My great-grandfather William (right) with his “friend”
LGBTQ Pride Month begins today. Throughout June, parades, celebrations, concerts and other events will be held all over the world to remember and honor the struggle that the LGBTQ community has faced as it continues to fight for equality, respect and the simple right to love another human being. I’m proud that Ramat Shalom will be hosting a Pride Celebration on Saturday evening, June 9 and will be walking together as a Jewish community in the Wilton Manors Pride March on June 16. I hope you will join us at one or both of these events. Please invite your family and friends.
As Pride Month begins, I want to share the story of my great-grandfather William. Some of you know that I’ve spent years researching my family tree and the many individuals who make up this tree. It’s fascinating to learn the stories of those who came before me. Often, it’s a challenge to piece these stories together. Historical documents, maybe a photo or two, if I’m lucky some family lore – these are some of the things that help me make the branches and leaves of my family tree come to life. My great-grandfather William’s story is one that will probably forever remain a mystery, but I feel the need to share what I do know about him 126 years after his birth.
I must let you know that I’ve struggled a great deal with whether or not I should share his story.
I struggled in part because I didn’t know my great-grandfather. He passed away when I was just a year old. Because of estrangements in my family, I really didn’t get the opportunity to learn much about him. Most of the information I have to share comes from a few photographs and letters I managed to salvage from a trash pile in my grandparents’ apartment many years ago, some information shared by my parents and government documents I found online. The story of my great-grandfather’s life – the story that I’ve put together is unquestionably lacking many pieces and the pieces I do have might be put together incorrectly by me. I might very well have my great-grandfather’s story all wrong and so I’ve struggled with whether or not I should share it.
I also struggled because if the story that I’ve pieced together is correct – and it might not be – there was clearly an effort by others – perhaps even by my great-grandfather – to keep this story off the family tree. There was perhaps shame and embarrassment associated with his story and, on some of the branches of my tree, there might still be shame, embarrassment and even anger associated with me sharing my version of my great-grandfather’s story – and so I’ve struggled with whether or not I should share it.
But, today is the first day of LGBTQ Pride Month and, if there is any truth to the story I’ve put together, I owe it to by great-grandfather to bring his story out of the shadows, tell it and let him know that I’m proud of the man he was.
As one of his many great-grandchildren, his story is mine to try to tell. I say this at the same time as I admit that I might very well be portraying his life incorrectly. I do so, however, not to insult his memory. What I’m about to share, for me, isn’t at all insulting. Rather, it’s my attempt to honor a man and what appears to be a relationship that were both misunderstood, pushed into the shadows and not given the respect that they deserved.
My great-grandfather was born in Poland in 1892. In 1916, he and his wife, my great-grandmother, Rachel, were married in Paris where my grandfather was born in 1917. William moved to the United States, leaving Rachel and his son in Paris until he was able to build a life for them here. Within a few years, he managed to bring his family to New York City where he and Rachel welcomed another child in 1923. But, their marriage would soon fall apart. In the early 1930’s, Rachel became a US citizen. In her petition for citizenship she stated that she was divorced from William and living with someone else. She would eventually remarry and build a beautiful life with her second husband.
While my great-grandfather maintained a residence in the New York City area, he did a lot of traveling and spent much time in South Beach in Miami. William was a tailor. He made ornate, silk clothing. As children, my sister and I had a rather flamboyant smoking jacket he’d made. We used it as a costume. I wish we’d treated it better! I don’t know what happened to it, but I do remember its bright colors and the delicate, soft fringe that hung off the rope that was used to tie the jacket closed.
William must’ve been successful as a tailor, as he was known for his money and, more importantly, his generosity. He surrounded himself with the finer things in life and gave people beautiful jewelry as gifts. While he was resented for divorcing his wife and leaving his children, the family didn’t resent his financial support. He truly gave of himself. I have an extremely powerful letter from William’s niece and nephews who survived the Holocaust. They wrote to him from the Displaced Person Camp at Bergen-Belsen in 1946, thanking him for his support and encouragement as they rebuilt their lives. William was truly a special man.
After his divorce, my great-grandfather was regularly photographed with a man I only know as “his friend” or his “roommate.” Unlike most of the other photographs of relatives that contain the names of the people captured written in small print on the back of the photos, William and his friend’s names are never listed. My great-grandfather’s friend appears in photographs spanning several years, at special occasions with other family members and, as in the photograph above, the two appear to share a very close connection as they grew older together. I do know that soon before his death, William and his friend visited my parents and me in our home in Maryland. Several years ago, I asked my grandfather about my great-grandfather’s “friend.” I got no information and it was clear that this was not a conversation that was to be had. When I asked my father if this “friend” could have been more than a friend, he was intrigued, but could provide no further information.
So, I’m left with the facts:
- My great-grandfather divorced my great-grandmother in the late 1920’s-early 1930’s – a time period when divorce was extremely rare.
- He enjoyed using his tailoring skills to make flamboyant, beautiful clothing that wouldn’t have been worn by just anyone.
- He spent time in South Beach where there was an emerging gay community.
- He appeared to have developed a special long-term relationship with an unnamed man. From the photographs I have, the two appear to have a very close connection.
- My family was not comfortable talking about William’s friend.
I’m left wondering, was my great-grandfather gay? Was his friend his partner? Was South Beach a place for him to get away from his family in New York that did not understand him, did not accept him, resented him for turning their world upside down? Were the ornate garments he created just one way for him to express a side of himself that was repressed by the times in which he found himself living? Maybe…or maybe I have it all wrong.
My great-grandfather died in 1971. Legend has it I giggled throughout his funeral. I went to visit his gravesite several years ago on Long Island. He’s buried all by himself. I often wonder what happened to his friend. Where is he buried? What was his name? Did he have a family? I wonder about the relationship that they shared. Was it just a friendship or was it something more? No matter what it was, it lasted a long time and there was a bond that was quite powerful between the two of them. And it makes me so sad to think that whatever it was that they shared, it’s not been honored – maybe because of shame, resentment, confusion and most certainly because whatever it was they shared just didn’t fit into the time period in which they found themselves.
Great-Grandpa William, I’m sorry that I don’t know more about what you and your friend shared. I’m sorry if the reason I don’t know more about your relationship is because you couldn’t openly tell your story. I’m sorry if the reason I don’t know more is because I’m just trying to read too much into your very complicated life. But, my gut tells me that you and your friend shared something very special…and I simply want to honor that something special as the world takes pride in the fact that today, Great-Grandpa William, while we still have work to do, you can love who you want to love and share this love openly. It’s my hope that your soul is at peace. And by your side, in a way that makes sense to you, is your friend, and together you know that your great-grandson is proud of you.