LGBT Activist Jack Adair Sought Safety on the Main Line in 1960

The area proved almost as unfriendly as Frank Rizzo-controlled Philadelphia.



 

As Jack Adair later remembered it, meeting on the Main Line was supposed to be safer. It was 1960, and the local gay-rights movement was a wee embryo. In the city, Frank Rizzo was still making his name on the police force, and harassing homosexuals was his specialty. So, when local leaders looked for a site at which to organize a Philadelphia chapter of the Mattachine Society—one of the country’s first gay-rights groups—Adair’s offer of his mother’s property in Wayne seemed like a no-brainer.

“Everyone was looking over their shoulder if you were gay,” Adair told historian Marc Stein in a 1993 interview. “The bars were being watched by Rizzo, who was head of vice. And pictures were taken of cars, and film was taken of people entering the Allegro and other gay bars. So they felt that it would just be safer … and it didn’t turn out to be quite that way.”

Born in Philadelphia, Adair and his family moved to Rosemont when he was 3. His father was an insurance broker and a musician who had played with Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey. His mother was a teacher. The Adairs were Catholic, so young Adair was sent to St. Thomas of Villanova for grade school, then back into Philly for high school. Yes, really. “My family very much wanted me to have a mainstream Catholic education,” recalled Adair.  “And though I applied for and was accepted at St. Joe’s, they really wanted me to be less sheltered, in a way, and so I went to West Catholic High School for Boys at 49th and Chestnut.”

Adair’s childhood was less sheltered than even his parents imagined. At age 4, his best friend was a little girl named Nancy who lived down the street. The two played “house” together and pushed Nancy’s dolls around the neighborhood in a little stroller. For this, Adair became known among  neighborhood boys as a sissy. “As a result of that, I was picked up by five (young) teens and taken into the woods,” he said. “And I was made to perform oral sex on these kids. And word of mouth spread to other kids. And there was not a day, unless I was on vacation with my family, that I was not expected to perform on whomever presented themselves at the train stop.”

This activity was surprisingly easy to conceal. In the 1940s and ’50s, the area still had several large estates, and Villanova University had considerable tracts of open land and woods. The encounters often included beatings; some to make Adair comply, others as expressions of the abusers’ contempt. Not wanting to embarrass his family, Adair said nothing. So, the abuse continued through high school—aided, ironically, by his father’s philanthropic activities. “My father started the first Cub Scout troop in Rosemont,” said Adair. “And then when I got old enough, he started the first Boy Scouts. He started the first Parent-Teachers Association, and he organized the building fund for the chapel at Villanova. And so we really knew everybody, and so it just spread. Not only the kids that I was in school with, but also Bryn Mawr, Rosemont, Villanova, Radnor, Wayne.”

Through it all, Adair was a good student and worked at the A&P and Strawbridge’s. After high school, he studied radiology science at Einstein Medical Center. It was there that Adair met his first gay person, who assured him that he was not alone or unusual. He soon met others and became active in the nascent gay-rights movement, as well as the NAACP, though Adair was white. “It went back to the suppression or oppression that I felt in my life,” he said. “When I finished high school in ’56 and went into college, I then became aware of the black civil rights movement and became very involved in it.”

Sometime in 1959, Adair picked up a flier for the Mattachine Society, which had a newly formed chapter in New York. Founded in Los Angeles in 1950 and named for Société Mattachine—a group of French Renaissance performers—the society was the project of some former communists, as well as other activists. Adair wrote to the New York office about starting a Philadelphia chapter. “I was young, and it was exciting,” he remembered. “I felt that their goal—at least what I had read at the time of their philosophy—was to ease one’s coming out into understanding themselves and seeking acceptance: ‘I am, and it’s alright to be the way I am.’”

Like most gay activists, Adair probably didn’t know that the FBI had targeted the Mattachine Society. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was fairly obsessed with moral issues, using sex-crime busts and anti-obscenity crusades to burnish the public image of his agency. That activity allowed Hoover to build secret files on the sex lives of politicians and other public figures. A file on two-time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, for instance, detailed rumors that he had been arrested for homosexual activity. And a formal “sex deviates” program included contacting government agencies that employed homosexuals, leading to their dismissals.

