Thursday, December 29, 2011

Death, Disease, And The Vatican

The Mosaic Virus by Carlos T. Mock, MD (Floricanto Press, 268 pp.)

The Mosaic Virus is a medical/political thriller all rolled into one. Carlos Mock, MD, has the novel set in 1983 when thirty-seven priests (and counting) in the United States have died mysteriously. The Vatican has appointed Father Javier Barraza to the task of finding out who and what is responsible for these deaths.

Father Barraza is an Argentinean-born Jesuit priest and physician, whose "work was crucial to the process of proving, or more often than not, disproving, the occurrence of miracles," as a "devil's advocate" (a sainthood investigator).

He is aided by an FBI agent, Lillian Davis-Lodge, with whom he was once romantically involved when her father was the American ambassador to Argentina. Now many years later, despite his celibacy vows, there is still some feeling between them.

As the assignment takes them across the globe to the Vatican, New York City, Washington, D.C., and South Africa, there is reason to suspect that the Catholic Church and the U. S. government know more than they are willing to tell. Especially troubling is a Nazi Germany connection.

A key component of the mystery is the 1967 death of Francis Cardinal Spellman, who in this account, is a Jewish convert to Catholicism. (Dr. Mock makes it clear in his Author's Note that "The Mosaic Virus falls somewhere between a historical account and pure fantasy." I looked up Spellman's biography on the Internet and most of what is depicted of his life in the book is indeed "pure fantasy.")

Spellman (ne Jacob Goldman) became the secretary and translator to Bishop Siri (later a cardinal himself). Spellman's identity is found out and he is turned over to the Nazis. This is done to enforce the pope's neutrality decree and to counter an SS chief's accusation that the Vatican was "a friend of the Jews." After Spellman's release from a concentration camp, he is made a cardinal as a way to assuage the guilt of the Church. He is later exposed as a homosexual and a pedophile , a matter the Church tries to hush up. Could Spellman's sexual secret be linked to the subsequent death of several gay priests? Barraza and Davis-Lodge believe so. Their lives are at stake, too. They must find out the truth and avert any more deaths before their respective institutions can stop them.

Many devout Catholics will view The Mosaic Virus as another Catholic-bashing book. The Church is a convenient target because of its wealth, power, and the mysterious inner workings and rituals attached to it. However, the basic premise--the Church as a mighty suspect in the spread of a biological agent--is intriguing. Unfortunately, Dr. Mock's handling of the story doesn't fulfill the promise. It's a literary mess. The plot is too complicated and at times confusing to follow. The characters are so poorly drawn that I found it difficult to identify with or care about them. Some of the passages read like textbook or recruitment brochure prose like this description of the Swiss Guard who protect the Vatican: "The guards must be Roman Catholic males of Swiss nationality who had completed basic training with the Swiss Military and could obtain certificates of good conduct."

The events take place during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. When a Bellevue Hospital doctor tells Barraza about "a new and rare disease that seems to affect homosexuals--but with completely different symptoms," Barraza, a medical man, oddly doesn't know about it. It also is odd that there is a lack of urgency among the public health authorities, the media, and, most especially, the gay community regarding this mysterious "competing" virus.

Real-life figures such as J. Edgar Hoover and Henry Kissinger appear. Their presence made me wonder if they would have actually spoken and acted as depicted. It was unnecessary for Dr. Mock to invent a past for Spellman which undermined the story's believability. (Spellman was actually born in Massachusetts.) It would have been better to have created a completely fictional cardinal. Plus, I got the feeling that the author didn't have a thorough knowledge of Vatican politics and protocol.

If there had been a stronger editorial hand a la the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, the book might have been better.

NOTE: My review of The Mosaic Virus was originally published (in a slightly different version) in the Gay & Lesbian Review, July/August 2007 issue.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Missing Bodies Under The California Sun

Fadeout by Joseph Hansen, University of Wisconsin/Terrace Books, paperback, 187 pp.
Death Claims by Joseph Hansen, University of Wisconsin/Terrace Books, paperback, 166 pp.

Before John Morgan Wilson's Benjamin Justice, Lev Raphael's Nick Hoffman, Mary Wings's Emma Victor, R. D. Zimmerman's Todd Mills, and Mark Richard Zubro's Paul Turner, there was Joseph Hansen's Dave Brandstetter, the very masculine, self-assured openly gay, highly cultured, middle-aged (!!!) claims investigator for the Medallion Life Insurance Company.

The University of Wisconsin Press/Terrace Books has reissued Hansen's first two novels in the 12-volume series: Fadeout (1970) and Death Claims (1973). Fadeout begins with a preface by Hansen (written a few months before his death), which succinctly traces the origin of the pioneering detective series set in Southern California, featuring, notes Hansen's obituary in the Los Angeles Times, "the first major gay protagonist in the mystery genre."

At a time when detective fiction can run as long as 300 or 400 pages, both Hansen books number less than 200. In addition, the prose is so spare, the stories so fast-paced that it is possible to read them in a single sitting.

The books transport the reader to the early nineteen-seventies with references to hippies, the fuzz (the police), phonograph records, and hip huggers. And of course, there is the ever-present cigarette. What manly detective back then would be without one dangling between his lips? Hansen, however succeeds in keeping the books from becoming dated.

Both Fadeout and Death Claims involve missing persons (in the first book, it is the insured; in the second, the beneficiary). It's Brandstetter's task to locate the bodies, if there are any. Otherwise, the insurance company may have to write a fat check. This leads Brandstetter into a tangled web of lies, betrayal, multiple suspects, long-held secrets, and long simmering hatreds.

NOTE: My review of the Hansen books was originally assigned by Lisa C. Moore, the editor of the Lambda Book Report, in 2005. Publication of LBR was suspended indefinitely, so I offered it to the Gay & Lesbian Review, where it was published (in a slightly different version) in the September/October 2005 issue.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mount Morris Baths: An Uptown Refuge

Friday and Saturday nights regardless of the weather were the busiest at Harlem's Mount Morris Baths, the oldest Turkish bathhouse in New York. The men, mostly black, sat on a long wooden bench or stood elbow-to-elbow, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a tiny vestibule, near the cashier's window, waiting for a room or a locker to become available. Sometimes they waited two or three hours. Being in such close proximity to each other often caused tempers to flare, especially if someone was thought to have jumped the line. On rare occasions angry words escalated into fistfights. But, the customers, for the most part, maintained their cool. Once inside, they had eight hours (twelve on weekdays) to explore the rooms, corridors, and other areas of an establishment that had been in operation since 1893.

That was the year when a group of Jewish doctors built it as a health spa for their patients. Sometime in the 1940s it became a gay bathhouse. According to the historian John Loughery, in his book The Other Side of Silence, it "catered to black men who were often denied admission to bathhouses in midtown Manhattan."

It became apparent upon entering the TV lounge/dormitory that this place would never appear on the front cover of Architecture Digest or Better Homes & Gardens. It looked and smelled every bit of its hundred plus years. The Fab Five of the reality show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy would have had a field day doing an extreme makeover. Oddly, many customers preferred its antiquity and shabbiness. Mount Morris was sort of like the old man down the street whose shoes are turned over, pants baggy and soiled, face wrinkled, body decrepit but is still regarded with kindness.

Even though it had seen better days, for many of its customers, it was their second home. For some, it was home, offering a place to bunk down, take a shower, and have a free morning cup of coffee (with donuts).

One customer told me , "If these walls could talk." Indeed. The tales would fill several volumes of celebrities (past and present) and non celebrities, who were spotted getting a rubdown or sitting in the hot room or going in or coming out of someone's room.

Note: I worked as a towel attendant and cashier at Mount Morris Baths from February 2001 to August 2003. In August 2003, the bathhouse closed permanently.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Missing Sondheim TV Interview

Stephen Sondheim is one of the four gay Jewish men who created the Broadway musical West Side Story. And he is the only surviving member of that creative team. (The others were composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and librettist Arthur Laurents.) You would have thought that his comments would have been sought when a local New York TV news show did a report commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie version of the musical. Only two cast members from the movie George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn appeared on-camera. ( As a tie-in,the report mentioned that the investigation of fellow cast member Natalie Woods's 1981 drowning was being re-opened that week by the authorities.) For me, a fan of Sondheim 's music, I was greatly disappointed that his voice was missing from the report.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

For The Ticket--Watcher On The "Marilena"

He dozed over his work; it was a role he played, a whole lifestyle built on directing people from third to second class, telling third classes who entered, wittingly or otherwise, second class, to go back "go back and be where you must be, where you were destined to be when you boarded this ferry boat. I have your ticket. I can read it. This ferry boat is mine. This is where you belong. I have your tickets."--from Sonnets of Love by V. J. Robinson Reeb; edited and published by Michalis, (c) 2003, Velma Jean Reeb (published in Nicosia, Cyprus).

On Reading

"For the man who cannot read, Shakespeare might as well have lived on another planet. Aristotle and Aquinas might as well have never been born."--Steve Allen, humorist/philosopher, from Reflections by Steve Allen (Prometheus Books, 1994).

Friday, November 25, 2011

On The Road To Patra

The bus breaks down on the road to Patra and the signpost is not easy to decipher. We wonder why the bus should stop at this particular, nothing-like place, with only one directionless signpost and not even a Coca-Cola stand to let us know we are in the West. The driver, as one girl tourist tunes up her guitar, disembarks to fetch some extra petrol he's carried for just such emergencies. We are locked in space and time, feeling only the hum of mid-summer all around, caring little if the journey continues or if we remain there, together, with each other and the summertime.
--from Sonnets of Love by V.J. Robinson Reeb; edited and published by Michalis, (c) 2003, Velma Jean Reeb (published in Nicosia, Cyprus).

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cruising On Central Park West

"[In the early 1960s] the unmistakable gay scene on adjacent Central Park West...from 59th to 86th streets 'was one long bench from corner to corner, solid with gay men. Hundreds and thousands of them walked back and forth singularly, in couples, and in groups' [recalls gay activist Dick Leitsch]."--Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo by Michael Schiavi (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011).

Monday, November 7, 2011

Learning About Stonewall

I didn't learn about the Stonewall Riots until the mid or late '70s. In 1969, I was too busy dealing with my draft board and worrying about being inducted into the army and sent to Vietnam.

I first read about this milestone in the gay liberation movement via Dr. Howard Brown's memoir, Familiar Faces, Hidden Lives: The Story of Homosexual Men in America Today (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976). (Dr. Brown, a gay man, was New York mayor John Lindsay's health commissioner. During that time Dr. Brown was in the closet.) I would love to re-read that book. It's probably out of print, so I would have to search for it online or in a second-hand book store.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Surgery Without Anesthesia

While browsing through a copy of Daniel J. Boorstein's Hidden History (Vintage Books), I came across this passage: "...the enterprising dentist William T. G. Morton introduced ether as an anesthetic. Surgeons had long performed amputations by wielding their saws on screaming patients." Reading that passage made me glad I live in the more medically and technologically advanced 21st century.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Like No Other Market?

The upscale Fairway supermarket chain (which has several New York area locations) bills itself as being "Like No Other Market." (Its trucks have an additional slogan: "The World's Greatest Food Store.") In some ways it's precisely like other markets: Checkout scanners that charge the wrong price, food on shelves past the expiration date, and cashiers who don't pack groceries properly.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Learning History Via Fiction

One goal of mine is to read all 21 volumes in the Cadfael mystery series. I've learned a lot about life inside and outside an 11th-century English monastery from reading these books. The series was written by Ellis Peters, a medieval scholar. The hero of the series is Cadfael, a soldier-turned-monk who is also a herbalist and an amateur sleuth.

Sometimes the best way to learn about history is through a work of fiction which can give you a you-are-there feeling.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Rose Called Nigger Boy

There is a collection of correspondence between author Eudora Welty and New Yorker editor William Maxwell called What There Is to Say We Have Said (Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt, 2011). In it I read a letter he wrote to her in 1953 in which he mentioned several rose varieties. (They were avid rose growers.) One of them was called Nigger Boy. I was amazed that his use of the name did not bring any expression of embarrassment. If Welty had been a black woman would that have been the case? I think not.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Cynic's View

"A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin."--H. L. Mencken, epigraph in Slugfest: A Dirty Business Mystery by Rosemary Harris (Minotaur Books/St. Martin's Press, 2011)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Banned Books Week At The New York Public Library

The 115th Street branch of the New York Public Library is observing Banned Books Week (Sept. 24-Oct. 1). To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, Native Son, and The Grapes of Wrath are among the books on display.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Recovery of African-American History

"Other minorities have had to recover their past because it was neglected or considered unworthy of study, which was the case, for example, of African-American history until scholars set out to recover it in the mid-20th century."--Richard Schneider, Jr., Ph.D, editor-in-chief, The Gay & Lesbian Review (September/October 2011).

Schneider doesn't seem aware of the fact that the recovery of African and African-American history began long before the mid-20th century. Several names of scholars involved in that effort come to mind--Carter G. Woodson, J. A. Rogers, Arthur Schomburg, and Leo Hansberry, the late playwright Lorraine Hansberry's uncle.

In a 1979 issue of Freedomways magazine, devoted to the life and work of Lorraine Hansberry, historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. stated that Leo Hansberry was "the greatest pioneer in African history in this country."

Although scholars like Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, and W.E.B. DuBois were not historians, what they said and wrote in their particular fields (anthropology, philosophy, and sociology respectively) influenced historians of the black experience, both black and white.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

New York: The Novel

I just started reading New York: The Novel, an 862-page historical novel by Edward Rutherfurd (Doubleday, 2009) that spans several centuries (1600s to the present). Rutherfurd beautifully interweaves fictional and historical characters, places, and events. For a history lover like me, it's a truly hard-to-put-down tome. The book brings history to life unlike a textbook.

I can't wait to get to the section that features the cross dressing English governor Lord Cornbury.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Silly Moment For Bill Moyers

While watching on DVD a 1988 interview Bill Moyers did with the late playwright August Wilson for the public TV series A World of Ideas: Writers I heard Moyers , who I admire and respect as a journalist, ask, "Don't you grow weary of thinking black, writing black, being asked questions about blackness?" Wilson, very diplomatically replied, "You never transcend who you are." Moyers asked a silly question. Would he have asked a white author or playwright if he or she were weary of writing about white characters?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Vito Russo, The Celluloid Activist

I just started reading Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo by Michael Schiavi (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011). The book looks promising so far. Russo"s Celluloid Closet has long been a favorite book of mine. Now I have the chance to read about his life, activism, and how he came to write this classic about the portrayal of gays and lesbians in Hollywood.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Book Rescue

I rescued three paperback books from the wastebasket at the Morningside Heights branch of the New York Public Library. Two of them are by the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987): A Coin in Nine Hands and Two Lives and a Dream. (The third book, Marianne Moore, is a study of her life and poetry.)

My introduction to Yourcenar was a Selected Shorts reading on the radio of one of her short stories. I'm looking forward to reading her two books. Skimming through them, they looked very inviting.

To get a little background on her, I consulted my copy of The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage and learned that Yourcenar "was a lesbian who spent forty-two years with the same woman; yet she spoke of homosexuality in her work almost exclusively through male characters."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Telling A Story About The Comfort Zone

The following is a letter sent to Paul Schindler, the editor of the New York-based Gay City News. It was written on January 3, 2008:

Dear Paul: I was trying to respond to a comment posted by Mike Holliday at the tail end of my Comfort Zone [underwear sex party] story but was unable to. Holliday wanted an authoritative, analytical , investigative article. I am not an investigative reporter or a gay leader with an ax to grind. I write feature stories; I am a storyteller. "Showing Your Laundry"[ Gay City News, December 20, 2007] is typical of the type of stories I wrote for the New York Native in the eighties. I was documenting a black gay venue so that years from now historians and other academic types will have a written record of it.

As to it being "a puff piece," I disagree. If Holliday had carefully read the story, he would have noted my criticisms. That's why I contrasted the Comfort Zone and Mount Morris Baths. Mount Morris was doing real community service with the many programs it sponsored. For all I know, Holliday might be a disgruntled customer looking for someone to find dirt on the Comfort Zone. That was not my intention. I saw an opportunity to write about a phenomenon that was interesting and about a personality [E.J. Parker] who was compelling and, at times, funny.

