The Daily Agenda for Sunday, January 19

Jim Burroway

January 19th, 2014

Premiere of “Looking”: HBO. What do you want in a gay series? When Showtime came out with Queer as Folk, we were willing to look past the barely passable acting, hackneyed dialogue and soap opera emoting just to have a television show that showed gay people — regardless of whether those people corresponded to anyone we knew in real life. Will and Grace was minstrel, but it was our minstrel, and genuinely funny too. But those programs, along with “The L-Word” and “The New Normal,” all seemed to have a kind of Gay People for Dummies vibe, I guess so straight audiences wouldn’t be lost without the subtitles. I would hope that today, with more than a third of Americans living in marriage equality states, maybe it’s time for a TV series in which the main characters are gay — really gay, but not self-consciously, defiantly, outrageously, tragically or poignantly so.

It looks like we may have that in HBO’s “Looking,” a half-hour comedy-drama that follows a trio of friends in San Francisco. Reviews are promising. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum calls “Looking” a “stealth breakthrough, if only because it treats its highly specific circle of gay men with warmth and playfulness, viewing their struggles as ordinary, not outrageous.” The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever favorably contrasts “Looking” to other series gone by:

Closets are now so emptied — and gay culture is increasingly seen in perspective rather than merely as a topic — that “Looking” can spare itself the broad declarations of identity or liberty. For so long, film and TV projects about gay men involved obligatory scenes of bigotry and despair, in which the good times were unfailingly interrupted by requisite suffering. It was always a short hop from the disco floor to the hospital bed.

Stuever does warn that “a self-consciousness about being a ‘gay show’ is still evident, mostly in the writing,” so I guess one can’t expect perfection. But this does look promising. “Looking” stars Jonathan Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez and Murray Bartlett, with Scott Bakula, Russell Tovey and Raul Castillo rounding out the cast. “Looking” premieres tonight at 10:30 p.m. EST on HBO East, and 10:30 p.m. PST on HBO West. Check your local listings.

Events This Weekend: Aspen Gay Ski Week, Aspen, CO; Bärenpaadiie, Hamburg, Germany; Midsumma, Melbourne, VIC; Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend, Washington, DC.

TODAY’S AGENDA is brought to you by:

From The Blade, December 1976, page 13.

Lambda Rising opened in 1974 in a tiny 300 square foot space with 250 titles, and it quickly became a kind of an informal community center for Washington, D.C.’s gay community. From those humble beginnings, it moved in 1984 to a larger 4,800 square foot, two story space on Connecticut Avenue and expanded to three other locations in Baltimore, Richmond, and Rehoboth Beach. In 2003, Lambda Rising bought the venerable Oscar Wilde Book Shop in New York and saved it from certain closure. But the rise of and the willingness of general bookstores to carry LGBT titles cut into Lambda Rising’s business. Lambda Rising sold Oscar Wilde in 2006, and closed its three expansion bookstores between 2007 and 2009. The main store on Connecticut Avenue finally closed its doors for good on December 31, 2010.

The Death of Murray Hall: 1901. The headline in the January 19, 1901, New York Times undoubtedly shocked a lot of people who thought they knew a gregarious Tammany Hall politician pretty well:

Murray H. Hall, the woman who masqueraded as a man for more than a quarter of a century, and the secret of whose sex came out only after her death last Wednesday night at 145 Sixth Avenue [renumbered in the 1920s to 453 6th Ave, between 11th and 12th streets — ed], was known to hundreds of people in the Thirteenth Senatorial District, where she figured quite prominently as a politician. In a limited circle she even had a reputation as a “man about town,” a bon vivant, and all-around “good fellow.” She was a member of the General Committee of Tammany Hall, a member of the Iroquois Club, a personal friend of State Senator “Barney” Martin and other officials, and one of the most active Tammany workers in the district.

She registered and voted at primaries and general elections for many years, and exercised considerable political influence with Tammany Hall, often securing appointments for friends who have proved their fealty to the organization ­ never exciting the remotest suspicion as to her real sex.

She played poker at the clubs with city and State officials and politicians who flatter themselves on their cleverness and perspicacity, drank whisky and wine and smoked the regulation “big black cigar” with the apparent relish and gusto of the real man-about-town. Furthermore, Murray Hall is known to have been married twice, but the woman to whom she stood before the world in the attitude of a husband kept her secret as guardedly as she did.

Hall’s secret was found out when his doctor was called to treat him for an illness he had been suffering for many years. That illness, it turned out, was breast cancer. By the time the doctor made the diagnosis, the cancer had spread to the heart. He died two days later. The Times reported that Hall was a book lover, preferring scientific and medical books, which led to speculation that Hall was trying to treat himself for cancer before finally succumbing. C.S. Pratt, the bookseller who Hall dealt with (and who to whom Hall sold his library three months before his death), had no clue that Hall was anything other than a man.

“He seemed to me to be a modest little man, but occasionally he showed an irascible temper. He would never talk about himself and shunned garrulous and inquisitive companions. In fact, when I met him on the street he was either accompanied by his black and tan dog or some woman or women, strangers to me, who I supposed were clients.”

“During the seven years I knew him I never once suspected that he was anything else than what he appeared to be. While he was somewhat effeminate in appearance and talked in a falsetto voice, still his conduct and actions were distinctively masculine. This revelation is a stunner to me and, I guess, to everybody else who knew him.”

Hall had been quite successful in the rough-and-tumble political world of Tammany Hall:

Why,” continued the Senator, “when the County Democracy was in the heyday of its glory, Murray Hall was one of the bright stars in that constellation. He was the Captain of his election district when he lived and kept an intelligence office between Seventeenth and Eighteenth Street, on Sixth Avenue. That was some years ago, when the district was cut down, making Fourteenth Street the northern boundary. Hall moved so as to be in with his political pals. He used to hobnob with the big guns of the County Democracy, and I knew he cut quite some figure as a politician.

