‘Couldn’t believe I was seeing it’: Home movies offer rare glimpse of gay life in St. Louis in 1945
Dozens of gay men gather for a pool party in a secluded spot in Hillsboro, Missouri. Home movies capture their easy affection and carefree dancing.
But they’re not recent videos. The movies were taken in 1945.
St. Louis filmmaker Geoff Story has begun weaving the films into a documentary, “Gay Home Movie.” It offers a rare glimpse into a largely invisible world, a time when same-sex relationships were not only looked at as immoral — they were illegal.
As a gay man, Story is fascinated by the brittle, flickering scenes that include a uniformed World War II soldier kissing another man.
“There was such a beauty in that moment,” Story said. “I kind of couldn’t believe I was seeing it.”
St. Louis’ ‘hairdresser to the stars’
Watch a clip from the 1945 home movies of gay men at a pool party.
Story stumbled upon the films in the mid-1990s, a half century after the pool party, at an estate sale. It was at the Lindell Boulevard home of the now-deceased Buddy Walton, widely known as St. Louis’ “hairdresser to the stars.”
From Eleanore Roosevelt to Ethel Merman, whenever celebrities and dignitaries came to town, they all went to Walton’s salon at The Chase, said Walton’s niece Susie Seagraves.
“Queens and presidents wives and movie stars — he was always around fancy places and fancy things,” Seagraves said. “He had a beautiful life.”
Walton and his partner Sam Micatto were known for their lavish gatherings by the pool on a property owned by the Micatto family. Story began learning about their world when he found Seagraves through a jagged journey to locate anyone who appears in the films, or their relatives. He and co-director Beth Prusaczyk have found several family members besides Seagraves but so far no living pool-party guests.
“We naively set out thinking, ‘Oh, these men might be in their mid-90s, they could still be alive,’ and that might be true,” Prusaczyk said. “But I don't I don't know if we'll actually find them.”
‘I kept my identity separate’
Richard Eaton talks about being a gay man in mid-century St. Louis, and what it was like to lead a double life.
Several people who aren’t in the home movies can testify to what it was like to be gay in mid-century St. Louis. Among those is Richard Eaton of Soulard, who grew up in the 1940s and '50s. He dated women publicly and men, on the side.
For years, Eaton, 78, couldn’t imagine having a partner, much less a husband. He and John Durnell were among the four couples married by St. Louis Mayor Slay in 2014, before same-sex marriage was legal.
In the '60s, Eaton remembers looking over his shoulder as he ventured to gay bars like Martin’s, near Union Station.
“There were a couple of places like the old speakeasies, Eaton said. “They would open the sliding door to see who was out there before they would open the door.”
But it wasn’t just going out to the bars; even the prospect of getting medical care was fraught with peril.
“I went to my new doctor, and one of the first questions he asked me, [was] have I ever had any sexual experiences with other men — and I lied,” Eaton said. “I didn’t know what he would do with the information.”
Eaton worried the doctor might call his employer, the Ladue School District, jeopardizing his job as guidance counselor at Ladue High School. In most of his 40 years there, Eaton led a double life. To keep track, he only went by “Richard” in his social circle.
“If somebody approached me and called me ‘Rich,’ I knew they were associated with the Ladue School District,” Eaton said. “And so that’s how I kept my identity separate.”
White, wealthy men
Something else that was kept separate: whites and people of color. Gay life, like all life in St. Louis, was segregated. The only African-Americans in the pool party footage are wearing white uniforms, serving food to the other men.
Such elaborate gatherings likely were denied to gay men who were not wealthy and white, Prusaczyk said.
“When I first watched the movie, I noticed that a number of the men have wedding rings on, and I thought … ‘These men have to go back to their lives where they can’t be as open and can’t be who they are,’” Prusaczyk said. “And that’s even more significant for African-American men, lower-class men.’”
Story agreed: “There is a sadness when I look at these films. And I think people who maybe were of less means had a harder time,” he said.
Bars were a refuge
The other people missing from the pool party were women. But 81-year-old Betty Neeley of Webster Groves says the lesbians were having their own clandestine gatherings.
Neeley’s basement is a treasure trove of albums, posters and other memorabilia. A poster-size photo of Neeley in the early 1950s, with her trademark leather jacket and impressive set of wheels, once hung in a local lesbian bar.
“That’s a 1952 K Model Harley Davidson motorcycle, sportster.” Neeley said. “I’m outside of a bar on South Broadway, and I’m older than 16, because I’m on the street.”
Bars like the Kit Kat Club, 2802 California Ave., felt like the safest places to get together with friends.
“People say, ‘Why didn’t you have a house party?’” Neeley said. “Oh, yeah, that’s great. Neighbors next door complain to your landlord you had 12 men-looking women in your house last night — next day I’d have to move.”
‘A real sweet pain’
Story has come to believe that it was mostly Walton behind the camera, filming the pool party in 1945. Though the footage is rare, the parties were frequent, according to relatives of the men who attended.
Story was in his 20s when he purchased the films in 1994. He marvels at how he’s aged, but the men in the home movies are eternally young.
“These men are still in their 20s in the sun, swimming, like they always will,” Story said. “There’s a real sweet pain, and when you watch it, there’s a happiness but you can’t believe it’s so long ago, and you can’t touch it — it’s gone.”
The haunting images are confirmation that gay men did live and love at a time when no one dared to even speak of same-sex attraction. Story is amazed that the men allowed a camera to capture home movies in this sacred space.
“I just knew that it was gold, it was something special,” Story said.
Story thinks his documentary could make it big: It’s caught the interest of Hollywood executive Brian Graden, who, in 1995, backed a film that launched the TV show, “South Park.” The project has “huge potential,” Graden said.
“It speaks to a wide array of people on a very deep level,” Graden said. “What are the chances someone would go to an estate sale and pick up these canisters of old footage? It’s almost like these men are trying to talk to us from beyond the grave.”
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL