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The Book Club That Helped Spark the Gay-Rights Movement

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The Book Club That Helped Spark the Gay-Rights Movement

In the late nineteen-thirties, Gonzálo Segura, known to his friends as Tony, enrolled at Emory University to study biochemistry. He graduated in 1942, and subsequently took a job at Foster D. Snell, a New York-based engineering and chemical-consulting company that the United States Army hired to run radiation tests. Under strict secrecy, Segura tested which cleaning agents removed radiation most effectively from human hands. As his career in radiochemistry progressed, he kept quiet about his growing attraction to other men. “I learned very early in life, when I was a child really, that that and all sexuality were things to be kept to myself,” he told the historian Jonathan Ned Katz, in 1977. He’d always assumed that, by the time he entered his twenties, he would develop desires for women, then marry and have kids.

But in 1954, on a business trip to Cleveland, Segura stopped by a bookstore and saw a copy of “The Homosexual in America,” by Donald Webster Cory. “I immediately bought it, and was quite entranced with the book,” Segura told Katz. Cory argued that homosexuals were not troubled individuals but members of a distinct minority group who needed to organize and fight for their rights. In the back of the book was a list of other titles addressing homosexuality. Segura returned to New York and, using the list as a guide, visited bookstores up and down Manhattan, snapping up all the titles he could find. In one store, on Forty-second Street, he found Loren Wahl’s novel “The Invisible Glass,” which depicts homosexuality and racism in the military. Inside was a card from Greenberg, the small New York-based press that had published both Wahl’s novel and Cory’s book. The card, Segura recalled, had a note: “If you liked this book and you would like to keep notified of further books on a similar matter, please let us know.” Segura wrote down his address and sent it to the publisher.

Early Newspaper

A few weeks later, he received a two-page newsletter announcing that month’s selection of titles from something called the Cory Book Service. “In early-nineteen-fifties America, Donald Webster Cory had probably the largest L.G.B.T. mailing list in the country, and maybe in the world,” David K. Johnson, who describes the book service in “Buying Gay,” his book about the legacy of gay men’s physique magazines, told me. At its height, the list boasted at least three thousand subscribers. The service didn’t have meetings; Cory simply selected books and sent the titles to his readers, highlighting everything from Marc Brandel’s novel “The Barriers Between,” about a man who murders his friend for “unnatural advances,” to “Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition,” a gay theological history that Cory described as “the book that hundreds of our readers have been searching for,” one that “they could give to friends, family, and counsellors.” Many subscribers to the newsletter were living in the closet, and, even though the service did not provide a clear way for them to communicate with one another, the mailings offered glimpses of community.

Operating a gay book service was not without risks. Anti-Communists, including Joseph McCarthy, had promoted campaigns to expel queer people from government as supposed subversives, leading to the firings of thousands of federal employees in what has been dubbed the lavender scare. After investigations by the Postal Service, U.S. attorneys offices indicted and fined publishers of gay materials on obscenity charges; Greenberg paid the government a three-thousand-dollar fine, in the mid-fifties, and had to pull several of its books from publication for alleged obscenity. Queer people caught distributing gay books could incur worse than fines. Federal law allowed for up to five years in prison. In some states, when queer people were arrested on morals charges, “police departments would often notify bar associations or medical licensing boards or especially schools,” Anna Lvovsky, an assistant professor at Harvard Law School, told me. “The real shadow that hung over these arrests was the threat of collateral consequences such as the loss of employment.” Víctor Macías-González, a historian and the author of a paper on Tony Segura, told me that many queer people refused to buy gay books, instead borrowing them through rental services, which a number of bookstores had at the time.

And yet the early fifties saw a boom in queer literature, driven in part by the rise of cheap paperbacks. The historian Michael Bronski has estimated that around three hundred books about queer men hit the shelves between 1940 and 1969. The trend was not limited to books about men: “Women’s Barracks: The Frank Autobiography of a French Girl Soldier,” a lesbian novel published in 1950, sold two million copies in its first five years. The lesbian pulp novel “Spring Fire,” by Vin Packer, sold one and a half million copies in its first year alone. In “Buying Gay,” Johnson quotes a letter that a Massachusetts librarian sent to Greenberg asking for additional titles: “Customers have been after me to get a few ‘so-called’ gay books.”

