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Celluloid Activist

The Life and Times of Vito Russo

Michael Schiavi

Publication Year: 2011

Celluloid Activist is the biography of gay-rights giant Vito Russo, the man who wrote The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, commonly regarded as the foundational text of gay and lesbian film studies and one of the first to be widely read.

            But Russo was much more than a pioneering journalist and author. A founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and cofounder of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Russo lived at the center of the most important gay cultural turning points in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. His life as a cultural Zelig intersects a crucial period of social change, and in some ways his story becomes the story of a developing gay revolution in America. A frequent participant at “zaps” and an organizer of Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) cabarets and dances—which gave the New York gay and lesbian community its first social alternative to Mafia-owned bars—Russo made his most enduring contribution to the GAA with his marshaling of “Movie Nights,” the forerunners to his worldwide Celluloid Closet lecture tours that gave gay audiences their first community forum for the dissection of gay imagery in mainstream film.

            Biographer Michael Schiavi unravels Vito Russo’s fascinating life story, from his childhood in East Harlem to his own heartbreaking experiences with HIV/AIDS. Drawing on archival materials, unpublished letters and journals, and more than two hundred interviews, including conversations with a range of Russo’s friends and family from brother Charlie Russo to comedian Lily Tomlin to pioneering activist and playwright Larry Kramer, Celluloid Activistprovides an unprecedented portrait of a man who defined gay-rights and AIDS activism.
 “Schiavi is thorough and compelling both in bringing this complex character to life and in delineating the people and events that shaped him. Highly Recommended.”—CHOICE
Finalist, Gay Memoir/Biography, Lambda Literary Awards

Finalist, Over the Rainbow Selection, American Library Association

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xiii

In the early stages of research for this book, I phoned playwright Doric Wilson for an interview. I had barely announced my intention to write a biography of Vito Russo when the above response came booming back through the receiver. Doric’s endorsement, though more bluntly phrased than most, was typical. For the past four years, I have been astounded by the generosity of people...

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pp. 3-5

When Jay’s article appeared in Pride ’09, I was jolted to see “Who in the World Is Vito Russo?” plastered across the first page. The next time I spoke to Jay, he was furious. The title, he told me, had been imposed by Pride ’s editor, who didn’t think that Vito’s name would be familiar to current readers. I conceded the point and went back to my manuscript,...

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1. Birth of a New Yorker

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pp. 6-26

Early in 1980, Vito Russo joined the staff of London’s Gay News. When he confessed his infatuation with British culture and men to his best friend, activist and author Arnie Kantrowitz, he received this tart reply: “Don’t think you’ll get away with ‘cheerio’ and ‘ring me up’ around here. Acquired British accents crack like stale meringue . . . and we...

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2. Jersey Boy

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pp. 27-51

With one ear tuned to the Yankees broadcast, twelve-year-old Charlie gazed westward. The young jock couldn’t wait to ditch East Harlem’s cramped streets for the fresh green grass of the Jersey fields. As Charlie watched the Palisades swell through the windshield, the radio suddenly squawked in triumph: right-fielder Roger Maris had just...

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3. Return of the Native

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pp. 52-76

Vito sat stunned in a Village dive. It was shortly after 3 a.m. on June 5, 1968, and Senator Robert Kennedy had just been assassinated in Los Angeles. The news settled over the assortment of drag queens, transsexuals, leathermen, Warhol superstars, and gay transients who regularly swamped Mama’s Chick’N’Rib, the restaurant where Vito was working as a counterman...

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4. Birth of an Activist

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pp. 77-128

Michael Morrissey couldn’t wait to introduce Vito to Arnie Kantrowitz. Given the secretary’s razor wit and love of Hollywood arcana, the two seemed a preordained match. Arnie was a Staten Island Community College professor of English who had only recently accepted his homosexuality after two suicide attempts. When he attended the...

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5. “Professional Movement Flash and Trash”

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pp. 129-165

Shortly after the 1973 gala, John Paul Hudson reflected on GAA, the Continental Baths, and the Bette Midler craze. He decided that the scene had the makings of a spicy comedy-thriller. The result, coauthored with playwright Warren Wexler, was Superstar Murder? A Prose Flick (1976), a sexy, spoofy roman à clef detailing the apparent murder of “Bess Mittman,” principal chanteuse at...

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6. Building the Closet

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pp. 166-196

Politically he was in despair. He returned to a country pitching itself into right-wing freefall. On November 4, 1980, Vito, Arnie, and Jim huddled around Vito’s ten-inch television screen and watched numbly as Ronald Reagan trounced rivals Jimmy Carter and John Anderson. Republicans swept the Senate races and racked up thirty-three seats in the House of Representatives. Alphonse D’Amato,...

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7. “A Time of Major Change”

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pp. 197-233

Electricity crackled beneath the Castro marquee. Six feet four inches tall and perched atop his ladder, Jeffrey Sevcik towered over Vito—indeed, over the entire street. His golden hair glinted in the afternoon light as he struggled, his hands full of slippery plastic letters, to maintain balance ten feet off the ground. He flashed Vito a grin before turning back to his...

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8. The Activist in Wartime

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pp. 234-277

After Jeff ’s death, Vito collapsed in grief and self-blame. The lover he had three times turned out of his home was gone forever. For the first time, Vito confessed, “I understand real guilt, regret, recrimination.” While mourning, he panicked to see a second KS lesion appear on his skin. Time was no longer his friend. A few months from his fortieth birthday, he...

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pp. 278-283

The following week, the Bergen Record published Annie’s letter to the editor. “A better son my husband and I could never find,” she wrote. “I have a hole in my heart that cannot be mended.” In her grief, Annie adopted Vito’s political fury. “I lost the love of my life through neglect, homophobia, and hatred, from the lack of love and compassion of doctors...


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pp. 285-333

Interviews and Personal Communications

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pp. 335-338


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pp. 339-350


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pp. 351-361

E-ISBN-13: 9780299282332
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299282301

Page Count: 366
Illustrations: 25 b/w illus.
Publication Year: 2011