I look forward to reading other comments from readers. Two of my friends have read the story. One thought it was hilarious. The other thought I should have been more objective and that I showed anger that Mount Morris [where I was employed for two and a half years] is no longer around. (I disagreed with him about that.)

Anyway, who wants to read a dry as bones, put-you-to-sleep analysis of a sex club in a newspaper?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Origin Of The Schmoo

Here's an interesting word: schmo, which means a boob or a jerk. According to The Complete Idiot's Guide to Learning Yiddish, "Al Capp (born Caplan), the cartoonist and originator of the Li'l Abner comic strip, created the schmoo: a lovable creature who adores being kicked and gives milk as a reward for being abused."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On Poverty

"Poverty is no disgrace--which is the only good thing you can say about it."--Yiddish proverb, from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Learning Yiddish.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Speaking Out Against Gay Racism

The following is a letter-to-the-editor I sent to the Philadelphia Gay News (aka PGN). The letter was published in 1986:

"Dear Editor: [Author] Darrell Yates-Rist has been described in PGN (Aug. 8, 1986) as being angry and outspoken about lesbian oppression by gay men, as well as internal and external homophobia. However, nowhere in Victoria Brownworth's article did he speak against one of the most pervasive evils in the gay community--racism. Where was his voice when gay racism was being denounced in the press and on picket lines? Does he see it as a less important issue than the "legalization of discrimination" by the U.S. Supreme Court or the exclusion of lesbians?

Yates-Rist points out that "women are necessary to the movement." I agree with him. But so too are gays and lesbians of color. Most, if not all, of the Stonewallers were people of color. Without them, the gay movement might never have come about. Part of the process of "educating our community about who we are" is the willingness to acknowledge and appreciate the ethnic and racial diversity of gay and lesbian people."

PGN sent my letter to Yates-Rist. Instead of responding in the pages of the newspaper, he sent a letter to my home address. The envelope had PGN's return address rather than his. (The envelope had a New York postmark.)

I never responded to the letter. At the time, Yates-Rist was suffering from full-blown AIDS. To me his vitriolic response was from a man whose mind had been affected by the disease. For him to say that my letter was the result of "knee-jerk hatred" was delusional.

The following is Yates-Rist's letter dated November 15 of 1986:

"Dear Charles: Regarding your letter to PGN on my silence on racism, I must reply ardently.

Simply because this one interview did not include remarks on racial issues, one cannot deduce my activism, or lack of it, against racial bigotry.

I have, in fact, throughout my career spoken out loudly on racism generally, and specifically in the gay and lesbian community, and I have persistently addressed racism within organizational politics. But since I see no reason to defend myself in the face of your ignorance, I spare the details.

Like racism, misogyny, and homophobia, however, spite towards one's fellow man in general demeans humanity and the common good. Your attack against me, vicious and baseless, is warning enough that you are so full of knee-jerk hatred that you're not to be trusted among people of good will." [Emphasis is mine.]

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"Have Gun-Will Travel," A Thinking Man's Western

I just started watching season 5 of Have Gun-Will Travel (1961-1962), sort of a thinking man's western.

Paladin, played by Richard Boone, is a well-paid gun for hire, who despite being "a knight without armor in a savage land," is a man of culture. He reads Dostoevsky, quotes Tennyson, speaks several languages, etc. He's also a ladies man. I don't remember Paladin being such an intellectual in the radio version.

Friday, June 3, 2011

An Ill-Fated Love Match

Book Review: Not a Day Goes By by E. Lynn Harris (Doubleday, 288 pp.)

I'm not going to mince words. In the wake of reading the the novels of Saul Bellow (Ravelstein), Felice Picano (The Book of Lies), John Morgan Wilson (Justice at Risk) and Shay Youngblood (Black Girl in Paris), E. Lynn Harris's romance novel, Not a Day Goes By, by comparison, is a small potato.

The book, whose chapters are mercifully short, tells the story of the ill-fated love affair of Basil Henderson, an ex-football star-turned-sports agent and Yancey Braxton, an extremely ambitious prima donna stage actress. Both characters, products of dysfunctional families, are planning to get married. But Basil has a lingering question: "[C]an a diva and a dude like me ever settle down?"

