On December 7, 1975, three men entered the Philadelphia luxury apartment of John S. Knight III, bound him, gagged him, robbed him, and murdered him. Knight was special projects director of the Philadelphia Daily News, heir to the Knight-Ridder newspaper fortune, an honor graduate of Harvard and Oxford, a collector of modern art, and a friend of Henry and Cristina Ford.
When police conducted an investigation into the murder, they discovered sexual paraphernalia in Knight’s apartment which indicated Knight’s blue blood had more than a tinge of lavender. They also discovered that one of the assailants was Felix Melendez, hustler, procurer, and sometime lover of Knight. It took the final violence to bring Knight out of the closet.
As expected, the gay press underplayed the Knight murder. An angry article in Gay Community News quoted a media spokesman as saying “Knight’s interests were not the normal average interests of a gay male at all.” I wish somebody would tell me what those normal average interests are. Another quote by a tambourine thumper in the same story was “No one knows the number of gay people who will be negatively affected by the murder.” Could that mean turn heterosexual? Give up fucking? Let the dishes pile? The Los Angeles Advocate, which, in the January 14 issue ran 238 classified ads for”model/masseurs,” headlined a news brief “Murder Probe Angers Gays.” Later on, we learn the anger was at the revelation by police of the homosexually incriminating evidence in Knight’s apartment. “Police sources said they found photographs of nude young men along with a diary that recounted ‘intimate homosexual encounters between Knight and various male prostitutes and hustlers.” Since when has the Advocate been so moralistic about nude young men and hustlers’?
If the motive was robbery and, lo and behold, the victim happened to be homosexual, I can see it strictly as a case of murder. But if the killing was an act of passion precipitated by jealousy and the victim’s gayness, or a get-rich-quick scheme to rob a closet homosexual, what else do you call it? Parcheesi? No matter how you slice it, the Knight murder comes out gay.
John S. Knight III was the 30-year-old son of the late John S. Knight and the only grandson of 81-year-old John Shively Knight, newspaper patriarch, modern day Citizen Kane, whose empire of 35 publications is the largest in the country. Columnists at the Daily News who knew young John wrote odes. Larry McMullen claimed, “I made him too simple. Now that he’s dead, I have come to know that he was more complex than that.” Jonathan Takiff, the News‘s theater critic, panned “Murder Among Friends” which opened the night following Knight’s death. “The last thing I wanted to see was a murder mystery with frivolous comic overtones … Never have I felt that killing was amusing. And just now, the tragic, senseless death of a friend and fellow newspaperman has left me baffled, bitter, and shocked.”
Knight’s death was shocking, the circumstances behind the killing macabre, and the underlying social implications horrifying. The killing took place on a Saturday night. The evening started with a dinner at La Truffe, a fine French restaurant on Front Street. Knight had been to South Dakota a few weeks before — he was a huntsman and had shot pheasant and arranged for four of the birds to be roasted and served in a wine sauce. His guests were Ellen Roche, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Janensch (Janensch was Knight’s boss and is the managing editor of the Philadelphia Daily News), and Dr. and Mrs. John McKinnon. If the dinner had a purpose, it was to celebrate the McKinnons’ visit to Philadelphia (Dr. McKinnon and Knight had been roommates at Harvard). According to Janensch, there was just enough to drink. Everyone had a nice glow on but no one was drunk, and “the evening was one of the most pleasant imaginable.” Around midnight, the Janensches said goodnight, took Ellen Roche to her car, leaving Knight and the McKinnons free to return to his $1050-a-month apartment at the Dorchester on Rittenhouse Square.
Once home, Mrs. McKinnon retired to a guest room. Her husband and Knight drank brandy and reminisced ahout college days. The phone rang a couple or times. Knight explained to McKinnon that the caller was someone who procured women for him. About 2:30 a.m., McKinnon retired. A half hour later, the doorbell rang, and Knight answered: it was the phone caller. Knight explained he couldn’t let him in — he was entertaining guests. The caller pleaded with him and made a ruckus in the hallway. Knight eventually opened the door, and the man pushed past him, followed by two other men. According to a statement made later by one of the men, 25-year-old Steven Maleno, the man who made the call was Isais (“Felix”) Melendez. Melendez and the third accomplice, Salvatore Soli, forced Knight to his bedroom and began to beat him. Knight was a strong, muscular man and didn’t give in easily, but the intruders, using belts, ties, and socks, eventually tied his legs and hands behind his back and gagged his mouth. They then started ransacking the apartment. At this point, Maleno claims, they discovered the McKinnons in a guest room at the far end of the apartment. Mrs. McKinnon was ordered naked from her bed. She was forced to open drawers in Knight’s desk, which were searched for valuables. Mrs. McKinnon remembers that two of the men had handguns, one had a shotgun.
