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James Gruber

James Gruber, Mountain View, California, December 28, 1976

 

Introduction: Gruber was one of the founding group of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles, but unlike several of the others, he had had no previous experience as a political or social activist.  He provides a good sense of the excitement that the Mattachine discussion groups generated in the early 1950s, the sensation that it was something entirely new, a break from the fear and the secrecy that so surrounded the lives of gay men.

 

Interview:

Side #1A

Christopher Isherwood lived in rear house behind Evelyn Hooker. Gruber and Steve [Konrad Stevens] met Hooker through Isherwood - Hooker told them about meeting.

Stan Witt not a member of Mattachine, but very involved. Bob Hull and Chuck Rowland came “as a set.” Meetings already under way when Stim [?] first meet.

Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, & Harry Hay were former CP, thrown out - “the seed of how the whole thing began…terribly ironic . . . an open secret”

“almost immediately realized that it was a major effort . . . they were self-consciously trying to start a group and bring people in who thought along the same lines.” “a sense of justice” attracted Gruber.

Major problem for Gruber at time - “trying to recover from trying to evolve as a person in a climate of such repression.”  

“The whole idea of standing up and announcing that you were a homosexual seemed to be so daring, it was beyond what we dared to do. . . . that was the ideal. There’s where we were heading. We were aiming to create the kind of climate, of atmosphere, of total freedom. It didn’t mean unrestricted freedom . . . the idea of dignity, the right to make a choice and not to feel that you had to hide as a result of that choice.”

Harry “the ringleader” “He took himself so seriously.” He proposed groups meeting at homes. “an awful lot” of discussion groups [DG].

Chuck - many of the qualities of Harry - “not afraid to take over and tell everyone what to do.”

“forever trying to find himself…I always had the feeling he had almost gotten there but not quite . . . but he was the strong one.”

Talking incessantly: “all of us had known a whole lifetime of not talking, of repression. Just the freedom to open up…really that’s what it was all about. We had found a sense of belonging, of camaraderie, of openness in an atmosphere of tension and distrust.”

“Such a great deal of it was a social climate. A family feeling came out of it, a non-sexual emphasis…a brand new idea. Just that is what kept the organization going.”

Approach similar in DG:  “the idea of joining together and sharing: so many people were just petrified of the government getting a list. That’s why anonymity.”

“leadership qualities primarily and genuine interest”- led to Guild membership - that kind of person would want to get more involved.

Dale Jennings case - “pivotal.” Harry - “his eyes lighting up . . . finding something we could pounce on and use . . . the thing that made it so effective was the very fearfulness that we were fighting. Everybody was just scared of his own shadow.”

“so much instruction from Harry about what we would say, how we would use it . . . something concrete. There’s somebody who finally had the courage to stand up and be counted.”

“all word of mouth . . . that was the strength of the organization. That’s what drew so many people into it. It tended to make them less fearful. There was no roll of names.”

ONE Magazine - “a spin-off. It came out of a discussion group, but Dale got put in charge of it.”  

SIDE #1B

1953 convention: “we were aware that Communism had become such a burning issue. We all felt, especially Harry, that the organization and growth was more important than any of the founding fathers.”

“It had grown beyond our control and it had reached the point where we had to turn it over to other people, and there was no guarantee that they would continue with what the organization started, but we couldn’t help it.” 

Many continued in new Mattachine - feeling that “that was the best way we could help.” Remembers Dale and Harry getting into a fierce argument about the Convention - almost came to blows. About the Constitution [HUAC speech?]

Soon after Convention, Stim[?] moves out of Norwalk house, back to LA. Social ties continue.

Harry dropped out like “a martyr, for the movement’s best interests. He considered himself the prime target.”

“a sense of personal calamity. It was more than just sadness.”

SIDE #2A

Gruber - had responsibility for Discussion Group.  Also responsibility to see that it would grow, then split. “spontaneous suggestion.”

The role of the leadership - “it did seem spontaneous” “pretty quickly” more DGs than the 7 could run. That’s when they began to get lieutenants. “it got unwieldy” – leaders with ideas of their own - but Hay also felt “handpicked.” But it wasn’t primarily the leaders who were creating dissension.

Mattachine Foundation: meant to calm uneasiness and questioning of who was in control. “I was going to meetings all the time and I was the least busy.” “it was like a seedling that grew and took root and had direction.”

Southern California - “least likely spot…perhaps because of the repression being so great. That’s certainly what we were selling.”

Bars: different kinds of gay bars.   Dives and pick up bars.  “almost no body contact because that’s what they could nail you for…even on a verbal level.” 

Homosexual Minority - Kind of “a party line” “an identity”  “finer clay heresy” – people who drag in all the great homosexual achievers - homosexuals superior to hetero majority.

SIDE #1A – Additional Notes

Claims he and Stevens found out about Mattachine via Isherwood via Hooker who was doing research. He and Stevens were members of a motorcycle club. Eventually Bob, Chuck, Gruber, and Steve live together in Norwalk.

At time, much stigma attached to communism. Standing joke that Harry, Bob, and Chuck were former CP members - that’s how the whole thing started. “an open secret”

Realized almost immediately that he’s getting involved in a major effort. Self-consciously trying to start a group. Attracted out of a sense of justice. Harry and Chuck more interested in organizational structure rather than philosophical. Whole idea of standing up and proclaiming homosexuality was beyond what anyone dared to do. That was the ideal, what they were heading toward - of total freedom, but not unrestricted or abused freedom.

