“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.
John Hilton’s 7 Video Stories and transcripts can be seen below.
Early 1940s: “I Knew Way Back Then That I Was Gay.”
When I was 7 or 8 years old, I noticed in the schoolyard, Public School 187, this beautiful young boy, golden boy. And I went over and started chatting with him and I found out that he lived a block away from where I lived. And I used to pick him up every day.
I would ring the bell to his apartment. He lived on the first floor at the end of a long hall. He would come out and when he got to the door where I was waiting, I would give him a kiss on, I think on his forehead, and I would hold his hand and we’d walk out and I’d walk him to school.
I did that every day for about a year and a half. We just had a wonderful kind of relationship. A very loving relationship. It was very comforting for me to know that he liked me and I liked him.
I knew way back then that I was gay. Whether or not I ever knew what gay meant, and I don’t think that way back then people used that word, but I knew what I was and who I was from that wonderful experience I had with my friend. I am happy that I knew so soon, never had any shame about it. Never felt that I needed to be guilty about it. I knew that it was fine. It set me off on the right foot and I’ve been grateful for that experience ever since.
After Meeting Bill In The Early 1950’s, “We Were Together For 54 Wonderful, Glorious Years.”
When I was 18, I came back to New York, to Brooklyn. My father got me a furnished room. And I got a job the second day I was back – at Otis Elevator. While I was on the job, I noticed there was a gay guy. He was about 32 years old, very chunky. Didn’t turn me on. I wasn’t interested in him. But I knew he was interested in me.
I started going to the bars, hoping I could meet somebody there. But my problem was after two drinks, I was not able really, basically, to have sex with anybody. And I felt that was unfair to that person and certainly something that was a waste of my time.
So anyway, to continue with the story at Otis, my friend – he became a good friend of mine – and I know that he wanted to see me naked. He just made that known. So he asked me if I had ever been to the turkish baths. I said no. He took me to the baths. And that was the key as far as I was concerned about meeting people, seeing people, having sex with a number of people. And I went there for close to three-and-a-half years thinking maybe something was wrong with me because that was not the place where you met somebody who you could go home with and maybe have a relationship with.
Well, one night I was there and Bill Campbell, who had never been the baths before, was taken there by a guy he worked with. And he showed up and he said that when he saw me standing by steam room, he said to himself, “This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
So he came over and he chatted with me, and we went to the back of the baths and he said, “Would you like to come home with me?” And I said, “Sure.” And I went home with him. We took the subway up to Washington Heights.
And he opened the door and as soon as he went in he turned the light on. And there was this painting by René Magritte called “Empire of Light” and I saw it and I said to myself, “This is like an epiphany.” This is like something so special that I was home with this beautiful man and this beautiful painting was the first thing I saw. I went in there and we sat and chatted for about an hour and basically it was the most wonderful experience that I’d ever had with anybody.
We had a wonderful evening of sex. I spent the night with him. I woke up the next morning and he was not in bed with me. I wondered, “Where is he? Where is he?” I got up and went to the kitchen and he was making me a three-course breakfast – bacon and eggs, porridge, oatmeal, great coffee. And there he was and there I was and we had this wonderful breakfast.
And he said, “Have you ever heard of Gustav Mahler?”
I said, “No. Who is he?”
He said, “Well, he wrote the most wonderful concert called ‘The Titan.’” And we went to the living room and he put on this vinyl record of Gustav Mahler’s “The Titan.” I immediately fell in love with it – first classical piece I had really ever paid attention to.
A little later, he said, “Have you been to the Cloisters?”
I said, “What’s the Cloisters?” So he took me up to the Cloisters in Washington Heights and they have a concert there every Sunday. I was just overwhelmed by his intelligence and the cultural life he had and understood. I could see all the books that he had. We had the most wonderful time up there.
After it was over, we walked through the park and he said, “I have to go play a tennis game with a friend of mine.” And he said, “Give me your phone number.” I didn’t have a phone so I got his phone number.
He said, “Give me a call on Wednesday.” I called him on Wednesday.
He said, “What’re you doing this weekend?” I was hoping he would ask me that. I went up to his apartment after work and we spent the weekend together and basically from that time on, we were never apart.
The first three weeks, I used to go there, I would go home into Brooklyn to get my casual clothes for the weekend. And he said, “Why don’t you bring your clothes here and you can come directly from work.” And like I said, that’s when we began – that’s when we began our relationship.
I always felt that I was not quite up to his level of intelligence and cultural knowledge – and he was nine years older than me. But that didn’t make any difference. We knew right away that we were meant for each other.
We were together 54 wonderful, glorious years. On his last day, he said to me “John, I have never been happier.” And that’s exactly the way I felt. It was his last gift to me. Imagine that. On someone’s last day, they would tell you that? It’s been my comfort and my – it’s just given me a whole new reason to be joyful and celebrate my life with him that continues – he’s my inspiration and always will be.
Drafted in 1958: “My Eighteen Months Away Solidified Our Relationship.”