Brandt Aymar, the vice-president of Greenberg, began compiling a list of the customers who wrote to him in search of books. According to Johnson, he tallied their names and mailing addresses into what he called the “H” list (presumably for “homosexual”), in hopes of further tapping the market. In 1951, Aymar published Cory’s “The Homosexual in America.” Cory called on gay people “to extend freedom of the individual, of speech, press, and thought to an entirely new realm.” The book made a splash: the first printing sold out in ten days, and Cory was flooded with reader mail. As Johnson notes in “Buying Gay,” Aymar decided to pool his “H” list with Cory’s letters to form the Cory Book Service. Together, they figured, they would have a direct line to the gay book market.

In the book service’s inaugural issue, sent out in September, 1952, Cory promised that many of the books he featured would be available to his subscribers before they hit stores. He secured deep discounts from foreign publishers; after buying four books, readers received the fifth one free. In January, 1953, Cory reported that about two thousand subscribers had bought at least one book. He leveraged his reach to bring at least one older book back into print, convincing the publisher of a seven-year-old novel, “David the King,” by Gladys Schmitt, to initiate a new print run, noting that his readers “have queried us many times during the past months” about it. The book service also pushed for English translations of works that had been published in other languages, and once made available a title that didn’t yet have a U.S. publisher: the British author Mary Renault’s “The Charioteer,” which the Cory Book Service offered in 1954, five years before the book was available for sale in the U.S.

Given the hostility toward homosexuality during this era, it’s a small miracle that the newsletter escaped censorship. Johnson told me that he doesn’t know why the Post Office appears never to have confiscated it. Cory does seem to have had a legal team vetting which books he recommended: when Jay Little, a gay author, wrote to Cory about placing his book “Maybe-Tomorrow” with the service, Cory replied that, although he enjoyed the novel, “We have not only been advised, but ordered by our lawyers, not to use your book.” Despite such evident precautions, Cory and Aymar chose to operate their business in public view: the book service had a physical address in Manhattan, which was listed at the top of the newsletter. To add subscribers, Cory convinced popular beefcake photographers, such as George Quaintance, to promote the service, according to Johnson.

Six of the books promoted by the Cory Book Service.

The mailing list also spread via word of mouth. At a discussion group sponsored by the Mattachine Society—a secretive gay organization that had formed in Los Angeles in 1950—someone mentioned the Cory Book Service, and soon afterward an attendee contacted Cory, asking for fifty newsletter-subscription cards. Separately, another representative from the society told Cory that his service was a “most timely development,” and proposed they combine the names of “sympathizers” with the society’s mailing list. An agreement between the two does not seem to have materialized, but Cory did make an arrangement with the newly created magazine ONE, promising to send his subscribers mailings from ONE in exchange for a fee. “Had it not been for Donald Webster Cory’s list, ONE Magazine, which historians of the gay movement consider to be critical, might not have gotten off the ground,” Johnson told me. In 1955, when a small group of lesbians formed the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization in the United States, they sent word to ONE, Mattachine, and the Cory Book Service. “They knew that that would help put them on the map,” Marcia Gallo, a historian who wrote about the Daughters of Bilitis in her book “Different Daughters,” told me.

At a conference in 1958, an attorney named Robert Veit Sherwin said, according to a set of contemporaneous notes, that, “under Cory, the book service was a receptacle for complaints, a shoulder to weep on, a help for people in trouble.” Through the monthly mailings, subscribers “felt a sense of belonging,” he added, noting that they wrote letters to Cory in such large numbers that “the burden of personally answering the letters became too great” for him.

When Tony Segura received his first copy of the service’s newsletter, in 1954, he noticed that its address was just a few blocks from the office where he worked. The next day, on his lunch break, he ventured in. There, he met a man named Arthur Richmond, who had been running the Cory Book Service on Cory’s behalf. Richmond told Segura about a growing network of gay organizations, of which Segura knew nothing. He advised Segura to subscribe to ONE and, later, to the Mattachine Review.

