Judy Garland, the Stonewall and Mr. wOw

Image: CC/thefoxling/Flickr

Our beloved columnist looks back at June 28, 1969

June 28th is the forty-second anniversary of the famous Stonewall riot: an event that changed history. Gay people battled their way out of the closet with bricks and uprooted parking meters and a defiance so shocking it scared the men of the New York Police Department. And despite many challenges, they have never gone back in.

Now, unlike many gay men of my age who lived near and/or hung around Greenwich Village in 1969, Mr. wOw will not claim to have been a participant in the riot, an observer or even having been at the Stonewall earlier that night. He wasn’t in the Village that night. He had, however, been downtown the night before, and attempted to get into The Stonewall. The Stonewall was my very first bar – so exciting with its two jukeboxes and the little dance floor in the back that looked like a chessboard, lit from below. But the bouncer who usually allowed 16-year-old Mr. wOw onto the premises was away. No amount of eye-batting or promises of more could dissuade this dragon at the wooden door to allow me in. “How old are you?” I swore I was 19. “You look 15. Go away!” I wanted to argue that I’d been let in when I was 15, but better to wait for the friendly bouncer another night.

So Mr. wOw wandered off, found a few similarly displaced acquaintances and spent the hot summer night camped (and camping it up) on various stoops, loitering outside other bars and making general teenaged nuisances of ourselves.

At six o’clock AM on the morning of June 28, Mr. wOw and his pals were standing on Sixth Avenue right off Christopher Street. We were about to go our separate ways, when Mr. wOw said, “Wait, girls, today’s the last day Judy’s laid out, we should go up and see her!” (Back then, if you weren’t overtly masculine, you talked like that. Later, I dropped my “Oh, Mary’s” and “Miss Things.” A guy I met around that time said, “I thought you were really cute, until you started talking! Why do think that’s necessary?”)

Now, the funny part was I wasn’t even much of a Judy Garland fan. No fanatic, at any rate. I knew who she was, what she supposedly represented to gay audiences, I was aware of her many dramas, suicide attempts, tales of her ruined voice, the “scandal” of her new much younger husband, Mickey Deans. I loved her MGM musicals, especially “Presenting Lily Mars.” And of course I’d seen “A Star Is Born.” I didn’t think then, and don’t think now, it was her finest hour. But, yes, of course she deserved the Oscar over Grace Kelly.

But I’d never seen her perform live, and had never listened to any of her later recordings. (My one memory of her ill-fated TV series was visiting relatives on Sunday – there was Judy on the tube, in stark black and white, and looking rather fascinating to me. “Eh, she’s drunk,” said one of my uncles, switching to “Bonanza.”) So, I knew nothing of the thrall she held over audiences, gay and straight.

Still, we all decided that going to see Judy Garland laid out at Frank Campbell’s would be a “fun” thing to do. (I know – but now you tell me about how sensitive you were at 16.) So, we boarded an uptown bus and pretty soon there we were in front of Frank Campbell’s – five motley, long-haired, fey boys in jeans and tee shirts. There was still a line of mourners traipsing past Judy’s open casket. (The funeral would begin in a few hours.) While we stood there, I thought I’d impress my friends with my vast knowledge – “Rudolph Valentino was laid out here.” Nobody was impressed. They didn’t know from the Sheik of Araby.

Soon, Mr. wOw was standing in front of the coffin. I looked in. I must tell you that I always wish I hadn’t. Judy Garland was the deadest person I’ve ever seen. Nothing could be done to disguise the ravages of her final years. She didn’t look peaceful. She didn’t look pretty. Suddenly, I felt ashamed. This wasn’t fun at all.

Outside again, the heat was climbing. We made our casual good-byes and headed to our various “homes.” Mr. wOw was living on Broadway and 71st Street in what was then The Alamac Hotel. (Now it’s a super-expensive condo.) The Upper West Side was still very “Panic in Needle Park”-ish but I liked it. So I crossed Central Park, and went to bed. You know when you’re a kid, how you can sleep forever – a whole day, even? That’s just what I did. I’d been up the entire night. I was beat from … being young. So I slept and slept and slept. I didn’t wake until the very early morning of June 29. The sun wasn’t up. I switched on the radio. (I loved the radio!) And that’s when I learned my life had changed while I slept.

The raid on the Stonewall was being treated in a very jocular manner – oh, those sissies, thinking they can fight the cops. My own concern — my deep concern — was would the bar ever re-open? After all, though the phrase “Gay Liberation” would take a few days to take hold, I’d been living in a liberated fashion for some time. I hadn’t experienced prejudice because I hadn’t experienced anything of value to my thought process yet. I didn’t work. I didn’t have to pretend to be something I wasn’t.

