Sandy Kern grew up on Amboy Street, the Brooklyn block where the boys from Murder, Incorporated, used to shoot craps in front of Olesh’s Candy Store. These were the Jewish mobsters of Brownsville before the war began. “We kids would stand and watch for the cops,” Kern remembered, “and we would signal them. And when we didn’t do it in time and the cops did raid them—they did it right in the street, of course—the cops would come, they would run away, these guys. And when the cops got to the site where they were playing craps, they would take all the coins that were on the floor and toss them up in the air, and the kids would scramble for the money.”
Kern laughed at the vivid memory, a faraway moment when she already knew she was unlike everyone else, but didn’t yet know how. “Of course the war stopped all that, and a lot of the guys never came back.” She was twelve in 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. “I always thought I was very, very special, because I was very different from everybody in the neighborhood. And I always imagined that there was a ray of light beaming down from the sky onto me. Following me all over because I was very special. And I didn’t know why until we were in the midst of an air-raid drill.
“We used to have these regularly. It was in the evening. And the air-raid drill meant that all the lights had to be put out. Everything. As if there were actual enemy planes flying overhead. And all the lights would be doused, and the black curtains over the windows we had, and every light was either hidden, or covered, or turned off.
“So it was completely black. And I was sitting with my little girlfriend, whom I loved until it hurt me. I was so crazy about Minnie. We were the same age. She was about five foot eight, and she was beautiful in my eyes. My father was a pushcart peddler and made a few pennies a day. Her father was in construction, so he earned more money. All the lights went out and we were sitting in front of the stoop.” She laughed again: “I’m remembering it all!”
“Anyway, it was black and dark, so I felt that I could put my arms around her. And oh! I was so happy. I was holding her in my arms. I never did that before. And I put my face in her hair, and I could smell her, and it was fantastic. I was never so open during the day when the light and everybody could see. I don’t know why, but I sensed that I shouldn’t display my affection for her. But in the dark, of course, I could do all that I wanted to do, and that’s what I wanted to do: just hold her and smell her.
“I don’t even know if I was kissing her. It was just fondling—holding her in my arms—when all of a sudden the sirens came on, which was the end of the make-believe air raid. And all the lights went on, and there I was still holding her in my arms—when a neighbor turned around and looked at us.
“And she said that word that I heard for the very first time in my life. She said, ‘Are you a lesbian?’
“So! I remembered the word. We didn’t have any dictionary at home—would you believe it? So the next day I ran to the library and I looked up the word lesbian. Oh boy. That’s when I really felt special. Because I remember reading about the Isle of Lesbos. So I said, ‘Well, I deserve!’ I confirmed my feelings of being special. So, unlike many other lesbians, I was always very proud—and I always felt very special. But at the same time I knew somehow that I shouldn’t tell everybody how I feel.
“That’s when I started to read the literature about it. And I remember having read The Well of Loneliness. They didn’t have it in the bookstore. I had to send away for it. I don’t know how I found out about it. Maybe I read about it in the library when I was looking up the word lesbian. I wrote away to the publisher just for The Well of Loneliness and The Unlit Lamp. I got them both at the same time. And I didn’t have to worry about receiving them at home because neither one of my parents could read English. They came from Russia—Russian-Jewish—and they never learned how to read English. Before I went to school, I only spoke Yiddish.
“Minnie and I would walk together in the wintertime. I would have her hand in my pocket—we would hold hands in my pocket—and she loved it. And when we went to the movies, she always let me hold her hand.” Then Minnie went away to camp for the summer. “My heart was broken! I used to write her letters, and in my letters I would cut my finger and bleed on the letter.I would be falling in love all the time. And each one was a bone-crushing kind of love!”
