The golden age of smut (Image via Mandate, circa 1979)
Pre-COVID-19, I had the pleasure of speaking with Freeman Gunter, a man who came before me in a very specific way: He was the editor of the groundbreaking gay glossy Mandate and all of its “brother” publications 20 years before I worked for the same company — and for the same mercurial straight man, George Mavety, who died in 2001.
Gunter was a seminal figure in the early years of gay publishing just as it was becoming both more mainstream and more erotic. Working first for the queer entertainment publication Michael’s Thing, he switched to Mandate at a time when it was moving over 100,000 copies a month, and attracting interviews with figures like Bette Midler and Mae West alongside the more expected sex stars like Al Parker and, well ... Mae West. He says he was EIC starting in 1984.
Gunter's contributions to gay publishing — and his experiences in gay NYC from pre-Stonewall on — are unique, and his take on being an openly gay employee 45 years before the Supreme Court made it illegal to fire us for who we are is just one of many reasons to spend an afternoon talking with this natural-born storyteller ...
Gunter wore many hats throughout his career. (Image by Richard Etts)
Boy Culture: Where did you come from, Freeman Gunter?
Freeman Gunter: I arrived in New York in May of 1969. I moved here from Columbia, South Carolina, primarily so I could live a gay life.
I was born in 1943 and I came out in the early ‘60s. I began to realize I was gay in the ‘50s and hid it. I mean, I repressed it and I didn’t act on it because I was afraid of it because of the horrible shaming against it and pressures in my family and my peer group and I was just afraid if I ever tried it or ever got to close to it, I would like it and I would have to accept the fact that I am homosexual. In those days, it was called “tendencies,” having “homosexual tendencies.” God knows, I knew I had ‘em, but I never had sex with anybody until I was 19, which I guess is pretty late by today’s standards because I didn’t wanna have sex with a girl and I didn’t wanna face the fact that I wanted to have sex with a boy.
I came out in that era of shame, where when I committed to being gay there was no choice. I had to be authentic. I was not gonna marry a woman and go through that charade. I was signing up for a life of shame and hiding, and the general consensus was the minute you weren’t young anymore, you were finished if you were a gay person. Which, of course, is absurd. It used to be if someone said, “I think you’re a homo!” all you could do was pray that they didn’t have any proof and deny it. To come from all of that and to live long enough to see the possibility of being married to someone of the same sex — which was something I never expected to be; I mean, I always considered myself married if I was living with a guy. That was marriage in my world. That was as married as I ever thought I was going to be able to be. And here I am actually married to a guy.
BC: You knew enough to come to NYC?
FG: I had visited New York often and had some friends here, and I knew that I would not be able to be anything like who I am in Columbia, South Carolina. So a month later, on the eve of my birthday, which is June 29, the Stonewall Uprising happened, and I was at the Stonewall Bar that night, a bit earlier — I left before the trouble started because it was just a regular night and I didn’t wanna stay out late. I wish I’d stayed, because it turned out to be a historical night.
I was at Judy Garland’s funeral, at her wake, the walk past the coffin, which is an event that possibly helped facilitate Stonewall, an uprising of gay people, and I was at a party later in that summer, I met a critic for the New York Times radio station, WNYC Radio, and he was the theater critic, and we just met on the street kind of cruising each other, although he was not gay — I think he might’ve been deeply gay. He got married and had a family. He thought I was hip and young and we hung out together and went to plays, and anytime his wife didn’t wanna go to something, I would go, so I got to go to lots of stuff, including that party that was in the movie about the Doors; Andy Warhol was there, I was smoking a joint with Jim Morrison in the corner … I really felt that I’d arrived!
At the end of the summer, I was at Woodstock. A friend of mine came through with a van headed for Woodstock, and there I was. That’s when I landed in New York.
Look at the cover photo. Now look at the cover lines. (Image via Michael's Thing, circa 1975)
BC: What was your first job?
FG: It was a little job for an ad agency, but when they collapsed and I was on unemployment, I took my time to seek my fortune and I went to the Maria Callas master classes, which I was vitally interested in, and I was asked to write an article, and that was the beginning of my career as a journalist. Oddly enough, even though I was an English major, I never thought of being a journalist; I never took a single journalism course — I don’t know why, because I’ve made my whole living the whole time as a journalist at the typewriter, magazine editor and writer. But that got me going and I, out of that article about Callas, I got a job with a little digest-sized magazine called Michael’s Thing. It was the first magazine to chronicle the gay scene, and that was the first time that something that could be called the gay scene was above the radar and out in public. And so, my job was as editor in chief of that magazine, and it was very hands-on.
