Doug Ireland, Review of Michael Schiavi's "Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo" (Wisconsin, 2011
When Vito Russo died on November 1, 1990, after a long and torturously painful battle against AIDS, the author of the best-selling “The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies” was one of America’s best-known gay activists and certainly its most famous radical queer. Yet he was only 41 years old when he left us.
Months before, Vito was afforded an all-too-brief respite from the hospital where he spent most of his final year just in time for New York City’s 20th Gay Pride March. His leg swollen to twice its normal size and with Kaposi’s Sarcoma invading his lungs, Vito— one of the extraordinarily courageous souls who’d mobilized the city’s first Pride demonstration, when he helped carry the Gay Activists Alliance’s (GAA) large banner — was unable to march this time. He watched his last Pride from the third-floor balcony of Larry Kramer’s Fifth Avenue apartment.
On that day, as Michael Schiavi recounts in his important new book “Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo,” as the Pride March passed under Kramer’s balcony, “from the street hoards of black-shirted ACT UP members spied their favorite uncle above. Screams of ‘Vito! Vito! Vito! We love you! We love you! We love you!’ rose to greet him. Mustering his strength, Vito stood and ‘waved like Evita’ to his multitude of fans. Larry turned to him and whispered, ‘These are our children.’ That evening, in homage to Gay Pride, the Empire State Building was illuminated in lavender for the first time.”
Vito Russo’s death epitomized how AIDS, that grimmest of reapers, had wiped out a whole generation of gay liberation’s best and brightest militants throughout the 1980s. The effects of that loss are with us still. Vito also embodied and articulated the spirit that animated early gay liberation — its joyous sexual insouciance, its contempt for petit-bourgeois morality and hypocritical religious piety, its disdain for the consumer culture, its anarchic suspicion of hierarchies and authority, its campy revelry in the right to queer difference, and the purity of its righteous anger at oppression.
Vito was present as a crucially important activist figure, liberationist propagandist, and cultural catalyst for so many of the key turning points from the Stonewall rebellion until his death, and the snuffing out of his affirming flame can be said to symbolize the end of an era.
It is the great merit of Schiavi’s meticulously researched book that he restores to us Vito’s exuberant incandescence, his extraordinary charisma, his evergreen sense of indignation, and his unquenchable militancy, as well as his vulnerability and never-ending search for love on his terms (“the only terms any of us ever knows,” as Orson Welles said in “Citizen Kane” — for one cannot write about Vito without dropping in one of those cinematic references that ceaselessly and obsessively peppered his conversation). Vito was a friend of mine, and I do so miss him. Now, thanks to Schiavi’s book, he lives again.Nothing predestined young Vito for a political life. The son of a Sicilian-American construction worker, Vito grew up on the mean and macho streets of East Harlem, then a working-class Italian-American bastion, where as a boy he was frequently taunted with epithets like “faggot!” and “queer!,” and suffered multiple beatings at the hands of neighborhood toughs. Sexually precocious, at the age of 11 he was discovered by his father in the arms of an older boy with whom he’d gone to the movies and who’d spent the night, occasioning a severe pummeling at the hands of his Catholic parents and hysterical, screaming lectures about how “these people” were “cursed by God.”
But Vito quickly developed “a defiant insouciance” about his sexuality and refused to stop having sex with men, and soon stopped honoring Catholic doctrine. “’I went to confession and told this priest that I was having sex with this guy,’ he later recalled, and the priest finally yelled, ‘Enough is enough! Next time I’m not giving you absolution.’ Who the hell cares if he doesn’t give me absolution? This is absurd!” He came to realize that if being queer “could be so natural to who I was, then it had to be okay. I also knew that my only real choice was whether to express it openly.” As Schiavi comments, “For a working-class, Italian-Catholic teenager, this was a stunning conclusion to reach a decade before Stonewall.”
When his parents moved to the small suburban town of Lodi, New Jersey when he was 15, Vito — already an inveterate habitué of dark movie palaces — rushed to see any film with gay content, like “The Children’s Hour” (from Lillian Hellman’s lesbian play) or “Victim” (with Dirk Bogarde as a barrister faced with exposure by a blackmail threat aimed at a younger companion of his). He devoured approvingly Kenneth Marlowe’s memoir “Mr. Madam: Confessions of a Male Madam” (1962) and befriended “working class drag queens from Lodi and the nearby towns of Garfield, Bloomfield, Hackensack, and Paterson” who gave him life lessons: “how to take care of myself on the streets and be funny and get out of a raid and go through a window in a bathroom and all that shit you had to know in the ‘60s.”
Enrolling in nearby Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU), Vito visited his first New York City gay bar during the 1964 World’s Fair. “In an effort to ‘clean up’ the city for mobs of tourists, Mayor Robert F. Wagner posted in the windows of gay bars big, white cardboard signs proclaiming in bold black letters, ‘This is a Raided Premises [sic], New York City Police Department.’ Many of the bars also suffered a policeman standing guard at the door in a clear attempt to intimidate patrons. Vito recognized the degree to which his sexuality put him at odds with city government. He also understood that the Mafia’s widespread control of Manhattan gay bars made for a complicated relationship between crime, justice, and the simple desire to have a drink with his own kind.”
Vito later found the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, which Craig Rodwell had opened in 1966, and discovered ONE, the West Coast-based homophile magazine, through which he learned of the Mattachine Society of New York (MSNY) and its president, Dick Leitsch, a wealthy 29-year-old from Kentucky. “In April 1966, Leitsch went on the attack against police harassment of gay bars” with a “sip-in,” when he and Rodwell, with a pack of reporters in tow, “dared Village bartenders to honor the State Liquor Authority prohibition against serving liquor to homosexuals,” a stunt that got the ban overturned and won Leitsch a spot on TV’s “David Susskind Show.”
