by Alexander Cheves
When I was searching for stories about the Saint, I reached out to Eric Cervini, a young Harvard-and Cambridge-trained historian who wrote The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America, published last June and already a New York Times best-seller. Based on firsthand accounts, declassified FBI records, and forty thousand personal documents, the book is a secret history of the fight for gay rights that began a generation before Stonewall. I asked Cervini if he knew anyone in his research network who might have firsthand accounts of a more recent time than the focus of his work — 1980s New York City — and The Saint, a gay disco in the East Village with its own strange, storied place in gay history. He kindly posted on social media a call for stories, directing them to me. And that’s how I came to be in touch with Gregory Lawrence Stewart, a writer in Los Angeles and the former art director of Blueboy magazine, which was effectively a gay male pinup that ran from 1974 to 2007.
In a milieu of popular gay porn mags at the time, Blueboy originally featured more “softcore” imagery. Content included erotic short fiction, news, essays, interviews, profiles and articles on music, entertainment, and fashion. The publication was largely regarded in the 1980s and early ’90s as a gay Playboy. The magazine also covered more pressing issues and did stories on Anita Bryant, Harvey Milk, Ed Koch, AIDS and the Reagan Administration.
On a subject that, for many interviewees, elicits mixed feelings of loss and sorrow, Stewart recounts only joy. I talked to him about his wild NYC nights, his play, and of course, Grace Jones.
Thanks for taking my call. In your email, you described The Saint as a transcendental experience. Wondering if I could talk to you about that.
Well, what do you want me to talk about? My one night experience that was transcendental or all the nights every night I went there? It was great. So great.
When you did you become a member?
Well, here’s how it all happened. I was the art director of Blueboy magazine, so I had a pass to get into all the clubs and things. And the Saint became a really great place to go to because I just loved it. It was just so brilliant. But the night I went for the event, it was the night that Grace Jones was there and nobody knew Grace Jones was gonna be there that night. That’s why it was so exciting to go there, because they would always have some great thing that happened, some great performance.
I’ve heard about this night for so many people. A lot of people describe it as the best performance.
It was so strange. It just was so brilliant, too. We were all dancing in that globe, that dome, you know, with the stars, and then they flash movies and everything all on there, too. We’re all dancing. And I remember this night because I was sent there and I brought my friend to photograph stuff and he took one of those pictures that’s online. It’s a picture of me in the group dancing on the floor, I”m the one in the white shirt in the foreground.
Wow. There are surprisingly few pictures of The Saint interior. I’ll have to find which one you’re talking about.
A lot of people were taking pictures, but I remember that night and I asked him to take it for the Blueboy pictures. But I don’t know whether he got pictures of Grace Jones and all that. I don’t know what happened, but I don’t know if I I got any of those pictures for Blueboy, but other people might have them. But anyway, what happened was, it was like, that song came on and this strange cage thing started going across the floor to the center. You know, it was like that dome thing where the lights are, that shoots the stars onto the wall. Sort of the — not a projector —
I think they called it the “mothership.”
Yeah, the mothership, the middle part that had all the lights and stuff. And there are a lot of them. And suddenly this strange cage came out slowly across the dance floor and hooked up with that middle section. And in that cage were tigers. Well, maybe not tigers, I think it was a cheetah and a snow leopard that came out, were in there. And later on I found out those were Grace Jones’ animals, you know, they were her pets. But we didn’t know that then. But it was a cage. But it also wasn’t, like it was made so that she can go on one side and they can go on the other. And it she wasn’t really in there with them, but it looked like she was, you know. And then she just stands up in there in the cage and starts singing. We got everybody screaming and we’re all dancing under there, you know, to that song. And it was this magical moment and then right at the end of the song, the lights went out and the stars hit the ceiling just like we were outside in the air. There was like a rush of cool air that also came in where they had it rigged to the the outdo vents or something. And we all felt like we just were transported into the night sky. Then the light came on her and two and or three big muscle buds came up and brought her down to the floor. And then she kept dancing with us on the floor for four hours. I’m telling you, she stayed on that floor with us for four hours, and it was like heaven. We were all in heaven. It was also that way almost every time I went, like a tribal event that didn’t have anything to do with that world out there. It just didn’t. It was like we had, you know, been elevated to some other place.
One thing that that I discussed with other guys is that it sort of commodified the gay experience. It created this this idea of a standard that was so impossibly high. And then everybody measured their lives by it. And later recollections of the Saint involved a degree of, well, jealousy. Sometimes, you know, there are some people who felt excluded from the Saint. Some people even felt horrified by something about the Saint. Could you speak to any of that?