According to Salvatore Soli, Felix Melendez “was marching up and down with a spear in one hand and a scuba-diving knife in the other.” Soli decided to return to Knight’s bedroom to check him out. He saw Knight on the floor “looking like he was asleep.” About 90 minutes into the holocaust, the Dorchester’s night attendant came to the apartment door and complained about the noise. Felix Melendez told him that hc was Knight’s brother-in-law and that they were practicing karate. Maleno and Soli opted to get the hell out with the goods they had collected. Melendez remained guarding Mrs. McKinnon, who somehow persuaded him to untie her. When he did, she ran to the guest room, grabbed one of Knight’s hunting rifles, and gave it to her husband. Dr. McKinnon allegedly had been asleep through much of this. The doctor rushed into Knight’s bedroom and attempted to revive him. As he leaned back from his efforts, he saw a man standing on Knight’s bed. “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it,” the man screamed. McKinnon and the man wrestled. The assailant pushed the doctor into another room and fled.
Meanwhile, Mrs. McKinnon, now covered hy a robe, had escaped to the outside hallway where she waited for an elevator to take her to the main lobby and safety. Just as the elevator opened, the man leaped into the car with Mrs. McKinnon and attempted to stab her. She kicked at him and was finally able to run off the elevator when it stopped at the third floor. By the time the police arrived, the attacker had vanished.
In Salvatore Soli’s statement to police, he said that when he and Steven Maleno were out of the Dorchester, Malena told him, “Felix stabbed the guy.” Maleno claimed that Melendez confessed he had stabbed Knight five or six times. Police reports said that Knight had died of knife wounds, four in the back and one in the chest. The wounds in the back outlined compass points: north. south, east, and west, and appeared ritualistic.
The following day, the story broke in the media. Identities of the assailants weren’t known. Composite sketches of three white men — one with a skullcap, one with a Zapata mustache, one with a Gainsborough Blue Boy haircut — were distributed to detectives. Mrs. Mckinnon told police that one of the men had needle marks on his arm. She said she was certain another was a homosexual.
Evidence in Knight’s apartment indicated that he moved in three worlds: the world of wealth and comfort to he was born, the creative world of artists and writers, and the underworld of teenage hustlers. He kept the worlds separate. Recordings of gay encounters with Knight’s own voice (one contained “moans and screams” that led a police official to suggest the recording may have been made during a “sadomasochistic sexual encounter”), a diary, and Polaroid photos of nude young boys were clues to a life that Knight kept buried by day and hidden by night.
Billy Sage appeared on the scene, like the bereaved widow of a daddy who died too suddenly to remember his sugar in his will. Sage, now 20, spoke freely of a relationship that to began when Sage was 16. Sage boasted how he taught Knight to “be aware,” how he always beat Knight at wrestling because he was stronger, how Knight “financed” him and then suggested that he settle down with a good woman when Knight moved from Detroit to Philadelphia (Sage later married), and how Knight continued flying Sage to Philadelphia for weekends.
By Tuesday, December 9, the heat was on the gay world. Detectives appeared in bars, questioning owners and patrons. Hustlers in Center City were treated to the third degree. Dennis Rubini, a university professor, past president of Philadelphia’s Gay Activists Alliance, and active in sadomasochistic “consciousness raising” was picked up because he resembled a sketch of one of the men. Rubini was taken to Homicide, fingerprinted, photographed, and submitted to a polygraph test. He was asked if he had or ever engaged in “abnormal sex.” Rubini replied, “My definition or society’s definition?”
On Wednesday evening, a news conference was called by Chief Inspector Joseph Golden. In the proud manner of a father about to announce the marriage of a favorite daughter, Golden announced the identities of the men sought in the Knight murder. He announced that all three were residents of South Philadelphia and that warrants had been issued for their arrests. Five hours later, Steven Maleno telephoned police saying he wanted to surrender. He said his father and his brother persuaded him it was the right thing to do. Eight hours later, waiting for Maleno’s arraignment at police headquarters, word filtered to the press room that Felix Melendez, a “homosexual procurer,” had been found with a bullet through the back of his head near the site of a Boy Scout reservation in Camden.