BC: How did you become an EIC so quickly — you were so new to publishing?
FG: Well, I arrived in New York and I was hip and very interested in music and culture and gay things, and I read a novel called Sookey, a gay novel about Fire Island life, which was written by a man named Joe Bush, published under the nom de plume of Angelo D’Arcangelo — because even then, he could not feel comfortable about using his real name — but Joe Bush was the editor of Michael’s Thing, and that was kind of a day job, and I met him at the baths one night and I had just read this book and I knew who he was from seeing him around town and I thought the book was brilliant and I went up to him and I said, “You’re Joe Bush and I think you wrote the Great American Novel.” Well, that marked me as a person of tremendous taste and discernment in his eyes.
Examples of After Dark, the Lindsey Graham of (gay) magazines (Images via After Dark)
We got to talking and I told him about the Callas master classes and he said, “Well, why don’t you write me an article on that for Michael’s Thing?” and I did, and I took it very seriously — it took me about a month and a half to write the article, the first article I had ever written for publication. I took it to him and he said, “This is very good and I’ll use it, but it’s really too good for the magazine, and I think you could sell it somewhere else.” And he sent me to After Dark, which was a sort of semi-out-of-the-closet newsstand magazine that covered gay culture and ballet and had Hair on Broadway so it was an excuse to publish nude pictures of pretty people. They weren’t labeled as gay. They sort of tried to straddle the fence and deny that. So they bought the article and Joe said, “By the way, I’m going to leave the magazine, and if you’d like this job as editor of the magazine I could put in a good word for you to Michael Giammetta, the publisher, and I’m sure I could get you the job.” And so he did talk me up to Michael and Michael did give me the job. I was about 25 or 26, and you know, I really didn’t have to prove my credentials. I guess just talking to me was enough to convince them, and I jumped right in and did it. And maybe the confidence borne of ignorance and naivete, like the cartoon character that runs off the cliff and keeps walking until they look down, and then they fall.
I love men in suits. (Image via Michael's Thing)
BC: What was your day-to-day like at Michael's Thing?
FG: I was running around town going to the photo shops that sold movie stills to get movie stills when we needed pictures. I would just go out and buy the thing myself and put it in the magazine. I had a lot of knowledge of music and culture and theater and movies and I was very interested in cabaret, which began to burgeon, and there was huge cabaret revival and a number of new cabarets opened in town that were very important culturally, Reno Sweeney was the best of them and there were many, and a lot of old-time stars made huge comebacks, like Barbara Cook and Julie Wilson, who became a really good friend of mine … so I was a natural. I was paid $100 a week in cash under the counter and I got to go to everything for free. It was heaven! I was comped at gay restaurants and I got to go to most of the baths for free, and I was in on the ground floor when Bette Midler was performing at the Continental Baths and I live in the Ansonia, the building where the baths were, which is why I ended up moving here, because I was here so much. I got to come listen to Bette Midler rehearse on a Saturday afternoon and I was doing all that before the magazine, so I hit the ground running.
I kept the job for a few years because it was just so much fun. I met … everybody! People I’d idolized my whole life, meeting them as an equal. They were doing their job as a performer and I was doing my job as a journalist, so I didn’t meet them as a fan, although I was, in many cases, a fan.
Some of Michael's favorite Things (Images via Michael's Thing)
BC: Was it hard getting mainstream figures interested in being featured in a gay magazine?
FG: Sometimes. If they did not quite understand — this became more of a problem at Mandate. And through my work in the gay press I became a known entity on the gay scene. I’m not as famous as people like Vito Russo — I knew all of these people — because I wasn’t ambitious. I just was having a good time and I was not seeking credit, so I’m not mentioned in articles as much as maybe I should be. So I was interviewing cultural figures like Peggy Lee and I did a big interview with her because we had been friends and she just looked the other way. But sometimes I would send people tear sheets from an article and on the back of my article there would be a great big picture of a hard-on, you know. And it was kind of hard to look the other way.
BC: Still, the gay market was a big deal all of a sudden.