In the prologue Basil calls Yancey to inform her that their wedding is off for good. (This part of the story appears too early to create suspense.) Then it backtracks to the day of their love-at-first-sight meeting at the skating rink in Rockefeller Center. From there subsequent events and revelations (one in particular--Basil's bisexuality--could hurt his chance of being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame) work to doom their marriage plans.

Although the macho, slightly homophobic Basil and the manipulative, self-centered Yancey are described in the dust jacket copy as "two very unforgettable characters," that label rightly belongs to Yancey's cold-blooded, man-grabbing femme fatale mother, Ava, herself an actress. Currently married to a wealthy computer whiz she met on a flight to Hawaii, Ava is ever on the prowl (she already snared the package delivery man) and will stop at nothing to get what, and who, she wants. And that includes acquiring a son-in-law so that Yancey can fleece him of his hard-earned wealth and then divorce him. If Harris had written a noir novel, a la James M. Cain, Ava would be a standout. I wanted to hear more from her, and less from Basil and Yancey.
Harris's alternate use of first- and third-person narration is annoying and distracting. Basil's scenes are told in his voice, while Yancey's are told in the third person. It's as though Harris was not confident enough to write from a woman's point of view.

Also, the sex scenes always involve Basil and Yancey. But if Basil is a bisexual, there should be a scene or two showing him with a man rather than having him reminisce about an old flame who "could deep-throat a jimmie like a fire-eating circus performer." Does Harris believe that too much detail about two men in bed would turn off female readers?

Overall, Not a Day Goes By is formulaic and is the literary equivalent of junk food.

Note: This review was previously published in the New York Blade News (August 11, 2000) and the Washington Blade (September 1, 2000).

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Undone Malcolm X Radio Project

The controversy about the late Manning Marable's biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking) brought to mind a radio project I wanted to do at WBAI in New York in the 1970s. Unfortunately I never got to do it. Probably because of procrastination.

I wanted to do a 90-minute to two-hour roundtable discussion that would have included several people who knew Malcolm. Those I thought of inviting to the broadcast included Alex Haley, James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, Maya Angelou, John Henrik Clarke, and Gordon Parks.

Many of these luminaries are now deceased. But if the program had taken place it would have been a memorable, if not historic, document of the life and times of Malcolm X, bringing to light a lot of previously unknown facts about the iconic Black Muslim spokesman. There's no doubt that a recording of the broadcast would later have been useful to historians and biographers.

It's still possible to do a program using the printed and recorded words of the aforementioned individuals, but such a program would lack the interactivity, spontaneity, and serendipity of a live, in-studio discussion.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Career Student

There are three radio commercials for the job website My favorite is the one in which a mother encourages her son, who has spent 16 years acquiring various college degrees, to look for a job. Some of the degrees, he tells her, "are B.S." She browses through the website and finds, to his dismay, an extremely esoteric job that fits one of his degrees. She rejoices by singing "Happy days are here again!" A very funny commercial.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Multi-Talented Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino (1918-1995), British-born American actress/director/screenwriter.

"She just loved that horror stuff. I'm amused by all these so-called feminine pioneer directors who toot their own horns today. They couldn't carry her script case. We used to call her the Great Orsini sometimes. She was the packaged [Orson] Welles. She could act, she could direct, she could write, she could drink. She was so serious about it. She really was. When she acted, she was serious. When she was producing, she was serious. When she was directing, she was most serious because that's what she enjoyed more than anything else."--Doug Benton, associate producer, Thriller (NBC-TV). [Benton died in 2000. The quote is from Fangoria magazine, Issues 155 & 156 (1996). The interviewer was Tom Weaver, who reprinted it in Monsters, Mutants, and Heavenly Creatures. The interview was read on the audio commentary track of "The Weird Tailor" episode, Thriller, Season Two. (Thriller was broadcast from 1960-1962).]

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Few Words From James Weldon Johnson

"I will not allow one prejudiced person or one million or one hundred million to blight my life. I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I shall defend and maintain its integrity against the powers of hell."--James Weldon Johnson, author (1871-1938)

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Few Words From Joseph Lowery

I love this quote: "Lord, in the memory of all the saints, who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right."--Rev. Joseph Lowery, at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration, 2009. (Quoted in The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick (Knopf, 2010.)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Barack Obama, At Last

Time: June 16, 2009. Place: Harlem State Office Building, 2nd Floor Art Gallery (group exhibition). During the slide presentation, a painting of Barack Obama came on the screen, accompanied by Etta James's recording of "At Last" on the sound system. Everyone in the room stood up and applauded.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Close Encounters Of The Erotic Kind

Sean Wolfe's collection of gay erotic stories is called Close Contact: Tales of Erotica (Kensington Books). The stories take place in San Francisco ; Denver; Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, among other locales and the steamy sex scenes occur in a variety of venues: a bathhouse, a park , the back of a bus, etc. One story takes place in a motel and is a send-up of Hitchcock's Psycho. Like an O. Henry story, a few of these tales reveal a twist ending that's hard not to chuckle at.

If you are easily offended by graphic descriptions of sex, Wolfe's collection is probably not your cup of tea, or should I say, cum since in these stories, plenty of it flies around--on chests, faces, walls. Need I say more?

These 28 stories start off innocently, establishing setting, characters, and plot, and before you know it, you're in the middle of hot, no-holds-barred liaisons of every conceivable kind between two or more consenting adults.

In stories that without nary a word about HIV/AIDS, condoms abound. And they are quickly pulled off 9-inch penises (Wolfe's obsession) in time for those flying cum acrobatics. Too bad there isn't a story about a guy trying to break a Guinness record in how fast cum can travel.

One drawback of the stories in Close Contact is that the sex scenes are formulaic: they begin and end the same way most porn films do--oral, then anal sex. Otherwise, Wolfe is a gifted writer, who should not limit his talent to writing erotica .

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Controversial African Historian

Historian Yosef ben-Jochannan (born in Ethiopia in 1918) is "controversial," he said, in a lecture published in Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America, edited by Herb Boyd and Robert Allen (Ballantine Books, 1996), "not because something is wrong with my documentation, but because I challenge Western hegemony." It was "the African," he further stated "that caused people to understand science, medicine, law, engineering, etc."

As an expert on the history of North and East Africa and the Nile Valley, he has self-published several books, including Africa: Mother of Western Civilization. He has also distributed lessons and lectures on records and tapes, such as Black Man, Wake Up. Major publishers refused to publish his works. As a result, he co-founded Alkebu-lan Books in 1969. ("Alkebu-lan" was what the Moors and the Egyptians called Africa. It is the most ancient name of Africa that is known, according to Dr. ben-Jochannan.)

In an interview with me several years ago, he told me that he saw the black historian as a leader; one who "records the events and charts the future," and who must never subjugate his or her veracity for money.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Breezin' With George Benson

This month marks the 35th anniversary of Warner Bros. Records's release of guitarist George Benson's album Breezin'. Recorded in Hollywood in January 1976 and released two months later, it became, says the CD liner notes "the first album ever to simultaneously top Billboard's Jazz, R&B and Pop charts." It "also won three Grammys." Two of the album's most memorable tracks are the title tune "Breezin'" and "This Masquerade."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Eloquent Reverend Gomes

The first time I saw the Reverend Peter J. Gomes, the chaplain at Harvard University, was on a Bill Moyers program on PBS. I was impressed with his eloquence, erudition, gentlemanly manner, and his openness, as a clergyman, about his homosexuality.

I want to re-read his book on the Bible, The Good Book, especially the chapter regarding the Bible and homosexuality.

I regret not having the opportunity to meet him or hear him speak publicly.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Missed Opportunity

Some black gay history significa: I was one of three people who poet/publisher Assotto Saint (aka Yves Lubin) considered leaving Galiens Press to. The other two were writers Thom Bean (San Francisco) and Craig Reynolds (D.C. or Maryland), both now deceased.

At the time (the mid 1990s) , I couldn't see how I could be both a writer and a publisher. It wasn't until years later, after reading a biography of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the Beat Generation writers, and a memoir by novelist/publisher Felice Picano called Art and Sex in Greenwich Village, that I realized, much too late, that it was doable.

He told me that he was going to leave some money to whomever he left the press to with one proviso: the press could only be used to publish the work of other writers. When none of us showed any enthusiasm for such an undertaking, Assotto decided that Galiens Press would die with him. (Assotto had full-blown AIDS.)

