I worried at first that our lack of face time may have hidden personality defects. It’s one thing to be on your best behavior for a couple hours over drinks and dinner. It’s another thing to spend eight hours with someone and expose a completely different side.
It was a needless worry. Mother had spent 40 years vetting us. The transition was effortless.
As I stayed to deal with everything in the 4000 square foot townhouse I realized there was no rush. Especially since I didn’t mind being there.
I saw family routinely but those were scheduled events, they had busy lives. The only person I could call on the spur of the moment was Billy. Like when I knocked the garage door off its railings. As a new condo owner I hadn’t ‘t a clue what to do. He said, “Call your maintenance person. It might be their responsibility. If not, they’ll know who to call.”
I decided to tweak the decor a little although it didn’t really need anything. I didn’t want it to have the Prince Albert dressing room give, everything in place as it was at death for decades to come. Billy admired and encouraged my unorthodox ideas for redecorating. And the odd things I’d buy when we went antiquing together.
My attempts to landscape the back patio were a different story. He was appalled that a gay man could be so lacking in gardening skills. I wasted so much money turning annuals into weeklies, he said the greenhouses loved to see me coming. A sure sign of a profitable summer.
Being in the condo was comfortable. And the room that was the most comfortable was the kitchen. We’d spent a couple of years gutting the back of the first floor then redesigning it and the small sitting area. The result was a much more efficient lay out with brand new appliances. You could do a Christmas buffet for 25 people and not be tired because there was so much working space and room to store everything you needed.
Billy was the Andy Warhol of Fort Wayne. Through his work and his interests he knew everyone in town. And he attended any social gathering of note. He thrived on it.
When we were running around he would invariably see someone he knew. When it came to introducing me he either would or wouldn’t. If it was someone he liked, he would immediately introduce me.
If it was someone he didn’t care for he’d keep it short then as he turned to walk away say to me, “that’s Mrs so-and-so, her husband owned such-and-such.” After a couple of more steps out of earshot he’d mutter, “I can’t stand that bitch.” There were a few times he got that last phrase out a little too quickly. And he wasn’t muttering.
Billy knew where the bodies were buried. We passed a real estate office and he pointed out a leading entrepreneur in the city had once been a secretary there. She got caught by the cleaning lady going to pound town with her boss on the reception desk one night.
I, in turn, shared what little I knew. He liked the one about the right-to-life activist who a friend of mine helped get a procedure back in high school. A couple of times. If only she’d had someone to scream “whore” and “murderer” in her face, perhaps she would have made different choices.
Billy was something of an iconoclast. Like with the hairdresser who peeled the orange all night. I’m sure he knew he was on drugs but it didn’t really bother him. As long as it didn’t become messy and he could do his job.
As he helped me get to know the locals, he invited a couple to dinner one evening who had been boyfriends about a year. They lived about thirty miles apart and the ties that bound didn’t appear that strong. The one guy seemed to be interested in me. The more we ran into each other after that the more interesting things got.
When I told Billy about it he shifted gears from troublemaker to cheerleader. In a wonderfully libertine way he said sparks were hard to come by in life, rules can be dealt with later. If you feel the impulse act on it.
I don’t know why Fort Wayne had to be different than any other town I’d been in. Consummation was never achieved.
When I first came out I noticed how much gay people name dropped. I saw it as an insecurity, using superficial associations to define themselves. Some guys had their celebrity CV locked and loaded to explode in anyone’s face. Over and over.
Billy was the complete opposite. He played his cards so close to his vest that a name drop from him was like a time bomb. Since he liked old movies so much I talked about some of the George Cukor films I enjoyed. He told about having dinner at Cukor’s a couple of times.
When we were on the Jayne Mansfield kick the name of her bodybuilding husband, Mickey Hargitay, came up. When Billy attended Herron Art School one of his roommates was Hargitay’s cousin. He was always dropping by and hanging out at their place.
I noticed a photo of a woman on his wall that was autographed but I couldn’t read it. She looked familiar though I couldn’t place her. It was Annie Lebowitz who had been a guest at a mutual friend’s New Mexico ranch at the same time. He was taking photography classes then, she had encouraged him.
One summer I’d been there a month and was returning to California the next day. It had been hot, we’d done a lot and were both drained. Still, it was the last night we couldn’t squander it. We decided to go to Paula’s for fresh seafood.
The evening started slowly, things picked up after a round of Cosmos. I told him about my Dad working construction and also doing part-time work for a contractor. In 1961 this contractor was building sets for a movie being filmed in Fort Wayne. Dad told me the books in the background of the den scene were actually trompe l’ceil painted on plywood.
To my 11-year-old mind this was blasphemy. You can’t lie about books. I asked Billy if he knew anything about the movie. His Pandora’s box of personal experience spontaneously erupted.
Know about it? The film’s star, Lisa Gaye, was either in The Corner House or he’d been on the set every day of the six week shoot. He was responsible for her hair and wigs. Both he and the salon were listed in the closing credits.
He hung out with the cast and crew and was their tour guide to the many fine lounges in town. His best friend Pat got to speak a line in the film and even he had a brief walk-on cameo.
This information overload left me no choice but to track down a copy on Amazon. We watched it on my next trip home.
Night of Evil was a terrible B movie, badly written, poorly acted. But it was so entertaining with Billy’s running commentary. It was based on the true story of Dixie Ann Dikes, a Miss Colorado in the Miss America pageant who was secretly married and eventually disqualified. Down and out she botches an armed robbery and goes to prison.
One of the major backers was from Fort Wayne. It was decided to shoot there as a way to keep costs down.
Billy had something to say for almost every scene. He identified one couple who had bit parts as being big in the local civic theatre. They owned the pharmacy on Lake Street.
In another scene he could tell by the wall paper they were in the old Columbia Hotel that was on the landing. How he could identify the wall covering in some flea-bag, by-the-hour, derelict hotel room, I didn’t ask.
The cast had stayed at the new Van Orman hotel out north and could usually be found in their supper club, The Embers, at night. It was used for a shot when the beauty queen’s fortunes are on the rise. His friend Pat plays a news photographer who approaches her table and asks, “a photo for the Gazette Miss Dikes?”
Then there’s the actual night of evil when the heinous crime occurred. An establishing shot shows a lone figure walking after midnight past a series of closed store fronts. It’s Billy’s first and only major motion picture role.
That he was overlooked for any acting honors remains a blight on the Academy’s history to this day.
BONUS COVERAGE: Click here for a yuletide tour of the condo formerly known as The Winter Palace, c. 2010.