|by Doug Marshall-Steele|
I recently discovered that the father of a friend was a close friend of gay icon Harvey Milk prior to his becoming the first out gay public official in the U.S. before being assassinated in 1978.
Long story short, Milk and three friends (Leo Piscopo, Pat Vesey and Artie Schiller) comprised a tight-knit group in high school, the military, and afterward. Following is an interview with one of the three friends, Pat. The entire article, with photos and including interviews with Artie and Leo's daughter, Eve Wilson representing her deceased father, may be found on the "Harvey Milk" page of www.towardequality.org.
What emerges is a story of male bonding in the 1940s and beyond, characterized by mutual respect and deep affection among these four diverse friends. It is obvious Milk's three friends enriched his life and helped him become the confident gay civil rights leader he wasfor too short a time.
Doug: How old were you when you first knew Harvey Milk?
Pat: I knew him when I was fourteen to seventeen years old; he was a year younger than I. Harvey graduated high school in 1947 at the age of sixteen: he was a good student. He went to Albany State College, which at the time was a premier school in the New York system of education, and he graduated there at age twenty. He then joined the navy SEALs.
Doug: What was Harvey like as a young person?
Pat: He was outgoing and had a tremendous sense of humor! In those years sometimes I would get dressed up in a pinstripe suit and a nice shirt, so they called me "Duke." If Harvey would see me at a distance down the street, he'd call out, "Hey Duke!!!"
Doug: Harvey Milk knew he was gay from the age of fourteen. Did you or any of your group?
Pat: No, I didn't know until the early seventies when he became active in San Francisco politicsand I was surprised he was gay. One night I came home from my bowling league; it was about midnight. My wife was asleep; the kids were asleep. I picked up a Newsweek to read so I could get sleepy. There was a small picture of Harvey [but it didn't quite look like him], and he was described as the first elected gay official of a major US city. I said, "That couldn't be Harvey" but then how many people could have a name like "Harvey Milk?" I've never heard of another one, have you? I looked closer and couldn't wait to see Artie the next day. Well he had seen the same thing. Then we figured it out: he had gotten a nose job! He had had quite a prominent nose.
Doug: Did you feel betrayed that this close friend of yours had never told you he was gay?
Pat: No, not at all! My biggest regret was that I didn't take up the phone and say, "Good for you, Harvey!" And I always thought that next time I got out to the west coast I would just stop in to the Castro Street Camera Shop and surprise him, but I never got out there and I never got around to picking up the phone. You know how you put something off and then you never do it....
Doug: Did he have any problems related to his being Jewish?
Pat: I don't think so. Ours was an eclectic group. Leo was Italian; Artie was German-Irish; I'm IrishI'm referring to extraction of course. There may have been a couple of black kids that we were friends with. Harvey's parents probably tried to raise him strictly, but he wasn't very religiousI don't know that he attended synagogue.
Doug: How was it that you all were so appreciative of diversity at a time when many people were not?
Pat: Well as for myself, I was one of twelve children my mother had three sets of twins. We were not richI guess we were poor but didn't know it. [Laughs.] So we used to go to the Sears Roebuck store. I well remember in 1945 or 1946 my mother sitting at the kitchen table telling us she had gone to the Sears store that dayand complained to the manager, "I don't see any colored people working here!" Now remember Brown vs. Board of Education was in 1954, so this was almost a decade before that. So some of who I am came from my upbringing.
Doug: Wow! So basically you, Leo, Artie and Harvey were the core members of your social group?
Pat: Yes. Less so was Joe Anderson, who became "Father Basil" when he joined the Benedictines. And there was Joe's sister Marie, who says, "Harvey gave me my first kiss." But you know she was maybe eleven at the time so there wasn't anything to it it was actually a greeting kiss when Harvey visited them when he was in the navy. And also there was John Nirmaier. Both Joe and John are deceased; Marie lives in New Mexico; but I'm still close friends with Artie. The neighborhood hasn't much changed. If you ever get to Long Island, Doug, I'd be happy to show you around and take you to the bar Artie owned. I still go there!
