The Gilded Closet

The Swank World of Gay Gents in New York

The currency of the age was wealth and looks. If you didn't have the former, as John did, you could certainly trade on the latter.

Joe Wiley was 20 when he arrived in New York in 1946, just out of the army. He came from a middle-class family in Philadelphia, but his dream was to be a dancer in New York and meet famous people. Everybody told him he could make it: "I was very, very handsome. Looked like Tony Curtis," Joe recalls. There were no velvet ropes at most of the top nightclubs back then. If you had class, you could get in. Joe went out and bought himself the uniform: a gray flannel suit, a pair of black tasseled loafers, a pink button-down Brooks Brothers shirt, a black knit tie, and he could go anywhere. "To the opera, the gay bars, the Russian Tea Room, the Oak Room. Anywhere."

So Joe would go to a famous supper club, Tony's, on West 52nd down the block from "21," and order a bowl of spaghetti and listen to chanteuse Mabel Mercer work the room. Mercer herself was a real lesson in class: a regal black woman who sang show tunes with a very proper British accent, like somebody's naughty dowager aunt. She had a huge gay following. Or Joe would go to the One Two Three Club on West 55th and sit at the bar nursing a martini (75 cents, if you please), while Noël Coward and Moss Hart and Cole Porter came and went. "I was just gaga," says Joe. "I didn't even really know who the fuck Cole Porter was, but before I knew it, there was a drink in front of me, and next thing I'm up in the Waldorf Towers in bed with him! And the following morning he put $50 in my pocket." Not bad for a wide-eyed kid from Philly.

Joe Wiley: $50 and a nod from Cole Porter
(photo courtesy of Joe Wiley)

The calling card that gained him entry to this glamorous world was discretion. A gay man could circulate in café society, meeting hundreds of others like himself, so long as he didn't call attention to his homosexuality. "The Oak Room was very funny in those days," Joe remembers. "They didn't let women in, so consequently it was a hangout for guys, and as long as you weren't a flaming fairy, they'd let you in." Joe and his friends would sit there looking debonair and cruise one another. "They didn't necessarily condone it, but what could they do?"

Wealth and privilege (or youth and beauty) have always insulated those fortunate enough to possess them. For these gay men in the postwar years, good fortune created a gilded closet—if indeed it was a closet. Observes historian Molly McGarry, co-author of Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America: "For those in the know, it didn't really work as a closet. There was just an inside and an outside. The line from the time was, 'We knew who we were.' It's the kind of thing that might be said by any country club boy." Indeed, the world these men inhabited seems very much like a cosmopolitan country club: comfortable and exclusive, with the promise of unlimited entertainment once you were let in.

Of course, the unspoken rule of any country club is that membership is restricted: "We knew who we were" didn't embrace campy queens or working-class queers. They would throw their own party at the Stonewall Inn a couple decades later. Not that a country club boy didn't occasionally go slumming. Joe Wiley remembers a notorious gay bar on Third Avenue called the Lodge. Dark and dingy, leather queens in the back room, Leonard Bernstein at the bar drinking champagne with a gang of Puerto Rican boys. Joe found it "pretty spooky." Today, your Chelsea queen would doubtless be happier there than at the Stork Club, though the fault lines of class would run just as deep.

The party didn't last forever. The American mood began to shift in the 1950s, and the headiness that had marked the triumphal return of the servicemen dissipated. Senator Joe McCarthy launched his long, tireless Communist witch-hunt in 1950, and the same year saw a national panic over homosexuals in government. These events didn't impact the gay elite directly, but they felt a ripple effect. In the mid 1950s, a man who worked with John Barham's partner, Dick, at Standard Oil reported to the board of directors that they were homosexuals. Dick became anxious and depressed, but John refused to let the scare ruin their lives. "I said to Dick, 'If you get fired, you get fired. We have enough money. It's time we really started living.' " As it happened, the scandal passed and Dick kept his job.

Men like John and Joe found themselves leaving the city and settling down, making homes with long-term partners. Standard Oil dispatched Dick (and with him, John) to South America, where the couple lived for 19 years. Joe followed his partner to New Hope, Pennsylvania, where they ran a general store together. Joe still lives there, age 75. From his country seat he observed the Stonewall riots—and not too approvingly. "Everybody was out there screaming and carrying on, flaunting it in front of people, rubbing their noses in it." Don't get him started.

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