Saturday, December 03, 2011

Memoirs: Chapter One


Dedicated to my close friend and constant counselor, William A. Percy of Boston, Massachusetts


Composing one’s memoirs calls for a combination of retrospection and introspection.  Retrospection - looking backward - is needed as one strives to remember as accurately as possible the events of one’s life.  Introspection - looking inward - is required to process this information in real time as one proceeds with the act of writing.

The unfolding of my life has been guided by three factors: change, sexuality, and culture.  Change has occurred in my trajectory of spatial movement, which has mostly involved settling in cities. Sexuality is significant in terms of my self-understanding, and as this was gradually achieved,  my dedication to social change for GLBT people.  Finally, culture has been significant not only in my choice of profession, the history of art, but also in the broader sense that is reflected in m =y effort to understand history of ideas.

My life has been varied, but it has also shown significant recurring patterns.  The following chapters seek to explore these patterns, while remaining true to the details.

Early Years

I doubt the common view that childhood sets the course of one's later life. Rather, I subscribe to the existentialist concept that one creates oneself. Of course we must all confront various obstacles and contingencies that inevitably arise along the way. We cannot simply decree what we will be, but must achieve maturity through a continuous process of negotiation.

For better or worse, I am the one who has made me what I am.

What is personality and how is it shaped? Broadly speaking, there are two opposing models. The first stresses the dominance of our genes, upbringing, and social circumstances. These are the factors that rule. The other model is the individualistic one that emphasizes our freedom of choice. The sky's the limit - or so it seems.

Let me put it to you in another way. Either we are robots, responding to our programing - and nothing more - or angels, living in a utopian state of complete freedom. I lean more to the latter view, but with considerable qualification. At all events, lots of things in my life and conduct were not exactly angelic.


As a rule, genealogy bores me - though I am not averse to acknowledging biological elements in human behavior.

Here is what I know. My ancestors have been on this continent, mainly in the American South, for several generations, dating back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Chiefly of Protestant Irish stock, they were neither Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, nor were they privileged Anglicans.

Both my biological parents came from farming families. The Conways, my father’s folks, maintained a large dairy farm near Fort Worth, Texas. The Colemans, my mother’s less prosperous family, grew cotton at a place called Fate, east of Dallas.

Brant Brown Conway (1907-2002), my biological father, had a knack for the natural sciences. He studied physics at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. My mother Jean (born Mary Geneva Coleman; 1909-1979) came to Fort Worth to work as a secretary. She met my father when she took some night classes at the university. Unlike my dad, however, she never completed her course work. Throughout her life, though, she continued to have a strong interest in literature.

In an influential 1959 lecture, the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow introduced the contrast of the Two Cultures. Snow maintained that "the intellectual life of the whole of western society" was split into the titular two cultures — namely the sciences and the humanities. In their separate but equal ways my father and mother combined to illustrate this contrast.

In any event, I was born on August 23, 1934 in Fort Worth, Texas.

It was the middle of the Depression, and times were tough for my father. After a brief stint teaching, Brant found himself unemployed. Eventually his luck changed, and he landed a respectable, well-paying job that played to his intellectual strengths as a guided-missiles specialist for the US Navy. He really was a rocket scientist. Unfortunately, he was a person I rarely saw.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, my parents divorced when I was three years old. My mother then sent me to live with my paternal grandparents on their dairy farm, where I was surrounded by a happy throng (or so it seems to me now) of aunts and uncles.


This idyll ended in 1939. My mother had decided to remarry and to go and live with her new husband in Southern California. So she collected me from the farm, and we went by train to San Diego, where Grady Dynes, the new husband, met us. First we lived in San Bernardino, a medium-sized town, and then in Los Angeles.

It didn’t seem so at the time, but moving to California was probably much to my benefit. Later I took my adoptive father’s surname, changing from (Robert) Wayne Conway to Wayne R. Dynes.

It turned out that my stepfather, who had been educated at Pomona College, had been a Communist in the 1930s. Eventually, he converted my mother to these beliefs, and ipso facto me too. Yet fortified by reading the writings of Arthur Koestler and George Orwell, I rebelled, becoming an “ex-Communist” at the tender age of 14. (See Chapter Four, for more information on my political evolution.)

On only one occasion (the funeral of my grandmother) can I ever remember being taken to a church. My parents were atheists, a creed I found arid - and an excuse, most years, for denying me Christmas presents. So this upbringing boomeranged. It had an effect contrary to the one intended, giving me a strong interest in religion. Young people find things that are taboo inherently attractive. Yet this counterparental straying was not strong enough to make me convert to a particular faith.

When I was six years old, a neighbor boy Jimmy, who was about twelve years old, inducted me into his male harem. Gathering in his parents’ garage, we would take our clothes off and play with each others' penises. Some would say that these early experiences--which were enjoyable and never exposed to public knowledge--”made me” a homosexual. That I doubt.

Was it pedophilia? No, because we were just kids. And there was no penetration.

We all have our own personal horrors. One of them, for me, is the idea that a child might be forced to undergo penile penetration of the mouth, anus, or vagina.

What I experienced with Jimmy and his charges was erotic play, but not sex in any fundamental sense. It was more akin to “playing doctor.”

In my view one of the problems with the current concern with pedophilia, from whatever side it stems, is that it tends to conflate degrees of involvement that need to be carefully distinguished.


My stepfather’s alcoholism kept him from providing properly for his family. Accordingly, my mother took a job at Camp Haan, a burgeoning army base located in the vicinity of Riverside, California. There was a war on. She soon rose to a position of responsibility in the personnel department, where she often had to work overtime. Since she felt that I could not be left at home alone after school, she found a friendly family living in Lake Arrowhead, a resort in the mountains, who would take me in. I was eight years old.

At first troubled by this exile, I soon adjusted to it. There were two other kids boarding with this family, a boy and a girl, both ten years old, but with different parents. Donny and Joyce were two years older than me. Yet Joyce and I were from stable, well-educated families. By contrast, Donny came from a broken home. Interacting in this dynamic gave me my first crash course in playground negotiation. As an only child I was at first unequipped to compete. Nonetheless, I learned the ropes quickly. Since two of us inevitably paired up, one was always left out in the cold. Gender, age, or personality often determined who was linked to whom in our little game of musical chairs.

At Lake Arrowhead there was swimming in the summer and skiing and tobogganing in the winter. As there were so few of us, school was taught in an old-fashioned schoolhouse, with all six primary grades grouped together in one class. In those days there was much sympathy for the Chinese as victims of Japanese aggression, so our teacher chose China as the subject of a year-long project. In this connection we all learned to make pots out of clay. (The Chinese were of course the inventors of porcelain). Once the piece had been fired, what a thrill it was to hold in my hands the finished product of my own endeavor! Today I collect ceramics, modestly so. The experience was also the beginning of my life-long concern with Chinese culture - literature, art, and calligraphy.


In the spring of 1943 I rejoiced to learn that I would be welcomed back to live with my parents, who had moved to Los Angeles. Grady, my stepfather, seemed to have conquered his alcoholism. As far as I could tell, he remained sober for a good many years, though late in life he reverted to the old ways. Handicapped by this problem, he had failed in his earlier attempts at establishing himself in several professions. Finally he found a job with the US Railway Postal Administration, sorting mail on the trains that plied back and forth to Flagstaff, Arizona. Writing, his first love, was of necessity put pretty much on hold, but he adored the trains.

Grady had received an excellent education at the elite Pomona College. He particularly revered James Joyce. For a while my parents hosted a writer's club in their home, where participants would read their writings for an instant critique. From my point of view, Grady was an excellent stepfather who never beat me or even administered a harsh word. From him comes my interest in writing.

At first we lived in a small apartment in Hollywood. I went to Cahuenga Elementary School nearby. Many years later I was to learn that Harry Hay, eventually to become the founder of the American gay movement, had attended that same school twenty years before. I like to think that in some occult way his spirit had lingered on that spot where it ministered kindly to me.

At all events we scraped together some money and bought a house near Venice Boulevard and Crenshaw in LA, then a respectable middle-class district. Even though the mortgage payments were low my parents struggled to meet them. The reason was my mother’s mental illness which set in a while after after we had moved. To this day I do not understand her exact condition, but she was incapacitated and had to be moved to a series of institutions over a period of about a year. To finance these stays, my stepfather (whose loyalty to my mother never wavered) borrowed money from various shady loan firms, Years of scrimping and saving were needed to pay these debts off. Thus burdened, our status went down - from solid middle class to genteel poverty. As a rule I had only two pairs of pants, wearing one while the other was being laundered. One year the pants shrank, but I had to wear them anyway. My mother excelled at preparing economical dishes, some of them barely edible. Sometimes I was sent out to buy horsemeat from the pet store.

During most of these years we couldn’t even afford a car. Being carless was not as bad as it sounds, because in those days LA had a surprisingly good public transportation system. By the time I got to high school, though, our lack of wheels was an embarrassment, for not only did other families have cars, so did many of my peers, other teenagers.

My mother and stepfather had generally sensible views about parenting. They made me eat my vegetables, and retire at an early hour (for a long time at 9 PM). In the fourth grade Maxwell B., who became my best friend, introduced himself by saying: "I see you have a vitamin mother too." We both had sandwiches made out of wheat bread, instead of the awful white stuff the other kids received.

Faced with their own problems, my parents left other things pretty much up to my (immature) judgment. Photographs reveal that I was an unkempt urchin with poor hygiene. I suppose that mom and dad thought that in due course I would correct these faults - as I did, eventually. But the damage was done. I was a loner, and my naive uncouthness intensified the isolation.

My unpopularity increased as it became apparent that I needed to wear glasses to correct my nearsightedness. For a while I had a progressive condition in which the correction - and the thickness of the glass - had to be increased every year or so. This condition made me a "four-eyes."


The world of reading was my refuge of choice. Starting in the sixth grade I became an avid consumer of science fiction. My stepfather had begun bringing in copies of Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, leading examples of the pulp magazines that were then the main vehicles of this genre. Basically, I was drawn to the trend known as space opera, where an intrepid adventurer, brainy but brawny as well, confronts challenges on an interplanetary or interstellar scale. In this category my special favorite was the Captain Future series in which the hero is accompanied by several interesting companions, including a robot and an android. My favorite, though, was his counselor Simon, who was just a brain in a box.

Science fiction had great appeal for nerdy teenagers. For me, though, it also served as a kind of bridge connecting the two cultures of science and the humanities.

The covers of the magazines often showed scantily clad women in transparent space suits. Sometimes they would be threatened by the dreaded BEMs (bug-eyed monsters). Yet inside the mag there was nothing sexual; in fact any notice of the subtleties of human character was minimal, for the yarn was the thing. Finally, in 1948 Arthur C. Clarke’s early masterpiece Against the Fall of Night showed that science-fiction novels could in fact be more ambitious. But I was ready to move on to other things.

