Gay-rights hero who would’ve been 82 on May 22 twice lived in Big D before moving to San Francisco and launching his political career
VINCE EMERY | Special Contributor
When people link LGBT rights hero Harvey Milk with a place, they might think of California. They may also know he was born and lived in New York. However, few people realize that the state where Harvey Milk lived the third-longest was Texas — in Dallas.
I learned more about Milk’s times in Dallas when I researched the book The Harvey Milk Interviews: In His Own Words, published last month. Milk never liked the cold winters of New York, so he moved to Dallas twice and later visited at least once.
At the age of 27, Milk moved to Dallas the first time. In September 1957, he and his lover Joe Campbell drove a new Plymouth from Long Island, N.Y.
Campbell would later become well-known for starring in the Andy Warhol movie My Hustler and as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Lou Reed’s song “A Walk on the Wild Side.” When he moved to Dallas, Campbell was just an unknown handsome 22-year-old who worked odd jobs.
Milk had taught high school math and coached basketball on Long Island, but in Dallas he had a tough time finding work. He got a job as an assistant credit manager at a department store, but was let go when the owner’s son needed his job. After that, the best job he could find was selling overpriced used sewing machines for a company that scammed poor people. He hated it.
Milk’s work troubles darkened his view of Dallas.
On Jan. 15, 1958, he wrote to his friend Sue Davis, “It is the only trip that I have regretted.” Milk complained about the lack of jobs and money and said he “may take up teaching here in Dallas.”
He also grumbled about the lack of cultural events and social activities, saying “this place is nearly dead except for some parties — nothing like L.A., N.Y. or elsewhere.”
In another letter to Davis on Jan. 21, 1958, he continued to complain: “Joe and I have been in Dallas for four months, and we do not care for it — the people are not the type we like, and the city really isn’t much …” He predicted they would move, and they did. In February they went back to Long Island.
Milk’s next stay in Dallas was much better.
It happened years later, after Campbell had broken up with him and Milk had changed jobs. He was a securities research analyst for Bache & Co., one of the largest brokerage and investment banking firms on Wall Street. He liked his work and his boss.
The boss, who may have been vice president Alexander Heckman, was transferred to Dallas and asked Milk to go with him. Milk said yes.
So in January 1967, Milk and his then-20-year-old lover John Galen McKinley packed up their dog Trick and moved to Dallas. This time, Milk had no problem getting a job. He worked at Bache & Co.’s Dallas office in the Mercantile Continental Building at 1810 Commerce St.
I have not found an address for Milk and McKinley’s apartment, but in January McKinley wrote to a friend that for an unknown reason they were listed in the phone book under “Harvey Bernard,” using Milk’s first and middle names but not his last.
McKinley was unable to find a job and he hated Dallas. In February or March 1967, he fled back to New York City, taking their dog Trick and leaving Milk in Dallas.
That February, Milk’s boss also decided he didn’t like living in Dallas and resigned. Milk considered leaving with him, but opted to stay.
In October, he moved to 3614 Charming Lane in Dallas. Milk liked the people he worked with, but he missed McKinley and Trick. For the 1967 Christmas holidays either he visited them in New York or they came to Dallas. Together, they sent a friend a Christmas letter with both men’s signatures and Trick’s pawprint.
Milk found a new lover in Dallas, Joe Turner. He was good-looking, blond and the same age as McKinley.
Sometime in the second half of 1968, McKinley visited Dallas, leaving Trick with Milk so McKinley could work on the Los Angeles production of the musical Hair and act in the movie Futz. With shoulder-length hair, beads and a peasant shirt, McKinley looked typical for a hippie in L.A. or New York, but in Dallas people pointed at him. Turner met McKinley at Milk’s apartment, where the hippie locked himself in a bathroom and threatened to commit suicide.
Milk and Turner split up. Christmas 1968 found Milk writing to his former lover Joe Campbell from a new address, 2521 Turtle Creek Blvd., Apt. 527. Milk spent hours walking Trick. Otherwise he was alone, but he liked his work and was happy: “I live well and am having fun. It has improved since the last time here …”
One improvement was the new friend Milk made one day when, on a whim, he went into a Dallas porcelain studio. He liked the art and made friends immediately with the artist, Odette de Bruniere, and later with her mother, Elisabeth Saroukhanoff de Bruniere, a Russian countess. One of Dallas’ most remarkable inhabitants, Odette was a great beauty born to the nobility in Paris. When Milk met her, she had illustrated books, created her own line of fashions, and opened the Odette de Bruniere Studio to sell her porcelain art. She had also been the lover of cartoonist Charles Addams, the creator of The Addams Family.
Milk and Odette remained close for the rest of his life. After his death, Odette was among the small group of Milk’s closest friends who sailed out on the Pacific Ocean and scattered his ashes.
While in Dallas, Milk may have moved again. Dallas history buff Neil Emmons found Milk’s name listed in a 1969 Dallas city directory at a slightly different address, 2525 Turtle Creek Blvd., in an apartment complex then called the Gardens at Turtle Creek but since renamed Turtle Creek Gardens.
1969 was Milk’s last year as a resident of Dallas. Sometime before September he returned to Bach & Co. in New York. From there he would move to San Francisco and eventual fame.
Before writing this article, I combed through the 39 interviews in the The Harvey Milk Interviews: In His Own Words looking for a Milk comment about Dallas.
Sure enough, I found one, in an October 1977 interview with San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery. A top crime reporter, Avery was played by actor Robert Downey, Jr., in the movie Zodiac.
In his interview, former actuarial statistician Milk tried to explain how crime rates in San Francisco only appeared to be higher than other cities because of misleading statistics and because crimes were more openly discussed in San Francisco compared to other cities.
“Well, maybe we have more prostitutes than Des Moines,” he said. “Or in Dallas — I lived in Dallas in ’67, and they didn’t have any ‘Negro problem.’ Because there was never mentioned any ‘Negro problem.’ And there was no statistics or figures or articles in newspapers. And there could have been tons of murders and rapes and robberies committed by and of — among the — the blacks. But we didn’t know about it.”
Milk returned to Dallas for at least one visit. After he was elected a supervisor of the city and county of San Francisco, Milk attended Texas Gay Conference Five as its keynote speaker. On June 10, 1978, he spoke at the Royal Coach Inn at 3800 W. Northwest Hwy. (The inn has since been torn down.)
Looking at hundreds of faces in the LGBT crowd before him, Milk was moved by the dramatic changes he saw in Dallas. “I look here,” he said, “and you know, three, four, five years ago—think that this number of people would be gathered on a Saturday night in a major hotel that’s used for conventions, and if anybody at that time would have said that it was gay people, we would have said ‘No!’”
(The audio of Milk’s speech at Texas Gay Conference Five can be found on the Blu-ray edition of the documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.)
After living in Dallas in the repressed days of the 1950s, and in the somewhat less-repressed days of the late 1960s, Milk was excited by Dallas in 1978. We can only imagine how proud — and what causes he would fight for — if he was here today.
Vince Emery is editor of the book The Harvey Milk Interviews: In His Own Words. He also wrote the bestseller How to Grow Your Business on the Internet and edited Lost Stories by Dashiell Hammett.
Get Milk in Austin
GetEQUAL TX will host its third annual Harvey Milk Conference on LGBT activism from May 24-27 in Austin. For more on the conference,
go to DallasVoice.com/category/News.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 18, 2012.