The concession stand at the Conservatory Water is where Doc Golightly and Paul share the box of Cracker Jack that contains a certain toy ring in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Whether this fact is notable because the author of the novella on which the film is based, Truman Capote, was gay, or because the film looms large in the gay cultural consciousness, is up for debate. But that tidbit was one of many I picked up last Saturday at SideTour’s “Unearth the Secrets of Gay History in Central Park.”
Led by the colorful David Cobb Craig, the tour is an excursion through a park many of us know all too well, but through the lens of gay history. And like much of New York City (if one knows where to look), Central Park has its fair share of rather queer secrets.
The tour begins on the east side with the Whisper Bench (whose function is less titillating than its name implies) and ends on the west side at Strawberry Fields, whose landscape architect was an early and relatively unsung victim of AIDS. There are statues of famous dead poets, thickets appropriated for the sport of cruising, and plenty of zingy commentary to tie it all together.
Around the corner from the Tiffany’s scene is an imposing bronze rendering of Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish author, self-professed celibate, and (widely agreed) homosexual. In fact, Andersen’s 1837 The Little Mermaid is said to be a reflection on the author’s sexual frustrations – just as he was unable to practice his own brand of love, so was the title character prevented from consummating her affection for the dry-land prince.
In the heart of Central Park is the Ramble, a dense grove once known as the “Fruited Plain” because of the prevalence of anonymous sex that was well-known to have taken place there. The other half of the Ramble’s notoriety comes from the persistence of anti-gay violence that took place there too. The 1978 beating of Olympic figure skater Dick Button caused such widespread alarm (and, no doubt, speculation as to Button’s business in the Ramble) that then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses suggested the Ramble be razed and replaced with a senior center. (Nothing like a bunch of old listless New Yorkers to tame the city’s undesirables.) Well the senior center never materialized and I know from a Parks Department colleague that discarded condoms remain a ubiquitous discovery in all corners of the park today.
According to our guide, there are 51 sculptures in the park, of which less than ten are of women, and of those, none depict actual historical women. The Angel of the Waters perched atop the Bethesda Fountain is the only one designed by a woman. Emma Stebbins, one of America’s first female sculptors, modeled the angel on her lover Charlotte Saunders Cushman, a stage actress best known for playing the roles of men like Hamlet and Romeo. The angel plays an important role in 1991’s “gay fantasia” Angels in America, and plays backdrop in a watershed scene in PBS’ 1973 documentary An American Family, in which 22-year old Lance Loud comes out to his mother over sangrias. Loud’s frankness about his sexuality shocked the nation and invigorated its LGBT community in what is regarded as an early precursor to The Real World and reality TV.
Lance Loud’s path to Central Park was paved just one year before filming, when thousands of gay Americans marched in a parade commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots – an anniversary that has been celebrated every June in the 42 years since. The march on June 28, 1970 culminated in a “gay be-in” in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, a great green expanse at the southern end of the park. Since the grazing sheep were removed in 1934, Sheep Meadow has been a favorite stomping ground for herds of decidedly more boisterous New Yorkers – not just homos, but hippies, war protesters, civil rights activists, stargazers, yogis, and flash mobsters too.
Click here if you’d like to learn more about “Unearth the Secrets of Gay History in Central Park” hosted by SideTour.