Other reading fare beckoned. At first I responded to books on astronomy (as one might expect), and on architecture and city planning, but in due course it emerged that the humanities were more my bent. I developed a strong interest in history, reading popular biographies of such figures as Cleopatra, Genghis Khan, and Frederick the Great of Prussia.

I also became interested in languages. My bible in this area was Frederick Bodmer’s Loom of Language (1944). Although it was a popular work, this book did provide a good deal of useful information on the principles of linguistic analysis, together with starter accounts and vocabularies of major tongues, most of them European. For more solid information I turned to the works of Otto Jespersen, a Danish linguist, then at the top of the field. Among other things, Jespersen was involved in the cause of artificial or international languages. The best known of these was Esperanto, which I studied for a time. Dr. Lejzer Ludwik Zamenhof, a Polish-Jewish oculist, had created it in the 1880s by combining features of a number of European languages. Yet these were not his only source, for later when I went to Turkey I recognized that Esperanto had borrowed the principles of word formation found in Turkic languages.

In his youth working in the alfalfa fields in California, my stepfather had become fluent in Spanish. I began the study of that language in junior high school. However, I was never much taken with Spanish, and decided to teach myself French. While I read French books with ease now, I never took a formal course in the language. Much later the Spanish came in handy during my travels in Latin America.

I also became interested in fine literature - the classics. In the aftermath of World War II, Goethe was being promoted as the model of a “good German.” He was also hailed by Lancelot Law Whyte as a “unitary process thinker.” I got hold of a volume of Goethe translations ostensibly selected by Thomas Mann. These renderings were so wooden that I couldn’t make much out of them. I only learned German later, when I was in college.

From the public library I took out a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Since I had been raised in a purely secular household, the religious message of the Italian writer seemed strange and transgressive--as if I had somehow wandered into an opium den or porno palace. For a while I could not accept that Dante, clearly a very intelligent man, actually believed what he had written. I thought that the Commedia was a satire. Prompted by the example of Leo Strauss, some scholars have maintained something like this view for Plato and a few other eminent thinkers, though not I believe for Dante Alighieri.

With all this book-worm stuff it was almost inevitable that I would go to work at the Los Angeles Public Library, where I served as a page, beginning when I was in the ninth grade. The pay was meager, 75 cents an hour, and I devoted most of what I earned to buying books. This was the beginning of my book mania: I now house some 14,000 volumes in my New York apartment.

I also became involved with classical music. This connection began casually. When I was in the fourth grade our school did a production of Hansel and Gretel, the opera by Engelbert Humperdinck. I was in the chorus. This was in the middle of World War II, so we were told that the two kids were not German but Dutch! This is the earliest example known to me of revising history in the interest of Political Correctness.

In those days Los Angeles had an excellent music station, KFAC, and I would listen late at night when my parents thought I was asleep, my ear glued to the tiny radio. At first I could make almost nothing out of it. One night though they played Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, and all became clear. I had arrived at an intuitive understanding of sonata form and the pattern of movements--fast, slow, fast--that governed a typical symphony. To this day I am grateful to Schumann (or rather his shade) for providing this beneficial lesson. Later, I came to dislike most of the other romantic composers, preferring baroque and modern music. Broadway musicals, such a gay favorite, never had much appeal for me. I tried several times to learn to play the piano, but since my parents couldn't afford a teacher I failed to progress.

With my interest in literature and classical music, I was well on the way to becoming a confirmed “culture vulture.” What I didn’t anticipate is that this proclivity would migrate to the visual arts, the field where I was ultimately to earn my living.


At the beginning of this chapter I dissented from the view, still rife in some quarters, that childhood experiences are decisive for the course of one's later life. Rather, I emphasized the creative role of the individual in responding to circumstances.

The circumstances to which I responded show certain patterns. On reflection it seemed to me that some variety of situation - in my case differences of geography and the familial constellation - is stimulating. There must not be too much variety, though, for that is destabilizing. The contrasting appeal of the two models, science vs. the humanities, also helped, even though I ended up choosing the latter. While I ultimately rejected both atheism and Communism. this exposure helped me on the way to thinking for myself - and not just accepting the conventional wisdom, an all-too- common stance in those decades of conformity.


Memoirs: Chapter Two

Hapless in Junior High and High School

Junior high school (now termed middle school) and high school formed a kind of triptych, each three years long. In both, instead of having a single teacher, as in elementary school, the day was divided into periods, each with its own teacher tackling a single subject. While there were a good many required courses - including gym, which I hated - there were also electives.

I turn now to the first of this pair of experiences.  From 1946 to 1949 I attended a coeducational public institution called Mount Vernon Junior High on West 17th Street not far from my home in Los Angeles.

Mount Vernon is now known as Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School In 2006 the school board voted to change the name to honor the lawyer Cochrane, who had represented O.J. Simpson in his murder trial.  Some questioned the name change because of this connection.  At all events, in 2002 KCET, then the local PBS television station, produced a 17-minute documentary on the school and its "severe problems."  The documentary asserted that "the school is overcrowded and poorly maintained; teachers are not following state curriculum and have low expectations of students; and a lack of school-wide policies and communication has translated into poor morale."

In my day Mount Vernon was relatively well run, strict without being tyrannical.  The country had just emerged from the huge effort of World War II, and there was a sense that we all had to act in a methodical, disciplined way.  The Korean War had not yet begun.

By later standards the student body at Mount Vernon was relatively egalitarian.  One of my classmates was the son of Rufus B. von KleinSmid, the president of the University of Southern California.  Others were the children of successful Jewish business men.  Quite a few students were of Armenian extraction, together with some recent arrivals from India and South Korea.  There were also Latinos and African Americans - not very many of the latter, but those who were at the school seemed to do well. Whatever their origin, most of the students professed a religion.  I did not, which caused some tensions.

In those days I became close friends with a boy named Edward Satchell.  We were fascinated by radio and often went to Hollywood to join the live audiences for favorite programs.  We experimented with writing scripts of our own.  Television was just coming in, a huge change that we did not see coming.

Ed had some tricky ways.  We both worked side by side in the cafeteria, selling ice-cream and putting the change away in a little box.  Unbeknownst to me, Ed had been skimming the money.  Our supervisor found out about it and berated my friend.  Offended - he ought to have considered himself lucky not to have been slapped with some penalty - he insisted that we both resign.  The bonds of friendship were strong, so I foolishly went along with his demand.

One afternoon when Ed's parents were away he invited another boy and me over to his house.  We then adjourned to the garage for some sex play, which he somewhar deviously orchestrated.  I was both repelled and excited, but it never happened again with those two.  Later Ed seemed to have completely heterosexualized himself, and we lost touch.  Actually, he had turned gay.  Almost unbelievably he had lived happily for some fifty years in a close relationship with another man in the Bay Area.  I only learned these facts after he died three years ago.  They had married just before he died.

I was to learn, without fully internalizing the matter, that there was sex play - and there was romance. In the ninth grade, I experienced a Roger Peyrefitte-like episode of attraction to a cherub two years younger. This dalliance amounted to no more than puppy love, and it didn’t touble me very much at the time.  (In the 1940s Peyrefitte had published a novel on "particular friendships" that concerned an older prep-school boy's infatuation with a younger schoolmate in France.  Of course I read this book only later.)

After graduating from Mount Vernon I went to Los Angeles High School, which then occupied a stately building in the Elizabethan style on Olympic Boulevard. My situation there, another three-year stint, was similar to junior high, but also different.  There was the same coeducational student body, but we were all of course older.  There was considerable pressure among the boys to date.  For their part, the girls wanted to be "popular," to be sought out by the boys.  With some difficulty I avoided this ritual.  Not entirely, though, as I had a kind of sham girlfriend named Nancy.  We used to go around with five or six other people, and she never pressured me to "do it."

Some classes left a good deal to be desired.  My geometry class was taught by one of the gym instructors, while algebra was attempted by a woman from the registrar.  At the urging of my parent I took Spanish.  I learned enough to make my way later in trips to Spain and Latin America, but I could not be said to have acquired any real feeling for Spanish-language literature.  I preferred to study French and Italian on my own.  I cultivated an international outlook, heading the World Friendship Club.  

Even before the high school years I gravitated to books on history, which I followed up with the appropriate courses.  In my senior year the Hearst Newspapers announced a contest on American history.  I boned up for several weeks, and then joined a bunch of other high school students from various parts of the city to write an essay.  The subject was Andrew Jackson. I remember emphasizing that president's introduction of the spoils system.  I wrote nothing about the abomination of the Trail of Tears in which Jackson's soldiers forced the Cherokee to migrate to what is now Oklahoma.  My essay won a prize.  One thing I learned from my high school years was how to take tests.

I also had a go at acting, impersonating Emily's father in the high school production of  Thornton Wilder's "Our Town."  This experiment was enough, and I realized that this career path was not for me.


There was a lot of distraction in high school.  The place simply teemed with healthy, energetic, even radiant boys. In those days, such paragons of young virility were untouched by drugs or alcohol, vices that were only to intrude in the following generation. As one could freely ascertain in gym classes, the boys had naturally splendid physiques, in no way resembling the shaved, pumped-up icons of today’s popular erotic photos and videos. 

High standards of hygiene were enforced. Showers were required after every gym period, which was every day while school was in session. The length of boys' hair was an aspect of grooming that was strictly controlled. "Long-hairs" or "musicians" would be sternly instructed to get to the barber as soon as possible. A few of the more adventurous boys tested this restriction by allowing a small tuft to grow down at the very back of the head onto the neck, known as a "duck's ass," or D.A. That was as far as one dared go.

Throughout the building, it seemed, the boys' hyperactive pheromones diffused an aroma of subtle intoxication. Anyone who had the slightest bit of gayness in him would have to be really dull not to be drawn to this all-environing pulchritude. Looking back, I wonder how I managed to get through the day without suffering a continuous hard-on. Of course the situation called for restraint, and substantial penalties awaited those who could not or would not manage a proper display of indifference. So at least it seemed in that age of conformity.

Of course it was not all sweetness and light. Occasionally, one of the tough boys would threaten to beat me up after school. I was, after all, a four-eyes and fair game. Oddly enough, though, they never actually did assault me, but the threats were unsettling. I longed to be an adult, for my parents I was sure never got threatened in this way.

When they found themselves in the all-male settings of gym and shop classes, many of the boys were given to cacolalia, the compulsive repetition of dirty words. Actually, it was only one such word: "shit." Perhaps this departure from taboo reflected a revolt against the imposition of order and cleanliness--imperatives later to be defied by the hippies. This four-letter word never crossed my lips. In fact, my parents never used such words, nor did they tolerate ethnic slurs.

