Skip to main content

Giving Voice to Gay Men in New York.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Gay Metropolis" (Houghton Mifflin) by Charles Kaiser.

04:40

Other segments from the episode on December 15, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 15, 1997: Interview with Paul Moore; Interview with David Sedaris; Review of Charles Kaiser's book "The Gay Metropolis."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 15, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121501np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Presences
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Paul Moore, the former Episcopal Bishop of New York, led his church in the direction of social change. He advocated the ordination of women and was the first bishop to ordain an out-of-the-closet lesbian. He fought for civil rights and opposed the war in Vietnam.

He began his work leading a parish in an inner-city neighborhood in New Jersey. As a former teacher of his once said, Moore was the first Episcopal priest to widen the understanding of the Christian mission from narrow concepts of overseas work or work in rural areas into an organized and structured ministry to the poor and minorities and other neglected people of the inner-city.

Moore gave his last sermon as bishop in 1989. Now, he's written an autobiography called "Presences." Although he's devoted much of his life to working with the poor, he grew up in wealth -- in a house in New Jersey staffed by butlers and maids with a three-hole golf course just beyond the garden. He writes that he never renounced his wealth. I asked if he was always conflicted over whether to keep his money or give it away.

PAUL MOORE, AUTHOR, "PRESENCES," FORMER EPISCOPAL BISHOP OF NEW YORK: My first wife and I worried about this, especially when we were living in Jersey City amongst many poor people, who didn't have enough clothes and sometimes not enough to eat, and I could have written them a check for $100. But that would have been a very bad thing for the dynamics of the work we were doing.

But what we decided to do was to live in a relatively modest fashion, in Jersey City we lived right there next to the church, very modestly. And then to give away whatever of our income was left after we spent what we needed to spend, to charity of one kind or another.

And then later on, I took a big hunk of it and made a foundation which I could use anonymously to help other causes. And over the years, I've given away a lot of the capital, as well as the income, but not to the point of St. Francis. I did not strip down in the public square and I still wear clothes.

GROSS: Now, you said before that you could have written out a check to poor people for, you know, $100 to help them out, but that would have been bad for the dynamics of what you were trying to do. I want you to...

MOORE: Yeah.

GROSS: ... elaborate on that.

MOORE: Well, that would have meant that they would be coming there for a handout, period. And we probably would have had 1,000 people at the door -- and just giving out checks. That was not what we were about, but that had to do with the church and parish being the center of a community of love -- God's love, human love -- starting at the altar, where we had out Eucharist each day, and spreading out into the community in terms of ministering to poor people in their hardship, but also in trying to change the system and developing a network through the city as best we could, by establishing cell groups in different neighborhoods; by getting to know the children and through them their parents; by encouraging rent strikes and so forth.

Doing this in order to try to change the system -- and if we had become just a handout place, first of all, we would have eventually had to set up guidelines and become just sort of a second-rate foundation, and that was not what we were there for.

So my extra money that we had, I gave outside the parish, to other causes within the church and in the world.

GROSS: You said that religion wasn't an important part of your life until about the 11th grade. What religion were you born into and...

MOORE: Episcopal Church. My mother was a Presbyterian, actually, but she went to the Episcopal Church 'cause my father went there. Then he quit; she continued. But she used to take me to church every Sunday. I didn't go to Sunday school. The first time I went, they threw spitballs at me 'cause I didn't know the kids. So, I never went back.

And I kept going every Sunday. It was very boring, and I used to look at the stained glass windows and fiddle with the prayer books. Went to St. Paul's school -- it was still pretty boring, but a little nicer because it was an atmosphere of a school there and the prayers were more youth-friendly.

GROSS: Well, part of what changed you was your first confession.

MOORE: That's right.

GROSS: What made you decide you to take this first -- to give this first confession?

MOORE: Well, it was a master on the faculty there who was a priest, and we were a so-called "low church" school. However, he was very interested in what we used to call "Anglo-Catholicism," which was the high church or Catholic part of our Episcopal heritage. And the Anglo-Catholic Churches had incense; they had bells; they had -- people crossed themselves; people genuflected. It was a whole other thing. It was Catholicism.

And he used to take us to high church ceremonies, which were rather mysterious and wonderful and beautiful. And as adolescents, we were drawn to that. And also the fact, he said "don't tell the rector of the school I took you, because he wouldn't approve." So it was sort of sub-rosa, which is also, for a teenager, very interesting.

And then he talked about confession, which was always available in our church, but very little used, and encouraged us to do that. We were a little scared of the idea. So a monk came to school and I was asked to go see him, which I did, and talk to him about why should I confess to a man when I could confess directly to God? And he said: "well, of course you can confess to God directly, but when you make your confession, it's a sacrament. It's a deeper kind of assurance of forgiveness."

