The Gilded Closet

The Swank World of Gay Gents in New York

John Barham has class. It's a word you don't hear very much anymore, class, but you know it when you see it. You notice it in John's grooming and you hear it in his speech—the trace of an aristocratic Virginia drawl. It's there in his manners, and his dignified gait, slowed now and hesitant with age. John is 77. He lives in a grand house in the Hamptons, alone since Dick, his partner of 48 years, passed away last June. He is a very elegant gay man, in the way that gay men 50 years ago aspired to be—before Gay Pride, gym memberships, and Queer as Folk.

John was quite the man-about-town in those days. He was one of thousands of young servicemen who flooded Manhattan in the wake of World War II. The mood then was ebullient, and the city seemed primed for big things. Jan Morris captures the high spirits of that place and time in her book Manhattan '45: "New York was never to lose its excitement, its power to move, its limitless energy; but never again, perhaps, would it possess the particular mixture of innocence and sophistication, romance and formality, generosity and self-amazement, which seems to have characterized it in those moments of triumph." Morris might have been describing the gay culture that was taking shape in the city. Many of the veterans were homosexual like John, and they came in droves to study on the G.I. Bill: theater, dance, music, art, design. Night after night, they could be found in the clubs, restaurants, and bars of Manhattan. The very names of these establishments glitter down the years: the Versailles, Regents Row, the Blue Angel, Tony's, the Stork Club, the Monkey Bar, the Oak Room, the Faisan d'Or, the Blue Parrot, the Astor Bar, the Directoire.

This is a story about the gilded closet that wealthy gay men like John fashioned for themselves in those years. Theirs was a clandestine network of cruising and socializing that took place not in an alternate gay universe but right in the midst of the straight venues of the time. It was a contradictory world: founded on the pleasure principles of sex and fun but at the same time snobbish and insular. It depended on a secrecy, both stifling and perversely thrilling, to maintain itself. And it resonates for us today.

John was still in uniform when he arrived in New York in 1945, and he was still taking out girls, writing to his father's secretary whenever he needed pocket money ("My father was always Mr. Barham to me," John says). It was an old Virginia family; John's grandfather was a bank president and owned 21 farms. John's great-aunt was the founder of a charitable organization for crippled children, and through her he made social connections in New York. He found himself invited to society parties and debutante balls. He started seeing a lot of a girl named Jean.

"Quite often it was mentioned in the paper that the two of us were together or what have you," John recalls. On the day that a big party was to be thrown for Jean, a society lady approached him and said, "John, we all expect a big announcement tonight." John was aghast, for, of course, he had been having affairs with men all through his relationship with Jean. "To even think that they expected me to marry the girl!"

The answer was an escape to Europe. There John met Gore Vidal and Rita Hayworth and the editor of French Vogue. When he returned to New York a year and a half later, there were no more dates with girls, and the subject of his marrying Jean, or anybody else, was quietly dropped. "I never had pressure to marry. Never. I was just having a good time. I'm sure my family knew I was gay—they had to. You simply didn't talk about it." A great deal of America's "unpleasant business" has been swept under the rug by that WASP code. Yet it meant that John could now throw himself into gay life with delicious abandon. "If I didn't go to two or three parties a day—I'm serious—I would say it was a very dull day. The exuberance, the energy of people, was so great! There was a madness then!"

Meeting other gay men was a cinch. John was handsome: a thick head of dark wavy hair, a strong profile, a trim physique. He could saunter right into the Stork Club—the chicest of chic clubs, where gossip king Walter Winchell held court at table 50, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (and sometimes the Duchess's gay lover, Jimmy Donahue) might be seated next to Gloria Swanson. John would sit down at the bar, and before he knew it, another gentleman would buy him a drink. And then they'd go home together—as simple as that. Nobody batted an eye, not even Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley, hardly known as a paragon of tolerance. Hundreds of gay men did the same every night of the week, meeting and fraternizing in the city's swankest nightspots, utterly beneath the radar. As long as they didn't camp it up, as long as they maintained that suave (but not fey) veneer of class, the straight world could have cared less. For young homosexual men of means like John, Manhattan in the postwar years was an extravagant playground.

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