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harvard 1947
The author, among his classmates, 1947

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November 2006 Email this to a friend
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Crimson Memories
By Greg Bradford

Between the anti-gay witch hunts in the early 1920s and the chill of 1950s conformism, Harvard University enjoyed a brief springtime when gay life quietly budded and flowered. A writer who we'll call Greg Bradford arrived as a freshman in 1947, via what was then the well-greased path from an elite New England boys' boarding school. Harvard-- or at least Bradford's corner of it-- basked in a final glimmer of 19th-century aristocratic privilege: tolerant of idiosyncrasy and versed in the art of wink-and-nod.

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Since homosexuality was not in the public consciousness, we could behave with other boys in ways that would create instant suspicion today," Bradford recalls, "but in those days only caused the opinion that we were strange." Having come to Harvard resolved to fully explore his homosexual nature, Bradford was prepared to weather a perception he was strange. He was prepared as well as to slough off homework for nightime orgies, slum in Combat Zone hustler bars, and even escape from a tryst out a dormitory window-- with university police decorously not in pursuit.

The pursuit became hotter when McCarthyism made its presence felt at Harvard during Bradford's junior year, in the person of newly installed Dean Wilbur Bender. Like his predecessors a generation before, the ironically-named Bender was determined to clean house of fairy dust. April 1st, 1950 is a reasonable pick for the day springtime ended: when acclaimed English professor F.O. Mathheisen leapt to his death, a target of both the House Un-American Activities Committee and long-festering suspicion about his homosexuality.

Bradford, now in his mid-70s, went on to a happy gay life. A long-time diarist, he returns to his notes to conjure a queer Boston that has long since passed into memory.

--Bill Andriette

Cambridge, 1947

Several of my classmates from prep school had also come to Harvard, but none were particular friends of mine so I opted for strangers as roommates. I was assigned John from the Midwest, Luis from Mexico, and Pete from New York City.

Our suite stretched out beside a long hallway. We each had our own bedroom and shared a bath and study. While this may seem a luxurious arrangement by today's dormitory standards, we were the bottom of the barrel. By paying more, a boy could have two roommates or just one-- or none, and so have a bedroom, bath, and study all to himself. The study was attractive, with a working fireplace and four windows with seats recessed in the thick brick walls, two windows looking onto the courtyard of the building and two overlooking the Charles River. We decided we would study in our rooms so the "study" became a living room furnished with a motley bunch of stuff, from a fine oriental rug that one boy brought from home, to some second-hand junk that we found in a shop in Central Square.

One reason I opted to room with strangers was that I knew I was going to become a new person at college. Before college my sexual relationships with boys had all been surreptitious. With virtually no authorities looking over my shoulder, I intended to become actively homosexual, no longer living a furtive life. By now I knew that somewhere out there were other boys who liked boys. I did not know who they were, what they looked like, or how to find them. But if I waited, watched, and listened, I knew I could. I wanted friends who were queer.

A misreading

A boy down the hall from my dorm room seemed a likely candidate. He was blond, flamboyant, favored ascots, and waved his hands a lot. I knew that not all homosexuals were feminine because I was not. But I also "knew" that boys who acted feminine were homosexuals-- the "fairies" everyone talked about. Over the next few weeks I became convinced he was homosexual. My campaign to seduce him was not a great success. I didn't exactly know how to let him know that I was also homosexual. I tried to behave a little less masculine, a little like him. I tried to wave my hands when I talked and be graceful when I moved. But it never quite worked. When we spoke, I would remember just a little too late that I should wave my hands, so the result was like bad dubbing in a movie. I tried dropping subtle hints like exclaiming how "good-looking" another boy was. All I could get in return was "Oh, do you think so?" Nothing had its desired effect. I hoped, of course, that he would find me terribly desirable and declare his passion for me. But he didn't.