December 11. Rittenhouse Square is quiet. A police car is parked in front of the Dorchester, its occupants on the 23rd floor still sifting through the debris of Knight’s possessions. Amazing how life goes on. No signs in the lobby proclaiming “we had a heavy one last weekend.” Well-turned-out women chat with each other about the soaring price of avocados. Amazing, too, how easy it is to slip into the Dorchester. The doorman outside is interested in hailing cabs. The concierge at the front desk will put through a house call only if you ask him. The woman in the front office has her nose in her books. I show her the police photos of Knight’s accused assailants. She recognizes Felix Melendez immediately. She says she has seen him with Knight in the building on several occasions. She calls the mail attendant have a look. He also recognizes Melendez. They shake their heads. The world’s gone cuckoo.
I leave them and poke around the neighborhood. Pretty town houses, interspersed with high-rises. Sort of Brooklyn Heights without the dogs. Faked up old-world charm mixed with new-world gelt. Plenty of gays, laundromats, fish restaurants, boutiques, yogurt palaces. Knight with his millions bought his medicine and shaving supplies at a wholesale outlet three blocks from the Dorchester rather than at the retail store in the building. He bought his sex toys at the Pleasure Chest. He bought his tricks on Spruce Street, a couple of blocks away. In the park, too. It’s a self-contained neighborhood.
The house where I stay is near the Dorchester. It belongs to a young man who majored in German at college but is making a living as a house painter. Often this young man gets assignments from Andrew Liberty. Liberty decorated Knight’s apartment and was his closest friend in Philadelphia.
At the time, Knight struck Liberty as sophisticated but not ostentatious. His clothes were quality and English-tailored but wellworn. He looked like a compact teddy bear and acted slightly reticent. Knight told Liberty that he knew no one in Philadelphia. They struck up an immediate friendship.
They began lunching at the Latham. Three-hour talks that began with furniture, shifted to psychology, and ended with self-revelations. Layers of Knight’s personality unfolded. He told Liberty about his background at Harvard and Oxford, about his travels, about the call he received from an anonymous tipster when he was working the newsroom at the Detroit Free Press. The call described the mental problems of then Democratic vice-presidential nominee Senator Thomas Eagleton. Knight initiated a series of articles that forced Eagleton off the McGovern ticket and won the Knight-Ridder papers a Pulitzer prize.
As their friendship developed, Knight opened up about his relationship with his grandfather. The old man worshipped Knight and clearly, wanted him to take over the newspaper chain. But first he wanted Knight to learn the business from the ground up. So, at the Detroit Free Press, Knight delivered papers by truck to familiarize himself with routing. He covered the police heat, wrote editorials, and toiled in advertising, which he hated, always keeping in touch with Knight Senior. Knight once invited Liberty to accompany him on a visit to grandfather’s winter estate in Bal Harbour, Florida. This visit never came off.
In Philadelphia, the young heir earned a weekly salary of $350 and worked eight-hour shifts. He moonlighted a review of the Rolling Stones when they played town, an achievement he was exceedingly proud of. Music was his love, just as hunting was his hobby (he would not shoot deer because he couldn’t stand to see their eyes), weight lifting his tsuris (he had a weight problem but was strong enough to bench press 250), and cooking his way of communicating. Two weeks before the knifing, he had Andrew Liberty and a friend up for “the best breakfast of my life: freshly squeezed orange juice with Dom Perignon, Canadian bacon, filet mignon and eggs, coffee.” Generous to a fault, Knight nevertheless was shrewd with money. He traded his speedboat for an original Picasso print on the theory that the boat would depreciate while the Picasso increased in value. Money meant security. Lately he felt very secure: His Philadelphia bank account showed a total of a million and a half. Rarely did he keep more than $200 in cash at the apartment. He drove a workingman’s 1972 Grand Prix. Politically, he was moderate leaning toward conservative. His upbringing was Republican. Grandfather was a Nixon supporter until the last election. In a conspicuous spot in a walk-in closet, Knight kept a photo of himself with Nixon. That it was in the closet, Liberty thinks, was a statement.
