- Scott Suchy
For a town obsessed with its own history, Charleston has been slow to acknowledge its gay past. That's why Harlan Greene, a librarian at the College of Charleston, created an interactive map this spring titled "The Real Rainbow Row: Charleston's Queer History."
"It was always the dead white men. Then they let the women in. Then they let the African Americans in," Greene says. Now, he says, it's time to bring in the LGBT people.
In creating the first version of the map, Greene says he intentionally left out Charleston's numerous gay and gay-friendly bars, from Dudley's and Club Pantheon to now-closed watering holes like the 49 Club and Camden's Tavern.
"People have been pressing me to add in the bars, and I will put bars on like the Garden and Gun Club, but I just wanted to prove there was more to gay history than bars," Greene says. "That's like saying that black history is only in churches."
We've featured a few points of interest from Greene's map below. To see the full map and read more about Greene's research, visit it here online.
A - White Point Garden
(2 Murray Blvd.)
This antebellum park on the Battery, once strictly segregated, later became a gathering place for black families during the Civil Rights movement. It also developed a certain reputation among gay men, according to Greene. "It's not known when gay men began using the Battery for a cruising spot," Greene writes, "but it functioned as such for a large part of the mid part of the 20th century."
- Aubrey Plum
- 38 Tradd Street
B - Home of Armistead Maupin
(38 1/2 Tradd St.)
Before he moved to San Francisco in 1971 and became famous for his gay-themed Tales of the City book series, Armistead Maupin (b. 1944) served as a naval officer in Vietnam and the Mediterranean, then worked as a reporter at the Post and Courier and lived South of Broad. In a 2012 interview with the popular European gay news site Pink News, Maupin said that he had a hard time coming to terms with his sexuality while living in Charleston. "It took San Francisco for me to accept and celebrate who I was," Maupin said. "I'm cross with myself that it took so long ... I would pick up guys down on The Battery, in Charleston, and once, I came down with a bad case of crabs and didn't know what they were. I was so afraid that a doctor might be able to distinguish between gay crabs and straight crabs that I didn't get anywhere near the infirmary."
- Scott Suchy photo illustration
C - Harry Hervey's Rainbow Row House
(89 East Bay St.)
Of all the people who have owned one of the iconic pastel homes on East Bay Street, Greene writes that Harry Hervey was "perhaps the most colorful." Hervey (1900-1951) was a globe-trotting novelist and screenwriter best known for a story that was adapted into the 1932 film Shanghai Express starring Marlene Dietrich. He lived in Charleston during the decadent Roaring '20s with his partner Carleton Hildreth, writing two of his books while here and using the jazz-age Holy City as the setting for his novel Red Ending.
Greene, who is working on a biography of Hervey, says the writer was always open about his sexuality in his letters, even when it cost him some friends. "The interesting thing about him was that he was fairly out for his time. People in town knew he was gay, and that was unusual," Greene says. "Until they realized he was gay, they thought he was this fine young man, an adventurer, and he's living with this other young man, and they're all so interesting. And then when [people] realized that they were gay, they started revising their opinion of him, saying he was smarmy and that kind of thing."
According to Greene, Hervey wrote a play set in an all-male prison in North Africa, but it was considered too homoerotic for Broadway, and he later rewrote it as a novel, The Iron Widow, after leaving Charleston. The end of Hervey's life story is tragic, according to Greene's account: Hervey lost the house on Rainbow Row during the Great Depression and died broke.
D - The Confederate Home
(62 Broad St.)
- Aubrey Plum
- Confederate Homestead at 62 Broad St.
The artist Edward I.R. Jennings (1898-1929), considered part of the early-20th-century Charleston Renaissance, had a studio here. Jennings was mentored by Laura Bragg (see 38 Chalmers St.) and would later go on to teach art classes at the Gibbes Museum of Art and mentor the painter William Halsey, the namesake of the Halsey Institute.
