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October Photo of the Month

October Photo of the Month

Nothing new here, just a couple guys getting ready for a party. Today this intimate, behind the scenes peek hardly seems more radical than watching Mom apply her makeup.

But this snapshot is part of an album which documents the vibrant gay subculture that flourished in Hollywood after WWII. The photographer is unknown; the locations unspecified. Some guests are identified by first and last name in handwritten captions. Others are more cryptic: “Bill A.” and “Bob B.”

This is no random group of revelers. There’s a strong sense of community. Many of the partygoers show up year after year (in different drag, of course). As amusing and entertaining as the photos are, there’s something serious going on. These people challenged the strict gender norms of the day and in doing so, engaged in a glamorous act of defiance.

While they blurred the boundaries of gender identity in Hollywood, the Under Secretary of State John Peurifoy was testifying before a Senate committee in Washington about a "homosexual underground" in the State Department. With the help of Joe McCarthy, he ignited the "Lavender Scare" in 1950.

At the time, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. Gay men and lesbians were considered susceptible to blackmail, thus constituting a security risk. In 1953, President Eisenhower ordered the firing of every gay man and lesbian working for the government. The resulting purge ended careers, ruined lives, and impelled many to suicide.

While not directly connected to this government outrage, there is a shocking double suicide revealed within the pages of the album.

A clipping from the Los Angeles Herald & Express (Nov 17, 1955), tucked between two blank pages, reports “2 Men Take Own Lives in Different Ways.” One of the men, a Beverly Hills hairdresser, William Henry Shaw, was a frequent guest at the annual parties and shows up several times in the album.

The other man, Paul Welty, was a married electrical engineer whose wife “knew of no reason why he would commit suicide.” The article implies a connection between the two suicides. “Paul” appears in the album three times.  

 

Vintage snapshot from an album of 178 black and white photos.
Dated 1949.
Private Collection.

 

  • barry harrison

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