Well, I don’t know what kind of people you’re talking about. What do you mean?
I’ve spoken to some people whose recollections of the Saint are somewhat dark sometimes because they associate it with either too much decadence or a difficult time or a painful memory or people they’ve lost. And the story of the club for many that I’ve spoken to sort of dovetails into a very painful period, and it’s difficult for them to necessarily separate the joy from some of the darker parts.
Well, yes, I see where all that’s coming from. But I’ll tell you, I wrote a play. You you saw a part of my play. You didn’t get to the part where it’s all about the negative. It’s a brief play. It’s about losing my lover. And he was one of the ones that went to the Saint with me all the time. Then there was a time when we didn’t know what any of that was. It was all just a mystery. The people were dying, But before that, the Saint went on for a while without any of that going on. Also, the Paradise Garage I would go to, and there were other clubs which were basically the same. I was connected to the Saint in a sort of personal way, but there was a bar right at the end of Christopher I loved too. I’m not one of the ones that are grief-stricken and horrified. Although we horrible experiences, they were happy experiences at the same. I’m 22 years clean and sober now, and when I talked to some friends in the program about this — I just did the other night — I have to, you know, reel myself in from glorifying these things. Because many people I know have had the experiences. You’re talking about that negativity of drinking and being, you know, on drugs and crazy at the Saint and all the clubs. And it’s negative and all that. My experiences were not really negative. My drinking was great drinking. I drank after I lost the one I loved, and that didn’t happen until I got out here to L.A. and he died. And then I tried to put my life back together. But those times I really treasure, you know. That place was a treasure. It was an experience that was just magical. Every time, and especially that night, Grace Jones was there. And there were also days when I’d go to the Monster, which was another little club right close to the, uh, the place that was the —
Yeah it was right near Stonewall.
It’s still there, you know. The Monster.
Is it still there? Yeah, well, we’d go there. This was the time when we would go there and somebody said who’s that person on the piano that sounds like Liza Minelli? And I looked at that person and said, that is Liza Minelli. She’d get off the piano and someone else would climb on and start singing, and when one person stopped playing it would change to another person. Everyone singing Broadway. It was those kind of times, you know, like on Fire Island and walking along the boardwalk. There was a time I flew out there with Sandy Duncan and Linda Ronstadt. Oh, my God. What a time. We flew out on the seaplane. I mean, everybody was all there, and it was a thrilling time. I’m never gonna see them as horrible because of my alcoholism or anything. It was my coming out, my finding all these beautiful men in the world and going, Oh, yes. Oh, finally, you know. I left my home and found this freedom, and I found it there. So I’m never gonna knock it or say it was negative times. Also, I started to read some of your work. I could see you were investigating things like mob clubs which were run by this and that, and I didn’t know any of that. But those places were freedom.
Which piece did you find?
I don’t know. I didn’t even read the whole thing. It was something about a club. The only gay club left in New York. About the Cock.
That was that one and I, I don’t know. There was something about that. I mean, I’m sorry I didn’t really read it —
Oh, no. Oh, please. This isn’t about me. I’m flattered you looked me up. I love Blueboy. I think that’s amazing. How long were you with them?
I think I was there, like, four years.
And were you living in New York?
Mhmm. And I went after that job too. I said I got to redesign Blueboy magazine. I love that logo, but they’re just trashing it up. I wanted it to look clean, neat, and have some kind of design. I went in there and I redesigned the whole book. And they said, Yeah, come on. Okay, do it. And I got the job. Marty [indiscernible] was my boss who hired me. He was the executive and didn’t really do much but get the guys that go on the cover and stuff. I stayed out of all that stuff. I think the closest I got to the photo shoots and things were just to bring the film back. Yeah, go get the film. That was my job. But I did go dancing with all those boys and one of those boys on that cover was my boyfriend for a while. So I’m very proud of all that time. Even when talking to my AA people.
You mentioned that you left home to to find out this culture. Where is home for you?
I originally came from Warsaw, Kentucky.
When did you move to the city?
Well, I met a lot of theater people and they lived in New York and I went to see them — I went for the summer to live in New York. And when I was 17 they showed me all over New York and I said, I have to live here someday. But I went back and went to college in Chicago and did a lot of other stuff before I jumped up and went to New York. But one of my girlfriends — I had a real straight life, too, and I was with a girl for five years, that was like a marriage. We went to New York together. That’s when I came out and all that. But, uh, I don’t even call it coming out now. I call it loving the ones you with.
That’s a hard thing for me too because the gay people won’t let me just pick a side street. Gay people want me to pick a side, even still, you know.
Yeah, we’re very much into siloing people into their respective groups.
I can say that when I talked about this in my online AA meeting, one of the guys leading the meeting brought up the pictures of the Blueboy magazines that I was talking about and I saw my friend on the cover there. Oh, my beautiful man. I love him so much. But I can’t not be — when I do a survey, I can’t put down, you know, whether I’m on this side or that side.
Yeah, that makes that makes a lot of sense to me. Especially now. People are very fluid about all that now.
Which is nice. Think I was ahead of my time there, you know?
I’d say so.
And I’ve been sober for 22 years and two months.
Congratulations. That’s a big deal.
Yeah it is. And I’m staying that way because I’m health wise. I have to stay healthy.
I understand that. I’m HIV-positive.
Yeah, I am too. I survived all of that. And so many of my friends died. I wrote this play about them, as a tribute in honor to them. But it doesn’t solve anything. The play ends with grief. And where do you go when you’re left behind? You know, it’s kind of like that. I have no real ending. So this new virus, or whatever it is, it’s like living over what we already went through. But I was gonna talk only about the Saint and the joyful times of that. And that’s what I wanted to get across.
I don’t think anything we’ve talked about is unrelated. If you had to explain to someone the legacy, not even of the Saint, but the experience of it and the freedom of that time to someone who never experienced it, what is that legacy? Why is it important for me to know about it?
It was an exploration. It was an adventure every day, every time you went out. For the first time, there were so many people and you had the freedom to meet them. There was no limit. It was like you were free to explore in such a way. That was amazing to me. I mean, it’s what I wanted in my life. And you know what came along and said, No, you can’t be. But I don’t want to get into the political issues of all that, because I’m not a conspiracy guy.
What is? Sorry?
AIDS came along and told us we can’t live like that. That’s what I mean, you know. We were living in such a way, and then AIDS basically said everybody go get in your houses, never go anywhere. And now this thing came along, and I don’t know. I don’t like any of this. This is not what I set out to do in my life. I wanted to be free. And now the only time I’m free is when I’m in my writing workshop. I have this workshop writer thing that I do with a group of people out here. It’s tomorrow night. I write about the people I thought we were going to become, you know? So that’s where I get to have that freedom right now. And I read that book by, what’s his name? That’s how I found you.
Oh, Eric Cervini. The Deviant’s War.
I was very impressed with his personality on social media. And when he talks about all the people that he talks about, he’s teaching me about my own gay community that I didn’t even know.
And he’s so young.
Yeah, it’s just crazy. And he’s so good. It’s brilliant. Yeah.
When I read it, I thought, Gosh, you know, we’ve faced such difficult moments in our past. AIDS wasn’t the only one. I mean, long before that we had another monster to to deal with, McCarthyism, and now we have a new one to deal with, and through all of it, I get so much hope for reading that because I feel like we have always managed in the face of incredible adversity to create such a remarkable culture.
You know when you said about the Saint setting limits and other people not, you know, there was a jealousy? Well the only jealousy I can think of, it’s like gays come in and they do something brilliant over the top and out of your mind, you know, and it’s it’s just spiritual heaven. And then the straights come along and adopt it.
Sometimes they get there, or they come close, but it’s never what we intended because for us it’s a pure experience.
When did you leave New York?
I think it’s around ’91. My friend who at that time was ill, he just wanted to come back to L.A. where his family was and live with them, because his mother was very ill, or they thought she was. Still, he died even before her. That’s what’s happened. We came there and we lived in the apartment above his family. And then I got sent home to Kentucky for Christmas and New Years, and that’s when he was getting real ill and went into the hospital, and I came back. I drove all the way across the country and I got to see him. I got to see him three or four times before he went.
You have to read the play. That’s where all of this is. It’s autobiographical and it tells all about every little step of the details and the hiding, the reason for his disappearing, where they used to take him, he would be in different hospitals and I have to go search for him. And this was after I got a car and was able to get there. But the fourth time I didn’t have a car. I had to take buses to find it when he got sick, you know? Oh, Jesus. It was like his family was pushing him out of their life and and told people that he died of a brain tumor when he did finally die because they didn’t believe he was gay at all. And they didn’t even recognize me as anything. They thought I was the nurse that came to help.
Jesus, I’m sorry. I can’t even imagine what that’s like.
It’s in all our stories of that kind of pushing out of the family. My family accepted Michael and was very loving with him.
So you got lucky.
Yeah. He was really the one that told me, Get out of here. Go to New York. Be who you are going to be. Find out who you are.
Do you remember the closing of the Saint?
I do remember, and I think I actually went to the whole closing party thing. But it was a similar experience to my every time I go there. It wasn’t really a dynamic, big event to me because I went there almost every weekend for a while.
What was the weekend pattern? I’ve heard everybody had their weekend ritual. Did you have one?
Yeah, I would go there, and usually I would end up at the Baths. Sometimes I would go home with someone there and have one night stands. And then there was my friend who liked to have me over on Sunday after we went dancing. He was also a Blueboy guy and and a porn star, I think, for a little while, and he would have me over on Delancey Street. We’d have a coffee and stay in bed all morning on Sunday. It was just all these stories I’ve written about that I want to try to get somebody to read. My love story to all the men I loved, you know.
Well where they are now?
Well, I don’t know where they went.
No, I mean your stories.
Oh, well, some of this is in my place. Some of it are scenes that I’ve written for this group that I write with. I’m just trying to see whether it should be a book or a play or film script or whatever. They’re just things I have in my life that I want to honor those people rather than throw them down. So it was Mafia times. New York was horrible, just that and the other, the clubs were horrible, they created an alcoholic. I don’t want to have anything to do with any of that, because that’s what I see happening. I mean, I got sober because I need to be sober for health reasons. I don’t identify with the people that had horrible times in the clubs and took drugs or the White Party or the Black Party. That wasn’t me. I would go have one amaretto and then just dance all night and go home with somebody.
You didn’t participate in the drugs?
No, my drug life was very minimal. I was a hippie flower child in the sixties, and I already took all my drugs before then and they didn’t impress me then and they didn’t impress me later. It wasn’t my force. If wasn’t the purpose for me to be there. My drug was being high on the fact that I had so many people, everybody was so free and happy and beautiful. I mean, God, I was just in heaven with all this, you know, and still an innocent, in a way. I went to the Gold’s Gym and worked out with all of those guys. And, you know, it was beautiful to be around all of that.
That’s nice to hear you say that. Your take is so positive. You know, if you ever want to write a story for us, I’m sure we’d at least be interested. I can’t I can’t say that, you know, it’ll be seen by hundreds of thousands of people, but if you ever wanted to write up a few paragraphs about your experience, I’d like to put it up on our blog.
You mean about the Saint itself?
Or just about the time, or even just a tribute. My goal is to not make the blog just about the Saint, but to be a celebration of the time in which it existed, a celebration of our culture, you know? I mean, in our archives, we have memorabilia from the Paradise Garage, we have matchboxes from all these amazing clubs. The Saint didn’t exist in a vacuum. To appreciate it on its own, to me, it’s not quite enough. It must be appreciated with the incredible artists and designers who were all converging in New York at that time.
Yeah, you know that whole floor of the Saint was, uh, basically the school of Juilliard dance.
What do you mean?
All the guys from Juilliard dance went to the Saint. I mean, this was a culture that was meshed together. It was beautiful. And am I talking too much?
No, not at all. I appreciate this so much.
You know, when somebody asked me, I said, Don’t call me up until after 4:30 Because if I have this energy that’s all I’m going to be thinking about. And I want to celebrate that time. So yes, anything I may add to your blog, it’s gonna be about the celebration of those times, and I’ll look through all those things I’ve already written. See what I can do.
I appreciate your generosity. You know, I have to ask, what is the Saint at Large? Is that a website? I don’t know about it.
I guess in its simplest terms it’s a production company. It was conceived before the Saint actually closed. It was intended to create traveling parties, which would not be tied to a single location. And the goal of the Saint at Large at that time was to continue the parties for which the Saint was famous, like New Year’s Eve party and Halloween party and Black Party, and and so on and so forth. Today, the only party that’s been able to successfully survive is the Black Party. The organization puts on one event every year. Well, except this year. We formed a separate organization called the Saint Foundation, intended to preserve the nightlife and music archives we have. We have recordings. We have all the original posters. We have original artwork from the Saint Mark’s Baths.
That was also a place that I went always.
Could you tell me about it? The same guy owned both places, New Saint Mark’s and the Saint.
To me, it was the cleanest and best place to go. It had an actual shop where you could eat lunch, dinner, breakfast, anything. And then it had a swimming pool and the sauna. It was the best. In fact, when I came out of there one Sunday morning from dancing at the Saint and then going there or whatever, that is when I met my boyfriend. That is the 10 year relationship that I lost. It’s what the play is about. I was coming out of there and I saw him across the street and he looked so proud and just walking along so proud. I just went over and started talking to him.
Oh, yeah, I remember the opening scene.
For theatre purposes I put other things in there, but basically that’s what happened. We went to eat, and then I went home with him. So that’s when it all started, and it was beautiful. What can I say?
What was his name?
His name was Michael Maroni, and he was a guy who had studied to be a priest in L.A. I mean in New York, at a seminary, And he’s excited to be a therapist, he said, because he thought he could help more people that way. He was already a therapist when I met him. That was in the play, all about his being Catholic, you know. It’s all done with humor. I was trying to make him happy and laugh and not die, you know?
He was a very spiritual kind of person. There’s also things in the play that we joked about. The name of the play, actually, is a joke. That is a priest joke. It’s the name of the play. Sanctuary Much.
He told me that. He said in the seminary days he used to think it was the funniest thing and he would make the silliest face when he said it. It was like, What does this singing nun say after every concert? ‘Sanctuary much.’
Ah, I got it. I was wondering about it.
And that’s in the way. You know, that was a joke he would never tell anyone. This is a Catholic joke, he said, and nobody’s gonna get it. And so I turned it into the title of my play.
When did you write it?
It was written over a period of two years. It’s dated on there, I think. I don’t know.
May I ask, what do you do now? Do you work in theatre?
I still write for theatre groups. There’s nonprofit theater groups that do my material and actors that don’t have jobs. Or like now, when it’s cold and they they need to work their instruments. So I write material and they do it online and stuff. Right now it’s it’s like team work that I’m coming up with. Mostly comedy material.
I just write material and then bring it in, and then they do it. One is in now online. Another one is Zoom with my old theater group in New York. But the main one is out here that I’m working on now. The play we’re working on now, the working title is Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
Well, let me just say thank you so much for sharing so much and taking this call, I know it’s a little late. Actually, I don’t know what time it is. there. I guess it’s not so late for you.
It’s 5:30-ish now.
Yeah, that sounds about right. Well, I really appreciate it. And I was serious. If you ever want to publish a post on our blog, I’d be happy to look at it. It could be about that time period or a lover or just you know, your experience. I’m always welcome to somebody else writing something,
Is it a book you’re gonna be putting out about this?
No, just a blog. Oral histories are so important, and they just don’t really exist online. And unfortunately, with the Saint, a lot of people who experienced it firsthand are no longer with us. And so I wanna save and preserve and record oral stories, and I want to put them on our website. And so I’m launching, actually, a separate website that will be connected to the Saint at Large that will mostly just collect these interviews so that people can see them and hear these stories. I think these stories need to be saved.
Yes, I do, too. And I hope you can get that out of this without all the clutter that I added.
Oh, no, you didn’t clutter it. In fact I think you’ve spoken very beautifully. Thank you.
You know, just you know, Grace Jones, she was like the Statue of Liberty to us. I mean, it’s funny, but she really was.
She’s still going. I think I saw a YouTube video of her walking in a fashion show not long ago. Like last year or something. And she just looks amazing.
Yes. Yes. Jesus, it was wonderful times.
Well, hey, I appreciate it. I have this recorded and I’ll show you if if it becomes a story or just an interview, I’ll have to see, but I’ll show you what it turns out to be.
I hope so. I thank you very much for this. I mean, I wanted to contribute to this because I haven’t really done anything but write my play.
Well, you sent me a link to it at that Stageplays website. Is that the best link to use?
That’s it. I’m kind of locked in on them because it’s published and written, and they own the copyright, so I can only sell it there. I can’t put it on Amazon. I’ve got to talk to them about that because I kind of want to get it where it can be elsewhere. So, yeah, that’s where you can get it.
Well, I’d love to link to it.
I would love for you to do that. I’ve only had one page reading of it, and it was pretty good. It’s a play about when we first were finding out about AIDS and didn’t know anything. It doesn’t get into the disease until later in the play. When I tried to have it turned into a film script out here, they wanted me to cut the whole New York bit and just do a montage of the New York experience of it. And that’s the whole first act. That’s what’s important to me. So I wasn’t able to turn it into a film script for these people who wanted to just rush to the death, you know? But, Jesus, we have enough of that, I think.
I agree. Well, I’ll be in touch. Thank you again for doing this. And I hope I didn’t dredge up any — I apologize if I have brought up any painful memories.
No, nothing is simple about this. This is a joy. This is the most enjoyable part of my day here.
I’m glad. Alright, I’ll be in touch with you.
Alright. Talk to you later.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.