So in looking back, it was sort of funny, but at the time was very embarrassing, naturally, and I made my confession to him later that night with clammy hands and shaking fingers. And when he pronounced the absolution -- "as a priest, I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" -- I was overwhelmed by a presence of God; by a sense of peace, joy and wonder. I can't describe it. And walked home to my room, in the clouds, and made my communion the next day, and it was as if I'd received the sacrament for the first time.

And that was a turning point in my life.

GROSS: And did you stay with the Anglican Church after that?

MOORE: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Bishop Paul Moore is my guest, and he's written a memoir called Presences.

You know, you became a Marine and fought in World War II shortly after your conversion experience. And your conversion experience transformed you, but I'm sure the war did too. Did you feel at all like it was changing you in a different direction away from the, like, open heartedness that you wanted to have as a convert -- as a new convert?

MOORE: Well, yes and no. I think what -- first of all, I had some questions about whether a Christian should go to war, but my rector had been in World War I, had been gassed; was a wonderful and very devout man -- I respected him enormously -- and he felt, as I did then, that it was the lesser of two evils; that Hitler and -- 'cause Japan wasn't in it then -- but Nazism, if that took over the world beginning with Europe, that it would be a total disaster for the church and for civilization, and that this is one of the few times where it was justified to fight; a just war, if you will.

So I went in, and once I decided to go in, I gobbled up the Marine Corps hook, line and sinker -- sinker, semper fidelis, rough tough leatherneck. We had bayonet training where we had to scream and yell and stick our bayonets into straw dummies and knock heads off dummies -- heads that were disguised -- dressed up to look like Japanese, oriental heads.

It was absolutely terrible. But this process was a toughening up of our psyche. I was a young, callow kid from Yale. I had to be toughened to go through the stuff we would go through. And, so the training was necessary. But it made us impervious to some of the horrors that we were asked to do. I shot people -- one man, I know, without any need to have shot him; just 'cause he was lying there. And I just shot him. And this happened again and again and again.

But -- so we had to have been toughened. But at the same time, it did make me realize that my faith was strong enough to get me through that kind of horror and come out on the other side.

GROSS: You were hit by a grenade during the war and it punctured a lung.

MOORE: Actually, I was throwing a...

GROSS: Oh, it was your own grenade that blew up.

MOORE: ... grenade -- no, well it, yeah -- I threw a grenade at a machine gun nest which was killing some of our men. And as I knelt upright to throw it, I got hit by the machine gun...

GROSS: I see.

MOORE: ... that I was throwing the grenade at. So I was hit by a bullet -- went through my chest, past my heart. The doctors thought it should have hit the heart, but they figured the heart was on the in-beat when the bullet went by. So I was very lucky, to put it mildly.

GROSS: But at the time, you thought you were dying, and you write that...

MOORE: At the time, I thought I was dying.

GROSS: ... and you write that this near-death experience wasn't a spiritual experience at all. What were you expecting and what -- how did it compare?

MOORE: Well, I wasn't expecting anything; hadn't really thought much about it. Death was all around us. We were getting quite casual about death. I remember running out under fire to get a package of cigarettes. I risked my life to get a package of cigarettes. My friends had been killed. My men I'd seen bleeding in my arms.

And death became so common, It's hard to believe, that when I finally got hit -- OK, so I got hit this time. And I lay down after this bullet went in, and wind was going in and out of -- blubbering in and out of this wound in my lung. And I thought I was dying. I gave over the platoon to the sergeant, and then I fainted.

But before I fainted, I thought: "well, I'm supposed to remember my whole life." And that didn't happen. Then I said: "oh, I better say a prayer," which I said a prayer -- commending myself to God. But it wasn't a deep business of seeing Jesus coming to get me or anything like that. It was just -- it was sort of almost casual.

Now, if I had died, I don't know whether it would have been that casual, or whether it would have been a much deeper experience. I presume it would have been.

But if I had died going back to the aid station on that stretcher when I was already unconscious, what I just recounted would have been my experience of death, at least the conscious part of dying. And whether something else opens up after you lose consciousness, if you are dying, is one of the great mysteries.

GROSS: My guest is Bishop Paul Moore. His new autobiography is called "Presences." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Paul Moore, former Episcopal Bishop of New York.

Because you're a bishop in the Anglican Church and not the Roman Catholic Church, you were able to marry and have children. Celibacy...

MOORE: Yeah.