However, even for an immature type like Mr. wOw, by the end of the week I realized something incredible had happened. You could see it and hear it and read about it. (I devoured and saved for years the famous Village Voice cover story on the event.) In an effort to mock and minimalize the riot, the tale of grief-stricken gays mourning Judy took hold in some quarters. Believe me, the patrons of the Stonewall weren’t Judy Garland fans. (That group was over at Julius’s or Uncle Charlie’s.)

The Stonewall re-opened briefly as a juice bar, which was OK by me – I didn’t drink, yet. But the semi-exciting, forbidden furtiveness of gay life – even in the louche and loose Village – had altered irrevocably. I’d experienced and rather enjoyed that forbidden vibe. I thought it was “exciting” when the music stopped and lights would go up at Stonewall – there was a cop on the premises!

There would still be raids on other bars, and the battle for equal rights had just begun, but I realized that there wasn’t really anything attractive or sexy about fear of being who you are; cops should have better things to do.

I never became an activist. I was too busy really having fun after the damn burst. (Although I did march in the early Gay Pride parades, when it meant something more than naked-boy floats and drag queens and dykes on bikes.) Christopher Street and Greenwich Avenue became one long invigorating, joyous, cruisy conversational jaunt – you’d walk and meet friends and bring them along and meet other friends and everybody seemed in tune, as if we could all read each others’ minds, finish each other’s sentences. Even in wintertime, there was a warmth that came from an entire group of people demanding their right to live and love – and yes, just plain make love – fearlessly. I’m glad I’m the age I am, saw what I saw, lived how lived. I’d be happier with a bit more hair, but … that’s 58 for you.

And Judy? Well, a month after the Stonewall riot, I was over at some fellow’s house. I was poking around through his record collection, and pulled out a striking-looking album. In giant red letters it declared “Judy. Judy. Judy at Carnegie Hall. The Historic Concert.” It was a two-record set, which impressed me. I opened it up and read all the liner notes. The guy woke up and found me engrossed in raves about Miss G. “Oh, you like Judy, huh?”

“Well, yeah, kind of. Is this good?”

“It’s great. Listen, it’s an old album. I need to get a new one. It’s a little scratchy. You can take it if you want.”

And so I trundled back to West 71st Street with Judy at Carnegie Hall under my arm.

I turned on my crappy record player. I put the needle to the overture, which was thrilling in itself. By the time Judy was crying, “Good night, I love you, God bless!” Mr. wOw was crying too. He had lost his heart to Judy. He didn’t feel so ashamed anymore that he’d made a sport out of seeing her laid out.

At least he could say, “Yes, I saw Judy Garland.” He didn’t have to say where.

Join us on Thursday, when Mr. wOw will weigh in on gay marriage in New York

 

44 comments so far.

  1. avatar rick gould says:

    Mr W-
    I remember loving the first time I read this.

    And with what’s been going on nationally in the last couple years, and New York right now, it has even more resonance as well as being a lovely reminiscence.

    Cheers,
    And Happy Independence Day ;)

    Rick

    Rick

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Dear Rick…

      Independence Day?  I am cautious going that far.  But we’ve moved several mountains, that’s for sure. 

  2. avatar Andy C says:

    Mr. Wow – what a great piece; a little look into a life style that is virtually unknown to many of us.  Glad to hear that New York has seen the light and look forward to your post on that.  If only other states would follow suit.

    Judy Garland managed to clutch at the heart strings of a whole generation of people.  A talented, damaged woman who, like Marilyn Monroe seemed to always be saying “love me”.  And we did, but sadly it wasn’t enough.

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Dear Andy…

      I have quite fond memories of those days, which were–and would be for a number of years–unencumbered by work or responsibility.  But I wouldn’t be 16 again, these days.  I had my time, and it was just the right time, for me.

      Nothing was ever “enough” for Judy or Marilyn.  Theirs needs were overwhelming, for themselves and for others.

  3. avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

    Beautiful, Mr WoW. I too look forward to you thoughts on New York’s decision. I have listened to Judy for years just because I loved her voice and remember watching the television show because my parents loved her. I know all the drama and pain, both self and outwardly inflicted. Still just love her.

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Dear Deirdra…

      Thank you.  It’s such a cliche, but if not for drama and pain, would she have been the magnetic Judy of legend?  The end years were especially sad, but she did have, in many ways ,a fabulous life.  And she did make her own choices. 

      • avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

        Mr. WoW,
        Right you are! Without the drama and pain, probably not. She did make here own choices! It always makes me sad to think of Marilyn or Judy and to know that no matter how much love was sent their way, it wasn’t enough. How lonely they must have been.

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Deidre…

        Among a collection of poems and jottings and letters was this scribble from Marilyn—”Alone!  I am always alone no matter what!!!”  (She was married to the condescending Mr. Miller at the time.)

      • avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

        Mr. Wow,
        I hesitate a bit and I want to be careful. My late parents were married in California during the War. My mother worked as a switchboard operator at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and as an extra in lots of movies. As she said it was amazing pay in those days and you got to wear pretty clothes! She and my Dad met lots of people on the movie lots. Some became life long friends. She spent a good deal of time with Judy and they wrote letters off and on for years. Mostly about their children and how we were growing up. My mother did say Judy talked of loneliness and of being used by the studios. Most likely very true in the early days. As time went by I am sure her decisions were hers. But the loneliness and compelling need to be loved could not be filled; so very sad. My mom destroyed every bit of correspondence she had from and to Judy. She said it was personal and not for anyone else’s eyes. I think she was a very wise lady given the climate today. It’s also why I kind of hesitate to mention that they knew each other. I can feel the hand of “really” coming on the forum. Oh well. I have lovely memories of visits from a whole host of people my parents became friends with during their 3 years in California. Some of those names are amazing and they were so much fun!

      • avatar TheRudeDog says:

        Dierdre:  Not a “really?” from here for sure – - what a nice, clear, concise memory of your Mom!  No, what I’m dreading is the unmistakeable splash of a cannonball into the WoW pool from BS.  This is the kind of story she canNOT resist trying to top, and I’m terribly worried that she hasn’t weighed-in.  With her.  Incomplete-Sentence flag flying.  She must be on vacation.  Or otherwise unable to type.  Her insufferable.  Stuff.  :-)

      • avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

        Thanks Rude Dog, I have hesitated before because I did not want to get into specifics and a my word against anyone else’s. Or a where is your proof thing. As far as Ms Snooks is concerned, I am fairly certain she knows what and who she claims but is reluctant to see that others do as well. Perhaps not. Our family connections were and are very personal and the stories are just that. They don’t need to be vetted, there is nothing to be gained or lost, no money changed hands, no special favors were asked or granted. There were just people who liked each other and carried on friendships over a long period of time. It was lovely.

      • avatar Count Snarkula says:

        TheRudeDog: I do not believe I am gossiping, since she has said it herself, but I think Baby Snooks is gravely ill, hence no postings lately.

      • avatar TheRudeDog says:

        “Gravely ill?”  Then I feel like an idiot and DO sincerely apologize for my inappropriately-timed remark.  I certainly didn’t know that & need to go be embarrassed.  Thank you for the heads-up, and here’s hoping Snooks comes back to annoy me in fine fettle!

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Snooks is a fighter.  She’ll be back like gangbusters, busting our balls! 

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Dierdra…
        As fascinating as it would have been to read these letters, I think your mom did the right thing.  She was a fine, honorable woman, your mother.  And Miss G. would have appreciated it, too.  (Perhaps they are together now, chatting?)
         

      • avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

        I agree Mr. WoW, it would have been wonderful to have read those letters. But you are right my sweet mother was a very honorable lady and she never wanted anyone to exploit her friendships. I have often hoped since her death in 2007 that she and Miss G are sharing a cup of “tea” and a chat.

      • avatar rick gould says:

        Deidre
        That’s the kind of class and honor from the past that I admire that seems sorely lacking in today’s world. Great memories…

      • avatar Count Snarkula says:

        Really, really? Perhaps how really wonderful you are to share that sweet story. I would really liked to have met your Mother. My Mother would really have liked yours. Really.

      • avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

        Thanks Snark for proving me correct! Your snarkiness goes on! By the way, I did read that Baby Snooks said she has TB. I am hoping that she is recovering and is feeling better. As Mr. WoW has said, she is strong and a fighter and hopefully will be back soon to let us all know she has something to say.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I have asymptomatic reactivation TB although it will be another 3-4 weeks before the cultures confirm it.  Hopefully that is all I have. They are not sure. In any case, I’ve added that to my list of obnoxious soap boxes. Stop smoking. Get a skin test for TB once a year.  Do not suffer fools blindly.Or doctors. It was on an X Ray report last October. The doctors were not paying attention.  Don’t assume things about TB as I did. Anyone can get TB.  Not just “those people.”  You can be exposed in first-class on an airplane or in the penthouse at the Four Seasons. Exposed by someone who doesn’t realize they have it.  “Just a nasty cough…”  A nasty cough that in fact is TB. 
        We live in a “those people” society, don’t we? I have had several people ask if I’ve been around illegal immigrants. Assuming things they shouldn’t. Many brought the antibiotic-resistant strains of TB with them when they left Central America and Mexico. But then many Americans brought the same strains back with them after they went off for vacation in Central America and Mexico. Without realizing it. And have spread it in first-class on the airplanes and in the penthouses in the Four Seasons. Not realizing they are “those people” as well. 