Oddly enough, one taboo word was never heard in those days; that was "fuck." For that monosyllable, it was usual to substitute "sexual intercourse." This could even be used as a verb: "to sexual intercourse." Once I was hanging out with two jocks I vaguely knew. One said, playfully I suppose: "Lets go over to Dynes' house and rough him up." No, said the other: "His dad might be a big mother." For quite a while I puzzled over this expression; how could a man be a mother? Eventually, I caught on. They were using a current euphemism that suppressed the second half of the compound, "-fucker."


The sexually charged environment of high school fostered a general seductiveness in which the male form was generically imprinted on my being. Yet there was a more specific agency. In the tenth grade I fell head-over-heels in love with one Larry Smith, a boy I scarcely knew well enough to speak to. What vagabond Merlin could have snared me with this enchantment?

Later, examining the matter soberly from a photograph taken at the time, I noted that Larry had fairly conventional Waspish good looks, with a clear complexion and a square jaw. His grades were, I reckon, little better than average. He could do sports, but did not excel in any of them. These things didn’t matter to me, though, for above all Larry was comfortable in his skin - as I, fretful and anxious, was not. He was not striving to be something, he just was. In his tranquil form, being triumphed over becoming.

In several of his short stories Thomas Mann has analyzed the lure happy youths like Larry pose to lonely outsiders, Even though I did not know it at the time, there was a certain typicality in my fascination. It had been heard of before.

Larry was in several of my classes, and getting through the academic year was torture. Finally, the spring term was over. I would not see Larry for a full three months! Surely, I thought, the grip of the enslaving passion would loosen, and I could at last be free. But it did not, for Larry’s remembered visage continued to torture me all through the summer. At home I would lie and writhe on the grass, in a vague Whitmanian hope that this would help to cure me. No such luck. In the fall I saw Larry again, and the passion flamed up even higher, prompted by the immediate visual stimulus of his revered form. I was doomed

Ultimately the enchantment began to fade, though I still had feelings for Larry. In fact I was not alone in my response, for my homophile buddy Richard W. noted Larry’s good looks in a remark to me. I was too embarrassed to respond.

My inability to shake this passion made clear to me, once and for all, that my nature was homosexual. (I did not know the word “gay” at the time.) The connection sealed my fate in another way: for some time henceforth I would be attracted mainly to straight men like Larry. Obviously, this was a recipe for unhappiness. Up to a point, the arrangement could work, as it later did with Neal M. and Charles Smith, if there was an element of gayness in the other person’s otherwise primarily heterosexual nature. Neal was probably two thirds straight (quite intensely so) and one third gay. Charles (a much more recent involvement starting in the nineties) never really quite found himself - not surprisingly, I suppose, considering his seemingly inevitable downward glide path littered with drug paraphernalia and beer bottles.

I was spared one possible consequence of the Larry entanglement. That is that I was not destined to be caught up in a perpetual fixation on 15- or 16-year old boys (his age at the time). I was not to be a boy lover, thank goodness. In due course, I could move on in a measured way to older types.


Another set of high school episodes highlights the difficulty that an incipient gay boy would, almost inevitably, experience in those Dark Ages of conformity and ignorance. In the quasi-military exercises of ROTC (the Reserve Officers' Training Corps), a sullen boy, trading comments with a confederate, insulted me with a sexual epithet. (He called me a penis; a compliment, I suppose--at least in different circumstances.) In this embarrassing situation--there were others present--I didn’t know how to respond.

Some weeks later I was sitting in the Assembly balcony. I had gone early to attend some event, and the vast hall was practically empty. What should happen, though, but that Mr. Sullen (I can’t now recall his name) should come up and sit right next to me. Almost fawningly, he made it clear that he had no hostility but wanted to be friendly. He did not apologize for the previous incident and, still repulsed, I did my best to shun him.

Some years later Chuck McC., who had belonged to a surreptitious circle of gay boys at LA High, told me that this sullen youth was in fact homosexual. No doubt the boy was struggling with conflicting feelings. His initial verbal attack may have reflected internalized homophobia. And then maybe he was trying to get my attention, and didn’t know how to do it otherwise. Clearly, he craved some kind of relationship; hence his approach to me in the Assembly. Clumsy though that strange boy may have been, he had figured me out better than I had figured out myself.

Had I been able to suspend my aversion to the kid (who was OK looking, but nothing special), our prospects would have been inauspicious. For I too was struggling with conflicted feelings. In contrast with heterosexual adolescent courtship, our milieu provided no models for two men to link up as “more than just friends.” Any relationship of that kind was perilous, because gossip would ensue, followed by ostracism. To the best of my knowledge, McC.’s circle of five or six youths did not include any couples--they were all just friends together, it seemed. A male couple, on the other hand, would elicit hostile attention. So it is just as well that I didn’t go any farther with Mr. Sullen.


I also did things that set me apart - provocations as it were. I opposed the dominant pop trends by seeking to promote high culture, especially classical music. Several years earlier I had heard an abridged version of "Aida" on the radio, and was fascinated.  Yet opera - or so I was told by one of my classmates- was “stuffy.” (The expression “it sucks” was unknown then.)

Mozart was my god. Later I became almost physically ill when I read a mediocre British novelist’s dismissive comment about “filthy old Mozart.”  I still like Mozart, but nowadays I am this side of idolatry.  This allegiance was long before the purported discovery of the “Mozart effect.”  During the 1990s a series of research studies suggest that listening to the composer’s music may induce a short-term improvement in the performance of certain mental tasks known  collectively as “spatio-temporal reasoning.”  This led to a popularized version, suggesting that “listening to Mozart makes you smarter.”  I would encourage people to listen to classical music, but there seems to be no conclusive data indicating that early childhood exposure to it has a beneficial effect on mental development.

In those days I looked down on the Tin Pan Alley hits favored by my schoolmates. Some of these, such as "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd Have Baked a Cake" (1950) and "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" (1952), were in fact pretty bad.  Some leant themselves to parody, maybe by design.  Frank Sinatra's 1949 song "The Old Master Painter from the Far Away Hills" was "misheard as "The Old Masturbater from the Far Away Hills."  A perennial classic was a rendering of "Jalousie," which went "Leprosy, It's Crawling All Over Me."

At LA High School I took an excellent music class taught by an Englishwoman named Beatrice Fall. She had been trained as a concert pianist, but was not quite good enough, so she became a teacher. Her course was organized around Richard Wagner's Ring cycle. She carefully illustrated each of the many leitmotifs that the composer had so artfully embedded in the work. Through this analysis I gained an overall sense of the structure of this vast tetralogy. Later I took up the avant-garde fascination with the Second Viennese School, especially the works of Arnold Schoenberg. Here too there was an underlying structure made up of the serial sequences (or "rows" as they were sometimes termed). It seemed to me that this twelve-tone stuff was the only proper music of our time. Today, though, I can scarcely bring myself to listen to it.

I did not care much for the typical Hollywood movie, which it seemed to me was devoted to celebrating a bland, conformist vision of American life that corresponded poorly to reality. I preferred the British Ealing comedies, such as Kind Hearts and Coronets and the Lavender Hill Mob. When they were available, I savored the classics of the silent-film era. Later I was to gravitate to the European films of the "art houses."  When the actors Marlon Brando and James Dean came along I recognized something new and subversive.

I was big on modern poetry and modern art, especially Picasso. Their hermetic qualities made them opaque to most people, which was just fine with me. On my own, I consulted works of explication at the public library, and with these cribs I was able to hold forth on the symbolism and formal values that distinguished these highbrow productions.

My parents couldn’t afford a TV, or so they claimed. A critic might say that in pushing high culture I  was making a virtue of necessity. I didn’t have access to the fare on the idiot box, harmless rubbish that provided common themes for chatting in the cafeteria and during recess klatsches. By way of compensation, I became the apostle of something so very, very much superior!

This sense gained reinforcement by my reading of The Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset.  Stimulated by the Spanish thinker's elitism, I evolved a simple typology based on the high school students I knew. On the one hand, there were the "aristics," a select body of self-disciplined devotees of culture and philosophy.  There were not too many of these, perhaps only myself and my sidekick Paul H.  Over against us, who constituted the happy few, stood the vast unwashed, the demotics, who were vulgarians only interested in the latest tin-pan alley tunes, popular movies, sports, and the like.  Reading Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra reinforced this snobism.

More conventional was my enthusiasm for T.S. Eliot.  My English teacher invited me to give an hour-long presentation on the poet. I loved this experience, my first taste of teaching.

In the late ‘forties an enterprising small publisher secured the rights to a formerly lost manuscript by Ezra Pound, Patria Mia.  In the ad, above a fierce photo of the bearded poet ran the caption “the most antisocial writer of our time.” Whee! That guy was for me. Almost feverishly, I started reading Pound, who quickly replaced Ortega and Nietzsche in my affections. My interest in Pound was partly sparked by my ambition to become an avant-garde poet. In fact I was a kind of proto-beatnik, but fortunately I pulled back, because I couldn’t face the life of poverty such a career path would entail. I wonder what became of the poems, mostly pastiches, that I produced during my high school years.  Not a great loss, I fear.

When I showed my copy of  The Cantos to one of my teachers, she remarked: “well, er, isn’t he prejudiced?” As I noted, that was an age of verbal circumspection.

I did not share Pound’s anti-Semitism or his admiration of Benito Mussolini. Later on, when I lived in Italy, I came across old-timers who still revered the Duce, but I was never able to make much of this enthusiasm.

Our high school was about 30% Jewish and these students were my natural allies, because, as a rule, they respected culture and learning. By definition the rednecks did not. Still, the Jewish students strove to fit in - to do OK at sports and to avoid the role of missionary culture-vulture, which was my thing.

With a few exceptions, I did not find the Jewish boys sexually compelling. As a sociologist might say, there was “not enough distance.” That is, being similar, we were not complementary enough. With the hunky redneck guys it was different. They might not have much upstairs, but we could always live downstairs - or so I fancied. If only I would shut up about Mozart and Picasso. But I just couldn’t.


Still, as long as I wasn’t too aggressive about it, being a culture vulture was fairly innocuous; not so, sexual unorthodoxy. In high school there were definite limits, and coming out as a proud homosexual would have been way out of bounds. In fact it was inconceivable. I suppose a Freudian would say that my culture-vulture engagements were a form of sublimation in response to my sexual frustration.

Of course, in those pre-pill days most het boys and girls felt sexually frustrated too. For the most part they were obliged to restrict their encounters to petting, with no penetration. Because of their deprivation, the boys were reputed to suffer from time to from attacks of the dreaded “blue balls.” During an attack of this malady almost any mouth would do that might offer the necessary relief. I never got a chance to test this hypothesis, though.

