Drag Lad Tells All
Fifty years ago, George Mansour was arrested for
having sex with another man behind closed doors at a private party. What was
it like to have your name smeared across the true-crime tabloids at age 19?
Phoenix, March 6-13, 2003
126 Brookline Ave., Boston, MA 02215
Fax: 617-536-1463, Email: email@example.com
By Michael Bronski
This is a story about gay history—about how much things
have changed and how much they haven’t. Fifty years ago this month, George
Mansour and three other men were arrested on charges of “morals
violations” while attending a gay party in a private apartment in Bay
Village. Mansour, who for the past 40 years has been one of the most noted
film bookers in the United States—he was influential in turning the
Nickelodeon and Orson Welles theaters into nationally renowned art theaters
and now books the Angelika Film Center in New York—was 19 at the time.
This rather routine arrest—it was not that uncommon for
Boston police to violate basic privacy rights to pursue “morals
violations”—nevertheless made headlines in the Mid-town Journal. The
Journal was the city’s premier scandal sheet, a local National Enquirer-like
eight-page tabloid published in the South End at 37 Rutland Street and sold
for a nickel. It specialized in turning routine police reports into hot, sexy
news items with shocking headlines, like that on the arrest of a drunken
elevator operator: tipsy lift man did not go down on it. So, no surprise, the
arrest of five gay men for having sex was prime meat for Journal staffers. The
story appeared in the March 13, 1953, edition; the front-page headline, which
ran in bold capital letters above the paper’s logo, was curiously vague:
wild stag bags drag lads. But the subhead, which took up three lines and ran
to the right of the logo, explained all: copenhagen kids’ odd birthday party
features sex orgy. Pretty racy for 1953.
The story (read an excerpt below) was—like everything
in the paper—poorly written, riddled with typos (Mansour’s name was
spelled throughout as Monsour), strewn with almost-endearing distortions of
the English language, and shot through with (now) shocking violations of
journalistic ethics. For a 900-word news report, it is a masterpiece of
wrongness. But its basic facts were true. On March 9, four men—John Morello,
George Mansour, Louis DeBourbon, and Elvin Lewis (all between the ages of 19
and 30)—attended a private party in an apartment at 17 Melrose Street, in
Bay Village, during which they were arrested by Boston police and detectives.
Lewis and Mansour were caught engaging in a sexual act in a second-floor
bedroom behind a closed door; DeBourbon and Morello were just partying in
another room. The police came to the house on an alleged complaint about a
loud party by a neighbor. When they arrived at the house shortly after
midnight, two men were just leaving, and the police used the opportunity to
enter. A fifth man, John Perkins, 56, who held the lease on the apartment, was
also arrested, even though he was at work while the party was taking place.
Police apprehended him there.
The four men were taken from the house, booked at the
police station on Warren Street, jailed, and ordered to appear in Central
Criminal Court the following morning. Lewis, Mansour, DeBourbon, and Morello
were convicted of morals charges and sentenced to six-month suspended
sentences with two years of probation. Perkins was charged with the more
serious crime of allowing his home to be used for “lewd purposes.” He was
sentenced to nine months in jail.
In many ways this story feels like it’s 50 years—a
half-century!—old. Just imagine: men arrested at a private party for having
sex. It conjures up pre-Stonewall images of the gay world, captured so
expertly by the blurbs on the ubiquitous gay pulp novels of the time:
“twilight men and their tragic lives” and “the secret world of the
homosexual living in the shadows.” The Mid-town Journal article, with its
lurid details and intensely homophobic prejudices, is almost campy in its
extravagance. Take the article’s lengthy opening line: “Raising their
plucked eyebrows and pursing their lips that retrained faint traces of
hurriedly removed Chinese red as the faint odor of Chanel number 7 and
Bewitching Hour wafted gently across the room in Central Criminal Court, five
defendants, arrested the night before during a wild birthday sex party, who
sat perched on the edge of their chairs like special bound copies of the
Kinsey Report, entered not guilty pleas to charges of morals violations, then
cast haughty glances of disdain at spectators who they were certain had
already judged them.”
Fifty years may seem like a long time ago, but it’s not
really much time at all. After all, much about this story is contemporary.
Later this month, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in
Lawrence v. Texas, a case challenging the Lone Star State’s sodomy
law—which is aimed only at people engaged in same-sex sexual activity. The
case is being brought by Lambda Legal Defense, a nonprofit gay-rights legal
organization, on behalf of John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner, who were
arrested in their Houston bedroom for having sex after a neighbor filed a
false complaint of a break-in. They were charged and convicted under the Texas
anti-sodomy statute, and the conviction was upheld by the Texas Supreme Court.
The state of Texas has every intention of upholding its sodomy law and has
filed its own brief, as well as solicited a slew of amicus briefs from
conservative Christian groups, to ensure that it is not held unconstitutional.
As Yogi Berra said, it’s déja vu all over again.
I first read the Mid-town Journal story in 1983, when Gay
Community News, a Boston-based national newspaper, ran an article by the
Boston Gay History Project that featured excerpts from the true-crime tabloid.
The names of the arrested men had been blacked out, but that evening I
received a phone call from George, with whom I had been friends for nearly a
decade. He excitedly told me that he was one of the men in the story. Although
he was delighted about seeing the article again—he claimed not to have
thought about it much over the years—he was also somewhat disturbed.
Obviously, getting arrested at age 19 for having gay sex and having your name
and address printed for the whole city to see was not a young person’s ideal
method of coming out—especially in 1953.
Over the years, George and I have joked about the
article. I’ve been known to bring out a photocopy of it at dinner parties
when the talk has turned to Boston gay history or just queer sex in the 1950s.
But I’ve always wanted to do something more with the story and finally, this
past fall, I had the perfect opportunity. Teaching “Introduction to Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies” at Dartmouth, I decided it would
be a good academic exercise for my students to learn how to plan and execute
an oral history. And for them to meet George Mansour—a real, live homosexual
from the 1950s—though I didn’t tell them George would be coming to class.
I made copies of the Mid-town Journal article and gave them basic instructions
about doing an oral history. I chose—seemingly at random—George
Mansour’s name from the article and told them to focus their questions on
Almost all these students were born in or after 1980, so
the decade of the ‘50s is truly historical for them. I didn’t them that
George was alive and well, living in Boston, and that he was a good friend of
mine. So on the day the questions were due and George came to class, the
students were amazed. At 68, he was as old as some of their grandparents.
Nevertheless, they conducted their oral history. George—a raconteur par
excellence—dazzled them with stories of Boston’s gay night life in the
1950s, sex, growing up queer 50 years ago, more sex, and what it was like to
be arrested in 1953 for being gay. The interview that follows includes some of
their questions for George.
Q: How accurate was the reporting in the Mid-town Journal
A: How accurate? You’re kidding. It was almost totally
inaccurate. No one was doing drag, no one was wearing makeup. It was
completely sensationalized in that respect. They also got my age
wrong—although they did get my address correct—I was 19 at the time, not
24. Morello—whom I hardly knew—and I didn’t go shopping the day before
to buy cookies and fudge; that’s a detail that is totally made up.
Q: But was the party like they described?
A: No. There weren’t those many people there. I have no
recollection of an exotic dancer named Roxanne—please, Roxanne! How could
they make that up? It’s too good. And there were no jacketless sailors
meandering around in their T-shirts. It makes it sound like Querelle by
Fassbinder. It wasn’t that much fun.
Q: Did you know the other men involved?
A: Well, I knew John Perkins—who was in his 50s and
seemed very, very old to me. And I was friends with Louis DeBourbon. Actually,
I’m still friends with Louis; he lives in San Francisco and visits once a
year. But I didn’t know the others.
Q: Did you invite the sailors from a local bar named
A: Well, I didn’t. Morello might have. And of course it
is not “Jock’s” but “Jacques”—and it’s still there right in Bay
Village. Sure, I’m not going to pretend that it wasn’t a party that was
set up to encourage some sex. But it wasn’t an all-out orgy.
