George Axler (1928-2005), Interviewed June 10, 1994
by Marc Stein. Copyright © Marc Stein 2009. All rights reserved.
I interviewed George Axler in June 1994 in his apartment in Greenwich Village, New York City. Several months earlier, he had written me a letter after he saw a reference to my dissertation research (and my interest in doing oral history interviews with gay and lesbian Philadelphians) in the newsletter of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at City University of New York Graduate Center. As the interview below indicates, George Axler was his stage name; his legal name was George Fisher.
Axler provided me with the following biographical information:
Date of Birth: 28 December 1928
Place of Birth: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Place of Mother's Birth: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Mother's Occupation: Delicatessen owner and housewife
Place of Father's Birth: Romania
Father's Occupation: Delicatessen owner
Religious Background: Jewish
Class Background: Middle Class
1928-1950: Philadelphia (2001 S. 7th St., South Philadelphia)
1950-51: New York City and West Palm Beach
1951-53: Erie, Pennsylvania; New York City; and Greenville, Pennsylvania
1953-56: Moylan-Rose Valley, Pennsylvania
1956-59: New York City; Liberty, New York; Owings Mills, Maryland
1959-94: New York City
1937-50: Delicatessen Worker
I subsequently corresponded with Axler in 1997, 1998, and 2000. He died in 2005.
Marc Stein interview with George Axler, 10 June 1994. Transcribed by Marc Stein
MS: I thought we could start by talking a little bit about your family, your early years, your childhood in Philadelphia. I know you were born in December 1928. So why don’t you just tell me a little bit about your family?
GA: Well my life was a difficult life as a child. I was a very unhappy child. And a lot of it had to do with the fact that I always felt that my mother and father were a poor match for each other. They were distant relatives, not blood relatives, but through marriage. But my mother was an unfulfilled woman. She could have and should have done something more with her life, which she never did because she came of that generation where she felt she had to be a good wife and a good mother. And she always felt that she was a victim of life. And she proceeded to have four children, one miscarriage. But it was a contentious relationship between my parents. They were always arguing. And she always complained about having to work in the family business and argued with my father about him demanding that his children work in the family business.
MS: And why don’t you explain what the family business was and where it was?
GA: My father had a grocery and a delicatessen store on the corner of 7th and McKean Street in South Philadelphia. And my father was well-known and his business was well-known. People traveled from great distances in Philadelphia to come to our store because my father had high standards and the food we had was really super. We had the best corned beef. And he made his own homemade kosher pickles. He went down to Dock Street to buy those lovely cucumbers. And he crushed the garlic and we all participated. The family all participated. We made our own potato salad and coleslaw and everything.
MS: What kind of neighborhood was South Philly where the store was when you were growing up?
GA: In those days it was mixed ethnically. I don’t know what the exact proportion, the actual ratio of the numbers were, but it was a mixture of colored people, as we called them then, African Americans today, and Jewish and Italian. And for the most part we lived very peacefully together, all three groups.
MS: Did all sorts of people come into the store?
MS: Italians and Blacks?
GA: Oh sure, sure. The Italian people loved our delicious cold cuts, our corned beef and pastrami, the kosher hot dogs loaded with garlic. It was savory and it was fragrant and it was delicious.
MS: Your father emigrated from Romania?
GA: From Romania.
MS: And your mother was born in Philadelphia?
GA: My mother was born in Philadelphia, yes. But she spoke Yiddish at home because her parents were poor and uneducated and they never learned English. They just knew a handful of words. And they fractured English.
MS: Where were they from?
GA: They were also from Romania, my mother’s parents. They came over in 1901. So there was a whole generation, from the time that my mother’s parents came, between their arrival and my father’s arrival. He came in 1921.
MS: I see. So where did you fall in the order of the children?
GA: I’m the second child born, but the first born son. So my father was just delighted when I came along. That bris was really something.
MS: Do you remember it?
GA: I=d rather not. No, no, I don’t. But I was told about it, of course. You know the first born Jewish boy is really an outstanding one.
MS: I was a first born Jewish boy.
GA: Were you? Well you and I were both very lucky. Because my brother always carried a chip on his shoulder and always felt like he got the short end of the stick because he was the second born son.
MS: I see. You said before that it was an unhappy childhood.
MS: Could you say something more about that?
GA: The arguing between my parents and my father’s old-fashioned idea that the children and the wife all had to work in the family business. We had to. We had no choice. He said on several occasions, "I got married so that I could have help in my store." And he said, "I had children so that I could have more help in the store." And I could never understand it. Not only could I not forgive him, I could never understand that. To marry and create children to have help in the store: that was his thinking. So all through my childhood my dream was to get out of the goddamn store and do something with my life.
MS: And you had said before the tape went on that you think you knew from an early age that you were...
MS: ... that you were gay or sexually different somehow?
GA: Oh sure. Always, always.
MS: What are your earliest memories of that?
GA: Well for some peculiar reason I used to love to imitate Mae West when I was about five or six. Entertain my friends in the neighborhood.
MS: Would you dress up?
GA: No, no. I never went in drag. I went in drag once when I was nine years old on Halloween. I actually put on a dress and went out on McKean Street. And walked down to the end of the block and came back. That was the one time in my entire life when I was in drag. And I apparently got it out of my system in that one day.
MS: But you still were imitating Mae West? You mean performing?
GA: Many times. I just put my hand on my hip and mimicked her voice.
MS: Where had you seen her?
GA: Movies! That was my world. That was my life: the movies. And I kept scrapbooks. I bought the movie magazines and cut out the pictures of all the movie stars and pasted them in my scrapbook. I had two scrapbooks. And I made a friend who lived down the block, Izzy Newtinski, and he also had a scrapbook. And we used to compare our scrapbooks of pictures of movie stars.
MS: Why do you think you were so attracted to the movies and to Mae West?
GA: Well Mae West poked fun at sex. She was in a class by herself. There’s never been another person like Mae West. She was a lot of fun. She found the humor in sexuality.
MS: But to enjoy her at age five was pretty precocious, I would say.
GA: I was always precocious. This may sound strange to you, but as young as I was, I had a solidity to me. I had a kind of wisdom about me. So much so, and it became apparent at such an early age, that both of my parents would turn to me when they would have arguments. When they couldn't deal with each other, they would pour out their troubles to me and turn to me for advice. And I was supposed to be the one who was going to straighten things out for them.
MS: So enjoying Mae West, enjoying the movies, that alone must not have said to you that you were gay.
GA: That alone, that was not it. That was not it. I had crushes on my classmates. There were boys that I remember to this day. And I am sixty-five years old now and I remember the boy I had my first crush on. I remember his name and I remember exactly what he looked like.
MS: Tell me about him.
GA: I’m getting sentimental [crying]. Murray, Murray Deshevski. He looked like an angel. He had blue eyes and blond wavy hair. And it was a snowstorm. There was a snowstorm and I went to his house, in a snowstorm, pretending to do homework with him. And it wasn't that urgent. I could have waited 'till the next day. But I just loved being near him. I just loved being near this Murray.
MS: How old were you when that happened?
GA: Oh I don’t know, seven, eight, nine, somewhere in there.
MS: And so he really stood out? There weren't other boys as well?
GA: Oh yes. There was an Italian boy, Anthony Busillo. His father had a barbershop in the neighborhood. And he was just a fine person. There was something about him. It wasn't so much that he himself was so sexy, but he was somebody that I wanted to be around. And I enjoyed his companionship. What they call male-bonding now.
MS: Did you play with girls as well when you were a kid?
GA: I liked girls. I liked girls a lot, but they were my buddies. My way of relating to females was that they were my buddies. And the crushes were toward the boys, but the girls were my buddies, my pals.
MS: So did you play with girls more often then?
GA: It’s not that we played.
GA: I never played. I was always a loner. I didn't play. For one thing, I was terribly obese. And also I did not have good physical coordination. People ridiculed me. They teased me because of being fat.
MS: Is that right?
GA: Yeah. They ridiculed me all the time. I learned to live with that.
MS: Also because of physical uncoordination?
GA: Well I tried to participate in sports. And when I would try to throw a ball or swing a bat to hit a ball, it was so effeminate that they all ridiculed me. And I wasn't trying to do it. I wasn't trying to be effeminate. It was not a conscious, deliberate thing. It was just the way I moved.
MS: Do you remember what they called you?
GA: Sissy. I was sissy, fatty, and Jew. Those were the three words that I was always called.
MS: Is that right?
GA: Sissy, fatty, and Jew. Yeah.
MS: And other Jewish boys, I assume, called you?
GA: No, never by other Jewish boys.
MS: But they would call you the first two things? Sissy and fat?
GA: Well they didn't all. They weren't all so cruel about it. The kinder more sensitive ones didn't call me any names, but they looked at me kind of funny because of the way I moved. There was more than that. I was always kind of prissy. I always spoke very good English. And I lived in a rough neighborhood. South Philadelphia was a rough and tough neighborhood. There were murders in our area. People killed each other. There was crime. But I was always the guy who spoke perfect English. I would not hear of this street talk.
MS: Did your family tease you in any way? Or let you know that something was wrong with what you were doing?
GA: Not the sissy part, no. But in fact we discussed among ourselves other gay people around us, kids in school and older young men in the neighborhood. And we called them fairies.
MS: Is that right? You discussed with whom?
GA: Within the family group. "So and so is a fairy." My brother and I and my mother. Not my father so much. He was embarrassed by the whole subject. I could always talk to my mother, but I couldn't to my father.
MS: But your mother and brother would call other boys and young men...
GA: Fairies. And that was the word we used and knew for a gay person.
MS: And which sort of boys? Which sort of young men?
GA: I don’t understand your question.
MS: Which boys would get singled out as being fairies?
GA: The ones who were obviously effeminate.
MS: Was it that?
GA: The ones who you could look at and you knew that they were gay because they were swishy. Now I’m convinced now, after all these years of life and being a gay person who has accepted his gayness, that these people who were obvious were not trying to be effeminate. It’s just the way they were. They were not camping. They didn't know any other way.
MS: Were any of these guys your friends?
GA: No. But this Izzy Newtinski who I mentioned to you who also had scrapbooks of movie stars? I was convinced that he, too, was gay and was going to be gay. And I was amazed when, at the end of one summer, he used to go away to summer camp every summer, and he came back at the end of one summer when he was a bit older, late teens or so, and he says, "I met a girl there," and he says, "I think I’m gonna' marry her." And he married her. And they had children. And I felt betrayed that my friend, Izzy, got married to a woman and became a father. I felt betrayed. This person who I had this rapport with, my fellow, I just felt a closeness to him because I felt, "Here is another person like me."
MS: Can you tell me something about the evolution of your thinking about what you were or how your sexuality was developing? Do you know what I mean?
GA: Not really. No.
MS: Well I don’t imagine at age seven you woke up one day and said, "I’m gay." You must have come to that realization.
GA: It was gradual, yes. But even when I first came to New York in 1950, as I told you, I was not actively gay yet. And the impulses were just rising in me.
MS: So what was your sense of it then as a child and as a young teenager? You knew you were attracted to men?
GA: Yes, well, in my story, which I’m giving you a copy of, it’s really about me. I describe it as feeling girlish and fluttery. And I just let it go at that. But I didn't know that I would get to the point where I would make love to men and do what other homosexual men did.
MS: I see.
GA: I didn't know that I would ever get to that point. All I knew was how I felt toward them and about them.
MS: O.K. So why don’t we move on then and talk about your teenage years? Did anything significant change? You were still working for your father’s store? Going to high school?
GA: Adolescence was hell. It was living hell. It was the worst time in my entire life.
MS: How come?
GA: It was puberty, the glands, my rising sexuality, my first nocturnal emission. I wrote about that in that story, too. It scared the hell out of me. And I was completely unprepared for it. And it came when I was ten years old. I was shaving when I was eleven. It came to me so early. In fact in school they pointed me out. We had what we called hygiene class in which they prepared the boys for their adolescence. And the teacher pointed me out as the one that they were all gonna' look like. And they all screamed, "No, no, no, no, no." >Cause I was very fat and I had hairs growing out of my face and a mustache when I was eleven years old. And one of the teachers came up to me in the hall one day and says, "When are you going to start shaving? When you have curls?" I don’t know how else to describe to you how I felt other than that. Well I guess I can't. It was a terrible turbulence going on inside of me. And I thought I was going to go crazy. I really thought I was gonna' lose it.
MS: Did you start dating girls?
GA: No. No. There were a couple girls that I liked, but whenever I looked at a girl and I thought how pretty she is and how nice she is, there was so much turmoil inside of me in connection with admiring the beauty of a girl. It was always more like a mental or a cerebral admiration. But never that fluttery inner excitement that I felt toward boys.
MS: You mentioned before that there were people in the neighborhood who your family would regard as fairies. Were there women that your family would have regarded as lesbians? And was there a language for that?
GA: No, no. Never, never. The subject of lesbianism never came up, though I had a schoolteacher when I was in elementary school, Miss Webb, and she was a bulldyke. Anybody, no matter how naive they were, one quick glance at this woman and you know she was a bulldyke. Without knowing anything, Miss Webb was a bulldyke.
MS: Was she called names?
GA: Well they snickered and they whispered things under their breaths, people did. And we would say, "Oh she’s so masculine. Oh that woman is a very masculine woman." And let it go at that. That's all. We didn't know. We didn't connect her with another woman. We didn't ever use the word lesbianism. Like my mother would never say she was pregnant when she was pregnant. You never said lesbian, you never said pregnant.
MS: I see. So any sexual experiences with other boys in your adolescence.
GA: No. I did not have my first sexual experience until I was twenty-three years old and at my first acting job in Erie, Pennsylvania.
MS: So in your teenage years, then, were there particular boys you remember having close relationships with? Even if they weren't sexual?
GA: I don't know how to answer that. You say close relationships. None of my relationships were really close. I was always pretty much a loner. I'd see them in class or maybe if I saw them after class it was to do something, to talk about homework. But I just loathed sports and I never went to any sporting events and I never went to any social events with other boys. I just stayed at home.
MS: And did you ever encounter any gay men. I’m sure when you were a teenager you started traveling around the city a little bit more.
GA: But I didn't. I didn't. I stayed at home and worked in the store and stayed in my room upstairs. The apartment was above the store. It was a very insular life.
MS: I see.
GA: The store downstairs, the apartment upstairs.
MS: So there were no places in Center City?
GA: No. No.
MS: Now you mentioned a story before about the baths. Maybe here would be a time to tell that story.
GA: Perfect time. My father, being from Europe, loved to go to the Turkish baths. That seems to be a European thing. And that's why bathhouses are dying out as bathhouses. They have health clubs where they have steam rooms and showers.
GA: But years ago, when I was growing up, back in the '30s and the '40s, there were still several bathhouses around for the people who came from Europe who enjoyed going there. There were two different kinds of steam rooms, one where the steam filled the room and you couldn't see and the other where it was a dry steam. And there were massage tables.
MS: Was there a particular one that your father would go to?
GA: There was the Camac Baths on Camac Street.
MS: And what was the intersection? Was it Walnut and Locust?
GA: Yes, yes, right around that area, Center City. And it was a small building, a two story building and basement. That was the whole thing. And it was divided in the center. One half was for women; one half was for men. You=d go up the center stairs and you go to the left, it was the men; you go to the right, it was the women.
MS: You said it was very European. Was it also very Jewish or all sorts of Europeans?
GA: No, no. The people around the Camac Baths were not Jewish people, but most of the people who went there were.
MS: Were Jewish?
GA: Yeah. Very European. If they weren't all Jewish, they were of Europe. They had European backgrounds. And my father used to go there fairly often. And he liked to take his two fat little boys with him, Georgie and Herbie. And they loved us there. The guys, the masseurs, got a big charge out of Herbie and Georgie because we were two roly-poly little boys.
MS: How young were you when you started going?
GA: Oh, six, seven, eight, nine. And we enjoyed it, too. We enjoyed it very much, Herbie and I did. We really did. But to me, I loved being in the room where the men were all being dried down. They would flip sheets and flip towels, wave them like giant flags. And the men were all so relaxed [crying]. It was like a camaraderie. It is hard to explain.
MS: You didn't experience that anyplace else?
GA: No. Their voices were so melodious and they were so happy to be with each other, men together. And they were all so relaxed and so happy and so at peace with themselves and the world.
MS: What sorts of classes of people, would you say? It was mostly middle class?
GA: Middle class, yeah. Very poor people didn't go there. They were mostly middle class. I don't think upper class would go there, no. They would have had to be middle class.
MS: And all white or mixed racially?
GA: All white. No Black people allowed, absolutely no. I went back to that Camac Baths many years later. They were still there. And I walked in there and they said, "Oh, we're a private club now and you have to join the club." And the man at the desk said to me, "You know it’s to keep out that certain element."
MS: And he meant Blacks?
GA: He meant Black people, of course.
MS: When was that?
GA: Many years later. I don’t remember the exact years, but the building was demolished and does not exist anymore.
MS: So you were describing an incident?
GA: There was a room up on the second floor. And if you'll recall, there was a basement where the steam rooms and the massage tables were. On the first floor, the street level floor, there were other massage tables where they gave you alcohol rubs and wintergreen rubs and they had a sunray room. You had to put goggles in there. And you would lie on your stomach for one minute and lie on your back for one minute and get the hell out of there or else you get burned. Then the entire upper floor was like a dormitory. And it was very dark, very, very dark with just a little red light at the door. And there were just rows and rows of beds. And people went up there to take naps. And my father used to like to do that. That was part of the routine when you go there. After you got your rub-down and everything, you just want to lie down for an hour. He took me up there with my brother once and I wasn't sleepy. And I heard sounds somewhere not far from us. But it was too dark to see anything. But they were slurping sounds. And I shook my father. I poked my father and I said, "Daddy, what’s that?" And he lifted his head and he listened for awhile and he smiled in an embarrassed way and he said, "It’s nothing. Just don’t pay any attention to it." And that was it. I knew what it was. I figured out what it was.
MS: How did you figure it out?
GA: Instinctively. It was two men sucking, one man sucking another man or maybe two men sucking each other at the same time. But they were men on a bed sucking. And I figured it out. Nobody had to tell me. But I was very, very young, less than ten.
MS: So you kept going back there?
GA: No. And I'll tell you why. When I reached puberty, I started getting erections. And I didn't dare walk around naked there and see those men with me having an erection. I didn't care if they had them, but I didn't dare walk around not ever knowing when I was gonna' get a hard on. I would have been too embarrassed. In fact, that’s why I call my story The Man in the Overcoat. I started wearing long overcoats because I didn't want people to know I had hard-ons.
MS: But there were no other places in your young years or your adolescence where you ever encountered anything like that? Not in a movie house, not in a restaurant?
GA: No. There was still a burlesque theatre on Arch Street in Philadelphia in my childhood: the Troc.
MS: Is that right?
GA: Yes, but we weren’t allowed. You had to be above a certain age to go there and I was not allowed to go in there. I was too young.
MS: The Troc’s still there. It may be different, but there’s a club called the Troc on Arch Street.
GA: Oh no, this was not a club. This was a theatre.
MS: No, it’s in an old theatre.
GA: On Arch Street? I can’t believe it’s the same one.
MS: In fact, I've heard that it was an old burlesque house, now that I think about it.
GA: And it's still functioning?
MS: I think maybe.
GA: I can't believe it. I can't believe it.
MS: I guess around this time World War Two started.
GA: Yeah. Well this turbulence of my adolescence, when I thought I was going to go crazy and I got sick and I had indigestion and backaches and my mother started taking me to all kinds of doctors. And I dropped out of high school when I was sixteen. Dropped out of school. I couldn't tolerate it any more.
MS: Did any of the doctors ever suspect what was going on?
GA: Well one of them asked me, "What’s bothering you? What do you want to be? What do you want to do?" I said, "I want to be an actor." And he says, "Well then go be an actor. Go to New York and become an actor." I was repressing so much.
MS: Did the war have much of an impact on your life?
GA: Oh yes. I remember World War Two vividly. Vividly. My cousin was engaged to a guy who didn't come back. She had a whole trousseau and she had to give everything back to his family. And I was a little too young. I was too young to be drafted. But I was perilously close to being drafted. But that did happen to me in 1950.
MS: Later on, right.
GA: It was still there.
MS: So you dropped out of high school. So that would have been in about '44.
GA: I was sixteen years old.
MS: Did you continue to work for your father?
GA: My father and I made an agreement that I would work in the store. Not have to pay any rent or for food, but he would pay me a small salary. And I would put that money aside in the bank, the salary he paid me. And I would save it up and when I had enough money saved up and I felt I was ready for it, I would use it to go to acting school.
MS: So your parents were O.K. with that career choice?
GA: Yeah. Let me put it this way. My mother said, "Do whatever you want to do that makes you happy as far as a career goes." My father would have liked all his children to remain with him in the business. But he saw after several years that we didn't really like it and we were not going to make it our life's work.
MS: I see. Now I don't know if you were aware at the time, but in 1948 a Philadelphia publisher came out with the first Kinsey report on male sexual behavior. Did you have any awareness of that in 1948?
MS: I know you told me before that in 1950 you moved to New York. You had saved enough money? Was that it? And you could then leave Philadelphia?
GA: Well I had gone to acting school in Philadelphia, by the way.
MS: Oh, is that right?
GA: There was a school. The Hedgerow Theatre had a school in Center City, Philadelphia, on 18th Street.
MS: Hedgerow was at 18th and Market?
GA: Between Market and Chestnut. GA: The Fuller Building.
MS: Tell me about the school. What did you know about it and what were your experiences there like?
GA: Well I was very fortunate, I feel in retrospect, to learn about that school. I didn't even know that there was a Hedgerow Theatre in Moylan-Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, which is midway between Chester, Pennsylvania, and Media. And they had been there since 1921 or 1923. It was like an institution. And I learned about it in that time when I was out of high school and I was working in my father's store. I started making inquiries about if there is a good acting school in Philadelphia? Because I had come to New York to audition for a school in New York, but I decided not to do it after I learned about this Hedgerow Theatre School in Philadelphia. Also because I could live at home and not have to worry about paying rent in a furnished room anywhere. But the Hedgerow Theatre started the school about the time or immediately following World War Two. The government was paying G.I.'s. They were paying the bills for their education. And there were many young men who wanted to be actors. And many of the students at Hedgerow Theatre School were G.I.'s. Ex-G.I.'s. So I went and I met Jasper Deeter, who was the founder of Hedgerow Theatre and the head of the school, who was in his early sixties at the time.
MS: Could you spell his name for me?
GA: Jasper Deeter. J-A-S-P-E-R Deeter. Just as it sounds. D-E-E-T-E-R. He’s a very famous man. Books are written about him. He was a personal friend of Eugene O=Neil’s and he acted in some of Eugene O=Neil’s first productions of his plays. So anyway I met Jasper and we had a lovely brief interview. And he liked me. And I was impressed with what he had to say. And I went to the school. And I learned an awful lot about acting, but I learned as much about being homosexual, about being comfortable about being homosexual, while I was a student at the Hedgerow Theatre School.
MS: And how was that? What happened there?
GA: Because Jasper was a gay man. And he had a lover of many years, Dan Chrispman. And it was just a fact. Jasper was gay and he had this male lover. But it was more than that. There were other men in the acting company. You see, the Hedgerow Theatre, which was out in the country, had a resident company. There were like twenty, twenty-five people who lived there all the time. You might want to call it an artists' colony. But I don’t like that expression because that smacks to me of dilettantism. And there was nothing remotely dilettantish about Hedgerow. Hedgerow was very serious and dedicated and they did wonderful plays.
MS: Do you remember your first encounter with homosexuality in the school?
GA: I didn't have an encounter, but I saw some very effeminate young men and some men who were less effeminate but who were obviously still gay and who were comfortable with being gay. And I found myself being aroused by some of them. And I made some kind of feeble half-hearted attempts at propositioning them. But I didn't follow through and they just kind of laughed it off. And nothing ever happened.
MS: Do you remember what you said?
GA: Well I blushed and I flustered and I fumbled. I didn't know really how to proposition anyone. And besides, I just didn't know how to go about it. And apparently, the ones who I approached were the wrong ones who didn't find me attractive. So nothing ever happened.
MS: And were these other people in the school or were they actors?
GA: They were students, other students, young people like me.
MS: You weren't attracted to the actors from the company?
GA: From the company? No. No, because some of them had attachments. Some of them had lovers. I didn't know much about their personal lives. There was a connection between the actors and the company, but I lived in Philadelphia. The school was in Center City, Philadelphia, and the theatre was a long way off. It was out in the country. You had to take a train to go there.
