“What Was It Like? Stories by LGBTQ Elders” is a new program by I’m From Driftwood, in partnership with Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, and SAGE, the country’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ older adults. Learn more about the program here Robert’s story was found with the help of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, the first LGBTQ art museum in the world.
All the Video Stories can be seen in the playlist above. Transcripts are below.
“CREATIVE PEOPLE RULE THEIR OWN UNIVERSE”
I lived in a very small town in Maine. And it was French-speaking. The side of the town that I was living in was French speaking. And French-speaking only. I went to Parochial school, French speaking Parochial school, and the nuns were always full of these incredible pronouncements which really irritated me because you weren’t supposed to question them, but anyway, one day the nun said, “God created everything.”
So I raised my hand and said, “Everything?”
And she said, “Yes. Everything,” in that pleasant nun way.
I said, “Oh, okay.”
And I went home and I had a little rocking chair and I used to rock back and forth, back and forth, pre-television. Back and forth, back and forth until nothing made sense to me anymore, like I’d take a word and repeat it over and over until it didn’t sound like it meant anything anymore.
So anyway, “everything, everything, everything, everything, everything.”
So the next morning I woke up fired up. Ready for action. So I arrived for school and I raised my hand first thing and the nun said, “Yes?”
And I said, “God created everything. You said that.”
And she said, “Yes. Everything.”
And I said, “Then bad things.”
And she said, “Well, no.”
And I said, “Then he didn’t create everything.”
And now she was stuck, and so was I. And I said, “For instance, on your desk there’s a little box where we’re supposed to put our little pennies and stuff to help the African orphans. Well why doesn’t God help the African orphans? Why did he create them to begin with? What was that about?”
Well she was fucking livid. And she took me by the hand and took me across the street, left the class there, I’m sure they were all throwing spitballs and stuff, and she took me to the priest and the priest took me by the hand and walked me home. And of course my parents were furious. I didn’t care because I made a big step. I was free of that, and I knew that I was free of that.
So from that moment on, I was free of a lot of the religious chains, the things that bind you, because I also knew, as I still believe, that everybody is God in themselves, and I do think that artists, not just the kind of art that I do, but any kind of creative person is God, because they are ruling their own universe.
The only advice that I would give or counsel to a gay young person, say someone around 12 to 18 or 19, would be make your choices, live your life. I know it’s very young, but you know what you want. You know what you think. Do the things that interest you. And if somebody discourages you from doing it, you just have to remember that they’re wrong and that you’re right for you.
“BEING WITH HIM WERE THE ONLY MOMENTS THAT MATTERED TO ME.”
In a small town, you know everyone in your neighborhood. I mean, you know everyone that comes and goings and everything because you see them. And I used to see this boy and he looked like, to me like a football hero. Kind of the Tab Hunter of the school. He was blond-ish and had a crew cut and all that. And I was very attracted to him.
And then we kept seeing each other like at the Saturday matinee at the movies and stuff. And he was a couple years older. And eventually we began to talk, and eventually those moments with him were the only moments that mattered to me. The only thing that mattered to me. Nothing existed for me until I shared it with him. Like, if something good was coming to the movies next week, I excitedly would run and say, “Guess what’s coming next week to the movies?!” Or reading a book or whatever. So he was very, very important to me in my high school years.
And my parents suspected something. Not my father, my mother. Because she’d say, “You see too much of him.”
And I’d say, “Well he’s the only person I like.”
And then being a little older, he was a couple years older and a couple grades ahead, he got drafted because that existed then, and left town. And I don’t remember any sad goodbye but I just remember a feeling of emptiness and change. There wasn’t a grieving “lost my man” kind of stuff, it was just natural. We were kids. How deeply can you feel, except hurt?
We both knew that whatever it was, our relationship was, that it was a gay relationship. And from that moment on, I kind of had a notion of where I was going, of what I was feeling, and where I would direct those feelings. And I knew that it was gay. And so coming out was never an issue with me because I never was in. Ever.
“TOM OF FINLAND” MAGAZINE LEAVES BIG IMPACT
In a small town, the drug store, the one in my neighborhood, was called Tilly’s, was like a bar. Gentlemen would go there in the evening and sit and smoke and talk to one another and spend part of the evening there. I’d like to go to it because they had a magazine rack. And believe it or not, in that little town in Maine, in that magazine rack, were those little early gay magazines which were called “Physique Pictorial” and “Tomorrow’s Man.” Whoa. And I would be careful that no one would see me looking at them. But I looked at them. But that really wasn’t enough. I wanted them. And I couldn’t go and buy one because I think they kept pretty well track of who bought these magazines, I don’t know what they were doing in this town. So anyway, this lust for these magazines turned me into a petty thief.
I used to be able to save a few pennies out of my allowance and stuff and buy a magazine every now and then. There were nice big ones like Vogue and I always liked fashion magazines, of course, as opposed to Popular Mechanics or Skiing for Beginners or something. So I began counting my money out for the price of the big magazine, grasping in the palm of my hand, tucking the little Physique Pictorial into the Vogue, double it up, walked over to the counter and throw my change and say, “Tilly! There’s my money for Vogue.”
