A Interview with Michael Rumaker on A Day and a Night in the Baths, March 2015
The Everard Baths were the most famous gay baths in New York City, opening up in Chelsea, in the West 20s, in a former church in the 1890s.
The Everard was famous for its warren of cubicles and for being patronized by the occasional celebrity, like Gore Vidal, who took Truman Capote there on the first night they met in 1945. The married and closeted composer Leonard Bernstein was famous for disappearing into the anonymous nudity of the Everard.
Like most of all of the gay bars and bathhouses in New York City, the Everard was run by the Mafia. Patrons recounted seeing the same men running the front desk at the Everard also working as bouncers at the Village gay bars.
In 1977, the novelist Michael Rumaker published his novel of the Everard, A Day and a Night in the Baths, which is told from the viewpoint of a man going there for the first time. Condensing his autobiographical experiences into one 12-hour day, the unnamed protagonist details a tour through the cubicles, the swimming pool and the orgy room. Along the way, the narrator experiences tender sex and mean sex, men who like Crisco and golden showers and toothless old men grabbing whatever bits of sexual contact they can have. The narrator muses on his fear of police raid, fear of STDs, fear of fire and the infamously unclean conditions of the Everard. His sexual desire propels him forward.
Rumaker’s lyrical and often ironic prose elevates the book above gratuitous pornography. The novel stands as a durable document from the heady days of gay liberation before the advent of AIDS disrupted the American gay social scene for several decades.
In 1977, the Everard with its very flammable cubicles and its boarded up windows suffered a fire where nine men were killed. The baths were rebuilt but were shutdown in the early 1980s by the New York City Health Department, under the orders of Mayor Edward Koch, who many believe was a closeted gay man.
One of the most famous myths of the Everard was that the baths were owned by the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association. The two green lamps flanking the main entrance gave the building the look of a police precinct.
Rumaker, now 83, was born in New Jersey and educated at the legendary Black Mountain College. After school, he moved to San Francisco and hung out with the West Coast Beat poets, like Robert Duncan. He then moved to New York City, living in rented rooms in unheated flats in Greenwich Village while writing his fiction and patronizing the famous gay bars like Gene’s and the Old Colony.
In 1965, Rumaker attended a party in upstate New York, thrown by people affiliated with Black Mountain College. At the party, he met a young artist named Yoko Ono. Their affair was detailed in his book The Butterfly.
Rumaker is also the author of the memoir Black Mountain Days.
Rumaker spoke to me by telephone from his home in Nyack, N.Y., on March 3, 2015. The interview concentrated on his reissued novel A Day and a Night at the Baths
Q. Is it a good day today?
Yes, every time I wake up breathing, I consider it a good day. I live in Nyack. I have been here for many years.
Q. Did you live in New York City?
Yes I did.
Q. What year did you arrive?
I can’t remember. I do remember that I stayed with Denise Levertov and her husband Mitch.
Q. Where did you live?
Greenwich Village. The news about Greenwich Village had preceded me. My father told me that Greenwich Village was a horrible place, with all those queens and stuff. I thought, “Oh, that’s the place for me.”
I went to all the old timey gay bars. There was the Bird Circuit. The Old Colony was a wonderful eating place, as well. There were the Greenwich Village gay bars and the uptown gay bars. The first gay bar that I ever went to was called Gene’s. I think it was in the 40s, the West 40s. It was a whole liberating experience to go into a gay bar and to be surrounded by people who are like yourself.
Q. Is A Day and A Night autobiographical?
Oh, it is very autobiographical. I was always keeping journals and writing things on little pads of paper. A large part of the book was written at the Baths. I was very lucky to afford a cubicle. I would write things down after the day’s and night’s experiences.
Q. Were the 12 hours a composite of experiences?
I was enamored of the title. It sounded jazzier. Don Allen, the publisher of Grey Fox, the first publisher, wanted to call it “At the Baths.” That sounded so flat tired to me. I like “A Day and A Night at the Baths,” even though it is not technically a day and a night.
Q. The title gives it an intensity. The Everard was one of New York’s most famous gay baths, stretching back to the 1890’s. When did you decide to start going?
I knew about the baths, but I was nervous about going…one of my best friends was Jim Naismith…his grandfather invented basketball. He would go and other guys would go to the baths, and they would tell me stories. I was fascinated and wanted to go. I finally screwed up my courage to go.
Q. Do you think the baths became a powerful symbol of gay liberation in New York?
It was paradise. It was gay heaven. You were away from that whole world outside that just denied you your existence. There you could be yourself with a bunch of other guys and have yourself an erotic good time. It was very freeing and it was a very good place to learn a lot of things and have that feeling of freedom. I’ve heard some of my black friends say that when they are around black people, they behave differently around white people than they behave around each other. In those days it was true, just to find a place where you didn’t have to worry or to keep looking over your shoulder. In those days, though, you had to worry about the police raiding the place.
Q. The narrator has a lot of fears—disease, crabs and fire.
Absolutely. I wrote about that in the book. When they did have the fire, the sprinkler system didn’t work. The fire laws required that it be installed, but they didn’t hook it up.
Q. You describe a mildewed feeling to the place?
It was marvelously grungy. I was too proud to wear the slippers. The veterans of the Everard went around in their bare feet. It wasn’t the most sanitary thing to do. Padding around in his bare feet, the narrator steps on a used condom and wonders why anyone would use one in the baths.
Q. It took you a year to sell the book?
I thought about Don Allen, but my agent tried everyone else. They wouldn’t touch it…it was too bold and too much. After a year of frustration and not getting the book published, I sent it to Don Allen, and that next day, he said that he would publish it. He really liked the book very much. Don is deceased. He lived into his nineties. Don loved writing and he loved literature and writers. He loved publishing and he was the perfect guy for a number of us to get published. He was a wonderful guy. He could speak Chinese. He was very cultured and intellectual. He was a good friend.
Q. Do you have memories from the Everard?
There were numerous ones. I became addicted to the place. It was a place of comfort. The restaurant on the first floor was very good. I think I put everything in the book that I experienced there.
Q. Were many copies sold?
It sold very well. Information about my books is with my papers at the University of Connecticut library.
I am relying on my memory, which is at 83, not the best. I have a few marbles left. I love what Adolph Zucker said as he got older: “If I had known that I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
Q. The cubicles gave you different tastes—gentle and mean sex, men who love Crisco, cock rings. Was it like a supermarket of sex?
Everybody was there—all ethnicities, races and so on. It was very democratic. Sex equalizes us. The baths emphasize that you are what you are. You have nothing to hide. The dark of course makes everything pretty mysterious. You have a sense that the Everard is a pretty dark place.
In every cubicle, the lampshade was busted. You had a choice of the dark or brilliant light. Some guys, being fashion queens, would bring colored light bulbs with them or put handkerchiefs over it to make it more cosy and inviting. The orgy room was the only room that was pitch black. That comes across in the book.
Q. Though democratic, was there a hierarchy in the baths?
The physicality, big dongs, like guys with the big peckers are at the top of the heap. Everybody wants to get down with them. I don’t know if I wrote about it in the book, but there is a startling image that stays with me today…at the baths downtown on First Avenue, the Club Baths, there was one room that was pitch black, with light coming in from the hallway…this black guy comes in…he is stark naked in the doorway, silhouetted in the door way was an enormous boner. Everybody stopped and looked. He was posing. We were worshippers. Gay guys worship the male body. I didn’t want to leave out the grunge, the fears of disease and so forth. I wanted it to be a very honest book.
Q. Was there a heavy mob presence at the Everard?
I heard that the Mafia ran all the gay baths. With the gay bars, it was the same thing. If there was money to be made, there would be the Mafia.
Q. Was the Everard ever raided?
I can’t remember if I was caught in one or not. [The raids] were always in the back of your mind. The raids would happen, especially around election time. It was the same in San Francisco…the cops would raid the bars and the politicians would say that they were cleaning up the city, getting rid of queens and all that kind of nonsense. This was in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, the Dark Ages of the erotic in America. I think every age is the Dark Ages of sexuality in America. People are scared shitless of it.
Q. Did the Everard come back after the 1977 fire?
Yes it did, because it was such a moneymaker. They fixed everything up. The place was a tinder box. The cubicles and everything.
Q Why did you dedicate the book to the men who were killed in the fire?
I thought it was part of history that should be noted, where men were forced to seek erotic pleasure and to meet other gays guys in what were perilous places.
Q. Did your Beat fascinations in San Francisco carry over to New York?
I’m often included with the Beat writers when academics write those categorical books about things, but my writing has its roots in Black Mountain College. I always had this feeling that a writer had to be their own unique self, and that I always tried to be. I didn’t want to be part of any group.
Q. You also wrote a book about Black Mountain College?
The old cover of that book, people complained that it looked like a college catalog.
Q. Is the cover picture of your novel of the old Everard Baths entrance?
That is the entrance where thousands of horny and ornery males passed in and out of these doors.
Q. Your books have been reissued from Spuyten and Duyvil?
They are bringing out “The Butterfly,” but I never know. Todd Tillman is forgetful about sending copies. I go to Amazon and see that the book is available and finally see what the cover looks like.
Todd Tillman has put all my books back in print. I am very grateful…I think to myself, that’s not so bad for an 83-year-old geezer to have all his books in print.
Q. I have not yet read “The Butterfly.” Where did you meet Yoko Ono?
It was at a party in Stony Point, N.Y. I don’t know if you are familiar with Rockland County, but Stony Point had a lot of Black Mountain rejects after the college closed, like Merce Cunningham, John Cage and so forth. They ended up at “The Land,” as they called it. Paul Williams, the very handsome Paul Williams, was an architect and an architecture student at Black Mountain, and was quite wealthy. He built houses for them up there. It is an interesting place architecturally. John Cage and Merce Cunningham lived up there in houses built by Paul Williams. The Hultbergs were friends of mine at the time. They didn’t live on The Land, but they were new people up there, close by, down the road. They always had fabulous parties. Everybody from The Land would go, as well as people from Greenwich Village who knew them, straights, gays and everybody.
At one of their weekend parties, there was Soshi, Yoko’s first lover. They brought a long-stringed instrument and Soshi and another Japanese man played it. Yoko came with them. She was all dressed in black. She was looking at me and I was captivated by her. I screwed up my courage and went up to her. I asked her if she would like to have dinner with me sometime. She said she would. There you go.
Yoko is much maligned. She was really very good company. She’s quite intelligent. I was pleased to know her. People blame her for everything, and I think it is also that people were not too fond of Asians back then, too. That was coupled with all the alleged defects that she had. She was a woman who knew her own mind. She was pretty liberated for that time. I enjoyed her company.
John Lennon came to one of her exhibits. There was a ladder and something written on the ceiling. You had to climb the ladder to see what was written on this card. It was one word. Lennon was intrigued. He climbed the ladder, read the word and that was how they met.
Q. Did you live in the Village?
I lived on Minetta Lane. I shared an apartment with a young woman from Black Mountain. I lived all over the place, like West 11th Street. All rooms were $4 or $7 a month. They were just rooms.
I wrote my story “The Pipe” at 23 W. 11th Street. I did a lot of writing in these rooms, often where there was no heat. Sounds like “La Boehme.”