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    The Lavender Laureate and His Sewing Circle

    billLooking out from a photograph taken a century and a half ago is a young swell who almost certainly was the first openly gay San Franciscan. He would not have used that term for himself, which then had a different meaning, or understood the concept “sexual orientation,” which did not yet exist. He knew who he was, however. As he wrote to Walt Whitman, who appreciated such awareness, “I act as my nature prompts me.”

    The passing years have been unkind to Charles Warren Stoddard (1843–1909), who first published under the pen name “Pip Pepperpod” when he was 19. Contemporaries like William Dean Howells found his stories “delicate and charming,” but now they seem like flowers pressed into a fussy and cluttered Victorian album: fragile, faded, sentimental, easily shattered. Yet for all the purple embroidery in his prose, its lovely homoeroticism remains.

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    Readers at the time seemed not to notice it in his writing, but friends and associates knew all about Stoddard’s sexual interests. Mark Twain, whose secretary he was for a time in London, described him as “such a nice girl.” Rudyard Kipling advised him about his autobiographical novel, which described how like-minded men in San Francisco met each other. He called the book “rummy, queer, original, fascinating,” but still encouraged its publication.

    Even Ambrose Bierce, who hated everything and everybody–and certainly did not approve of Stoddard’s sexuality–warned him to “avoid any appearance of eccentricity” on a trip to London. Stoddard understood what he meant: he risked prison for following his heart there. Only after Stoddard died did Bierce explain that he came to dislike the author because “he was not content with the way that God had sexed him.”

    “The love that dare not speak its name” could not be discussed in public then, but it could be intimated. Writing of his departure to Hawaii in 1881, the San Francisco Chronicle described Stoddard’s emotional farewell to his friends: “‘Kiss me, oh kiss me once more before I part from thee forever,’ he sighed, and was carried aboard weeping the hysterical tears of esthetic desolation.” Newspapers often winked at such “eccentric gentility” with great enthusiasm.

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    When Oscar Wilde visited the City the next year, the paper compared him to Stoddard, “whom he so greatly resembled in manner and sentiment that [some] could scarcely believe [he] had not come back in disguise to greet them with a poetic and tender embrace.” No one could mistake Wilde, at 6’ 3” and 195 pounds, for Stoddard, a “wispy youth with a delicate manner.” Only their sexuality was the same, which was precisely the point.

    Stoddard himself believed that men loving men “would not answer” even “in California, where men are tolerably bold,” but he often ignored his  own advice. In San Francisco, he belonged to several informal, overlapping social networks of sexually like-minded men, meeting kindred spirits at parties, through mutual acquaintances, by chance, or as he later wrote, “under cover of darkness [where] a fellow can do almost anything.” Some became life long friends.

    Three years younger than Stoddard, Theodore Dwight (1846–1917) came to San Francisco in 1869. The two men found that they had a great deal in common, including a passion for collecting pictures of nude young men. Unless they were provably art studies, such works were illegal in the United States, but Dwight, who eventually became head of the Boston Public Library, simply smuggled them through customs. In 1892, when he brought in 337 photographs, he wrote to Stoddard, “When you see my spoils you will comprehend my dangers.” They remained friends for decades.

    Stoddard met actor Eben Plympton (1853–1915) in the early 1870s. The two men had a passionate affair “too intense to last,” Stoddard wrote later. Plympton’s “robust masculinity and confidence” soon earned him leading roles on the New York stage as a “handsome, virile leading man.” In later years, Stoddard often visited him at his estate in Massachusetts, “to which interesting men of various types” were invited.

    Songwriter, singer, and “confirmed bachelor” Stephen Massett (1820–1898), who gave the first public performance in San Francisco, was another of Stoddard’s friends. They had a mutual acquaintance in Bayard Taylor (1825–1878), whose last novel, Joseph and His Friend, was dedicated to those “who believe in the truth and tenderness of man’s love for man, as of man’s love for women.” Taylor apparently believed in both. Twice married, he pursued romance with a number of men. Stoddard thought him unhappy because, pulled between two worlds, his life “left his heart unsatisfied.”

    In 1885 Stoddard became “Instructor of Belle Lettres” at Notre Dame University. He believed himself well qualified. “I am fond of the society of young men and lads,” he wrote the administration. “I nearly always win their confidence and attract them to a rather unusual degree.” He resigned in 1886, then moved in with a former student and his parents, who accepted him simply as their son’s friend; the affair lasted two years. From 1889 to 1902, he taught at the newly founded Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Wherever he went, he hoped of finding friendship, romance, intimacy, and love with like-minded men.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.