Last week I attended the Actors’ Theatre of Washington’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and amid the swirl of wonderful performances, one man in particular stood out. The moment Ray Hagen took the stage, I immediately sensed that this man had probably done something a little more extravagant in his life than don a pair of red earrings to play Rosemonde. And my hunch was right.
Stepping into Mr. Hagen’s apartment on Massachusetts Avenue is like stepping into a mini-Hollywood museum. The shrine to his own Broadway stage and Hollywood writing career is small compared to the space given to his obsession for Hollywood stars. Covering his walls are hundreds of photos, movie posters, clippings and candid shots of Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Russell, Claire Trevor, the Andrews Sisters and many, many more stars representing a Hollywood most of us will only see courtesy of the TCM channel. Upon entering, I wondered if I had stumbled into a scene from a bad horror movie, and my next thought was about how many pieces my body was about to be hacked into. But before anyone out there calls the Bellevue hotline, be assured that Ray Hagen’s Hollywood obsession comes legitimately. In addition to a long career of performing on Broadway and writing about movies, he is the co-author of the new book, Killer Tomatoes: Fifteen Tough Film Dames, a bio/interview book about many of the aforementioned actresses.
Ray Hagen was born in Brooklyn, New York on August 8, 1936 to parents who seemed unlikely to produce a future Broadway performer, his father a salesman for Sears and his mother a nurse. But as with so many little gay boys, his mother proved to be an unwittingly major influence; she began regularly taking her son to Broadway shows. She worked in the Sardi Building, which also housed the Shubert Organization (Broadway producers), and the Shuberts would often give Ray’s mother their house seats for shows. Once, when Ray was nine, he and his mother sat backstage for a Broadway performance starring Fredric March, and each time March would leave the stage he would shake Ray’s little shoulders, asking him if he was enjoying the show. House seats and Hollywood stars at nine? Is there any wonder Ray was destined for the stage?
As a child, Ray always knew he was gay, even before he knew what that meant, but there were no "out" role models in the 1940s for a gay child to look up to. No Eltons, Ellens or Martinas back then. Ray, instead, found two unlikely heroes in Clarence Darrow and Eleanor Roosevelt. He admired Darrow for his anti-death penalty views, and Roosevelt for her tireless efforts to help the underprivileged. Darrow and Roosevelt also led lives of notable unconvention, which explains why they might have caught the attention of a little boy who knew he was "different." Ray met other gay kids for the first time while in junior high school; "The three most hellish years of my life," Hagen asserts with no irony whatsoever.
Ray hated high school, too, and after one year of it, he’d had enough. He went to work in the publicity department of the New York office of Warner Brothers. He was happy there, finally in his element, but after a lifetime of attending Broadway theater and hanging out with actors, Ray decided to explore his own possibilities as an actor. At 19 he started studying with John Cassevettes and Burt Lane (Diane Lane’s father), and although he thought he was an average actor, "good enough to get by," he was an "instant dancer." He studied dance with David Harris and quickly started getting dance jobs. For the next several years, he pursued a dual track of acting, singing in cabarets and dancing, taking whichever part came along.
Strangely enough for someone who was around at the time, and had the access, Ray chose not to see the original run of shows such as South Pacific. Ray explains, "Before South Pacific even made it to Broadway, I was already sick of the songs. I thought if I heard ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ one more time, I’d go bonkers."
A show that Ray did see, though, and that blew him away was Candide in 1956. "It was one of the most exciting, thrilling evenings I’ve ever spent in the theater," Ray enthuses. "The reviewers hated it, but it was fantastic. Fantastic! The next year I saw West Side Story and that changed my life. That was it. That was what I wanted to do. Gutsy stuff. It became an overriding ambition to be in that show. I auditioned, and I thought I’d be lucky to be one of the Jets, a non-speaking part, but I got the part of Riff in the national touring company. It was beyond my wildest imagination!"
