Tuesday, October 1, 2013

* Cultural tectonic plates are about to crunch

Literary Birth Pains 
of the Gay Ivy: 
The Bishop, the Biographer, 
and the 
Country Bumpkin
(Yale, 1985)

Miss Wilder with my parents at the dedication of
The Thornton Wilder Room, Miller Library
in 'our' town,
Hamden, Connecticut,
April, 1984
This was the last photograph of my mother before her death.

circa 1980 Yale:: The Country Bumpkin ?

To the living we owe respect 
but to the dead we owe 
 the truth. 


A bishop, a biographer, and a brother/sister literary team (perhaps equaled only by Dorothy and William Wordsworth), intermingle here to reveal a noteworthy moment in American literary history, in Yale history, and a poignant moment in the then unborn field of gender-identity studies in 1985. Cultural tectonic plates are about to crunch and the new landscape of what will become the gay Yale is about to peek out on the horizon in a poignant irony I encountered firsthand between the lives of Thornton Wilder and Bishop Paul Moore, both of whom will be “outed” in the process.

It was 1985 in New Haven. Yale was diddling with the apartheid divestment issue 
----  how could they stay rich if they couldn’t invest in third-world countries that exploit their citizens --- and I was five years out of Yale Divinity School.  The year before I had traveled to Manhattan to hear the Episcopal Bishop of New York, Paul Moore, a Yale Corporation trustee, speak at the Yale Club on gay rights. I was working on a project about AIDS at Yale which would wind up on  60 Minutes (LINK) and I needed important Yale allies.

I spoke with him after his speech and he called me up by phone a few weeks later saying he wanted to stop over for a drink after the Board Meeting in New Haven (He was on the Yale Corporation's Board of Trustees.)

I was an impoverished apartment superintendent for low income tenants two blocks from Yale on the border of the ghetto. I doubted my tiny three room apartment would be suitable digs for entertaining a Bishop.  And to top it off, I didn’t drink (and still don’t).  So I borrowed a bottle of scotch from an 85-year-old friend of mine who knew Bishop Moore, Miss Isabel Wilder, sister of the late author, Thornton Wilder.

After pouring him a scotch, I recall our chatting about his early education at the St. Paul’s School, and he was flummoxed when I said I’d never heard of it.

It was incomprehensible to him that I wouldn’t know all the tributaries of privilege which fed the royal river of the Ivy League.

I must have seemed a hayseed or country bumpkin to him  in some respects, not the least of which was my borrowed bottle of scotch, regardless of its literary owner. 

And maybe I was.

We did find two areas of common interest.  He knew the parents of Sam Todd, a Yale Divinity student who had disappeared on New Year's Eve in New York in 1983/4, and I had written an investigative report submitted to the Todds
and the president of  Yale and later published in  the May, 1985 issue of Connecticut Magazine (LINK)about the disappearance revealing sufficient evidence to hypothesize he had run away, not met foul play. (He has never been found.)

The other common interest was Miss Wilder herself.

Bishop Moore was a friend of “Gil” Harrison, the official biographer of Thornton Wilder (The Enthusiast, Ticknor and Fields, 1983) and he said Harrison “had always wondered”  what “Isabel” had thought about his chapter on Thornton’s homosexual experiences.

All these society folks call each other by their first names whether invited to do so or not.  I doubt Miss Wilder ever invited “Gil” to do so, as you will see.

I happened to have been the sounding board for Miss Wilder’s distress when she read Harrison’s manuscript in 1982 or 83.  I had offered to drive her to the Graduate Club for lunch with Donald Gallup, editor of Thornton’s posthumous work, and when I arrived she was in a voluble dither about the Harrison manuscript and its chapter on  Samuel Steward who, at 85, had described several sexual encounters with the author decades before:
“They sent me the manuscript with no warnings. I am reading along and I stumble on some old homosexual experiences they dug up that Thornton had. I’m an old lady. I can’t be treated like that. It’s not right.”

I tried to soothe her anxiety by saying with a wave of the hand, dismissing it as an inconsequentiality, “They say that about all bachelors.”

I believe I succeeded appearing nonchalant and I hope I allayed her fears, if she had any, of an adverse public reaction.

Gay Liberation was a radical idea in 1983.

Four years later the first mention of Yale as “gay” sent shock waves through readers of  The Wall Street Journal and Yale alumni in 1987 when a Yale faculty member’s wife , Julie Iovine ’77, was quoted as saying “Suddenly, Yale is a gay school.”

Time passed after that working lunch with her editor, and Miss Wilder would later tell me with great satisfaction that when she was called upon to speak at the testimonial dinner honoring publication of Harrison’s work, “I spoke only about the man [Harrison], and said not a single word about the book.” 

It was not retribution, or revenge, but the refined punishment of a lady. She never challenged the accuracy of the work, but she was offended by the raw manner in which it had been presented to her for review.  

Her dignity had been injured. Or was this perhaps a diversionary tactic to avoid the touchier issue which was becoming politically incorrect to deny while providing the catharsis of legitimate anger?

Miss Wilder would become increasingly a second mother to me a few months after my visit with Bishop Moore when my own mother died in 1985.

She lived ten more years to the glorious age of 95 in 1995 and only now have I parted with twenty years of her letters, notes, and cards to me, donating them to the American Literature Collection at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Library this year where her family’s manuscripts and papers are archived. http://iwpk7595.blogspot.com

Bishop Moore had been fascinated that I was present at that intense moment and by Miss Wilder’s unexpectedly off-target response: “I’ll tell Gil. He will be very interested.”

The good Bishop and I stayed in touch for fifteen years until his death in 2003 from brain cancer at age 83.

Yale never fully divested itself of its South African stocks, despite having a liberal Bishop on its Board.

In the 28 intervening years I never revealed this story to anyone else until 2013, waiting until all parties were long departed away.

The Bishop’s daughter, Honor Moore, outed her father as a gay man in a March, 2008  New Yorker article. (LINK)

Yale Alumni Magazine itself ran an article in 2009 entitled “Why they call Yale the ‘Gay Ivy,’” barely furrowing a brow among alumni.

By 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court, which has had nineteen Yale graduates as Justices in its history, declared  “Unconstitutional”  the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which had restricted marriage to heterosexuals.

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in response that gay marriage is legal.

The sun comes up every morning.

And it sets every evening, as Thornton Wilder’s works often tell us ---- even when a glacier is moving toward New Jersey.*

Paul D. Keane
M.A., M.Div., M.Ed

See also
Thornton Wilder: An "insufficient sense of the tragic."

* For the snooty,  those who insist on literary allusions  in an essay about the literati, this is a double entendre, invoking The Skin of Our Teeth by TW as well as American jurisprudence.