According to the program from a 2007 Jennings retrospective at the Gibbes Museum of Art, Jennings' early work was inspired by the theater and included masks, costumes, and set designs. His later work and paintings were influenced by cubism and surrealism.
Like his contemporary Harry Hervey, Jennings's life was tragically cut short. Green writes: "At loose ends, indecisive about his life's direction, Ned Jennings killed himself in 1929 after the end of an affair with another man, staging the event as dramatically as some of his paintings and stage sets: He was found dead with a Bible, an empty bottle of champagne, and a gun."
E - Home of Laura Bragg
(38 Chalmers St.)
- Aubrey Plum
- 38 Chalmers Street
Laura Bragg (1881-1978), the first woman in the country to head a publicly supported museum, lived here while she served as director of the Charleston Museum. She also helped found the Charleston County Public Library and acted as a mentor to many gay and lesbian young people.
- Jonathan Boncek
- John Zeigler, 102, still loves books — and Charleston
There is some debate over Bragg's sexuality. Some accounts say she had romantic relationships with other women, but there is no record of Bragg confirming the rumors. She did host both gay and straight people in her home and sometimes was criticized for hosting racial minorities, including Chinese men who were enrolled at the Citadel in the 1930s, according to Greene.
John Zeigler, former owner of the Book Basement (see 9 College Way), says that through her hospitality and involvement in the arts, Bragg helped shape a whole generation of Charleston women. "There's a Laura Bragg Club, I think, still in existence," Zeigler says. "She used to have a lot of young women from downtown Charleston come to her house and she would talk to them about Chinese art or whatever, you know. They got to expand their horizons by being with her."
Zeigler, who calls Bragg "a great friend," says that although Bragg was well-known in Charleston high society, she often struggled to make ends meet financially. At one point, Zeigler gave her a job in the bookstore to help her pay the bills. "Well, she never had any money much, so if there was going to be a party at her house, you always took your liquor there," Zeigler says.
F - Candlestick Murder House
(14 Queen St.)
- Aubrey Plum
- 14 Queen Street
One of the most infamous murders in Charleston took place here on Halloween night in 1958. That night, 30-year-old Jack Dobbins met 19-year-old John Mahon, who was stationed at the Air Force base, in the 49 Club at 368 King St., which advertised itself as the "gayest spot in town." The two men later went back to Dobbins' home on Queen Street.
The next morning, Dobbins was found bludgeoned to death with a candlestick, according to contemporary newspaper accounts, and Mahon was found in possession of some of the older man's belongings. Greene writes: "When Mahon went on trial for murder in December, the newspaper noted that Dobbins was 'artistic,' had a flair for home décor, often went to the Gibbes Art Gallery, and was never seen with women. Even the color of his bed linens (lavender) was noted, all underscoring (but never openly declaring) the gay identity of the victim. Mahon, in contrast, was portrayed as a 'normal' young man in the military, defending his country."
Mahon was acquitted of the murder charge, and a sort of witch hunt ensued for years afterward. According to Greene, one Citadel professor was fired when his name was discovered in an address book belonging to Dobbins.
G - Home of Dawn Pepita Simmons
(56 Society St.)
- Aubrey Plum
- 56 Society Street
Born Gordon Langley Hall in England, Dawn Langley Pepita Simmons (1937-2000) moved to Charleston in the early 1960s and, in 1968, became one of the first transexuals in the United States when she underwent a sex reassignment operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Simmons was a writer known for her florid biographies of women including Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, and Mary Todd Lincoln. Before the sex change, most accounts say that Gordon Langley Hall was welcomed into Charleston high society, despite rumors of romantic involvement with men. According to James T. Sears' Lonely Hunters: An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life, 1948–1968, the Ansonborough neighborhood was sometimes playfully referred to as "Queensborough" in the 1960s due to the large number of gay couples who had bought up cheap historic properties for renovation.