Q: But you did have sex with a sailor named Elvin Lewis?
A: The Journal claims I was “having an affair” with
him—I think I was blowing him. He was the cutest one there. I remember when
the police came to the bedroom door I looked up, thinking it was some of the
other party people, and said, “Oh, are they selling tickets now?”
Q: Did you go to a lot of parties like this back then?
A: No, unfortunately. Well, I mean not unfortunately
because I got arrested, but because I would have had more sex with people.
Q: What happened that night when you were arrested?
A: I really don’t have a clear memory. I guess we went
to the jail, and I have no idea if I stayed over or not. It was all very
traumatic since I was 19 and this is 1953—getting arrested on a sex and
morals charge is not something that was taken lightly. And I was living at
Q: Did your parents get involved? What did they say?
A: I remember the next morning my father was there with
me at the court. They were wonderful. These were not sophisticated, educated
people, and my father said to me, “If you want to meet people I want you to
bring them back to the house, that will be safer for you.” It’s
incredible, when you think about it. Other people would have disowned their
children, but they wanted me to be safe.
Q: What happened to the other men?
A: I really don’t know. I presume that those of us on
probation just went on with our lives. I have no idea whether or not John
Perkins had to spend time in jail. I don’t think he did, but I really
Q: What happened to Elvin Lewis, who was, I suppose,
stationed in Boston?
A: I never saw or heard of him again. I imagine he might
have been dishonorably discharged. There was no “don’t ask, don’t
tell”—and getting arrested certainly looked bad. I like to imagine that he
is a happily married grandfather in Iowa who dreams about the best sex he
never got to finish with me, 50 years ago.
Q: Aside from the trauma of being arrested and convicted,
did the arrest have any other effect on your life?
A: My God, yes. I had graduated high school and was
valedictorian. I had applied and was accepted at Boston University. When they
discovered that I had been convicted on a morals change, they rescinded the
acceptance. So because of this, I never went to college or had any education
after high school. One hopes things are better now—but given BU’s recent
decisions to ban gay-and-lesbian clubs from the Boston University Academy, one
has to wonder.
Q: Were you completely crushed by this? You were 19 years
old and were being prevented from getting an education.
A: Well, I guess the good part of this was that I just
changed my whole attitude. I just said, “Fuck it, if this is what it means
to be gay, I’m just going to do whatever I want and need to get ahead. If
they aren’t going to treat me with any respect, why should I play by their
rules?” The arrest really gave me the courage to face down people in charge
and see through their completely bankrupt rules. I guess it turned me into
even more of a rebel than I was before.
Q: What did you do?
A: Well, I had a series of jobs—lying about the arrest
record to get them—and finally got a job working as a film dispatcher. I
remember that the ad for the job said that it was an “equal opportunity”
employer—which, of course, at that time meant that they did not racially
discriminate. And most of the dispatcher jobs were seen as “women’s
jobs,” but I wanted a job in the film industry—I loved movies, even
then—and said they had to hire me, a man, because they were an
equal-opportunity employer. They did. And—this is terrible—they paid me
more for doing the job than they paid the women, just because I was man.
Q: Did the arrest follow you through your life?
A: Not really. I was on probation, but it did give me
this enormous sense of anger and of knowing that if I were to go anywhere in
life I had to make my own rules, that it was stupid to follow society’s
rules. And I’ve done quite well. I’ve had a very successful career as a
film booker. I had a very successful 44-year-long relationship—my lover died
last year—and am quite happy.
Q: Did the arrest teach you anything?
A: Well, a few months ago I was coming back from a day
trip to Northampton, where I book a movie theater. I stopped at a rest stop to
take a break from driving and noticed a truck parked. The driver motioned to
me and—well, it was clear that he was cruising. So I climbed in and we spent
a great couple of hours having sex in the sleeping compartment in back of his
Q: Given that you could have been arrested—there are
signs forbidding loitering at rest stops—you really haven’t learned
anything from the events of 50 years ago, have you?
A: Yes, I have. I learned that I had to take chances to
get what I wanted and that what I wanted was fine.
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