FG: The gay market was suddenly being recognized as a viable force financially, and someone you might want to appeal to, whatever your personal views about homos. Once, for a while at Mandate, they made me sell ads and I’m not a good salesman, but I was responsible for the ads. So one day I was sent to the Seagram building to talk to the whiskey people about the possibility of advertising in the gay press. There I was with Mandate, Playguy and Honcho open on the desk of a big executive at Seagram and he wanted me to explain the difference between them, and I really had a moment where I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me.
It did close some doors to us. Once, we were doing a big piece on Dynasty, which was very popular with gay people, and I had a friend who was the president of publicity at ABC and she was someone who, when I joined Mandate, she was writing a rock column under the pseudonym Ruby Rhinestone — she was a powerful executive; she’s at the United Nations now. She’s a fabulous person and still a friend. She gave me a lot of good advice about my career and she said, “Well, ABC won’t work with a gay magazine that has nudity in it.” But she privately slipped me all sorts of information and photographs and said, “Just don’t say where this came from.” So there were work-arounds. It’s much more open now. I was one of the ones that helped open it up. I had a lot of personal credibility. I could meet people and present well, and did what I could to dispel preconceptions.
Giammetta with transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen (Image via Facebook)
BC: What was the publisher of Michael's Thing like, Michael Giammetta?
FG: He was a strange guy … I would almost be inclined to say he wasn’t all that bright, but he was really intuitive. He was bright where he needed to be bright. He got the idea for this magazine and he got this idea to codify the scene. Michael’s Thing— people thought that meant his penis, but there was an expression, doing your own thing that was very big then. The gay scene, the bar scene, was Michael’s thing. So he got this little magazine together and had it placed in all the bars and restaurants — it was a giveaway and sold on the newsstand for 50 cents. It told you what the different awards were for bartenders, it had ads for the baths and some outside legitimate ads. He was an odd fellow. My predecessor used to say that Michael’s favorite form of travel was by entourage. He just loved to arrive with pretty boys and bartenders. He hung around with Steve Rubell and the Studio 54 crowd, which I did as well briefly, but I loathed Steve Rubell.
Michael couldn’t write, but I would ghost-write pieces when he had something to say.
BC: Were you given total control, or did he impose rules on you?
FG: Free reign. He wanted to be sure the magazine stayed gay, but I could do classical music, talk about anything. Now, that I think of it, you’ve raised questions that really didn’t come up to me, and they would be very good questions. I had it real good! I loved having good contributors who came up with good stuff. I just loved it and being a part of the scene, and I guess I stayed longer than I should’ve.
I left Michael’s Thing because I really felt that it was time, and I had met John Devere and he and George Mavety met and George had the wherewithal and John had the vision of a glossier magazine that was gayer than After Dark, more openly gay. He just made up the idea of it and gave it to George Mavety. As John would say, “I gave George Mavety his company,” because he set this thing up and George Mavety was the money and the power behind it. I knew John socially and we liked each other and he asked me to come to Mandate. I had a certain track record in the gay community, so I never had to audition, I never had to prove myself. I’ve never written a single article in my life on spec.
Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn reviewed during the John Devere years (Image via Mandate, circa 1977)
BC: Was Mandate — a national magazine — a bigger operation than Michael’s Thing had been?
FG: It was very ad hoc. We had an art director who pasted it down, we had mechanicals all pasted on board — I thought an IBM Select was hiiigh-tech. That was fartin’ through silk to have that. Mandate — or Modernismo, as the company was called — we had various magazines like Man Alive, Playguy about twinks, Honcho about butch guys, and Mandate had culture articles, that office was more professionally run … but not much more. There were more people to control, more departments and employees, but still run by the seat of our pants.
BC: What do you remember about the founder, George Mavety?
FG: He was a gangster! A crook! Just completely disreputable. He was outrageous. George Mavety had a private bathroom in his office, and in the water closet, where the toilet was, along the walls were stacked in crates, retail crates like from the supermarket … chocolate bars. He would go in there and have a couple of chocolate bars on his way to get lunch. He was amazing. He also loved to get everybody in the office turned against everybody. He thought that was so amusing, when he could get his editors and his art department, everybody kind of fighting with each other. He loved it! He thought that that was a good way to get people to be productive, to keep them off-balance. Oh, he was a mess — he was really a piece of work.