After that first taste of gay politics, Segura later recalled, “I just became more and more involved in these things.” He started volunteering, on an informal basis, for the book service, arranging books, processing mail, and sweeping and cleaning. Segura, who grew up in Cuba, spoke both Spanish and French, and soon he was fielding the bulk of the book service’s Latin America correspondence, which included messages from book dealers and newsstand operators in Colombia, Mexico, and Argentina. Macías-González told me that Cory had a significant following in Latin America—the Spanish translation of his book outsold the English edition three times over. It isn’t clear how many subscribers to his book service were based in Latin America, but, Macías-González told me, “It was enough so that they needed to find someone to deal with it.” Segura also handled translations, Macías-González said, coördinating with international authors and securing English-language versions of their books. He pushed to get English-language books translated into Spanish and to give them homes in Latin American bookstores.

Segura went to the office every day, first during his thirty-minute lunch break and again after his day job ended. “That office was a place where he met all these other gay men,” Macías-González told me. Within a year or two, Segura would become one of the most important gay activists in the city. He co-founded the New York chapter of the Mattachine Society, which went on to fight against laws criminalizing homosexuality and helped lay the groundwork for post-Stonewall organizing. In 1958, he was the first openly gay person to appear on TV on the East Coast, sitting for an interview on WABD, an independent New York station. (Although he was open about his sexuality, he wore a hood on camera to hide his identity.) “The friends, relatives, and associates of every American, whether he knows it or not, probably numbers several people he or she knows who are homosexual,” he said on the program.

Even as he gained prominence, Segura’s celebrity in the gay community never rivalled that of Donald Webster Cory, who, when the book service was active, may have been one of the most famous living figures in the budding gay-rights movement. Many of the era’s most prominent activists, including Barbara Gittings, of the Daughters of Bilitis, cited his book as an inspiration for their work. Cory’s name was lent not just to the newsletter but to a swath of other products, fashioning a kind of life-style brand: lamps, perfumes, shaving lotions, even a line of “Cory Christmas Cards,” which he advertised in one edition of the book service. “Donald Webster Cory was aware that there was a gay market out there, and it wasn’t just for books,” Johnson told me.

Donald Webster Cory was not his real name. Many of his admirers knew this, though few were aware of his actual identity. “People who met him gave conflicting descriptions of his appearance,” the gay activist Jim Kepner wrote, in an unpublished manuscript. The F.B.I., which had begun to compile a file on Cory, described him as “cadaverous looking.” The Bureau also said that Cory was a “bad influence among the homosexuals in New York City” because his work “tends to encourage homosexuality rather than to reduce it,” and the Bureau fielded a request from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations to do a “file check” on the Cory Book Service.

Cory’s real name was Edward Sagarin. He lived in New York, was married to a woman, and worked by day as a writer and executive in the perfume industry before pivoting to a career in sociology. Despite the rousing message that he delivered in “The Homosexual in America,” he was never entirely comfortable as an activist—even in the early days of running the book service, when he was helping to promote ONE and Mattachine, he expressed distrust of those groups. In 1953, he heard a rumor that ONE or Mattachine was going to start a competing book service, and he wrote a letter to ONE calling that decision “a most unethical act, absolutely inexcusable.” Cory, who had been named a contributing editor to the magazine, demanded that the group remove him from their masthead if the rumor was true. (ONE denied the claim; it started a book service five years later.) In 1954, Sagarin complained that a story he submitted to ONE was receiving a “cold rejection slip.” In 1956, Segura told another member of the community that Sagarin was “very much opposed” to ONE and the Mattachine Society.

Sagarin had begun gravitating toward a psychologist named Albert Ellis, who believed exclusive homosexuality was an illness that required therapy. Sagarin had met Ellis in the early fifties, and asked him to write an introduction to “The Homosexual In America.” The historian Martin Duberman, in an essay on Sagarin published in 1997, writes that “several Sagarin intimates” affirmed that Sagarin became a patient of Ellis’s, although Ellis denied this. By 1960, in any case, Sagarin shared Ellis’s view that, as the writer put it to a friend, the burgeoning gay community was not an oppressed minority but “a tree that’s stunted”—something, in other words, that has failed to grow healthfully.