        As for these comments, well, I got a phone call from someone who feared my being “gravely ill” might create some karma for them if I dropped dead after years of their wishing I would. ”Believe me, if I do drop dead, it will not be the result of my accommodating you.”

        Ditto to some of you…

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Baby…

        Welcome, back, kid. 

      • avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

        Hi Lady!!
        Great to hear from you!! Hope the health news continues on the up track. We may not always (seldom?) agree but I love to hear you stories and mostly respect you opinions. Anyhoo, my sister was diagnosed with tb years ago which actually turned out to be lupus. And a friend’s son did have tb after being exposed while student teaching. You are absolutely right about testing and exposure, especially where we might be and the “those people” crap!
        It’s probably good that those we wish would drop dead and those who wish the same for us are not accommodated. There would be no one left to argue with and I think that would be very boring!

      • avatar Count Snarkula says:

        Baby Snooks:

        It’s not the same here without you. Welcome back. Can we assume that if you have no other ailment, your TB can be treated?

  4. avatar Paul Smith says:

    When you weigh in on the N.Y. decision I hope it is not just the dreadful sentimentality that rules the press. And I don’t believe you wouldn’t be sixteen again, given the chance.

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Dear Paul Smith…

      Believe me, my stand is not terribly sentimental.   Sixteen again?  Maybe if all my loved ones were similarly transformed.  Otherwise, I don’t think so.  I wouldn’t mind looking sixteen again.

      • avatar rick gould says:

        Mr wOw-
        You should have posted a pic of your 16 year old self, so we could see what a young wOw looked like ;)

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Rick..

        Tempting thought. 

      • avatar Count Snarkula says:

        I will if you will, and the Count was NOT good looking at that age ! ! !

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Oh, stop…everybody looks great at sixteen. 

        And even if you grew fully  into your fabulous bone structure later in life, I feel certain you had appeal as a teen.

        As we exchanged in another post–your Mere thought you were StorkClub material even as a youngster.

        That takes looks and style.  
         

         

         

      • avatar Count Snarkula says:

        Well, I was a stunning child. And I like to think that I am a handsome man. But remember, The Count at 16 was in the Year of our Lord 1977. Not many looked good that year.

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear (much younger) Count..

        I looked fabulous in ’77.    I worked those high-waisted flare-bottomed jeans. 

      • avatar Count Snarkula says:

        OK the pic I have in mind involves that for sure. And a penile helmet as hair. It involved a hot comb and a lot of hairspray. My hair did not voluntarily part in the middle, nor was it naturally strawberry blond. And FRYE boots. Again, I will if you will.

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Count…

        I am obliged to be “anonymous” on this site.  As as much I would like to pepper you with adorable snapshots from my feckless youth, I dont think the powers would approve.  (Just like like they don’t want my tale of leaving home.)

        I was just too cute for words.  And what a head of hair! –which did part naturally in the middle.

      • avatar rick gould says:

        OK guys!
        Here’s MY turn back time shot ;)
        I thought I was an ugly dork when I was in my 20′s, especially before I came out at 26.
        Now I look back at photos and wanna journey back in the way back machine and do it up right!
        Everything’s a trade off, I know…

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Rick…

        I look back and think—”why was I ever insecure?”   Not that it stopped me, but it wouldn’t have hurt to have been more assured.

        Eh. 

        I’ve still got some hair. 

  5. avatar Richard Bassett says:

    Mr. WoW,
    I remember reading this story before but I have no idea how to find. Even though it’s a few years later, I may have a different perspective. I just don’t know. You were living alone at 15 in a hotel room? Or were there other family members as well and I doubt it was a Four Seasons, the Sherry or the Waldorf. It didn’t seem that you had a citywide curfew; even in terms of being part of your family. How did you even make a living to afford such a thing? And your friends, also, were subjected to this. I can’t imagine how drugs or alcohol did not play a part. You had to have started climbing your ladder at a ‘very’ early age. Now, 2011, there are a number of non-profit agencies that try to address this issue. I was involved in one (as an adult) for many years…connecting people to housing and other needed services. I’m sad that you had to be a child alone living in an adult world, and still treated like a child. I knew nothing about Stonewall (well, maybe a hint but was lost in the reasons). In 1969, I was 12. Judy Garland traveled over the rainbow each year. I knew nothing about being gay until I was in high school and engaged to my high school sweetheart so I wasn’t taunted and teased. I was a part of a couple and did ‘couple’ things. Oye, the double dates! There were really no icons on the subject. But on PBS (I think), there was a show had followed a family for weeks. The Loud family…and one on the older sons (Lance) was gay. I was only 15. Lance was much older. There was an identification to him, but my eventual engagement and marriage was already solidified. The feels were quickly forgotten. At 55, I don’t know how I did it for ten years. I must have been acting on pure tester one…and I was in love. The older that I got, the more farfetched a straight marriage seemed. Especially living in West Hollywood and realized others were out there too. It didn’t hurt to be very, very, handsome (that is a film industry observation). I was in and out of long term relationships. Casual one night stands, leather, drugs, alcohol, orgies….all the typical stuff over the next 15 years. But, there was a gay parade in 1980, followed by a state park event. A gay pride parade? What on Earth was THAT? I went with my wife, and another couple (The marriage ended in 1982). I wanted to be a part of it, but I was convinced that my marriage would last forever and these feelings would go away. They didn’t. I was 23 and believed that I had no choices. Boy, when you are young…you are young. With pliers, the marriage had to be torn apart and for years she was still in my life. She remarried the day after our divorced was legal, but divorced 4 months later. Needless to say, she was down on marriage.
    I became an adult and never experienced discrimination. At least not to my face. I kept waiting for that battle but it never came. My mom was ok, my dad really never spoke about it, and my siblings were supportive. The only trouble that I had was due to my own making. To those on the outside, I had a great life, a partner, a home in the suburbs. I guess I’ve always tried to live on the edge, but would always be rescued. Then, I got to old to live on the edge. Stonewall was an event I learned about years as own my homosexuality emerged. It struck a chord and admired all who chose to fight back. We didn’t have a Stonewall. We, in West Hollywood, just kinda slid into it. At 55, there are no more fears of discrimination on such. I’ve grown too strong for that.

    *Judy Garland? What was the big deal?

    • avatar Count Snarkula says:

      Thanks for sharing your story.

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Dear Richard…

      I left home at fifteen.  There was no father and no siblings. No drink or drugs were involved…yet.  In fact I didn’t drink until I was 19. (I’ve made for that.)

      Use your imagination as to how I “got by.”  Actually, I have a piece I have been pushing WoW to publish for a year, telling part of that tale.  It is considered too “shocking” for the delicate sensibilties here. 

      The point is–I survived, and like Miss Piaf, regret nothing.  (okay–not true.  I regret a little.)

      • avatar Count Snarkula says:

        The hell with waiting around for WoW. You have a book in you, and I for one, would buy it. Hardback. Retail. (well…..maybe not 100% retail).

      • avatar Richard Bassett says:

        Mr. WoW,
        I’m not a Saint. I wanted a1988 GT Fiero in 1987, and saving pennies or obtaining ‘one’ sugar daddy was just a little too exhuasting for me….even at 30, lines were being crossed. So, through a rigirous interviewing process at one well known (the best) agency and willing to be on call 24/7 every day & night, I gave in. Sometimes it was most inconvenient and sometimes I woke in the middle of the night. But there is a moral to my story that included looking at my face in the mirror each morning Regarding these sensitive issues, it is best to have a moral to the story.

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Richard, honey…

        The moral to my story is  that I lived find a man who loved me, warts, johns and  all.    Even more amazing and amusing– I lived to  become the ridiculous Mr. Wow!

      • avatar Richard Bassett says:

        Mr.WoW,
        So did I. All four of them :-)

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I wonder from time to time how much more shocked we could be by anything in this society of ours. The Hiltons, Paris and Perez, sort of blew it for everyone I suppose. You do it, someone will report it.

        I never took anything from anyone.  For anything.  The worst I ever did was drag very willing men off to poolhouses in Bel-Air. But knew some do did take. One of whom ended up in Bel-Air  with her own poolhouse.  I never felt the need. Others did. And do. Particularly in Hollywood. As Liz Smith no doubt knows even if none of the other “powers that be” do.  Despite the Draconian appearance at times, I really do not cast stones at those who are merely trying to survive.  Or at those who survived and prospered so to speak.  Moral piety doesn’t keep you very warm in the dead of winter.  

  6. avatar Mr. Wow says:

    Dear Baby…

    I left home in November.  And how right you are–moral piety does not keep you warm at night. 

    Not that I gave piety much of a chance.