He also cut quite a figure as a ladies man. Married twice, both wives complained that he was “too attentive to other women.” His adopted daughter, Imelda Hall, had no idea about her father’s background. When she testified at a Coroner’s inquest two weeks later, she referred to her father as “he.” The Coroner interrupted to ask, “Wouldn’t you better say ‘she’?” She replied, “No, I will never say ‘she’.”

Patricia Highsmith: 1921-1995. The American author most widely known for her psychological thrillers Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley had a psychologically-scarring childhood to match her literary interests. She was born in her grandmother’s boarding house, ten days after her parents divorced. Highsmith later said that her mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine. Her mother would later taunt her: “It’s funny how you adore the smell of turpentine, Pat.” Her mother remarried three years later and the family moved to New York when Patricia was seven, only to send her back to Texas at the age of twelve. Highsmith never resolved her complicated love/hate relationship with her mother. “I learned to live with a grievous and murderous hatred very early on. And learned to stifle also my more positive emotions.”

After graduating from Barnard in 1942, Highsmith wrote for comic books until 1947. Her first book, 1950’s Strangers on a Train was only moderately successful as a novel, but Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film adaptation established Highsmith’s reputation for writing disturbing psychological thrillers. Her publisher rejected her second novel, The Price of Salt (1952), due to its unabashedly lesbian story line with a rare happy ending. She published it under a pseudonym with a pulp fiction publisher and sold nearly a million copies. While the story had a happy ending, the real-life story behind the book wasn’t so positive. Highsmith based the main character on a woman she met at Bloomingdales, and she stalked her for two months after completing the book.

Her fourth book, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), introduced readers to her recurring character Tom Ripley, an amoral, sexually flexible con artist and murderer who appeared in four more novels between 1955 and 1991. (The book also proved popular with gay readers.) Some thirty short stories and novels followed altogether, many of them brilliant, all of them plumbing the depths of disturbed psyches and opening a world in which murder can seem a perfectly reasonable solution. As one reviewer put it, “Her stories are whydunits rather than whodunits.”

But Highsmith’s life, in many ways, imitated her art, particularly her anti-hero Tom Ripley: she lied, stole, fought, and insinuated herself into love triangles that she then set about destroying. Otto Penszler described her as “a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person. I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly.” A publisher once commented, “She may have been one of the dozen best short-story writers of the 20th century, and she may have been one of the dozen most disagreeable and mean-spirited.”

She had relationships, mostly with women, but they never lasted long. She had a fling with artist Allela Cornell in 1943 (Cornell later committed suicide in 1946 by drinking nitric acid), and between 1959 and 1961 she was involved with lesbian pulp fiction writer Marijane Meaker (who wrote as Vin Packer and Ann Aldrich). But as Highsmith grew older and more financially successful, she lived mainly alone and became increasingly eccentric, and not in a charming sort of way. She raised 300 pet snails that she carried around in her purse, and which she sometimes let out at dinner parties when she was bored. She was intensely anti-Semitic, racist, alcoholic, a “consummate atheist,” and, later in life, fiercely anti-American. While living in Switzerland in the 1980s, she invented nearly 40 pseudonyms while writing to newspapers denouncing the “influence” of Jews. She died alone in a Swiss hospital in 1995 at the age of 74. Her last visitor was her accountant. Her last book, Small g: A Summer Idyll, was published a month later.

If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).

And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?

Paul Douglas

January 19th, 2014

Ms Highsmith sounds pretty disturbed.
Glad she wasn’t part of my life.


January 19th, 2014

I frequently walk by the shoe store that was once Lambda Rising and I have never shaken the feeling that there is something wrong. The universe is skewed in a most unpleasant way. I have the feeling that the world is wrong somehow, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

While I can get all of the gay themed books I want from many sources, I have not found any place that has the silly gifts I liked to give friends as part of their birthday celebrations.

Richard Rush

January 19th, 2014

Jerry, I think I understand. My husband of 32-years and I have often talked about it. We know for sure that the world is now a much better place for gays – especially the young ones just coming of age – than it was when we were young. But there are still things we miss about the old days when living a gay life meant living in an underground secret society that was very special and supportive.

There is a gay restaurant in our city that I first patronized in the mid-1970s. We almost always had to wait in line to get a seat, and everyone was free to be their gay selves. For at least the last ten to fifteen years the patronage has declined to the point of it being a depressing atmosphere, and our visits have declined to rarely. About two months ago we tried it again, and I told my husband, “never again.”

Our gay bookstore is still hanging on, but it is for sale. The owner hopes to sell to someone who will maintain it, but that is not a condition of the sale, as far as I know.

When I “came out” over forty years ago, I think those who managed to live a gay life were people who were largely non-conformists, generally. I saw gays who tip-toed out for a short time, and then, being the conformists they largely were, went on to fake it in straight life, and now all these years later I’m still stunned to see the magnitude of the fallout from failed “straight” marriages. And, of course, there are those who have been wearing the straight face for decades while indulging in secret homosex on the side, and in many cases, are still doing so.

Today’s younger gay people are much more likely to see themselves as an integral part of the mainstream culture rather than a secretive sub-culture. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Donny D.

January 20th, 2014

Ugh, I’m not optimistic about any show about gay men that HBO would do….


January 21st, 2014

HBO has posted episode 1 of “lLooking” on YouTube for your free viewing pleasure. I rather enjoyed it.

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