Interview with Larry Townsend (12-12-96)
by Jack Rinella
as part of his research on the History of Gay Liberation in Chicago.
Please note that these transcriptions are unedited. As oral history they represent the speakers' remembrance of past events. Please excuse typos and errors. The original tape recording is part of the collection of the Leather Archives and Museum, Chicago, IL.
Copyright 1996 Charles Renslow
JACK: This is Jack Rinella and its December 19, 1996 and I'm interviewing Larry Townsend. Larry would you spell your last name for me please.
LARRY: T O W N S E N D
JACK: When were you first introduced to what we might call today the Leather Community?
LARRY: Well, I was probably involved in those things before there was a Leather Community. That would be in the late 50's. I noticed that on the list you sent you wanted to know about the 50's. T can't tell you too much about the 50's because I was in the Air Force. I was in the Air Intelligence Service in Germany up until about ?56 and then I was at UCLA. I came out of the service with about 50 units [of credits] but I finished UCLA in about two and a half years so you can figure what my schedule was and I had a lover during that time. We were doing all these nasty things together but we weren't doing much outside the house. I was aware of what was going on at some of the bars. We would go but we wouldn't participate with these guys as much because we were really wrapped up in each other.
JACK: Sure. That's understandable. When did you begin to make associations with other men who were into that same scene?
LARRY: Well again, I was having sexual liaisons with these guys. I broke up with Newt in 1957 and then I really started going out a lot than and I had a lot of sex scenes but I wasn't really involved socially with these guys until probably ten years later, back into the end of the sixties. I was still pretty young then, a lot younger than most of these guys. The guys who really were - you know - you're talking about your network - the guys who were involved in the network really were to me, they were older guys, they were at least forty, most of them, and more.
JACK: How old would you have been at the time?
LARRY: I was in my twenties. I was still looking for pretty, young things and I didn't realize what I was missing. So I'm not playing with the older guys but, gradually, I started doing it. I was aware of the network probably in the late sixties. But, you know, it was a very informal thing.
JACK: Right. What did that mean to you? How did that affect you? Obviously, they didn't call that "networking" in the late fifties, did they?
LARRY: Well, again, that was during the sixties. By that time I had spent over three years as a probation officer. I was working with juveniles in camps - forestry camps. Then, I was working as an industrial psychologist with a top secret security clearance, so I couldn't fool around as much as I did later on. I knew what was going on. I was playing these games but I certainly would never let my name go on to these lists that were getting passed around. I was aware of guys who were. Actually, I became more poignantly aware of all this when I really started to write the handbook and that was 1971. Then, I learned what had been going on before, a lot of things that I had missed myself. I began to learn about some people who had been involved in it.
JACK: Can you tell me some of those things that you learned? Even if your recollection is secondhand, it certainly is better than none.
LARRY: Well, I became aware of the fact that there were? I thought of them as "cornerstone" in the S&M community in various locations around the world, at least around the Western world, that if you knew a guy who lived in your area, he could put you on to somebody in Chicago or somebody in London or somebody in New York if you were going to travel there - whether you wanted to have sex with the guy or not, that was sort of immaterial - but you had a contact within the S&M community. For what it was, it was very closeted, very, I would say, numerically smaller community. But they were there, and they were doing all these wonderful things. The guy that helped me with the handbook was, I'll just call him John T. I think He's still alive.
He had a cousin who was John L. I know that John L. passed away a year ago because I sent flyers - He's been on my list for a long time - I sent flyers to him and they came back from the county administrator so I know He's gone. But John T. was having some kind of neurological problem. It was robbing him of his intellect, which is really terrible. He's a very bright man. I just don't know whether He's still alive or not. The there was a fellow named Lee who, I think, is also still alive, although He's not active anymore. He really had a tragic situation, he had prostrate cancer and they ended up having to castrate him. So he really, as far as his sexual activity, when he dropped out of the scene he moved out of the state and He's been living up in Washington, the last I heard. These were the guys who were really involved in, what later, would become inter-chain. You know, formalized like.