MS: Without necessarily naming any names, can you tell me something about some of the other gay men in the theatre school?
GA: It's so many years ago. We're talking about when I was in my late teens and I'm sixty-five years old now.
MS: I guess the reason is that each person I interview potentially can open a window onto maybe ten or twenty other people just by giving a little story or something that you remember about them. So I don't know if any incidents stand out.
GA: There were no actual incidents that came across as being gay. Jasper said on several occasions that as an acting teacher he had spent a lifetime teaching women how to act feminine and teaching men how to act masculine. The people who gravitate to acting, to studying acting, the women are usually masculine-acting and the men are kind of soft and feminine-behaving. And if you're going to be an actor and you're a man, you have to act like a man. And if you're going to be an actress and you're a woman, you have to act like a woman.
MS: So were there also lesbians in that school?
GA: Yes, oh yes.
MS: And was that your first encounter then? 'Cause you were saying before that you had never encountered lesbians.
GA: Yes. It was my first encounter with lesbians, except for Miss Webb when I was in elementary school.
MS: What do you remember thinking about them? Were you drawn to them or were you repelled?
GA: I was not repelled by them. But I was a little intimidated by them. They were a little scary. Some masculine women are aggressive and hostile and hard.
MS: You found them to be that way?
GA: Some of them. Others were very nice to talk to, but their whole image was so manly, so mannish, that I didn't quite know how to relate to them.
MS: Now is that because they were women or because you didn't like masculine behavior?
GA: I didn't like masculine-behaving women. I always liked soft, gentle women. Always did, still do. But I'm so old and I've met so many lesbians and I like them. And I've learned not to be put off by their behavior, by masculine-acting women. But when I was young I was. They made me nervous.
MS: In the school, did you ever see any kind of physical affection displayed between two women or two men?
GA: No. No, I never did.
MS: But you knew that some of the people were in couples?
GA: The couples I was talking about earlier were not students at the school. They were the company members at the theatre in the country. The students in the school, they might have had lovers, but I don't think I ever met their lovers who were not students at the school.
MS: I see. Any places in Center City during those few years, '48, '49, '50, that you ever began going to?
MS: Rittenhouse Square?
GA: I was not looking for sexual gratification with anyone yet. I wasn't ready for it. I was in my late teens and I wasn't ready yet.
MS: But I mean any places like the encounter you had in the bathhouse?
GA: No. If they existed, I was unaware of them. That didn't happen 'till I went back to Hedgerow Theatre, 'till I joined the company of Hedgerow Theatre in Pennsylvania. And that was in 1953.
MS: Well before we leave the school, is there anything else that you want to tell me about the school that you think stands out? Or anything about those years?
GA: No. It was a kind of an introduction to homosexuality for me in that I learned to be comfortable around people who I knew were openly homosexual, who were actively homosexual. And I learned to be comfortable in their presence. And not to pity them or think it was shameful. Throughout my childhood I had been taught that you had to feel sorry for fairies. And being a fairy was a shameful thing. But I got over that while I was a student at Hedgerow School.
MS: I see. So in 1950 you decided to leave Philadelphia?
GA: Well, it was time to start my acting career in New York. Go for the big time.
MS: And so you moved up there.
GA: I moved to New York. Yes, yes. And I first came here with one of my classmates who I had a crush on. And he came here, too. And even then I didn't have the courage to approach him and he was my roommate. And I had the hots for him. And I didn't have the courage to let him know. But we talked about sex. We talked about sex, he and I. And he said to me, "When you're ready, you'll know." He was wise enough and kind enough.
MS: Do you remember the conversation? You talked about homosexuality?
GA: Yeah. I said, "I don’t know what I'm going to do about sex." I think I admitted to him that I had feelings toward men.
MS: And did he admit anything?
GA: Well he was just kind and understanding and patient. But he didn't make any approaches to me. And he didn't reject me because I had revealed that to him.
MS: Did he say, though, that he also was attracted to men?
GA: No, no. I don’t think he was gay. I never found out what his story was. But I don't think he was a gay man. Just a kind, sensitive, nice guy.
MS: So what happens next?
GA: In my coming out or in my career?
MS: Well where the two come together, I guess.
GA: Well, my first sexual experience came with my first paid acting job. Because I had always put the two together. I had been telling myself, "When I leave home to become an actor, I'm also gonna' start being sexually active." One, they couldn't be separated. They were related.
MS: Why? Why was that?
GA: I don't know. It had something to do with freeing myself from the family ties.
MS: I see.
GA: The freedom to act, the freedom to be gay. And when I was home, I was unable to. I felt imprisoned. They were too inquisitive. The family was too inquisitive. Well anyway, my first acting job was in Erie, Pennsylvania. And it was not professional, but I was paid. I had room and board. I had a roommate, a young, good-looking guy. And I started approaching him. I started giving him sales talks, pep talks, and he said he wasn't gay, but he didn't know what he was. And he was hemming and hawing and every evening and even afternoons or lunchtime, whenever, any opportunity, I would put pressure on him. And I was still a virgin.
MS: What would you be saying? Do you remember?
GA: That I liked him: "I'd like to do something with you. And I think I want to have sex with you." I didn't know what I really wanted to do. But I propositioned him and I made it super clear. I was the seducer. In my naiveté.
MS: This was 1951, you said?
GA: Yes. Yes. Yes, it was. I guess it was.
MS: You said '51, '52 you were in Erie.
GA: It would have had to be. Yeah, yeah, the end of '51. Yeah.
MS: And what was the theatre? What was the production that you were in?
GA: Oh, I was in several plays. I was there for a few months. And we did several different plays. I have all the pictures. Jerry Stiller was in that company.
GA: Yes. Jerry Stiller was in that company.
MS: So what happened finally with your friend?
GA: With Jack? I propositioned him. I succeeded. We had sex a couple of times. But he couldn't tolerate being gay. And he asked the producer of the theatre to find another room for him. We were put together in one room. And that was at the Y in Erie, Pennsylvania. But while I was living at the Y, there was another man, slightly older, who was a radio announcer, who met me at the theatre. And he propositioned me. He also lived at the Y. And I had sex with him once. And I wanted to have sex with him again because I liked it. But he said, "No. No more. No more." And I felt, "Gee, we had a good time. It was pleasant, it was nice, we both had a good time." Why doesn’t he want to continue? And I never got an answer to it?
MS: Was the Y something of a hotbed?
GA: Yeah. In Erie, Pennsylvania, yeah. Aren't all Y's?
MS: Well what do you remember about that one specifically, aside from your own experiences? Were you aware of others?
GA: No. I don't remember anything about that. I guess people looking. You know, when you're in a Y and it's all men, there's lots of looking out of the corners of the eyes. There was lots of that going on.
MS: Was it just those two men, then, at the time?
GA: Yes. Yes. And that was my first. Then that very same summer, I got my first professional acting job and I joined Actor's Equity and changed my name. And my first summer job was in Greenville, Pennsylvania. And I met a guy there who was active in the Flower Arranging Club of Greenville, Pennsylvania.
MS: Now let me just recall. This was now the summer of '52.
MS: Let me just pick up a couple of details. Why don't we say here, if it's all right, what you changed your name from and to?
GA: Well my real name, the name that I had until I joined Actor's Equity, was George Fisher. And then I had to change it when I joined Actor's Equity because they had someone with that name.
MS: The name George Axler?
GA: No, named George Fisher. That was my father's name, which he had changed when he came to America. His family name was Fishbein. He changed his name to Fisher to be more Americanized. Our family name was Fishbein.
MS: That's my grandfather's name.
GA: Fishbein? I saw the take the way you did when I said that. We might be related. It's possible that we're related. I have Fishbein relatives in Philadelphia.
MS: We'll have to come back to this. So you took the name George Axler. And Axler was your mother's name?
GA: George Axler, which was my mother's maiden name. And that's the name I've stuck with all these years.
MS: Was she pleased with that decision?
GA: Oh sure. Why not? Sure. I was my mother's son. I'm a mama's boy. May she rest in peace. I was always my mother's son. I was very close to my mother. Aren't all gay men close to their mothers?
MS: So Greenville, Pennsylvania Flower Arranging Club? Why don't you go into that story?
