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An LGBT collection at the U, and the value of amateur curators

One of the nice things about the University of Minnesota is that, as an institution, it's such an exhibitionist. I work there a few hours each day, tending to a Web page, and afterwards I'll sometimes just roam about, because it seems like there isn't a building, library, steam tunnel or gym locker that somebody hasn't taken over and converted into a sort of micro-museum. If there is a spare shelf, somebody's likely to showcase something on it. It's as though it is impossible to attend or work at the Twin Cities campus without being infected by a certain curatorial sensibility. And how can this be a bad thing? The impulse to curate is an impulse to collect, and to order, and to arrange, and to share, and that's also the impulse to educate.
 
Case in point: The Elmer L. Andersen Library on the West Bank Campus, which I must confess I had never been in before yesterday and did not even know was a library. But, right at its entrance, they have a sort of large space that might typically house a little deli or one of those awful university supply stores that look like somebody decided to take the bulkiest, least-attractive hoodies they could find and spray paint them maroon and gold and then try to sell them to university students. Instead, the library has made use of this as a display area for selections from various collections. Currently, and through Feb. 6, the collection on display is something called the Tretter Collection.

 
Jean-Nickolaus Tretter is a Little Falls native, Navy veteran, and former University of Minnesota student who was seized with the curatorial impulse as much as anybody the U has produced — post Stonewall, he began avidly collecting works representing the LGBT experience, which he discovered tended to disappear pretty much as quickly as they were produced. He amassed an enormous collection, and the Elmer L. Andersen library has, on display, a fraction of it.
 
The collection is neatly displayed in a series of glass cases, all organized around themes. There is, for example, a display case collecting examples of LGBT authors exploring their sexual identity in literature, including authors such as Jean Genet, represented by "Thief's Journal," among other examples. There are also samples of printed work that is typically more ephemeral, such as brochures from marches or programs from gay-themed music events, which lose practical usefulness the moment the event is over, but can be absolute treasures to a historian. To my own taste, the most interesting section was a very small selection of pulp paperbacks from the '50s and '60s. At first blush, these books tend to look like trash — they were marketed in a decidedly downscale fashion, with lurid covers and titles. But pulp often gave a home to authors with nonmainstream viewpoints a place to express themselves, even if they were sometimes constrained by the conventions of the publisher.

Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon
Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon

As an example, on display is a novel called "Beebo Brinker" by a writer named Ann Bannon. The cover illustration shows a fetchingly waifish young woman standing under a street sign reading "Gay Street," with cover text that screams out that the main character never knew who she was until she arrived in Greenwich Village and "found the love that smolders in the shadows of the twilight world." The book sounds as though it's going to be the sort that was popular back then, a genre that doesn't really have a name — so I am just going to go ahead and call it the Beatnik Orgy novel. But it is, in fact, an especially odd and interesting book — it's a coming out story with a main character who is defiantly unfeminine. And there are precious few beatniks in the book, but there is one fascinating aging movie star with a perfectly excellent name: Venus Bogardus. There's also an interesting book called "Guilty Pleasures," by Pamela Robertson, which argues that women have contributed to, and have as much claim, on the camp aesthetic as men do, with chapters on Mae West and Joan Crawford and Madonna. Robertson makes a good case, but she could have accomplished as much simply by writing the words "Venus Bogardus" over and over again throughout the length of the book.
 
I'd like to offer up an example of just how much value there might be in such a collection. There is a fellow I have corresponded with on occasion named JD, who runs a site called Queer Music Heritage. He is likewise possessed of the curatorial impulse, and has been collecting LGBT-themed music for quite some time. Years ago, he started collecting a fascinating collection of novelty oddities from an LA-based mail-order company called Camp Records, which are gay reworkings of public-domain songs, plus an entire album of classic torch songs recast as love songs between two men. I have corresponded with JD because I made use of these recordings for a play I wrote, but the result of this also produced an unexpected bit of Twin Cities history.
 
Camp Records is undated. JD's primary source for figuring out just when they were produced was an old catalog from 1965 from a company called Vagabond. The catalog is a sampling of pre-Stonewall merchandise for the discriminating gay man: There are cuff links and there is aftershave, and there are records and books. Dozens and dozens of books, all available for mail order. Some are lurid-looking pulp paperbooks that would not seem out of place on a shelf next to "Beebo Brinker." And there's "Thief's Journal." There are nudist magazines and beefcake photography, all available for mail order. Just send your check to PO Box 1010, Minneapolis, Minn. 55440.

Vagabond Catalogue
Courtesy of Queer Music Heritage
Vagabond Catalogue

I got quite curious about this, and decided to do some of my own research. It turned out that the Vagabond catalog was produced by a company called Directory Services, Inc., a company run by two men, Lloyd Spinar and Conrad Germain. And Spinar and Germain didn't just print the catalog, they also printed an assortment of beefcake photography  magazines with titles like "Butch" and "Rugged." And they were somewhat progressive in their tastes in such photos, as they allowed various dangly parts to just dangle, which wasn't really done back then. So, of course, they were taken to court.
 
The court case was a bit of a fiasco, as described in a book by Thomas Waugh called "Hard to Imagine." In order for images of nude men to be prurient, they had to have no artistic value whatsoever, but, of course, the whole trick to beefcake photography was that it pretended it existed for enthusiasts of the classical male form. Photographs typically consisted of men taking bodybuilder poses, which, in turn, were based on Greek statues, and even when they wore sailor hats, the whole thing still looked like something Michelangelo might have sculpted. So it was up to the prosecutor to prove that there was no art to it, and so he brought in a professional photographer, who declared the images "'technically low and aesthetically zero minus" and an art student who complained that he found sailor's hats distracting. Hey, kid, you weren't alone.
 
It turned out the case was overseen by an unusually progressive judge, Earl R. Larson, who ruled that just showing a man in his skivvies wasn't inherently pornographic, despite the images being targeted at a gay audience, thus clearing the way for more beefcake magazines and, one supposes, nude fitness clubs, which we used to have in the Twin Cities, back when things were more interesting.
 
So, yes, the Twin Cities were once a center of beefcake publishing, and offered a landmark court case on the subject, and who would remember this but for one guy who obsessively collected old records, and others like him? It's the amateur curators among us who preserve the most interesting parts of history, the stuff on the margins that mainstream historians might overlook. Every one of us can possess our own museum if we want it, and, who knows, one day our collection might be featured at the university. They probably have a spare broom closet where they can house it.

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Comments (1)

Well, give the archivists some credit, Max. While mainstream historians may overlook the stuff on the margins, as you say, the fact remains that the Tretter LGBT collection was acquired and preserved by the U's archivists. Sometimes I worry that we (archivists) spend so much time being concerned about the margins that we miss the middle. But then the silent majority is not quite so interesting to begin with.

Also, exhibit space just does not "happen" at the U, especially good exhibit space. That space in Andersen was designed from day one for exhibitions. That it looks like a place where ugly hoodies are sold is something you should take up with the architects, who would probably blame on building design cutbacks.

But thanks for giving some press to a significant archival collection. You are seeing the tip of the iceberg in that exhibit.