from True Stories Too: People and Places from My Past
The Hollywood Ending
In 2012 I attended the opening night of Vito, Jeffrey Schwarz’s years-in-the-making documentary about Vito Russo, when it premiered at the glamorous Orpheum Theatre during the thirtieth Outfest Los Angeles, a celebratory two-week-long GLBT film festival.
It’s a good movie and a good documentary until… Well, let me explain. I appear briefly as one of a dozen talking heads and, watching the movie, I was enjoying it while dreading my appearance on screen, which when it occurred was so brief I could easily relax again.
But more important, I’d been given a hint of what was to come in the film, and what was to eventually unsettle me into writing this essay. Because I was unsettled and unsure of what to make of it, I was also worried that I might be blowing it out of proportion. But if I am not doing that, then I think something important has happened to gay culture vis-à-vis mainstream culture, and without judging this unsuspected transformation, I do believe it needs to be addressed.
The reason I was in the film was that I’d known Vito Russo for a long time and Jeffrey Schwarz had asked to interview me on camera. I first met Vito in 1971, inside the Gay Activists Alliance’s Firehouse on Greene Street in lower Manhattan in that area not yet named SoHo, a place that hadn’t been “gentrified to the tits,” as Vito would later say. Somehow Vito and I found each other dancing there one hot, shirtless summer night, and then we went outside together to a neighboring flight of tenement stairs to smoke (cigarettes and grass) and get to know each other.
Both of us used the Firehouse to meet guys as well as to dance and express gay liberation, but once outside that wasn’t what kept us talking, especially since we weren’t really each other’s type. Vito had seen me around and asked if I were a member of the Gay Activist Alliance, the host organization for the dances and other meetings at the Firehouse. I said no, explaining that I’d been involved with the first gay political group to emerge from the Stonewall Riots, several years before. I had also recently stopped attending that group when one meeting became completely crazed over whether to adopt a resolution voicing support for the people of Vietnam against the oppressive U.S. government. To me that was an indication of how uselessly sidetracked and jejune that organization had become.
Vito countered, saying GAA was doing far more and was more concentrated on gay issues, but despite his efforts I never officially joined, even though I was present at some meetings and even at some of their zaps. I especially enjoyed the gay wedding held at the anti-gay Manhattan County Clerk’s office. I remember that the reason I had given Vito to excuse myself from joining GAA was that I was a writer and hoping to become a gay reporter—which did happen—and that I wanted to remain editorially objective. Years later, that “objectivity” became a curse when I was covering ACT-UP’s very in-your-face demonstrations for independent New York papers and I was present and watching my friends and colleagues being clubbed to the ground by New York’s Finest.
After that first meeting with Vito, I would often see him around the city. We were mostly unemployed and young and we would stop and schmooze with each other. We shared a background of growing up inside New York City and now living within a community full of gay people who’d arrived to the city—arrived from Abilene, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio, and Long Meadow, Massachusetts. That became another bond, as we watched and commented on others’ naïveté and ineptitude at dealing with life in the Big Bad Town we knew so much better (and so much more cynically). As a result, we found each other quickly on many occasions and hugged, kissed, and caught up whenever we could do so. Eventually I became one of that group of friends Vito liked to call “sweetie.” Vito divided his life into “sweeties” and the rest, and believe me, it was better to be a sweetie.
No one in the documentary mentioned this but, as a young man, Vito didn’t actually walk like other people. He either busily “hustled” down the street and through a crowd when he was in a hurry, shoulders first as weapon, or when happier, or freer, bopped along with a sort of bouncy stride. He was always visible a block away coming at you. Whenever I saw him approach, hustling or bopping, I stopped for him, and sometimes stopped him cold, and his huge Howdy Doody smile would appear as he reached me. If he were in a hurry, I would be pulled along in his wake, forced to follow along at his speed and in his direction and listening to whatever was on his mind delivered in a rapid, mile-a-minute speech.
It was only after I got to know Vito better that I learned he was an avid movie fan. Not an art film fan, but a movie fan: a big distinction in the 1970s, that last era of serious American filmmaking. I watched him carefully look at my face as he told me that. And how he relaxed when I said that I liked both movies and cinema. After all, even though I’d subscribed to Sight & Sound since 1960, I’d pretty much seen movies as Vito had seen them, as a kid, in big, old, glitzy theatres, with Second Empire interior décor or huge koi-filled fountains and massive minarets à la the Alhambra. We bonded over this shared experience, too. I did understand Vito’s hesitancy in admitting this to me. By 1975, I was a published novelist, with a first book nominated for the first ever PEN/Hemingway Award. Even so, I’d eagerly sit on Vito’s bed in his tiny apartment or in his rented room in someone else’s apartment, listening to Vito read his printed “movie stories” in Motion Picture, Silver Screen, or Screen Romances magazines, magazines my older sister and her friends had read when I was growing up.