GROSS: ... is not required of priests in the Anglican Church. Do you think you could have been a celibate priest? Or is that something -- do you disagree with the concept that you need to -- to...

MOORE: I disagree totally with that concept.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MOORE: There are some priests who are drawn to the celibate life. We have celibates in our church. We have monks who are celibate by vow and we have secular priests who have not gotten married for whatever reason and are celibate. And -- but that wasn't for me. I mean, I wanted to have children; I'd fallen in love before I went to the seminary. I was married before I became a priest.

And I feel very deeply that my marriage and experience and my family, not only the joys of it, but some of the pain and sorrow of family life, gave me -- and the difficulty of marriage -- gave me an understanding in counseling people who were having marital problems and family problems -- that I never could have had as a single priest.

And this isn't putting down celibacy for those who want it. But I feel it's -- I think one reason the Roman Church today has so few priests -- they're really in a real difficult situation -- is because they won't break that celibacy rule.

GROSS: You were a father during those "difficult to be a parent" times of the 1960s.

MOORE: The '60s.

GROSS: I think some of your children were teenagers during the '60s...

MOORE: Indeed they were.

GROSS: ... when all the sexual standards of the past were being challenged by young people. And you write in your book that you wanted to give your children as much freedom as possible, though you forbade drugs with whatever power you had to do that.

MOORE: Right.

GROSS: But that, you know, you believe the culture suffered from too much sexual puritanism. So when your children were coming of age, how did you deal with issues of their sexuality and of how they could deal with boyfriends and girlfriends in the house?

MOORE: Well, that was tough. I mean, we started by being very much against anybody having intercourse until they were married. And then, the next step is as we were exposed to the liberal thinking of the '60s, which you just described, we began to think this is a little bit too tight, and my wife would teach my teenage daughters about birth control, so that if they did have intercourse, they would be safe. This was long before AIDS, of course.

GROSS: Right.

MOORE: As far as the dope goes, we were vigorously against the hard drugs of any kind, but we were a little loose about marijuana. I remember going upstairs -- my 15-year-old was suddenly interested in growing plants in a window box. And I thought, isn't this nice. And I looked up and, of course, the plants were marijuana.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Right.

MOORE: So we went through that kind of thing, but we -- you just struggle through. We were making ad hoc decisions in the midst of the event. We didn't have a hard ideology we insisted on. And I'm sort of glad we didn't. I think, in looking back, I think we did OK. I might have made some changes in retrospect.

GROSS: Yeah.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Bishop Paul Moore, who is the former Episcopal Bishop of New York. He's written a memoir called Presences.

You supported the ordination of women in your church and you were the first bishop to ordain a lesbian priest within the church. How did you come around to that thinking? You didn't always support the ordination of women or gays.

MOORE: Well, I think one of the reasons I came around so quickly to the ordination of women is I had three -- six daughters and a wife.

GROSS: Were they pushing you?

MOORE: Indeed they were. I remember one time when we were up in the Adirondacks, I said: "girls, why don't you clear the table?" "Girls? Why should the girls clear the table?"

LAUGHTER

So, you know, that taught me one lesson.

GROSS: Right.

MOORE: And, well the whole ethos -- the women's movement was very much part of their thinking, and my wife's thinking and my thinking -- and it wasn't long before I realized it was just absolutely ridiculous not to allow women to be priests. Historically -- although theology says that God is beyond gender -- neither man nor woman, historically, God has been looked at as a father figure; as a male figure; as a God of judgment.

And I think the Roman Catholic Church has sort of made up for that by their Cult of the Virgin. But in our church, the Virgin Mary didn't have much of a role, and therefore I think our people were starved for a femininity in their devotion.

And so when women became priests and you could hear a woman's voice reading the Bible -- a woman's voice celebrating the Eucharist -- you gradually realized that Jesus Christ took on human flesh -- happened to be a man -- but he took on all human flesh. And that God made us in his image, both man and woman, and that's in the Bible.

But that was a very deep reason to have women priests, as well as the obvious reason of its being discriminatory not to.

GROSS: What about gays and lesbians?

MOORE: Gays and lesbian -- again, what happened to me was that a gay woman who was out of the closet, as it were -- she'd written articles for a gay magazine -- came to see me; wanted to be a priest. She was totally qualified -- brilliant academically and a fine person. But she was out of the closet, and I said: "no way could we ordain you." And the standing committee who had to OK too -- wouldn't even think of it.

I floated it by them. They said half of them would resign if I did this. So I said no. She said: "well, I'm going to go seminary anyway." I said: "well, feel free."

