Mr. Gitlin, who was born in West Hartford, Conn., studied with Hanya Holm, Alwin Nikolais, Martha Graham and Jose Limon, and danced with the New York City Opera, the companies of Mr. Nikolais and Pearl Lang, and in such musicals as "The King and I," "The Golden Apple," "Can-Can" and "Irma la Douce."
He was stage manager for Off Broadway revivals of "On the Town," "The Boys From Syracuse" and "Private Lives," and was production stage manager for "The Boys in the Band" from its first workshop production throughout its initial Off Broadway run and first national tour. He was also production stage manager for the Broadway revival of "Blithe Spirit" with Richard Chamberlain, and for touring productions of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Death Trap" and Brian Bedford's one-man show, "Poets, Lunatics and Lovers."
A class photo at the Henry Street Playhouse taken in 1949. Identified persons are, on left standing: Luke Bragg, Sheldon Ossosky, and Murray Louis; front seated: Anita Lynn, Phyllis Lamhut, ***, Nancy Robb (front), Martha Howe (rear), Murray Gitlin, and ***; on right: Alwin Nikolais and Gladys Bailin.
Instead of office buildings, Third Avenue was lined with brownstones, and it was dominated by the Elevated. The nooks and shadows created by this shaft down the center of the avenue played a significant role in gay life in New York before the war: they offered a multitude of discreetly darkened meeting places right in the heart of the metropolis. "It was a little bit spooky," said Murray Gitlin, a Broadway dancer who remembered Third Avenue as "one of the only cruisy places" in the 1940s. "It was like being under palm trees on a summer night," Franklin Macfie quipped. "You could very easily feel you were in Rio!"Further Readings:
"Malingerers" were those who pretended to be gay to avoid duty at the front; "reverse malingerers"-a term invented by military psychiatrists-described gay recruits who pretended to be heterosexual so they could perform their patriotic duty. By 1943 doctors had devised the Cornell Selectee Index, which used "occupational choice" questions to screen out dancers, window dressers, and interior decorators because they would have difficulty with their "acceptance of the male pattern." The media periodically spread this new official prejudice. The Washington Star noted that navy psychiatrists would "be on the lookout for any number of mental illnesses or deficiencies that would make the recruit a misfit," including homosexuality, and Time reported that "How do you get along with girls?" was one of the questions "machine-gunned" at the inductee during his physical. These press reports produced all kinds of unlikely fears. When Murray Gitlin enlisted in the navy, he was "very afraid that they would undress me during the physical examination, and they'd know, looking at me, that I was gay. That's how innocent I was. Well they didn't-and they couldn't have cared less."
MURRAY GITLIN was working in the terminal cancer ward of the Brooklyn Naval Hospital and dreaming about becoming a dancer when he got out of the navy. "On nights off I would come into Manhattan. Servicemen-all of us in uniform-were treated like royalty. You were given tickets to movies and concerts." When he was eighteen he went to Radio City Music Hall "alone, in my uniform. I wasn't what you'd call a hot sailor. I was too fat. Anyway, I sat there, and this tall blond man came-not old-and sat next to me. "I felt something and I began to tremble. And he put his hand on my thigh, and I thought to myself, Well, I've got to do something. So he kept fooling around. In the orchestra of the Music Hall! I believe the movie was Abe Lincoln in Illinois. So he asked me if I would like to come to his hotel room, and I said yes. It was called the Hotel America, on 47th, between Sixth and Seventh. It was like a hotel that Tennessee Williams would have stayed in, in New Orleans-louvered doors and very rinky-dink. I was as nervous as a cat. And when we got to the hotel, he said, `You wait down here for a few minutes and I'll go up.' He told me the room number, and then he said, `You can come up and I'll let you in.' I said, `Great.' And then I went up and I knocked on his door and he opened the louvers and we hugged one another and kissed. And I said, `I love you!' He turned out to be a cocktail pianist from Asbury Park. There was nothing unusual about him. He was very corn-fed and very middle of the road. For me it was a great release and a great experience. And we saw one another several times after."
Thousands of gay Americans fell in love with West Side Story when they were children in the fifties. And for legions of kids of all persuasions, the show provided them with their first concrete notion of romantic love. To many gay adults coming of age in the sixties, the romance, violence, danger, and mystery so audible on the original cast album all felt like integral parts of the gay life they had embraced. The lyrics of "Somewhere" in particular seemed to speak directly to the gay experience before the age of liberation. In 1996, it was one of the songs chosen for the first mass gay wedding of two hundred couples in San Francisco, presided over by the city's mayor, Willie Brown. But none of the collaborators (or their 1950S contemporaries) ever suspected there was anything gay about their very heterosexual love story. (Coincidentally, Larry Kert, who starred as Tony, was also gay.) "It was never an issue that we talked about," said Murray Gitlin, who fell in love with the show when it opened. "I never thought about it as gay."
MURRAY GITLIN had black hair and a long, attractive Semitic face. His low, warm, carefully modulated voice and precise diction made him sound almost British. His close friend Stanley Posthorn remarked that Gitlin was so charming that he could convert anyone he met into a friend. In 1949 Gitlin moved back to New York. His first temporary residence was the elegant apartment belonging to his uncle Aaron and aunt Helen on the Grand Concourse, still a magnificent Bronx boulevard right after the war. He didn't have time to look for his own place because he "just had to become a dancer," Gitlin explained. "I was a late starter, and I didn't have time to waste. I was twenty-two." His aunt Helen was a "very powerful woman" who was seeing a psychiatrist because she was having terrible abdominal pain that her doctor thought was psychosomatic. One night after dinner, she said, "`You know, Murray, Aaron and I know that among male dancers, there are many who are homosexual.' She was suspicious of me. `And we wonder, since you're a dancer now, what your relationship is to those men.' "I thought she had balls. You know: 1950. And I said, `Well, Helen, I am.' And Aaron was there. She said, `Oh.' I said, `Oh yes.' And I said, `I've accepted it, and I think I understand it.' And she said, `Well!' "She insisted I go to her psychiatrist and have a preliminary consultation with him. And then we'd see." Gitlin went to the psychiatrist, but it had no effect. "I think there was never any choice for me, which is, you know, par for the course. And as far as I know, as far as I can remember, there was never another way for me. I felt confident because I'd thought it through." Soon he found a magnificent cold-water flat at 426 West 56th Street with a bathtub in the kitchen and the bathroom in the hall. The rent was $16 a month. During the next forty-four years, Gitlin would never leave the neighborhood, although he did move once to another apartment six blocks away. He was very good-looking, but too chubby to think of himself as really attractive. His first job was in the chorus of The King and I. "I was very happy to be in that show-it was a very glamorous thing to be in. It was just beautiful. I've directed it since and played roles in it since, but that was the most important." In the chorus line, Gitlin replaced Otis Bigelow-the best-looking man in Manhattan in 1940, the one who had chosen a beautiful sailor over a suntanned millionaire. A year earlier at Martha Graham's dancing school in Vermont, Gitlin spotted a "tall beautiful young man, who looked like a swimmer-which he was. I'll never forget my first impression of him. After class, I asked Martha if she would introduce me to him, and she did. He was very shy. And I said I was living in New York. I said when you come to New York-and I knew he would-look me up if you want to. I'd be very happy to see you. One day Gitlin was leaving the St James Theatre, where The King and I was playing, and he recognized the same young man. "He was sitting out there just waiting for me. And he said, `Hi. Remember me?' In a small voice. I said, `Yes, I do remember you.' And that's when our friendship really began." The young man was Paul Taylor, who became one of Manhattan's most famous modern dancers and choreographers, as well as the founder of his own dance company, which is still flourishing. Gitlin found him an apartment in his building, and soon Taylor was bringing over a painter friend named Bob Rauschenberg. "Rauschenberg used to come over and he would go to the bathroom," Gitlin remembered. "And I would keep painting that bathroom-to cheer it up a little bit. And I painted it red and orange and it would peel almost immediately. And one day, I'll never forget, Rauschenberg went to the bathroom, and he came in, and said, `When I become famous'-not if, but `when I become famous'-that bathroom is going to be part of the exhibit I have. Because I think it's so beautiful the way the paint's peeling off so delicately."' Another frequent visitor was Jerome Robbins, whom Gitlin knew slightly because Robbins had choreographed The King and I. A couple of years later, Robbins would choose a photograph of Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence standing in front of Gitlin's West Side apartment building to illustrate the cast album of his most spectacular musical. "Jerry used to come over and visit and we'd laugh," said Gitlin. "But he was always weird. We always got along in those days. I don't know; something happened. He does this to people. He turns people off. Something snaps. Somewhere along the line, something must have happened between him and nie. I mean we really liked one another. And in some of my early days on Fire Island, he was out there. He loved the island as much as I did. He loved games and I loved games. And we played with some of the ballet people who were out there. And it was so much fun. He loved to have fun."
