Apr 17, 2014

Summer 1967: A Boy Named Twilight

I had a recurring dream, or an especially vivid memory, of being attracted to a boy in my earliest childhood, maybe even before I felt the biceps of the bodybuilder on the beach.

A very short house with a tall palm tree out front.  A woman, blond in a flowered dress.  A fat, blustery man.  A girl eating strawberries with whipped cream. A baby. And the boy.

Older than me, but still a kid, and taller, with blond or dirty-blond hair. I remembered his name as Twilight.

There were three main images:

1. We are watching tv in a room with oak panels. I think that a guy on screen is cute, and turn to Twilight for  validation.  He smiles.

2. In a car, driving somewhere: Twilight is sitting next to me in the back seat.  He says "Look at that" and reaches over my lap to point it out.  His warm, tanned arm rests briefly on my thigh.

3. Twilight is trying to coax me into a warm, salty ocean.  He splashes through the surf, yells, "Come on!"  His dark-tanned skin glistens in the sun.  There's a line of white on his back, where his swim trunks have ridden down.

Over the years Twilight grew in symbolic importance, until he became a Harlequin figure, a Jack of Shadows. The smile reveals the existence of same-sex love.  The touch demonstrates that it can be be physical as well as spiritual. And the cry of "Come on!" invites me to embrace its warmth: "don't dream it, be it."

Or was he a real boy that I actually met?

In the fall of 2004, when I was living in Florida, still glowing with the success of tracking down my Grandma Dennis's gay friend from art school, I decided to try my sleuthing skills out on the mysterious Twilight.

1. First problem: we always took the same vacation, camping at a lake up north, in Michigan, Minnesota,or Canada.  I remembered only one variation: when I was 12,  to the Smoky Mountains National Park, where I met  a teenage Indian god.

I called Mom and asked if we ever visited anywhere with palm trees and a beach.

"We went down to South Carolina in 1967 -- just after you were in 1st grade -- you took a bath with your Cousin George, remember?"

"What about a house with a palm tree out front, and a boy named Twilight?"

"Oh, you must mean Twyla!  My friend in high school.  She and her husband moved to Florida, so after we visited your Cousin George, we drove down there for a few days."

That explained Twilight.  "Did they have a son about my age?"

"I don't think so.  Just a daughter.  What was her name...Suzie, maybe?"

2. Then who was the boy? (I still thought of him as Twilight.) My next step was to find Twyla and her husband Bill.

Mom lost track of them over the years.  Their address and phone number from 1967 was no longer valid. But there weren't many people named Twyla in Florida, so I found one -- a student at Florida State -- and emailed her, hoping for the best.

3. The return email: "Oh, you mean my grandmother!  I was named after her!"

Did she have a son who was around ten years old in 1967?

"No, my only uncle was born in 1965."  The baby in my memory.

"Could I get in contract with your grandparents?"

They had both passed away, but Twyla gave me the email address of her mother -- Stacey, not Suzie. The girl eating strawberries.

4. "I used to play with a boy from down the street," Stacey wrote.  "He might have come with us to the beach when you were visiting.  His name was Teddy.  I don't remember his last name, but I can tell you where he lived."

5. So I drove three hours from Fort Lauderdale to Titusville, and stood again in front of the "short house" (ranch style) of my recurring dream. It was a shock to see it again in real life.

I walked to the end of the block and knocked on the door of a pink-painted ranch house.  A middle aged man answered -- tall, balding, bearded, husky, wearing a t-shirt advertising the Florida Gators.  He eyed me suspiciously.  "Can I help you?"

"I'm trying to track down a friend who used to live here when I was a kid.  Do you know anyone named Teddy, about fifty years old?"

"That's me. You say we were friends?"

The mysterious Twilight was actually Ted Spencer, a computer systems engineer from Orlando, in town visiting his parents.

Straight: a wife and three kids, one in high school and "quite the ladies' man," the other two "married and out of the house."  And a newborn grandson.

"So you only knew Ted during that one vacation when you were six years old?" The Wife asked as we lounged in the pool in the back yard.  "He must have made quite an impression on you!"

"You have no idea!"

Twilight grinned and hugged her affectionately.  "Haven't I always told you that I'm an unforgettable character?"

The uncensored version of this story is on Tales of West Hollywood.

Seven Brothers: Homoerotic Rowdiness in a Finnish Sauna

I'm not a fan of the Kalevala, the Greatest Work of Finnish Literature: it's completely heterosexist, all about gods searching for wives.

But the Second Greatest Work is about seven guys alone in the woods. What's not to like?

Seven Brothers (Seitsemän veljestä, 1870), by Aleksis Kivi, is about guys who are perfectly happy living alone on their farm near Toukola.  They are rowdy, crude, and given to practical jokes.  They like to hunt and fish and get drunk and hang around nude in the sauna.  But then they discover that they must be civilized: they must learn to read, which will result in being confirmed into the Lutheran Church, which will result in wives!

I heard that often enough while growing up: "Your childhood will end, and your real life will begin, when you find a wife."

Faced with a vision of their fun ending, definitively, at the wedding altar, they rebel.  They light out for the territory and build themselves a house in the wilderness of Impivaara, where they can continue to be rowdy and crude and play practical jokes, and hang out nude in the sauna.

There are perils: they fight a giant bear and wild boars. There are hardships: farming is tough; their house burns down, and they must rebuild.  But in the end, they prosper.

Actually, after ten years in the woods, they return to Toukala, join the church, and get married (except for Simeoni, who stays single).  You can't hold out forever.

But no one remembers the civilizing.  The images that stick with you are the seven guys in the woods, being crude and rowdy, needing no one else.

There have been many film versions, two operas (by Tauno Martinnen and Launas Armis), and a ballet (by Marjo Kuusela).  Some versions, such as the 1989 tv miniseries by Joukku Turka, make Simeoni gay, but really a gay identity isn't necessary.  The whole work revels in the homoeroticism behind male bonding.

Sal Mineo: The First Gay Teen Idol

I saw Sal Mineo for the first time on January 2nd, 1971, on an episode of My Three Sons. His character, Jim Bell, tries to convince college-age Robbie Douglas (Don Grady) to run away with him for a life of freedom and adventure.

Since I was already convinced that Robbie liked boys, not girls, in spite of his marriage to Katie (Tina Cole), it was easy to see Robbie trying to choose between heterosexist "normalcy" and embracing the wild passionate love of men for men.

But I didn't realize at the time that Sal Mineo was gay in real life, or that Don Grady knew it, and didn't mind.

Born in 1939, Sal was only sixteen when he starred as Plato, the gay-coded kid who develops a crush on James Dean's Jim Stark in the Boomer classic Rebel without a Cause (1955).

When James Dean died two weeks before the premiere of Rebel, he became a myth; Sal Mino lived, and had to negotiate the tricky terrain of being gay and a teen idol in the 1950s.

Except for his role as the aggressively girl-crazy Angelo Barrato in Rock, Pretty Baby (1957) with John Saxon, he selected covertly homoerotic projects: his characters mooned over a teen gang leader (played by John Cassavetes) in Crime in the Streets (1956), and fell in love-at-first-sight with an ex-con (played by James Whitmore) in The Young Don't Cry (1957).  Even in the Disney Western Tonka (1958), his Native American bonded with a horse rather than a girl.

In 1957, Sal started a musical career, but his records charted poorly, in spite of teen magazine acclaim.  He was a competent performer, and staggeringly handsome in a field where looks were everything, and he might have become a prominent musician, except for the rumors that were emerging in the yellow press.

To establish himself as heterosexual, Sal made the rounds of Hollywood hot spots with teen starlets, and he began putting his barbell-toned physique on display in every performance.  His screen characters became heterosexual, but their practices were oddly organized around triangulations.

In The Gene Krupa Story (1959), drummer Gene Krupa (Sal) goes to New York along with his best buddy Eddie Sirota (teen idol James Darren, soon to star in Time Tunnel) to make it big in the Roaring Twenties jazz scene.  Gene gets a girlfriend, then a wife, Eth (Susan Kohner), but Eddie does not; he is perfectly content to be a third wheel, making do with an occasional sultry look.

When Gene is boy-toyed by a fast-track jazz club singer, it is Eddie, not Eth, who feels betrayed: "Those girls meant nothing to me!" he exclaims, as if it is his friend Eddie, not Eth, who requires an explanation.

After many heart-to-hearts and admonitions, both Eddie and Eth tire of Gene's self-destructive boozing and partying, and leave, then return for a reconciliation.  The requisite fade-out scene shows man and woman walking off into hetero-domestic bliss, but it is clear that Gene has a more intimate, passionate, and permanent relationship with Eddie.

During the 1960s, Sal demonstrated his talent as a serious dramatic actor in Exodus (1960), The Longest Day (1962), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), but the rumors about his sexual identity barred him from major starring roles.

Unless he played aggressively heterosexual characters -- and displayed his physique in multiple shirtless, underwear, and nude shots, as in  Who Killed Teddy Bear (1965).  His muscles eased the suspicion of audiences who thought that gay men were all frail, wispy things.

The rise of gay pride in the 1960s made Sal increasingly comfortable with his identity, so just before Stonewall, he dropped the heterosexual facade, announced to the world that he was gay, and began looking for same-sex romance.  He dated a number of celebrities, including (according to rumor) Don Johnson and Bobby Sherman, before settling down with After Dark model Courtney Burr.

And he returned to roles that were more overtly homoerotic, on stage as a prison rapist in Fortune and Men's Eyes with Don Johnson (and, for a brief period, former Dennis the Menace Jay North), as a gay jewel thief on SWAT Team (with Christopher George), and as a gay burglar  in P.S. Your Cat is Dead.  

Not to mention that episode of My Three Sons.

On the night of February 12, 1976, he was stabbed to death outside his apartment after surprising a burglar.

He left a lasting legacy as one of the first out Hollywood stars.