And then there was the gay thing. “I suspected it,” says Liberty. “He was beating around the bush and I brought it up. One night he said, ‘look, I’m new in town, I’m a newspaper man, I should know the nightclubs. You know them. Why not take me around?’ I said, ‘John, what gay clubs do you want to see first?’ So we went on a tour, the Steps, the Allegro, the PBL. We drank and talked and danced a little, but there was a holding back. John compartmentalized himself. His life was like a long hallway with a lot of closets. None of the closets were connected, and each time he would have to go back to the hallway to get from one to the other.”
The gay thing gnawed at Knight. It bothered him because of his stature, the potential publicity, and the possibility that if Grandpa found out, he’d get cut off. Consequently, he dated “respectable” women. Bright women who were his social equals. Eventually, he thought he’d marry.
The men he dated were overaged children. “He would find a poor waif,” says Andrew Liberty, ”and father him.” Knight’s own father died in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II a couple of months before he was born. Billy Sage was typical of Knight’s relationships with males. So was 20-year-old Felix Melendez, whom he knew four months. Knight looked for the baby face and the big blue eyes. If they didn’t speak proper English and were poverty-stricken, they’d get points. He’d take them to the Dorchester, give them food, let them fool around with his stereo and camera equipment, talk to them like a father, wrestle with them — and then down to the nitty-gritty where paternalism took the form of incest. Never would Knight seek out a male peer as a sexual partner. He considered himself bi. Openly gay was threatening. Gay liberation was something he couldn’t espouse. He admitted that he’d be hypocritical if he did. Yet he knew that the sexual part of his life was fly-by-night, destructive, impossible to reconcile even with the help of an analyst. He acknowledged the hypocrisy of his life.
The night before his death, Knight phoned Liberty and asked him to come over to watch Tora! Tora! Tora! on television. When the film ended, Knight bubbled like a schoolboy because McKinnon would be visiting with his wife and staying for the weekend. He assured Liberty that McKinnon was straight as an arrow. Would Liberty join the party for dinner the following night’? Liberty said he’d love to but had another engagement. At 2:00 A.M., Andrew Liberty said his last goodbye to John Knight.
Early Sunday morning, the phone rang with the news that Knight had been murdered. Liberty thought the call might be a joke. He drove to the Dorchester. The first words from the police were “Did you know John Knight was a homosexual?” They let him into Knight’s apartment. The place was in shambles. Blood on the navy-blue rug, metal lamps crushed, plants torn, clothes scattered, glass shattered. “The stench of death surrounded me,” says Liberty, “and my reaction was hate. I lost my orientation. I got sick. Two days ago, we were sitting here drinking champagne.”
The early patrons at the 247 Bar are drinking beer straight from the bottle. Mark Segal, Philadelphia’s Gay Raider, tells me Knight was a patron. He tells me the bar is pseudo S&M which means that it tries but doesn’t quite make it. Vinyl as opposed to leather. Stances instead of stunts. Mark tells me to use his name. They know him there. They know Mark everywhere in Philadelphia. He’s the one who burst in on Walter Cronkite during a newscast to protest lack of gay coverage. He also handcuffed his wrist to a camera on “The Mike Douglas Show.” I mention Mark’s name. The manager says he doesn’t want to talk about Knight. I amble up to the bar. Place myself near a distinguished-looking cowboy. Ask the man if he’s been following the Knight murder case. “Was there a killing?” he responds. “I’ve only been here a week. I’m from Baltimore. My business is in Baltimore. How terrible. A homosexual murder?” He lights a Salem and gazes at my lower lip. I smile and move on to a younger man dressed in flannel and jeans.
“Do you live in Philadelphia?”
“Yes,” he replies.
“Come here often?”
“I’m a Republican and I don’t have much time for fun.”
“What do you make of the Knight murder?”
He shrugs and soliloquizes about hustlers, talking about gay people in the third person plural. “Keep away from the hustlers,” he advises. “Gay people are unreliable.” I’m not sure whether he’s serious or joking. Then he asks if I’m gay.
“What do you think?”
“Are you political?”
“Yes and no.”
He gulps his last drop of Schlitz and disappears into the night. Feeling like a fish out of water, I stare at my soda glass, stand alone for a while, and become increasingly depressed. Memories of what it was like sixteen years ago in Montreal when each night I’d toddle out of my parents’ home in suburbia, take my Hillman Minx downtown to the Tropical Room, nurse a gin and tonic, play the mirror game, and listen to “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men.” When the last call came, I’d leave with whatever was left and interesting, but more often than not by myself. It took a long time to learn another song. Ten years. “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.”