So she came back three years later and asked again. By that time, a lot had happened. Women were beginning to be ordained. And so, it was possible. And I thought to myself over those three years, the only difference between Ellen Barrett (ph), her name, and maybe 20 percent of our clergy who were gay and in the closet, is she is more open, more honest -- not that they didn't have a right to be private, but she also had a right, it seemed to me, to be open.

So I headed one of my chapters in my last book about this issue: "is Honesty A Bar To Ordination?" And I couldn't answer "yes." So I said: "OK, Ellen, we'll try it." And the standing committee reluctantly went along. We ordained Ellen and all hell broke loose.

Later on, some of the parishes refused to pay their dues to the diocese. I had hearings when I was repudiated. It was all over the papers. I had a special secretary to answer the mail.

And I -- finally, there was an attempt to censure me in the House of Bishops. So it was an enormous explosion. People say "you were so courageous." I said it's like being courageous -- to say you're courageous when you're standing in the middle of the road and get hit by a truck.

GROSS: Any regrets?

MOORE: No. But I'm not sure I would have been as courageous as I was if I'd known what was going to happen. I hope I would have been.

GROSS: Since we have Christmas coming up, I'd like to take you back to 1949, which was your first Christmas as an ordained priest. In fact, I think it was your first Eucharist.

MOORE: You're right.

GROSS: Would you share some of your memories of that first Eucharist in 1949?

MOORE: Well, it was in Jersey City, and it was a wonderful moment for me. The congregation was already integrated. A lot of the boys we'd begun to reach had become acolytes. And to be able to stand at the altar, especially in that inner-city situation, and realize you were celebrating the Eucharist for Christmas when our Lord became a poor child, and changed -- redeemed -- the whole life of human beings by that becoming man -- becoming human.

And the other thing that was so strange was that Christmas was a very cruel time for many of our people, because they couldn't afford to buy presents for their children. We had attempted suicides. We had murders. We had alcoholism. Whenever Christmas came, it was a time of horror stories, as well as a time of beauty.

And so I've always remembered that. And if only people understood, especially poor people, understood that the message of Christmas was that God became poor, then perhaps they wouldn't have this awful tension between the materialistic Christmas in advertisements and the little they're able to do to their own families.

So there was always this tension, as there was in the original Christmas -- the homeless woman having an illegitimate child in the stable, and our image of all the lovely carols and golden Christmases that we have.

GROSS: Paul Moore is the former Episcopal Bishop of New York. He's written an autobiography called Presences.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Paul Moore
High: Former Episcopal Bishop of New York, Paul Moore. He is known for his activism and concern for human rights. He was part of the civil rights movement, and protests against the Vietnam War. As Bishop, he brought the church into dialogue with the poor and oppressed in New York. He's written his memoir, "Presences: A Bishop's Life in the City."
Spec: History; Religion; Civil Rights; Paul Moore
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Presences
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 15, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121502NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Holidays on Ice
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

On television, the Christmas season means it's time for "It's a Wonderful Life," "A Christmas Carol," and "Miracle on 34th Street." But on public radio, it means time for the "Santaland Diaries" -- David Sedaris' funny and cynical journal of the season he worked as an elf in Macy's Santaland.

The Santaland Diaries are included in a new collection of Sedaris' Christmas-related stories called "Holidays on Ice." Sedaris' stories and journal entries have been heard on MORNING EDITION and on "This American Life." Several of his plays have been produced in New York.

We invited him to talk with us about Christmas in his family, and to read an excerpt of one of his Christmas stories. This story shows what might happen if a tough-minded drama critic reviewed Christmas plays staged by elementary school kids.

DAVID SEDARIS, NPR COMMENTATOR, PLAYWRIGHT, AUTHOR, "HOLIDAYS ON ICE":

"Front Row Center" with Thaddeus Bristol.

"Trite Christmas: Scottsfield's Young Hams Offer the Blandest of Holiday Fare."

"The approach of Christmas signifies three things: bad moves, unforgivable television, and even worse theater. I'm talking bone-crushing theater -- the type our ancient ancestors used to oppress their enemies before the invention of the stretching rack.

"We're talking torture on a par with the Scottsfield Dinner Theater's 1994 revival of 'Come Blow Your Horn' -- a production that violated every tenet of the human rights accord. To those of you who enjoy the comfort of a nice set of thumb screws, allow me to recommend any of the crucifying holiday plays and pageants currently eliciting screams of mercy from within the confines of our local elementary and middle schools."

"I will, no doubt, be taken to task for criticizing the work of children, but as any pathologist will agree, if there's a cancer, it's best to treat it as soon as possible."