GA: His name was Cheever. No, Meeker, Meeker. His last name was Meeker. And he just went crazy over me. And after rehearsals and performances at night, he'd meet me in his car a few blocks away in a dark street. And I'd get in the car with him and we'd have sex in his car. Once he took me to an orgy somewhere in that area, in central Pennsylvania coal mining country, a dreary place to live. I don't know how people can remain in such dreary places all their lives. But we had sex frequently.
MS: Was he a similar age?
GA: No, he was several years older. He might have been in his thirties. And I was just in my early twenties. I was twenty-two.
MS: And how did you meet him again?
GA: He met me by way of the theatre. There's an opening night party. There's always an opening night party. A theatre in Greenville, Pennsylvania? That was big time.
MS: And was the Flower Arranging Club a gay group?
GA: I ask you. How many butch men would be members of a flower arranging club in Greenville, Pennsylvania? Men went bowling and they played athletic-type games.
MS: So you met the other men in the Flower Arranging Society?
GA: No. It was just this one guy. I can't remember his first name. He was a tall, willowy, rather effeminate guy.
MS: So what was this orgy like? How many men?
GA: Oh, it was a house full of gay men. They all came from that area of Pennsylvania. It was a house, a three story house, every room. There were men sucking off the other men. And it was rather wild and I had sex with several people.
MS: And is that what sex was in those years for you? Was it all sucking off? That's basically what all the sexual encounters involved?
GA: There was no anal sex yet then. Not yet, not for me. That didn't come 'till later.
MS: And were the men who you were having sex with, was this all mutual?
GA: No. In those days, I was trade. In those early days I was the young gorgeous one.
MS: So that was true in Erie as well? With the guy you seduced?
GA: No. In my first experience, I was active. I sucked in my very first experience.
MS: What about the other ones?
GA: But there, I was the visiting actor, this lovely twenty-two year old boy from New York. And he wanted to do it for me. And once, more than once, I offered to do it for him and he said, "No, no I don't want it. This is enough for me." He got as much pleasure as he wanted and needed by sucking me.
MS: And the radio announcer? Same thing? Do you recall?
GA: If I recall, I think I sucked him. I think I did.
MS: And then in all the experiences in Greenville?
GA: I was the suckee.
MS: And what was the dynamic there? Because you were the out of towner? Because you were young?
GA: Yeah. I was an actor and I was young, many years younger than he. He might have been in his middle or late thirties. And I was early twenties. And I was a New York person.
MS: Would you do anything for him sexually?
GA: Would I do anything? I offered to suck him, but he didn't want me to.
GA: I was always a rather generous person. I didn't just want to lie back. There was a guy I met when I was at Hedgerow Theatre. This is later. Well are we ready for that yet?
MS: Well let's see if we can move on. Greenville was in '52. I guess each time, between these theatre trips in the summer, you told me you would go back to New York, right?
GA: Always came back to New York. I made New York my home base.
MS: And then it was in '53, you said, that you joined?
GA: I went to Hedgerow Theatre in Pennsylvania and joined the company and agreed to be there two years, but it turned out to be two and a half years. It was the latter half of '53, all through '54 and '55. Two and a half years of my life living out in the country. But I didn't tell you about Robert A. Gibson, who I met in New York before I went to Hedgerow Theatre. He had been the director of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. And I met him here in New York. He cruised me when I was working in a delicatessen store. And we moved in together. I moved in and he was in love with me. And I realized then that a man can love a man, be in love with a man. And I thought I was in love with him, but I later realized I was not. I was his golden boy. And again, he was in his late, how old was he? He was fourteen years older. He was nearly forty and I was in my early twenties. But anyway, I got the offer to go to Pennsylvania. He was offered a job back again with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in England. And he said if I wanted to, he could get me a job doing props for the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company if I wanted to go to England with him. And I said, "No thank you. I want to act." So I went to Pennsylvania. He went to London. And I promised to be faithful to him until I finished my two years at Hedgerow Theatre.
MS: And were you faithful?
GA: For seven months I was faithful, until I was ready to go nuts. And one day, I had a night off and I found myself in Center City, Philadelphia. And I saw two gay men and I followed them because they were obviously two gay men. And I followed them to a gay bar. I didn't know where to go or how to find a gay place in Center City, Philadelphia.
MS: What was obvious about them?
GA: Just by looking at them. They were two gay men. I knew it instinctively. They were not in drag, but they were two gay men. I don't know how else to put it. And I followed them. And they led me to a place called Maxine's. Is it still there?
MS: No, but I know of it.
GA: You know of it. It was there for a long time. And I think it was on, I want to say Camac Street.
GA: Was it?
MS: I think so, yeah.
GA: That's weird isn't it? Camac Street? Remember Camac Street and the Camac Baths?
GA: Anyway. I followed them in there and I met a guy there who propositioned me. He lived in Wilmington, Delaware. And I was off that night and off the next day. I got in his car with him. He drove me to his house in Wilmington, Delaware. If you recall, seven months had passed since I had left Robert, in our separation. And that night and into the next morning, I had sex. I had seven orgasms. One for each month. With Ralph. That was his name.
MS: Ralph must have been surprised.
GA: Well he couldn't believe what he had found. This treasure he had found in this bar in Philadelphia.
MS: So tell me about Maxine's. I want to ask you about Ralph, too, but tell me about Maxine's. What did it look like?
GA: I don't remember much about it. To me, a bar is a bar is a bar is a bar. I never liked bars. I don't drink and I don't smoke. And bars to me are just places to meet other people.
MS: Was it all men or men and women? Do you recall?
GA: It was all men as far as I can recall.
MS: And all white?
GA: Yeah, pretty much. I can't be sure about that. There might have been some Black people. I really don't remember. It was crowded and it was noisy and it was frivolous and lighthearted and it was a gay bar.
MS: What was the average dress?
GA: Oh, jackets and ties. That was long before the days, and no facial hair.
MS: And any clothing that would be a sign of people's homosexuality? Colors or articles of clothing?
GA: No, no. There was nothing. No. Nothing like that. Nothing like that. You just had to kind of sense it. Look at people and kind of have an inner voice. Your intuition tells you, "That was a gay person."
GA: There were no colors. About clothing, there were no little red ribbons. There was no lavender.
MS: You just felt.
GA: You just sensed it. So I started kind of a friendship with this Ralph in Wilmington. And he would drive in to pick me up at Hedgerow once in awhile. And we'd get together and have sex. But then one day, casually, after we'd been seeing each other several times, I said to him, "I’m waiting for Robert to come back from England." And that hit him like a ton of bricks. Waiting for Robert? He was having visions of us going on forever together. And I just casually mentioned, "I’m waiting for Robert." Well Robert came back and I had a day off and I came into New York to see Robert and we met in that little hotel near Washington Square. It's still there. And Robert was a changed person. He called me Duckie. That was the clue. That was the key word, when he called me Duckie. It's the way we'd use sweetheart or honey-bunch. It's frivolous, lighthearted, it has nothing to do with long-term deep, love relationships. I don't know what he had been doing for those seven months or eight, however long. Well I realized that I was foolish to have waited so long and to have been faithful to him so long and that he had changed. He was a guilt-ridden person. He became a Catholic priest when he was sixty years old. He was a religious man. And he was very much in the closet and deeply guilt-ridden about being gay. And he was a big, a large, heavy-set man, but obviously gay, gay to the core. From the outside deep to the center of his being he was a gay man. He designed the sets and the scenery and everything was so feminine about him. But he was a big, heavy man with large limbs and large hands, but very, very gay. And he could not ever make his peace with it. But we remained friends until he died just a few years ago. We kept corresponding. People do that with me. And we'd stay in touch. He was my first lover. I wasn't his first lover, but he kept in touch with me because I was special to him.
MS: So should we go back to Hedgerow? What was happening at the theatre? Were there other things?
GA: Not sexually. I mean it was a great period of my life and a fertile period as far as my acting career went. I was very proud of many of the things I did there, acting wise.
MS: And were there a lot of gay men and lesbians in the company?
GA: I didn't know the sexual orientation of all of them. There were some. There were some who were bisexual. There were some who were gay. And there were some that were heterosexual. There were lots of interesting anecdotes I could tell you, but they're not directly related to homosexuality. But there was one man who was one of our finest actors and directors in the company. He was married to a woman and when he acted, he came over effeminate. And yet he himself was anti-gay. And he was unsympathetic to men who wanted to be out, openly or outwardly gay. He didn't put up with it. He didn't like it. It made him uneasy. And he was marvelous actor and a lovely human being, but the whole thing about being openly gay disturbed him.
