The untold history of gay Richmond during the war.
The three Richmonders we interviewed, now in their late 70s or 80s, decline to be identified by name. But they relate colorful stories of life long before gay liberation, and of how they wove their lives into the fabric of the city.
Their stories illuminate the Richmond of 60 years ago that is at the same time familiar and surprising the city is the same as the one we know from history, but the perspective sometimes varies. They express the range of human emotions from youthful giddiness to bittersweet memories. They offer another view from the greatest generation. Edwin Slipek Jr.
YOU'RE IN THE ARMY NOW
I was 21. We were sitting in the living room and President Roosevelt came on the air: Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Daddy turned to me and said: "You'll be going to war." I'd remembered my father always saying that if you live in America if this country is worth living in it's worth fighting for. I said: "If everybody goes, I'll go." Mama started crying.
I volunteered. On March 16, 1942, I was sworn into the United States Army. I had two weeks basic training at Camp Picket [near Blackstone] and was selected to do recruitment and induction for the state of Virginia. I moved to Richmond and lived at 1130 W. Grace St. in a beautiful home. I had my own room and a private bath. The Army paid for it.
The Belgian Building on the Virginia Union University campus was opened up for recruiting. I was head of interviewing. There were 500 to 600 men a day, from farm boys to bank presidents, from high school dropouts to college professors.
There were some gorgeous men but you can't print that! I had to interview them for background information, things like if they were killed, who would they leave their estates to. It gave me the most marvelous insight into human nature. I never knew that people could be so detached from their families. One recruit told me he hadn't seen his mother in 15 years. Another had never met his father. I was amazed at how estranged people were from their families. That upset me.
You have never seen such a unified front as during World War II. People could not do enough for the armed forces: We were fighting to save the country. When I'd go home, people would run up, hug me or want to buy me a Coca-Cola.
Back home in Kenosha, in high school, we had a downtown hangout. There was a tall, slim, Italian fellow named Sammy. It was 1942 or '43 and he went to Milwaukee for a pre-induction physical. Later, I ran into him at Joe's Caramel-Corn downtown. "I'm 4-F," he says, looking me straight in the eye. "I have a nervous stomach." With that, I reeled around and thought I'd die laughing. Who'd ever thought of such thing?
Then I was called up for my pre-induction physical. I was 4-F. I had a nervous stomach. I was called back a second time. And yes, I had a nervous stomach.
I was in the service for three-and-a-half years. The war was progressing and I was called in and told that I had served the Army well: I could choose wherever I wanted to go infantry, quartermaster, whatever. Well, only an idiot would choose the front line so I asked what was available in the medical field. I was assigned to the First General Hospital, a 300-bed hospital associated with New York's Bellevue Hospital. Most of the doctors were from Park Avenue with patients like Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and Sonja Heine. I went to Taunton, Mass., for training. We were due to go overseas and I said, "Sign me up! When you're 21, honey, you want to travel." In December 1943, I left for Europe.
We set up in London first a 3,000-bed hospital. In 1946 there were 56,686 patients. We were attached to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
I had the most marvelous social life you've ever seen. I had an apartment in Mayfair. My best friend was a straight, married man named Mel. His wife worked back in Washington, D.C., for Secretary of War Henry Stimson, so she always knew where we were located. Mel and I were close. We went everywhere to Fleet Street shopping and weekends to Richmond, Brighton and Liverpool on a rail pass. Everywhere you went there were Yanks.
Mel and I were walking past No. 10 Downing Street one day and out stepped Winston Churchill. In a minute, two little girls appeared behind him. As a limo pulled up we called out, "Mr. Prime Minister!"
"Hello Yanks," he replied.
"Who are those two girls?" we asked.
"They are the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret."
As his car rolled away, he gave us the thumbs up.
It was in a London antiques shop that I met Ernest. He owned a fleet of antique shops all over England. He said, "Stay for tea." A maid served tea and crumpets. Being wartime, you couldn't get eggs or ice cream, but if you were military, you could get anything. He always had meats and vegetables and lovely desserts: When you've got money you can get anything you want.
He slipped me a note that said, "Come back next Tuesday. I want to get to know you better." I went back and he had the water drawn and the nicest fragrances. I went back every Tuesday.
After D-day we took to the cliffs and bivouacked there for six weeks at St. Marie Anglis, the first town after Omaha Beach. We set up tents. I had the cutest little roommate. Tex and I roomed there for six weeks and wondered why they didn't move us. They had lost us on paper. When they found us, they put us in boxcars and sent us to Paris.
Paris is my city. My executive officer was Adj. Gen. Arnold A. Albright and I started out as his secretary. He said, "If you're going to be my secretary, I'm going to see you live well." He pulled me out of the barracks, gave me a private room with a lamp, private bath and a jeep at my disposal.
I was never issued a gun. I never fired a shot. I was 22 and assigned to a full colonel and put in charge of 1,800 French help cooks, the motor pool and maintenance workers in a small village outside Paris. I tried to keep them all happy. The French were easy to manage since they had all been under Hitler. We had to discipline only two people. One man had been sympathetic to the German prisoners. And there was a woman who hid bags of sugar under her dress. "You cannot steal," I told her. She started to cry, "But all my children are malnourished, they need the sugar." We gave it to her.
In Paris there was a three-storied gay club called Le Beouf Sur la Tris. It had a bar on each floor. There was a lesbian, with straight black hair don't lesbians have less hair than anybody? playing a grand piano. Everybody was there, from shoeshine boys to corporate presidents. Everybody drank gin and tonics, Scotch and waters, or champagne. Everybody smoked Camels, Chesterfields or Piedmonts. It was a tossup whether I liked cigarettes or sex more. If you saw someone you liked, you asked if they'd like to spend the weekend and you traipsed out of there.
Richmond in Wartime
We'd work late until 7 and then eat out at the Chesterfield, The Village, the Metropolitan (which is now The Boss), or the Hot Shoppe downtown.
Back in Richmond there was a beautiful bar called Chasen's. You had to wear a coat and tie. I would wear a beautiful white shirt and a red tie a white coat in the summer. You didn't look scroungy if you wanted to make out. You smiled and made eye contact. I lived with my sister so I always went to their home. Most gay men didn't have apartments. They lived with their families. A lot lived in one room.
The bars weren't important in Richmond. I was never part of the bar scene. People entertained in their homes, and there was the Officer's Club in a big house at Franklin and Belvidere. And at the Jefferson Hotel, where LeMaire is now, there was a restaurant with a porch. But the Capitol Hotel had a gay bar. There was a bus stop on Eighth Street, just outside the door.
One day a straight roughneck came in to get a beer while waiting for his bus. He made some rude remark to an effeminate boy. Well, the effeminate boy had a rough-tough guy, who was a Navy boxer, for his boyfriend. He beat up the guy. "What happened to you?" the straight guy's friends asked him later. All gay boys are not sissies, you know.
They had a great bar in Murphy's Hotel [now the Eighth Street Office Building]. It was the society bar. There was a painting in the bar of Stonewall Jackson entering Winchester during the Civil War. It was a respectable bar during World War II. The CIA had a block of rooms at Murphy's. Foreign guests were often put up there so they could be watched. A number of foreign entertainers and musicians came to the Mosque from Norway or Italy. One night I met a performer at the Mosque and went back to his hotel home. He started sticking tissue paper in the door. "We've got to cover the peek holes," he said. Evidently the CIA had little cameras.
The people and friends we were with didn't worry about homosexuality. A lot went on. You'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to figure it out.
During the war, I was visiting my sister who lived in Richmond, and was taking the streetcar down Broad, past Tantilla Garden [a popular night club] and down Lafayette Avenue. People looked at me funny because I wasn't in uniform, I wasn't in the service. It wasn't an easy situation.
Our first two or three months in Richmond we lived in an apartment with an older lady. It was wartime, there was such a housing shortage in Richmond. The only way you could get an apartment was to pay somebody under the table. We paid under the table and got an apartment on Chamberlayne Avenue.
A friend of mine and I worked together in the A&P. When he went for his physical, he didn't have a suit. I lent him a sport coat of mine to wear. I was always a sharp dresser. He perished in Iwo Jima. I visited his grave in 1964 when I went to Honolulu.