"Once again, the sadists at the Jane Snowe Hernandez (ph) Middle School have taken up their burning pokers in an attempt to prod 'A Christmas Carol' into some form of submission. I might have overlooked the shoddy production values and dry, leaden pacing, but these are sixth graders we're talking about, and they should have known better. There's really no point in adapting this Dickensian stinker unless you're capable of looking beyond the novel's dime store morality and getting to what little theatrical meat the story has to offer."

"The point is to eviscerate the gooey center, but here it's served up as an entre and a foul pudding it is. Most of the blame goes to the director, 11-year-old Becky Michaels, who seems to have picked up her staging secrets from the school's crossing guard. She tends to clump her actors, moving them only in groups of five or more. A strong proponent of trendy, racially-mixed casting, Michaels gives us a black Tiny Tim, leaving the audience to wonder: what? Is this kid supposed to be adopted?"

"It's a distracting move -- wrongheaded and pointless. The role was played by young Lamar Williams, who, if nothing else, managed to sustain a decent limp. The program notes that he had recently lost his right foot to diabetes, but was that reason enough to cast him? As Tiny Tim, the boy spends his stage time essentially trolling for sympathy -- stealing focus from even a brightly lit exit sign."

"Bob Cratchet, played here by the aptly-named Benjamin Trite, seems to have picked up his Cockney accent by watching a few videotaped episodes of 'Hee-Haw,' and Herschel Fleischman's Scrooge was almost as lame as Tiny Tim."

"The set was not without its charm, but Jody Linnen's abysmal costumes should hopefully mark the end of a short and unremarkable career. I was gagging from the smell of spray-painted sneakers, and if I see one more top hat made from an oatmeal canister, I swear to God I'm going to pull out a gun."

"The problem with all these shows stems partially from their maddening eagerness to please. With smiles stretched tight as bungee cords, these hopeless amateurs pranced and gamboled across out local stages, hiding behind their youth and begging -- practically demanding we forgive their egregious mistakes."

"The English language was chewed into a paste. Missed opportunities came and went. And the sets were changed so slowly you'd think the stage hands were encumbered by full-body casts. While billing themselves as 'holiday entertainment,' none of these productions came close to capturing the true spirit of Christmas."

"This glaring irony seemed to escape the throngs of ticketholders who ate these undercooked turkeys right down to the bone. Here were audiences that chuckled at every technical snafu, and applauded riotously each time a new character wandered out onto the stage. With the close of every curtain, they leapt to their feet in on ovation after another, leaving me wedged into my doll-sized chair and wondering: 'is it just them? Or am I missing something?'"

GROSS: David Sedaris, reading an excerpt of one of his stories from his new collection Holidays on Ice. Thanks for reading that, David.

I'm wondering what made you think about, you know, a theater critic who goes to sixth grade school productions and applies his astringent facilities on these sixth graders?

SEDARIS: I was in France when I was writing these stories, and I had a stack of old New York magazines there. And John Simon is the theater critic for New York magazine, and I may have missed it, but to my knowledge he has never liked anything.

LAUGHTER

So, I was just thinking that what if -- what if a person like him was assigned to review children's theater, because if you were a child, how -- if you were seven years old, what do you do with this review?

GROSS: Really. Did you participate in school Christmas plays when you were a kid?

SEDARIS: I didn't go to -- I went to a public school. I think if I'd gone to a Christian school, I probably would have snagged the part of a donkey or a shepherd or something. But no, I was never -- our school would have a pageant every year -- just a very simple thing -- but it was mainly the students would dress up and get on stage, and then they would pull out all the janitors, and the janitors would receive dented cans of fruit cocktail or cans of Crisco. And then the janitors would bow their heads and thank us for it, and that was the pageant.

GROSS: Well -- your most famous story -- The Santaland Diaries -- is collected in this new Christmas collection, Holidays on Ice. I'm wondering if you've ever gone back to Macy's Santaland where you once worked as a Christmas elf, just as an observer to see what -- you know, what it's like now?

SEDARIS: No, but I got a call last week from a former Santa, because Macy's changed their Santaland this year. They spent millions of dollars, and my understanding is that now it's like an interactive Santaland.

GROSS: Like with computers and stuff?

SEDARIS: Yeah, the children were having riots. You know, they were waiting for two hours to see Santa, and all they saw were some elves and a couple of candy canes and that wasn't enough for them. So they've spent a lot of money and they've -- I just read an article about it in the newspaper, but apparently there's, I don't know, virtual -- because I don't have a computer, I don't -- I don't even know what -- exactly what these words mean, but something about it is "virtual."

GROSS: You don't have a computer?