And he’d say, “Yeah, Robert, fine.”
And I would go home and I’d have my magazine. And this was Physique Pictorial was the first place Tom of Finland was exposed in America. And I had always drawn. I hadn’t been drawing naked men or anything but I was drawing girls and boys who looked like Ken, Ken Barbie’s boyfriend. In other words, dickless boy, sexless boys. And here were these men… I also realized later in my life that these magazines were what influenced the entire, my entire generation of gay men, on how they wanted to look. Because Tom of Finland were very masculine, very muscular, bulging crotches, bulging arms, tight tshirts, jeans, and it was just a whole new world for me. And it was very, very inspirational.
And now that I’m on the board of Leslie-Lohman, we have a huge collection of Tom of Finland originals, which I still enjoy poring over. So that’s a very grateful moment of my life, those little magazines. And as I said before, how did these magazines end up in this small town where everybody knew everybody and they were so obviously gay, so who bought them?
I think when you come from a not very privileged lifestyle and you’re in a very, very captured mold, I mean, everybody knows everything you’re doing, I think anything that gives you freedom is just the most wonderful thing and it starts you thinking for yourself, and it’s very liberating.
“REVENGE IS SWEET.”
When I finally got to high school, and by that I mean out of the clutches of catholic school, I was very happy because I was in a big school. It was a consolidated school that children from 5 towns would bust in, so it was thrilling to me to see people that I had never seen before. And to be out of my neighborhood and just out in the world. And at that same moment, they were building a gym behind the high school. So instead of gym class, we were forced into manual labor. Children, hard laborers. And we would be set in the pit where they were going to build the building, and we’d take wheelbarrows of dirt and rocks out of there and stuff. And you would usually be given a partner to work with every day.
And one day I was with this boy who shall remain nameless. And we were carrying rocks from the bottom to the top of the foundation pit. And it was hard. And as we were doing it, when we got to the top with one load I said to the guy, “Well, this is no fun.”
And he said, “No, it isn’t.”
And there was a long pause and he said, “But I can show you something that’s really fun.”
And I said, “What do you mean?”
And he grabbed me and pushed my face into his crotch. And I was totally disturbed. Because, not at that, but that he had somehow seen something in me that would feel that he could be free to treat me this way. Kind of like a feminist thing, but with no girls involved, you know what I mean? I just feel that my person had been invaded in a very violent way and it bothered me for a long time after. I shunned away from boys and I thought, “What if they see this? What if my parents see this same thing that he saw in me?”
Many, many years later, decades later, I went to a concert in New York at Town Hall and at intermission I went to the bar with whoever I was with to get a drink. And there he was with his wife and another couple. And I thought, “Huh…you’ll pay for this.”
All these years later, that was still there, that little twinge of hurt.
So I went over to him and said, “Hi, I’m Robert Richards.”
And he said, “Oh yes.”
I said, “We were together in high school in Sanford, Maine.”
And he said, “Yeah, yeah, I remember.”
I said, “Well you should remember, you tried to get me to suck your dick.”
And I turned and walked away. And I never looked back to see what the reaction of the girls was. But I’m sure he got questioned, you know. I hope he got questioned. I hope they were disturbed, oh, it just occurred to me, what if they were a bit disturbed. Oh, that’s heartbreaking. Anyway, life goes on. And revenge is sweet.
“MEETING MY IDOL, YVES SAINT LAURENT.”
In my mid 20s, I had pretty well settled into a comfortable career drawing fashion in New York. And I was very happy. This was a period when fashion was very of-the-moment in New York. New York was throbbing with fashion. And I was addicted like everybody else in the industry to “Women’s Wear Daily.” And one of the reasons I loved “Women’s Wear Daily” was not only because it gave you a big overview, but because they were as addicted to Saint Laurent, Yves Saint Laurent, as I was addicted to them.
And one night the phone rang and it was a friend of mine who was an illustrator at “Women’s Wear Daily” and he had a job that he couldn’t handle. And he said, “Could you possibly do me a favor and do this for me, it’s just one dress. If you could do that and deliver it to this address in the morning, that would be great.”
So I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to do it.”
So they sent the dress down and when I took it out of the garment bag, it was the fag illustrator’s dream dress. It was just a shaft of black velvet with white feathers around the throat and cuffs. It was Bill Blass. And so I did it in an hour and the next morning I got up and I delivered it to where I was supposed to deliver it. And I was quite surprised to find it was the Christian Science Monitor. What I didn’t know is that the next morning, the Christian Science Monitor was instituting a fashion department so they ran the sketch full-size on a New York Times-sized newspaper. It was the only thing on the front page wearing fashion. And of course it went to every editor, every possible outlet because these people were trying to make inroads into the fashion world and they wanted access.
So very shortly thereafter I received an offer from the Christian Science Monitor to do the collections in Europe.
And then I went to Paris. Well I was so excited I could die. I’d been to Paris once before and I was already head over heels with it. Anyway, the second day that I was there, at 8:30 in the morning, my phone rang, it was the editor I was working with and she said, “Great news. We’re going to do an interview with Yves Saint Laurent and we sent him some of your work and he’s agreed for you to draw him.”
And I said, “Right there?!”
And she said, “Yes.”
And I said, “Oh my God.”
And now I was in the same room as him and he was so incredible looking. He had the shiniest hair I ever saw and it was just beautiful. And incredibly nice and extremely courteous. He had a chihuahua named Hazel who kept running back and forth over the desk, I was scared she was going to spill my ink but she didn’t. And I did the drawing which took at least an hour and a half and he couldn’t have been more polite, more pleasant, and more patient. And it was just, when I walked out of there, my knees were wobbly.
When you come from a childhood that’s not very elaborate, or as a matter of fact, poor, to define it properly, a deprived childhood. I think that that’s the best incentive to make you into a self starter. As a freelance artist, if I don’t have a job I still go to the drawing table and start something and it always develops into something bigger than a job would have been anyway. I’m not going to sit around and wait for people, I’m just going to do something. And that’s basically my work philosophy.
“MEETING THE LOVE OF MY LIFE WAS THE GREATEST MOMENT IN MY LIFE”
The greatest gift, the greatest moment in my life is that I met the love of my life when I was nearly 50. And it was a very strange experience. I had had Thanksgiving dinner with a group of friends who are all now very successful New Yorkers and we would meet at one’s, his name is Dick Skanlan’s, who’s a well-known composer, lyricist, book writer, he did Thoroughly Modern Millie the Musical, stuff like that, we always met at his house every Thanksgiving. And it was very convivial, you know, friends.
And on one Thanksgiving, the doorbell rang very late at night, at 10:30 or 11. And this person walked into the room and I gasped because this was the boy that I had been drawing all my life. I had like 50 portraits of this boy done. Here in my home, I had never seen him before, I didn’t know he existed anywhere, but it was totally him. And I was terrified of him. And I thought, “Oh, I don’t want him to come anywhere near me. This is very weird.”
But anyway, he made the rounds of the room, everyone seemed to know him very–and like him very much. And it was very convivial thing and finally I was sitting way over in a corner and he came over and said, “Robert, I know who you are. And I’d be very interested to talk to you.”
And I said, “Well, you certainly can.”
And I’d think he’d never, ever, ever call me. Never. And he said, “Does Dick have your info?”
And I said, “Yes, he does.”
And I thought, “Well, that’s it.”
And I was kind of right because a year went by, and the exact same story repeated itself a year later at 10:30 or 11 in the evening, the doorbell rang, he came in, he looked even better than the year before. And I again just wanted to be in a quiet corner by myself. I thought, “No. I don’t want this.”
And he did his rounds and he came to me and he said, “I really do want to talk to you.”
And I said, “That’s very nice. And do.”
Because I didn’t think he would. And he didn’t.
So then a mutual friend of ours died and I was very depressed at this, and I was sort of sitting off at that ritual breakfast that they have after a funeral, that’s so weird to me. Why don’t you just go home? But everyone goes to pancakes or something. I was very upset about this and I was sitting in this great big chair, and all of a sudden I realize there was someone sitting on the arm of the chair and I looked up and it was him, Bill. And he said, “Robert, I have to explain something to you.”
And I said, “Well, no you don’t. But if you want to.”
And he said, “I do want to because I’ve been living with a man since I was 17 years old.” He was now 24. And he said, “He’s everything. He’s been my entire life. And he’s dying. He’s lost his eyesight and the use of his limbs. And my entire life is taking care of him and that’s why you haven’t heard from me. And I am sincere. And I would like to get to know you. But those are the circumstances, so if and when things change, I’ll be in touch.”
And I was, to say the least, incredibly moved by this. And a period of time went by, maybe another year and one day the telephone rang and it was him. And he said, “Hi, it’s Bill.”
And I said, “Well, hello Bill.”
And he said, the other guy’s name was Robert as well, he said, “You know, Robert passed away a couple months ago. And I haven’t been doing anything and I would love to go hear some music with you. And I said, “Well, great!”
And so we made a date and we went.
We went to hear the music and when we got out of the club, it was very awkward. You know, like, we were just standing there in front of the Blue Note, like where do we go from here? So I said, “Goodnight.”
And he said, “Yeah, goodnight.”
And he started to walk away and he said, “Are you walking the dog?”
And I said, “Yeah.”
And he said, “Well I’ll go with you.”
So he came and we walked the dog. Again a very awkward pause here in my apartment door. And he said, “Well goodnight.”
And I said, “Okay, goodnight.”
And he walked away and again four steps later he said, “Oh, I forgot my briefcase.”
And I said, “Oh, okay.”
And when we got in the elevator to come up here he said, “There is no briefcase.”
And we were together for the next four and a half years, every single moment. And it was the most beautiful experience of my life because number one, just looking at him was a visual banquet for me. I loved his looks. He was disturbed that I had so many drawings that looked like him, he was like, “Oh, I don’t look like that.”
And I said, “Yes, you do.”
And unfortunately many beautiful things come to an end, and it did. He succumbed to AIDS as had his previous person, man. The nice part of it is is that I’m still madly in love with him. And I like that. It’s as vivid to me as it was when he was here.