Throughout the next couple of years we remained friends and I decided he didn't realize that he really liked boys. After we graduated we got together. The son of a well-known liberal editor, he told me now that the most important thing was to really understand oneself. That was too much. I laughed and said, "Oh, Richie, you are so misguided. You don't understand yourself nearly as well as you think you do."

"What do you mean?"

"You're a homosexual."

"Don't be ridiculous. Why do you say that? To try to start an argument?"

"No. Think about it. You're not exactly the most masculine fellow in the world. You walk like a woman. You are overly careful with the way you dress and look. And-- you know the saying, 'it takes one to know one.'"

"What do you mean? Are you telling me you're a homosexual?"

"Yeah. And I can tell you are."

"Well, why don't I want to sleep with guys and why do I lust for girls?"

"Easy. Because you are suppressing your true nature. Lots of people do it. Out of unfamiliarity. Out of ignorance. Out of fear."

After several more conversations on the subject that weekend, I convinced him. We had sex-- or what passed for sex. I had expected him to be awkward at it-- it was his first time after all-- but he clearly didn't enjoy it. When he said so, I agreed with him, but retorted, "That proves nothing. I'm just not your type."

In the next few weeks he tried it with other types and reported to me-- rather triumphantly I suspected-- that it didn't work with any guy he tried it with, but I knew better. "Pooh," I insisted, "just as I've told you, you have a mental block against recognizing your homosexuality." With misguided respect for my judgment and anxious to know himself, he went to a psychiatrist and told him he needed help in recognizing his true nature. It took the psychiatrist two years to convince Richie that he was, indeed, hopelessly heterosexual

A higher nature

I had better luck with another freshman. He lived in a different House, but he was a friend of one of my new queer friends. I had seen him and fell in love at first sight. His pretty face with his perfect small features surrounded by blond curls was on every page I tried to read. I had to meet him. Soon I poured out my feelings of love to my queer friend. He laughed at the naiveté that had me falling in love at first sight, but assured me he'd introduce us, that Teddie was the easiest thing in the world, and that Teddie wasn't his type. Wasn't his type! I was astounded. How could such beauty not attract everyone? When we met I became dizzy and incoherent. Fortunately, my neighbor was there to smooth over the first few minutes of the encounter until I got myself under control.

My first date with Teddie seemed like the first real date I ever had. I was in love. I took him to dinner at a nice restaurant and to the theater, and he took me back to his room and to bed. The next morning I told him I loved him. He laughed and said I was too young to be in love. Teddie was my age but he had a lot more experience, with older men as well as with boys his own age. But he was not equipped to cope with real life-- even the protected "real" life of a Harvard student. He was naturally feminine, not swish or affected, but simply girl-like in his grace and in his thinking.

Teddie found it difficult to ask salesgirls for things like toilet paper. To avoid the problems of coping with what passed for real life, he and his roommate-- the same one he had had in prep school and a sometime lover-- hired a butler. At that time the college provided maids, or "biddies," to make our beds each morning and clean, but Teddie's butler (by no means the only one in the college dorms) ran their errands, coped with their clothing, answered the telephone, kept the ice bucket filled, and took care of similar necessities. The butler came at noon, after the college maid had gone, and left after cocktail time.

Teddie was excruciatingly neat and correct in his dress. If the weather changed midday, as it's wont to do in New England, it meant a whole new wardrobe. "One doesn't wear bright colors if the sun goes in," he insisted. Nothing was ever worn twice without being cleaned.

Teddie's biddy had taken him under her wing. Teddie was the kind of youth, vague and fragile, that people often took under their wing. One morning, she confronted him: "Mr. Wycoff, the young man you slept with last night was dirty," she scolded, holding up a pair of soiled underwear. It was the dirt and not the suggestion of sex that disturbed the biddy and embarrassed Teddie. He got over that and, in fact, became such friends with her that he paid for her father's funeral, although I suspect he felt it was required by way of hush money.