Doug: Thank you! It's great to hear that things haven't changed after all these years, and that you're still tight with Artie. Now tell me, did Harvey ever demonstrate any social consciousness or strong sense of justice as a young person?
Pat: Not really. Oh, if there were an injustice he would see on the street, he would probably speak out about it, but he didn't really develop that until the sixties when everybody did. He was a stand-up guy, though [i.e., he was not one to back down]. This anecdote goes back to when we were in our late teens. We were in the habit of tossing each other our keys and borrowing each other's cars. (And you've got to understand this was back when New York cabdrivers were very belligerent. Nowadays they're often immigrants and very polite, but then they were very belligerent). One day Harvey and Artie borrowed my car. I was home and when Artie next saw me, he said, "Paddy, you would have laughed your ass off! We were in the city around 34th Street and suddenly this cab turned out of nowhere. We went right straight ahead and sheered a fender right off the cab. Well the cabdriver jumped out and Harvey jumped out and they were there, nose to nose. Then the driver quietly turned around, picked up the fender and drove off. He probably thought, 'This guy is nuts. I'd better not mess with him!'"
But that's how Harvey was. He was such a stand-up guy he wouldn't take anything from anyone.
Doug: What are some other anecdotes you might tell us that reveal the kind of person Harvey Milk was as an adolescent and young man?
Pat: Oh he had a tremendous sense of humor! One time he returned for a visit to Bay Shore and went to the bar Artie owned for over forty years and [stayed till closing time]. The next day Artie said, "All Harvey drank all night long was [cheap] Thunderbird Wine!" But he also would have been just as comfortable drinking champagne, that's how he was.
One time we went to a party about fifteen miles from Bay Shore. We made a wrong turn and wound up in a neighborhood with these big, expensive homes and large lawns. We saw this huge place and pulled up because it was obvious there was a party going on there. Harvey jumped out and said, "I'll check it out!" Well he didn't come out for a while and then we saw him walk past a window and he tipped his drink to us, like thumbing his nose at us. Artie said, "Look at the bastard!" Then he came out and we asked him if that was the party we were going to? Well it wasn't, but Harvey was just having a good time. "You sonofabitch!" Artie said. Of course it was all in fun.
When he was in Albany at college, Artie would stop in to see himand then would report that Harvey knew where all the cheap bars were and those were the only places he would take Artie where he could get five-cent beers.
He was a regular guy. I mean in high school after a snowstorm we'd get throwing snowballs at each other and then at cars. Harvey would be right there in the mix...I've got the 1947 high school yearbook. I'm reading his profile: "Football 3,4; Basketball 3,4; Variety Show; Jr. Prom Committee." Hmm, what do you think? I'm wondering if he was on Prom Committee so he wouldn't have to attend the prom himself? Huh, I never thought of that before now.
Doug: Pat, how did you react when you heard he was assassinated?
Pat: Oh my God, I almost cried. I didn't actually cry but I almost did. I must have said to my wife, "Only the good die young" or something like that because that's how I felt. I severely regretted not going to see him, or even picking up the phone.
Doug: Is there anything else you can tell us about Harvey?
Pat: His nickname in high school was "Glimpy." I don't know how we got these nicknames and I don't know how he got his. My wife will ask me, "Where did these names come from?" and I say, "I don't know!"
Doug: Pat, thank you so much for helping us understand Harvey Milk in his younger years. He is a personal hero to me as well as to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Pat: I'm happy to help you with this, Doug. I don't believe other accounts of Harvey's earlier life are very accurate, since the authors didn't interview us who knew him best. After Harvey was murdered [one author] did some research at Bay Shore High School, and then talked with the local librarian. She referred him to us, Harvey's friends, but he didn't follow up on it. I want to do this...for Harvey.
The full interviews, as well as photographs, are available on the Harvey Milk page at towardequality.org.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 11 August 12, 2005