Vito — already arrested in one police gay bar raid — visited Leitsch’s apartment several times. This was, as Vito later told it, “the first time I ever heard gay people talk politics. Gay politics.” Vito persuaded FDU’s Student Activities to pony up $100 for Leitsch to come and lecture on campus. Before an audience of 100 students and faculty, Leitsch proclaimed himself “an old-fashioned cocksucker,” and at the lecture’s end, a friendly professor took Vito aside and told him, “‘Some day, cookie, they’ll shoot you in the streets if you push this thing.’ Vito bristled at this suggestion of self-censorship… and resolved to put Jersey and the closet behind him for good.”
Vito eventually found a mercifully rent-controlled, dingy apartment in Chelsea for little more than $100 a month where he’d live the rest of his life. He supported himself by working as a waiter at Village gay hangouts — first at Mama’s Chicken ‘N Ribs, favored by hustlers, Broadway chorus boys, and drag queens like Andy Warhol’s superstar Jackie Curtis, “whose play ‘Glamour, Glory, and Gold: The Life and Legend of Nola Noonan, Goddess and Star,’ enjoyed a healthy off-Broadway run in 1968 with an unknown Robert De Niro playing four different rolls.”
The Stonewall was Vito’s favorite bar because it was the only gay venue in which the Mafia permitted same-sex dancing, and upon hearing of the infamous raid and resulting rebellion, Vito made a beeline for Sheridan Square to check out what was happening. He did not join the riot against police persecution but, fearing the violence, observed it from a safe perch in a nearby tree. But he did join the raucous Gay Liberation Front picket line at the Village Voice a few days later to protest its epithet-laden coverage of the riot by the “forces of faggotry.”
Persuaded by a friend to attend a meeting of the newly-formed Gay Activists Alliance in the summer of 1970, a somewhat reluctant Vito was enthralled by the evening’s special guest speaker, Bella Abzug — a civil rights lawyer and anti-Vietnam War leader running for Congress from the district that included the Village and Chelsea. After denouncing police harassment of gays, the state anti-sodomy laws, and discrimination in federal security clearances as an “outrage,” Abzug — the first major candidate for office to openly court the gay vote and known for her flamboyant chapeaux — declared: “‘I think that all the liberation movements relate to each other, whether it’s women’s liberation or black liberation or gay liberation. They show people determined to assert their political power over the institutions that are discriminating against them and that are not responding to them. What people are saying right now is that they want to have an active role, an activist role’… The room exploded and awarded Abzug a standing ovation. Vito was on his feet, clapping wildly and knowing full well that he was ‘hooked.’”
Schiavi writes that “Abzug made him realize that gays had influential straight allies committed to helping them. He was equally moved by GAA members who introduced him to the possibility of pro-gay political analysis. At the meeting, he recalled, ‘I heard people, for the first time in my life, saying all the things that I had never said to myself. I heard people explain what happened at Stonewall in terms that I could understand.’”
Schiavi, an English professor at the New York Institute of Technology who writes frequently about film, does a fine job of recreating the heady atmosphere of the Gay Activist Alliance’s early years and tracing how GAA activists provided Vito with his permanent gay “family,” like then-GAA president Jim Owles and the man who became Vito’s best friend for life, GAA secretary Arnie Kantrowitz (an English professor at the College of Staten Island and author of the 1977 “Under the Rainbow: Growing Up Gay,” a first-hand account of his transition from the closet to gay activism.) Arthur Bell, the Village Voice’s first openly gay columnist and a GAA member, also became a close friend.
Vito threw himself into gay activism with zest and became an architect of the media-grabbing “zaps” that made headlines for GAA and helped break the cultural silence about homosexuality. He quickly became one of GAA’s stars, becoming a fiery speaker and launching the film screenings that eventually became the lecture series “The Celluloid Closet,” which he illustrated with clips from films in an extensive collection he’d both purchased and pilfered. By 1973, he began to be seen frequently as a gay activist on television.
Taken up by a lecture bureau, Vito and his “Celluloid Closet” lectures quickly spawned huge demand from coast to coast, especially on college campuses. After a stint working for the glossy, homoerotic but closeted “entertainment” magazine After Dark — which he quit in disgust when he was forbidden to kiss his boyfriend in the office — he moved on to writing extensively for the impecunious gay press. He had a lengthy gig in the Museum of Modern Art’s film department, which helped him deepen his intellectual film vocabulary and prepare him to turn the “Celluloid Closet” lectures into a book.
After a year in London working on the 16-member staff of Gay News, which exposed him to European films with gay content he’d never seen, he returned to the US in 1978 and landed a book contract from Harper and Row, which launched his seven years of often-interrupted research toward his manuscript of “The Celluloid Closet.”
Vito always insisted that he wasn’t “political” — which was true in the sense that his background included no significant college involvement in 1960s social movements for black civil rights or against the Viet Nam War. His radicalism was instinctual and situational rather than ideological — a product of his experience as a member of an oppressed minority group and his profound humanity — which made it all the more remarkable. And his unerring moral compass informed his work as a founder of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination and ACT UP, extensively detailed by Schiavi.
The book, for which Schiavi conducted some 150 interviews with Vito’s family and friends (including this reviewer), also shows sensitivity and insight in portraying the activist’s plural loves and the toll that his activism and filmic obsessions took on them.
“Celluloid Closet” will hopefully inspire a new generation of activists, and remind us of how much we all owe to Vito Russo for the infinitely larger cultural space now available to queers.
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