So, the Mattachine Society’s combination of communism and sexual nonconformity was like red meat. The FBI’s first effort was against ONE, the country’s first gay-rights magazine, which grew out of a Mattachine meeting. Hoover declared the publication obscene, but, in a 1958 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. That didn’t mean the FBI stopped its efforts against gay organizing, though.

Adair and his mother lived on Hickory Lane in Rosemont, but co-owned other real estate, including a house with a large stable or barn on County Line Road. The ground level was used for parking cars, but a second floor included a large room that Adair already used for Saturday gatherings of gay friends. However, there was no mention in Stein’s 1993 interview that Adair had asked his mother’s permission to use the building for the Mattachine meeting. And his father had died a year or so earlier.

In retrospect, Adair described himself as still “the new kid on the block” in this organizing effort. After a date was finally set by the New Yorkers, others took on the task of creating a mailing list and sending out fliers about the meeting to occur in Mrs. Adair’s barn. The fliers mentioned that several films would be shown.

Mail, of course, moved through the U.S. Postal Service, which, at the time, served as a choke point for anything that authorities believed required choking. Since 1873, the Comstock Law—named for anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock—had forbidden any “obscene, lewd or lascivious” book to be sent through the mail. “Vile books and papers,” Comstock once said, “are branding irons heated in the fires of hell.”

The definition of “papers” had been broadened to include films and, of course, any fliers promoting them.

So, on Aug. 22, 1960, a Monday evening, there they were—several dozen middle-class white men and a few women, hanging out on the second floor of the barn, talking. Most, said Adair, were psychiatrists, psychologists and educators. There was a film projector and four movies. “All the films were out of the Menninger Foundation out of Kansas,” said Adair. “All of them were on homosexuality, and they were discussing behavior. There was no sex involved in it, other than talk of sex. But there were no graphic sex scenes or anything of that nature. Not even any touching or hand-holding or any of that. That was not the norm of the day.”

Founded in 1919, the Menninger Foundation has long been a center of psychiatric education, and part of that is training psychiatric professionals to deal with homosexuals. Adair watched the movies, which he thought primitive. “They looked like they had been made back in the ’40s, actually,” he said. “And I really didn’t think that they were very current.”

Radnor police arrived about 10 p.m., accompanied by a postal inspector. “The Postal Service had intercepted the fliers, or some of them in any event,” said Adair. “And the premise of their coming in on the raid was because the U.S. Postal Service had been used to promote pornography.  And they thought these films from the Menninger Foundation, because Mattachine was using them and was a gay organization, must be pornography.”

Oddly, the police arrived with a bus from St. Katharine of Siena. Adair’s mother taught grade school there, so his first thoughts were of her. “I can remember, after it was over, coming down the steps first and noticing the police were there—and I thought, ‘Well, that was very nice of my mother to call the police for traffic control,’” Adair said. “My family, when they entertained, frequently had the police come for traffic control. It was on the side of a hill, and it was just something that was done as part of the day.”

But, no. The bus was there to haul everyone to the police station.

Joan Fleischmann, another Mattachine organizer and one of the few women present, remembered people trying to hide their IDs. One man even gave her his ID, thinking her less likely to be searched than a man. “I remember men were absolutely out of their minds with fear over the fact that this might reach the newspapers,” she said.

Everyone present—Adair, Fleischmann and 82 others—shuffled aboard the bus and was driven to Radnor police headquarters, where officers were busy until 5 a.m. booking the suspects. All but two—John Bickel, the Adairs’ co-owner, and Albert Berube, the Mattachine projectionist—were released after identifying themselves. Detectives and the postal inspector, meanwhile, busied themselves watching the Menninger films to determine their degree of obscenity. No charges were filed.

For Adair, a major consequence of the Radnor raid was that he had to come out of the closet to his mother. By then, he had appeared at a post-raid press conference staged by the Mattachine Society and was already out to the rest of the city. But, as it turned out, Adair’s little brother had ratted him out months earlier.

Future Mattachine meetings were held in Philadelphia.

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