Why Being "Gay in the '70s in New York and L.A. Was Magic" — and How Hollywood Has Changed (Guest Column)

Howard Rosenman with David Geffen-Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Howard Rosenman

Oscar-winning 'Call Me by Your Name' producer Howard Rosenman recalls the entertainment industry pre-AIDS crisis, when homosexuality was hush-hush but "no one cared who you f—ed as long as you were making money for them."

When I left medical school in the autumn of 1967, after having served in the Israel Defense Forces during the Six Day War as a medic in the Gaza Strip, I came to New York. I had been Leonard Bernstein's assistant that summer on a documentary they were making about him conducting the Israel Philharmonic. We got close, and he would advise me, "You are a great storyteller. You should leave medical school and go into the arts. You will never bow to the mistress of science."

In New York, the maestro introduced me to Kate Hepburn, Stephen Sondheim and Kay Thompson. I became Ms. Hepburn's assistant on the musical Coco, about Coco Chanel. During rehearsals of Coco, Ms. Hepburn and I always went to dinner at Joe Allen’s. There I became very friendly with Mart Crowley, who wrote The Boys in the Band, and Bob Moore, who directed it off-Broadway.

That same year, I was introduced to Tennessee Williams' agent Billy Barnes, who in turn introduced me to Barry Diller. My first Sunday in New York, I brunched at P.J. Clarke's with Barry, David Geffen, Sandy Gallin and producer Ellen Krass. I was the luckiest gay Jew in the world. The most wonderful thing about those days was that the gay folks in power lent a hand to young gay people trying to get a foothold in the business. There was a powerful network of older successful gay men like theatrical agent Milton Goldman and entertainment attorney Arnold Weissberger who introduced younger gay men to successful showbiz types at their beautiful apartment on Sutton Place overlooking the East River. They were a long-"married" couple a good half-century before there was gay marriage! (Though when Milton died in 1989, eight years after Arnold, his New York Times obituary referred to their relationship as a 30-year "friendship.")

One night at Julius’, the famous West Village gay bar, I met a man and took him home with me. When I woke up and looked at said man it was none other than Edward Albee. I was also a gigantic fan. We had an affair for six months and I watched the moon landing with him at his home in Montauk.

New York in 1967 was a giant contradiction. Every gay bar had a little dance floor. Men were not allowed to dance with other men, except in a circle with a woman at the center. If two men touched each other, an obese mafioso sitting on a stool would shine a flashlight on you. If he shone it three times, they called the NYPD, who had a deal with the Mafia owners of the gay bars to arrest a quota of "faggots" each week.

That's how Stonewall happened. On the day of Judy Garland's funeral, a squad of NYPD cops roughed up a drag queen who was bigger than some of them, and she punched one of the cops back. The bar erupted in a gigantic brawl … the beginning of the Gay Revolution. Six months later the rules were changed — men could dance with each other and thus there was a giant burst of freedom in NYC … which spread to L.A. and San Francisco. Gays were leading the edge of the culture from 1969 to about 1983, when AIDS stopped it all.

To be gay in the '70s in New York and L.A. (where I moved in 1973 with Ron Bernstein to open RSO Films for music entrepreneur Robert Stigwood) was sheer magic. However, there were two contrapuntal strains at work in show business. There was rampant homophobia by studio and network executives and by some older agents, notoriously at CAA (though not Ron Meyer nor the Young Turks, several of whom were known to be gay). Stan Kamen, then the most important agent at William Morris, was out and gay but very private. He said to me: "No one cares who you fuck as long as you are making money for them … just don't be too showy." The homophobia, though, was pervasive. I remember pitching the life story of Leonard Bernstein to an executive at a cable network who exclaimed: "He's a faggot and no one knows who he is! Are you insane?"

There emerged a whole layer of gay network executives, writers, studio executives and agents, including Warner Bros. Television president Alan Shayne, producers Ira Barmak, Charlie Milhaupt and Phil Mandelker, casting director Tim Flack (who went on to become vp comedy development at CBS), agent Janet Roberts, marketing exec Marvin Antonowsky, Lorimar exec Mike Filerman and TV producer Larry Kasha. There was the extremely flam­boyant Ed Bondy and the talent agent Ed Limato at the Ashley Famous Agency (later ICM). Ed, when he was an assistant, came to work in 1969 on a motorcycle in full leather regalia. When he became a full-fledged agent, he had one assistant who was unceremoniously relieved of his job when he was discovered fellating a young actor in the bathroom. The notorious Art Murphy wrote about movie grosses in Daily Variety and was very openly gay — he was close to every movie executive in town. Jon Epstein, a very successful TV producer, threw the best gay parties in L.A. where I met all of gay Hollywood. There was also the not-fabulous and dreaded and mean Allan Carr who had famous nude "wrestling" parties with underage boys. Ugh! Among the many lost to AIDS were Barmak, Flack, Milhaupt, Mandelker and Kasha.

My first year in Los Angeles, George Cukor invited me to a Saturday afternoon pool party. I walk in and who do I see? Tony Perkins, Rock Hudson, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Tab Hunter, David Hockney and Tony Richardson. Everyone was gay and a touchstone in the culture. You see, all the cognoscenti knew about each other and it wasn't secretive or shameful, but there was a code that no one spoke publicly about it. It wasn't being "out" as we know it today — the press never wrote about it.

My very first feature film that I produced happened because of this gay network. Tommy Nutter, who was known for the beautiful piping on the clothes he designed for Mick and Bianca Jagger, picked me up at a disco in New York one night and I ended up at Stigwood's offices at 135 Central Park West, run by Peter Brown, who used to be Tommy's boyfriend and who had worked for the very gay Beatles manager Brian Epstein. I told Peter about the idea my friend Joel Schumacher and I had about a black girl singing group in Harlem in the '50s, which later became 1976's Sparkle, which I remade with Whitney Houston seven years ago. Stigwood paid me and Joel $5,000 for a treatment and we were on our way.

If I wasn't gay, I never would have had the career that I have.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.