Sublimated or not, I found nonconformity welcome, even alluring.

All the same, from my parents' far-left orientation I also learned that concealment and guile (being in the closet, if you will) were sometimes well-advised. As a postal worker, my stepfather could have lost his job, given the anti-Communist atmosphere of the era.  Guided by my reading of Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon, and other works), I came to reject my parents' political beliefs, but the lesson of caution remained.  For some years I remained an atheist.  A couple of attempts to assert this identity met with derision, even the threat of violence.  So i kept a notebook of my atheist views in code.

Perhaps it is not too much of an oversimplification to say that subsequently my life has unfolded between two poles.  In my academic career as an art historian, I largely adhered to the cooperative mode.  That was prudent.  However, when it came to the turbulent gay movement of the 1970s I reverted to being a contrarian, my high school stance. As a result I was subjected to repeated efforts to marginalize me. Of that there will be more later.

As I bade good-bye in the summer of 1952 to the halls of “Rome” (as we grandly called our high school), I was but dimly aware of the daunting challenges that awaited me. Somehow I must make contact with established homosexuals, a little older than me, who could offer counsel. In so doing I would need to defend myself, as best I could, from the cynicism and negativity that so pervaded the gay world at that time. Up to this point I had had hardly any sex. I would have to learn how to find partners, and also to learn which modes suited me. How did one perform gay sex? Mutual masturbation was about as far as my imagination extended in those days. Put a cock in my mouth? How very unsanitary. Apart from this prudishness, I had somehow to avoid the danger of public labeling--what we now term outing--for as a person with very little in the way of personal or family resources, the ensuing pariah status would have been very hard to sustain.

And yet, I did manage.

In retrospect, I have concluded that what I learned from LA High was that I could survive (after a fashion), even as a contrarian.  How was I a contrarian? First, just being a “four eyes” (I wore thick glasses) barred me from any hope of joining the “in” crowd. They didn’t have contact lenses in those days.


Memoirs: Chapter Three


When I graduated from Los Angeles High School in the spring of 1952 it was assumed as a matter of course that I would go to a university.  After all my parents had attended college, and I was clearly destined for a white-collar career, quite possibly as an academic myself.  For that I would need a decent education.  Moreover, as a culture vulture I craved this instruction for its own sake.

Ideally I would have liked to have attended one of the major Eastern schools, but for financial reasons that was out of the question. I would go to the University of California at Los Angeles.  UCLA admitted students selectively, but my grades were good enough that I was sure to get in.

One of the two flagship universities in the University of California (alongside “Cal”; the University of California, Berkeley), UCLA is located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles.  It was founded in 1919.  The university has been labeled one of the “Public Ivies." That is, it is an institution funded mainly from tax revenues and boasting a quality of education comparable to the private universities in the Ivy League.

The original four buildings of the campus were the College Library (now the Powell Library); Royce Hall; the Physics-Biology Building; and the Chemistry Building, all arrayed around a quadrangular courtyard.  In a variation on the traditional Collegiate Gothic, the buildings were designed in a version of the Italian Romanesque style. Over the years they have become familiar because of the many movies that have been shot on the campus.

Several major American universities, including Stanford and Rice, have buildings in the Romanesque revival style. However, the core structures at UCLA are the only ones known to me with a specific Italian source, the church of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan.  This choice seems to reflect the perception, common in former years, that Southern California's pleasant climate merited the name of the New Riviera.

The four years I spent at UCLA (1952-56) were more congenial than the previous three in high school, in large measure because most of the rowdies were not college material, leaving the cohort of more serious students as my classmates. In fact two close friends from LA High School, Paul H. and Chuck McC. joined me at the Westwood campus. UCLA also hosted older students on GI Bill scholarships, strongly committed to making something of the gift of their college years. Because of the effort it took to get there, out-of-state students and foreigners were generally serious.  While it had its own supply of fraternity and sorority people, UCLA was not a "party school,"

Apart from the reputation of the university, tuition was only $50 a semester. This was lucky, because there were no student loans to speak of in those days.  I supported myself with a job in the library.  An additional advantage was that I could stay at home with my parents, saving me the expense of living in a dorm or joining another student in a rented apartment.  However getting to the university was quite a trek.  I generally took a streetcar to the end of the line, then one bus, and then at Westwood Boulevard transferring to another bus.  If classes were early I was sometimes late.


Having abandoned my earlier interest in the natural sciences, I targeted the humanities, with the aim (ultimately achieved) of making a career by qualifying as a professor in that realm. I began by majoring in classics, then switched to history. Only in my third year at UCLA did I settle on art history, a field previously unknown to me. This major appealed to me not as an artist (here I was only a dabbler), but because of the rich interdisciplinary vistas it revealed. At first I was strongly drawn to Chinese art (and still am), but I ended up becoming a medievalist, a choice responding to a certain muffled spirituality in my make-up.

From the start it was clear that I would make my way in the  humanities, but during the first two years UCLA required that students fulfill a distribution requirement.  The menu included both the natural and the biological sciences.  I liked the introductory courses I took in astronomy, geology, and microbiology.

I cannot say the same for psychology, which was taught by a pedantic practitioner of rat psychology, as the current form of behaviorism was termed.  The instructor rejected Freudian psychoanalysis (about which I had my own reservations), but I didn't cotton onto what he was offering either.  It seems to me that classical conditioning theory - the underlying rationale - has some limited validity.  Some things, like irregular Latin verbs, are best learned by reinforcement, that is, by running through them over and over again.  Ceasing this practice leads to fading and ultimately extinction.  But there are many things that are not learned in this way.  In addition to the professor's maddening lecturers, I was required to participate in a sadistic experiment in which I had to plunge my foot in a bucket of ice water for what seemed to me an inordinate period of time.  Today such nonconsensual experiments on human subjects are forbidden - and rightly so.

Another unfortunate course purported to be an introduction to philosophy.  Obviously bored, the instructor provided only the most perfunctory account of the history of the field prior to the twentieth century.  Then he launched into his true passion- if that is the right term - the austerities of logical positivism.  This school of philosophy, tracing its roots back to Vienna in the 1920s, claimed that metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics were all nonsense.  The only valid goal for philosophy was natural science.  But since the scientists were doing quite well on their own, and did not need the guidance of zealots who had no real laboratory experience - or (sometimes it seemed to me), no real experience of any kind.

The teachers of those two UCLA courses in psychology and philosophy disappointed me. Not so the historian Eugen Weber. His lectures, combining telling detail with astute generalizations, were enthralling. He was handsome and self-assured, impressing us all by his cosmopolitanism. Eugen was born in Bucharest of (I suppose) Jewish parents. When he was 12, his parents were astute enough to enroll him in an English boarding school. After the war, he discovered his true calling: the history of modern France.

Some observers have stressed Weber’s methodological empiricism and avoidance of grand themes. This is not my recollection, though perhaps he became more skeptical as he went along. To be sure, Weber had a practical side, derived from a serious fund of experience. Once (anent the Crusaders) I fatuously remarked about how single combat must be more satisfying than bombardment and other form of “distance warfare.” He immediately contradicted me, saying that he had had to bayonet enemy soldiers when he was with the British Army in Sicily. It was not satisfying at all.

Since Weber’s political views inclined to the left, it might seem surprising that he chose as his first major research project the Action Française, a far-right movement. In those days, we thought that the French were all lefties, and only gradually did one become aware (in large measure because of Weber’s work) that France had been, regrettably, a hothouse of proto-fascist thought.

Many will have seen Eugen Weber on public television in the 52-part series “The Western Tradition,” produced in 1989 by WGBH in Boston. Perhaps because I had heard much of the material in class thirty years before, I was not so impressed. In fact, the television lectures were a kind of elegy for a particular concept of Europe, which now seems dated and exclusivist. Some have even gone so far as to call this approach “Nato history,” a kind of enabling instrument masking some of the seamier aspects of Cold War realpolitik.

In my college days one might have said that Weber was a “refugee.” This term is unkind. The best rubric for this geographic and intellectual status is “the Transatlantic Migration.” Being Romanian with an English education, Weber was a somewhat unusual example of these creative people.  He made a great impression on me, foreshadowing my meetings with other scholars from Central and Eastern Europe.

Apart from my formal studies, I learned a good deal through conversations with advanced students in the social sciences, especially sociology and anthropology. Ultimately, I found sociology unrewarding because of its reductive tendency to regard human beings as little more than mirrors passively reflecting contents projected on them by society. In those days of conformity, "adjustment," that is, accepting one's lot, was held up as the ideal. This dismal imperative suppressed human agency. I couldn't go along with this, because active intervention on my own behalf was essential I felt that I must go beyond the constricting setting of Southern California and even the US. This task would call for a big effort.

Of course, with such works as The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman et al., sociology enjoyed much more prestige then than it does now. I can't say that I regret the decline of this discipline with its endless platitudes, not to speak of the many studies replicating what experience had already abundantly shown to be true.

I thought better of anthropology. This connection led to my reading of a paper by Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was then little known. The French scholar has proved one of my lifelong guides. Recently I began reading him once again. I was impressed by anthropology's ambition to provide a comprehensive description of an entire society - indeed of many societies. Having previously been an enthusiast for Arnold Toynbee, I was drawn to such portrayals. In the last analysis, though, I wanted them to address high cultures. Europe beckoned.

By way of outreach, I continued to assuage my culture-vulture penchants by forming a college humanities club, called “Investigations.” We met at my parents' home, covering a variety of themes, including novels, painting, and music.  There was even an Investigations String Quartet.  Despite my efforts, the meetings were not very popular, and I had to dragoon attendees. Such was the work of culture mongering - hard, but somebody had to do it.


Some years ago David Halperin, a gay professor of classics at the University of Michigan, decided to offer a course on “How to Be Gay.” This announcement provoked consternation, leading to a hostile discussion in the state legislature. Subsequently, he published a book with this title.  What I think Professor Halperin has in mind is an exploration of the fact that becoming gay is inevitably a process. One does not achieve this identity all of a sudden, emerging fully developed like Athena from the head of Zeus. The AHA! moment simply does not occur, either at the point where one acknowledges one’s orientation to oneself, through introspection, or at the point of declaring oneself (coming out). Instead, there is a complex process of negotiation, extending over some years, in which one gradually adjusts one’s expectations to social and psychic realities. Much as we would like to, we cannot shape our own situation just as we wish, but must work within the parameters of what is possible. All the same, our response must be active, and not just passive and accepting. I will illustrate this truism by discussing two gay circles, one of which became known to me after the fact, the other being one I actually participated in.

In my previous chapter, "Hapless in High School," I have already alluded to the clandestine gay circle in LA High. in my previous chapter, It flourished under my very nose. Only when I got to college did I learn from my friend Chuck McC. of the true nature of this bunch. As it formed something of a contrast to the group that I actually joined at UCLA, I will now say something more about this earlier group, as it formed (retrospectively) a benchmark for my later experiences.

Chuck’s high school circle was essentially democratic. The boys either took part in group sex (generally jerking off) or made themselves available to others, if you will, as fuck buddies. While some members of the group were more prominent than others, there was no clear leader.

Above all, the binary differentiation between confirmed gays (queens) and “trade” (men available for gay sex, but not stereotypical) had not taken place. Some members of the circle probably assumed that they would “turn straight” one day (as Chuck ultimately did). There was a silver lining, for the boys probably felt that, with their ready access to a form of sex that quenched their raging hormones, they were better off than most of their heterosexual peers, who had to be content with mere petting. The situation combined hedonism with flexibility.

How did the pattern prevailing in this group originate? Was it something ad hoc, like the Nicaraguan village of deaf mutes who invented their own sign language? Probably not, in that some of the boys had probably previously engaged in sex play with younger boys in circle jerks and similar gatherings.


I turn now to an important theme: the gay circle I joined at UCLA. The fluidity of identity characterizing the high school circle (which had of course disbanded) yielded to a fixed personality type, that of the queen. For many the new guise proved a lasting one. Most of the individuals who had come together in the UCLA circle continued to see one another regularly after graduation, evolving into a social amalgam they called “the Loved Ones” (an ironic reference to the Evelyn Waugh novel). I was a peripheral member of the group, but once I moved away in 1956, had no further relations with it.

At UCLA the daily gatherings of the circle were charged with powerful underlying currents of cynicism and acerbity. These corrosive solvents surely reflected internalized homophobia, a condition difficult to escape in those years of conformity. Turned inwardly, the negativity served to consolidate the norms of the group. And in fact much of the dishing was of each other, and of other gays who did not conform to the circle’s norms.

Internally, a hierarchy was generally recognized. What was this hierarchy based upon? First, it depended on looks and “endowment." They were all size queens. While most didn't have much to offer in that department, this deficiency did not prevent them from making catty comments about the skimpy "meat" of men they saw. So looks mattered most, facially and in terms of genitalia. Grotesquely, this criterion was called "standards." In fact the group had only the faintest idea of what might actually constitute standards.

Only with great difficulty could a homely person occupy one of the higher spots in the pecking order. Under exceptional circumstances this status could be achieved by marshaling the resources of the second and ultimately decisive resource. That was the ability to dish and give attitude. We did not use the term at the time, but attitude was indeed the key. It emerged in the verbal sallies that qualified (dubiously) as wit, and in the hauteur of a challenging gaze that ostensibly summed up the confrontational stance of the group. "She for he" put downs were common.

Under circumstances less benign than the 1950s college setting, group members would have been repeatedly beaten up. Their bravado was hollow - but as it was never put to the test, they could continue to nourish their illusions. And of course to keep “camping up a storm,” the latter-day gay version of the venerable bohemian practice of “épater le bourgeois.”

The solidarity of the group, such as it was, was reinforced by a pervasive scorn and belittling of outsiders. Sometimes these targeted individuals were the subject of “reading” in which their pretensions to heterosexual normality were ostensibly exposed as a sham; they actually were gay, but were just not willing to acknowledge it. In reality this process of reading was counterproductive, because in applying it across the board, the pool of desirable males would inevitably shrink. Thus tarnished, the object of this scorn, could no longer serve as a sexual object. We did not want to sleep with people like ourselves. By the way, such ascriptions were not always inaccurate. I remember scoffing when I heard that Rock Hudson was gay. I should not have.

By now it will be clear that the Loved Ones could not boast many positive features. Puffed up and preening because of their sense of being special, the members had little incentive to change their ways. Yet the group showed one remarkable distinction, one that would have been less likely before and after: it was salt-and-pepper--that is, it consisted of about ten black members and ten white members. In that era of the Supreme Court decision known as Brown v. Board of Education and the rise of the civil rights movement, the times were achangin.’ Even in liberal Southern California, though, there were many who remained uneasy about “race mixing.” We played on this uneasiness. It was another way of skating close to the edge.

A serpent was loose in this Eden, compromised as it was, in the form of the Vice Squad of the Los Angeles Police Department. By and large, this insidious organization did not operate on the UCLA campus. But when members ventured out into the city for sex, they faced the likelihood that eventually they were going to be arrested. I do not know of any of these men who escaped this fate. Their prissiness and attitude availed them naught when they were entrapped in this way. Evidently, the cops were particularly hard on black guys who were found with white partners. As I noted, racial animosity lurked just beneath the surface in the LA of those days. Probably it still does.

Unlike the high school circle, there was no intragroup sex, as all the members of the band were “sisters.” To have sex with each other would be incestuous.

Functioning as a kind of pseudo-family, the group carefully controlled admission, and those who did not measure up were either relegated to a suppliant position on the fringe, or excluded altogether. I was one of those men assigned a marginal status.

My polar opposite was Victor S., an überqueen, who affected long hair, heavy make-up, and gender-ambiguous clothing. He majored in French, naturally. Victor’s high-pitched shrieks were a startling ostinato punctuating the gatherings of the group, which regularly occurred in one of the school’s cafeterias. Eventually, the college authorities forced Victor to clean up his act. In retrospect it seems that he was ahead of his time, a prefiguration of later trends in advanced gender bending. But that is not the way he was received in those days. This strange creature was basically antisexual rather than gay. All the same, Victor expended a lot of energy putting down other gays as being less brave than he was for not being proud and open, and failing to conform to his peculiar criteria. In short he was a scold. Nonetheless, Victor served the group as something between an idol and a mascot. He symbolized our defiance.

With all the negativity that festered in this UCLA group, why would anyone want to join? Well, it was the only game in town, or so it seemed at the time. Otherwise, one was condemned to a desert of loneliness in which one had only straight acquaintances with whom one could not really discuss one’s feelings. All the same, the apprenticeship this group provided to an emerging gay person was seriously damaging.


To what extent was the UCLA queens group typical? At the time I did not know any other such circles, so that I could not judge from personal experience. However, the late John Grube, a Canadian scholar, interviewed a good many older men of this period. His research indicates that such circles--replete with hierarchy, rule enforcement, and constant bitchiness--were common, probably the norm.

Later I acquired some evidence of my own of the prevalence of the corrosive banter and putdowns, for in 1968 I saw Mart Crowley’s dismal play “Boys in the Band” in an off-Broadway production.

Here is how one character dissed another in the play. “You’re a sad and pathetic man. You’re a homosexual and you don’t want to be, but there’s nothing you can do to change it. Not all the prayers to your god, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you’ve go left to live. You may one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough. If you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate. But you’ll always be homosexual as well. Always Michael. Always. Until the day you die. “

Note the date: 1968. The Stonewall riots happened one year later, signaling a new era in which gay pride would supplant gay shame. It was about time.


Above, I implied that the UCLA queens group was the only game in town. Maybe that was so for our college campus, but it was not true for the larger world of the city in which we lived. In 1951, a year before I went to college, Los Angeles gave birth to the first successful US gay-rights group, the Mattachine Society. To be sure, these folks had some issues of their own: they were much too respectful of the views of psychiatrists, for example. Still, the Mattachine Society signaled the rise of a new type of homosexual assertion, one based on pride and not marinated in self-pity and internalized homophobia as the UCLA group regrettably was.

I did not participate in the rise of Mattachine in those days, because ignorant UCLA queens warned me to stay away from it. But no matter, for later I was to become friends with the heroic band who started the movement that redeemed gay people--with Dorr Legg, Don Slater, Jim Kepner, and Harry Hay. I would not have missed this company for the world. And their cause was destined ultimately to triumph, putting the self-hating faggots our of business. A very good thing.


It was stimulating to monitor these developments. All the same caution became my watchword. Retreating into the closet was a necessity if I was to make a career as a college professor. But in what field? Arriving at UCLA I opted for classics. Not having done Latin in high school, I quickly realized that that would be a long road with uncertain prospects at the end. So I switched to history. Those opting for that major were encouraged to have a related minor. I decided to try art history--and was immediately captivated. I had not realized that such a field actually existed. (Some don't acknowledge it even today--or else they opine that it should not exist.)

In my general enthusiasm for the visual arts I even toyed with the idea of becoming a painter. I knew just what kind I would be. I would practice a West Coast version of Abstract Expressionism, the New York School that had risen to prominence with such figures as Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, and Franz Kline. Probably, I thought, De Kooning with his brilliant colors and slashing brush strokes would be my model. Early in 2012, I went to the huge retrospective of De Kooning, the Dutch-American painter, at the Museum of Modern Art. The enchantment had long vanished.  I hated his (to me) misogynistic works collectively called "Woman" and found the later Alzheimer-blighted canvases pathetic. But the big abstractions of the late 'fifties still seem to me right on target.

At things turned out, I was never to take a studio course in painting, satisfying myself with a few amateurish experiments at home. I rightly judged that the academic path of art history was best for me. Why then did I decided to emphasize the medieval period?

Several factors converged. First, the overall society kept hammering at the idea that we would be stronger in our battle with world communism if we had an ideology of our own. That, it seemed, must be Christianity. (This was long before the fad for Asian religions spawned by the Counterculture.) The Catholic scholars Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, who regarded the works of Thomas Aquinas as the answer to everything, were widely acclaimed as sages, even by non-Catholics. I had several goes at reading the works of Thomas, but always got bogged down. For their part, the Luce publications promoted their own version of this pro-Catholicism. Clare Booth Luce was an enthusiastic convert to Roman Catholicism.

There was also a “lite” version, if you will, in the form of Anglo-Catholicism, which was actually high Episcopalianism. This was the tendency that T. S. Eliot, once my idol, championed. For his part, the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, then much in vogue, seemed to favor this approach in making religion a major factor in the unfolding of civilizations.

I knew that I wanted to become an art historian, so choosing medieval art seemed a good way of fulfilling these spiritual aspirations.

Two other factors were more serendipitous. At UCLA I had a charismatic professor of art history, Carl Sheppard, whose main field was the middle ages. While he never published much, Sheppard was a spell-binding lecturer. His other field of interest was modern art. I was interested in that too, and the affinities many detected between the medieval and the modern seemed genuine.

Finally, there was a not very honorable motive, though a a lesser one. Showing an interest in Catholicism and the middle ages annoyed my parents, who remained staunch atheists.


Memoirs: Chapter Four

My Evolving Political Views: An Interlude

Departing from strict chronology, this chapter deals more comprehensively with my political views, which have elicited puzzlement in some quarters. I have found that, in discussing these views with others, my politics tend to be met either with indifference (because they are eclectic) or disparagement (because they fit no particular established pattern). That said, let me see if I can clear a few things up.

My parents brought me up in a far-left political sect, the Communist Party USA. We tempered our consumption of the “bourgeois” press with a subscription to the Daily People’s World, the West Coast counterpart of the Daily Worker, Like many intellectuals of the thirties my stepfather had adopted the vulgar Marxism rife during those Depression years.

In our household I don’t remember any airing of such key issues of Marxian economic theory as surplus value or the purported progressive immiseration of the working class. In the immediate postwar period, when plumbers and truck drivers began to earn more than professors, this stuff about the plight of the poor workers would not have had much traction. We were told, of course, that another Depression was just around the corner (which it was not). The main thing I remember absorbing from those conversations and readings was a Manichaean view of the contemporary global situation in which the valiant “progressive forces” (that is, the Warsaw Pact nations dominated by Moscow, and Mao’s China) were arrayed against the evil nemesis of capitalist plutocracy headquartered in Wall Street. Without question the US was always the arch-villain in this process, a view that I have found wearyingly replicated over and over again in later dissident movements. This is so even now that the Soviet Union is dead and gone. As far as I can see, the unending flood of screeds produced by Noam Chomsky simply mimics this hoary and simplistic sheep-and-goats doctrine.

Some averred that the only hope for change was the presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace, who ran in 1948 under the aegis of a third party. In fact, the hapless Wallace, whose main expertise lay in agriculture, was manipulated by his Communist and fellow-traveler advisers.


At that time though, I got off the bus, the Comintern Express. The precipitating event was the defection of Marshall Jozef Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia from the Soviet orbit in 1948. Then a precocious fourteen-year-old, I wrote a long letter, a kind of cri du coeur, to the editors at the Daily People’s World, asking how a former stalwart champion of the people (Tito) could so suddenly turn into a “social-fascist beast.” No answer came. Of course the excommunication simply reflected the fact that Tito had had the temerity to defy Stalin. and got away with it. Stalinism, enforced by the party line, pulled the strings that made all the puppets, including my foolish parents, dance.

I then deprogrammed myself by reading two authors, George Orwell (1984; and Animal Farm) and Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon). I later came to find Orwell a narrow and simplistic puritan, hobbled by misogynistic, homophobic. and other suburban prejudices (he denounced "pansy" poets).

Koestler, a man of many parts, eventually returned to his first love, the history of science. I followed him in this interest, as seen most notably in his brilliant treatise, The Act of Creation. Two recent biographies have highlighted Koestler's personal failings, rehearsing charges that may well be true.  No one is perfect.  But for me his life was one of the most emblematic trajectories of the twentieth century.

Any perceptive person can benefit from off-track experiences such as my Commie education, tossing out the dross (lots of it) and retaining what still seems of value. So let me say something about the latter. In keeping with their beliefs my parents sought out and made friends with black people, then known as Negroes, whom we sometimes entertained in our home. Another thing I gained from this misguided though formative political education was a healthy skepticism about our two major parties--or rather the Demopublicans. Their alternating pattern of dominance is simply a series of switches from Tweedledum to Tweedledee and back again. The reason, of course, is the Permanent Government ensconced in Washington DC, staffed by venal career bureaucrats, ruled by lobbyists awash in money, and abetted by a disgraceful, toadying media. Today the truth of this principle seems to be affirmed once again, as the Obama policies more and more mirror those of George W. Bush. Only the rhetoric changes.

From time to time a third party arises, only to fall by the wayside. By and large the Anglo-Saxon political system does not permit such pluralism. We are resolutely binary. Does this acknowledgement lead to despair? Not necessarily, for there are some rays of light. I note the success of movements organized around particular goals, as seen in the civil-rights, women's, and GLBT movements. I write the acronym reluctantly, as it fosters a degree of fragmentation ("diversity") that is not helpful, in my view.


In college I took a worthless course in that misnamed discipline Political Science. It was only in the 1960s that I began to read on my own in this field. As a medieval scholar I found, curiously enough, succor in that remote era of Western history, which invented the concepts of separation of powers, representative government, the common law, and the just war. (The latter, however, gives me pause, for the criteria for determining which wars, if any, are just, seem elastic, all too conveniently so.)  Yet these efforts did not carry me very far.

In 1980 my liberal friends in Manhattan were shocked and horrified by the election of Ronald Reagan. I was not surprised, as I had come to recognize that fifteen years of expansive efforts to address social problems by tax-and-spend policies had on balance been counterproductive. The misconceived welfare programs, for example, tended to shackle their supposed beneficiaries to the payments, stifling personal initiative. Finally, under Bill Clinton, this whole edifice was reformed. Even in 1980 many of these problems were evident. In short, the liberal consensus, dominant in the US since the time of Franklin Roosevelt, was crumbling.

I was aware that the shift in climate reflected by the advent of Ronald Reagan had been anticipated by a series of studies sponsored by think tanks in Washington DC. In their turn these studies rested upon currents of conservative and libertarian thought that went back for several generations.

My knowledge of these developments stemmed from a serendipitous incident. In the summer of 1973, while recovering from a bout of hepatitis, I was invited to cat-sit in San Francisco for a very intelligent Danish woman who was spending a month in Europe. Her apartment was stocked with libertarian literature. Since I had long believed that libertarianism was the work of the devil, dipping into thee tomes had the thrill of engaging in forbidden acts.  Thank goodness no one can see me, I thought.

After I returned to New York City, I acquired and read many of these books. I had always had an anarchist streak, and that side of libertarianism appealed to me. I found that modern libertarianism could be traced back to obscure nineteenth-century thinkers like Bastiat and Stirner. During the twentieth century, such economists as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman, had made formidable contributions. I had skipped economics in college, and it was a stretch for me to assimilate the more technical contributions of these writers. But the challenge was exhilarating.

Libertarianism has been burdened with two misperceptions. First, it has been pigeonholed as simply a form of conservatism. In fact libertarianism is equidistant from both conservatism and liberalism. Like conservatives, libertarians believe in limited government. Yet they share with liberals a commitment to freedom of thought and expression. Most controversially, perhaps, libertarians believe in the legalization of recreational drugs.

The other problem of perception is the caricature that all that libertarianism amounts to is the pro-capitalist advocacy of Ayn Rand. In my view, Randism is a cult, and I have never had much interest in it. Yet the “reductio ad Randam” serves many outsiders as an pretext for avoiding any serious consideration of libertarian ideas. More perceptive observers remain undeterred by this ad feminam simplification, and some libertarian ideas, such as privatization, have gained leverage throughout the world.
In the 1990s I joined a nonleft gay thinktank on the Internet.  Many of those who belonged to this group professed a belief in libertarianism.  Before long I became disillusioned with this company.  Most of these seeming fellow seekers of the truth, were, I sadly concluded, simply neocons with some surface camouflage.

If pressed for a label, I would say that I am a libertarian anarchist - but not entirely, since I cling to Karl Popper's hope for a better world, which in his view can only be realized with the aid of "partial planning."


As a graduate student I became friends with a fellow student with an impressive family background.. Her father was Hans Baron, a scholar of Renaissance political thought who had been educated in Germany, later settling in Chicago.  He is noted for introducing and defending the idea of civic humanism.

According to Baron this ideology emerged from a protracted conflict between Florence and Milan in the early modern period.  For its part, Florence was ruled by its commercial elites, while Milan was a monarchy controlled by its landed aristocracy. The Florentines held that their form of government was superior because it emulated that of the Greeks and the Roman Republic. Moreover, Leonardo Bruni (1370–1444) asserted, based on Tacitus’ pronouncements, that republican government made better men, whereas monarchy served to erode human virtue.  Baron argued that this was an epochal advance, of great significance for the future of European and American civilization. The concept came to be known more broadly as republicanism.

Since the time of Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century the concept of the social contract has been held to lie at the core of republicanism . Although modern republicanism rejected monarchy (whether hereditary or otherwise autocratic) in favor of rule by the people, classical republicanism treated monarchy as one form of government among others. Classical republicanism took aim against any form of  tyranny, whether monarchic, aristocratic, or democratic (the tyranny of the majority). The ideal favored mixed government, supported by a sense of civil responsibility.

A major advance in the understanding of this tradition was accomplished by the intellectual historian J.G.A. Pocock in his 1975 book The Machiavellian Moment.  In his view, Machiavellian thought responded to a series of crises facing early sixteenth-century Florence in which a seemingly virtuous state found itself on the edge of destruction. As a remedy, Machiavelli sought to revive classical republican ideals.

Pocock sought to show how this approach migrated to the anglophone world, first in seventeenth-century English thinkers who supported the rights of parliament over against the monarchy, and the the thinking of the Founders of the American Revolution. Pocock’s book and his subsequent work has come to represent the so-called republican synthesis, which holds that the United States was born with a fear of corruption and a desire to promote classical virtue.

Within the framework of the tradition that began with civic humanism, most would agree that citizenship entails certain basic duties, including voting and jury service.  Yet some would go farther.  One influential advocate of an enhanced set of responsibilities was the Harvard professor John Rawls, whose 1971 book A Theory of Justice has been widely influential.  Among his complex arguments I focus on one, the Difference Principle.  The Difference Principle  seeks to regulates inequalities: it only permits inequalities that work to the advantage of the worst-off. By assuring the worst-off in society a fair deal, Rawls compensates for naturally-occurring inequalities (including talents that one is born with, such as a capacity for sport).  The upshot is that those who have such benefits must sacrifice some of their advantages for the benefit of those less well off than they are.  Put baldly, this means that the more successful members of society are conscripted in a collective effort to reduce inequality. 

One can agree up to a point.  Couched as an exhortation, altruistic conduct among the privileged simply recycles the time-honored principle of noblesse oblige, defined as the obligation of the rich and powerful to serve the interests of the community.  Yet Rawls seeks to go farther and to turn a voluntary principle into a universal encumbrance. At all events, while Rawls’ thinking has found considerable favor among intellectuals, it does not seem have had much influence on actual public policy as seen in governing.  As with the proposals of many intellectuals it is too sweeping and categorical.


Another approach I sometimes incline to is a more pessimistic one than either of the two just discussed. Here are some observations regarding three now little-known thinkers in the Realist vein, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Robert Michels. Reflecting on his experience in Italy, the Sicilian Mosca (as early as 1893) posited that all societies, whatever their formal constitutions and public rituals, are controlled by a political elite. This harsh dynamic acknowledges only two social categories: the rulers and the ruled. Mosca’s ideas, and those of his contemporaries Pareto and Michels, differ from those of Marx in that the ruling group is composite, rather than unitary, and therefore not a class in the strict sense. In my view, Marx’s idea of the ruling class was more traditional, in that he envisaged a kind of pseudo-kinship group modeled on, though not the same as, the traditional nobility.