MS: Were there openly gay men in the company?
GA: Yes, but in spite of it all, they were always discreet, even Jasper himself, the head of the theatre, who founded it, who was openly gay. Now his first lover died. And he got another younger lover. When he was in his sixties, he met someone named Richard, who he met in Florida and who stayed with him 'till Jasper died. And even though he was gay and everyone knew he was, there was none of this camping or carrying on or silliness or frivolousness.
MS: So when you say that they were openly gay, what do you mean by that?
GA: I mean the fact that he lived with another man and that there were no women in his life. That's what I mean. I mean the relationships were homosexual, same-gender relationships. That's all I really mean.
MS: So what about it was open then?
GA: Well that everyone knew it.
GA: That it was no secret. Now one of my favorite teachers was Rose, Rose Schulman. Now she’s dead so I can talk openly about her. Rose had a voice like a man. And she walked in a rather masculine way. But she was not gay.
MS: I wonder if you remember any of the lesbians who were in the company when you were there?
GA: We had an actress who actually left before I joined the company. But I saw her act. I saw her play Saint Joan in Shaw's Saint Joan. Her name was Kate. Kate Rieser. And she was a magnificent actress. What a powerful actress she was. And I don't know if she was gay or not, but the feeling I got from the way she spoke and moved, her overall behavior was that of a gay woman. She gave up acting, by the way, and became a teacher.
MS: Did you find in those years, in the early '50s, that the more masculine gay men tended to be interested in the more feminine gay men? Was there that dynamic working at all? Or some different kind of sexual dynamic?
GA: You see in order to answer any question about homosexuality in the '50s, I can only use the people I knew at Hedgerow as a criterion.
GA: Because they were the only ones I knew.
MS: And so what was the case for them?
GA: It didn’t matter too much. And see, when we were out at, I called it an artist’s colony. I don't like the expression, but we were out in the country. We were kind of isolated. And some nights, we'd find ourselves lonely and there was this so and so nearby and we had a little free time and we'd fool around. It was just a little fun. It didn't matter too much about one being more feminine or one being more masculine. It was just playing.
MS: And what was it that particularly drew people to you?
GA: Well nobody in the company was drawn to me sexually. I always had to kind of go to others. And they kind of laughed at me. They usually laughed at me. The other people in the company who I propositioned sexually were amused by the fact that I came on to them sexually.
MS: Why were they amused, do you think?
GA: See I just wanted to do it for the sake of fun, of having fun. And they didn't find me sexually attractive.
MS: Mmhmm. Well who then were you drawn to? Any particular types of men?
GA: I didn't have any one particular type that I was drawn to.
GA: I didn't have an ideal. To me, sex was just having fun with another person.
MS: I see.
GA: And I didn't have an ideal type.
MS: Did you ever go back to Maxine's or any of the gay bars when you were out there?
GA: In Philadelphia? No. No.
MS: Did you ever come into Philly to any kind of gay hangouts? Restaurants?
GA: No. No. Because I don't like those kinds of places.
MS: Rittenhouse Square?
GA: No. Well I had been there. I'd been there for acting jobs. As recently as 1976 I was there for an acting job at the University of Pennsylvania at the Annenberg Center. I did Awake and Sing with Richard Gere as my son. And I used to walk around the campus and look. And I was at Rittenhouse Square and I'd look and I'd see, but I didn't have any activities, any encounters. But by that time I had gotten quite a bit older, you see, and I was the older generation. Too many years had passed.
MS: Well, how about the '50s? Is there anything else about gay Philadelphia that you could tell me from any of your trips to Philadelphia?
GA: That’s what's your whole thing is about. No. Everything revolved around my existence at Hedgerow. Because once I finished my stay at Hedgerow, which was at the end of 1955, when I finished my stay at Hedgerow, I returned to New York and my life then was in New York or acting jobs in other places with New York as my home base.
MS: Now your family had moved from Philly, right, you told me before?
GA: They only stayed in Florida for four and a half years and returned to Philadelphia.
MS: I see. And did your family ever come to know that you were gay?
MS: When was that?
GA: They met some of my male lovers. I brought them home.
MS: Was that at the time while you were at Hedgerow?
GA: Let me see. Which ones? They met Robert.
MS: They did?
GA: They met Robert, yeah.
MS: So that was very early.
GA: Well they came into New York a few times on visits, my parents did. And they met these men. And they knew. We didn't talk. At first I didn't talk openly about them being my lover, that these men were my lovers. But it finally came out because I had a very bad experience here once. I took in a young boy as a roommate and he robbed me. And it was during that time that I had to go to the police and I was very, very upset by the whole experience. And my sister got involved. My younger sister was here. And I wanted somebody near me to give me support. I didn't want to be here alone. I was so shaken by the whole experience. And it was at that time that my family learned about my being gay. I have a funny story to tell you about my family, about this gay thing. You see, my younger sister who is fourteen years younger than I, came to New York because she and I were very close. And she came here when she was in her early twenties. And she was still a virgin when she came here. She was the same age as I was when I first started becoming sexually active: twenty-three. And I said, "It's time for you to start sleeping around. I mean you've been through school. You got your master's degree. Start having some fun." And she took my advice. And she learned that she liked to do oral sex. And she liked this. Even though she was twenty-three and very bright, she was very naive and childish about her attitude about sex. And she went back home and she told my mother that she was doing oral sex. And my mother was horrified and so was my father. She told my father and they were horrified. And I got a phone call from my father and he said, "Myrna told us that she's having oral sex. And when we told her that it's dangerous, it's unhealthy, you shouldn't do this, she said, 'Oh that's all right. George does it too.'" It was all right for her to do it because her older brother does it.
MS: Right. Had you and she actually talked about it?
GA: Yeah. Oh. we were always very, very open about it.
MS: You talked about oral sex?
GA: Yeah. Oh, everything. We had no secrets, my younger sister and I.
MS: And when did this incident with your family calling you happen? Do you remember? Was it in the '50s?
GA: I don't remember. I'm losing track of the years.
MS: You said she was fourteen years younger and she was twenty-three.
GA: Yeah. She was twenty-three then. What year would that be? She was born in 1943.
MS: So 43 plus 23 is 66.
GA: It's the '60s. We're into the '60s now.
MS: So did you have a confrontation with your parents about this?
GA: On the phone. I was telling them that there's nothing bad about it. Nowadays I can't say that. I said, "There’s nothing wrong with having oral sex with somebody."
MS: And what did they say? Did they say it was O.K. for you, but not for her?
GA: No, no. It was like I was educating him on the telephone, my father. Educating him. And he found it hard to accept that his son and his daughter were doing this thing.
MS: So was there ever a negative word from any family member about your homosexuality?
GA: My older sister, who was three years older than I, was always somewhat uncomfortable about it. My brother, who was two years younger than I, at one point in his life, before he married, had some gay feelings toward someone who was in his apartment. And he called me up on the telephone. We hardly had any contact, my brother and I, but he called me up once from Philadelphia to say, "I had these feelings. I wanted to do something with this guy." I said, "Are you calling me up to ask me my permission to be gay? To be a homosexual?" I said, "I can’t do that. You have to do what you feel you must do. You have to listen to your heart and your mind." So as it turned out he got it out of his system and he got married and he has four children and three dogs.
MS: Did he have sex at any time with this man?
GA: As far as I know he didn't. As far as I know he didn't.
MS: What did you make of it? Just a passing thing?
GA: Yes, yes. Just a passing thing. Just a passing thing.
MS: Did your sister ever say anything negative to you?
GA: My older sister?
GA: Well in recent years she has referred to my lifestyle, which is a stupid word. I don't even know what the hell lifestyle is. If one is born gay and is actively gay all one's life, how do you call it a lifestyle? I live a very simple life here in New York in my little Greenwich Village apartment. I'm quiet, I'm introverted, I don't go to parties, I'm not an activist, I'm not a protester, I don't join groups. It's not a lifestyle. I'm a gay man, period. I was born that way. My glands work that way.
MS: So did she ever say anything negative other than the reference to the lifestyle recently.
