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Monday, May 29, 2017

Before Stonewall, there was Juliana: Historical Novel Explores LGBT Life During WW2


It is easy to think of LGBT culture in New York as beginning with the Stonewall Riots of 1969. It is particularly easy for me, since I was also born that summer. Less, however, is known about what life was like for folks prior to that, which may well be because much of it took place in secret for the participants’ own safety: in unmarked clubs, with coded language that allowed communication under the noses of a population which would betray them to family, employers or the police. Being gay, or even something as innocent as a woman wearing pants in public, could cost you your job, home, and friendships, or get you arrested, raped, or beat up.

Juliana cover.
Used with author's permission.
The first novel by playwright Vanda, Juliana gives us a look at this particular time and place by introducing her own characters to famous names of the day, many of whom risked their own careers, reputations, and marriages to indulge in “the love that dare not say its name” as the nation finds itself reluctantly drawn once again into war.

We see New York through the lens of a wide-eyed suburban Long Island girl “Al”, who moves to the city with her three childhood friends (Aggie, Danny, and Dickie).  Each has dreams of making it big in the arts world, which they quickly discover is populated by folks quite unlike the ones they knew in Huntington.  When big-talking producer Max Harlington III comes to their table, Aggie & Danny are entranced, while Al and Dickie remain skeptical. He takes them to clubs where cross-dressers, “bull daggers” and interracial couples all find sanctuary.

Taken in by the big promises of Max, the friends each set about fulfilling their dreams only to discover that, to quote Debbie Allen: ”Fame costs… and right here’s where you start payin’... in sweat.”  Running between auditions, lessons, soul-killing day jobs, and infested apartments, they struggle to keep their friendships alive.  It has always been assumed that the couples (Al and Danny, Aggie and Dickie) would marry someday, but as the book progresses, that dream becomes as elusive as the thought of your name up in lights.

For Al, the biggest distraction is Juliana, a talented vocal performer who seems perpetually on the brink of success. Juliana awakens feelings in Al she was unaware she possessed, then shocks her further by making it clear the interest is mutual. Although Al continues to harbor some disdain for Max, he proves useful in making this connection.  When things with Juliana go awry, however, Al flees back to Max’s place only to make a further unwelcome discovery that throws all her plans for the future into disarray.

Used with author's permission.
One of the prevailing themes for me is the degree to which LGBT people of this time period bought into the societal narrative that there was something wrong with them. Beyond entering into sham marriages and other means of protecting themselves, the characters continue to use words like “perversion” to talk about their own feelings.  It is not hard to accept this as realistic given what they were hearing from the culture at large.  Sadly this still occurs today despite all the “it gets better” cheerleading, positive role models and at least the patina of tolerance from official channels.

The declaration of war in 1941 sends the characters’ lives in different directions.  Max, Dickie, and Danny all end up overseas and Al contributes much of her time and energy to the Stage Door Canteen, a real-life place on 44th Street where military men were fed and entertained by Broadway personalities.  Here she mingles with greats like Katharine Hepburn, Ethel Merman, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who performed or helped staff the club. Many of these stars had cameos in a film named for the club, which stood on the site of the former New York Times printing press.

Dickie, Max and Danny all make it home alive, but not unscarred. They describe the conditions gay men and women encountered during deployment… perhaps the roots of “don’t ask, don’t tell” where camp behavior was tolerated and even encouraged in some quarters, but one misplaced word of affection could erase years of dedicated service with the stroke of a pen.  Small wonder that a study 60 years later found almost 15% of closeted LGBT veterans attempt suicide: imagine the nightmarish memories of combat layered with the constant fear of being found out.

Meanwhile, Al--at a breaking point--confides in best friend Aggie, whom she has helped through some serious setbacks, only to discover that their bond is not stronger than the prejudices with which they were all raised. Betrayed, Al turns again to the unconventional people from whom she continues to try to distinguish herself. I found it interesting and even a little vexing that these individuals, apparently further along the road of self-acceptance, continue to tolerate this behavior almost without reproach. It is not always clear what she brings to the table of these friendships besides judginess and a need for a whole lot of hand-holding. But I suspect then, as now, there are those who see their younger selves in the newcomer and thus deal with such foibles gracefully.

Nevertheless they take her under their wing and we see such real-life scenes of early gay New York as Spivey’s Roof, a nightclub on the Upper East Side where gay men and women were allowed to congregate as long as they (mostly) behaved. A young Walter Liberace played here briefly before unwittingly crossing Madame Spivy, the club’s imperious owner, namesake, and star performer, a scene described in the book.

The first volume leaves off with relationships on hold and a lot of unanswered questions. Luckily, a sequel which picks up at around D-Day is due out this summer. Meantime, an ensemble cast periodically performs scenes from the book at the legendary Duplex nightclub on Christopher Street, just steps from the Stonewall Tavern.  You can learn about upcoming events on the Juliana Project Facebook page or by visiting vandawriter.com and subscribing to her free newsletter.

staged reading from the historical novel "Juliana"
The cast of a staged reading from Juliana at the Duplex.  My photo.

As we remember the sacrifices of those lost in our country’s wars, my mind goes particularly today to those who served and died for their country, likely leaving behind secret friends and partners who were not honored or comforted, and perhaps never even learned their fate.