Desist. Do your duty. Flee. I ask the bartender if I can have a word with him. He stops polishing the counter. He’s got that Paul Bunyan look, the look that’s popular on Christopher Street. I identify myself. I ask if he had seen Knight during his visits. He replies, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He turns his back and continues polishing. I’m alone in the bar now, except for three gigglers and a Hell’s Angel candidate. The music is “What I Did for Love.” Yesterday is not much different from today.
Flash forward a week. They’ve seized Salvatore Soli in Miami. I think if I were Salvatore Soli, I’d flee to Miami, too. It’s chilly in Philly. I read Soli’s story and decide to call my parents in Florida. They want to know when I’m coming to visit them at their new house on a golf course. They want to know what I’m up to. I ask if there’s been anything about Soli’s capture in the Miami papers. My father’s heard about the tsimmes. He tells me I should move from my cold dump in Manhattan. He’ll help with the rent.
Parents, commitments, obligations, umbilical cords that are tough to sever even after the prodigal son leaves home. Do orphans and bastards have it easier?
Soli’s parents live in South Philadelphia in a two-story house. They were closer than Dun is to Bradstreet. Mama says her 37-year-old son would call her every day no matter where he was. He hadn’t called since the Knight murder. Mama Soli went on television and pleaded “Salvi, please come home or get in touch with me … Let me know you’re all right. You may be dead like the other boy [Melendez].”
A mother’s tears were less effective than a stripper’s fears. Linda Mary Wells, an 18-year-old blonde “burlesque dancer” met Soli, Felix Melendez, and Steven Maleno a few days before Knight’s murder. She told detectives she was with the group in Philadelphia on December 6 when Melendez said he knew a “friend” from whom they could get money. The “friend” was a homosexual. Soli had a habit of beating up homosexuals. Maleno had a habit of rolling them. Melendez had a habit of pimping for and/or fucking with them. What could be more natural than a rip-off job on a Saturday night?
So the men took off for an area somewhere near Rittenhouse Square. Several hours later, according to the young stripper, Soli and Maleno met her and told her that Melendez had gone berserk. Later that night, they met Melendez and questioned him carefully about what had happened at Knight’s apartment after Soli and Maleno left. The men had coins, rings, bracelets, and other items Wells assumed were taken from Knight.
For the next few days, Wells and Salvatore Soli took it on the lam, checking into an assortment of motels in New Jersey. Wells was frightened. She imagined if she didn’t play her cards right, she’d end up in the can or at the bottom of the river. On the night of December 11, near the time Inspector Golden was announcing the identities of Knight’s alleged assassins, Wells said that she, Soli, Maleno, Melendez, and two other people drove to a “wooded area” in New Jersey. Steven Maleno and Felix Melendez got out of the car. Moments later, she heard three shots. Maleno came back alone. “You didn’t see a thing,” she quoted Maleno as saying. Later that evening, she and Soli set out for Florida. Soli’s car broke down near Florence, South Carolina. They boarded a Greyhound bus, arrived in Miami where Soli shaved his mustache, dyed his hair strawberry blond, sold some of the jewelry for $150, and bought a pair of platform shoes (Soli is five feet four). On December 14, Wells called Miami police from the South Winds Motel. She told them she was traveling with a hunted fugitive and was “panicky.”
Linda Mary Wells was described by police as a “juvenile” who was a “chronic runaway.” A neophyte on the bump-and-grind circuit, she was billed as “Tarri” at the Troc in Philadelphia. The Troc’s manager claims he’d like to have her back. He’d make her an attraction on the order of Fanne Fox. “Linda Mary Wells,” he says, “reminds me of the ‘Woman in Red’ who turned in John Dillinger.”
On her return to Philadelphia, Wells collapsed and had to be carried by stretcher from the plane. Several hours later, she appeared in court. She was charged with assisting a fugitive in an unlawful flight. She explained her parents would supply an attorney from Syracuse. Bail was set at $100,000. Soli was held without bail. He has a record going back to his teens, mostly burglary and drug convictions. (Track marks are evident on his right arm, as is a tattoo that says “father and mother.”)