While Ray’s acting and dancing career was in bloom, he also began writing articles for film magazines. He was a major film buff, and writing was not only a way to cash in on his love, but it also gave him an excuse to actually meet some of his film "goddesses.” "I could sit down next to Ann Sheridan and talk with her for hours," Ray smiles. "I was a googly, drooling, star struck fan trying to pretend I was a mature adult. And I’m sure I didn’t fool anyone." When asked for a list of his favorite stars, Ray doesn’t miss a beat. "You want the list?" he blurts. And before I can ask if I need more tape in my recorder, he proceeds. "Alphabetically," Ray begins with the authority of a world class scholar, "Lauren Bacall, Lynn Bari, Janet Blair, Cyd Charisse, Gloria Grahame, Jean Hagen, Mercedes McCambridge, Ruth Roman, Jane Russell, Ann Sheridan, Barbara Stanwyck, Claire Trevor." Ray writes about most of these women in his current book, Killer Tomatoes: Fifteen Tough Film Dames, which can be found at Lambda Rising and on Amazon.com. Ray’s friend, Jane Russell, wrote the forward to his book, and after listening to him talk about Miss Russell, one gets the idea that he is probably the holder of countless stories and juicy tidbits about his encounters and friendships with the famous Hollywood actresses. "I was friends with Maxene Andrews (The Andrews Sisters) for many years before she died," Ray explains, "and once, in New York, a friend and I thought we spotted Claire Trevor in a department store. We approached her and asked, ‘Aren’t you Claire Trevor?’ at which point she turned slowly and said, ‘Sometimes.’"
Ray moved to Washington, D.C. in 1972 and the next year began a long career at The Library of Congress as a narrator for audio books, recording over 500 books in a thirty-plus year career. Ray also co-authored two off-Broadway plays, and became involved in several gay rights’ groups in D.C. "I participated in the first gay march on Washington in the mid-70's when out gay people came from all over the U.S. to take over the city. I was amazed and thrilled at the number of people who showed up at that first demonstration," he says. Ray notes that even with the problems the gay community faces now, today’s problems are "light years" away from what it was like then, such as not being able to get an organization’s name in the phone book which had the word "gay" in its title. "But," he stresses, "the 1970's was a great party ... fabulous!"
While Ray was talking about the ‘60s and ‘70s, I kept thinking about the differences between the generations of gay men. Ray’s generation is the one pegged as being "Judy obsessed,” while today’s younger gay set barely know who Judy Garland is, outside of watching The Wizard of Oz. So I asked Ray to explain "the Judy thing.”
Ray thought for a moment, then said, "I saw her in concert once, she was the best that there was. Ever. She’s not one of my goddesses, but boy, was she good."
"Did gay men identify with her because..."
"Because she was going through hell?" Ray interrupted.
"Yes," I answered, "that’s what I’ve always heard."
"I don’t know... you know, everybody said that Judy Garland’s death is what caused Stonewall [referring to the 1969 Stonewall Riots which began the modern gay rights movement], I was in Stonewall the night that happened..."
At that point, I sat up straight, my interest turning to shock. Here was a man who was casually tossing out that he was an eyewitness, and maybe even a participant, in one of the most famous events of modern American social history. I mean, this was like running into someone at the grocery store who happens to mention that he once walked on the moon. I begged Ray to continue. He did.
"And it had nothing fucking whatsoever to do with Judy Garland! Somebody in there might have been talking about the funeral, but it certainly wasn’t a wake."
"You’re going on record saying that?" I asked incredulously, knowing that his statement would be "fighting words" to many. "That’s all we’ve ever heard is that the riots were caused because everyone was so angry after her funeral. That’s the myth, at least," I offered.
"Yes, and the other myth about it is that it was drag queens. It wasn’t drag queens, it was just gay guys. I was in there that night because my boyfriend and I loved to dance, and there were very few places where two men could go to dance, and Stonewall was one of them. We were dancing, and the whole ruckus started." Ray went on to explain that at that time, if you went to a gay bar in New York, there was a chance that you’d end up in a paddy wagon. "Probably not," Ray continued, "but there was a chance that you could because the cops always came in for their pay-offs. The cops would let the gay bars stay open if they paid them off, the whole thing was Mafia-run. The cops were always blackmailing the owners of the gay clubs, and harassing customers if they felt like it. Every time the cops came in, there’d be a little signal telling all the guys to keep away from each other and to pretend they were just sitting alone. Stop dancing, don’t touch, don’t hug. Cops. Stand and behave. Always. And we were just dancing in the back that night, and all of a sudden, there was this big hubbub in the main bar, to this day I don’t know how it started, but suddenly I’m in the middle of a fucking riot! I can’t remember everything about it, because at the time I didn’t know it was something I would be asked about thirty years later, it was just another weird night in a New York bar, but we were fighting the cops. Fags were hitting cops! Holy shit! You know, the adrenaline ... it was just something that was waiting to happen, now that I think about it, because all this harassment had gone on for years, long before I was even born. And something in there snapped at that moment. Enough is fucking enough! And it wound up as this free-for-all."
"Did it register in your mind at all that something amazing had happened?" I asked him.
"Historically, no, but it was amazing because who knew that fags would fight back? At the time, there were a lot of anti-war demonstrations, black power marches, women's rights, a lot of freedom stuff was going on, the ‘60s were amazing, but nobody ever thought about gay rights. Gay rights weren’t even a fantasy then. We just assumed that we’d spend our entire lives fighting just to exist. When you went to a peace rally, or an anti-war demonstration, you knew there was a chance you could hit with a billyclub or maced or arrested, it happened, we saw it on TV, but that night at Stonewall there was no history of gays hitting cops, throwing bottles at them. This was unheard of, this had never happened before. We didn’t know what would happen to us, because there was no history of fags fighting back like there was for students fighting against the war. But the adrenaline, the rage was so intense, that I couldn’t stop myself, and I’m sure everyone else felt the same way, because it was damn well time it happened. And to this day, I can’t imagine why there was never one gunshot fired. It was frightening, but thrilling. And then, when the word got out, all the crazies, all the village people, so to speak, started gathering around, and it became a real street fair which went on for several nights."
Ray Hagen is a wonder. He’s lived some incredible experiences, worked and trucked with Hollywood royalty, all the while managing to become a Broadway performer, a playwright, a published author and a participant in some of the landmark events of the American gay rights movement. As I left his apartment, I was sufficiently in awe of Ray’s accomplishments; actor, author, activist, participant in the Stonewall riots. And later, after talking to two of Ray’s good friends, I realized I’m not the only one that’s impressed.
Jeffrey Johnson, Artistic Director of The Actors Theatre of Washington, has known Ray for about six years. "Ray’s a wonderful actor," Johnson explains, "he can reference many years of the Hollywood and Broadway acting experience; he bridges that gap in acting history from vaudeville to modern realism. He understands comic timing and delivery. On a personal note, he’s a very good friend, he’s very funny, and he’s led an amazing life. He will talk about some of his past, but he’s very humble about what he’s accomplished. I hope when I’m seventy, that I will have lived a life as fully as Ray, and still look forward to fully living more of life, as Ray does now. He’s a great friend, and I love spending time with him."
Laura Giannarelli, one of Ray’s colleagues at the Library of Congress, echoes the fact that Ray has led an incredible life. "He’s led more lives than a cat," said Laura, with an obvious amusement in her voice. "I’ve known him since 1979, and he’s wonderful. I knew that he was an early gay rights activist because I once saw an exhibit at the Corcoran Museum about the history of the gay rights movement, and there was Ray’s photograph in the exhibit. He came to my wedding in 1995, and there were more pictures taken of him than the bride, he wore a gold lame Nehru jacket with one long, dangling gold earring. Everyone kept asking me in breathless wonder, ‘Who is that?’"
Ray typifies the notion that while our celebrity obsessed citizenry is watching the inanity of Entertainment Tonight or the latest Britney reality show for vicarious thrills, they fail to notice that the people who are truly the most interesting are sometimes their quiet next door neighbors, hidden under their very noses.