Kern laughed some more. “When I was very young, there was something strange going on with me. On the outside I was very tough. I was known as ‘The Terror.’ That was my nickname. I was the leader of the gang and I would beat up the tough guys and my territory was Amboy Street, and nobody could come onto Amboy if they lived someplace else. But inside I was afraid of people. And I was in love with all these women. And I would be composing all this music. My mother had this tall radio that stood on the floor. I would sit down on the floor and press my ear against the loudspeaker so I could feel inside the music. Inside it! Oh! And I would keep it very loud, and my mother would yell at me. But I was wild about the music.
“There was such a difference between how I was on the outside, compared to the way I was on the inside. I was in my secret world, which ran along with my real life. In my secret life I was a pianist-conductor-composer, and I wrote all this beautiful music and played all this wonderful music, and the women would just swoon over me. All this romantic music that came pouring out of my head and heart!”
Across the river from Kern, Otis Bigelow lived in Manhattan. He, too, would never think of himself the same way again after the summer of 1942. Bigelow turned twenty-two that June. A striking native of Exeter, New Hampshire, where his father had been a master at Phillips Exeter Academy, Bigelow was an only child.
After his father died, his mother sent him away to Rumsey Hall, a British-style school in Washington, Connecticut, where “Sir, yes, sir” was the required form and the students wore black ties to dinner.
At twelve Bigelow was already having sex with his classmates, but they didn’t think their pastime had anything to do with being “gay” or “homosexual,” words that they had never heard spoken. “In my world, in the thirties, it simply did not exist,” Bigelow recalled.
Like millions before him, and millions after him, Bigelow believed he was simply going through “a stage.” It was just friends, you know, doing something for a friend. There was no masculinity or femininity involved. “I thought for many years that it was fine, and that it was a substitute for girls. I always thought I would get married. I went out with girls and loved girls; they were interested in me and I in them and we got along beautifully.”
His roommate at Rumsey, an admirer of Tarzan, taught Bigelow how to masturbate. “He loved to go off into the woods and tie me to a tree. Then I would say, ‘Oh, Tarzan, Tarzan, where are you?’ And he would come swinging through the trees and carry me away.”
In 1934, Bigelow transferred to Exeter; two years later, his mother died, and he was devastated.
At Exeter, “There were a couple of guys who could actually see through me, both of whom I think turned out to be totally straight. They would say, ‘Want to come down to my room?’ And I would sneak down after lights out, we would fuck each other between the legs. That’s what friends are for! It was just a friendly but mechanical act. More fun than doing it by yourself or doing it with a pillow—or a milk bottle. We tried everything.” Later, in New York, he learned the forties slang for this kind of primitive sex: “first-year Princeton.”
Once, at a bus station away from school, he was a little more adventurous. “I had gone to the movies and had taken the bus back and went into the john. There was a nice-looking fellow standing there and he took one look at me and took me into one of the booths and stood me on the john. I thought it was wonderful, but I had a terrible attack of conscience afterwards. I went home and scrubbed myself. I had never heard of such a thing.”
Bigelow loved the theater, and he played all the leading ladies at Exeter until his voice began to change. In Androcles and the Lion, he was Lavinia and he had to kiss the handsome captain on the cheek. He told the director he didn’t want to do it, but the director insisted that he follow the script. “So I did. It was a strange feeling.”
When he graduated from Exeter in 1938, he ignored his uncle’s admonition to go to college. Instead, he moved to New York, where he hoped to become an actor. While performing summer stock in Rye Beach, New Hampshire, Bigelow had met Gordon Merrick, an actor who had just graduated from Princeton. Bigelow and Merrick used to kiss, but nothing more. Although they shared an apartment when they reached New York, Bigelow was still planning to marry a woman. And quite quickly Gordon decided that he was “very into not being gay,” Bigelow recalled.
Three decades later, Merrick wrote The Lord Won’t Mind, one of the first gay novels to become a best-seller in the seventies, and he modeled one of its beautiful young men after Bigelow.* The other man sharing their apartment was Richard Barr, another Princeton graduate who went to work for the Mercury Theatre that fall and participated in Orson Welles’s menacing broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Later, Barr became one of Broadway’s most illustrious impresarios. He was Edward Albee’s confidant and produced many of Albee’s most important plays, including The Zoo Story, Tiny Alice and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He coproduced Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band in 1968, and, eleven years later, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. For twenty-one years, he was president of the League of American Theatres and Producers.