Soli’s mother showed up at the hearing in a wheelchair. The same day, the Philadelphia papers reported that John Shively Knight, editorial chairman of the Knight-Ridder Newspapers, would be marrying again after the first of the year. His third bride. Mrs. Frances Elizabeth Augustus, seventy-four, is the widow of a Cleveland millionaire and former president of the National Council of Boy Scouts.
Earl Wilson remembers old man Knight as “tough” and a “playboy.” Wilson worked for Knight in 1935 covering the state legislature in Ohio for the Akron Beacon Journal, the first newspaper in the Knight chain. Years later, Knight asked Wilson if he’d return to the Journal as an editor. Wilson had had a whiff of Broadway, so declined the offer (Wilson’s Broadway column runs in the Philadelphia Daily News).
Wilson also remembers Knight’s eldest son, John S. Knight, Jr. (the murder victim’s late father). Tragedy has always haunted the Knight clan, he claims. Just look at the record.
Knight’s first wife, Katharine, whom he married in 1921, died eight years later of a brain tumor. They had three children. John, Jr., died in 1945, Frank died — also of a brain tumor — in 1958, Landon suffered an attack of infantile paralysis when he was young and is paralyzed from the waist down. He is president of the Portage Newspaper Supply Co., part of the Knight organization. Knight remarried in 1932. His second wife, Beryl, died last August. “Knight is bearing up rather well,” claims the present publisher of the Akron Beacon Journal. Yet an acquaintance in a top-level job at the Detroit Free Press reiterates the fact that all of the old man’s hopes and dreams rode on his grandson.
Newpapermen who have worked for old man Knight describe him as close-mouthed, well-dressed, defiant, and aggressive. They say he’s puritanical when it comes to sex. Vigorous and athletic, he still works out with a set of barbells each morning and rides his bicycle for a couple of miles near his Akron home. They say that editors and writers on all the Knight-Ridder papers have substantial freedom. The one thing Knight insists on is reportage that tells both sides of the story and writing that produces short sentences. His column, “The Editor’s Notebook,” has appeared in his papers off and on for years. Though generally conservative in tone, many of his columns argued against United States involvement in Vietnam. In 1960, he told a New York Herald-Tribune reporter, “I’m going to vote for Nixon and will probably support him. I like Nixon, but I must say he hasn’t fired me up very much.”
What did ignite Knight was a series of articles in the Detroit Free Press condemning conditions at Wayne County Jail. The articles were supervised by John Knight III and led to a prison cleanup. Grandpa burst his buttons with pride; It was chip-off-the-old-block time.
To most of the newsroom staff at the Detroit Free Press, Grandpa is an enigmatic distant figure, a cross between Santa Claus and God, while Grandson was the sleek-haired, ordinary-looking Joe who happened to be an heir and kept to himself.
Once, though, Knight Jr. dated the newsroom’s gorgeous receptionist. “All men lusted after her, but when John took her out, he never made a pass, which made her think she was a front. This woman was accustomed to the type of man who’d buy her a drink and rip her clothes off.”
Knight treated Billy Sage as a back-street romance, but there were occasional phone calls and sometimes they were spotted on the street together. A co-worker guessed there was something gay about the coupling, but there was no office gossip to that effect.
The Detroit Free Press employs open gays and has run editorials and pro-gay stories, including a piece on lesbian mothers. None of these stories were initiated by John Knight III during his four years at the paper.
At the Philadelphia Daily News, Managing Editor Paul Janensch beckons me into his office. He leans back in a chair, hand behind his head, and asks if I’ve read his paper’s coverage of the Knight killing. Janensch was Knight’s boss and frequent lunch companion. He and his wife were among Knight’s dinner guests that fateful night.
Sure, I’ve read the coverage. Would Janensch care to comment on a report that Felix Melendez knew that the McKinnons were set to spend the weekend with Knight, that Melendez suspected Knight and McKinnon of being lovers, and, in a jealous rage, killed Knight? “Judging from the few hours we spent together, there was no indication of a romance between McKinnon and Knight.” says Jannsch. “None at all. There was nothing more than a conventional friendship.
“In fact, revelations of Knight’s homosexuality took us all by surprise. We just assumed that he was straight. Everybody we’d see him with was from the straight world.
“I think if John’s grandfather discovered his tendencies, he’d certainly be upset, but I doubt if he’d do anything drastic. I think he’d want to help John and send him to a psychoanalyst.” I leave Janensch’s office wondering why I didn’t tell him I’m gay. Why shouldn’t he know it? I get better interviews when, en passant, I put my cards on the table. Maybe he thinks I’m a closet case.
The sorrow and the pity with Knight was not that he used hustlers. It’s that he was unable to sever himself from the umbilical cord that bound him to a patriarchal society. Cut it, and there was the possibility of losing his patrimony. To go against it would be to go against everything he was ever taught in all those fancy schools. For Knight to accept what he was meant he might not be accepted by the hierarchy that expected greatness of him. Greatness meant strength. Strength meant masculinity. Masculinity meant heterosexuality. Heterosexuality meant facade. Maintain facade for the world to see. Cheat in the dark abyss of your soul. Cheat in a dimly lit backyard.
Of course, there’s no telling what might have been had Knight played another card. Impossible to surmise whether he’d meet his equal at the Pines or if he’d search the Rambles for a Billy Sage replacement. The truth is, when you’re rich and the sex urge beckons, it’s easy to dial a whore. But there are as many varieties of male hustlers as there are Baskin-Robbins flavors. Many call themselves “models.” They’re not the runaway kind.
Hustlers who advertise in the Advocate are the household variety. Some are college kids who need the bucks to get them through school. Some are recession victims. Others are actors and dancers who can’t hold steady jobs because they need time for auditions. Still others are lazy and find whoring a way to pay the rent. They sit at home, wait for the phone to ring, and charge $30 to $50 a throw. The majority are gay and claim to be “versatile.” They find hustling a way of meeting interesting men they wouldn’t ordinarily meet. A house hustler is usually between 18 and 30. If he’s good, he’s not bothered by age or weight or kink. Unwashed bodies bother, as do obscene phone calls and bargaining. The house hustler is usually safe.
The street hustler has a tougher time of it. Lilly Law is always there, breathing down the neck. A kid can freeze his ass off and come up with a $10 john, if he’s lucky. Generally, street hustlers are sexually passive, hate what they’re doing, hate who does it to them. Many are straight scrawny kids who still find hustling better than working the messenger route. They are younger than the house models. Often, they have nowhere to live. Pill-popping and hard drugs are part of the scene. Homophobia is, too. Like: “I hate it but I’m doing it and if I continue doing it, I may turn out to be one of them.” It is not uncommon for a straight street hustler to turn gay. More common, though, is when a straight street hustler becomes monetarily and especially emotionally dependent on one man who is nicer to him than anyone else he knows. The hustler can become possessive and demanding. Indications are that that was the case with Felix Melendez and John Knight.
Felix Melendez was a regular at Fifteenth and Spruce. I talked to straight hustlers who knew him, a gay hustler who claimed he balled with him, and a groupie who swears on the Liberty Bell that he and Felix climaxed simultaneously more than once. Felix obviously liked John Knight. Andrew Liberty claimed that he had been in Knight’s apartment at times when Melendez called. Knight had spoken about him. Melendez’s name was in Knight’s diary. Melendez also received frequent phone calls from Knight at the apartment he shared with a baker in South Philadelphia.
Where Melendez actually met Knight is not known. But in the summer of ’75, Felix had already taken that 15-minute bus ride from the tight-assed machismo of South Philadelphia to the cellophane glitter of Center City. He had the face and body to stop traffic. He was purchasable — and cheap.
Background? Felix was born in North Philadelphia, the son of an itinerant Pentecostal minister from Puerto Rico. He left home in 1972, quit high school, and joined a Neighborhood Youth Corps center in South Philadelphia. His co-youths found him warm-hearted, full of life, and fun. So did Donna Leone, the daughter of a truck driver. In November, 1974, she had his baby. He wanted to marry Donna, but her father told them to wait until he made something of himself. Felix told his poolroom and pizza parlor pals that he would “be somebody, just wait and see.”
Just wait and see.
A faded blue poster of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus decorates the saloon window on the corner where I get off the bus. The poster announces a rummage sale at the Church of Our Lady of something or other. Philip Janison, the lover of Gay Raider Mark Segal, meets me at the corner. We’re a block away from his house. It’s the neighborhood where Soli, Malena, and Melendez lived. It ain’t “The Philadelphia Story” or Grace Kelly. We do a walking tour.
