I’ve been thinking a lot about an old friend of mine, Ron, since recently seeing the HBO movie, The Normal Heart. Where did Ron go? Whatever happened to him? I’m determined to find out what happened to his life.
Bob, Ron’s boyfriend at the time and a dancer, was the person who introduced me to Ron in the Fall of 1977. I remember Bob with his handsome face, dark head of wavy hair, and medium height. He had a dancer’s body, which he worked hard to build, having come to dance late.
Bob and I had worked together in summer stock in Philadelphia. He was a dancer in the production of Peter Pan, with Tova Feldshuh in the role of Peter and George Rose, a sarcastic old queen, as Captain Hook. A role Rose would reprise in the Broadway revival that Fall. During that summer, I had been hired to run the theatre’s costume department. It was 1978, and Tova toured the country playing Peter Pan in preparation for a Broadway run of the show. In the end, the Broadway role went to Sandy Duncan.
Bob knew I would be moving to NYC in the Fall for college to study design and suggested I contact his boyfriend Ron, a graphic designer, about interning for him. I loved the idea and called Ron as soon as I moved to NYC. Ron welcomed me into his studio and ‘hired’ me as an intern for a half-day each week. The job did not pay anything, but it didn’t matter, I was working, and was excited to have the job.
Bob and Ron broke up not long after I got to know Ron. I remember how he and Ron fought with a nasty sarcasm that reminded me of the movie, The Boys In The Band, which I saw around the same time. But I remember little else about Bob at this point. I lost touch with him in the late 1970s when he moved out of Ron’s apartment. After Bob, Ron had another lover, and if I remember correctly, he was someone who had been Ron’s partner before Bob and again after. My memory of Ron’s 2nd partner, who’s name is lost to me, was that he had some kind of white-collar job, lost it, and drove a cab in NYC when I knew him. He also broke up with Ron after about a year but stayed in the apartment as a roommate.
That’s all I member about Ron’s men. Very little, really.
My relationship was really with Ron. He was an incredibly handsome man. Taller than me, and I was 6’3″ at that time. Ron was probably 6’4′ or taller, slim with a thick head of brown curly hair. Ron had beautiful blue eyes, which he highlighted with a perpetual tan from a tube.
Ron was a flirt, and I have memories of him teasing me with sexual innuendos and questions. He was fun to be with, and I went weekly for my half-day with him in a small one-room office he had in the Wall Street area. Ron was generous in teaching me about graphic design since, at that point, I knew nothing about being a designer. Ron and I quickly became friends. After a year or so as his apprentice, I stopped working for Ron, but our friendship continued for many years.
I remember at one point that first year apprenticing for Ron, he went on vacation and left me ‘in charge.’ I hoped no one called his answering machine. Of course, one of his clients did call and wanted an urgent design, which I attempted to deliver. I believe it was a project for the YMCA or some organization like that. I don’t remember what happened in the end, except that Ron said I had done well.
I was 19 when I meet Ron, and my guess is that he was in his early to mid-30s at the time. I knew he wanted me sexually from the beginning of our friendship, but I felt I could manage his advances. I liked being with Ron. I felt older, more mature, and worldly with him. He treated me as an equal and an adult. He introduced me to Fire Island, Studio 54, and other NYC hot spots.
I have memories of us lying on the beach at Fire Island, me too shy to take off my bathing suit and him entirely naked. We danced at the Ice Palace, and he showed me what was affectionately called the Judy Garland Memorial Sunken Forrest, better known as the Meat Rack or just The Rack. The Rack is an area of woods, sand and dunes between Cherry Grove and the Pines where guys would go to have sex. We wandered through the Sunken Forrest like tourists at an interactive museum, watching men having sex. I was too scared to do much more.
While I was tall, thin, and handsome in my 20s, I still thought of myself as the pre-teen, fat, unathletic kid that no one ever picked for their sports team. I didn’t feel I measured up to the hot gym guys, so sure of themselves. Even in the gay world, I felt like an outsider, which I was really. While I went with Ron to various gay places, I also went weekly to therapy to change from homosexuality. It was still the era where therapists told you that through their treatment, you could change, and I bought it hook, line, and sinker. So I was a tourist in the gay world at the time and did not accept being gay until more recently.
The year 1979 was a wild Pre AIDS time in gay history. I remember the sexy, sweaty, half-naked bodies dancing at the Ice Palace on Fire Island at sunset after a day at the beach. It was intoxicating, seeing all these hot half-naked men packed on the dance floor. I remember dancing with Ron, with my eyes roving the room. Even now, so many years later, the scene is still sexy and charged in my memory.
Ron and I must have stayed overnight on Fire Island, but I have no memory of that. I think we went to Fire Island together more than once, but at this point, I don’t remember the details.
Ron was a bit of a pied piper, and I remember two women I had become friends with when we worked together in Summer Stock. I had been hired to run the costume department the summer I had met Bob, which I did for half the season before quitting. Leslie, a wonderful bright high energy African American woman, was my assistant, partner in crime, and friend. She took over the costume department when I quit. There was a second woman, Michelle, that we were friends with.
Ron took us all under his wing when the two women visited NYC the following summer and showed us the town. He took us all to Studio 54. This must have been my second trip to Studio 54 with Ron. The first time we went to Studio 54, it was just the two of us, and I remember dancing with Ron to the fantastic disco music of the period. On this second trip, Ron led Leslie, Michelle, and me, all wearing bright oversized t-shirts, in primary colors, knotted on the side, and very tight jeans, which was the look for a time that summer, into Studio 54. When Ron walked up to the Velvet rope at Studio 54, Marc Benecke, who guarded the door, lifted the velvet rope for us to pass. Ron was beautiful and confident as he walked through the crowd, which seemed to part upon his arrival, and led us into the disco.
Ron was a victim of the period. It was the pre-AIDS years, and Ron, who was very sexually active, often went to backroom bars on the Upper West Side of NYC where he lived or to the baths. Even when Ron had boyfriends, it appeared to be an open relationship, or at least a don’t ask, don’t tell. I can’t really say what Ron was into sexually, but I know he was very sexually active and hooked up regularly. He would frequently tell me how he had gone out for ‘a little nookie’ after work.
Ron and I slept together only once late in our friendship. My memory of the sex was that it was mediocre at best. Ron had a huge penis and difficulty getting a hard erection. It also freaked me out to find out in the middle of having sex that Ron’s magnificent head of curly hair was mostly a hairpiece from the Hair Club for Men. I had known Ron for a few years at this point and was unnerved to find out that he was bald. It had me feeling like I was sleeping with a much older man. I kept imagining what he looked like bald, and it creeped me out. Our sleeping together was really the beginning of the end of our relationship. I began to pull away from Ron at this point, and because I was serious about ‘changing from homosexuality,’ I didn’t want to sleep with him again. I began to avoid Ron, and we drifted apart.
When AIDS arrived, in my fear, I turned away from the gay world even further and never looked back until recently. It was really years later that I began to wonder what had happened to Ron. I had always assumed that Ron died of AIDS, given how sexually active he was. There does not seem to be any trace of him today or that he ever lived. I believe his mother was alive when I knew him, but I don’t remember where he grew up, and I don’t know anyone today that knew him.
Coming out in some way has had me think of Ron more and mourn for him. I’m saddened that I don’t know what became of him. I will continue looking for him, but I suspect the trail is quite cold after all these years.
I have since learned, after a good deal of internet research, that Ron, in the years after I knew him, moved to Florida with a partner. He died in Miami, Florida, in 2001. The death notice placed in the New York Times said that Ron died of cancer.