Visiting with The Princess of Castro Street

Last March 2017 I went to visit with The Princess and lemme tell’ya she ain’t no lady! She’d like you to believe that she’s not even very nice – but that is a pose that like medieval armor creaks from age. Beneath his visor, rusted by steam from the contained tears he refuses to shed, too proud to admit defeat and let go of the beautiful fallen men of Gay San Francisco, Gay Hawaii and the world.

Photo by Tommy Khol
HRH at the Hula Palace Reunion, 2006 SF, with the actual prototype for the wings from first San Francisco production of Angels in America.

Le Roy, aka The Princess has retired to his cabin in the sky in the gold country of Sonora, Northern California. Lee’s new home is the prize at the end of the rainbow for a weary wonderer. It is a delightful place of comfort, peace and quiet – that is until Her Highness lets out a roar of defiance against the many injustices suffered around the world by AIDS, Trump, or what have you!

Photo by Iory Allison
The Cabin in the sky, home sweet home

Photo by Iory Allison
The Princess’ Deck at the Rainbow Cabin. Notice the parade of dinosaurs on the railing.

In his mountain refuge, Lee is mulling over the past several decades of train wrecks wrought by the AIDS pandemic that struck down so many of the boys we used to play with in San Francisco in the 70’s, and for Lee, Hawaii in the 80’s as well as his home town of Los Angeles in the 90’s.

Photo by Iory Allison
A corner of the entry-way garden featuring old bowling balls, various shells and a skull, grim reminder of the way of all flesh

Lee was left holding a heavy bag of tricks, detritus from lives cut short – even in bucolic Hawaii men fell like the setting sun being called to renewal, leaving a silence that Lee would eventually fill with the records of their lives as witnessed in the art and artifacts produced by his large circle of friends and colleagues.

Photo by Iory Allison
A confusion of memories accumulating all too rapidly

Lee has always been a natural archivist preserving the signs of the times in posters, letters, photos, sculptures and general ephemera from the last four decades. These collections stemmed from his years as an arts activist, gallery director and entertainment entrepreneur, especially but not limited to the Hula Palace Salon, San Francisco. The Pride Foundation, Top Floor Gallery, San Francisco and the Kauai Mokihana festival contemporary Hawaiian Arts, the largest cultural festival in the Pacific. What started out as a collection celebrating our time in space evolved into a repository of dreams gone by and lives lived to the fullest in the arms of many lovers, men who loved men and were proud to say so.

Photo by Iory Allison
A small corner of the collection in L A before Lee’s move to Sonora

As the years passed all this tragedy took its toll, weighing Lee down with the heavy responsibility to disperse his collections now gathered at his cabin in Sonora. The ONE Archives Foundation, Gay history collections at the University of Southern California, was fitfully developing over the last decades as did other Gay archives around the country. Lee carefully monitored the inevitable dramas, waited and helped work to make ONE a reliable academic archive where he felt our history would be safe and easily accessible to the scholarly and general public.

Photo by Iory Allison
The Princess as a Puritan judge in “The Salem Witch Trials,” NYC

But the task of preparing all the art and artifacts destined for ONE with all the reliving of lost loved ones was a daunting and crippling task. As luck would have it, Lee and I were in NYC in the fall of 2016 for the performance of the “Witches of Salem” at the Judson Memorial Church. Lee was playing the role of a puritan judge, go figure, I would ’a pegged him as one on the accused witches, but hey, “who am I to judge” this was Rumi’s show. Anyway, I heard Lee’s pain and I volunteered to help with the cataloging of his collections going to ONE.

40th birthday party, roof deck of painter Jim Campbell in San Francisco, North Beach 1988

So, suitcase and camera in hand, off I went off to Sonora to patch a wound, twist a tourniquet and hope the blood of many men past and now dying would not drown us in sorrow. Over the space of two weeks we were able to put order to the loose pages of lives we never thought would end and now perhaps they won’t altogether disappear.

Blue Grass, HRH and Iory, S F mid 70’2 at the Hula Palace

PS, It has not been easy for me to report about my time with Le Roy this spring. I had no idea how overwhelmed I would be by the ghosts of the past rocketing out from dusty boxes and back into the light. It seems like only yesterday Lee Lee and I were riding the 45 Van Ness trolley, his myriad of bangle bracelets making cheerful jingles as he desperately gripped the leather trolley strap trying not to collapse from laughter, as we realize we were both cruising the same man who wore with pride his big hard-on beneath tight jeans – but that was way back in San Francisco of the early 70’s.

Digital collage by Iory Allison
The Apotheosis of the Princess Le Roy – Keep on truckin’!

Trans-continental interview via email between Iory Allison and The Princess of Castro Street, AKA, Leroy Mentley

Photo by Terry Perez
HRH at the Princess of Argyle’s retreat in Lagunitas, Forest Knolls.

IA: When did you first start collecting Gay art and history material?