But after the surgery, Simmons' wedding to a younger black man named John-Paul Simmons sparked a furor in town that made international headlines. While Simmons wrote in her two biographies that she got along well with her in-laws, the wedding had to be moved from St. Philip's Episcopal Church to her house on Society Street due to a bomb threat. In a 1988 letter to the editor published in the New York Times, Simmons wrote about the aftermath of the wedding:
"When our wedding presents arrived from London and were left in crates in the driveway of our home, they were set alight by a firebomb and destroyed. The firemen swept the charred remnants onto the roadside, where the next morning the white chief of police personally arrived on a motorbike to give me a ticket for obstructing it."
One episode of This American Life from 1996 featured native Charlestonian Jack Hitt telling how he always heard legends about Simmons growing up but never knew how to sort myth from reality. Among the rumors, Charlestonians said that Simmons kept pigs in her house on Society Street, faked a pregnancy by stuffing pillows under her clothes, and used voodoo powers that had been bestowed on her by her black husband. "She became my own Boo Radley, a sexual parable, a Zen koan of the bizarre," Hitt said. "For me, the mystery of sex still has an overwrought tabloid grandeur to it."
- Scott Suchy photo illustration
H - Marion Square
While not as well-known as White Point Garden, a bus stop on the Meeting Street side of the park was at one point a pick-up spot for casual gay sex, particularly with sailors who were catching the bus back to the Navy Yard in North Charleston, Greene says. One poem by the Charleston writer Murray Bennett (1896-1973), simply titled "Marion Square," ends with the suggestive line, "A guardian intervened to keep things right: Where are you boys from? Move on! It's night."
John Zeigler, former owner of the Book Basement (see 9 College Way), says he knew of men who cruised Marion Square. When asked if many sailors were open to propositioning, he laughs and says, "I think so. I never experienced it myself."
I - The Book Basement
(9 College Way)
- The Book Basement
John Zeigler (b. 1912) and Edwin Peacock (1910-1989) opened a book store on the ground floor of this building in 1946. Literary figures, including Maurice Sendak, Langston Hughes, and Charleston's own Josephine Pinckney, stopped in to sign books and to socialize with the owners.
In addition to being business partners (as they are described on a memorial plaque at 9 College Way), Zeigler and Peacock were life partners. Zeigler, now 102 years old, tells the following story of how they met: "Do you know the writer Carson McCullers? Carson was a good friend of Edwin's, and her cousin was a good friend of mine, so her cousin wrote me and said, 'Look up my friend Edwin Peacock.' He was working at Fort Moultrie in a civilian capacity. And they wrote him and said, 'Look up my friend John Zeigler.' So we looked each other up, and that was the beginning of 49 years."
Zeigler and Peacock were "one of the city's most prominent gay couples," according to Greene, and their bookstore served as a hub for a small mid-century literary renaissance in Charleston. One college student who worked at the shop in the 1960s, David Heisser, later went on to become a librarian at The Citadel. In the book Edwin and John: A Personal History of the American South, Heisser is quoted as saying, "Everybody in Charleston who had a brain turned up in the shop, and most of them were happy to chat. Boredom was impossible."
When asked if he and Peacock felt ostracized by Holy City society because of their sexual orientation, Zeigler says they always felt welcome. "Well, we didn't go around saying it, but everybody knew it," Zeigler says. "Nobody would invite one of us without the other. Everybody accepted us. We just lived our lives like anyone else."
Today, Zeigler lives alone in the Ansonborough home he shared with Peacock, spending his days reading the letters of famous authors and writing occasional limericks for his friends. Sitting in the living room beside a mantelpiece that was taken from the old bookstore, he fondly recalls the trips that he and Peacock took to Europe after selling the store in 1971. Even in their later years, he says, men in foreign countries would often flirt with them. "We were no chickens. We must've been in our 50s," Zeigler says. "But Edwin was terribly handsome, and that probably had something to do with it."