SEDARIS: And maybe you can send Santa e-mail, I don't know. No, I've never -- I've never touched one, so whenever I hear words like "dot org," I -- I have no idea what they're talking about.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Do you hear from a lot of current and former Santaland elves who want to commiserate with you?

SEDARIS: I hear from former elves and Santas who have written screenplays. Those are the former elves and Santas that I tend to hear from.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: My guest is David Sedaris, and he has a new collection of Christmas-related stories called Holidays on Ice. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with David Sedaris.

Now, I want to talk to you more about what Christmas is like for you and what it's been like for you. What was Christmas like in your family when you were growing up? Did your family celebrate it or give gifts?

SEDARIS: Oh, we were very involved in Christmas, and we still are. You know, Christmas begins the day after Halloween, basically, and then everything is just this march towards -- towards Christmas. And, oh we're big gift-givers and it was -- I love Christmas, absolutely love it.

GROSS: What -- what went on in your house on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?

SEDARIS: Well, when we were children, we had to go to church on Christmas Eve, but it was a Greek Orthodox Church and so it was pretty and there were -- you know, still you just wanted to get out of there, but it didn't -- it didn't take that long.

We would usually be up all night, you know, wrapping gifts or -- by the -- you know, by the time we were teenage -- by the time we were old enough to smoke pot, we were definitely awake all night.

LAUGHTER

And -- but you know, but not with that "oh I think I hear Santa" thing. That's like: "I think I hear Dad coming downstairs -- throw the roach out the window" kind of thing.

But no, we were really -- gosh, I'm -- I mean, my mom always made -- my mom was kind of in charge of -- my mother was responsible for making Christmas so wonderful; you know, just doing "mom" things; you know, baking mom things and buying mom kind of gifts and putting, you know, wreaths on the door that we would just make fun of, but still we were glad that they were there.

GROSS: What are some of the best gifts you ever got?

SEDARIS: I got an electric typewriter, which really changed my life. I'd been using a manual typewriter forever, and then at the age of 32, my mother gave me an electric typewriter where you could correct things. You know, you could go up two lines and that word would be gone. And that was a present that really changed my life.

Last year, I got a really nice taxidermied ostrich -- a little baby ostrich. That was a nice gift.

GROSS: Who gave that to you?

SEDARIS: My sister Gretchen gave me a stuffed ostrich. It is just adorable. It's about a foot tall. I got a lot of taxidermy last year for Christmas, and that's always a good gift. Gosh, you know, I mean I've never received, like, the title to a country home or anything like that.

LAUGHTER

It's...

GROSS: Maybe next year. Do you remember the worst gift you ever got?

SEDARIS: The worst gift I ever got was probably a football helmet, which I had absolutely...

LAUGHTER

... no use for whatsoever.

GROSS: I can only imagine.

SEDARIS: That's not even good for storing things.

GROSS: Who gave it to you?

SEDARIS: My father.

GROSS: Was that wishful thinking on his part?

SEDARIS: He went through a phase where all of the gifts that he gave me would hopefully wake me up to the world of sports. So maybe I would have asked for a discreet, you know, portable tape recorder so I could spy on people, and instead I would get a child-sized set of golf clubs, which -- the cat was the only person who would enjoy them. She would just shred the golf bag to bits. But I -- she was more than welcome to them.

GROSS: And what about you as a gift-giver? Are you a careful and thoughtful gift-giver?

SEDARIS: I think I am. I always feel so bad, you know, when people say: "well, I'm going to do my shopping on Christmas Eve." I feel bad for the people that they're giving gifts to because you're not going to find anything on Christmas Eve; that kind of panic buying that people do?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SEDARIS: I love watching it, and I'll still go to a store on Christmas Eve just so I can see people that panicked, but...

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Do you really do that?

SEDARIS: Yes. I -- I have -- I love -- like the same way I love going to the grocery store the night before Thanksgiving, and I'll just buy -- I'll just buy a head of lettuce, but I'm more than happy to stand in that line for 45 minutes just to see people -- just to see people at the breaking point.

But I got most of my -- I have a few things to buy, but for the most part, I finish my shopping by August.

GROSS: Really? So you must always be thinking about potential gifts for people.

SEDARIS: Well, I don't think about it in February, but I think about it by March.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SEDARIS: And I love to shop and this gives me a reason to do so.

GROSS: Did you ever go caroling during your life?

SEDARIS: No, I -- carolers are one of those things that even my mother, it would be like "don't answer the door; don't answer the door. They're at the Schirk's (ph) house" -- or "they're coming this way -- turn out the lights, hide." Because I don't know how you respond? Do you know what I mean? Like, when you open the door and then there's people there singing and they're looking at you. It's like you -- just give them the money now and maybe they'll go away or maybe they'll stop.