JACK: So, from your point of view, did this network evolve into Inter-Chain Correspondence Club that I knew later on?
LARRY: No, I don't think so. I Think Inter-Chain was a little bit of a commercial enterprise that somebody started. I think it started in Holland, didn't it? Then it spread over to New York?
JACK: I don't know. All I know is that when I first came out I saw an ad for Inter-Chain and I joined it and they sent me, actually, a little guide book of like in this city, you can so-and-so. I was just coming out. I did meet a couple of people. I didn't know, to me it wasn't commercial or anything, it was just some guys I met.
LARRY: Yes, but they charged you to get on it.
JACK: Yeah, I guess.
LARRY: I think that's what these guys were doing. It may have been a labor of love, and the money was just carrying their expenses, or they may have been making something on it. I don't know, but I think it started in Holland, in Amsterdam. Then they had a thing going in New York and then it spread out. I wasn't really very much involved in that because I knew some of the people involved in it and didn't like them. So, I didn't get into it. Then later on, I found that some of my friends were in it so, you know? But, by that time, AIDS was coming and you didn't play those games, anyway.
JACK: You talked about lists. Were there actually lists of names and addresses that one of the people passed around?
LARRY: No. All I meant was that there were these, sort of, cornerstone people I'm thinking about and that I was given a list of about twelve names of people I could contact when I was traveling in Europe. This sort of thing. But it was not a list. It was published later but it was maybe just a list off the top of the head of the guy you happened to call, and some correspondence. A lot of these guys were really passing around these "Tijuana Bibles" from those days? I think that's probably the closest thing to a list that you had, would be the mailing list for the "Tijuana Bible" stuff.
JACK: What's a "Tijuana Bible"?
LARRY: Well, before we were able to publish books, guys would write these sexy little stories and then they would, I think that was before the Xerox too - they'd have them on a mimeograph and used them for amusement. They'd get passed around and duplicated, when there was somebody to duplicate them. Then, they'd call them "Tijuana Bibles".
JACK: Do you know where that name came from? Just from the fact of Tijuana or??
LARRY: Well. That's what we used to call them out here. I guess because if you went to Tijuana you could buy them off the street. You couldn't buy them on the street here.
JACK: Interesting. When would you say that this formal group began to meld into an actual group?
LARRY: Oh, I don't think that the group that I thought of as the "cornerstone group", as I call it, I don't think that ever melded into Inter-Chain. I think Inter-Chain was totally different.
JACK: When we Began this conversation you said something like the fact that there was no leather community when you first came out. What I'm talking about is, how do you perceive this evolution of friends who passed names around into what, by 1980, certainly, there was a real- some kind of subculture. However you want to define it. How did you see that evolution taking place?
LARRY: Well, I think you're going to have to define "leather community" because I don't want to imply that there wasn't pretty much of a community - though, very small and very scattered - back in the fifties and probably before. Before I was open to it but didn't know about it. I mean, if you want to call that a community it's been there and certainly, all this time. I know in some of the writings that people were doing - I don't necessarily agree with them - I told you about that court decree (out of World War II, I think it was there long before World War II??, but it was just smaller and more scattered. People have been playing these games since the cavemen but I think that what happened is that we sort of broke the barriers in the late sixties and early seventies. We broke this barrier where you were afraid to write anything. The government wasn't censoring the written word anymore because they'd lost every case the tried to bring up on it. When this happened, then, I think, you were free to put things in the mail that you would've been afraid to put in before. I mean, you read those stories about Mattachine when they started One, Incorporated when the started. They were getting busted for putting stuff in the mail that was so innocuous that I would see no reason for it. But suddenly, we had broken out of this and Greenleaf Classics was publishing our stuff and then Olympia Press started doing it.
JACK: I'm sorry, who was?
LARRY: Olympia Press.
JACK: Okay. Before that you said another name I thought.