In 1958, after five months with Bill, I got drafted.
Bill would come down every Sunday to Fort Dix, because we weren’t allowed to go anywhere on leave, and he would show up with fried chicken and deviled eggs and we had the most wonderful time. I think we even might have held hands and nobody paid any attention to us. We were so happy.
But my great fear was that after my basic training, I would be sent somewhere. Away. Sure enough, I got the word that I was going to be sent to Germany for eighteen months. I arrived in Germany and Bill started sending me letters every two or three times a week. And he would send me these incredible poems and sonnets from Shakespeare and other poetry. All about love and about commitment and about how important it was when you found somebody to love and that person loved you back.
When I returned from the army, Bill decided that he wanted his family to meet me. He had an older brother and a younger sister. He took – went by train to meet his brother and his family. And then from Huntington, West Virginia, we went to Michigan to meet his sister and his mother.
The family embraced me and as far as I was concerned, they knew what our relationship was, even though we never talked about it. But they knew that we were together and that he wanted them to know that I was part of the family and I was his partner. It was an incredibly beautiful thing that he did and he did that right away, as soon as I got back from the army.
My eighteen months away, if nothing else, solidified our relationship because of what he wrote to me and what I could think about and reflect upon and couldn’t wait to get back.
Now that Bill is gone, I’ve come to the realization that we had a the perfect marriage. We both loved each other. We were the center of each other’s existence. And it was what I never thought I would have, and I did. And I had it for 54 wonderful years.
“Who Are You!?” How A Domestic Partnership Helped During A Moment of Tragedy.
Well, in 2003, we noticed in the New York Times that New York City was offering a domestic partnership for anyone who felt that they were in a domestic partnership. And we were so thrilled to know that we could at least be officially recognized, because we had read these horror stories about, you know, a partner going to the hospital and being kicked out of the hospital room because they were not officially part of the family, and the number of other things that would happen to these people who had no kind of relationship as a domestic partner.
So we immediately went down to City Hall and it was as simple as could be. We signed a few forms and I think they took our picture and we were signed up as domestic partners.
The night that Bill died, we were having dinner, a wonderful dinner, and I was cleaning up the dishes from the table. And when I went to get the last group of dishes, I noticed that he was slumped over. I tried to rouse him and he didn’t respond at all, so I immediately ran in and called 911. As I was talking to them – they knew my address, that’s the way the system works – he sat up.
And he said, “I need help. I’ve soiled myself.”
I said, “Of course.” So I told 911 everything’s fine. I got him up, we went into the bathroom, we got him all cleaned up, and then he started throwing up for about ten minutes. It was really scary.
That finally stopped and I said to him, “Well, maybe you should take a nap.”
And he said, “Wonderful idea.” We walked him into the bedroom. He could walk, he could talk. He got in the bed.
That night, Lady Gaga had a concert on HBO and I’ve always had, at that time, wanted to know who the hell is Lady Gaga. So I watched it and every time after two songs, I would stop it and go in and look at Bill and he looked wonderful. He had a smile on his face, he was moving his fingers. And when the credits came on, I went in again and there he was and he was gone. There was no two ways about it.
I then called again 911. They were here, it seemed like it was five minutes later. The police came, the building emergency people came, and the whole – there must have been like six or eight people in the bedroom and the people who were trying to get him to get back to life did all kinds of things. There were all kinds of viles all over the floor.
Halfway through what they were trying to do, the policeman said to me, “Who’re you?”
And I said, “I’m his domestic partner.” And everything was okay. The policeman sort of relaxed, as if to say, okay, well fine, you do belong here, and not to worry. As it became obvious that they could not revive him, the police said that we’ll go with you to the hospital.
They took him to Saint Luke’s Hospital, which is about 6 blocks away from here. Well, I was there for maybe, I would say, less than a half hour it seemed. And a very handsome, young guy in a blue smock uniform came out and he said, “Mr. Hilton, can you come with me?” And they have a bereavement room. They must do this a number of times.
And so we walked down the hall and we sat down and he said, “We tried everything we could and we could not revive Bill.” And he said, “Would you like to go and see him?” And I didn’t know what to say to that question but finally I decided yes I did. I went in. and there he was. They had closed his eyes and they had, I guess, fixed his mouth and whatever they did. And it was he was – he looked wonderful. I know I kissed him. I think I kissed him on his forehead but I don’t remember but I do know that I did.
The thing in New York City that was so wonderful about that law of domestic partnership was gays never had protection to, you know, honor their relationship, to find that they would not have to worry about being thrown out of the hospital room or someone could say, “Why are you together?” And they were together because they were domestic partners. And it was a very important, very wonderful thing for Bill and me to have that kind of protection in a way. We just couldn’t thank New York City for being so far ahead of everybody else in the United States about protecting gay people who wanted to be protected by that kind of relationship.
Family Opens Up At Memorial For Late Partner: “We All Know. And We All Loved You And Uncle Ike.”
Bill and I were together 54 years. I can truthfully say we could never get enough of each other. That whole time, right until the last day. We just had this thing about touching and holding and it was just wonderful.
After he died, I just became a master on dealing with grief and grieving. I read every book that, I think, has ever been written about it. There were a few things reading all that stuff, and one of the things is that the people who wrote the books all said there’s going to be someone who will show up who’s gonna say, “Get over it. Don’t you think you’ve been grieving long enough? Get on with your life.” And that is so wrong. There’s no way, if you were deeply in love with somebody, that you’ll ever get over it. And why should you? Especially if you’ve been with someone for 54 years, 54 loving, wonderful years.
When we had the memorial for Bill, people, you know, they would tell us stories about when they first met me and him together on my side of the family and his side of the family and they all knew right from the beginning what our story was. My niece, actually his – from his side of the family – she was the first one to call me Uncle John. And that was one of the biggest thrills that I ever, ever remember in my whole life, that his side of the family started calling me Uncle John.
And she said to me, “We all know. And we all loved you and Uncle Ike,” as they called him, “and we were so grateful that you had each other and you are not alone.” So everybody has stayed in touch – my side of the family and even more importantly, Bill’s side of the family. They give me a great comfort to know that they call me Uncle Ike on his side of the family and of course they call me Uncle John on my side of the family. So it’s a wonderful thing. I feel loved and I know it’s because of our relationship that people knew what we had and they celebrated it, and I still celebrate it every day I wake up.
Family Member To Ailing Gay Uncle: “You Still Have Time To Repent.”
When I started getting on the computer and doing email and Facebook, Bill asked me, “What is Facebook all about? I don’t understand it.” So I sat down with him and I showed it to him. He still didn’t get it so I made a Facebook account for Bill.
He would every day say to me, “Did anything come up on the Facebook?” And he did not get up – he did not get on it himself, he did not sign in to email. So he would ask me every day when I would sign in, and I’d get on it.
One day there was a message from his oldest nephew that said, “Uncle Ike,” all his side of the family called him Ike, Uncle Ike, this is like about three months before he died, “you still have time to repent.” I saw that and I just read it to Bill. I thought to myself, I’ve got to answer this, you son of a bitch, is what I said to myself.
And Bill said, “Go ahead, write whatever you think.” I wrote a response that and I showed it to Bill.
He read it and he said, “Perfect. But Don’t send it.”
And I said, “Why not?”
He said, “Because you’re not gonna change him.” One month after Bill died, I got a letter or a note or a phone call or some kind of indication from everybody in the family on both sides of our family except for the oldest son of Bill’s brother. And I thought to myself, it’s odd that I haven’t heard from him. So I thought to myself, I’m gonna send him that letter.
And I told him in the email, “For all your Christian values, that you could not have sent me some kind of note of condolence.” And as I said, I sent him the letter that Bill told me not to send him. And I heard back from him and I got a recorded video from another evangelical pastor that he knew about the evils of homosexuality.
I was so upset by that that I told his nephew, “Never send me another thing again because it will go directly into junk mail. Don’t waste your time. Don’t bother.” And I’ve never heard from his nephew, six and a half years later.
If someone told you, as a gay man or a gay woman or transgendered or whatever, and got a letter about the evils of homosexuality, my reaction would be respond to it. Tell them why you think they’re wrong but don’t spend a lot of time trying to convince them that they should change what they think about a gay relationship.
“You Need To Calm Down.” A Token of Love Becomes A Lifelong Passion.
Bill told me, three months after we met and I got my draft notice and I was drafted and I was sent for 18 months to Germany, that it would be the one of the best experiences I would ever have in my life and he was right about that. And when I came back after 18 months, I decided with the GI bill that I could use that to get a college education. And Bill was, of course, a college graduate. So I wanted to do that.
I started going to college four nights a week and I was working full time at the same time. He did everything. I didn’t make the bed. I didn’t make our meals. I didn’t do the laundry. I didn’t do anything.
And he said to me as I was going to school at night and working at night and there was always a meal ready for me when I got home, he said, “John, you need to calm down.” And I thought he is so right! So he bought me a paint set. And I started painting and I have still continued to paint.
I never had a lesson. I saw something in the summer when I wasn’t going to school of a course at the YMCA. No, actually was the YH.. young women’s, YWHA or whatever it is. I went for the class and the guy – we all painted the same thing – and he said some things that made absolutely no sense to. And I said, screw it. I’m not gonna go to get trained. I’m just going to do my thing. I’m not worried about whether it’s good, whether it’s real art. And in fact, I just completed getting all – I have some flower paintings and I put them all in one place and I’ve been hearing from people some wonderful things and I thank Bill for that as well.
When I was 22 and Bill first said to me you need to calm down and he bought me the paint set, little would I know 60 years later – I was 22 then, I’m 82 now – that I’d still be painting. And it’s become my therapy. I don’t do it every week or maybe sometimes every three weeks but something happens and for some reason, I want to paint something and it is – it just calms me down. It still calms me down. And that’s what he told me way back when. So I owe him another thing at this stage in my life.