Caroling is what -- it's like mime to me. It's just one of those things where as a -- I don't know what choice the spectator really has. It's just so uncomfortable.

GROSS: I -- you live in Manhattan now. There probably aren't a lot of people out caroling in Manhattan.

SEDARIS: Well, I don't have to worry about them coming to the door in my apartment. Someone would have to buzz them in.

LAUGHTER

And so I don't worry about them coming to my door, and that's a good thing about living in a city.

GROSS: You know, when -- when you're young, you spend Christmas the way your parents spend it. When you get older, you have the option of, you know, maybe doing it with friends or whatever. You're not necessarily home with your family.

Do you remember, like, the first Christmas that you were old enough to decide for yourself how you were going to spend it?

SEDARIS: I am 40 years old and I've never missed a Christmas at home.

GROSS: Really?

SEDARIS: Never. I -- I -- because you can't really expect good presents unless you're going to show up and get 'em in person.

LAUGHTER

And if somebody thinks that they can mail you something, then you're liable to get anything. You're liable to get a poundcake or something like that. But if they know that they have to face you and hand you a gift, then you're much better off by going home. I can't -- there's no other place I would want to be for Christmas, really, than with my brothers and sisters.

GROSS: Do you do New Years's resolutions? Did you ever?

SEDARIS: No, not really. You know, when I turned 40, I made resolutions, but I don't really do them with New Year's because I know it's just a waste of time, for me personally. It's just such an arbitrary -- I mean, New Year's Eve -- it -- you know, I suppose it -- it's supposed to be this rebirth and all that stuff, but it just doesn't -- just doesn't cut it for me. It's just a new calendar.

GROSS: So what resolutions did you have when you turned 40?

SEDARIS: I threw away all my jeans, and I resolved never to wear jeans again or any kind of a dip.

GROSS: Why did you throw away your jeans?

SEDARIS: Because I felt like I turned 40 and I should give up a couple of things, but I didn't want to give up anything that was important to me. And jeans I could easily -- I don't know -- I never looked very good in jeans. I just thought: "well, that's it. I'm never going to wear jeans again."

And dip -- I don't eat dip that much anyway, so I thought well this would be a good enough -- this would be a good thing to get rid of. But I didn't want to -- you know, like I didn't want to stop smoking or drinking or stop taking drugs or -- I don't want to stop doing anything I really enjoy, so I just chose a few arbitrary things.

GROSS: Well, I'm sure that really made you a better human being.

LAUGHTER

So do you ever really yearn for jeans now?

SEDARIS: I yearn for dip more than I yearn for jeans. That's why I can't go to holiday parties because I might be forced to break my resolution and eat some dip.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: David, I would like to end our Christmas interview with -- by asking you to sing a rendition of one of your favorite Christmas songs -- a song that is a favorite because you particularly love it or hate it.

SEDARIS: Well, somebody sends us a tape every year of different obscure Christmas songs that he puts together, and there's one -- and I don't have -- quite have all the words, but it's like a really obnoxious child with a full voice -- almost like a young Wayne Newton voice. And it's:

SEDARIS SINGING: "I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
Only a hippopotamus will do
Don't want a -- hmmm -- a dinky uh-uh-uh
I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy
I can see it now on Christmas morning
Creeping down the stairs
Oh, what joy and what surprise
When I open up my eyes
And see a hippo hero standing there
I want a hippopotamus for Christmas"

And then he restates again and again reasons why he wants a hippopotamus, and the fact that the hippopotamus will most likely be a vegetarian. That's the gist of the song.

LAUGHTER

But I can listen to it over and over and over again. It's just so confident and it's not a -- and it's not like a wacky song, you know, like not like when they have babies crying out "Silent Night" or dogs barking it or something. It's really just a wonderful little song, and I don't even know the fellow's name who sang it.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you for singing it for us, and I also want to wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

SEDARIS: You too.

GROSS: Well, David Sedaris has a new collection of Christmas-related stories called Holidays on Ice. It includes the Santaland Dairies. Sedaris and others will do readings of his Christmas stories on the Christmas week edition of the public radio program This American Life.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: David Sedaris
High: Playwright and NPR commentator David Sedaris. His "Santaland Diaries" which debuted on NPR's Morning Edition in 1992 is purported to be the network's most requested tape. His collection of short stories, "Barrel Fever" and this year's "Naked" a collection of autobiographical essays, are both bestsellers. Now he's got a collection of Christmas stories, "Holidays On Ice."
Spec: Media; Holidays; Books; Authors; David Sedaris
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Holidays on Ice
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 15, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121503NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: The Gay Metropolis
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Charles Kaiser is a former reporter who wrote for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. For his new book, "The Gay Metropolis," Kaiser used his interviewing skills to construct a sweeping oral history of gay life in New York City over the past 50 years.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Charles Kaiser's new book The Gay Metropolis is the kind of vast entertaining and inspiring work of oral history that you'd expect a Studs Terkel to write -- if Studs Terkel were gay.