The wonderful thing about Richmond in World War II that was unique was that within a certain radius we had 100,000 troops at Camp Perry, Camp Picket, Camp Lee [see notes] and in the Air Force. On the weekends, when the men got leave, there was no place to go but Richmond. But this community was in no way prepared. Hotels were full. On the weekends, when everyone descended, all the Southern families would take the guys into their homes.
During the war you'd be walking down the street and there would be Red Skelton, who was stationed at Camp Picket. And you'd walk in Capitol Square and see Winston Churchill.
During the war Second Street was the southern Harlem. It was fabulous. There were wonderful black people. I was taken over there all the time and enjoyed beautiful music: There was an orchestra at the Hippodrome Theater. There was beautiful food: The quality of the food was superior. I met important people. There was no ugliness to whites. Now it's all gone and it's a shame.
I volunteered for the Red Cross. It did everything it could. In the parking lot on the corner of Seventh and Grace streets [where Seventh Street Christian Church had recently been demolished and before Thalhimers was expanded on the site] the Red Cross set up the Stage Door Canteen. Named after the Canteen in New York, there was food, music and all kinds of things. Volunteers would find homes that would take the troops in. Sometimes very low-class people would be spending the night with aristocratic families. Sometimes there was a little romancing. Some good women got together with some boys they wouldn't otherwise have ever met.
The salesgirls from Thalhimers would go to the bases for dances and came back saying they'd never had such good a time. Some of the dowagers who entertained these boys in their homes also did well. A lot of soldiers married well. I don't think there has ever been such a mingling of the classes here. All the Yankee boys loved Virginia. Richmonders opened their hearts to the Yankee boys. The Southern people were good to them in ways they hadn't been treated back home.
At Thalhimers, we worked with the government to create displays that educated the public about the war effort. We did an exhibit on what the troops were eating like instant coffee, which had just been invented, and sea rations.
Gas was in short supply. If you wanted gas you drove out the Byrd Field, and always took a soldier with you, and went down a dirt road. Then you made some kind of noise. A line of G.I.s would come out with a 5-gallon can. Nobody said a word, but monies were exchanged. Unfortunately, that didn't last long. When things like sides of beef started going over the fence, things got too large and too messy.
I was a Red Cross volunteer and Virginia Weddell, a wonderful, little plump lady, was the chair of our community chest. What finances the organization didn't raise during the year, she would quietly make up. One day there was a volunteers' meeting at the Mosque, and Governor Tuck was supposed to have come and addressed us. But he didn't show up. After the meeting, Mrs. Weddell announced that since we had all worked so hard, she was going to take some of us to lunch at the Commonwealth Club. We entered through the ladies' entrance on Franklin Street and as I opened the door, Governor Tuck came falling through the door: He was drunk so much of the time. When he saw our Mrs. Weddell he said, "Virginia, now I know where I was supposed to be."
After the War
Eton's was on Grace Street [adjacent to the Grace Street Theater where the VCU police station now occupies the building]. I met Auguste. He was a blonde with large, gorgeous dimples and eyelashes. We fell in love at Eton's. We had an affair that summer. He was killed on a road outside of Richmond. He and some guy were drunk and hit an embankment. His family called me and I was a pallbearer.
I've never really come out. I live undercover. After the war, when we visited my sister, who was married, my father would stand in the window of her house in the West End and watch houses going up all around. He and my brother would go out frequently looking at properties.
My father died in 1952, a year after he bought our house in the West End. He loved it. People always asked me why I lived at home but I thought, why support two houses? People thought my mother didn't want me to get married. I dated one girl, but it was nothing physical.
I've been a member of Temple Beth-El for 50 years, and that's been a big part of my life. There were three groups that raised the money for the temple the singles, the young marrieds and the sisterhood. Each year in the social hall the singles did a variety show. Afterwards, we'd go to the Clover Room or the Wakefield Grill that was quite the place.
I've never hooked up with anybody. Nobody had an idea I was gay. I had hopes things would happen but they never did.
A friend recently asked me, "Are you gay?" I replied, "I'm the happiest person in the world." I'll let her take it any way she wishes.
Years ago on a trip to China, I bought some beautiful white silk pajamas. I thought I'd wear them on my wedding night. They are still in the top drawer.
Things were so much better back then. Ever since Woodstock, everything has been weird. S
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