A Complicated Love Story
Wait, THAT Harvey? When activist Craig Rodwell told Eric in 1989 who his first serious boyfriend had been, Eric was stunned. In our special Valentine’s Day episode, hear how love unfolded—and unraveled—for two of our movement’s titans.
This episode discusses a suicide attempt. If you’re having thoughts of suicide, please contact your country’s suicide prevention hotline. In the U.S., that’s the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which you can call or text toll-free at 988.
Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus—and this is a special Valentine’s Day episode of Making Gay History.
If you’ve listened to our season 11 episode featuring my interview with the visionary activist Craig Rodwell, you know that young Craig was as precocious as they come. As a teenager, he cruised the streets of his hometown of Chicago in search of sex with men. After a hookup in 1954, Craig and the guy he’d just had sex with were picked up by the police. The arrest ignited Craig’s activist passions. He was all of 14 at the time.
A few years later, fresh out of high school, Craig moved to New York City, having heard that “all the queers lived in Greenwich Village.” New York was also home to a chapter of the pioneering homophile organization the Mattachine Society. Craig couldn’t wait to sign up, but Mattachine didn’t allow members under 21. Of course Craig wasn’t just going to sit on his hands until he came of age. Determined to do something, anything, to advance the cause, he got creative and tried to drum up support for Mattachine from the sidelines.
That’s what Craig was telling me about back in 1989 when he casually mentioned his first boyfriend, Harvey. Who was not just any Harvey, as you’ll hear.
A heads-up: the interview that follows discusses a suicide attempt. And, I’ll admit, a love story that involves STIs, heartbreak, and self-harm is not everyone’s idea of a perfect Valentine’s Day listen. But it’s an intimate glimpse into the relationship between two titans of the LGBTQ civil rights movement—before they made gay history, when they were just two young men in the big city trying to make love work…
Eric Marcus: Interview with Craig Rodwell, February 17, Friday, noon. Location: Craig Rodwell’s store, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, New York City.
’60—I wanna go back to ’61 for a moment.
Craig Rodwell: Uh-huh.
EM: I assume during this period you, you continued to be active with Mattachine, attending meetings, …
CR: Well, as much as I could. I couldn’t join till, uh, late ’61 when I turned 21. But I did other things. I would, I remember I organized my friends David and Colin, we did up these little flyers. Uh, ’cause I got the newsletter, so I knew when the meetings were. So we did these—I lived up in the, for a year up in the West 80s—and we did these little flyers, uh, announcing, uh, the next meeting, the topic, gay people or this and that—probably “homosexuals” would’ve been the term at the time. And we went around the neighborhood, and then I had Dave and Colin, uh, take one side of the street and I would take the other, and I trained them to only stick ’em in mailboxes—you could stick things in mailboxes back then—that had, like, two names on them ’cause that increased the odds that these were a gay couple or something.
And this is when I was going with Harvey and I told Harvey about it.
CR: Milk. And, uh…
EM: You were going out with Harvey Milk or…?
CR: He was my first lover.
EM: Oh, I wasn’t aware…
CR: Oh, you didn’t know that.
EM: No, I didn’t know that.
CR: Uh, anyway, when I told Harvey about it… This is when I was 20.
CR: So this would’ve been 1960, yeah. Uh, Harvey was just livid. He thought that… I remember him saying, uh, this gay couple who opens up their mailbox and finds this gay flyer, they might, they might have a heart attack.
EM: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
CR: Because Harvey was very conservative back then.
EM: Well, certainly in 19—
CR: Wall Street and business suits and antiques and all that.
EM: 1960 he was.
CR: Oh yeah. I mean, Goldwater—we used to fight about Goldwater. I remember I called Goldwater a Nazi and Harvey would yell at me.
EM: Harvey was a supporter of Goldwater.
CR: Oh yeah, a rabid supporter.
EM: Uh-huh. How did you meet him?
CR: Out cruising, corner of… I lived on 88th Street and he lived on Central Park West between 95th and 96th, and we met the corner of 88th and Central Park West.
EM: Do you remember what your first impressions of him were? You didn’t…?
CR: It was just another trick.
CR: At that point.
EM: But it…
CR: I mean, I was out every night cruising Central Park West. Um…
EM: But it turned into something more.
CR: Not until, it was like a few weeks later. You know, we’d exchanged phone numbers and, uh, a few weeks later he called me up. Probably it was a Sunday ’cause Sundays were his favorite day. And, uh, probably took me out to dinner that first date or something.
EM: He was significantly older.
CR: Well, at the time he was 10 or 11 years older than me. But he was established and very successful in business and beautiful apartment overlooking Central Park and antiques and stereos and… I was making 36 bucks a week, and I’m working in a factory, uh…
EM: What were you doing in a factory?
EM: What, what kind of work did you do at the factory?
CR: Well, it was a plastic flower factory called Zunino-Altman on, uh, 16th Street.
EM: So you were very impressed by his, his, uh, home, I would think.
CR: Oh, yeah. And just the fact he wanted to continue seeing me, ’cause most guys really didn’t want to continue seeing me, again ’cause of my age and I just wasn’t cultured or nothing.
CR: Oh. But Harvey took me to every damn museum in the city. He insisted that he was gonna… And the opera—I mean, over and over again to the fucking opera. Uh, and every single kind of ethnic restaurant you can think of. I mean, he always paid for these things.
EM: Did you live together?
CR: No. Quite near each other.
EM: Right. How long did you see Harvey then?
CR: Uh, about a little over a year, something like that. I’ve only had two lovers in my life.
EM: He was one.
EM: And Dick Leitsch…
CR: I never considered Dick my lover. We went together for a while.
EM: Mm-hmm. You stayed in touch with him throughout, uh, his career then?
CR: Mm-hmm. Well, until the move to California. And I never, uh, I didn’t see him after he moved… Well, he came back briefly in ’72 or…
EM: Right. Let me ask that question now then. Where, where were you, do you recall where you were when you heard that Harvey was first, was killed?
CR: I was, uh, here at the shop. Uh, my mother called me and told me. She had heard.
EM: She knew about your relationship with Harvey?
CR: Oh, yeah. She always… I keep forgetting you don’t know anything about it. Um, I attempted suicide when Harvey and I broke up, and that was another big turning point in my life.
EM: Uh, why did you…?
CR: Oh, to me it was the end of the world.
EM: Did he end the relationship? You ended the relationship?
CR: He essentially ended it, but it, it was a slow, gradual—it wasn’t all of a sudden, “Well, I don’t wanna see you again,” it wasn’t that kind of thing. It was a slow, gradual pulling away. And I think it would’ve been easier if he had just ended it, you know? And I was, I’d just turned 21—I was 20 when I met Harvey.
Uh, and again, I was, I’ve always been very, uh—what’s the word? —uh, intense about, about everything I do. I’m just an intense kind of person.
EM: It’s easy to see.
CR: Oh, yeah?
CR: Uh, and oh, and I planned my suicide, took two months and gave notice at my job and notice on the apartment, and…
EM: So you were really in love with…
CR: Oh, yeah, sure.
EM: And you had thought about spending the rest of your life with him.
CR: Oh, yeah, sure. Absolutely.
EM: But that wasn’t what he…
CR: And I think at one point he probably did, too. The major thing that, uh… After, when Harvey started to pull away was after I gave him VD. Uh, I remember it was in one of his favorite restaurants, an Indian restaurant up on Broadway in the 90s. We went there quite often.
I could tell he was… Something was up that night ’cause he wasn’t his usual… He always joked a lot. And so finally came time for him to tell me what was on his mind. And he told me he’d gotten, uh, gonorrhea. And he had assumed, and, and I had assumed—we never discussed it, but we assumed that each other was, we were faithful with each other. Uh, and then he said…
EM: And you had not been.
CR: No. He said I should go, uh, for treatment or something like that. And I said, “Well, why don’t I get tested first? You know, see if I have it.” And he said, “You have to have it. You’re the only person I’ve had sex with in the last nine, ten months,” whatever it was. And then he had this look on his face, like, now I know that you haven’t been faithful to me, but I’ve been faithful to you, kind of thing. And from then on it was a, a slow, gradual…
He used to call me every morning when he got to work, always had a joke to tell me. And the silliest, stupidest jokes, you know? Usually Helen Keller jokes, those were his favorites. Just sick, sick, the sickest jokes possible. He loved them. Uh…
EM: And you must have loved them, and him.
CR: Well, I loved the call from Harvey in the morning, ’cause he woke me up. This is when I was going to ballet school. I was a scholarship student at that point with the New York City Ballet.
EM: So he would call you while you were still sleeping.
CR: Right. And, to wake me up to get ready for class and what have you.
EM: Uh, so you were, you, you were intent on killing yourself after he…
CR: Oh, yeah, that was the end of everything. It was just a question of how to go about it and hurt as few people in the process and do it orderly and… Anyway, that’s a whole other story. That really is not, probably doesn’t… You don’t want to hear all that stuff.
EM: Actually I do, but it’s probably not for the book…
CR: I know.
EM: But, uh, you said that changed your life again.
CR: Yes. Yes, it did. I mean, it was a period after that of about, uh, a year, where I just wallowed in self-pity.
EM: Was, did Har—did Harvey visit you at the hospital at all?
EM: He did.
CR: Well, not at first. I was taken, uh… Back then—and I don’t know if it was just ’cause I was gay or what, uh—but the law was, if you attempted suicide, it was a criminal act.
CR: And I was incarcerated by court’s orders again…
CR: … in Bellevue. I was there for a month, whole fucking month. And all you do is wander around this hallway with, like, 300 guys in this hallway, with these —I’ll never forget that sound—they give you these cheap little slippers and this slash-slash-slash, that’s all you hear all day long. It’s just a hallway.
And then they would… You’d line up twice a day to take these pills they would give you, you know. So I was kept there for about a month and then, uh, my father stepped in and, uh, paid for a private psychiatrist, and they transferred me to, uh, St. Luke’s Hospital. Harvey came to visit me there.
EM: He wasn’t an activist at all then, was he?
EM: No, no. No, his transformation must have been sho—surprising to you?
CR: Yes. Yeah.
EM: And, um…
CR: Although he started to become active… I didn’t see Harvey for a number of years after that. I mean, I bumped into him a couple times in the street. Uh, then when I opened the shop, he started coming around the shop. Uh, I used to publish a newsletter called HYMNAL, Homophile Youth Movement News, uh, and he wrote a column for me about the stock market, four or five issues…
EM Narration: My conversation with Craig Rodwell about Harvey Milk ended there. I had to change cassette tapes and in the remainder of my all-too-brief interview with Craig, we moved on to other subjects.
Of course, you know what came next. After Harvey moved to the West Coast and became an activist, he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the first openly gay man to hold public office in California. In 1978, at the age of 48, he was assassinated along with George Moscone, San Francisco’s mayor.
Craig became a Where’s Waldo of the movement: he was at the center of some of the most consequential events in early LGBTQ history and was one of the key organizers of the first ever New York City Pride March in 1970. He was 52 when in 1993 he died of stomach cancer…
Death comes for us all, I guess—although that hardly seems like the right note to end on in a Valentine’s Day episode. So how about this? Death comes to us all. Love does not. If you’re blessed to have it, treasure it, today and every day.
On that note, I want to wish Barney, my beloved of nearly 30 years, a very Happy Valentine’s Day. How did I get so lucky…?
This bonus episode was produced by Inge De Taeye, with help from audio engineer Michael Bognar.
If you’re a member of our Patreon community, you can watch me unpack the episode you’ve just heard with Patrick Hinds—the creator of the Obsessed Network of podcasts, and a noted Craig Rodwell obsessive.
If you’re not a Making Gay History patron yet, show us your Valentine’s love and sign up for just $5 a month at patreon.com/makinggayhistory. You’ll have access to exclusive content, and you’ll help support our mission to bring LGBTQ history to life through the voices of the people who lived it.
I’m Eric Marcus. So long, until next time.