Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

James Gruber, last original Mattachine member, dies


James "John" Finley Gruber Jr. is shown in an undated photo.
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James "John" Finley Gruber Jr., the last surviving original member of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest homophile organizations in the United States, died peacefully in his home in Santa Clara on February 27. He was 82.

Mr. Gruber lived quietly in suburban Santa Clara, for a number of years his deteriorating health keeping him increasingly close to home. His dear friend Nicholas Pisca was at his side when he died.

Mr. Gruber was born in Des Moines, Iowa on August 21, 1928. A boy scout at 13, Mr. Gruber described himself as a "typical teenager" who enjoyed relations with both men and women, and considered himself bisexual. His unpublished manuscript, "The Deviant: an Illustrated Autobiography," chronicles his life across the 20th century year by year, including references to movies, books, songs, newspaper clippings, and images of current events, movie stars, and family photographs. His father was a vaudeville performer and music instructor who, in his search for work, moved the family to Los Angeles in 1936. Mr. Gruber frequently lamented the confining nature of the household dominated by his forceful mother and three significantly older sisters. Instantly enthralled with the glamour that Hollywood offered, the good-looking young man took acting, music, and dancing lessons.

In 1946, at the age of 18, Mr. Gruber enlisted in the U.S. Marines where, in close physical proximity to men for the first time, he, as he put it, "went bananas in the sex department." He enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers, even as he continued to have affairs with women, and was honorably discharged in 1949.

On the GI Bill, Gruber majored in English literature at Occidental College and in 1950 met Christopher Isherwood, who was to become a close friend and role model.

"Chris was the man I aspired to be," Mr. Gruber once said.

Isherwood introduced Mr. Gruber to W.H. Auden, who was impressed that Mr. Gruber had read his work. Isherwood also introduced Mr. Gruber to his landlady, Evelyn Hooker, a therapist and professor of psychiatry at UCLA. Hooker's pioneering research on gay men contributed to a change in the attitudes of the psychological community towards homosexuality, leading to the American Psychiatric Association's 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its handbook of disorders, and an increased acceptance by society at large.

Isherwood, working for various Hollywood studios, introduced Mr. Gruber into the heady world of Hollywood, for example inviting him to be his date on opening night of the play I am a Camera , based on his novel The Berlin Stories . He met Jayne Mansfield, who "made me tingle in the swimsuit area," and remembered "watching Marilyn Monroe on a movie set one summer day reading War and Peace hidden behind a propped-up comic book."

In April 1951, primarily as a social adventure, Mr. Gruber and his boyfriend Konrad "Steve" Stevens became the last new members of the Mattachine Society. Mr. Gruber later relived the atmosphere of the meetings, "All of us had known a whole lifetime of not talking, or repression. Just the freedom to open up ... really, that's what it was all about. We had found a sense of belonging, of camaraderie, of openness in an atmosphere of tension and distrust. ... Such a great deal of it was a social climate. A family feeling came out of it, a nonsexual emphasis. ... It was a brand-new idea."

Mr. Gruber embraced his "newly chosen family," even if he did not fully endorse its communist underpinnings.

Mr. Gruber often recounted how the sole extant image of the Mattachine founding members came to be. At a Christmas party Mr. Gruber, clandestinely holding a camera, nonchalantly walked across the room and midway surreptitiously snapped the photo. Harry Hay heard the click and became incensed, because the meetings were very covert and it was extremely dangerous to identify members. Mr. Gruber reassured him that there was no film in the camera. The famous photograph features Stevens, Dale Jenning, Hay, Rudi Gernreich, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, Stan Witt, and Paul Bernard.

Mr. Gruber worked at KECA radio, created a motorcycle club called the Satyrs, and dated both men and women. He eventually became disillusioned with his life. "I can't talk to Harry Hay anymore," Mr. Gruber told Isherwood. "Harry doesn't have conversations. He delivers lectures while I sit and listen."

Repeated trips to San Francisco in the late 1950s motivated Mr. Gruber to say goodbye to Los Angeles, and in 1960 he moved to Palo Alto, renaming himself John. "It was the most effective way I could find to escape Mom's ceaseless calling for 'Jimmy!' inside my head."

He continued to pursue his career as a teacher at Foothill College and San Francisco State University, teaching and/or tutoring at Cubberly High School, Milpitas High School, de Anza College and other schools, interrupted by a short stint at Memorex. "I loved teaching. I fell in love with every kid I ever met."

He flew to LA frequently to see old friends, while simultaneously establishing a new life in the Bay Area. In 1972 he sold a Victorian in San Francisco, to buy a fixer-upper in Palo Alto, eventually purchasing a suburban house with a former student. He enjoyed close friendships with a number of men, considering them his surrogate brothers or sons.

Identifying himself as "an unmarried alcoholic bisexual teacher," he met Beth Erickson, who became a lifelong friend, eventually encouraging him to attend his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 1976. Newly sober, he "set out to become a successful novelist like my mentor."

On November 12, 1998, the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality in Los Angeles bestowed Mr. Gruber a Public Service Award as a "pioneer and barrier breaker" in organizing the gay and lesbian community. In 2000, Mr. Gruber participated in a panel discussion at the San Francisco Public Library "Harry Hay and the Founding of the Mattachine Society: a 50th Anniversary Celebration," and in 2006 donated his personal papers to the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library.

"I will always remember John fondly, as the self-described gargoyle on the cathedral of the Mattachine, no pushover. He was a sweet and generous man," said gay historian Stuart Timmons, who had interviewed Mr. Gruber for the seminal books The Trouble with Harry Hay and Gay LA.

Mr. Gruber appears in the 2001 documentary Hope Along the Wind: the Life of Harry Hay directed by Eric Slade, who commented, "He was a wonderful man, I so enjoyed knowing him. I talked to him just a month or so ago. His famous Mattachine Society Christmas tree photo was just used in a book on gay liberation. I sent him a copy of the book and we talked about it. I'd hoped to see him on my upcoming visit. Truly the end of an era."

A memorial service will be held from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 26, at the Santa Clara American Legion, 2120 Walsh Avenue in Santa Clara. Following the service there will be a celebration of Mr. Gruber's life and a potluck-style meal.

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