LARRY: Greenleaf Classics. I don't know, but it published the fist thirteen of my novels. And they published Dirk Vanden and they're the ones that did Song of the Loon. I think The Song of the Loon was really the icebreaker. It wasn't really an S&M novel but it was a gay graphic novel and nobody busted them for it. Once that came out, then there was just a slew of stuff that came out afterwards. Then that stuff was being sent through the mail. Then, once the postal; authorities stopped hassling people for putting these things in the mail then you had all kinds of things going out of these little organizations. You had the rigid Bondage Roster started in New York and Smads, a little later. They wouldn't dare put those in the mail in like 1970 but by 1975 they were all over the place.
JACK: And so it was really the liberalization of the press, so to speak.
LARRY: I think the whole secret to this was the ability of these people to use the mail without getting arrested for it. Once you could do that, then all of these organizations could get going. They didn't have the regional word-of-mouth things anymore.
JACK: When you first met some of these older men that were active in S&M before you were, how did you meet them?
LARRY: Well, that's mostly at the bars. The Cinema was a big bar on those days on Santa Monica Blvd. I wrote about that in the first handbook, in the first and second chapters, I can tell you all about that. That's where I really mean, of course, when you would meet someone there then they would introduce you to somebody else and you'd go on from there. But then they also- there were the bike clubs that all had their runs and back in those days the bike club runs were almost the equivalent of S&M runs because that's where all the people who wanted to play bondage games used to go. It was the only place they could go!
JACK: To a bike club?
LARRY: Yeah, the bike clubs. That's why the bike clubs became so popular and so powerful during the seventies.
JACK: What were the earliest bike clubs that you know of in Southern California? I take it you were in Southern California at the time.
LARRY: Well, let me see. There was The Satyrs and Oedipus and Blue Max. My best friends were in Blue Max. There was The Buddy Club which were of guys that didn't own bikes but liked to ride on bikes with other guys. They were mostly younger guys and they were very popular because of that. They were attractive. There were other clubs that were not really bike clubs but they were sort of social, they called themselves "social clubs" but they were quasi leather. Kingmasters is one that I belonged to. Ten there was the one that had Greek fraternity initials that stood for sixty-nine - that was the biggest one and I can't even think of its name.
JACK: When you say "quasi-leather", what was the atmosphere like?
LARRY: Well, what I mean is like our Kingmasters club was a group of guys who were very sexually active. All of this was actually in the early seventies because I was a member of when the Leathermen's Handbook originally came out and that was in 1972. I became president of H.E.L.P. very shortly after that when I involved the club with H.E.L.P. In fact, they accused me. They used to call the Kingmasters my Brown Shirts.
JACK: Your brown shirts? Why brown shirts?
LARRY: Well, because I was always involving these guys in something to do with supporting H.E.L.P. and so the people that didn't like me and didn't like H.E.L.P., some groups called them my "brown shirts" because they'd do fund-raisers for us or if we'd have to move some furniture they'd do it for us and this kind of thing. When we had a function they'd help man the doors and do that sort of thing that you'd have to do to do a fund raiser because they were all kind of young, attractive, mostly attractive guys who were very sexual but also we had gotten them very involved in the movement. You have to remember that those were the days when the police were not behaving with the restraint that they are now. And so when you organized against them you did things like that.
You had a situation where you would bail people out of jail when we got busted for lewd conduct of for these phony drunk driving arrests when the police would just hang out outside a gay bar and bust you when you left because you had a beer and this kind of thing. All of H.E.L.P. was basically a group of people who were fairly conservative. We were involved with attorneys and so forth, but we still needed physical support from groups such as Kingmasters. But I was not terribly popular with the very, very radical street people because whenever there were these community gatherings of the various groups in town I always was kind of opposed to some of the more outrageous things that they were going to do. Although, today I would probably look at it and say "Well, hell. You kind of need somebody out there doing that!" I was horrified in those days of someone getting in the gay parade dressed as a huge penis with something shooting out the end like sparks or whatever! I was not one who would approve of that.
JACK: I'm going to change the subject?.
JACK: I'd like to change the subject to move on a little bit and talk about how you actually came to write The Leathermen's Handbook.
LARRY: Well, I'd been writing for Greenleaf Classics in San Diego for probably two years at that pints and I reached a point with them where I was not getting along well with the editors. I had enough published that I knew they were making money on me and they weren't paying me enough and things were just not working well. I was approached by Olympia Press which was The Other Traveler series they called it. That was the gay branch of Olympia Press. They wanted me to write for them and that was just wonderful. Actually it was Dirk Vanden I think that got me involved with them. He was the only other person who was writing gay leather things at that time that I was aware of. Now Andros may have been writing something but I wasn't aware of it. I know he was writing but I don't think he was writing his leather stuff yet. This was like 1971. He could have been but I would say that Vanden was the only one that I was aware of. The only one I really though was good, but I had written Leather at M, Leather at S, which was in its second printing by this time and actually it was already becoming a cult classic and I didn't realize it at that point. I had written some leather novels, but when I started with Greenleaf I wrote Run Little Leather Boy for them, my first thing with them and I think that sold pretty well. And then they said "Why don't you write and expose? on the gay leather scene?" and I said there's no way I can write an expose- because I'm involved in this and that would be an act of treachery to my friends. I said I would write a guide book for it the best I can. You remember, of course, I was thirty something so I wasn't really old enough to be a sage. But I contacted a few guys who were these kind of network people and I told them what I was going to do and I talked to them and there was a lot of discussion about this and I would write a chapter or two and then I would show it to them and they would say "you didn't remember this" and that kind of thing. I had a lot of guidance with it, a lot of help. It only took me a couple of months because I did an outline an I went right through it and sent it on to Olympia and they published it very quickly. I had a fabulous editor there, Ms. Francis Green, who's now the lady who owns Renaissance House (NY) and does the GaYellowPages. She's a wonderful woman and she was a fabulous editor. The Leathermen's Handbook came out and it was a success right from the beginning because nothing had been done like this before. Again, I really have to thank Richard Embry for breaking down the wall that permitted us to do this. Once this got out I did one more novel, The Scorpious Equation, for them which really is science fiction. Then Olympia went belly up because Maurice Gerodius II was a terrible business man. He kept pulling all the money out and spending it for God knows what and the business went bust. And of course the only reason they were in New York was because Charles DeGaulle had come to power in France and the censorship had become so strict that they moved from Paris to New York. You know Olympia Press did Lady Chatterly's Lover and Ulysses and all the Henry Miller books published in France when they couldn't publish it over here. Anyway, when this happened all the rights to all my books reverted to me and I had already written Run No More which was the sequel to Run Little Leather Boy. They had bought it but they went bust before they could publish it, so Francis sent me the galleys and that was about the second book that I published myself when I started my own press. Then Olympia came back to life briefly and Maurice wanted to do a second printing of the Handbook and by that time I was wary of it and made him pay me the advance up front before I signed the contract because he screwed me several times other ways and he screwed a lot of other people much worse than me. Anyway, it got its second printing. I think that was 1974. Then I went on with publishing the Leatherman's Workbooks and so forth and doing my mail order which was successful right from the beginning.
JACK: How would you respond to the criticism that The Leatherman's Handbook ruined the leather scene?
LARRY: Well I never heard anybody say that. I have two good sized file boxes which are full of letters that I have gotten from people all over the world mostly on the first handbook, but some on the second saying, "thank you for writing it," "I thought I was the only person in the world, you told me how to do things." It was incredible the number of people that had a positive response. The only negative response that I had to it when it first came out was very strange, was in Screw Magazine. This guy did a terrible review on it because he accused me of saying exactly the opposite of what I said. He obviously hadn't read the book. Then later on he apologized for it. Then of course more recently that Lesbian in San Francisco did a number in Frontiers up there. At that point she's looking at a book that is 25 years old and is only still in print as a historical document and she is comparing it to something that somebody's done recently, then giving me a hard time because I spent three chapters telling you how to use your dick and she says of course lesbians can't do that, so the poor things, the book is useless to them. I have to say I've never really had a negative response to it, neither handbook.
JACK: Certainly, The Leatherman's Handbook was my first introduction to a world well beyond anything I could think about, except when I was rock hard I suppose, that would come to mind. I've heard come criticism that by explaining the leather lifestyle as well as you did and as thoroughly as you did in the Leatherman's Handbook that you were taking away the mystique of it and making it accessible to every leather twinkie in the world.
LARRY: That could be, but then most of the leather twinkies probably didn't bother reading it. I think that for someone who read the handbook from cover to cover he was interested in what was going on and jacking off having a good time thinking "Oh my God, that's me" or "that's so-and-so." Someone who really isn't into it, I don't think he'd read it. It's sort of the same feeling I have when they have all this nonsense about children reading pornography. I think a kid seven, eight, ten years old, he doesn't give a shit. I mean it's not interesting to him. He's not going to read it.
JACK: So the Leathermen's Handbook was written in 1971 and published in 1972?
LARRY: Then it was reprinted, just with minor changed to the glossary in 1974, then in 1978 or 1979 I made a deal with Le Salon to reprint it again and all I updated were the glossaries. I did that because I just wanted to keep it in print. My mail order was really going by then and I needed the book and they weren't available anymore. I made the deal with Le Salon. All I took were the books. I never had any money out of it. Then I was approached by George Maverty of Honcho and Mandate. This would have been on 1981. He wanted to reprint the handbook into a fourth edition and I said "George, I really think it's run its course but I'll be happy to write a sequel to it and give you a brand new book." So that's what I did. I don't know if you read both of them, but Handbook II is completely different. Although I followed the same format of doing the explanations and maybe putting in a little vignette here and there, give you a chance to jack off before you got to the next subject. The two book are the old testament and the new testament. Then the second one, George reprinted it a couple years later because it had run out and then the third time I said I better put in something about AIDS, because when I wrote it in 1981 AIDS was still GRID. Nobody knew much about. It was by 1985 when I did the third edition I said we've go to put something in it. I really went through it and said "this is what we used to do, but we don't do that anymore because so forth and so on." Then it's been reprinted again since then, but it's just a reprint of the one that was updated. At this point, The Leathermen's Handbook, the original has been rewritten, really rewritten and updated and its coming out next year in the silver jubilee edition because it's 25 years. I think George wants to do the Leathermen's Handbook II in a brand new thing. I'm going to wait and see what the format of the original looks like and then let George design a cover so when they appear in the book stores, even though they are from two different publishers, they could go on the shelf as numbers one and two.
JACK: To go into another bit of history, you talked before about the organization H.E.L.P.? Can we spend some time talking about the slave auction in Los Angeles?
LARRY: It had nothing to do with H.E.L.P.
JACK: In the Drummer magazine I have it talks about being a fund raiser for H.E.L.P. or is it two different slave auctions.
LARRY: I got into H.E.L.P., Inc. because in 1971 I needed auto insurance and the company I was with stopped selling in California. So I looked in the gay paper which of course was the Advocate in those days and I found this lesbian woman who was selling auto insurance. So I called her and she came up and she sold me the policy. I talked to her for awhile and she told me "I'm involved with this organization called H.E.L.P. and you really should get involved with it." It was a little group with 50 members and a little board of directors and about 4 or 5 lawyer who were cooperating with them. What they were doing was they were taking turns manning the phones at night through a switchboard. If somebody got into trouble and they were a member, you would go bail them out. The situation in L.A. was bad enough at that point that even with 50 members you had a fair number of people getting busted. So I went in and started doing a newsletter for them and eventually became the president of the thing. We ran the membership to about 450 and I got so involved in it I didn't have time to run my mail order and publishing business.
Embry had come back from Hawaii where he was doing some sort of TV guide over there. He saw what we were doing with the H.E.L.P. newsletter and he came in and said "That's not the way to do a newsletter." He showed me how it should be done and he became very involved with us. When I reached a point where I couldn't handle H.E.L.P. anymore, I either had to resign all the way or be a member of the board, he said "That's OK, I'll run for president, I'll take over." So he did.