By then, Sagarin had drifted away from the book service that bore his name. In early 1956, letters to the Cory Book Service were returned with the notice “DECEASED,” and readers assumed that Cory had died. Word reached the F.B.I., which marked the author as dead in its official file tracking his movements. According to the talk given by Robert Veit Sherwin, in 1958, “thousands and thousands of letters of condolence” poured in from readers, many of them asking about the funeral. Only later was it revealed that the person who died was Arthur Richmond, the man Segura had met when he first visited the office—and who, by 1956, was apparently the main person running the service. Richmond was a book publisher who seems to have mostly printed nonfiction. He had bought the mailing list from Sagarin, in September, 1954.

After Richmond’s death, Sagarin wanted someone else to keep the service going. Segura negotiated for the rights to run it, according to Macías-Gónzalez. He eventually agreed to a tentative co-investment: he and Sagarin would run it together, with Segura providing a third of the funds. But the deal never went through. By the beginning of 1957, Sagarin found a new owner: a Long Island woman named Elsie Carlton, who, according to Johnson, Sagarin had met at Jewish publishing events. About a month after Carlton agreed to run the service, Segura met her in person. “My first impression was a most favorable one,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, noting that, even though she was “not gay,” she had a “strong sense of social justice.”

Segura helped get her reboot of the newsletter off the ground. She took a pseudonym, Leslie Winston, borrowing the surname—at Segura’s suggestion, he later said—from the cigarette company. When Carlton was ready to publish her first two editions of the newly rebranded Winston Book Service, Segura and a half-dozen other Mattachine members travelled out to Long Island, where they typed up subscriber addresses, stuffed envelopes with newsletters, and prepared the featured books for purchase. The first edition of the Winston Book Service was announced in March, 1957.

“Those of you who have found it hard to fill the gap left by the demise of the Cory Book Service will be happy to know that it has been reactivated,” the Daughters of Bilitis announced in its newsletter, The Ladder. In the course of the next ten years, Carlton grew the Winston Book Service to five thousand subscribers. According to one account, she often walked around with a copy of “The Homosexual In America,” and when a friend or passerby asked what it was, she would “raise one more consciousness regarding the gay struggle and gay literature.” Then, after a decade, Carlton sold the service, to a professor named Russell Hoffman, who, rather than focus on books alone, peppered the mailings with news articles and travel tips. It lasted two more years, and ceased publication in 1969, the same year as the Stonewall riots.

By then, Segura had taken a job in the tobacco industry. In the early sixties, he moved to Richmond, Virginia, where he met his life partner, an author named Marsh Harris, and, in 1977, co-founded one of that city’s first queer groups, the Richmond Gay Rights Association. He died in 1991. Sagarin, meanwhile, fully rejected the gay movement: in 1973, he wrote in a sociology journal that “the evidence is strong that homosexuality arises in most instances from faulty childhood development,” and claimed that, because “man is a sexually malleable animal,” a cure for homosexuality was plausible, if not yet secured. Frank Kameny, a leading activist in the sixties, lambasted Sagarin in a letter, writing, “You have become no longer the vigorous Father of the Homophile Movement, to be revered, respected, and listened to, but the senile Grandfather of the Homophile Movement, to be humored and tolerated at best.”

Perhaps Sagarin’s defection from the movement helps explain why the Cory Book Service has been relegated to a footnote, at best, in traditional narratives of pre-Stonewall queer history, which often emphasize three groups: ONE, Mattachine, and the Daughters of Bilitis. Spotlighting the book service’s role in seeding the membership of these organizations, and in inspiring activists like Segura, is “not the way the history has been told,” Johnson said to me. But perhaps it should be. “The Cory Book Service was crucial to the founding of the gay movement,” Johnson said. “If you were a gay person in 1955 founding a gay organization, where do you go? That’s where you go.” Before a mainstream activist movement emerged, books were a way for queer people to find one another. Sharing literature helped a disparate group, pushed to the fringes of society, configure themselves into something resembling a community.


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The Book Club That Helped Spark the Gay-Rights Movement