Long and Short Reviews welcomes Michael Murphy whose latest book A Night at the Ariston Baths releases today.
This book has been a tough one for me for one simple reason: the events depicted in the story actually happened. In 1903 in New York City there was a raid on the Ariston Bathhouse that swept up 78 men in the first known raid on men for having sex with men. There are no records of anything like this happening anywhere else before that night in 1903. This was a massive raid in terms of people detained and police involved.
Persecuted for simply being who we were born to be, gay men (whether or not they could use that word to describe themselves) have always tried to carve out some space where they could meet one another — safe space. The Ariston Baths, a fine, upscale Turkish and Russian Bathhouse located in one of the most fashionable apartment houses in the city, was one such space at around the turn of the century. There was rumored to be a gay manager who looked out for his men and tried to keep the bathhouse on Saturday nights safe for his kind to gather and mingle.
To tell this story I talked with Elizabeth North and we came up with a fictional character, a young man from rural Pennsylvania, who follows his best friend to New York City. In addition to the difficulties of being a country boy in the big city, Theodore McCall discovers that in the few years he and his best friend have been separated, Martin Fuller, has started to change into someone he does not know. Martin is more free, uninhibited and takes chances Theodore finds appalling. One of those chances was on February 21, 1903, when a number of undercover New York City detectives were watching his every move.
That night, there were somewhere from two to six undercover detectives who spent numerous hours in the Ariston Baths, watching, noting every move, every glance, every interchange between the customers. And then at 1:45 AM, a number of uniformed police swept into the place and turmoil erupted. They were not polite or gentle in their efforts to round up all of the customers and staff into one room. When they had everyone they had six police, 78 customers, and 3 staff. Everyone was detained for behavior that everyone found indecent and appalling.
Worse yet, the names of some of the men were printed in the morning newspapers along with their home addresses. So much for a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The lives of dozens of men were irrevocably changed that night. I have researched as many of the men as I can trace and I’ve tried to weave their stories into the character of Martin Fuller. His best friend, Theodore does as much as he can to help Martin, but when he runs out of money and legal options, he has nothing left. With his tail between his legs he returns home to rural Pennsylvania, terrified about ever venturing out of his little valley ever again. Convinced he’s going to spend his entire life alone, out of the blue, he finds someone he can’t take his eyes off. It turns out that this man, Jasper Webb, can’t take his eyes off Theodore, either. When Jasper grows bold one night and kisses Theodore, everything changes in Theodore’s life.
In rural Pennsylvania, Theodore McCall lives on his family’s farm and works as a clerk at the local general store. While his best friend, Martin Fuller, thrives in New York City, Theodore trudges through life. But on New Year’s Eve, 1902, Theodore’s world is turned upside down, and big changes call for bold action.
Theodore, who has never ventured more than eight miles from home, undertakes the daunting journey to New York City to join Martin. But the Martin he finds in New York is a stranger, a different man, doing things Theodore finds shocking. After just two months in the City, Theodore’s world is upended again as he and Martin are swept up in the events at the Ariston Baths.
Haunted by his experiences in New York, Theodore returns home, wondering whether he’ll ever find happiness in life. When he meets Jasper Webb, Theodore must boldly risk everything for the love he so longs for.
Enjoy an excerpt:
The evening news usually didn’t make Theodore jump up and try to dance and do a cheer, but it did on Saturday evening, June 28, 1969.
“Theodore, stop!” Jasper warned. “You’re going to fall and break a hip.”
But Theodore didn’t care. “They did it. By God, they did it!” he said as he thrust the fist at the end of his skinny arm into the air.
“Who did what?” Jasper asked, confused.
“Our people,” Theodore gasped out, as he fell back into his chair. “Our… people.”
“Mr. McCall, you having trouble breathing, baby?” a health aide asked anxiously when she saw Theodore panting for breath.
“The old fool was just trying to dance a jig or cheer or something ridiculous,” Jasper said critically but with a hint of concern. “What were you thinking? You’re nearly ninety years old. You can’t do things like that anymore. Especially after being in the hospital just two weeks ago.”
“Oh, hush,” Theodore said. “This is a day… that will go down in the history books. And I lived to see it. I’ve dreamed of this, but I was afraid I wouldn’t live long enough. But I did. What a glorious day.”