GA: Well, in my story, at the time that I thought I was gonna' be called up for the draft in 1950 for the Korean War, my two cousins, who were six, seven years older than I, both said, "Oh it would be a good thing for you to go in the Army. It would make a man out of you." I was hurt by that. They didn’t have to say any more than that.
MS: Can you tell me about Korea? The draft story? We had mentioned it before the tape was on.
GA: I was called up to serve in the draft. But I was determined before I even went for the physical exam that I would not go. That I could not go. That I could not tolerate living in close proximity with a lot of men. That's only one part of it. The other part was that I would not ever go into war. I could not, would not, ever learn to fire any kind of a weapon or kill anybody. It was not in my nature to do that. Could not, would not. So I was determined not to go in, not to be drafted. I was prepared in my mind to tell them, "Oh, I had lower back pains," which I did. My mother took me to doctors and I went to these expensive orthopedic doctors and I had these nervous symptoms of belching and flatulence and I was extremely overweight. And I was prepared to tell them all that. Well they started examining me. You know, da, da, da, da, you next. You're just the body and they do the general physical exam. I started telling him that and he was just not listening. Not listening. And I went through the exam and I had gone through the physical exam and then I see these two men sitting there. Next step, psychiatrists. O.K. I thought to myself, "This is my last chance. If I'm gonna' get out of the draft, I'm gonna' have to tell them that I'm gay." And of course, there was no such word as gay. If there was in 1950, I didn't know it.
MS: Is that right? No?
GA: There was no word gay in 1950. If it existed, I didn't know it. I'm gonna' tell them that I'm a homosexual. That was the word I always thought of.
MS: You knew that word?
GA: Always. How could anyone not know? A homosexual. I didn't think of myself as a fairy because that was a pejorative term.
MS: Where would you have ever heard the word homosexual? Is it what people were saying or did you read it somewhere?
GA: Oh, that was common knowledge. A person who liked his or her own sex was a homosexual.
MS: I see.
GA: It was a word I knew. I'm a smart guy.
MS: Well different people have very different things to say. Some people very much tell me that they were using the word gay in the '40s and '50s.
GA: They were?
MS: Some people.
GA: They're wrong. It didn't exist. Their memories are incorrect. It didn't exist.
MS: O.K. So a question came up on the exam?
GA: There were two psychiatrists. And there was a line of the young men here, a line of young men here. And I went in and first they give you a little form of about six questions. Do you feel feelings of attraction, sexual attraction, to other men? And would you if you could and questions like that. And I wrote, "Yes, maybe. I do feel attractions." And if you were under certain conditions, would you? And I put, "Maybe." "And have you ever done it?" And I wrote, "No."
MS: You said that you hadn't?
GA: I hadn't. That was 1950.
MS: Oh, right.
GA: I was a virgin.
GA: I had never had sex with a man or a woman. My right hand was my lover. So I went into the first psychiatrist. He quickly read the answers to these few questions. And he looked up at me and he said, "Well would you have sex with a man?" I said, "It's possible." I said, "I like boys and men. I've found them attractive." We talked for several minutes and he couldn't make up his mind. He could not make up his mind. And then finally he said, "Well go over and talk to him now." The second psychiatrist. He put me at the head of the line. I went in. The same thing happened with the second guy. He looked at the form. He asked me the same questions. He couldn't make up his mind. Finally somebody from the back of the room said, "Hurry up! Make up your mind! You=re holding up the line!" So he quickly looked up at me and he wrote something down. He handed me the paper, but I didn't have the courage to read it. I didn't want to read it. And then I went to the one person and he said, "You go over there." I went and I went to this sergeant, this real beefy Irishman sitting at the table there, Mr. Butch personified. And I handed him the thing without looking at it, without reading it. And he looked at it and he looked up at me with such loathing, with such a sickening, sickened look on his face and disgust on his face. And he handed it back to me and he said, "You go over there." Like he was so repulsed by what he had read there that there were no words to describe it.
MS: Why do you think the psychiatrists were so uncertain about what to do with you? Was it because you hadn't actually had sex yet?
GA: I guess so. I can't read their minds, Marc. I don't know. They could not decide. I was truthful. And truthful when I said that I probably would if the conditions were right. But I felt nervous about the whole thing. My life was on the line.
MS: What did you think might happen?
GA: That they wouldn't believe me. They wouldn't accept the truth from me and they would put me in the service anyway, which terrified me.
MS: Did you have any fears about being labeled gay?
GA: Yeah. Yeah. I wouldn't want to have records from the government saying that I was a homosexual. I would not want to have the word homosexual beside my name in government records.
MS: How come? Can you say why?
GA: It would be a stigma that I would have to live with for the rest of my life.
MS: So did you get classified?
GA: They sent me one of those. But I got home and my father said, "How did you make out?" And I said, "I don't know. I told them I had backaches and I told them about my indigestion, but they didn't say anything. And they'll send me their decision." I pretended I didn't know. I just didn't know. So a week or two later they sent me a card: 4F. I have the card. I still have that card.
MS: I have a very specific question. While you were at Hedgerow, there was a controversy in Philadelphia about the naming of the Walt Whitman Bridge. Does that ring a bell?
GA: What year was that?
MS: '54, '55. That was when you were there, right?
GA: I was at Hedgerow during '54, '55, yes. I was unaware of it. The big thing that was happening in the world was the McCarthy hearings on TV. And Jasper was glued to the TV set.
GA: Oh yes. He was very involved in that because Hedgerow had problems all through their years of existence, of fighting against the authority figures because they had a lot of trouble during World War II. That was before my time there, but people in the area threw rocks at the Hedgerow van because there were a lot of the company members who were conscientious objectors.
MS: I see.
GA: Some of them were gay, but others just didn't want to go to war. But they were ostracized by the people in the area. And Jasper always was against authority. That's why he founded Hedgerow Theatre in the middle of the country in Pennsylvania and left New York theatre in 1921.
MS: Because he felt the country would be safer?
GA: No, no. It had nothing to do with safety. It was just being under the heel of authority figures.
MS: I see.
GA: Of powerful figures.
MS: So was the theatre caught up in anti-gay McCarthyism?
GA: Well I'm sure that's what bothered Jasper so much and the other men in the company. Most of it was the political thing because the gay wasn't as much in the forefront as the political aspect of it, the communist thing. The gay thing, it was there, we know now, in retrospect. But at the time, I think the gay thing was undercover.
MS: Is that right? So you don't know that you were aware at the time that there was any kind of witch hunt against gays.
GA: No. I was not aware. See I wasn't interested in the McCarthy hearings. I was interested in my acting career and my job at Hedgerow in charge of the food. I planned the menus, bought the food for the whole company.
MS: Can you say a word about what kinds of relationships lesbians and gay men had with one another in your years with the theatre company and whatever else you knew about Philadelphia life? Was there hostility? Was there camaraderie? Was there complete separation?
GA: You're talking about my experience in the theatre there?
MS: In the '30s, '40s, '50s.
GA: It was a working relationship. They were creative people, people who did lighting and costumes and some were actresses. But surely there were lesbians and bisexual women. And we all worked together. But it was the work that was more important than what we did in bed or with whom.
MS: So there was no greater feeling of bonds with the lesbians than, say, with the straight women?
GA: No. None of that entered into it. We were a bunch of dedicated people. We were a group of dedicated people who wanted to do the best theatre we possibly could.
MS: I'm understanding that after hearing you that it was the acting and the theatre work.
GA: More than anything. Putting on super productions, beautiful, great artistic productions. And people's personal lives didn't matter.
MS: You mentioned in your letter to me some story involving Roosevelt.
GA: Oh, Maylan told me that just recently. Did I say Roosevelt? Did I say Roosevelt?
MS: I thought so.
GA: Well he said something about Hedgerow Theatre, but it was Leopold Stokowski, who was the head of the Philadelphia Orchestra during the World War Two years, who said favorable things about Hedgerow Theatre.
MS: I see.
GA: In defense of Hedgerow Theatre, because Hedgerow was going through such difficult times because of the conscientious objector thing. So they were defended. Roosevelt made some kind of remark in which he spoke in favor of Hedgerow.
MS: I see. You also mentioned in your letter something about a Proscenium Theatre?
GA: Oh, for a few years we rented the foyer of the Academy of Music in Philadelphia at Broad and Locust. And I was there at that time. I helped to build the theatre and I acted in some of the plays. And it was an exciting time.
