Language and Self-Representation

"It's a gay whirl we live in."

––Leo Adams to John Westwood, January 21, 1934[1]


Among the many remarkable features of Leo Adams's letters is the way they map the evolution of the language of self-representation among gay men through the second quarter of the twentieth century. For example, as early as 1934, Adams uses the word 'gay' ambiguously, but with clear homosexual connotation.[2]. By 1939, he is also using 'gay' to denote homosexual with no apparent double meaning.[3] The letters excerpted below contain a variety of references to gay male sexuality that register the shifting linguistic terrain as 'pansy,' 'fairy,' and a variety of code words and phrases eventually give way to 'gay' as the dominant term.

1930: Oscar Wilde and "Letting One's Hair Down"

Dear Leo,

I still await with palpitating eagerness the 18-page letter that you have promised me. I imagine that it will be something in the nature of an epic––a soul-exposing, world-defying “human document”––and I am asking in advance for the publication rights in Boston. Upon receiving your MS I will Fanny Butcher it something like this:

"Leo Adams, a small town boy who made good in Chicago and went to New York to let his hair down has just aroused the interest (to say nothing of the passions) of his contemporaries with one of the boldest American literary efforts since Eddie Guest he could write poetry. His story will live in the anals of literature.

"Working with a modern metre, a Washington Square setting and a limited vocabulary, he carries us back to the daze of Greece when Socrates went blind with passion at the sight of the limbs of a youth and when all a young boy had to do to be successful was to get under a good man and work his way up.

"Though sadly hampered by the English language's notorious lack of synonyms for the capital "I", Mr. Adams reinforces his style with the sincerity of his belief in himself and savors it with a sensuality so austere that one is led to believe that he himself is more staid than stayed with.

"His purple interludes are at once reminiscent of Oscar Wilde and Frank Harris. He is not, of course as Wilde as Oscar but neither is he, on the other hand, as Frank as Harris, though if sufficiently Harrised he might go Wilde.

"If left alone, this young man will go far but we doubt if he will find his way back." (Merle Macbain to Leo Adams, July 12, 1930.)

1931: "Temperamentals," Male Clerks, "Rough Trade," and the "Twilight Aristocracy"

Dear Merle,

Yourself and Mr. Denney are the two who know what it is to be temperamental. K. K. and Ross do not know that side of my life at all. I maintain, however, that most geniuses are a little mixed up when the time comes to ejaculate...

The best astrologist amused me by omitting all reference to my love life. And you know how these people usually expand interminably upon one's love life. I brought the subject up, and she delicately stated that my affairs would be decidedly unconventional and "without benefit of clergy". If anything, I am more masculine in appearance and actions than I was in Chicago. (Leo Adams to Merle Macbain, March 8, 1931)


Dear Merle,

Inasmuch as I am working at Macy’s, I could appropriate the approach of the salesclerks. Whom I hear daily – Something in a pot? Something in a paper napkin? But no, I want to give you something in a pan. (Leo Adams to Merle Macbain, March 22, 1931)


My dear Leo,

You were right about the flower shop proprietor. I stopped in there the other day and he went into his song and dance about putting on a little party etc. I intimated that I associated with the “twilight aristocracy" and was still unseduced. I meant to discourage him but he was still talking about the party when I left. (Merle Macbain to Leo Adams, July 28, 1931)


My dear Merle,

Edward tells me he expects to see you this week. Keep your brother away. I think he's rough trade, and Edward doesn't know anything about such things. I notice in a Broadway rag, the Brevities, that Clasby is still dragging widows and old maids to Seven Arts Club discussions. I think it is true that many of these gatherings have been really amusing. They were to me. (Leo Adams to Merle Macbain, November 29, 1931)

1934-1939: Butterfly Men, (More) Store Clerks, and the Emergence of 'Gay'

Dear John,

It was the same little girl who called my attention one Saturday afternoon in May to two young men who were apparently celebrating their honeymoon and feathering their love nest. Among the crazier things in the department has been a huge cactus about three inches wide and three feet high which I named the "cock-tus", a pronunciation which has given rise to ribald laughter all during the winter, and these two darlings bought this as an ornament in their home. Carlotta would wait on them, of course, and it kept her quite busy running to me to repeat their conversation and getting in back in time to miss practically nothing. It suddenly occurred to me, and I was pleased to inform first Carlotta and then the whole basement, that apparently these young men had finally found something with a thousand pricks on it. (Leo Adams to John Westwood, July 23, 1934)


Dear Merle,

Edward Denney arrived in New York November 12th with fifty cents and sailed for Europe on the Berengaria December 9th. He will return about the middle of January, with an inexpensive gift for me. The first five days of his sojourn in New York were in my somewhat narrow and therefore extremely intimate bed. Thereafter he occupied a room, and when he was not in this room he was going about, with the net result that he captured the butterfly passion of one of these queer people. This one was going to Austria for the winter sports, and out of the sheer goodness of his heart, persuaded Ed to accompany him as far as Paris. Two days before sailing, Ed came to the store for a little chat, in which he stated he had definitely decided not to become a whore, the life being too uncertain. (Leo Adams to Merle Macbain, December 39, 1934)

This reminds me that in my department we sell honey bells for canaries, and a customer recently walked up to one of my male clerks and said: "Have you honey balls?" He was so sweet. (Leo Adams to John Westwood, February 4, 1935.)


Dear Wesley,

Within the next two weeks it is quite likely I shall be going to East Orange for a drink at a bar and dinner. I have a friend who lives there (not gay, but with whom I discuss things freely) whose name is Byron Conklin. He lives at 160 Prospect Street with his mother. She would probably join us for that drink et al. Would you be interested in joining us? (Leo Adams to Wesley Lea, December 31, 1939)

1944-1951: Camp Style and 'Gay' at the Threshold

Dear Wesley,

Because of course they [Dick Dillon and his fiancée Kit] must meet the artist who painted their picture and asked me to invite you to cocktails with them at the first opportunity. So will you keep this in mind when next you're here? At the time, Kit's brother, Roy, also wants to meet you – whether you sell him the blue picture of not, I guess. He's gay. So was Dick until he met Kit. They are all in the twenties except me, so don't expect old fogies when we are together. (Leo Adams to Wesley Lea, September 6, 1944)


Jesse just came in and brought up his new album – "Kiss Me Kate" and we are listening to it. The music and lyrics are very gay. (Dick DuPre to Leo Adams, March 8, 1949.)


Dear Bill,

My engagement Wednesday night was to attend a Wine & Food Society tasting of brandies and liqueurs. It was a thoroughly enjoyable occasion – a gay group and much wit along with the excellence of the liquids. (Leo Adams to William Giles, March 27, 1950.)


Dear Leo,

When you arrive back in town you will be all tired out and I am sure you won't want to have your tits hanging over any stew pot getting something to eat for you self so I will hold that night open for dinner with you. Wont that be gay? (Tommy Adler to Leo Adams, May 9, 1950.)


Dear Aunt Louise,

I do want to see Member of the Wedding with Ethel Waters. I think that would be very gay to see.

Lionel is now playing in St. Louis. I think he will be there for 2 weeks and I have to be there for one day next Wednesday so I may see him. Am not tooooo anxious so maybe I wont. I will go over to the 'Entre Nous' though. I guess you remember the gay spot don't you. I like St. Louis vr vr much.

Let me hear from you soon Leo, and if you have an extra old Cue send it along to me please and I will do you for trade when I get there.

Love from the country, / Polly

(Tommy Adler to Leo Adams, May 10, 1950)


[Frank] Monaco will be there [at a champagne tasting], and so will Vreeland, Crawford, and our new gay and giddy friends, Frank Fay III and his wife. (Leo Adams to Dick DuPre, November 10, 1950.)


Dear Dick,

...My own vacation will begin the night of August 17th. Exactly what I will do and where I will go is still indefinite, but I expect to spend some time on Cape Cod or around New Bedford before Labor Day brings me back to Manhattan. Vreeland and some amusing friends – a married couple, but gay – also expect to be on Cape Cod when you're there. Just drinking and driving, I suppose. (Leo Adams to Dick ?, July 23, 1951.)



  1. Leo Adams Papers, New York Public Library. Hereafter cited by name and date only.
  2. See Leo Adams to John Westwood, January 21, 1934.
  3. See Leo Adams to Wesley Lea, December 31, 1939.