party was over, and the cruising on Christopher Street, the bathhouses, the discos with backrooms and after-hours all-night revelries at the river dives, gradually became no more than a memory as time moved on. In 1982 Hibiscus aka George Harris III, the leader of a crazy group called The Cockettes––died of what they called GRID—Gay Related Immuno Deficiency—at St. Vincent’s Hospital. No one knew what it was, but he was among the first 100 to die of what came to be known as AIDS—Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Other of my old friends who died at St. Vincent’s numbered at least 50. The four Sisters of Charity who established in the mid-nineteenth century what came to be known as St. Vincent’s Hospital would have been proud to see how it almost single-handedly served the Greenwich Village gay community in its biggest crisis.
Robert Heide and John Gilman are the authors of Greenwich Village—a Primo Guide to Shopping, Eating, and Making Merry in True Bohemia which is available at Amazon as is Heide’s recently published Robert Heide 25 Plays.