I deeply regret not taking Assotto up on his offer. It would have been a marvelous opportunity for me to publish up -and -coming writers as well as keeping Galiens Press alive.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Million-Dollar Porn Flick

Most porn films are (by Hollywood standards) cheap and cheesy. That's why it's too bad that porn star-turned-magazine publisher Gloria Leonard and famed novelist Norman Mailer weren't able to collaborate on the first million-dollar Triple X-rated film. Their prior commitment to other projects nixed it. The backers, Midwestern magnates, Leonard tells Lili Anolik of The L Magazine ("Normy Makes a Porny," Feb. 2, 2011) wanted "the Gone With the Wind of fuck films." There's no doubt that with Mailer's involvement, the film would have been classy, historic, and very controversial. Would it have made money? Who knows? Maybe another literary genius will tackle such a project.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bill Cosby Outfoxes The Supermarket Tabloids

The following is a letter-to-the-editor I sent to Entertainment Weekly magazine. I wrote it on January 26, 1997. I remember an editor calling me to say they were considering using it. Apparently they changed their minds.

Dear Editor: Bill Cosby is a brilliant tactician. Knowing that the supermarket tabloids would try to dig up some dirt on his son [Ennis], possibly putting a gay spin on his murder, Cosby forestalled such attempts (for awhile, anyway) by suggesting that they put up reward money for the capture of the murderer ("Power of the Son," Issue #364, Jan. 31). And the tabloids took the bait. Bravo, Bill Cosby!

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Near Invisibility of Black Gays On The Big Screen

The following is an unpublished letter I sent to Entertainment Weekly magazine. I wrote it on September 20, 1995.

Dear Editor:

Hollywood's portrayal of gays and lesbians is not as "positive and inclusive" as Robert Howland of GLAAD thinks (Issue #291, 9/8/95). Unfortunately, there has never been a spate of major motion pictures that depict the black gay experience. I can name numerous films about black drug dealers and gang members, but I'd be hard put to name one that deals with the intricacies of black gay life. Until that day arrives, Hollywood shouldn't be praised. The reason many in the black community see homosexuality as a white man's disease is because there hasn't been a serious discussion of the issue on TV or in feature films as it pertains to blacks.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Tireless Al Sharpton

The following is an unpublished letter I sent to The New York Times Magazine. I wrote the letter on March 8, 2000.

Dear Editor:

I wish there had been a "What Do You Do All Day?" profile of the ubiquitous and indefatigable Rev. Al Sharpton in your special issue concerning the new American worker ("The Way We Work Now," March 5). It would have revealed how, on a typical day, he is able to manage his time well enough to be in so many places, taking part in so many demonstrations without having to clone himself or risk burn out.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Few Words From Pete Hamill

"You can go into a bookstore for Sarah Palin's book and say, 'Here's a book by Melville' that you haven't read yet. And you'll buy both of them.

" isn't the same as going down an aisle. The same as record stores. You'll go for Billie Holiday and you buy Gustav Mahler as you're going out the door." --Pete Hamill, from "Pete Hamill Talks About Newspapers, Fiction, and Life with Keyboard and Pen" by Mark Bialczak, The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), December 6, 2009.

I recently went to Borders to buy Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns which is about the Great Migration of Southern blacks to the North and West. I didn't buy another book but I did browse the shelves. What a joyful experience that was!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Jazz's Distinctive Voices

"There is no one 'correct' way to play an instrument in jazz--consequently, every great jazz musician has a distinctive sound, or 'voice.' You can identify from a single note the great ones--Pops, Miles, Bird, Prez--and Stanley [Turrentine]."--Don Sebesky, musical arranger, from his CD liner notes, If I Could by tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine (1993).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Langston Hughes's Prophetic Vision

"What is this the big shots are saying about us Negroes being cool because there might be a Negro President in the year 2011 in the U.S.A., huh? If I am going to run for President, I want to run now--because by 2011 I would be too cool."--Jesse B. Semple, from "For President" by Langston Hughes, Simple's Uncle Sam (Hill and Wang, 1965).

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year's Greeting

Happy New Year! Let's hope 2011 will be a healthy, happy, and prosperous year for all of us.