I feel safe, by the way, in assuming that Studs is straight, because he's not mentioned in The Gay Metropolis -- a book that seems to give voice to almost every gay man, great and small, revered and reviled, who made an impact on queer life in the latter half of the 20th century.

Gore Vidal, Roy Cohn, and Moss Hart -- who knew? -- rubbed shoulders with the semi-anonymous likes of Otis Bigelow (ph), hailed by his many male admirers as the best-looking man in Manhattan in the 1940s. We readers are treated to gossipy anecdotes about bacchanalian gay nightlife in the 1970s, including a very funny story about Bob Dylan manipulating the language of gay liberation in order to talk his way into a gay club, just to use the men's room.

We're also humbled by the acts of courage Kaiser recounts, such as Truman Capote's lonely bravado in publicly denouncing J. Edgar Hoover as a "killer fruit." The Gay Metropolis itself it gay -- in both senses of the word.

Not only does it build on other respected works of gay history like "Coming Out Under Fire" by Alan Burubay (ph) and "Gay New York" by George Chauncey (ph), but it does so in an often effervescent, even cheeky style. Imagine taking a college-level social studies seminar taught by Paul Rudnik (ph) and you'll get an idea of the book's tone.

Kaiser mostly focuses on gay male life in New York City, the literal "gay metropolis" of the modern world. His history begins in the 1940s, when many bars in New York displayed signs that read: "if you are gay, please stay away."

During World War II, Kaiser says, the United States Army acted as a great, secret, unwitting agent of gay liberation by creating the largest concentration of homosexuals within a single institution in American history.

As he does throughout the book, Kaiser effectively dramatizes the impact of large-scale historical events through personal accounts. One of the most colorful testimonies in this section is that offered by Leo Altman, a young and of-course closeted Army captain who recalls discovering his first gay nightclub in Paris.

"You walked in," he says, "and suddenly you realize the sighs of homosexuality. There were free Poles dancing with American soldiers; there were Scotsmen dancing with Algerians. I mean, there were men dancing with each other. I had never seen that before in my life. For me, it was sort of like a VE day for gays, before the real VE day."

In general, the chapters of The Gay Metropolis that cover the 1940s through the 1960s are richer than its later sections on AIDS and gay legislation, primarily because the earlier material is less familiar and more shocking.

In this, "Ellen's" much-heralded coming out year, Kaiser performs a cautionary service by reminding his readers that only a few short decades ago, homosexuality was uniformly diagnosed by psychiatrists as a sickness. The mention of lesbians and gays in the newspapers was always in connection with crime. And women in New York City were legally required to wear at least one article of women's clothing whenever they appeared in public.

As Kaiser and his interviewees vividly detail, World War II, the Kinsey Report, the pill, Broadway shows like "The Boys in the Band," and most thrillingly of all, the Stonewall riot, transformed the way society and gay men themselves understood their lives.

Kaiser compares Stonewall's impact to the effect of the Six Day War on Jews around the world. "For the first time," he says, "thousands of members of each tribe finally thought of themselves as warriors." Kaiser himself is a happy warrior in the ongoing struggle to redeem the promise of America -- wielding his pen with an exuberance and outrageousness that would make Whitman smile.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed The Gay Metropolis by Charles Kaiser.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Gay Metropolis" by Charles Kaiser.
Spec: Books; Authors; The Gay Metropolis; Charles Kaiser
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Gay Metropolis
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

43:54

Chef David Chang On Depression, Being A Dad And The Burden Of 'Authenticity'

David Chang has won James Beard awards as a chef and restaurateur. His first and best known restaurant Momofuku started as very modest noodle bar in Manhattan’s east village. The food was influenced by the food he grew up with--food that used to embarrass him when he was growing up. His parents are from North Korea. He now has restaurant in NY, LA, Vegas, Toronto and Australia. He’s had bipolar disorder for many years and credits cooking and his restaurants with saving his life. He has a new memoir.

52:30

Vaccine Expert: Once A COVID Vaccine Is Available, 'Don't Overthink It. Don't Wait'

Dr. Peter Hotez is co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital, and says that a vaccine release could begin for selected populations by the middle of December — and that a broader vaccination effort could soon follow.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue