©Jack Fritscher. See Permissions, Reprints, Quotations, Footnotes
Oral History is like brunch with a recorder...
Oral History is like brunch with a recorder...
LEATHER DEAREST! In search of the Founding Daddies, oral history seeks something beyond gossip’s kiss and tell. Oral history is like brunch--except with a recorder. What’s entertainment tonight is nostalgia tomorrow. History, cynics say, is an agreed-upon lie. But, in truth, there are a million stories about the Leather World Once-Upon-A-Time. These are two stories.
I MET TONY TAVAROSI IN 1970
The Remembrances of Remarkable Men Department requires an enlargement, this issue, on a forefather mentioned last issue.
Tony Tavarosi, a native San Franciscan, came out at the age of 12, circa 1945, under the tables of the curtain-draped booths of the South China Cafe on 18th Street, a few doors west of Castro. Talk about a Debut at Ground Zero years ahead of time! Tony was prime among the creators of the later 1950’s bar-as-performance-art-space. He was one of that small group who literally invented the “leather bar” as we know it.
A hyper-sensual man, Tony was a walking, talking Leather Institution. A true Celebrity of the Night. The Phantom of Folsom. He worked (and played) at nearly every bar and bath South of Market. Like SOMA, he was on, but not of this planet. Tony anchored, as only a native Californian can, a physical spirituality. Many men have said Tony took them through their flesh to spaces where no man’s head had gone before.
I was one of them. I met him in 1970, and I fictionalized him under the name “Tony Ambrosi” in my novel Some Dance to Remember, which I had completed in 1984, although it wasn’t published until 1990, because HIV arriving in the early 80’s turned everyone off to the 70’s–a prejudice that still exists.
Tony was born Catholic, with Catholicism’s sense of ritual. In addition, his innate gender preference connected him psychically to the ancient spirituality that is older than Christianity and more primal than the Druids: homosexuality. Tony was a magus, a high priest of sorts, knowledgeable in Tarot and astrology, disguised as a bartender in skintight black leather. When Tony and I met through the Catholic priest Jim Kane, Tony did my astrological chart, found we matched, and we played BDSM games for ten years, made some of my technicolor Super-8 films together at the Slot, and hung out until his final death scene. He possessed the kind of super-sanity that is beyond ordinary sanity. “To be protected constitutionally,” Tony said, “all homosexuality has to do is declare itself a religion.” He referenced the way that Gerald Gardiner, in 1957, had liberated witchcraft in England by declaring it the “Old Religion” of the British Isles that pre-dated Christianity. British law caved in and Wicca became legal.
Tony was as bright as he was sexual. He gave men permission to be anything but bourgeois, sexually and sensually. Tony loved every flavor of the Sexual Rainbow except vanilla. Back when sleazy was a virtue, he was Captain Sleaze. I found his look so scary the first time we met that I recoiled into my middle-class shell, from which, lying on his bed, he patiently delivered me over the next months with a seduction borne of talk and sensuality.
A BOTTOM SEDUCING TOPS
His self-proclaimed vocation was that he was a Bottom whose duty it was to top Tops when they needed Topping to restore their psychic balance. Tony, by most accounts of those lucky enough to play with him, was a sexual genius, sensitive and innovative. He invented the concept of SM mutuality by being the first to live it in-scene. A sex night with TT was a peerless event. Tony was more than a trip to the moon on gossamer wings. It was like Tony owned the franchise to the off-ramp to Alpha Centauri. How many guys, really, are famous for being just plain good, wild sex?
Always open to experience, and as down-to-earth as men come, Tony once told me: “I never even heard of fisting until I was hung upsidedown in a motel shower in LA in 1962.” He was a definite tough sex pioneer. “Later I found out that fisting, as initiation, has for years been a night-time ritual for new recruits into the French Foreign Legion.”
Tony was a fount of off-the-wall information and pre-New-Age wisdom. Always, he was delightfully innocent in his aggressive pursuit of the sexually avant garde. He was a sort of prototype/archetype of men in the 70’s who would try almost anything once.
WILD THING, YOU MOVE ME!
A longtime Tavarosi friend and lover, Danny Burns, described Tony’s depiction of one of Tony’s not-untypical adventures: “What’s the wildest story I ever heard about Tony Tavarosi? He told me one night, probably around 1976, that he went out to the Slot, and his fisting partner said, ‘Okay. I’m going to blindfold you, and we’re going to have a scene. Just relax. Remember, you cannot move. Whatever you do, do not move.’ After much humphing and stuffing, Tony’s Top said, ‘Now I’m going to take off your blindfold, but whatever you do, you must not react or move in any way.’ The blindfold came off, and there was just the head of a boa-constrictor sticking out his ass. Of course, the snake was happy,...because it was warm and wet in there. Tony could just get into anything. The snake didn’t want to come out. I don’t know how they coaxed it out, but Tony said he himself sure as hell never moved.”
If I can’t be honest here, possibly the last time I’ll go over this period and these people, because no one should live in the past, I will out myself with Tony. I played mostly Top , and when I met Tony I had been out only three years since 1967. As I mentioned, the first time I saw Tony, he scared me. He was so wild-looking, almost decadent, but in a divine way, sleazy, like I didn’t know if he was an angel or a devil. I shied away from him for two years. I was topping lots of guys then, because there weren’t enough Tops to go around, and I was getting worn out. Tony came up to me in the Red Star Saloon, under the Barracks where he was working, and said, ‘It’s time. Tomorrow night you come to my place.’ I was wary, but I went. Fear is a great aphrodisiac.
He had told me not to eat anything all day, except chicken broth, so I did. I thought he was into some kind of cult purification thing. At any rate, fasting did a number on my head. When I got to his apartment near the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park, his rooms were set up like some sort of shrine dedicated to pleasure. Like a movie set. An Italian movie set. He had a place for everything, and he had everything you could dream of for a leather or an S&M scene.
He had me strip and lie down in his bathtub. It was one of those old Queen Anne ball-and-claw tubs just right for bondage. He locked leather restraints that held my wrists, near my head, and my feet wide apart down by the faucet. He massaged me with warm oil and began running warm water in the tub. This was 1971. He really relaxed me. Pretty soon, while I was floating tied in the warm water, he worked a nozzle up my butt. He cleaned me out completely, which wasn’t hard to do, because I hadn’t eaten anything. I trusted him, but I didn’t, which made it all that much more exciting. I mean, he had a luciferian face that looked capable of anything, and capable he was.
The bath and douche lasted more than an hour. He was really a gentle and patient lover. He knew how to work my body to get at my head. He unshackled me and toweled me dry and walked me into his playroom where he tied me into a sling and spent about an hour slowly opening up my ass. Toys first, you know, and then a finger or two, and finally, not that I was completely inexperienced, his fist. He used his hands the way a musician caresses an instrument. I was stoned, of course, this being the year it was, right around the corner from the Haight-Ashbury, but I swear the man was an octopus. He could fist you while he played with your tits and balls and cock.
I remember I said to him, “Promise you won’t tell anybody what we’re doing.” He figured I was worried about my reputation as a Top, but he knew that the acid was talking. I actually meant, “Don’t tell anybody that we’ve tripped out so far through the sensual to the visionary state of transcendent primitives. Don’t tell anyone that sex can be this much fun, because they’d come an kill us.” A fist up the ass massages one of the body’s most unreachable chakras. By this time, I was beyond cuming with my cock. He had turned my whole body into this gigantic sensual organ.
He had endurance. Here he was doing all this work, servicing me, and he was full of energy. I figured a couple of times that we were fairly near the end of the scene. But we weren’t. This was typical. He was like a marathon sex athlete.
The third part of my first night with him was really theatrical and quite wonderful. He led me from the sling and hung me up in a leather body harness so he could suspend me. He tied my arms up along the chains and tied my feet apart behind me, pulling them back so my body hung tilted forward. I was spreadeagle that way. He always had great music that I think he got from one of those guys who during that time made a living by making specialty audio fuck-music tapes for baths and bars. The sound was Tangerine Dream before anybody heard of them--really spacey and far-out like the evening itself. I was on a third of a hit of Red Devil blotter acid. This was when drugs were still made in a neighborhood bathtub, long before the kind of poison being imported now by narco-terrorists.
Anyway, I was flying physically and chemically, yet really totally bonded to him. Tony, now that I think about it, almost always made himself invisible. Like he was really there, but he wasn’t always in your sight line. He put a pair of rubber goggles over my eyes and I started tripping like I was a free-falling parachutist, especially when I realized a terrific updraft was rushing up past my body. Tony had turned a huge fan on below me. I was spreadeagle tilted forward, remember, and this wind was rushing up with cosmic music coming through my headphones and he was spraying my body with a mist of water, and his fist was up my ass and I was flying and as close to sexual transcendence as I’d ever gotten.
I’m sure a lot of other guys could tell you their adventures with Tony. Men didn’t ever much admit they went to his apartment. Dates with him were secret. I think Tops were afraid if they let it be known they played with him they’d ruin their bar-reputations. Tony wasn’t exactly the kind of man you take home to your mother or explain to your lover. (I think that “attitude” hurt him personally; like he was good enough little doggie to play with privately, but not, you know, presentable to the A-Gay Group.) He was wild. He was something beyond verboten. In the sexual underground, he was a legend.
He was also a wonderfully kind man. When our mutual friend, Hank Diethelm, experienced a bad drug trip that kept him out of it for weeks, Tony led the group of us, including Peter Fiske, George Benedict, and__________, who kept Hank at his own home, fed, in bed, soothed with hot baths. San Francisco is the 70’s was like that because of men like Tony Tavarosi. Hank recovered, bought the No Name and turned it into the Brig, and eventually was murdered in the cellar of the house where we had cared for him. But that’s another story.
Tavarosi’s apartment, as apartments will, ultimately changed hands. Before anyone ever heard of AIDS, and certainly before the bodycount started, Tony died mysteriously of an illness that a year later would be called AIDS. He died in the San Francisco General Intensive Care Unit about five days after the Barracks bath burned down. I kissed him goodbye on his forehead. Outside ICU, I asked his doctor, “What ‘s wrong with him?” She shook her head. I remember her exact words. “I don’t know,” she said. “We have never seen a patient so distressed.” [A three-page section from Some Dance to Remember follows here to detail exactly something about Tony Tavarosi on his death bed.]
One wonders, historically, how many men died before the condition was identified.
This is important, because the figures of the AIDS epidemic do not include men who shriveled up in 1976 and the years following until 1981. Everyone remembers someone who became ill and simply, quietly left San Francisco, where illness and dying, before the epidemic was media-recognized, were not subjects of conversation at the bruncheries.
At the end, the rich texture of Tony’s life yielded his Founding Daddies connections. Two years before he died, I had introduced Tony to the man who became his roommate for the last twenty-four months of his life. Together we had the sad task of emptying Tony’s belongings. Tony loved, and was loved by the best, who also appreciated him and his taste. Drawers and closets were filled with original drawings and paintings by Tom Hinde, Lou Roudolph, Chuck Arnett, Etienne, A. Jay, the Hun, Sam Steward, and Tom of Finland. In a charmed circle of men, sexual men, men who are erotic artists, who knows who influenced whom? Some are seers. Some are sayers.
Tony Tavarosi was a Founding Daddy of Leather. There was a there there: a real past to the future.
“I was raised religious,” Tony said. “I’m not religious, but I was raised religious. Scratch a leatherman and half the time you get a lapsed Catholic. S&M was practically invented by the Church: rituals, worship, suffering for glory. You know what’s worse than a lapsed Catholic? A pro-lapsed lapsed Catholic.” At his funeral service, hundreds of leathermen, hundreds of bar denizens, hundreds of creatures of the night turned out to tell Tony goodbye. Everyone looked at everyone else and said, “I had no idea you knew him.”
© 1990, 2002 Jack Fritscher.