Conventional wisdom assigns Mosca, Pareto, and Michels to the Right. However, a similar point was made by Sidney Webb, the Fabian who, together with his wife Beatrice Webb, ranks as one of the founders of the British Labor Party. Sidney noted, "[n]othing in England is done without the consent of a small intellectual yet practical class in London, not 2,000 in number." Edwardian England was both centralized and close-knit, and probably one has to assume a somewhat larger, more diffuse elite in other countries.

As Vilfredo Pareto emphasized, the pool of the ruling elite is being constantly refreshed, as new recruits find access. Yet the absolute number of players is small - it cannot be otherwise. This changing configuration, whose instability is only apparent, not real, refashions itself by a continuing process of minute adjustments. In this way the Participatory Illusion flourishes. "If an outsider like Henry Kissinger could make it to the pinnacle of power, then maybe I can too." In fact, this outcome is very unlikely, perhaps fortunately so for those of us who are ruled.

Robert Michels aptly summarized this situation as the Iron Law of Oligarchy. This principle applies to all kinds of societies, whether they be nominally democracies, monarchies, or authoritarian states. Moreover, size matters. The bigger the society, the more necessary - or at least convenient - it is that this ruling elite should control matters.

In the old USSR this situation came out into the open (after a fashion) in the concept of the Nomenklatura. The term derives from a confidential list (always hard to access) of privileged Party members who make all significant decisions. Oddly enough, in that respect the Soviet Union was more transparent than the US is today. As we have seen, however, the social mechanism is generally applicable - above all to societies like our own, where regrettably the mechanisms are obfuscated as much as possible.

Does this reality mean that individuals who do not belong to the ruling elites can expect to have no influence at all over policy decisions? On the whole that is just what it does mean, though there are some marginal exceptions. If they are wise, elite members in good standing will occasionally consult associates who stand outside the magic circle of power. If, however, these seemingly consultative players seek to promote a policy that goes counter to the collective wishes of their comrades, they will be instantly overruled. If it is a project that the group has already decided to undertake, the advice of the kibitzer is superfluous. At the end of the day, then, the actual influence the outsiders can bring to bear through this lateral intervention is highly circumscribed.

It is said that non-elite individuals can make a difference by joining together to form pressure groups. In union there is strength. Even here, though, the leverage accorded to non-elitists is exiguous. In many cases, the officers of pressure groups are usually themselves members of the elite, whose bidding they are more likely to do than that of their members.

For a time at least mobilization efforts such as those of the civil-rights and women’s movements can effect change. Another example, more narrowly focused, is ACT-UP, which has had a beneficial effect on medical policy. Given enough “testicular pressure,” those who manage the elites will yield, though only up to a point. Their overarching goal, which they pursue ruthlessly and with only the most minimal deviations, is to maintain power.

Occasionally there are popular upheavals, as in the massive opposition to the Vietnam War. Yet when it came to deposing president Richard Nixon, that change was deftly managed by a few key players on the inside, who had made sure that one of their more pliable colleagues, the dimwitted Gerald Ford, would take the place of his disgraced predecessor. The king is dead, long live the king!

I do in fact see hope in the rise of the blogosphere. A few of the bloggers are very widely read and quoted. Most though are not. The Iron Law of Oligarchy, it seems, extends its pall even over the blogosphere. Yet at least the blogs hasten the process of the circulation of elites. Andrew Sullivan is in; David Broder is out. Fresh faces may mean better policies. Or so we may hope.

In closing, two objections to the above sketch of the Iron Law of Oligarchy may be noted. First, the analysis seems unduly bleak and pessimistic. In fact, we may easily observe contemporary societies much worse than the managed one we live under now. Examples are the kleptocracies that dominate much of the Third World, especially in Africa. Pareto might well have agreed with Churchill that elitist democracy is the worst system in the world - except for every other. Still, it makes sense to go about the world with our eyes open.

The second objection is that my views amount to a conspiracy theory. Along these lines, there have been attempts to pinpoint the loci of the elite conspiracy: the Club of Rome, the Trilateral Commission, and the Bohemian Grove clique. Yet my theory differs from pinpointing of this type, for it posits a set of arrangements that are looser and pretty much out in the open, if one will simply look to see. There is no need to leave the living room. Watching C-Span TV on a regular basis shows the ruling-elite figures doing what they do best, talking to each other. Like some privileged prisoner, one can witness this spectacle, but is not allowed to participate.

In my short summary of the Iron Law of Oligarchy I have presented an ideal type. What would be needed to put flesh on these bones would be a series of case studies. One might begin with certain think tanks, such as the odious Council on Foreign Relations and the Rand Corporation. Doubtless such studies exist; the task would be to correlate them.


Events  have a way of intruding on political theory.  In 1989 the Berlin Wall was breached, followed shortly by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the "people's democracies," Soviet puppets in effect.  These changes meant that the United States was the sole superpower.  Yet these halcyon days ended with the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington.  The attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq were an ill-advised and extremely costly attempt to deal with this problem.

The political scientist Samuel Huntington has written of a "clash of civilizations" with respect to our confrontation with militant Islam. While this position is overstated, there is no doubt that there are problems in this realm, including those arising from the large Muslim diaspora populations in Western Europe.

Despite denials, the US continued to try to serve as the world's policeman.  While I do not subscribe to the leftist view of anti-imperialists like Noam Chomsky who argue that the US is the chief source of the world's problems, there is no doubt that we need to assume a more modest posture.

Response to the new situation that developed after 2001 had led to all sorts of excesses of surveillance, as documented by Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and other whistle-blowers.  While some cosmetic changes are in store, it is clear that the rise of the national security state remains a menace, a menace that it may not be possible to contain.

Here is a personal confession.  I was briefly elated by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which started on September 17, 2011 in Zuccotti Square at the lower end of my own island of Manhattan. Yet this trend, which had spread to other US cities, seems to have vanished almost as quickly as it arose.

These problems of inequality and economic constriction are common throughout the industrialized world.  Once decried for their cradle-to-grave policies, the welfare states of Western Europe and Canada have consolidated their social safety net . By any standard this is a great accomplishments. With the ACA legislation, Obama and his associates have tried to bring our own country up to this standard.

All these social programs develop constituencies and are likely to last - as long as we can afford them. By the same token, however, welfare-state liberalism has been forced into a defensive posture one directed to preventing erosion of existing programs, while at the same time abandoning hope of creating new ones. This sclerosis is not a good prescription for a vital political philosophy.

Moreover, demographic changes will make the maintenance of existing levels of social support in Western Europe more difficult.  Nor is the prognosis in the United States much better.  Even if we slash military expenses and increase taxes on the wealthy - both very desirable steps - the changes will not be enough.  There must be restraints on entitlements.  And neither of our political parties has the will do address that issue.  The future looks cloudy at best.


Memoirs: Chapter Five

New York City: 1956-58

I had not been out of California since I was a child. For some of my college friends the prospect of residing in that state for the rest of one’s days seemed just dandy. But not in my case, for in my last year at UCLA it had become clear that I must come East for my graduate education in art history. From my new base I could at last visit Europe, beckoning as the Promised Land.  Perhaps I could even settle abroad, escaping - or so I thought - the deadly conformity and consumerism that held my native land in their grip

My teacher Professor Carl Sheppard had gone to Harvard University so naturally that was my first choice. I applied for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship there. Harvard agreed to admit me, but without any scholarship funding - an impossible prospect for a poor boy like me. For its part, the Institute of Fine Arts (IFA) of New York University did offer some money. I was offered tuition plus $100 a month. In those days $100 was enough to live on even in New York City, though just barely. Still, I was able to supplement this amount with part-time employment in the Institute library.

During the summer of 1956 I crossed the country by bus in a series of stages. After I paid a courtesy call to my relatives in East Texas, I set forth, stopping at various major cities - Kansas City, Saint Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia - along the way to see the museums. Once I arrived in NYC I stayed briefly at the 34th Street YMCA, and then took a small apartment on West 85th Street in Manhattan, which I was to share with my best friend Chuck after he returned from his European sojourn.

Sharing of the apartment with my friend Chuck did not last long, for soon a young woman arrived. It developed that he had impregnated her when they both lived in Paris.  They decided to keep the baby, so they got married - I was the best man - and moved to another apartment in the neighborhood.  For a while I lived with them to save money, but when the child came along I moved out, making do in a rooming house. At the beginning of my second year I was able to move into a tiny garret room in the Warburg mansion at 17 East 80th Street where classes were held. In exchange for some light duties, the rent was free.

The depictions of New York City that I had seen in the movies had not prepared me for the reality. The city was much grittier than I expected, and the people tougher and more hard-edged. Most apartments were dismal, shabby holes with plaster peeling from the walls- - something out of Beavis and Butthead.  In some buildings there were only communal toilets in the hall.  At least these slum abodes were cheap, some of them at least.

Apart from the grit, the city was more diverse ethnically than anything I had experienced. In California the main ethnic division was this: were you Anglo or Hispanic?

Demographically, New York  City was informed by the groups that had begun to come in great streams starting in the middle of the nineteenth century: Irish, Italians, and Jews. Even though I was nominally Irish-American, I felt no bond with the East Coast Irish, who were Catholic, prone to drinking, and generally anti-intellectual. My commitment to art history induced a sentimental attachment to the Italians. But I felt the greatest affinity with the New York Jews, who accepted me as a fellow striver and seemed, at least those I met, sincerely desirous of gaining more education and culture.

An unexpected element was the Puerto Ricans. In high school I had become fairly proficient in Spanish, but did not find this knowledge very useful, as Caribbean Spanish was quite different from what I was used to.  Moreover, in those days Spanish did not rank as an academic language. Some of my gay friends were sexually involved with ‘Ricans, but communicated with them in English.

The overall situation in New York City was challenging.  Rents and food were considerably higher than what I had experienced in Los Angeles. Generally lacking was the easy bonhomie that I had taken for granted in sunny California. As someone put it, every encounter - whether on the street, in a store, or even at a party - was a potential confrontation.  The speech of New Yorkers seemed to reflect their ethos. A common admonition was "Watch yourself at all times!"  If one riled a New Yorker, the individual would be capable of answering "Drop dead: you should live so long!"  I came to dread riding in cabs, because the cabbies often had ways of cheating passengers. Gradually I got used to the toughness.  I even discovered a big streak of toughness in my own makeup, which has sometimes impeded my progress elsewhere.

The money I received was adequate as long as I took care with my expenditures.  Meals were often taken at the Automat, where the food was surprisingly edible - or so it seemed to me in the pre-foodie days. Generally speaking, visits to the theater were out, and I had to content myself with the movies, like most of America.  I remain forever grateful, though, to a wealthy woman who let us students have her box in the nights that she wasn't going to the Metropolitan Opera. Occasionally one of my professors would take me somewhere.  I saw a good many operas that way.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art was free.  The subway, which went almost everywhere, was fifteen cents. In short, there were some perks.

With my uncouth clothing - one horrendous suit was purchased on Hollywood Boulevard - and unpolished manners, I didn't fit in socially.  The contrast was particularly evident with well-healed students who had gone to fancy prep schools, followed by stints at Dartmouth and Princeton, Vassar and Barnard.  Later I learned that one of my colleagues had denounced me as "so Midwestern." She seemed to think that the Midwest stretched from the Hudson to the Pacific Ocean. As for the clothing, after I became more prosperous one of my sophisticated new friends took me in hand and told me that henceforth I must buy everything at Brooks Brothers.  I obviously had no taste whatever, so this was the only safe course to follow.  I am glad to say that those Brooks suits all wore out years ago.

With some wavering, reflecting my European longings, I ended up choosing New York City as my home. I have lived in my Morningside Heights apartment now for forty-four years - more than half my life.  For a while, as crime rates rose in the sixties and seventies, living in New York City seemed problematic. Vigorous action on the part of the city administration addressed the problems.  Today the city is an excellent place to retire to.  Here it is that I live comfortably and do my work.


In September of 1956 I started my classes, which were held in the old Warburg town house at 17 East 80th Street just off Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Quite an address! Most of them were taught by wonderful German Jewish scholars, individuals we would now term refugees from the Holocaust. We did not use that last term then, but we knew what their fate would have been had they stayed behind. The faculty had been formed through a wise decision of the founder Professor Walter W. S. Cook, who saw a precious opportunity in recruiting these remarkable figures after Hitler had dismissed them from their posts. Basking in the results of Cook's far-sighted policy, the Institute of Fine Arts became the leading center for the study of art history in the United States.

At first I had trouble understanding my professors' accents, which varied according to the part of Germany they had come from. But once I got the hang of it.  I fell into a kind of sacred trance, which repeated itself day after day. Each course generally began with a discussion of the state of scholarship. This was a new concept for me; I thought that if one was going to study, say, Renaissance architecture, one started right out with the buildings. Not at all, for one's understanding of the buildings changed kaleidoscopically depending on who was interpreting them and according to what principles. Some term this variability perspectivism.

The star professor was the archaeologist Karl Lehmann, who all-seeing eye ranged through the enire course of classical antiquity from the Greek Archaic era to late Roman Art. In addition to his profound knowledge of ancient art and archaeology, Professor Lehmann seemed to have memorized the whole of Pauly-Wissowa’s Realenzyklopädie, the ultimate source for classical studies - all in the German language of course. Encountering him on the street Lehmann seemed a small, almost insignificant man. Yet once the lights went out (as was customary in such lectures) the contents of his marvelous brain unfolded almost magically, or so it seemed to me. The lectures were scheduled for a length of two hours, from eight to ten in the evening, but no one stirred if Lehmann went on, sometimes for an hour longer.

At one point, fairly soon into the series of lectures, I detected a minor error concerning Archaic Greek sculpture. During the break I had the temerity to mention it to the great man. He struck his brow and said “Ach, my boy, you are right!” Lehmann commenced the second part of the lecture by generously acknowledging the point that I raised. Admitting that his own teachers in Germany had made errors, he  admonished us always to bring gaffes to his attention. Imperious and "Prussian" as he was, he was also an honorable man.

I diligently took notes, and was at the library when it opened, staying to close it at night. Many of the recommended readings were naturally in German,  with which I struggled (having had only a semester of that language at UCLA). To keep up, I began private German lessons with Edith Weinberger, the spouse of one of the faculty members. With her long cigarette holder and dated clothing, she seemed something out of a Kurt Weill musical. But she was immensely simpatica. On one occasion, noting that I was thin and pale, she offered to lend me money. I was greatly touched, because I knew that she and her husband did not have very much themselves.

Edith Weinberger may have been colorful, but I am sure that her private life was exemplary. So too were the lives of most of the faculty and their spouses.  An exception was a man I will call Professor  X, who had formed the habit of inviting female students into his office, locking the door, and exposing himself.  I had heard too many accounts from the victims to think that such reports were less than real.  One day, in an incident recounted to me by several people, a young woman ran from the professor's office to the directors office, proclaiming loudly "Dr. X waved his penis at me!"  Failing to exhibit moral courage, the director managed to persuade the victim that she had imagined the event.

At first I hesitated between Chinese and European medieval art.  I took courses with Alfred Salmony, the East Asian specialist, and spent time in the Chinese galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  In those days, however,  US relations with the People's Republic of China were frosty, and it was not clear when, if ever, I would get to see my adored Buddhist cave temples.

So the medieval option became mine by default. At first I gravitated to Richard Krautheimer, a distinguished architectural historian whose specialty was the Early Christian period.  Interpreting buildings when often only scanty ruins were visible was a challenge, but making the effort was good discipline.  Eventually, though, I decided that I wanted to study illuminated manuscripts, so I switched my allegiance to Professor Harry Bober.  It was under his direction that I eventually completed my dissertation on the illuminations of the Stavelot Bible.


With all this studying, I found a little time for pursuing the gay life. I proceeded very carefully, as I knew that establishing myself in academia meant staying in the closet as much as possible. This cautious policy paid dividends, for in my second year of graduate study at IFA I was invited to live in the building as the sole resident student; my tiny room was rent free. Before taking up this post I had heard a story, possibly a legend, about a predecessor who became a noted academic, who held a gay orgy in the IFA building. At this event, apparently in 1943, the police came. Walter Cook, the director visited the hapless grad student, saying that he would spring him from jail if he agreed to marry. Cook had already picked out a young woman, another student, who was amenable to the arrangement.

Two or three times I had tricks up to my room, but I was very careful. Because of my straightened finances I could only visit the gay bars occasionally. With their wide- open windows and mafia-dominated atmosphere, these bars were different from the ones I had known in California. Still I met a few older men who invited me to their apartments, giving me an idea of the way that ordinary New Yorkers lived. I also became infatuated with two male students. One was already “taken,” as he was being supported in his studies by an older benefactor with whom he lived. I had a brief affair with the other guy, but he turned out to be a hopeless neurotic.


I now digress to another interest, not connected to art history. During my high school years I had started reading the works of Ezra Pound, attracted by his outlaw status. As a resident of Italy during the interwar years, Pound had become a fervent admirer of Benito Mussolini. During World War II he agreed to broadcast for the Axis on Radio Rome. The US authorities monitored and transcribed the broadcasts, so that after Pound was apprehended towards the end of the war he was brought back to America under indictment for treason. This was a capital offense, but Pound cheated death by being judged insane. He was then confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

I was in New York City, an easy, cheap bus ride from the nation’s capital, so I wrote Pound and asked if I might visit him. He agreed, and I visited him twice on a weekend visit. St. Elizabeth’s turned out to be situated in pleasant grounds dotted with old trees--almost a country club. The interior was almost equally agreeable, and the poet held court in his own alcove. There were ten or twelve visitors, and we paid close attention to Pound’s every word, a somewhat challenging task, as he changed topics suddenly and without warning. Some of the other visitors were young students like myself, drawn to Pound because of his rebel reputation. Also in attendance were Pound’s English wife, Dorothy, who seemed quite bewildered by the scene, together with his artist mistress, who (it was alleged) was permitted to pay conjugal visits to the old man at the asylum from time to time.

One of Pound’s main disciples at the time was John Kasper (1929–1998), a far-right activist who took a militant stand against the racial integration fostered by the growing civil rights movement. Educated at Columbia University, Kasper corresponded with Pound as a student. After running a bookshop in Greenwich Village he moved to Washington, D.C., where he befriended Pound, setting up a shoestring company, known as Square Dollar Books, to publish some of the poet's works, as well as those of other writers he admired. Absorbing Pound's right-wing ideas, he formed the Seaboard White Citizens Council immediately after Brown v. Board of Education in order to oppose desegregation. Kasper came to national prominence because of his opposition to the integration of Clinton High School in Tennessee. After dodging the law on several occasions he ultimately served eighth months for conspiracy in 1957.

At the St. Elizabeth’s gathering, I heard crude expressions of anti-Semitism, but I kept my dissent to myself. For his part, Pound was freed in 1960 and returned to live in Italy.

I must have made a good impression on the poet - though not for my political views.  In all events, after I returned to New York he instructed several of his other younger admirers to look me up. One was a Chinese American, David Wang, who had organized a White Citizens Council in New York. When I asked how a non-Caucasian person could fulfill this role, he said that he was only acting as a place saver until some real white person came along to take his place in the organization. As far as I know none ever did, and I never learned of any other members.

The most consequential introduction was with Jack Stafford, a troubled young man who had dropped briefly out of Ohio State University to come and work in the city. I was attracted to him sexually, but nothing came of it, as Jack was in the closet and was soon to return to Ohio. Yet we kept in touch, and eventually he became a librarian, working at the main branch of the Queens Library in the city. After I returned from England in 1967, Jack Stafford became my best friend.

Not long after Stonewall in 1969, Jack joined gay liberation. He was one of the people who started the Gay Task Force at the American Library Association. He recruited me to the group, and I joined him in working on a bibliography on gay studies, commissioned by Barbara Gittings, who headed the effort. When Jack was murdered on the street in Queens in 1973, I was able to rescue the manuscript of the bibliography from his apartment. Before sending the original on to Barbara, I made a photocopy for my own use. In those days I little realized that this text, short and rough, was to be the seed of my later commitment to gay bibliography, and gay studies in general.


I return now to 1957. One of my fellow IFA students, a young woman from Maine, invited me to go abroad that first summer, as an assistant in her parents’ business, which was to escort college students, mostly young women who were thought to need chaperoning, on a European tour. We went first to England, then to the Netherlands and Germany. The longest stint was in Italy, which I liked best. We concluded in Paris. I passed the whole summer in a state of giddy excitement, and I couldn’t wait to spend more time across the Atlantic.

A year or so later an opportunity presented itself. I had been doing some part-time work translating for a major New York publisher. McGraw-Hill had undertaken to produce the English-language version of a big new art encyclopedia, which was being organized in Rome. They were so impressed with my work - and with my seeming knowledge of Italian (partly simulated) - that the McGraw-Hillites invited me to move to Rome as their editorial representative. Those were the days when Italophilia was at its height, the era of the espresso bar, the Vespa, and Italian neo-realism in film, so I accepted with alacrity.