Monday, April 19, 2010

Thurman Hedgepeth, Artist, Fashionista, Dealer, Traveler, Networker

The first time I laid eyes on Thurman he was working behind the books and prints concession at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, hired specifically to work at the groundbreaking 1968 photo exhibition Harlem on My Mind. Thurman definitely stood out. Tall, maybe 6' 3”, and rail thin, with an elegant aristocratic manner. He had the brightest smile and biggest brown eyes that when they zeroed in on you made you feel like you were his entire focus. His fashionably baggy outfit of carefully edited secondhand finds emphasized his willowy figure.

I approached the counter to look over the offerings. We quickly fell into easy conversation. We talked about the exhibition, the museum and the fact that he was a visual artist recently arrived in the city. A few days later, I ran into him on the street in the East Village and discovered we were neighbors. I lived on East Second Street; he on East Third.

The first time I dropped by to visit Thurman unannounced almost got me mugged. Coming from a nearby supermarket with groceries and passing his building, I thought I would stop in and see if he was home. When I opened the street door, a hulking Hispanic man lingered in the vestibule. He eyed me and moved aside. I took about three steps through the doorway but something told me to turn around and leave.

Following my instincts, I did exactly that: my abrupt about-face caught the would-be mugger off guard. He recovered quickly and came toward me. I managed to clear the door and walk quickly away. I wasn't a hundred percent sure of what had happened until I was well up the street.

At any rate, Thurman and I eventually got into contact. After the Met exhibition closed, Thurman worked as assistant to several established artists, and as such had keys to some spectacular lofts in the neighborhood. He was always moving around, going from one incredible space to another. Once he took me to a building on Lafayette Street where he was staying owned by wealthy artist Robert Rauschenberg.

I followed Thurman up to the third floor where the living quarters were. There was no one else home. He showed me a deck of homemade playing cards that Rauschenberg had quickly created for them to use. They were out at his beach place in the Hamptons the previous weekend and it rained. Behind the building was a small private chapel. Somehow, Thurman had swiftly ingratiated himself with the New York art scene. He was always going to gallery openings or loft parties.

Eventually Thurman got his own loft on East 12th Street off Fourth Avenue. It was the top floor of a four-story walkup and from the rear windows an impressive view of the top of the Empire State Building. At the time, Thurman both painted and made custom clothing. He briefly strutted down catwalks for top designers’ runway shows in Paris.

At his new loft, he had taken a lover. I vaguely remember a striking black hunk who didn’t say much. Thurman showed me a series of oversized abstracts canvases he was getting ready to show to gallery owners and art collectors like Henry Van Zeldgelder, who at the time was a MOMA curator and later city cultural commissioner. Henry was famous for finding his way to obscure lofts and apartments to ferret out promising artists.

Thurman originally came from North Carolina, a small farming town where his extended family was prominent. Their local history went back several generations. His father or grandfather was in the clergy I believe. He was the family black sheep being both an artist and gay. I once shot some 8mm film of Thurman trekking around the East Village but never did have it developed.

My mother gave me some lambskin fabric. I asked Thurman to make me a jacket. He cut, styled, fitted and sewed a high concept jacket I still have in the closet though it no longer fits, I hold on to for sentimental reasons.

One day I learned Thurman was falling behind on his rent and soon evicted for non-payment. That didn't stop Thurman. A few weeks later, he invited me over to new digs: a white shingled cottage sitting atop a commercial building in midtown. Literally, a small two-bedroom unit built on the roof. There was a generous terrace but not great views: surrounding buildings were taller.

Around this time, Thurman began dealing vintage photographs. He was going to Europe to find buyers. I moved uptown and from time to time let Thurman stay with my partner and me when he was between apartments, which seemed to be happening more and more. I noticed after one visit my piggy bank was considerably lighter and realized Thurman was pilfering the small change. I put the bank in a more secure location for his next stay.

Clearly, Thurman had a gift as an artist and art world hustler. He was always creating new work, or discovering work that he could exploit for financial gain. We both moved in the gay scene in the East and West Villages, and knew many of the same people. We both gradually gravitated uptown.

When I moved to a flat in Harlem Thurman became a frequent visitor. I stored some of his belongings, including a huge partners’ desk that I used for a while. He had new lovers all the time, one in particular that he brought by was a medical doctor from Munich, who in later years I met up with briefly in Germany.

Thurman started spending more time in Europe, and his international lifestyle inspired me to go abroad for extended stays, something I had been plotting to do for years. The first time I went to Europe, I let Thurman stay in the apt. When I came back, I discovered irregularities, which educated me about letting people use the apt while I was traveling especially when it pertained to personal bedding, etc. A good set of sheets disappeared after one of Thurman's visits, as well as cutlery and other small items. I finally had to accept the fact that Thurman was in the habit of adopting people's belongings, so I needed to be more vigilant if I were going to let him use the apartment while I traveled.

Thurman stayed in contact as he moved around the city. At one point, he was living nearby in Harlem. He eventually moved all of his belongings from my apt into a place he shared with a cousin.

One day as we chatted, I noticed how foul his breath smelled. It seemed to be more than just rotting teeth but I never suspected for a moment he was infected. He was fairly promiscuous--but weren't we all in the 1970s--though he and I were never intimate.

I found some vintage fashion photos left behind in a Harlem apt my super let me have. I gave them to Thurman on consignment. I started going off to Europe myself with more frequency. Thurman gave me a nice list of people to look up in London, Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin--all of whom were gracious and hospitable.

Thurman began going back down to North Carolina to see his family. We lost track of each other for a few months. One spring day the phone rang--for some reason I was sitting at the dining room table. It was a woman who introduced herself as Thurman's sister.

She told me that in the previous weeks he passed away, the cause, unspoken, but clearly HIV related. She said that she was calling all the people listed in his phone book. I thanked her for the acknowledgement. The unexpected news floored me. It seemed like everything happened much too quickly.

What became of Thurman’s art or belongings remains a mystery. We had no real mutual friends, and I forget to get his sister’s number. I imagine that wherever he last left his possessions was inheritor by default.

Thurman would be in his early 60’s today.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Robin Woodhull (born Robert Wortman) Wit, Wiz, Wingman

Like many people I tricked with in the Sixties, Robin became a fast friend. We met at a New Year's Eve party hosted by then Metropolitan Opera ballet soloist Jan Mickens, who at the time lived in a walkup on 96th Street off Broadway. A tall gangly bleached blond, Robin’s features had a sharp hawkish quality. We had instant verbal rapport. As it turned out, we lived around the corner from each other in the East Village so it was convenient to share a cab downtown.

When we got to The Bowery, I invited Robin over to my place. I was very impressed when told me he was about to self-publish a book of poetry. We had sex before going to sleep and again when we got up the next afternoon. That was really the only time we ever slept together carnally. We made better friends than lovers. This was 1969, that spring I graduated from college and over the summer dated a fresh-faced aspiring actor from Maryland named Geoffrey.

Everyday at cocktail time, Geoffrey and I headed over to Robin's to smoke a couple of bowls of excellent blond hashish he hoarded and strictly doled out. His straight college friend Lenny from San Francisco was visiting at the time. I fondly remember those lazy late summer afternoons as we chatted and joked. It was the beginning of my adult life. Up until then I had not really smoked very much cannabis.

Robin’s apartment was across the street from the infamous city-run Men’s Homeless Shelter. He probably paid about fifty bucks for the third floor four-room railroad flat. I never saw him prepare a proper meal in the grungy kitchen and his bedroom was a total disaster. To support themselves that summer Robin and Lenny handcrafted extravagantly studded rhinestone belts and peddled them on the streets of The Village.

The four of us regularly sat around the sparsely furnished front room, turning on in the fiery glow of summer sunsets streaming through bare open windows. I can still visualize Robin's common room: ratty mattress half leaning against the wall doubling as couch, odd rickety chairs missing spindles or backs, and milk cartons repurposed as side tables, all scavenged from neighborhood trash. Our mental state sufficiently altered after several rounds of the pipe we might go out for something to eat or walk over to the West Village and hangout on Christopher Street.

I took some samples of Robin’s gold and silver lame belts to show a young accessories editor at Women’s Wear Daily named Rosemary whom I heard was looking for leads. She like the belts but suggested they design coordinated armbands to create a ‘look’; something someone might wear out to a club. In that case, she might give up some ink. Robin didn’t like the idea complaining it was too much work and vetoed it out of hand. "Nobody’s going to wear them anyway," he snorted. Not the last time he would blow a chance to get his Fifteen Minutes.

When things with Geoffrey and me cooled that fall, Robin and I became cruising pals, going out together looking for casual partners. Robin liked to dress in punk-ish drag that verged on transvestitism. He wore his thinning blond hair long and shaggy. He favored glitzy rhinestone broaches and attached big chrome numbers to the back of a leather jacket advertising his phone number. (I don’t believe he ever got a date that way.) Sometimes street toughs harassed him or tried to grab his jewels. I provided something of an escort.

Mostly we hung out in the West Village—the East Village as far as bars went hadn’t really happened yet except for Stanley’s on East Fourth maybe. We also took occasional excursions to check out action in bars on the Upper East-and-West Sides. We never had differences over potential tricks, since we were looking for different types. Though given Robin’s generous endowment he was often better equipped than his topping partners.

As fate would have it, we were rendezvousing across from the Stonewall Inn the night a police raid on the dingy hangout changed gay life forever. We were in the early crowd gathered along the edge of the pocket park directly across from the club, eventually spilling into the gutter and blocking the street. We moved back and forth in waves as the series of events that marked the historic moment unfurled.

Though today thousands claim to have been there, if memory serves, we were no more that a couple of hundred hardcore curiosity seekers, cheerleaders, campy wisecrackers, fed-ups, opportunist and trouble-makers all rolled into an angry mincing mob. Our numbers definitely grew as word spread and the unrest escalated. We were one of the relative few there from the very start. Robin’s romantic interest in one of the activists who evolved into a leader got us participating in early organizing meetings and some of the first demonstrations following that momentous night.

In mid-January 1970, I went off to San Francisco with my first serious boyfriend. It turned into a nine-month adventure. When I got back in the fall—another youthful romance no more—Robin was making plans to spend a week on Fire Island. Since he had to pay for a double room, why don’t I come along? It was our first visit to the legendary lavender resort. Need I confess, a week in Sodom put the finishing touches on our extensive field work.

Robin started seeing a handsome Jewish college student from the Bronx. As a teenager, the boy reluctantly testified against a pedophile that sodomized him. He hit it off with Robin and they started spending weekends shooting meth and having lengthy discussions on arcane topics. Robin used speed on and off for years starting long before we met. He claimed superstar Nico from the Any Warhol stable was his connection for a time. She, and another acquaintance Ondine, were names he occasionally dropped.

The following summer we thumbed up to Provincetown to visit Robin's boyfriend. He was doing kitchen work for the high tourist season. It was the year Rollin Stones' Brown Sugar was the dance floor anthem. Robin and I boogied nights away in one of P-towns popular bars all the while scouting conquests.

I still recall and am not at all amazed by the countless evenings we spent cruising smoky bar rooms or trolling in and out long-haul truck trailers parked along the waterfront. We'd take breaks together, give progress reports, mostly complaining about lack of prospects. We were very close during this time. We shared a casual intimacy I experienced with few others. Robin could be bitchy and crabby—but he could also deliver delicious bon mots both witticisms and put-downs.

Robin had a relationship with Off-Off playwright Robert Patrick. They lived in the same tenement building on East 3rd Street and knew each other casually for years. One day, out of the blue, Robin announced they were lovers. I could hardly believe it and teased him for being a celebrity-fucker since at the time Patrick was enjoying attention as an emerging theatrical voice. I have a watercolor that Patrick made of himself, Robin, Lenny and Mack, Robin's other very close friend, sprawling around Robin's disheveled living space.

Throughout the 1970s we stayed in touch though professional obligations and long-term live-in partners somewhat curtailed regular nocturnal activities. Robin moved to the West Village in the early 1970's, to Perry Street. Shortly into his occupancy he was awaken early one morning by the doorbell. On the threshold stood a pair of city sanitation workers looking for the previous tenant. Seems he had been providing oral service to half the down-low men in the neighborhood. Robin decided not to let a good tradition die and took over the franchise.

After years in market research working up to supervisor, Robin went to computer programming school and got better jobs as a programmer. Some projects would take him long hours to complete and he had to work weekends. I moved uptown with a new lover and a fulltime job, also reducing our time together as the 1970's wore on.

With better economic stability, Robin could afford a car and indulge his whim for collecting rhinestone jewelry and little boxes for storing various stashes. He got into gourmet cooking and on a four-burner tenement stove tried his hand preparing complicated dishes from the Rombauer and Child tomes. He soon equipped the kitchen with better utensils. He invited me to an occasional meal, served haphazardly with mismatched plates nestled on our laps sitting on the not too tidy floor, but tasty nonetheless.

As we saw less and less of each other physically, we telephoned and stayed in touch a lot through a mutual friend Bruce, who when I originally introduced them, took an instant dislike to each other that later mellowed into a deeper friendship through the years.

Robin bought a little getaway shack in the Princeton area and started spending weekends. I never managed to get out there since I didn't trust my car to make the trip the one or two times I was about to go out for a visit.

One of the last evenings I spent with Robin in the early 1980s, he wasn't feeling well. We watched one of the first dramas about AIDS broadcast on national television, An Early Frost. I had come downtown especially to watch with him because I didn't feel up to watching alone. At the time, every gay man in America was concerned about infection with the virus. Little did I realize that at this point Robin suspected he was infected, though it never dawned on me at the time to make much of his symptoms like a persistent cough and swollen glands.

Soon brief hospitalizations for various ailments plagued Robin. I remember once he had to check into St Vincent's Hospital and was made to wait in the emergency room where cigarette smoking was allowed (can you imagine?). One chain smoker's fog was making him nauseous and he asked the reception nurse if someone could ask the man not to smoke.

Her response there was nothing they could do about it. The next day I called one of the nun directors and complained about the smoking issue in the waiting room. She told me current provisions allow smoking. Unimaginable today but that was around 1983.

Robin Woodhull was born Robert Wortman in July of 1945, a Cancer, in a posh old money suburb of San Francisco. He found his naming prosaic and renamed himself, at least socially. His businessman father was a World War II veteran and came from a prominent West Coast family with a solidly upper middleclass pedigree. Late to marry, he met Robin’s mother during the war —young, pretty—working as a sales clerk in the base PX. It was a May-December coupling, Robin's father considerably older, his mother’s background not so upper crust. Robin was their first-born and a younger sister followed, who, as fate would have it, turned out lesbian.

Robin always stressed his difficult childhood. His father was already in his 60's when Robin entered puberty. He didn't really have much time for Robin either. Robin’s outsider fashion sense made him a misfit in the conservative upscale community. He longed for the raunchy street life of San Francisco, and by his mid teens found his way to the then burgeoning center of alternative culture Haight-Ashbury, and began drugging, rocking and sexing.

He dropped out of college, hitched back and forth to New York with a woman friend. Eventually they stayed on the East Coast. He endured classic street urchin life for long periods. Sleeping on park benches, in shady crash pads, living by his wits, using his body to get by when he had to, and doing drugs whenever he cold get them. When we met, he was starting to stabilize his life by having an apartment lease and finding enough paying jobs to enable periods of respite when he collects unemployment benefits and ponders what kind of artist he was going to be.

When I returned from a trip in the fall of 1987, I got a call from Bruce. Earlier in the week Robin had succumb. I was shocked. I knew he had not been well but I had no idea it had progressed so far. I don't think he had started AZT. At the time, the drug therapy was prescribed selectively.

Bruce, myself, and some of Robin's other friends had a small memorial party in his Perry Street apartment. We reminisced about our connections to Robin. I read a short story I wrote inspired by his antics.

It was left to Bruce and me to decide the fate of Robin's possessions. His sister and mother had flown in from California and were at his bedside when he breathed his last, but they soon left town. Robin had accumulated quite a haul of stuff and his studio apt was crammed full.

What we didn't take for ourselves or give away to others, we had to throw away--literally hundreds of books, record albums, clothes, kitchen utensils and household goods, all out to the trash. At the time, there were similar piles around the West Village trash stacked with the possessions of other gay men who had succumbed to what we were still calling "the gay disease".

The year before Robin arranged to sit for a professional photographer. He gave each friend prints. He said he wanted us to have a picture while he still looked reasonably well. At the time, I didn't think much of it but now deeply appreciate the gesture. My copies still have prominent place over my bureau along with a high school graduation picture I’d found among his things. And one of those outrageous gold belts with a rhinestone studded star-shaped buckle hangs nearby.

Robin left rich memories. We spent a significant period of our formative lives as friends and co-conspirators. In many ways, I’ve never had quite the same relationship with anyone else. Even after nearly twenty-five years, I still miss him. I find myself laughing at remembered wisecracks or second-guessing what he might say in a particular situation.

He was a great fan of Marcel Proust and really wanted to be a writer. In some ways, he patterned his lifestyle after the French novelist by lounging much of the day in bed, even staying put to receive visitors. I don’t think he ever owned a proper chair.

Robin would have been 65 years old this coming July.