Philip is slight. Wool hat, scarf, and heavy winter duds cover his tiny frame. Prominent are two buttons: “Gay Rights Now” and “I Am a Zionist.” (He’s Italian, but there are no buttons that read “I Am an Italian Zionist.”) How does he get away with it? “I carry a Mace gun.”
As we walk, he explains the makeup of the neighborhood. Reactionary. Mostly working-class Italians. Countless two and three-story houses, identical in design, forming a monotonous architecture interrupted only by a candy store or a social club or church. The houses are immaculate. Obviously, the women spend hours scrubbing and sweeping their parcels of concrete and asphalt.
Mayor Rizzo hails from South Philly. He’s the big hero, supported by most of the natives. They love it when he returns in a limousine and waves at them. “Rizzo claims he supports a gay rights bill,” says Philip, ”but he’s unable to get it out of committee.” Rizzo’s power is strong enough, however, to allow recently deceased City Councilman O’Donnell to run for office. The man was one of Rizzo’s allies. Believe it or not, the dead man won the race.
Family honor is big in South Philadelphia. “People are into protecting relatives. You call someone’s sister a whore and you find your head smashed in.” The Mafia family is taken for granted. They support the community. Better the Mafia than the liberal politicians, is the feeling. Tradition has it that a young man “investigates” the family about the time he has his first lay. Some of the great hoods in the city hail from South Philadelphia.
Everyone accepts the drug problem. There’s not much you can do about it. Few accept blacks. On the block where Philip Janison lives, a black family moved in. “Nigger” was painted on their front door. They moved after six months.
Homosexuality in the neighborhood means drag queens. Philip is a problem because he isn’t obvious, but is open about his lifestyle and appears on radio and television shows. Philip’s family is having a tough time living with Philip’s gayness. He claims his father calls Mark Segal “your Jew faggot leader.” Once he pulled a gun on one of Philip’s gay friends and ordered the man out of the house. There’d be far less of a problem if Philip were effeminate. Then you’re not bothered, especially if you grew up in South Philadelphia. You’re considered a freak of nature. Machismo is all.
The streets arc quiet. The weather’s below freezing. It’s early noon. We pass the saloon where Maleno hung out. Philip points out the last house where Felix Melendez lived. The blinds are drawn at the home of Salvatore Soil’s parents.
Evening now, and I’m alone outside the Pullo Funeral Home. There’s a small congenial crowd hovering around the entranceway. I decide to go in.
I bow my head and nod solemnly at the pomaded mortician’s aide at the door. He gestures for me to sign the Felix Melendez guest book. I don’t. I find a seat near the back of the parlor. The mourners are mostly young girls in mini-skirts, craggy-faced mamas, babies, and teenaged boys with Philadelphia Flyers jackets and acne. They occupy twenty rows of bridge chairs which come to a halt a yard away from an open casket. There’s sobbing. A young girl whimpers and a baby cries and another girl cries and another. Who are they? Friends of Donna Leone? Past acquaintances from the neighborhood center? They make me feel out of place and I am out of place, conspicuous to myself because I shouldn’t be here, somewhat guilt-ridden, somewhat paranoic.
I notice a plainclothesman from police headquarters. He notices me, too, and his eyes hit the floor. Another intruder, I think, thank the Lord.
The place soon fills to capacity. From where I sit, it is difficult to see Felix Melendez’s death-face in the open coffin. There’s a line of fifteen people waiting to get a view. One of the viewers is a repeater. I get in line.
The moving to the coffin is a slow process. Once there, the procedure is to look at the body for as long as you like, then get back to your seat or leave the parlor. Most of the viewers sneak a quick glance. One viewer gazes and prays for what seems an hour. The line in back of me is long.
Now it’s my turn. The coffin is plushed up with white silk-satin. Melendez is clad in a tan summer suit. He is long and lanky. His tie is tied in a tight Windsor knot. His hands are folded across his chest. His hair is sleeked back. The cosmetician has done a remarkable job restoring whatever damage the bullet wound did to his head. He looks like a waxwork of Rudolph Valentino. He sports a half-smile. Or is it a silent snicker?
Enough. My eyes shift to his shoes. Cheap, with those tiny ventilated airholes. Heels in A-1 condition. Big feet. No sign of socks.
Below his feet is a pretty heart-shaped bouquet of white gladioli. Tied to the bouquet is a card. The card reads “Daddy.” That’s all. “Daddy.”
The gladioli and the Daddy card were buried with Felix. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 12, 2020