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glbt new orleans history

Volume 15/Issue 12

Madame John Dodt's Legacy #14

by Jon Newlin, NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana

Casting aside Frivolity for just a bit--and Frivolity, like so many of those girls that eat regular at Jack Dempsey's and Rocky & Carlo's, tends to put the pounds on when you're not looking, --I thought I'd maunder on a bit more about the Gay Media, locally and otherwise. (Yes, I know you're probably wilting under this dense canopy of moist verbiage and verbena, but bear with me.) Much of what this column is about is That Other Paper for which I toiled so long and so often, to wit (or half-wit), Impact or LimpAct as it's increasingly looking. When Mr. Batson wrote me up in panegyric form serene in a recent issue, one of the things I told him in a follow-up was that he really ought to give credit where credit is surely due-attention must be paid in Arthur Miller's immortal words-to Messrs. Letson and Martin for starting the damn thing in the first place. When they began Impact in the late Seventies, there wasn't any LAGPAC and there wasn't any Forum For Equality and there wasn't any P-FLAG and there wasn't any NO/ AIDS and there wasn't any Log Cabin Club and there wasn't even no Gay Pride (all of these things, darlings, were like Topsy and jes' growed), and there assuredly t'warn't no AmBush. About all there was was Petronius and the Doubleday Book Shop on Canal Street as far as any sort of gay consciousness goes.

So starting a queer paper-even if it was cynical niche marketing (an idea that didn't spring up like a toadstool under the starry night skies until much, much later)-was, face it, Mag, a coura-geous act in every sense of the word. Here are some of the reasons why. Consider what the media was like in the Seventies-the Picayune and States-Item were full of queers and a few fugitive dykes (many of them still there and so-despite the fact that Mr. Newhouse's Paper Of Record shelled out somewhere in the neighborhood of a million smackers for p.c. "sensitivity training"-we'll keep their names as confidential as conceivable). The dailies took delight in lurid coverage of things like the Upstairs fire, took exquisite Oriental-torture-master-like pleasure in running the names, addresses, and-quel honte!-the ages of people arrested in "vice" sweeps like the Great Cabrini Park Massacre or the raids on the late, beloved Loft on North Rampart Street (a maze of pitch-black rooms where ... oh, sweet Jesus, must I draw you a picture? Besides, Tom of Finland's already done it, though with a great deal of artistic license), and took pride in squashing the story that Noo Awlins' beloved District Attorney might have ties that were more than platonic to a certain Mr. Campbell arrested in a "vice sting" involving a Boy Scout troop where the young'uns were passed around like a bottle of cheap white port among winos for picture-taking and carnal improprieties; the case was Balzacian in its complexity: it also involved two queens who had kidnapped a little old lady in the French Quarter and held her prisoner in her own home while they drained her life's savings and hocked just about everything she owned, Mr. Campbell's Metairie-based "physique and art photo" studio in the nineteen fifties which mysteriously burned to the ground, and the legal low point of Connick refusing to recuse himself in the case. It was delicious! And then, suddenly-by Phelpsian ukase 'twas whispered in the bosky bowers of Howard Avenue-coverage of the case just stopped. On a dime, my dears.

The television stations weren't much better, and this was a couple years before the ignominious "Cruisin' the Streets" series which purported to "blow the lid off'" (ahem!) hustling in the French Quarter by having Richard Angelico and Pierre DeGruy pose as male prostitutes-magnificently fanciful off-type casting that!-and succeeded only in (a) busting up a minor call boy service being run out of the French Quarter Florist at the time; (b) destroying the reputation of a once-politically-powerful socialite and Rex member (supposedly Moon Landrieu and the Captain of Rex at the time, I believe it was Brooke Duncan); and (c) hypo'ing the business of the Louisiana Purchase, a resort for financiers and speculators in flesh futures which had its charms but was-and sisters, I don't have a squeamish nose-the foulest-smelling "jernt" I've ever had a look in. TV stations, if they mentioned queers at all, did things like play up what a nice, normal, completely misunderstood Southern Baptist hausfrau Anita Bryant was; when, indeed, the problem was that she was all too completely understood, or gave valuable air-time that might otherwise have gone to Hap Glaudi to lunatics confessing to having torched the Upstairs Bar out of either hustler pique or some sort of inquisitorial desire to cleanse the world.

Now, fortunately, I spent the Seventies at one of the two weeklies, the less gay of the two, I might add. The Vieux Carre Courier had been around since Lassie was a pup (started, if I recall correctly, by the deliriously infamous Monty De Montluzin, but that is another entire story, my dear, and not fit for the readers of a family newspaper) but it didn't go into any sort of joumalistic high gear until it got, in 1972, some competition, which was Figaro, where I slaved day after day. I remember being the token faggot at Figaro for absolute ages and being a little tired of it (there were other sissies there but they wrote under pseudonyms or were in the closet) and one day this breathless queen with an earring and long hair came in to apply for the job of typesetter. This was Paul Grappe, later referred to unimprovably in a North Louisiana paper reporting on one of her little scrapes with the authorities as a "known drug dealer and prostitute." Although La Grappe was married at the time-to a straight woman cop!-I clocked him the minute she sashayed into the office, and I recall begging Jim Glassman, "Please, please hire him! I'm exhausted with being the only fruit around here!" and so he did. Miss Grappe and I later lived together and shared quite a few capers, all of them picturesque in the extreme but only a few of the sort to make one's whalebone stays heave with pride. Grappe is no longer resident in this vale of tears having offed himself a few years back in San Francisco when his health finally got to That Point. I had foolishly thought he would go on forever.