“What are you talking about?” Jasper asked, looking more concerned about Theodore than he was about having an answer to the question he’d just asked.
“That last news story. Didn’t you hear it?”
“I must have, but I couldn’t tell you what it was about.”
“There was a riot last night—this morning, I suppose.”
“Who rioted about what?” Jasper asked.
“Our people. The homosexual youngsters.”
“Right here in New York. Some place called the Stonewall Inn.”
“Have you been there?”
“No. And you know that, because you haven’t been there, and you and I go everywhere together. We have for more than sixty years now.”
The health aide had been taking Theodore’s pulse while they talked. “You’ve known each other how long?” she asked.
“More than sixty years now,” Theodore said.
“Sixty-five years,” Jasper corrected.
“Good Lord,” she said admiringly. “My mama wasn’t even born yet when you two met. I’m not even sure if my grandma was alive yet.”
“That’s because we’re older than dirt,” Theodore said.
“Hey,” Jasper said, “speak for yourself, old man. I’m younger than you are.”
“Only by a couple of months,” Theodore said. “It’s not like I robbed the cradle.”
“Whatever you say, oldster.”
The health aide laughed. “You two are too much. My job wouldn’t be half as much fun if I didn’t have you guys here.”
“Thank you,” Jasper said.
“How did you meet?” she asked.
“I hired him to work in my store in 1904,” Theodore said. “Best decision I ever made too.”
Looking at Jasper, she asked, “Now don’t you know you’re not supposed to have workplace romances?”
“I was the only employee. It was him and me. We didn’t have any rules like that back in our day. And let me tell you,” Jasper said, leaning forward as if to share confidential information, “if you could have seen him… oh, my goodness. Just the sight of him made my heart race. The man was quite a looker.”
“You weren’t so bad yourself,” Theodore added.
“We were much more focused on living without attracting a lot of attention. It was hard to be homosexual back then,” Jasper said.
“Hell, it’s never been easy to be gay in this country. Doesn’t matter that we’ve been here right from the start, a part of every single generation that made this country what it is today.”
“We had to conduct business, live our lives, and help everyone believe they couldn’t see and didn’t know what was going on between us. Everybody knew, but God forbid their safe little worlds be disrupted by something that didn’t fit their concept of what was what.”
“Everybody had their heads buried deep in the sand. Sometimes I wondered how they managed to breathe,” Theodore said.
“You spoke about something going down in history. Gentlemen, you are history.”
“You trying to say we’re old?” Theodore asked with a smile.
“I didn’t say anything about you being old,” she said. “I said you two are history, not historic.”
“This day, today, what just happened last night, is finally our people not quietly letting the cops beat us down and abuse us and treat us like less than dirt. This is for Martin.”
“Well, one of you better start and tell me that story.”
“Well, you see, it started on the last day of 1902, New Year’s Eve. But let me back up a little. It was Christmas Eve, 1902….”
About the Author: Anytime I’m asked the question of who I am I have to stop and try to decide how in the world to answer. I might biologically be middle age, but inside I feel like a randy teenager anxious to explore the world. Dreams of writing have been a part of my life since I was five years old.
Two of the greatest influences on me as I was growing up were my two grandmothers. Both were strong women who had unbelievable burdens thrust upon them when they were widowed very early in life. Both of these incredible women loved stories. They loved reading stories and telling stories, and the stories they had to tell were incredible.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been writing stories. What has been different over the last five years is that I’ve finally been brave enough to allow someone else to read what I’d written. When that happened I found that others liked what I’d written which made me beyond happy.
In addition to writing, my other love is photography. Taking photos of some of the beautiful men of the world is my current focus. With any luck, one of those photos will grace the cover of a Dreamspinner novel in the near future.
My partner and I have traveled the world, trying to see as much as possible. When not traveling, we live in Washington, DC with our best friend, a throw-away dog we adopted twelve years ago. To pay the bills, I am Director of Information Technology for a national organization based in Washington, DC. While I’d rather be writing full-time, I haven’t figured out how to make that a viable option – yet.
Please stop by www.gayromancewriter.com to learn more.