MS: So that was the '53, '54, '55 period?
GA: Yeah, yeah. It was only there for a few years. Suddenly we were in downtown Philadelphia, Center City, Philadelphia. Hedgerow Theatre was and it was prestigious. You had to walk up a few flight of stairs. For older people it was not the best thing.
MS: Was there a favorite theatre hangout to have a bite to eat or to go out after the theatre? Were there restaurants or cafes or anything like that that you recall?
GA: No. Not in Center City. Not in Center City, Philadelphia, no. We all got in our vans and our cars and went back to the country.
MS: I see.
GA: We were country people who came into the city to do our plays and went back to the country again.
MS: Well, anything else you want to tell me about Philadelphia? I do want to save a few minutes at the end for you to at least say a little bit about your life after you stopped going regularly to Philadelphia. But is there anything else about Philadelphia gay life that we haven't touched on?
GA: No, because I was so innocent for so long and I didn't become sexually active until after I left Philadelphia. And then when I returned to the Hedgerow Theatre as a young adult, just the experience that I told you about, following these two men who I didn't know to Maxine's one night and meeting this fellow named Ralph and having sort of a relationship with him. See I was not a bar person. I didn't like the atmosphere of bars. Never did.
GA: And I didn't seek out gathering places with gay people.
MS: And you never went back to the bathhouse or anything like that?
GA: Oh, you mean the Camac Baths? No, I never wanted to. I never wanted to. That was something that I just kind of relegated to my childhood, my innocent, happy days as a child, as a fat little boy, with my brother. Having fun and being with my father.
MS: Well I know it's kind of silly to try to say a few words about the next thirty years of your life after your Philadelphia years. But I don't know if there’s anything that you want to single out by way of wrapping up about how things have changed over the course of those thirty years?
GA: In the gay life?
MS: Well how things changed for you.
GA: How things have changed?
MS: Any kind of final reflections.
GA: For me? Well I’m sixty-five. I mentioned that before and I'm kind of proud of it, to have reached this age. And I haven't died of AIDS. And as far as I know I don't have AIDS. And as far as I know I'm not HIV positive. But I am one of those people who was afraid to be tested. But I am celibate now and I have been celibate for the past couple of years, even though there's still a couple of people around who want me physically. But I really don't want to do it anymore. And I feel greatly relieved to be sexually inactive. It's a relief. It's a load off of my mind and it's a freedom.
MS: Because of the health risk?
GA: That's only one small part of it. It's the whole thing of getting together with people. And the people I meet of my own generation are so unattractive and they're repugnant. I have done some experimenting. I joined groups of people where men get naked and they have sex together in a room. Older men who are gay. And they get together for sexual parties. And it turns me off. It just does. There is no love. It's lust. And lust for people in their sixties and seventies doesn't make sense. It just doesn't. I'd rather do other things with my life.
MS: Did the gay movement have any effect on you, do you think?
GA: Yes it did, yes it did. If the gay movement hadn't happened, you and I would not be talking with this tape recorder on at this moment. I might still have been as closeted as I was before the gay movement if it had not occurred. I read Martin Duberman's book. And I found it hard to understand how he could endure all those years of having psychiatrists tell him. Did you read his book?
MS: Yes. Cures, you're talking about?
GA: Cures. How a man of his intelligence and ability and supposed freedom could allow psychiatrists and psychologists to have so much power over him for so many years.
MS: Did you ever see a psychologist or a psychiatrist?
GA: Yes! Oh, yes, I left that out. Of course, from time to time I did. But it wasn't so much the homosexuality. It was other things in my life.
MS: Did homosexuality ever come up?
GA: The first one I went to was here in New York. I went to him and I saw him once. And I told him, "I think I want to be gay." I was still a virgin. He said, "If you want to be gay then be gay." And I didn't go back to him. And I did start being gay.
MS: And did you ever see any psychiatrists or psychologists in Philadelphia?
GA: No. But I did here in New York from time to time, off and on, with long intervals between. Just because other things in my life were causing me to be troubled and unhappy. But it was never the homosexuality.
MS: Back to the gay movement, when you say the gay movement has had a tremendously good effect, I'm curious about which gay movement? The movement of the '60s that was not very widespread?
GA: I mean after Stonewall. I witnessed Stonewall.
MS: You did?
GA: Yes. It’s in this neighborhood. I came up from the subway and I heard a lot of noise. I turned around and there were people throwing things and hitting people out in the street. I saw the front of Stonewall.
MS: Is that right?
GA: And I ran home. I ran away from it and came back to my quiet, lovely little apartment.
MS: And from what I understand there were several days of riots in the city. You stayed away from it as much as you could?
GA: Of course. I run away from violence and noise and crowds. Always did and still do.
MS: Did you support what they were doing even if you couldn't participate?
GA: Well I don't like fighting and beating up people. I just never believed in that.
MS: Is that what you thought they were doing?
MS: You said that you are happy that the gay liberation movement happened after Stonewall.
MS: Were you aware at all of the movement before Stonewall? Had you ever heard about any of the groups?
GA: No. No.
MS: But you heard about it afterwards?
GA: I have to take that back. I am tired now. I was aware of movements. Because I had a lover. That was in '69, wasn't it, at Stonewall?
GA: I had a lover in 1965. He was a very confused man. He was bisexual. And he joined groups. And some of them were lesbian groups. And I tagged along with him.
MS: Is that right?
MS: Was it the Mattachine Society?
GA: That was one of them. And I went to a couple of the meetings. And there was another group.
MS: West Side Discussion Group? Is that it?
GA: I used to go with them for a long time. I was a member of that group for years. Because they were sedate and quiet and stodgy and boring.
MS: The Daughters of Bilitis?
GA: I only knew of them. I never went to them. But I met somebody who was very active in that. I've forgotten her name. She's still around, I think. But my lover of that time, in 1965, took me to some of these places.
MS: Could you tell me his name?
GA: Well he’s dead now, yeah. Roger Fulton. But he was a fucked up man. I mean he had been straight. He was bisexual for awhile. And then he went back to being a hundred percent straight again and turned his back on the whole gay movement.
MS: So it sounds like from what you're saying that it was after Stonewall that it really had an effect on your life?
GA: It was Stonewall and the years immediately following that gave me the courage and the freedom to admit openly that I am a gay man, not to conceal it anymore, and to be at peace with myself. I wasn't really that troubled anymore by that time by it, but it was comforting to me to know that there was such a powerful movement and that so much progress was being made and that I was living through it. And I tried to go to the celebration. Not distant places, but here on Christopher Street. And I am just thrilled to watch the parade and the people showing of their freedom and I am especially touched by the older people, the parents and grandparents of gay people, who will march in a parade, these elderly people marching in a parade. It thrills me to pieces.
MS: Well any final thoughts you want to make sure we cover?
GA: One of the regrets that I have as a gay man is that I have no family to leave. As I think about becoming infirm and elderly, there's nobody to take care of me. I have no children. And my younger sister, the one I loved so much, committed suicide when she was forty years old.
MS: Is that right?
GA: Yeah. And my older sister, I can't relate to her very well. And my brother who's in Philadelphia, I never have anything to do with him. He's too involved in his life. So I don't have anybody. And I don't feel desperately lonely. I have my little pooch in the next room. And he's my companion.
MS: And you're getting your degree?
GA: If I live long enough. I'm in my fifth year. I only have about half as many credits as I need. And it'll be another three or four more years before I get it. And I'll be close to seventy by the time I get it. And that will be an achievement. That has taken the place of the Academy Award I never got. Because I have dropped out of acting. I don't want to act anymore.
MS: I see.
GA: Completely lost my enthusiasm about acting.
MS: How do you compare New York to Philly as a gay town?
GA: It's like night and day. New York is so much more diverse and so much more stimulating as a place to be. And I always thought of Philadelphia as being rather placid and rather quiet and peaceful. And if you have a life there, then it's not an unpleasant place to be because there's something for everybody there. But I like the excitement of everything here. The diversity and the proximity. See I don't drive a car. I have trouble driving a car. Too nervous. But here everything is at your fingertips. You get on a bus or a subway and these wonderful museums and theatres and interesting people. The most interesting people come to New York and make their lives here. And I'm glad I came here. This is where I probably will live until I die. As long as I'm able to walk up these five flights of stairs. I don't know about that.
MS: Well thank you very much for doing this.