The Penn Post baths across the street from Penn Station were popular at lunchtime and with the commuter crowd in the late afternoon. Murray Gitlin remembered "a room with a lot of double bunks and a steam room slippery with slime. I was lying on the upper bunk at the end of Penn Post, and I heard this very erudite conversation, and I looked down and it was Lincoln Kirstein."
Victim never got into general release in America. Always alert to the dangerous connections between culture and politics, the Catholic-dominated censorship office in Hollywood refused to give Victim its seal of approval. According to the film historian Vito Russo, the first objection was to the use of the words homosexual and homosexuality, "which had never before been uttered on screen." A spokesman for the Production Code Administration explained that the film was unacceptable because of its "candid and clinical discussion of homosexuality" and its "overtly expressed plea for social acceptance of the homosexual, to the extent that he be made socially tolerable." A handful of art houses in big cities did exhibit Victim, despite the absence of censorship office endorsement. Murray Gitlin went to see the film in Chicago with an actor friend. "We came out, and Woody said to me, `Well, our secret is out!"' Gitlin remembered. "This is, like, sixty-two. And that may have been the beginning of an awareness that had not been around before. A very important moment."
The Boys in the Band was the first "uncloseted" look at gay life inside a New York closet-with all the brittle intelligence, bitter humor and exaggerated pathos on which white, male, middle-class gay life thrived in this era. Crowley took his title from A Star Is Born, in which James Mason tells Judy Garland, "Relax, it's three A.M. at the Downbeat Club, and you're singing for yourself and the boys in the band." The title worked. The action takes place in a single evening, at a birthday party hosted by Michael, a profligate writer who is briefly on the wagon. Leonard Frey gave a brilliant performance as Harold, the guest of honor whose introduction of himself at the beginning of the second act immediately became famous: "What I am, Michael, is a thirty-two-year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy-and if it takes me a while to pull myself together and if I smoke a little grass before I can get up the nerve to show my face to the world, it's nobody's goddamn business but my own.... And how are you this evening?" When Crowley first showed the script to his agent, she was so embarrassed that she couldn't even look him in the eye. She whispered, "I can't send this out with my name on it. Why, it's like a weekend on Fire Island!" But the agent hadn't absorbed the changes already wrought by an amazing decade, while Crowley had perfect timing and perfect pitch. Twenty-four hours after leaving his agent's office he was in Richard Barr's apartment; Barr and Charles Woodward, Jr., agreed to produce his new play on the spot.* Then Crowley sat down with the director Bob Moore, whom he had known at Catholic University in Washington, and together they cut the script in half. "It worked as a play when Bob and Mart together trimmed it down to a workable size," said Murray Gitlin, the former Broadway chorus boy who stage-managed the first workshop production of Boys on Vandam Street.
Harold's birthday present in the play is a laconic $20-a-night hustler whom Harold immediately nicknames Tex. Murray Gitlin had asked Robert La Tourneaux to audition for the part after he met him at the Westside YMCA. "He was one of the most beautiful young men," Gitlin recalled. La Tourneaux hesitated at first because he thought it was demeaning to play a hustler. But after the play became a hit, he repeated the role in London and Los Angeles, and again for the film. --Charles Kaiser. The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America. Kindle Edition.
The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America by Charles Kaiser
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Grove Press (June 10, 2007)
Amazon: The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year and winner of a Lambda Literary Award, The Gay Metropolis is a landmark saga of struggle and triumph that was instantly recognized as the most authoritative and substantial work of its kind. Filled with astounding anecdotes and searing tales of heartbreak and transformation, it provides a decade-by-decade account of the rise and acceptance of gay life and identity since the 1940s. From the making of West Side Story, the modern Romeo and Juliet tale written and staged by four gay men, to the catastrophic era of AIDS, Charles Kaiser recounts the true history of the gay movement with many never-before-told stories. Filled with dazzling characters — including Leonard Bernstein, Montgomery Clift, Alfred Hitchcock, and John F. Kennedy, among many others — this is a vital telling of American history, exciting and uplifting.