Queer Historic Sites of the East

Places where you can get both your history and your nightlife gay

There are dozens of historic sites and museums in the United States that have direct relevance to lesbians and gays, although you’d never realize it simply from taking a casual tour of them. Did you know, for example, that Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde once socialized together in a small house in Camden, New Jersey? Or that that one of America’s most famous presidential first ladies shared her estate with a prominent lesbian couple? Here’s a queer perspective on five notable historic sites and museums in the eastern United States, from literary salons to rock-and-roll shrines.

Pittsfield, Mass.
Between the small industrial city of Pittsfield and the fancy summer resort village of Lenox, the famous 19th-century author Herman Melville lived in a sturdy 1780s farmhouse with stunning views of Massachusetts’ highest point, 3,500-foot Mt. Greylock. Today the house, Arrowhead, contains a museum dedicated to this brilliant and complex writer, whose epic novel Moby-Dick remains one of the English language’s most widely recognized works.

Though married, Melville appears to have been ambivalent about his sexuality throughout his life, having developed intense friendships with several men. He expressed a deep and apparently unrequited affection for his Berkshires contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne, who considered him a good friend but nothing more. And several of Melville’s novels include often obvious queer subtexts, especially Billy Budd, which was later adapted by Benjamin Britten and E.M. Forster into a decidedly homoerotic opera.

Arrowhead contains no references to Melville’s possible homosexuality, but it does give a strong sense of the author’s life and some of his inspirations, from his work study that faced Mt. Greylock to the porch Melville appended to the north side of the house – it later became the inspiration for the short story “The Piazza.” Melville’s accounts of his life and marriage are rather melancholy – he wrote with far greater fondness of his early years spent among men during long journeys at sea; there he earned a living as a merchant sailor. Despite later achieving considerable literary prowess, Melville never earned quite enough from writing to support his family. In 1862 he sold Arrowhead to his brother and moved to New York City, where for the next two decades he led a Bartleby-like existence as a customs inspector.

Nearby in downtown Pittsfield, you can further explore the author’s life at the Herman Melville Memorial Room of the Berkshire Athenaeum. The collection contains early photos, manuscripts and letters, books, and personal belongings of the author.

Cleveland
Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of FameDesigned by I.M. Pei and opened in 1986, the pyramidal Rock and Roll Hall of Fame strikes quite the pose over Cleveland’s Lake Erie shorefront. This well-attended museum offers an invigorating study of the music that has defined American pop culture over the past half-century. On display you can examine such colorful memorabilia as Janis Joplin’s psychedelically painted Porsche and Little Richard’s black jacket, complete with colorful appliqu├ęs.

In fact, plenty of bisexual, gay, or ambiguous musicians are enshrined here, among them Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Elton John, David Bowie, Dusty Springfield, Lou Reed, and Freddie Mercury. Another exhibit lists the 500 songs “that shaped rock and roll.” Queer faves on this roster include Culture Club’s “Time,” Husker Du’s “Turn On The News,” Madonna’s “Like A Virgin,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First,” and R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” With apologies to the Polka Hall of Fame in suburban Euclid, this is Cleveland’s only certifiable must-see attraction.

Philadelphia
During the first half of the 20th century, brothers A.S.W. and Philip Rosenbach operated Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Company, then the nation’s foremost dealership of rare books and manuscripts. Not much has been written about the brothers’ personal lives, but many historians in the City of Brotherly Love speculate that at least one of these fellows was gay. Philip died shortly after his brother in 1953, and their stunning 1860s town house around the corner from Philadelphia’s posh Rittenhouse Square is now the Rosenbach Museum and Library, a fascinating – if idiosyncratic – collection of 130,000 manuscripts (including James Joyce’s Ulysses and several Joseph Conrads), 25,000 rare books, numerous works by author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, and a dazzling collection of antiques that includes Herman Melville’s bookcase.

Different items are set out at different times, but one permanent exhibit displays the re-created Greenwich Village living room of the lesbian poet and modernist icon Marianne Moore (1887-1972). The Rosenbach Museum owns nearly all of Moore’s papers and manuscripts, including her correspondences with queer poets Elizabeth Bishop and Langston Hughes. In February 2002 the Rosenbach began a comprehensive restoration and expansion – it’s a good idea to call ahead and confirm hours, as this work should continue for several months.

Camden, N.J.
Just across the river from Philadelphia, in the New Jersey city of Camden, you can visit the small Walt Whitman House, where the poet lived from the mid- 1870s until his death in 1892. Here he entertained kindred spirits, including Thomas Carpenter and Thomas Eakins, and he penned his most noteworthy poem, “Leaves of Grass.”

In January 1882, before he would be brought down by scandals concerning his gay relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde also called on Whitman at his Camden home. For about two hours the pair of them kicked back in the drawing room together, chatting about their respective literary aspirations and sipping elderberry wine. According to Wilde’s biographer Richard Ellman, things may have gotten a little frisky – Wilde later bragged about leaving his new friend’s domicile still with the “kiss of Walt Whitman” on his lips. These days the museum contains mementos and letters written by the famous scribe.

The Camden-Philadelphia connection is a notorious site of homophobic grandstanding: In the early 1950s, the Catholic Diocese of Camden and a handful of righteous New Jersey politicians led a strident letter-writing campaign against naming a new bridge across the Delaware River after the queer poet. These efforts failed, and since 1957 the Walt Whitman Bridge has carried millions of travelers driving along Interstate 76 over the Delaware River.

Hyde Park, N.Y.
About 100 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, close to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, you can visit the only national historic site dedicated to a presidential first lady, the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, which she called Val-Kill. Even during her husband’s lifetime, this passionate and articulate stateswoman retreated frequently to her small country property a few miles east of the official Roosevelt compound, Springwood. In fact, it was FDR’s idea to build a small cottage in 1924 where Eleanor could get away from it all with her very close friends, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, a lesbian couple famously influential in New York Democratic political circles. Letters and second-hand accounts now support the theory that Eleanor Roosevelt herself had a lengthy lesbian relationship with an Associated Press political journalist named Lorena Hickok.

The property consisted of a stone cottage, in which Cook and Dickerman ultimately resided for some 30 years, and – just a few yards away – a rather plain stucco building that had originally housed a small furniture- making factory. Following the death of FDR in 1945, Eleanor moved permanently into the stucco structure at Val-Kill, and here she resided until her death in 1962. She apparently continued to see a great deal of Lorena Hickok, who lived in her own cottage in Hyde Park until she passed away in 1968.

Val-Kill today contains a smattering of the Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal belongings – the majority of them were auctioned off during the years following her death. Nevertheless, a walk through this simple, unpretentious house brings visitors remarkably close to the spirit of this determined woman who spoke out against racism, sexism, McCarthyism, and every other unjust “ism” long before these stances were popular with even left-leaning American audiences.

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