Love and consequences

I didn't restrict my search for sexual partners to Harvard. As much as I thought I was in love with Teddie, I wanted to have sex with every beautiful boy in the world. That there were some I would never meet, much less sleep with, bothered me no end. So I cruised the bars in Boston with my Harvard buddies, Hal and David.

One night Hal told a few of our friends that he was going to have a party after the bars closed. We went to the bars to find a few more boys for the party. We got back to his room about 2am with a few boys from the bars. Then our friends began coming, with their friends. Altogether we got to be about 15. Most of us were drunk and it wasn't long before we began making out and taking off our clothes. It felt so wonderfully decadent to be making love to several boys at the same time. This lovely scene was interrupted by a knock. "It's the University Police. Please come to the door." Hal put a towel around himself, told us to be quiet, and went to the door. The policeman, who must have caught glimpses of naked boys, said, "Sir, you neighbors are trying to sleep. Perhaps you should end your party and send everyone home." Hal said brightly, "Oh, yes, officer. I didn't realize how late it is. We'll break it up right away." I think he got a "Thank you, sir" in reply.

Thus began a series of late parties, although quieter ones, in Hal's room after the bars closed. One year, most of the football team turned up at one or another of the parties. Girls were not allowed in the dorms after six, so what's a horny 18-to-20-year-old supposed to do all night?

Throughout the college there had developed several groups of fairly open gays, camping in public, and holding late-night orgies. It was the first time in Harvard's history that homosexuality had become so open at the college. Much of this new attitude could be traced to the end of World War II and the return to Harvard of students who had been drafted. They were now men, experienced, more confident, and determined to live the way they chose. Dean of the College, Wilbur Bender, decided to crack down.

When I was young, like most of my contemporaries, I fell in love easily. And often. I was junior and he a freshman when I met Dick at a cocktail party at Dunster House (all in Harvard patois, dorms are "houses"). It was a gay cocktail party of Harvard boys when gay was not in but that didn't bother us. All the guests were young and attractive, but I spotted Dick immediately. His blond good-looks and well-built body stood out even in that charmed circle. Fortunately he was turned on by me.

Since this was cocktails the rules were different from the late-night orgies. No sex. No heavy making out. Just polite conversation-- and the opportunity to meet boys and make dates for later. I met Dick the next night. I took him to dinner and after staring soulfully into each other's eyes all evening, we went back to his dormitory, Wigglesworth, for sex. He was young, beautiful, and, at the moment, in love with me. I was certain I was in love with him.

I introduced him to my wealthy older friends who all adored him. We became the pair of the month and received lots of invitations. All my older friends, who had had me, wanted Dick and tried, sometimes through me, sometimes behind my back, to get Dick to bed. And I-- already a bit cynical about lasting love-- cooperated, favors given for favors received. But Dick was in love and would not go to bed with anyone else. Despite my feeling that exclusiveness was doomed to failure, he convinced me to promise monogamy, and I settled for being in love with this charming, beautiful freshman. It was easy to pretend. We had sex at his place or mine depending upon whose roommates were not in. We spent all our time together.

After a weekend in Provincetown, Dick was becoming realistic and decided that we could still be faithful in our love and have sex with others. Our sex together continued much as before. Then disaster struck. One of Dick's roommates caught us in the act. We had become careless about being caught, careless to the point that it's clear we wanted to be caught, to proclaim our gayness if not our love. My roommates knew I was having sex with Dick-- and others-- and couldn't care less. Dick's roommate, however-- a Midwestern freshman-- was shocked enough to go to the university police. We kept at it until the police announced themselves at the door. Dick stalled them long enough for me to flee literally through the second-story window. His roommate didn't know who I was, and Dick refused to say.

Upon expelling him, Dean Bender wrote Dick's father to tell him that his son was an active homosexual. Dick returned to the Midwest in disgrace, his father only allowing him to come home on condition that he see a psychiatrist until he was "cured." Until then, he was to remain virtually under house arrest. His father lost no opportunity to humiliate him. "Perhaps you should get a job in a men's room so you can combine business with pleasure," his father sneered at him, as Dick reported to me in one of his regular letters.

The situation was no-win. Dick was not about to try to pretend a "cure." He knew he was thoroughly and forever homosexual. To escape he joined the Navy-- which was certainly combining business with pleasure. But Dick seemed destined for trouble and I to escape it. We wrote steamy letters to each other describing our sexual adventures. One of his fellow sailors complained that Dick had tried to make him. My letters were confiscated as further evidence, and once again Dick was expelled, dishonorably discharged from the Navy. Once again Dick returned home in disgrace, not yet 21.

He left home immediately for San Francisco where he got a pedestrian job far below his capabilities. We wrote. But I never saw him again. A promising life ruined before he had a chance. A lot of talent wasted.

Hitting the books softly

For my first three years at Harvard, before Dean Bender, I felt a wonderful freedom. There was no one to tell me what to do. What I had to do, I could do when I pleased. The absence of constant authority, the freedom to set your own schedule, and the confidence that came with this was a heady change from my previous years at home and at boarding school. From living on a farm with few boys my age around, then at a boarding school with lots of boys but authority-figures breathing down my neck, now I could walk outside the yard (Harvardese for "campus") and find myself in a bustling city. A short subway ride away was Boston, to me a grand metropolis.

When I had decided to begin a new life, I had also decided that academics were secondary to learning about "life." I enjoyed studying and most of my classes, but I figured an "A" meant I was spending too much time at the books. I aimed for B's and C's. Occasionally I got carried away, as I did in one of Perry Miller's philosophy classes, which I enjoyed so much I got an A. But for the most part I worked only hard enough to get respectable grades. My aim was to have evenings free. Instead of wasting time, I studied between classes and before and after sports in the afternoon. I never enlisted in a formal team, but most afternoons I would play some squash or tennis. If I didn't have a partner, I would swim or go out on the banks of the Charles for some pick-up touch football. This schedule left me evenings to explore Boston, go to the movies or the theater, or simply stay in the dorm for marathon discussions. Since we were all reasonably bright and also absolutely sure we knew how to run the world, we could argue all night over politics, religion, and philosophy.

Most evenings, however, I wanted to go into Boston with my new queer friends. One night Hal and I went to the Napoleon Club where I met John Horne Burns. He had just published his novel Lucifer With a Book, based on his year as a teacher at Loomis. It caused some sensation because it was one of the first novels to be frank about the peculiarities-- sexual and otherwise-- of a boys' boarding school. I had been intrigued by the book. I wanted to know everything he knew about boys and their sexual interests so I struck up a conversation. He invited me back to his hotel but I turned him down. I wanted boys and I had not reached that level of confidence whereby I could go to bed with someone because I liked him.

Still, my self-confidence was increasing by leaps and bounds. Growing up, I had thought I was funny looking: that my ears stuck out, my nose was too big, my chest had too much hair, I wore glasses. I was introverted and a loner. But when I discovered that so many queer boys thought I was sexy, I became a raging extrovert. I left my glasses off when I was with the queer crowd. I realized I had tots of attractive wavy hair so I let it grow, hiding my ears. Some boys liked the hair on my chest. They all thought I had a nice smile and beautiful eyes. My lashes were long and curled and I figured the hair and eyes and smile distracted from my nose, which didn't seem so big after all.

In quest of seafood

Beyond classmates and boys we met in bars, I knew there were others out there I wanted to go to bed with. Sailors, for instance. One night I set out by myself to cruise. The Silver Dollar-- on Washington Street in Boston's "Combat Zone"-- was a sailor bar back in the late 40s. It was a large dingy place with booths in front and a dance floor in the rear. Signs out front proclaiming that it had no cover and no minimum were unnecessary. It was obvious. It wasn't particularly clean but it was lively.

