Leo Adams ca. 1940

Leo Adams, Becoming Visible, and the New York Public Library

In 1992 Leo Adams, a retired Macy's management executive, donated his personal papers to the Stonewall History Project, a collaboration of the New York Public Library and several other cultural institutions in New York City organized to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The exhibit that grew out of the project, Becoming Visible: The Legacy of Stonewall, ran at the New York Public Library's Gottesman Exhibition Hall from June 18 to September 24, 1994, receiving record crowds and enthusiastic reviews.[1]

In a note to exhibit co-curator Fred Wasserman, written at the time of his donation, Leo Adams offered the following assessment of his collected letters:

Dear Mr. Wasserman,

Many years ago I started to save carbon copies of letters which I wrote, thinking that eventually when I was old (I am now 89 years of age) I might use them to help compose such a record as you are apparently engaged in doing.

Individuals thought the letters were amusing and informative at the time. They may still have some such value in revealing the activity and interest currently engaging the gay world when it was quite underground.

If you care to get in touch with me I shall be pleased to show you part of the collection of carbons on hand and possibly contribute a bit to your enterprise.

None of us ever thought the entire subject would be as open and widely discussed as it now is, orally and on record. Just as an instance I should like to mention that the overseas edition of the Manchester Guardian recently mentioned the long sexual intimacy between Laurence Olivier and Danny Kaye. That, even to me, was a surprise, although I recall Olivier acting in "The Green Bay Tree" so naturally.

Yours very truly / Leo Adams[2]


Leo Adams to Merle Macbain, December 15, 1928, page 1

In her preface to the 1998 book based on the exhibit, Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America, Mimi Bowling, then Curator of Manuscripts at the NYPL, wrote:

The exhibition…propelled the continuing acquisition of lesbian and gay collections into a whole new dimension as people began to realize that much of the memorabilia in their attics (and closets) was historically important.[3]

So it was with Leo Adams's letters. Although none of his archive appears to have made it into the exhibit or was reproduced in the subsequent book (he is quoted in the book, however), following the exhibit his papers joined the rapidly expanding LGBT Collections at the NYPL. Adams's papers comprise nearly 1,000 letters and postcards, a few photos, several poetry manuscripts, and a type-script anthology of poems memorializing the death by suicide of a former lover.

Adams donation become part of what Michel Foucault vividly characterized as an "insurrection of subjugated knowledges," which began to infiltrate the shelves of libraries, archives, and special collections in the years following the Stonewall Riots. Foucault described these "subjugated knowledges" as "historical contents that have been buried or masked in functional coherences or formal systematizations."[4]

In the years from 1928–1952, the period covered by the Leo Adams Papers, the "gay world" that Adams's letters reveal existed largely under ground––buried in medical, ecclesiastical, and criminal justice discourses, and masked behind doctrines of inversion, perversion and vice.


Leo Adams to Merle Macbain, December 15, 1928, page 2

This OutHistory exhibit presents a selection of Leo Adams's correspondence in a way that Adams himself might have found both "amusing and informative" had this collaborative, Internet-based platform been as familiar to him as his carbon-copied archive of correspondence. Leo Adams: A Gay Life in Letters treats his papers as contributing to a kind of genealogy of knowledge about the gay past. Foucault defines this genealogy as the "coupling together of scholarly erudition and local memories, which allows us to constitute a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of that knowledge in contemporary tactics."[5] It is coincidental, but nonetheless symbolically meaningful, therefore, that this archive entered the historical record in conjunction with Becoming Visible––a commemoration of the Stonewall Riots––the most visible act of resistance in modern lesbian and gay history.

In 1952 Leo Adams suddenly stopped archiving his correspondence, even though he would live another 43 active and engaged years in his bachelor apartment on East 42nd Street. A few years earlier he had written to his friends Dorothy and Nick Kiley:


"Since the end of the war…I notice that I have given up writing letters. I used to enjoy writing them, and now it seems as though I was either written out or the lack of leisure which I formerly possessed has yielded a guilty conscience about letterwriting instead of productivity. When I see you I shall relate such items of interest or amusement as have entered the ken of this organism during the summer, however, and I trust we will have many laughs." (Leo Adams to Dorothy and Nick Kiley, August 17, 1948.)


Leo Adams could not have foreseen the coming revolution and the role his personal archive would play in the queer insurrection upon the public record. He was, however, nonetheless prescient in preserving his papers for future generations––sometimes uncannily so. In the second folder of box 2 of the Leo Adams Papers is a typescript anthology of poems––fragments of melancholy verse assembled to commemorate the death by suicide of a former lover. Adams distributed a very limited edition of this chapbook to his coterie of readers, including the artist Wesley Lea, to whom he wrote on the subject:


"I want you to have a copy of Sudden Night. Since I don't know when I shall finally have the money to print it, I may as well get a few copies of it judiciously distributed around so it won't be inevitably lost to posterity…Fifty years from now, if a privately printed copy is rediscovered in the New York Public Library, I should love to have prominent speculation in the magazines and newspapers as to just who this could refer to."(Leo Adams to Wesley Lea, June 21, 1944.)


"Sudden Night"
by Leo Adams 

Adams got it pretty close: Becoming Visible, the exhibit that brought his papers, including his memorial to "R.C.," into the New York Public Library, opened on June 18, 1994––almost fifty years to the day since he wrote that letter, and a little more than a year before his death at age 92.

His New York Times obituary states that Leo Adams "was honored by a request from The New York Pubic Library for copies of his correspondence covering many, many years which are now available to scholars via the Library's 'new state-of-the-art storing facility, cataloged on the globally available research libraries information network'." [6]

This OutHistory exhibit honors Leo Adams's wish that there be "prominent speculation" about the contents of his archive (if not in the magazines and newspapers, then here in this twenty-first century medium). It contributes to making much of the relevant content of his letters available not only to scholar-researchers, but also to LGBTQ laypersons around the globe with an interest in our cultural heritage.



  1. The New York Times reported that, on the Saturday before the Stonewall 25 march down Fifth Avenue, the exhibit received over 5,000 visitors, exceeding the record set the previous year by the library's Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. David W. Dunlap, "Library's Gay Show Is an Eye-Opener, Even for Its Subjects," New York Times, September 6, 1994.
  2. Leo Adams to Fred Wasserman, Sept 8, 1992. Leo Adams Papers, New York Public Library (hereafter cited by name and date only).
  3. Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman, Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Penguin Studio, 1998), x.
  4. Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France (New York: Picador, 2003), 7.
  5. Ibid., 8.
  6. New York Times, July 23, 1995.