At the time he did the salve auction, I didn't know if was still president of H.E.L.P. at that point or not. It wasn't a H.E.L.P. fund-raiser. He was doing it for the Gay Community Services Center or something. I'll tell you what the story is and you figure out what should be said. It was the New Year's Eve before the salve auction arrest which I think was in June [ed note, April 10 1976]. So whatever what year that was. Embry tried to have a slave auction at the bar called The Detour. He advertised it and he pulled the thing off with hardly anybody there, I mean like three slaves, two bidders. That thing was nothing. It was a total bust/ It took like a half an hour and it was over. Then lo and behold, here comes the vice squad. SO they were very disappointed that they couldn't arrest anyone and they told John that: "We didn't get here in time to do anything about it this time. But no more slave auctions."
I wasn't there but John told me this on the phone. At that point we were still speaking. Fortunately for me we had a falling out before the slave auction. Otherwise I would have been there and would probably have been arrested. We had a terrible squabble. SO he did this slave auction thing on his own. Jeannie Barney was there. The guy who was in Born to Raise Hell who subsequently died, The Argentinean guy, I forgot his name, anyway he was there. Terry LeGrand was there. He's the guy who runs Marathon Films. He was the producer of Born to raise Hell. Anyway the police came. It was prearranged. They had two busses that they use for booking people and they had God knows how many police cars and helicopter and the whole thing. They hauled out 40 people I think. The arrested them under the 14th amendment, slavery. Big headlines and big nonsense. And of course they ended up dismissing the charges on everybody except the four ringleaders which was John Embry and Jeannie Barney and a guy whose name I can't remember and I don't know who the fourth was. They were going to put them on trial for pandering but they coped out to something, disturbing the peace or something and that was the end of it.
What you might be confusing this with was when there was an arrest when we did a H.E.L.P. fund raiser. That was on August 21, 1972. It was at the old Black Pipe. That was just a H.E.L.P. fund raiser. That was really outrageous because the fellow who owned Black Pipe, Dwayne Moller, turned in his beer license for that day. So it wasn't a licensed premise. It was just a private club. We had this fund raiser going because we wanted to open the H.E.L.P. Center which would have been like a community services center if we ever got off the ground. I had monitors out on the floor. I had 5 or 6 guys going around making sure nobody was playing naughty naughty in the corners, and there was no cock sucking in the john and that everything was pretty well on the up and up. They sent these 5 vice cops in and of course they phonied up all these reports then all of a sudden here comes the police in riot gear. The arrested 21. I was one of the first ones they grabbed because I was the president of the group. They arrested us and hauled us into town. Really the reason they did it was because, not as a group, but as individuals we were supporting a candidate for DA who was running against the incumbent. And that's really why they were after us. That was the Black Pipe 21. But the slave auction was probably a year and a half or two years later. John claimed that it was a fund raiser but he didn't use his head. He sent out notices on his mailing list that they were going to have this wonderful slave auction and so forth and there was no mention about its being a charity affair. He had postal inspectors on his mailing list and they turned the thing over to the cops. He still might have been all right if he had just taken the money from the people who mailed It in because he could have called it a private function. Since it was a bath house it didn't have any ABC license or anything. But he didn't do that. He was taking money at the door. And when he took money at the door it became a public event. I don't think charity event entered his mind until after he was busted. But I don't know. I wasn't speaking to him at that point. that's the story. I don't know how much of it I want you to say in print about it. I really don't want to get in a beef with Embry. that's what happened. That's a true story. If you want to tell a funny thing that happened, when the police came in and arrested everybody, they arrested Jeannie Barney, you know, she was the writer of Smoke from Jeannie?s :Lamp from the old Advocate. She was a columnist. When they arrested her the police looked at her and said "Are you a real woman?" And she said "Of course I?m a real woman If I were in drag I?d have bigger tits."
JACK: Now where was the slave auction?
LARRY: The slave auction was at a bath house. The Club Baths. It was on Melrose right near the freeway.
JACK: That's about 45 minutes of taping. Why don't we stop there. I'll call you back after the holidays and talk about your life story.