Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 23 February 1998


By Charles Kaiser

Jesse Monteagudo's Book Nook

THE GAY METROPOLIS: 1940-1996 by Charles Kaiser; Houghton Mifflin, 1997; 404 pages.; $27.00.

Charles Kaiser is a renowned writer and journalist whose first book, 1968 In America, established his reputation as a social historian. In The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996 Kaiser, who was always honest about his own sexual orientation, chronicles his people's history through five decades of political progress and reaction, community building and deadly epidemic.

"This book tells the story of an amazing victory over adversity: how America's most despised minority overcame religious prejudice, medical malpractice, political persecution and one of the worst scourges of the twentieth century to stake its rightful claim to the American dream -- all in barely more than half a century."

The setting is New York City, "the literal gay metropolis for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from within and without the United States: the place they chose to learn how to live openly, honestly and without shame."

But Kaiser's New York is only a launching pad for a fifty-six year odyssey that takes the reader across the country and around the world, indeed to "every place on every continent where gay people have found the courage and the dignity to be free."

The New York-centric view of gay life, which has dominated gay history books for decades, works well in a book that takes its name from the Big Apple.

Kaiser takes events that affected gay men everywhere, like AIDS, and gives it a New York slant that humanizes the narrative and makes it manageable. Still there is more to gay life than Gotham, and The Gay Metropolis shows its limitations when figures like Harvey Milk and Troy Perry slip by with hardly a mention. Racial minorities play very minor roles in this book, as do lesbians: As Kaiser admits, "[w]hile the women I have written about are among the most compelling characters in this saga, men gradually became my principal focus--because their story is also mine." Artists and journalists dominate the narrative, the former because people in the arts are more likely to be out than others, the latter because theirs is a profession that Kaiser knows so well. Indeed, it is Kaiser the journalist who makes The Gay Metropolis special.

The Gay Metropolis is popular history at its best. As a work of scholarship, it is not up to the level of George Chauncey's Gay New York. It is, however, a livelier and more interesting book. That is because Kaiser, as a journalist, knows that people like to read about people, not trends or statistics.

And what a cast of characters Kaiser assembles within the pages of his book: Christopher Isherwood, Paul Cadmus, Lincoln Kirstein, J. Edgar Hoover, James Baldwin, Roy Cohn, Allen Ginsberg, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Jack Nichols, Franklin Kameny, Andy Warhol, Ethan Geto, Ed Koch, Larry Kramer, Tom Stoddard . . . not to mention the four gay men who created West Side Story: Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim. Even lesser lights like Otis Bigelow and Howard Rosenman shine in the reflected glory of the rich and famous. Kaiser interviewed most of the survivors, eliciting from them honest and revealing anecdotes that give his book its edge and makes it sparkle.

There are many memorable moments in The Gay Metropolis, especially in the first three, pre-Stonewall, chapters. The making of West Side Story was one. So were the descriptions of places where, from decade to decade, men indulged in that quintessential gay pastime, cruising.

During the forties, many men congregated at "the old Metropolitan Opera House, ... where the presumed safety from police raids inspired outlandish attire." In the 1950's, according to "Stephen Reynolds", "St. Patrick's Cathedral was the greatest cruising ground -- especially late Mass on Sunday. ... People would stumble in and start carrying on right under the eyes of Nellie Spellbound [Francis Cardinal Spellman]."

On the whole, the old-timers who Kaiser interviewed retain pleasant memories of pre-Stonewall gay life in the Big Apple. Otis Bigelow, the "best-looking man in Manhattan" in 1942 recalls being "immensely sought after at all of the most fashionable cocktail parties." To Franklin Macfie, "[o]ne thing I've always liked about being gay is that you used to be able to go into a bar and you would meet anybody from Leonard Bernstein on. ... A completely democratic society" - as long as you were young, beautiful, and "straight appearing".

With so much going on, the Stonewall Riots seem almost unnecessary. Certainly those of us who grew up on gay liberation in the seventies will find it hard to believe that, as far as most gay men were concerned, the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance were on another planet. They were too busy cruising on Fire Island and in the many discos that blossomed in Manhattan during the "Me Decade".

While the elite partied at Studio 54 - where Alec Baldwin worked as a waiter - the rest carried on at the Ninth Circle, the Anvil, and the Mineshaft. Though Kaiser's subjects were frank about their experiences at Studio 54 et al., I would rather read about Kaiser's own experiences--he was already living in Manhattan at the time and, I presume, out of the closet.

And then the deluge. Though Kaiser does not discount the extent of the suffering brought about by AIDS, he sees a silver lining in this dark and depressing cloud: "In America since World War II, only life-or-death struggles have been able to inspire mass political action on the left, and that was especially true of gay people and AIDS.

The disease would convert a generation of mostly selfish men, consumed by sex, into a highly disciplined army of fearless and selfless street fighters and care-givers." The chapters on the eighties and the nineties are not as interesting as their predecessors, partly because we know the story so well and partly because the social takes a back seat to the medical and the political. Kaiser ends his story with the Supreme Court decision in Romer v. Evans, which happened just the other day, so to speak.

The Gay Metropolis is not perfect. It has its limitations, some of which I already mentioned. Students of history will find better resources with which to research the past. But for the average reader, gay or straight, who wants to know gay life as it was lived for over five decades, Kaiser's book has no rival.

It is well-written, has the facts right, and tells a good story. But, all in all, it's the people in it who The Gay Metropolis unique. In 1966 Truman Capote hosted a "Black and White Dance" that was attended by the political, social and artistic elite. In 1997 New York threw a party, for Kaiser and his book, that also brought out the rich and the famous. Those of us who could not attend either party need not fret. Reading The Gay Metropolis is like being a fly on a thousand walls.

1998 BEI; All Rights Reserved.
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