HRH: I learned very young from Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, that ‘there are no insignificant pieces of paper’. I started collecting in the 60’s with rock & political art from peace demonstrations, Human Be-In’s and The Fillmore Ballroom!

In 1968 I was the President of the Young Americans for Robert Kennedy at East Los Angeles City College. I helped on the campaign and collected all the political artifacts I could. I was present at the night that Kennedy won the California Primary and I collected papers from the podium which I still have. A few minutes later he was shot and murdered. This terrible moment changed my life.

I finished college and moved to San Francisco at the request of Martin Worman from the Cockettes. I have all their posters signed by Todd Trexler and other personal ephemera from the Cockettes and Angels of light shows.

I moved into the Hula Palace at 590 Castro Street and met and worked for Harvey Milk who lived across the street next to his camera store. I, of course, collected a lot of material from those days.

Photo by Tommy Khol
HRH in His Garden on Kauai, Rainbow Hat by Aunty B.

IA: What was your original intent with these materials? Is your collection held together in one group or dispersed throughout the archive?

HRH: The materials I have donated are dispersed throughout the archives by subject, name and/or organization and in my own name. Like Materials from Ken Dickmann on Gay Theatre. I have donated materials on the Cockettes, Angels of Light, Gay Men’s Theatre Collective, Theatre Rhinoceros, Gay Men’s Choir, Lilith, The Goodman Building, The Hula Palace Salons, Pride Foundation, Eureka/Noe Valley Artist Coalition, and Top Floor Gallery.  I have also collected material from individual Gay artists and activists worldwide.

My collections include materials on political figures, like Harry Hay, Mattachine Society Elders, Harvey Milk, Paul Hardman, George Moscone. Dan White and Anita Bryant have their own files. I collected every edition of the San Francisco Chronicle for weeks after the assassinations since the story changed by the hour. They are now available for research at ONE.

Today I continue donating materials to ONE Archive at USC. I met some of the Mattachine Society Elders in the late 60’s, including Morris Knight, Steve Berman and Martin Rice when we founded the Frist Gay Student Union in the California State University System at Long Beach. Don Kilhefner & Jim Kepner started a Gay library from collected materials from their travels and other community projects, storing them in their homes, garages and car trunks. I stayed in touch with Jim and donated materials from my travels and personal collections. Finally they found a home when USC gave them an old fraternity house to store their collections. I have given hundreds  of boxes to the library and archives. ONE is the largest collection of Gay Materials in the world. It is a fun and great place to visit in Los Angeles.

Photo by Ken Dickman
HRH at the opening night “M Butterfly.” Beverly Hills, CA.

IA: How does an individual access the material in One Archive?

HRH: On the internet at located at 909 Adams Boulevard, Los Angeles 90007. The archives are administered by USC at the prestigious Doheny Library. The material is being digitized as quickly as possible by professional paid staff, plus student and community volunteers who donate time to log and categorize donations. ONE also maintains an art gallery in West Hollywood at 9007 Melrose Avenue for exhibitions and readings. I advise every one interested to Get On Their Mailing List!

IA: What is the value of Gay art and history?

When I was a Young GURL I discovered Gay artists, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan etc. whose stories gave me insight and hope.

Now our stories will be seen by researchers in the future who will write books, poems, master thesis of our time and how we moved the agenda for full equality along. From the seriousness of civil rights, AIDS activism to the silliness and struggles of our lives portrayed in our theatre, photography, film, written and visual arts.

Photo by Pamela Goodlow
HRH with Mrs. Coretta Scott King at The Venetian Hotel for a speech to AARP.

IA: Who do you intend to share your collections with?

HRH: The world! It excites me every time I see a demonstration somewhere in the world for Human Rights where a Rainbow Flag pops up in the crowd. I thank Lynn Segerblom for her rainbow design and Gilbert Baker for his endless promotion of the flags that were originally made at The TOP Floor Gallery by the  Eureka/Noe Valley Artists Coalition at the 330 Grove Pride Gay Center.

Painting by Jim Campbell The Gay Pride Center at 330 Grove Street, S F

IA: Why did you choose to donate to The One Archive Institute?

HRH: I guess because I grew up in East Los Angeles and had met the founders early on and appreciated their commitment to the Gay Community. However I do donate to other archives, duplicates and copies. I found it profound that the day ONE Archive officially opened its doors at USC was the anniversary of NAZI burning down the Gay Center in Berlin. That taught me it is important not to have everything in one place or just on-line. Our struggle is not over.

IA: What are the important Gay Archives in the USA?

HRH: New York City Library and the Library of Lincoln Center have collections from Cockette Martin Worman and Cockette Rumi Missabu. Other archives can be found in Chicago, Kentucky, Boston, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Many cities now have Gay centers, museums, libraries and galleries. I am sure there are many others big and small. I know there are collections at city libraries, colleges and universities like UCLA and California State College at Northridge. Many schools now have departments dedicated to research and education for sexual minorities. I encourage everyone to collect and share their treasures and stories where ever they can.

HRH & Photographer Dan Nicoletta

IA: Have all of the individuals in your collection passed on or are some still living?

HRH: We have lost many Angels, but some of us have survived and still creating new art, new politics, books, etc., I just donated Dan Nicoletta’s new book of photography “Faggots Are Fantastic” to ONE. The good news is that young activist and artists are creating new movement and exciting art today.

The Gay Movement is alive and brings new issues into mainstream culture every day. I currently donate materials as I find them; I am not waiting until I am dead to pass information and art on to the archives. Put ONE and your local archives on your mailing list! Why wait?

Photo by Dan Nicoletta
Hula Palace Salon & Cockette Reunion, 2003 SF, with Fans (one cute and two folding)

IA: Is it “OK” for an individual to donate their own historical and artistic material to an archive or is that just an ego trip?

HRH: Of course, it is an ego trip. All Queens want to be famous, even though I am just a Princess. Yet I believe it’s an obligation to the future. It’s not just your ego you are polishing!

IA: What is the ultimate meaning of the AIDS pandemic to you personally?

HRH: It is horribly overwhelming; by 1984 when I stopped counting I had lost over 500 friends, associates and lovers. Not to mention Gay Bashing deaths and assassinations. Every time I open a box I rescued from a friend’s home or dumpster in the street, I find a life well lived filled with memories and lost joy.

On the other hand, adversity has its benefits and brought out the best in the community and eventually the nation. We still have problems because the pandemic is not over. We need a renewed effort worldwide. For many in power, diseases like this, kill all the right people. In 2017 we have become complacent with our first world HIV treatments and have neglected everyone else around the world. Nothing is perfect but we can be so willfully ignorant when the boot is not dropped at our own door. Let me show you a World AIDS Day Facebook posting of the Gay Men’s Choir to see the impact AIDS has had.

IA: How have you coped with the loss of so many lovers and friends?

HRH: I was eating at a famous Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles “El Coyote” when I was informed my sweetheart Ron had just died, I did not stop eating till I gained his body weight. If I had done drugs or alcohol I’d be dead.

I am amazed, I am alive, 1. How, was I not infected? 2. as the emotional impact of losing one or two friends a week turned into one or two or five a day. Then Divine passed, although Divine did not die with HIV, the other four that day did. I was living on the beach on Kauai and can’t say how many days I wanted to slip into the ocean and keep on swimming out to join the party on the other side. Instead I became an activist creating END/AIDS my version of ACT Up on Kauai. It stands for Educational Net Work Dialoging AIDS. It seemed like I was the only one OUT on Kauai. It was then I reunited with my old friend Martin Rice who had worked on the Cal/State Gay Student Union. With his guidance we created Kauai’s first Gay Organization, Lambda Aloha. This led us to the statewide campaign for Same Sex Marriage. With this new energy and two wonderful men, Derick Tomlin and Bill Human we created Malamapono Kauai’s AIDS Project, changing the entire political and cultural environment on the island. I became the Hawaii State Public Health Educator for the island which placed me on the Governor’s Committee on AIDS and eventually i went to Washington D.C. to Chair the National Community Constituency Group at the NIH which was President Bill Clinton’s civilian review board for all clinical studies into HIV AIDS. Malamapono means ‘many blessings’ in Hawaiian. They are all gone now.

On a personal note, I started writing a book starting with silly Hula Palace stories, they made me laugh and then I realized if I didn’t write and preserve the memories of my loved ones both political and cultural, their lives would never be known. It is important to me to say their names. I felt I owed them that effort since I survived and felt so much guilt. I had never considered myself a writer, but I had stories and with the help of many friends, 30 years later I was able to publish “The Princess of Castro Street.”

Nathan Kalama, Buffy St. Marie with Lee, then curator of  Kauai Museum

IA: What is the value of art within the pain of life?

HRH: My first time visiting MOMA in New York 1971, I walked in and immediately I saw Picasso’s “Guernica.” It was painfully spellbinding. As I walked up the stairs I came across Monet’s Water Lilies. A well placed bench caught me as I became weak in the knees, collapsed and sobbed like a baby.  Art & good curating is like that!

Art if true and honest is a reflection of the inner soul of an artist and it will resonate with your own soul; it is a personal gift to those who can see beneath the paint, the words, lyrics, make-up, costumes and celluloid images. Everything else is decoration.

One such story of resonance: I was on my way to Honolulu to attend the Hawaii Governor’s Commission on HIV/AIDS on which I served. A friend called and asked me to dinner, afterwards, he invited me to his home for conversation plus wine and because he had a gift for me. He said he had had a dream that he was to give me a work of art and then he unveiled a gold flaked painting encrusted with black pearls, an icon of Saint Anthony. I asked him where he found the beautiful icon, he said from someone I probably did not know on Kauai named Justin. Justin was my long time sweetheart.

IA: Is the pursuit of creating art worth the effort and struggle?

HRH: Without art and love there is no reason to be alive!

Photo by Dan Nicoletta
HRH at Hindu Festival of Flowers, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco 1973