But I digress.

The Courier had an edge on Figaro, queerwise, and it was chiefly because of Bill Rushton, who wrote about even more stuff than I had to deal with at Figaro; Bill was out and fairly pissed off about things; in retrospect, I might add, that La Rushton with whom I was on quite cordial though not furiously intimate terms, has been treated in memory as some sort of porcelain madonna, pure and without sin. This is not an accurate picture, dears.

Like our papers, people always lumped Rushton and I together as rivals for some imaginary Homecoming Queen tiara, which was hardly the case since we didn't write about the same things. Bill was active in what could only be called the incunabula of gay politics, i.e., the Gertrude Stein Society, etc., and was also armed with a gigantic hard-on for local real-estate developers, and those who would tamper with his beloved French Quarter and CBD-like so many people who really loved the city, he was not a native-and week after week, he would heap scorn, bile, contumely, and even a little coriander and paprika upon their heads until they (sometimes) hollered for mercy.

Before moving to New York, Bill had been effectively displaced as the person who set the tone of the Courier by Philip Carter, the Courier's last owner. Memory plays tricks and those so fulsome in their praise of Rushton now were not always so; rather than see him in the mnemonic fun-house mirror as some sort of sweet angelic creature, I'd rather remember him with a couple of warts, as for instance when one night in Jewel's ... but we'll save that one. (And I've not even mentioned my favorite gay contributor to the Courier, that mal vivant extraordinaire and raconteur of the squalid and tawdry, Dakota Strange, who was resurrected briefly in Impact in the mid-Eighties, but again, I digress.)

At the Figaro, gay issues weren't really paramount in anyone's mind; I was depressingly unaware politically, and enduring a belated phase of teenage-girlhood, was only interested in cute boys. As I stayed there through the years, I didn't change that much except that my writing got more and more opaque till even I didn't know what I meant sometimes. Then Jim Glassman fired me and a year later, deciding I had been punished enough, Joe Manguno, editor by then, Glassman having moved on to literally greener pastures, hired me back and I stuck it out until the bitter-and I mean bitter-end. One anecdote will suffice to show what Figaro was like when it came to queer issues. In 1980, I think, Manguno broke down-I think at my urging- and was going to do a "big" (i.e., cover) story on gay life in New Orleans.

But at the editorial meeting, he pointed at me and said, "And You're! NOT! Doing It!" So he gave the story to Iris Kelso. Now, I won't hear a word against Iris-she's a dear and the salt of the Philadelphia, Mississippi earth-how could you not like someone who knew every United Cab driver by name and who had her desk moved to the front windows of the office on Terpsichore Street so she could have a clear view of the comings and goings at the black whorehouse across the street? But this story? So she came up after the meeting and asked me who she ought to talk to. I started naming names and one of them was Jerry Menefee who had opened the Bourbon Pub a few years before. I explained who he was, and what the Pub was, and Iris's eyes were getting wider and wider, and she cut in with, "Yes, I know Jerry Menefee .... but ... you mean he's gay?" At that point, bless her heart, I knew just how the story was going to be.

So that's what the media was like for queers back in those Saucy Seventies. And that's why what Roy and Gary did was really brave in its way. Of course, someone would have started a gay newspaper sooner or later, and no doubt down the long and lonesome road we would not have been spared such things as the current publisher of LimpAct expatiating for an entire half-page on the state of his dental hygiene under the rubric of an Editorial. (I don't, of course, read Impact, but as Mr. Batson once said to me about AmBush, I am told about it. Several times in the case of the breathless survey of Mr. Scafide's oral problems.) One can say what one wants about Roy Letson-and Godnose, just about everyone has, at tedious length-but I could tell you stories. And stories. For one thing, Old Lady Letson always took me, and everyone else, in, out of the storm when we needed it. And he was, given his limitations, amazingly generous.

And...once Letson and Riccardo Peccorini, the Art Director, and I were going to New York for the weekend (at Miss Letson's expense). Now, many years before, Miss Letson had been driving around Jefferson Parish drunk and passed by a building under construction and had stopped his car and stolen a chandelier out of the building, gotten caught, and had to spend Memorial Day Weekend in jail because the judge on duty wouldn't spring him, thus missing the weekend and getting into a big scrape at the Daily Record where he was then working. That's the prologue. So, I decided that to go to New York, I needed a nice carry-on bag and Roy drove me out to Metairie to my mother's house one day-my father, who was a judge in Jefferson Parish then, was on the bench and not home-and we went in and she was showing me bags of different shapes and sizes and Miss Letson was wandering around the house, and suddenly I hear her call, "Miss Newlin! Miss Newlin!" Well, my mother and I both jumped up and ran to see what could be the matter; Miss Letson looked at me with anguished eyes, and said, "Oh, Miss Newlin, that's that dreadful old man who wouldn't let me out the jailhouse when I stole that chandelier!" He was gesturing, of course, toward a picture of my father.

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