The Gilded Closet


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.

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.

Perhaps, then, the one evil that the gilded closet could not protect against was shame. “Let’s not lose sight of the fact that many people were full of self-hatred,” says author Edmund White. “They went to psychiatrists, they tried to commit suicide, all that stuff.” Yet their anxieties impelled these men toward a sense of playful mutual affection that seems quite innocent now. “Gay life, especially sexual life, was coquettish, playful, even romantic,” says White. “I get the feeling that it was all slightly sentimental, in the sense that maybe one man would sit at a piano and sing a love ballad to another.”

Despite this paradox of innocence and shame, the world these men made for themselves was truly, wildly gay—in a way that can only be envied in this more wary, self-serious age.

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