by Jack Fritscher
Book Review by Les K. Wright
What becomes a legend most? Having his story told by another legend. And who better to tell Larry Townsend’s story than Jack Fritscher?
Author of The Leatherman’s Handbook, Townsend has long been recognized as a primary shaper and influencer of the gay leather-and-kink world, his book a founding text of the leather and kink culture of the 20th century. Jack Fritscher, author, scholar, editor of Drummer magazine, and long-time friend of Townsend, serves up a carefully documented, thoroughly engrossing (at times dishy), and insightful account of Townsend’s life and the world both men inhabited.
Sexual outlaw and social iconoclast Fritscher brings fresh life to a frequently misunderstood community, usually overlooked by queer historians more concerned with being “respectable” than in telling the whole truth. Writing with an immediacy reminiscent of John Rechy, Fritscher details the back-story of another side of post-war gay Los Angeles, in all its unvarnished glory. Recounting many of the less than flattering grudge matches, Fritscher revels in the imperfect humanity of Townsend, himself, and many others, the sort of thing that many “respectable” historians are loathe to commit to print. This honesty is some of what makes this such an enjoyable and satisfying read.
I first read The Leatherman’s Handbook in 1974 when I was 21 years old. It changed my life. I had recently come out and was reading everything I could find about homosexuality. Being drawn particularly to butch, preferably hairy, working-class men, men in white tee shirts and leather jackets, men who loved men who (to my eyes) looked and acted like men, I was astonished to find there was a whole tribe of gay men like me. Townsend guided me into the subculture of kink. Feeling doubly stigmatized for being not just a homosexual, but also a sadomasochist, I was so relieved to find I was not alone.
I had come across an ad for The Leatherman’s Handbook in an American gay magazine. I bought it mail-order, and it arrived with a small bottle of poppers. I was a student in West Germany at the time and living in a small university town. Emboldened by what I had been reading, I ventured out to the leather bars in Munich. It was there I had my first BDSM encounters and met my first leather master. The rest is history.
Many years later, as I learned how recently unearthed gay history became susceptible to revision as it became a “respectable” subject of inquiry, like the white-washing of earthy Roman culture by Victorian scholars, I paid close attention. As a participant-observer of the gay bear culture I saw taking shape before me, I took Larry Townsend’s example to heart. With The Bear Book I sought to gather snapshots of what early bears were like, what they did, how they saw themselves – before historians after the fact would record a history not directly experienced to better align with their interpretation than the unvarnished truth. I also fashioned my book to be a how-to guide in the spirit of The Leatherman’s Handbook.
Once upon a time people like me were considered sexual outlaws. The action is often on the margins. Change is often brought about by what emerges from the margins. As an old man myself now looking back, I particularly enjoy now octogenarian Jack Fritscher looking back on Larry Townsend’s long life as well as his own. As Jack might quote from the Eagles, “You call someplace paradise / Kiss it goodbye.”