Sad news. I’m sorry to have to tell you that Larry Townsend died the day before yesterday, July 29th, 2008, from a combination of viral pneumonia and a highly infectious lung problem. His friend Jack Fritscher, founding editor of Drummer Magazine in 1975, sent me the following Larry-approved biography which appeared in the recently published (June, 2008) leather-heritage book, Gay San Francisco: Eyewitness Drummer, for which Larry provided an “Eyewitness Introduction,” his last published writing:
“Larry Townsend was the pseudonymous author of dozens of books including Run Little Leather Boy (1970) and The Leatherman’s Handbook (1972) at pioneer erotic presses such as Greenleaf Classics and the Other Traveler imprint of Olympia Press. Growing up as a teenager of Swiss-German extraction in Los Angeles a few houses from Noel Coward and Irene Dunne, he ate cookies with his neighbor Laura Hope Crews who was Aunt Pittypat in Gone with the Wind. He attended the prestigious Peddie School, and was stationed as Staff Sergeant in charge of NCOIC Operations of Air Intelligence Squadrons for nearly five years with the US Air Force in Germany (1950-1954). Completing his tour of duty, he entered into the 1950s underground of the LA leather scene where he and Montgomery Clift shared a lover. With his degree in industrial psychology from UCLA (1957), he worked in the private sector and as a probation officer with the Forestry Service. He began his pioneering activism in the politics of gay liberation in the early 1960s. In 1972, as president of the ‘Homophile Effort for Legal Protection’ which had been founded in 1969 to defend gays during and after arrests, he led a group in founding the H.E.L.P. Newsletter, the forebear of Drummer (1975). As a writer and photographer, he was an essential eyewitness of the drama and salon around Drummer in which his novels were often excerpted. His signature “Leather Notebook” column appeared in Drummer for twelve years beginning in 1980, and continued in Honcho to Spring 2008. His last novel, TimeMasters, was published April 2008.”
I myself first met Larry on a trip to California with the videographer Bob Jones in 1992. Bob and Larry had become good friends, and before we all met for dinner one evening Bob told me Larry was disgruntled that, for all his fame, no one had ever actually done an interview with him. Larry was something of a hero of mine, his novel Run Little Leather Boy, which I’d picked up in a dirty bookstore in San Francisco in the early 1970s, had more or less given me permission to pursue my own bondage fantasies without thinking I was crazy, so I immediately said I’d be happy to interview him for Bound & Gagged, though B&G had never been an interview-style publication. I did the interview, and several months after it was published Larry started writing a regular column for Bound & Gagged, which continued until we ceased publication in June, 2005.
Let me reprint here the bulk of that interview, which appeared in Issue 32 (January/February 1993):
Are you from L.A. originally?
I was born in New York, because my parents were there on my father's business for a few months, and I went to an Eastern prep school for a while—that was reflected in a couple of my stories. But basically I grew up out here. I went to high school and college here.
Tell me about your first awareness of bondage and SM.
I can remember when I was a pre-schooler seeing various characters tied up in the funny papers, and getting aroused when I found myself in bed at night thinking back on it. The concept of it was exciting.
When did you have your earliest actual experiences?
I really didn't do very much until after high school. In prep school we used to get together after lights out and play strip poker. When you lost what little clothes you had to start with, usually your two pajama pieces and maybe a jock strap, you had to play for your body, and being somewhat imaginative though very young we started tying ropes around each others' dicks. If you lost again you had to keep the rope on for a whole day, even if you went to the showers in the gym.
What happened after high school?
I went kind of wild. I didn't get into bondage and SM right away because back in the fifties and even into the early sixties it was hard to find a partner. But of course the fantasies were there, the fantasies were there long before I actually started having sex on a regular basis with other guys. There were a few little things along the way where I had an opportunity to play the game and I did.
What's your biggest turn on?
Bondage, and a reasonable amount of whipping. That's really my scene.
Are you a top by preference?
I've played both and I've enjoyed both. As I've gotten older, I've been less and less interested in being bottom.
What made you decide to become a spokesman, if you will, for a bondage/SM way of life?
I think the roots go back to when I was in the Air Force. I had about a year of college and then went into the service because of the Korean War. I was lucky in that I was transferred to an Air Force Intelligence unit in Germany, I lived on the German economy for three years and because I was in intelligence I wasn't wearing a uniform. I was stationed in the British Zone in Essen, which is sort of the Pittsburgh of Germany. There were only thirteen of us Americans in town. We had to be really circumspect in what we did because we stuck out like sore thumbs. Now along with this group of airmen, we had half a dozen of what were called Department of the Air Force (DAF) civilians and one of these was a man who had been a Fulbright scholar and had graduated from Cambridge through the Fulbright process. He was a very brilliant guy and very much of a bisexual although he and I never, never had a really open discussion of our own sexuality. I was aware of what his situation was and I think he suspected mine but because of being in the service and having a lot of things I wanted to do after the service, I wasn't willing to take any chances. In fact, my transfer into this particular outfit had come about because there was a homosexual scandal that had resulted in several people being removed from the unit.
So this man's influence was mainly intellectual?
Yes, Al put me on to a lot of written material which I would never have seen otherwise. He started me off with "The City and the Pillar" and introduced me to a lot of historical things where not necessarily overtly sexual sado-masochism was taking place but the implication was there. I was really in a backwater as far as the availability of sexual partners was concerned, so I did a lot of reading. It was a very formative time for me. And I think that that's when I started to have a really conscious desire to involve myself with SM, though not necessarily as Ivan the Terrible did (laughs).
You returned to college after the service?
Yes, to UCLA. And suddenly I had the availability of all kinds of men and boys. That's when I really started my sexual activities, but I was twenty-four, twenty-five by then. And I was still very much in the closet as far as anything was concerned. I had come out of the Air Force with a top secret security clearance, I was studying psychology. I became a probation officer and then I went on to do industrial psychology with an outfit out here that was doing man-machine system training for the Air Force. I had a top secret clearance again so I couldn't play openly, not in those days. I think you could probably get away with it now, but you couldn't then.
My readers wouldn't forgive me if I didn't ask this question: What was it like being a probation officer? Were these older prisoners?
No, they were kids. I was working with juveniles, between sixteen and eighteen years old. It wasn't that different from being a sergeant in the Air Force; you had these kids and you had to supervise and counsel them and tell them what to do. There were a few that were very pretty and that you'd think you'd love to take home, but of course there was nothing you could do about that so you didn't do it. I worked in a juvenile camp. I'd go up there and behave myself for three days and then I'd be off and do whatever I wanted for four. That sort of took care of me. I wasn't drooling over the young men who were in my charge.
So you can't tell me any interesting stories of fascinating things going on in these camps?
No. That sort of thing's wonderful for imaginative literary endeavors but not very much ever goes on in custodial facilities where juveniles are involved, because the kids are never out of your sight.
Which brings us to your imaginative literary endeavors.
Well, before I wrote the kind of things you're interested in, I wrote a number of scenarios of Walt Disney comic books, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. I also did a lot of professional writing, particularly about industrial psychology situations. But I always had wanted to write fiction, and there were a couple of people who were writing the sort of thing I wanted to do. Dirk Vanden was one, a very good writer. I don't know what happened to him. And there were a couple of other people who had some marginally interesting bondage in their stories, but I don't think they were really into it like he was. Of course Phil Andros was writing before I was, but I don't think he was writing SM. I think that the SM-type things he's published were written later. In any case, when I saw these books were beginning to come on the market, I just felt that's exactly what I want to write. So I tried it and the first one I sent in sold, so I kept doing it and when I reached the point where I was selling very regularly and I had confidence in the fact that I could continue to sell, I wanted to do it full time. At that time I was on the verge of going into gay liberation movement activities and I wasn't working for anyplace where I needed a security clearance anymore. I just said well, the hell with it, I'm going to be what I want to be. Fred and I were together by then and he had a regular job and we owned this house, we didn't owe any money, so I decided to give it a try.
It didn't cause any probems with your family for you?
My father was dead by then, and my mother just never really knew. I mean she knew, but we never discussed it. Fred and I always had dinner with Mother on Sundays. She didn't know about the S&M business but certainly she was aware that I was gay. The only other family member I had to worry about was my sister and I just told her. She knew, and as my nieces and nephew grew up they just accepted the situation for what it was. I never really had any problems with family.
Coming from my background, it's hard for me to believe people can have it that easy.
I never had a problem leading a double life. I never really had any guilt about it because I never felt I was doing anything wrong. If anything, I felt the other way. If somebody criticized me for it even before I was involved with actual movement activities, I got very incensed. It wasn't that I was afraid; it was simply that I felt they were intruding on my life space. They had no business telling me what I could do sexually or any other way as long as I wasn't hurting them.
So many people have such great conflicts about coming out, first about coming out gay, and then, often even harder, I think, about coming out as a member of our sexual sub-group. I get this from my readers all the time, many of whom can't imagine ever letting their best friends—who are gay!— know what they're really into.
I went through a sort of didactic therapy at one point; if you're going to counsel other people you have to get counseled yourself. This means that whatever problems you have, you're at least marginally aware that they exist so you don't transfer them onto your client or blame him for the problems that you have yourself. The psychiatrist I did this with accused me of being nihilistic (laughs) because, he said to me, "You don't have any conscience at all." And I said, "Of course I have a conscience, I mean I won't steal from somebody, but I have no guilt over my own sexual behavior." He eventually admitted that he had enough problems with his own sexual identity (laughs) that he found it hard to accept my not having any problems at all. But I don't, and I really don't have any problems with anybody else's sexual identity as long as whatever he's doing isn't infringing on somebody else's rights. I mean, I have no sympathy for rapists, and I have no sympathy for someone who tortures a person who doesn't want to be tortured, but beyond this, whatever your bag is, whether you're male or female and whether you're oriented toward men or women, you should be absolutely free to do whatever the hell you want to do with a willing partner.
I think many people nowadays will agree with what you're saying.
Yes, but I was saying this in the fifties.
What was the leather/bondage/SM community like back then, and even into the late sixties, when you were starting to write? Was there any "community" to speak of? How did it evolve?
I think there were people playing these games right along, but they were onesies, twosies for a long time. You found one guy and got it on with him and maybe expanded whatever you'd done before, but beyond this, it was very difficult and very dangerous. The problem was looking for partners. What began to happen was the motorcycle clubs became the cover for meeting people.
When was this?
I'd say in the late fifties. At least I was aware of it then. It may have been going on before. I think it evolved in the burgeoning gay culture which was beginning to establish itself. Guys who were interested in bondage and S&M found a perfect cover in the motorcycle clubs, because they wore leather and boots and they were butch looking if nothing else. The clubs could organize and carry on their activities under the auspices of the American Motorcycle Association. They could go on runs, on weekends in the woods, where they were away from the rest of society; they could do whatever the hell they wanted to do. I'm not saying that all the motorcycle guys, even the gay ones, were necessarily into S&M, but they were tolerant of it. And for maybe ten years this sort of thing became the center of an S&M exchange and going to motorcycle club meetings put you in contact with other people who may well have been interested in the same things you were sexually. At any rate, that's where it started for me. That's where I first met people who were actively involved in SM activities and had a little space in their house, whether it was a full playroom or just a closet that you opened up where there was stuff hanging on the back of the door. Also, it was in the fifties that you start getting people wearing their keys on the left or on the right, or a colored hankie in the back pocket. They didn't have this proliferation of NBC colored nonsense that they have now. But they had a black hankie that meant you were into S&M and a red hankie that meant you were into fist fucking, and a yellow one that meant you were into piss. Wearing those hankies identified you and not everybody knew what it meant, but if you were involved in it yourself you did know. So you could wear a pair of Levis with a wide leather belt and keys hanging from right or left and go into just a regular bar and if there was somebody there who was into the scene he could approach you and you could get it on. It isn't as important anymore, it's even gotten silly. I mean they've gone to fine grades now, like blue teal for people who like to suck uncircumsized cock while they're stoned, things like that.
Well we have gray for bondage. I don't bother about the rest. As for being stoned, I advise against it myself. What are your feelings about the use of mind-altering substances in a bondage or S&M scene?
I don't see any great harm in using a small amount of grass in a scene, particularly for a bottom novice starting off apprehensive and nervous. I think it helps some to relax. I really don't see a great deal of harm in amyl, either, in small doses, and used in a scene that may take place once or twice a week. I think it can be destructive if a kid's at a disco with an inhaler hanging around his neck and he's sniffing it every few minutes for hours on end and he does it several times a week for a long time. I don't think that limited use of grass or amyl are any more destructive than a responsible use of alcohol. On the other hand, I am adamant about dope, I absolutely will not condone the use of any kind of heavy narcotic at all.
Have you had any particularly bad experience with people freaking out?
I remember one very bad experience I myself had with grass in San Francisco. I was invited to a party where the guests were connoisseurs of marijuana, discussing the different types as if they were vintages of fine wines. I was taking a little hit here and a little hit there but being careful because I was going off to the Glory Holes that night—this was before AIDS. What I didn't realize was that they'd baked the stuff into the dessert. I should have known they were Alice B. Toklas brownies, but I didn't, and no one warned me, and I'm addicted to chocolate. Anyhow, when I got to the Glory Holes I found myself holding on to the wall because the whole room was expanding and contracting and the lights were doing strange things. I managed to get myself into a booth and close the door, and it took me almost an hour to finally get some sense of equilibrium back. It frightened me because I was out of control. I think that's one of the things that frightens me more than anything else, to be out of control.
Then how do you feel about being out of control as a bottom?
I think there's a lot of difference between abandoning control consciously in an SM relationship and abandoning control to an artificial substance which is rendering your brain and your body incapable of taking care of itself. Being a bottom with somebody who knows what he's doing is not frightening at all.
There are a lot of people who hold that it's the bottom who controls the scene.
I think that in probably 75-80% of the interactions, the bottom is in control, because he tells the top what his limits are, what he wants to do, and unless you've got him gagged so he can't say anything he's going to tell you all the way through the session, please don't do that, or do more of that.
All the more reason to gag him, I say.
Well, that's true, but then, you know, we've indoctrinated our tops to a point where they're afraid to do this sometimes. They don't want to take over because they're afraid that if they do they might do some damage or they won't come out with an "A" on their report card from some bottom. And a lot of times the bottoms tend to be more experienced than the tops.
Talking of tops and bottoms brings us to talk of slaves and masters. Hasn't there been something of a controversy going on in your Drummer column about that? I know you have some very strong views on the subject.
Well, I get a little annoyed when I get a letter from somebody who says, in effect, "I'm a slave, but I can't get my Master to do what I want him to do." And I think, well, you little shit, you're not a slave, you're a bottom and you're a pushy bottom. A slave is somebody who is owned, he doesn't have any rights; he has surrendered his rights to another person. There aren't very many people who'll do this, so if you find a real slave you've got a real jewel. I think that for someone to be a slave is a noble status, it's a status that these sniveling little bums haven't earned and they have no more right to be calling themselves slaves than some guy who's never been a bottom himself and is going around whipping people without really knowing what it feels like can claim to be a proper top. There is a status that has to be earned in this, the idea of earning your leathers. And we have gotten to a point now where there are so many people involved in the scene who don't really know what they're doing and who really aren't fully involved with it. They like the title of Top, but, like the title of slave, they haven't earned it. It bugs me, so I've gotten into controversy with people about it because, well, for a variety of reasons people disagree with me, which they're perfectly entitled to do. I have my standards, they have theirs (laughs).
The term "Earning your leathers," has such a Larry Townsend sound to it…
It wasn't originally my idea, but what I was taught when I began.
Who taught you?
No one that you would know.
I'm not looking for famous names.
There were several people, if you read "Leather Ad — M."
That's to some extent autobiographical. The concept of earning your leather is… Sure, you can go out and buy leather and put it on and wear it out in the street, but you can also go to an Army Navy store and buy a Congressional Medal of Honor and stick it on your shirt. But you haven't earned it. I think if you're really going to get into the scene, whether it's bondage or whether it's SM or whatever, you have to get with somebody who knows what he's doing, and let him do it to you before you go out and try doing it to somebody else. Not only are you apt to hurt somebody by not knowing what you're doing, but you're never going to do as good a job. If a top says, "I've always been a top, I've never been a bottom," he may be very good, but if he had the experience on the other end, he'd be better. That's the way it is.
When I started the New York Bondage Club I was always a little astonished at how few of our members were actually "into leather."
I think leather is sort of a euphemism. It doesn't necessarily mean that you're into leather. I know a lot of people who are very active in SM and bondage who don't wear leather. But I think it's perfectly legitimate to say these people belong to the leather community. A number of years ago, moreso than today, perhaps, you might not want to say, "I'm into bondage," but you could say, "I'm into leather." It's a much more innocuous term. The more closeted you are I suppose the more you'd refer to yourself as being involved in leather rather than bondage or whatever else. The fact that you might really liked to be stripped down and pissed on still falls in that general category of all those wonderful things that go with people hooked on leather.