Bigelow would never be as famous as his roommates, but among gay men in New York he was a legend: a great many considered him the best-looking man in Manhattan. His life proved how far good looks and good manners could take anyone—regardless of gender or sexual persuasion.
Bigelow socialized with a group of gay men whom his contemporary, the playwright Arthur Laurents, derided as “the silver and china queens.” Laurents described these gentlemen as “a class of gay from way back that was always as right-wing as possible, out of a desperate desire to belong. And they haven’t changed. It’s like gay couples who try to emulate heterosexual couples. Nothing could be more stupid. I mean that one is sort of the husband and the other is sort of the wife and they have to have fidelity and all this kind of nonsense—instead of seeing how lucky you are if you’re two men and have freedom.”
Bigelow, Merrick and Barr selected an apartment on East 54th Street, sandwiched between the nightclub El Morocco and a store selling artificial limbs. A subway token still cost a nickel (as it had since the system opened in 1904); the rent for two rooms with a garden, plus kitchen and bath, was $45 a month; and a cluster of nearby restaurants offered shrimp cocktail, a small steak, dessert, and coffee for the grand sum of fifty cents. Instead of office buildings, Third Avenue was lined with brownstones, and it was dominated by the Elevated, whose rumblings Bigelow could hear from inside his apartment.
The nooks and shadows created by this shaft down the center of the avenue played a significant role in gay life in New York before the war: they offered a multitude of discreetly darkened meeting places right in the heart of the metropolis. “It was a little bit spooky,” said Murray Gitlin, a Broadway dancer who remembered Third Avenue as “one of the only cruisy places” in the 1940s. “It was like being under palm trees on a summer night,” Franklin Macfie quipped. “You could very easily feel you were in Rio!”
“The city smelled totally different than it does today,” said Jack Dowling, who later worked for Colt Studios, one of the first emporiums of erotic photographs of attractive men. “There wasn’t that much trash on the street, and the air had the wonderful smell of washed concrete. Downtown it smelled of diesel truck exhaust. The Village around West 11th Street, late at night, smelled of baking bread from commercial bakeries. All of the East Side, from the Thirties all the way up to the Sixties, was filled with rooming houses which had their own unique odors.”
But Otis Bigelow never went “cruising” outdoors. His good manners, beautiful features and handsome clothes made him immensely sought after at all the most fashionable cocktail parties. And even though he continued to believe that he was destined to marry a woman, he led a very gay Manhattan life.
“I had a tuxedo and tails and all sorts of suits. What I wound up doing, pretty much, when I started, was living on my looks because it was terribly social in those days. Gay bars, no. I didn’t go to those until later. But there were elegant bars like Tony’s on Swing Alley on West 52d Street where Mabel Mercer sat and sang.
“There were a number of places where wealthy, youngish men had duplex apartments on Park Avenue, and pretty much any day if you dropped by at five o’clock there would be people there for cocktails and, more often than not, somebody would say, ‘Well, I have tickets to the ballet and we can drop in on Tony’s later.’ I was polite and gorgeous, and I was always jumping up to get drinks for people. I had social graces.
“I might meet somebody at a cocktail party who would be staying at the St. Regis. I would walk him home, and he would say, ‘Why don’t you come up for a drink?’ And then he would say, ‘Well, why don’t you stay over? We’ll have breakfast and it’ll be nice. Don’t walk all that way home: you can sleep on my sofa.’ Then there would be a little bit of this and that. It was friendly prep-school sex.”
After a few weeks, a friend named Nicky Holden, whom Bigelow thought of as someone “on the fringes of society,” introduced Bigelow to “an important acquaintance. It turned out to be an older man of thirty who owned a house on Beekman Place,” Bigelow recalled, someone who had made his fortune in the printing business. “He was Jewish and not terribly attractive, but a wonderful man—a funny, witty, cultivated man. He started to invite me to dinner and take me to the theater.” His name was Robert Goodhue and he drove a custom-built Packard V-16 convertible. “You cannot imagine what that was like! You could hardly turn around a corner it was so long! It was black with red trim and wire wheels and red leather and a rumble seat. After a couple of weeks, he said, ‘I’d like to get out of town for the weekend. Would you like to go to Atlantic City?’ Well, that’s where you took somebody cheap. So I said, ‘I don’t think Atlantic City.’ And he said, ‘How about Williamsburg?’ And I said, ‘I’d love to.’ It’s funny—I did such a dramatic thing. He was so nice to me, and he used to like to kiss me, though I wouldn’t let him kiss me on the mouth. He’d always say, ‘You’re so beautiful!’ We got to Williamsburg and we had this marvelous great big double room. So I said, Well, he deserves it. And I like him. So this eighteen-year-old kid, being very sophisticated, said, ‘Well, you’ve been so nice to me, would you like to see me as I really am?’” The answer was “Yes!”
“So I took off all my clothes and let him do me. Well, he thought that was wonderful. I didn’t mind. So that became something that we did once in a while when we got back from the theater.” When their relationship ended, his patron dissolved into tears—and handed his young friend an envelope that contained a check for one thousand dollars.
Bigelow carried the check around for months because he was afraid the bank might report him to his uncle—and he wouldn’t know how to explain the check. After he enrolled in Hamilton College, he finally confided in a sympathetic dean, who he thought was probably gay. The dean assured him he could rely on the bank’s discretion, and Bigelow deposited the check in his account.
He immediately bought a 1933 Ford Roadster, “a wonderful car,” for the huge sum of one hundred dollars. The other nine hundred was enough to provide him with plenty of spending money for the rest of his college career.
At Hamilton, Bigelow wrote a play, which John C. Wilson, a “class” producer, optioned. Wilson asked him to come to New York in the summer of 1942 to rewrite it. In Manhattan, Bigelow met Maury Paul, a portly gentleman from Philadelphia, who was the original Cholly Knickerbocker society columnist for Hearst. It was Paul who coined the term café society one night at the Ritz right after World War I, to describe the unprecedented new groupings of old money with new. Paul noticed that these disparate fun lovers had learned to be friendly in public, even though they would never invite one another to their homes.
“He was supposed to be so evil, but he never laid a glove on me,” Bigelow recalled. “He was amused by me.” One day Paul took him downstairs to the basement storage room of his apartment house, which was jammed with luxurious furs. “Pick out a coat!” Paul commanded. “I have fifty of them!” Bigelow chose a floor-length raccoon coat but promised to return it. “I don’t want it back,” the columnist shouted. “Keep it!” Another time the two of them spent an afternoon together at the Liberty Music Shop on Madison Avenue, listening to classical music. “I was just so thrilled by it. We came out with two packages of everything we had listened to and he gave one to me. It was my introduction to classical music—a lifelong pleasure. He was wonderful.
“Once when I went by to see him, there was the handsomest young man I had ever seen: beautifully dressed, beautifully groomed. He was the guy he was keeping. It was trade Maury had picked up, polished up, dressed up. Straight. He came in once or twice a week from New Jersey. Maury bought him a house. The young man was married and had a child. That was his arrangement. Strange man; as nice a man as you would ever want to meet.”
Then Bigelow finally fell in love with a sailor: “the most beautiful person I ever saw. It was instant.” He met Bill Miller at a party, and fifty years later Bigelow still remembered the moment. “A Frank Sinatra recording of ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ was playing on the phonograph. We went out and had dinner. So I was in love, and he was in love. He was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and we kind of spent that month together.”
Bill Miller is also famous among his contemporaries as one of the most gorgeous men in 1940s Manhattan. Paul Cadmus drew him, George Piatt Lynes photographed him, and everyone wanted him. Miller was by far the most powerful attraction Bigelow had ever felt. “We were at the Waldorf-Astoria in the suite of some wealthy man who invited us to stay over in the spare bedroom,” Bigelow remembered. “We were in bed. I looked at Bill, and I thought, ‘I can’t live without him.’ And that was that.” Bigelow finally admitted to himself that he really was gay. “I had to face the fact that I had changed.”
Bigelow’s life was complicated somewhat by the fact that he had met a man named George Gallowhur earlier in the summer, another “older man” with a slightly higher public profile: a dashing thirty-seven-year-old industrialist who lived in a brownstone in Turtle Bay, an elegant group of houses surrounding a common garden in the East Forties. Gallowhur’s neighbor across the rhododendron was Katharine Hepburn. A few doors down was Philip Johnson, the future architect. “George was family to me,” Johnson remembered. “He was a rich boy around town who worked.” Johnson described himself and Gallowhur as “chickenhawks”—gentlemen who preferred the company of younger men.
The striking, tall, blond Swedish American had made a fortune by inventing Skol, the first successful suntan lotion. While still a student at Princeton in 1926, Gallowhur drew attention to himself by crossing the Atlantic in a fifty-four-foot cutter. Afterward the undergraduate joked to The New York Times that he had considered asking for caviar when the skipper of an ocean liner turned off course to ask whether his tiny craft needed any assistance.
Paul Cadmus remembered Gallowhur as someone who “gave the appearance of being very, very businesslike and a straight American,” but who actually “loved to go in for sailors and things like that.” Gallowhur fell madly in love with Bigelow, who found him “stunning,” but did not reciprocate his feelings. To entice the young undergraduate, Gallowhur made the young man an extraordinary offer.
Bigelow was about to enter his final year in the Naval Reserve Officer Training program at Hamilton. If the student would live with him, Gallowhur would purchase a ship. Then he would donate it to the Coast Guard—on the condition that Bigelow would become its captain. Bigdow was convinced that Gallowhur had the power to keep his promise, and to specify that Bigelow could not be sent to the Pacific.
Bigelow was still seeing Gallowhur when he met Bill Miller, “So I had to tell George I couldn’t see him anymore.” Gallowhur begged him to reconsider. “Let me give a dinner party for six people,” the industrialist suggested. Bigelow could bring Bill, who would sit next to Gallowhur at dinner; afterward Bigelow could choose between them. “Give me a chance!” Gallowhur pleaded.
Bigelow agreed and brought Miller to Turtle Bay. After coffee had been served, Gallowhur took Bigelow aside. “Have you made your choice?” he inquired.
“Yes,” said Bigelow. “It’s Bill.”
Bigelow and Miller had only one more week together before Bigelow had to go back to college. “We were so happy,” Bigelow remembered. “I went back to school and he went back into the Coast Guard.” The sailor wrote Bigelow a single letter: he said he was “dead” without him, and Bigelow believed that Miller was shipping out.
In November, Bigelow returned to New York for Thanksgiving. He was glum, thinking that Miller might have already perished at sea. In Manhattan, he stayed with George Hoyningen-Huene, a famous fashion photographer for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Hoyningen-Huene had been born in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century; his parents were a Baltic nobleman and the daughter of the American minister to the court of the czar.
The photographer was forty-two when Bigelow met him, and he kept himself fit with regular visits to the gym—a custom that would become almost universal among a certain class of gay men three decades later. After Bigelow had done some modeling for his host, Hoyningen-Huene tried to coax him into bed.
When Bigelow refused him, Hoyningen-Huene became furious, and started to shout: “You’re doing all this moping around about that sailor Bill! Did you know that Bill has been living in Turtle Bay with George Gallowhur since about three days after you left?”
Bigelow was stunned. It was the “crudest thing” he had ever experienced.
It was also his awakening.