Vito’s shyness about being an avid movie fan and fan-writer quickly vanished once he saw that I didn’t disapprove of what he wrote about. He often told me of his trips to Hollywood to interview stars and his immense knowledge of films could just flow out of him for hours at a time.
When videocassettes came out and we could afford them, we’d share favorite movies and drop them off to each other’s apartments. Favorite scenes from favorite movies and boyhood lusts over certain male stars of the 1950s and 1960s were crucial to our developing friendship. I don’t believe Vito ever really trusted any gay man who wouldn’t admit to having jerked off to memories of Randolph Scott in Pittsburgh or Alan Ladd as Shane or John Ireland and Monty Cliff in Red River or Stephen Boyd in Ben-Hur. And he once seriously threatened to have my gay card revoked because I’d never seen The Wizard of Oz. He fixed that immediately. Two days later, I saw it first with Vito, on a VHS cassette, in his apartment.
That was also the period when many of the secondary characters in the Astaire-Rogers and other 1930s movies were beginning to be recognized as more than merely eccentric sidekicks—actors such as Edward Everett Horton provided wonderful portraits of openly or not-so-openly gay men. During his last days at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, Vito told me that our friendship had solidified for him at one of the Gay Pride marches in Manhattan when he overheard me quoting a line from The Gay Divorcee to someone coming on to me in the street: “You’re beginning to fascinate me, and I resent that in a man!”
When I heard from others—was it Karla Jay?—that Vito was doing a sort of collage show-and-tell of the many film clips and photos he’d collected illustrating the hidden history of homosexuality in movies, I knew I had to see it. It didn’t disappoint, and after he’d taken it around, first to local colleges and university film clubs sprouting up everywhere, and then to San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, I was one of the people who began nudging Vito to write it up as a book.
To do that right would cost time and money for research and travel. Several of us tried connecting Vito with literary agents and editors we knew who would come through with a big enough cash advance to allow that, but not one of them seemed to get Vito’s concept, simple as it seemed to us. Always close to being broke, Vito was forced to continue working for the slowly diminishing gay magazines and newspapers and movie mags, earning money and doing the research and travel on his own time and dime.
A real shame, I always thought: and there were times he despaired. “No one wants this book,” he’d argue. To which we would weakly reply, “We want it. The gay community needs it.”
For a decade and more, the book was a giant, all-consuming albatross around Vito’s neck. And, at the same time, it was his continual delight. At a demonstration or a club opening, he would edge over to where me and my pals were packed in, shouting “What do we want? Gay rights? When do we want them? Now!” and he would gleefully report into my ear that he’d just received in the mail stills from some 1920s Swedish lesbian schoolgirl romance that was perfect for the book.
Once Vito had done all the footwork for his book, to be called like his shows The Celluloid Closet, he had a huge amount of material and it was time to write it. And he went away to do so, far from the distractions of Manhattan, gay friends, and politics. But nothing happened. Well, that’s not right. Jeffrey Sevcik happened to Vito. Tall, blond, blue-eyed, easygoing, laid-back, quiet, shy, very California, handsome Jeffrey was Vito’s ideal and soon they would try to become lovers and partners. This would take a lot of compromising since each was attached to his own city, Vito to his beloved Manhattan, and Jeffrey to San Francisco, three thousand miles away.
But once he was with Jeffrey, Vito wrote the book and found someone to publish it. We were all thrilled, though I was a little surprised when Michael Denneny, a friend and one of the founders of Christopher Street magazine, contacted me at Fire Island Pines where we both had summer shares, and asked me to interview Vito for a cover article on the Celluloid Closet. My history with that magazine up until then was, let’s just say, star-crossed. They had only published one piece of mine, a short story, which had also been included in an anthology of fiction from the magazine.
Vito stayed at Denneny’s summer house during the week of the interview. Only after several afternoons together did it come out that Vito had rejected previous choices of interviewers and I’d been settled on at the end of a long list. “Because I completely trust you, sweetie,” Vito explained. Great! But I also warned him that I didn’t have a final edit on the published piece. CS did a great job with the interview, with an excerpt from the book. And they put Vito’s face on the cover. All well and good.
The book was successful, Vito was launched; finally he had money and could lead a real life. Then AIDS came along, then Jeffrey got sick and died, then Vito got sick and became an AIDS and ACT-UP activist.
Now, if we are to believe the documentary, that’s all that Vito was for the end of his life. Up until then, he’d been a well-rounded, complex, loving and hating, often contradictory individual… and after that a dedicated, selfless person, devoted to the cause. The entire last fifteen minutes of the film shows only that in his life. Gone are the cityscapes and friends talking, gone his funny cable-TV-show clips, the films and the people he loved. Instead we see Vito at the podium exhorting ACT-UPpers. We see Vito at a demonstration giving courage to protestors who might be faltering. We see an ill Vito, taped in shadowed light. We see Vito on the balcony of Larry Kramer’s Fifth Avenue flat being cheered by Gay Pride marchers. We hear of his last days from his cousin and brother and then, wham!, we see the born/died dates: Vito as Napoleon, as Lenin, as I don’t know, maybe Vito as the Working-Class Gay Man.
That’s my problem with this film. Jeffrey Schwarz, who treated me and I believe all of the participants of the film respectfully—I’ve heard nothing else—said before the film was shown at Outfest that a sixteen-year-old gay youth saw the film and then declared he now had a hero.
Well, I’m here to tell you that Vito Russo wasn’t a hero. Or if he was a hero, then there are four hundred and ninety-five thousand more heroes dead but still living in memories, and they, and all of us who lived through gay liberation and AIDS, deserve a documentary of our own. (No, I don’t want one. I say we deserve one). Given how modest, how unassuming, how downright real Vito always was, even while dying in that hospital bed of that awful disease, I believe that it’s a disservice trying to turn him into a hero.
Who was Vito? Here’s an example: seven months before he died, after Jeffrey and many of his pals were gone, Vito and Clovis Ruffin gave a surprise birthday party for me on my forty-fifth birthday. Clovis, if you didn’t know, was an instant fashion superstar of the 1970s and ’80s who sold his line and his name for a fortune to Angelo Donghia’s company and who was Vito’s fast friend for the last years of their life. Not an intellectual—almost the opposite of an intellectual—and someone not mentioned in the film. Vito had finally bought a place of his own, which he had lusted after for years, in Manhattan’s Chelsea-area London Terrace complex, and Clovis was decorating it for Vito. “The walls are eggshell blue,” Vito reported. “The same shade as a Tiffany gift box.” Exactly the same shade, I can report, since I visited the place. And at the last party we were at together, Vito “borrowed” my telephone book so it could be attended by a number of my friends from the Pines A-list that he didn’t know—male beauties who both Clovis and Vito wanted to meet.
It was a warm, late February night and we were able to sit out on Clovis’s West Village eighteenth-story penthouse terrace, facing south toward the Twin Towers and Lady Liberty in New York Harbor. At one point Vito said to me, “Aren’t you so glad we get to be here?!”
In other words, he was still the movie fan, still the boy from uptown sneaking onto the IRT Line to get downtown for the action. Not a word about AIDS or ACT-UP that entire night. Just good food, liquor, hot men, film talk, and great company. That’s the Vito I recall and that I’d like you to remember.
HBO came into the life of the film Vito at some late point. I and a few others I talked to after that screening who had been interviewed early on for it believe the film changed its shape and structure somewhere along the way. Possibly under the influence of that company; possibly it was all the director’s idea. But I have to ask: are my gay friends doomed to become cable TV’s historical fodder? Will the distortions continue unchecked, gathering steam, and becoming accepted, just because gay kids “need” and straight film execs want gay heroes for a few years? Who knows?
What I do know is that the ending of the movie is now what I have to call a typical Hollywood film-school-script third act: in other words a “Hollywood Ending.” In light of who Vito Russo was, it’s ironic, isn’t it?
Felice Picano is the author of more than twenty-five books of poetry, fiction, memoirs, nonfiction, and plays. His work has been translated into many languages and several of his titles have been national and international bestsellers. He is considered a founder of modern gay literature along with the other members of the Violet Quill. Picano also began and operated the SeaHorse Press and Gay Presses of New York for fifteen years. His first novel was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Since then he’s been nominated for and/or won dozens of literary awards. Recent work includes True Stories Too, Twelve O’Clock Stories, 20th Century Un-limited, True Stories, Tales: From a Distant Planet, and Art & Sex in Greenwich Village. Picano teaches at Antioch University, Los Angeles.
Read more of Felice Picano from Chelsea Station Editions