Harry- the ringleader; took himself so seriously. Proposed little groups meeting in private homes.  “Terrified” Gruber – “seemed like a plot that was basically political, that would lead to communism.”

Anonymity and leadership central. Whole organization structure based on Harry’s ideas - assumed it came from CP. Lots of Communist terminology used. – just being familiar with those terms made one suspect. (like knowing gay terms) “what am I getting into?” feeling.

Harry “hard to approach”. Bob and Chuck honest. “trying to do something socially constructive.”  Irrelevant that it’s based on Communist philosophy.

An awful lot of DGs. Gruber says he wasn’t much of a participant - didn’t talk much in group situations - others could go on for hours.

Gruber in college (had been in Marines) –youngest of the group. Steve working.

Chuck - quite a pundit. Could take over, tell people what to do. But also “very human, a pretty good egg”. Tattoed.  Always trying to find himself, almost getting there but not quite 

Talk, talk, talk - all had known a lifetime of not talking, of repression. Finally a sense of belonging, camaraderie in an atmosphere of tension, distrust.  Talked a lot about history.  But so much of it was “social” - Quite a “family feeling” developed - “non-sexual emphasis” a brand new idea - what kept the organization going.

SIDE #1B – Additional Notes

Approach similar in DG’s - not psych or therapy approach, just joining together and sharing. People petrified about government getting list - anonymity.

“Leadership qualities” and genuine interest led to guild membership: that kind of person would want to get more involved. 5th order worried that members would find out that leadership was communist.

Jennings case - “pivotal.”  Harry’s eyes “lit up” finding something to pounce on, to use.

Dale “ate it up”- “the chosen martyr” “he loved every minute of it.” Elaborate instructions from Harry.

All word of mouth - that’s why ONE Magazine so important. Also helped get people in - made them less fearful, not too public. ONE came right out of a DG - but a spin-off; independent, though Dale in charge of it.

1953 Convention: communism had become such a burning issue, necessary to reorganize -feeling that growth more important than the founding fathers - real element of sadness, an end of an era - had grown beyond their control, had to be turned over to others even though no guarantee that they would continue in the same direction. Claims that founders did remain active in new Mattachine.

Gruber got busy in school, but Steve continued being active, going to meetings. Going to Occidental College.

Harry considered himself the prime target of the anti-communism. 

More than just sadness - a sense of personal calamity. Required a lot of energy to build Mattachine. Gruber felt this least since he was least emotionally involved.

SIDE #2A – Additional Notes

Rudi Gernreich - played a “very passive” role - there because he felt he should be.

Bob Hull: didn’t take the strong role that Chuck Rowland did, but was certainly “in there” “sardonic”; with Gruber, would often make sport of it. “a comedian”, but not a clown. Gruber had ongoing responsibility for DGs. Also had responsibility to make sure it grew, split etc. Would split when it became physically awkward.

Leadership unobtrusive - give sense of spontaneity, while at same time directing. Organization structured in such a way to make leadership unobtrusive.

DGs: quickly more than 1 per person - reason for guilds. Once it began to grow, became unwieldy. New leaders would have ideas of their own - anonymous leadership made it hard to control. Lieutenantsfelt both handpicked and special, but also powerless. Dissension coming from the bottom.

Mattachine Foundation especially designed as a front, to solve the problem of anonymous leadership.

Estimates 50-100 DG’s. Had responsibility for 1 DG and parceled others out. Going to meetings all the time - yet he was the least busy of the leadership group. “Obviously fulfilling a need.”

“Whole thing could have collapsed and been aborted if it hadn’t been handled as well as it was.” 

Gruber had had no previous political experience. Not a native of southern California. But grew up there - least likely spot for a gay movement to begin - perhaps because the repression so great.

Many people at the DG’s had had trouble with the police. “far more apt to be hostile” toward the police. Homosexuals as a minority: Harry and Chuck pushed it - a party line - importance of having a rep at DG’s: to keep them in line. e.g., “finer clay”- Homosexuals are better: definitely considered heretical - “the finer clay heresy”

Leadership was to develop a body of common thinking. Harry and Chuck would tend to whip their groups up, to take control. Gruber much less pushy.

Most exciting when someone new came: would pick up a kind of electric feeling - people had let their guard down, handing their burdens over to group. People felt secure, opened up, say things that were never said aloud - newcomers would be totally seduced by it: “they’re all just like me.”

Chuck and Bob didn’t talk much about their CP experience, but did talk about communism. 

SIDE #2B

Weren’t bitter about being kicked out of the CP - felt it was logical of CP; were of no less allegiance - party had to do it. Problem was that the society was wrong: Need for Mattachine - to change society’s attitudes toward homosexuality.  Pulling together masses of homosexuals only secondary to social change. Felt they were doing both the Party and Society a good turn.

Experience was both exciting and terrifying to be working so closely with such experienced, thoughtful, and mature men.

Dale and Bob were lovers at the time.

Mattachine also had large parties and social events. Short perfunctory meeting followed by fun -sometimes 100 or more. Underplaying of stereotypes - “wrong to camp”. Undignified.