One of the only images of George Mavety on the 'Net (Image via Wikipedia)
BC: What I remember was that Mr. Mavety, who had been a Sunday school teacher in Canada before turning to porn, tried to present as Mr. Normal.
FG: George had his pretensions — God knows! He decided at one point, he would get very grand and roll his Rs. “Verrry imporrrtant in the field to be prrrofessional!” so he announced he was going to institute a dress code — jackets and ties. The beauty of those jobs, and getting people to work for those peanuts that they all paid, was that you could come in your jeans and all of that, so there was a ripple of rebellion.
Typical early-'80s Mandate ad (Image via Mandate)
BC: Mr. Mavety was a strange man to work for in such a gay milieu. I was always fascinated that he'd basically chosen to launch a gay magazine even though he was so into women.
FG: Of course, he made his money, initially, off of us, the gay community, and yet he had what Noel Coward referred to in his diaries as “unconscious heterosexual superiority.” My lover in those days, who died in 1988 of AIDS, but we were together 10 years — David his name was — he was very handsome, like a tall sort of baby Robert Redford, a beautiful, head-turning guy. One day, he came into the office to meet me, we were gonna go to lunch or something, and George was very taken with David’s good looks and he said to me, “He’s so good-looking, even a man would notice!” And I was just dumbfounded. What a thing to say. Holy God! [Laughs]
Playguys from Gunter's era (Images via Playguy)
BC: Do you recall a lot of concern about obscenity at Modernismo? It characterized my work experience in the '90s, this fear we would go too far and get Mr. Mavety arrested.
FG: There were rules we had to follow — you couldn’t show pubic hair on the cover. But it wasn’t a big deal. We just knew them. John Devere wanted to clean them up to get national distribution and not show hard-ons, but George said, “No, no, that’s what we’re selling, and people want that and they will turn away with us if they don’t.” George had a porn-related vision. He sold all those Doc Johnson sex toys — in our office there was a warehouse filled with dildos. George was really a consumer of porn. He was the biggest pervert of all.
George’s real interest was women — although I think he got a hard-on looking at pictures of men. I don’t know if he ever acted on it, but maybe he did. I knew his wife, who told me she would come into his study and he would have fallen asleep with his dick out and the porn magazines there — he would look at his own porn magazines and jerk off. Once, he came into the office and threw the new issue down and said, “I couldn’t get a hard-on!” He was complaining that the new issue wasn’t sexy. He loved the product, he believed in the product.
Playguy predictions of 1986 (Image via Playguy)
BC: When I worked there, the offices were antiseptic — anything but sexy. Did you interact with any models in the '70s and '80s?
FG: I was going to lunch with Jon King and Al Parker. There wasn't video, these were people whose movies were in the theater. Al Parker — he was darling. He was a sweet, sweet guy. Then there was Kristen Bjorn. I hung out with these people. I’m looking at three postcards that Kristen Bjorn brought to me from a trip to Berlin. I wasn’t even as in awe of them as I would be now. I wasn’t even a fan of porn then. It’s perfect in its place, but I wasn’t going to movie theaters with a raincoat in my lap.
Jon King shot by Kristen Bjorn for Playguy, circa 1987 (Image via Playguy)
BC: How did things end at Modernismo?
FG: Eventually, of course, I was fired. George had raised me up in salary — I was now editing the three magazines — to what he wasn’t comfortable paying, and my lover David ended up having AIDS and George was afraid that I would get it and he would have to carry me to save face in the gay community, he couldn’t just kick me to the curb, so he fired me on some silly — I don’t know what he thought he was doing — but I had an assistant and he just gave my assistant another $25 a week to do the job and got rid of me.
BC: By the time I worked for him, his personal mythology was that he had been very generous with the gay men he employed during the AIDS crisis.
FG: That wasn’t the case when the epidemic started — at all. I got summarily dismissed. We had a meeting, it was trumped up, everybody had been coached what to say and how to edge me out. It was awful and very, very painful for me at the time.
BC: Magazines were on the wane anyway.
FG: I’ve always had good timing — knowing when to jump in and out.
BC: I wonder if young people have any concept about how magazines worked.
FG: I have lots of young friends, but one thing they don’t have is context. They just like three minutes here and there, no mood or context. I feel really obsolete because the things that I have to offer no one’s interested in. But I do have young friends and people are interested in my personally, and they seek me out — as you have! And I love that.