I looked the place over nervously and spotted an attractive boy sitting at the bar. I had gone in with sailors in mind, but when I spotted this youth, I didn't look further. He seemed to be alone, empty stools on each side of him, but feeling shy I sat two stools away. The glances I stole showed a handsome, masculine-looking kid. I hadn't yet learned to send or offer drinks and had no idea what to say. While I was wracking my brain to think up something, he said, "Hi," and moved to the seat between us.

"Hi. May I get you a drink?" I learned fast although I probably really did say may.

"Sure." And when it arrived, he added, "Why don't we take it to a booth."

As we sat in a booth talking about nothing in particular, I decided this masculine boy was just friendly and not gay. I was also falling in instant love with my first bar pickup, an experience which seemed so unique to me that I felt sure fate had a hand in our meeting. Evidently my silent looks of admiration gave me away because he told me the following story after I asked if he came into the Silver Dollar often:

"No, but I'll tell you why I'm here now. A year ago today I met a guy a coupla years older'n me. A guy named Carl. He lived near me with his old lady. The day I met him, just a year ago, he had just been in a fight with two guys bigger'n him. I watched the end of it from a short way, thinking, 'Fuck, I don't know any of em.' Anyway he was holdin' his own. Then a cop drove by and they broke up, Carl comin' my way. I turned away from him and started walkin'. He caught up with me and said, 'Ya coulda come to my help.' I said, 'You was holdin' your own.' He laughed and said, 'I wish the fuckin' cops hadn't come. I'da done better'n hold my own.' We got a hot dog together. He paid. And we began seeing each other every day even though I was only 15 then and he was 18."

He paused, looked me straight in the eye and went on.

"I guess I fell in love with Carl. I didn't put it like that even to myself, but I guess he could tell because once when he asked me to stay at his house when his ma was away, he told me he was queer and asked me to sleep with him. I was really surprised but I knew I wanted to sleep with him. A coupla days later he was killed in a bike accident."

He paused. I mumbled that I was really sorry. He continued.

"I haven't had sex with any other guy since but I came in here, on the anniversary of when we met, to find someone to sleep with-- in memory of him."

I believed him completely. I was now thoroughly in love and tears were in my eyes as I said, "I'm sorry. I'm very sorry about your friend. I'm glad I came in here tonight and met you. I want to sleep with you. Very much. But I don't know where to go. I can't take you back to my room."

"That's okay. If you can pay for it, I know a hotel we can go to. It's cheap and we can get in no problem."

"Sure, I can pay for it."

Outside I suggested we get a cab and he said, "Well, if it's alright with you, we could walk-- it's not too far-- and you could give me the money the cab would cost."

I agreed readily enough. I was pleased to be walking with him. We walked the length of Washington Street to a hotel in Scollay Square. As we entered, I panicked, realizing I didn't know what to do, what to say, what to sign, and I hadn't asked him. I took out some money, thrust it into his hand and said, "Can you do it?"

The guy behind the desk took the money from my friend and ignored me entirety. Walking up to our room, unaccompanied but with a key and vague directions, I asked him what he had signed. With a grin he said, "George Washington." I realized then I didn't know his name, any of it, but somehow felt that it was awkward to ask at this point-- somehow impolite not to have known it by osmosis or something by now.

The next morning I was totally happy. Sex had worked out beautifully and I still thought he was terribly handsome. I had a mid-term exam to get to, but I wanted to take him to breakfast. I didn't want him to leave. He, too, was cheerful and happy and didn't seem to want to leave me. After breakfast, remembering I had to rush, I blurted, "What's your name?"

"John Willis Green."

Later I realized that I had probably had my first hustler and he expected more money than just the cab fare, but I never thought of it and he never asked. But I could be wrong because, regretting I didn't make another date, I went back to the Silver Dollar lots of times, including exactly a year later, but never again saw John Willis Green.

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