Personal Histories – Tony Wells (OC 62)

Essay written in 2004. Edited in 2006.

Tony Wells (OC 62) in the title role of The Boy Friend. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Tony Wells (OC 62) in the
title role of The Boy Friend. Courtesy of Oberlin College
Archives.

As the only son of a comfortably well-off banker and a locally influential schoolteacher, I had a fairly idyllic childhood in a medium-sized Kansas town that had surprisingly good schools with really outstanding music departments. Practically from birth, I was the quintessential “sissy,” loving all pursuits then considered “feminine” in my hometown –music, art, fashion, design, theater – and fearing and loathing all (“masculine”) sports. Surely, I must have been a disappointment to my father, who was an avid hunter/fisherman/golfer. The MGM movie musicals of the ’40s and early ’50s contributed greatly to my rich fantasy life.

I decided on Oberlin primarily because of the new, junior-year Oberlin-in-Salzburg program, and also because Oberlin had just been declared by Newsweek magazine to be the No. 1 liberal-arts college in the country. It was the only school that I applied to. I had been well aware of my exclusively homosexual desires (almost entirely unacted upon) from age twelve, and I knew instinctively that I would be out-of-place and miserable in some frat house at Kansas University, which would have been the natural progression after high school. I visited Oberlin during the summer of ’57 to audition for the Con, had an interview with Prof. Robert Melcher, and knew right away that I’d found the perfect place for me.

Being gay at Oberlin…was wildly sexy, romantic, and FUN, and we didn’t feel discriminated against in the least. In fact, Oberlin felt like a wonderfully progressive, even radical, new home that we’d found. We homosexual Conservatory students thought we were becoming members of the same elite, glamorous fraternity as Tchaikovsky and Proust and Gide and Cocteau and Francis Poulenc and Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland and Ned Rorem.

Turns out I didn’t actually have sex with anybody until the very last week of freshman year, I now realize. A graduating voice major whom I’ll call “Clay” seduced me in the master bedroom of voice Prof. Harold Bryson’s house. Bryson (gay, by the way, but well beyond middle-age by then and circumspect) was out of town, and Clay, one of his students, was house-sitting for him. It was my first “real” sex (aside from a couple of mutual masturbatory experiences in high school), and I mainly remember Clay sticking his tongue in my mouth, a practice that had never even occurred to me before. (Were we ever so young?) The next day, school was out, I went home to Kansas, and I thought about Clay all summer long. And sadly, I never saw him again…

Returning for sophomore year, now sexually “experienced” and ready for more, I fell quickly in love with a Conservatory senior, returning from his year in Austria. His name was Ross…and he was the undisputed “star” of the Conservatory senior class, a brilliant pianist and accompanist and conductor. Ross conducted the Conservatory production of “La Bohème” that year (1960), and had conducted the production of “Carmen” in 1958. After graduation, he went on to teach at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and then was a coach and conductor at the NY City Opera and conducted the theatrical version of the movie “Gigi” on Broadway. Tragically, Ross was one of the early victims of AIDS. He was my first love.

The first half of my junior year in Salzburg was spent without sex, except for two or three excursions to the Vienna State Opera and, after the performances, to my first gay bar, the thrilling, dimly lit Piccadilly (red leather banquettes, telephones on each table, Edith Piaf on the jukebox). Then, back in Salzburg in March, I met (picked up on the street, actually) a locally famous, handsome Austrian actor (39 years old!) and had a passionate six-month affair with him. I essentially lived in his apartments in Salzburg and Vienna from March until late August, when I (reluctantly) returned to Oberlin for my senior year.

By this time, we were, of course, terminally worldly and sophisticated, having lived in Europe without many rules or much supervision…Which brings us to Le Tréteau de Paris. This was a traveling troupe of French actors who made quite a stir when they came to town for a one-night performance of Ionesco’s “La Cantatrice Chauve” (“The Bald Soprano”). Our little gang at Don’s [bar] was all a-twitter…and we made plans to get these exotic Frenchmen into bed if possible. They were impossibly glamorous to us, and fortunately they were delighted to find some fresh American college meat readily available to them, having probably expected to spend another boring night touring the provinces. Steve [Calvert] ended up with the quite famous “executive producer,” no less, one Jean de Rigault, who eventually invited Steve to spend time in New York City with him (which Steve can tell you about). I got lucky and managed to take the gorgeous leading actor back to my room for memorable Franco-American sex. His name was Négro Verdié, and he was hunky and quite dazzling…

I was outrageously campy and fey in the “title” role [of The Boy Friend]. By this time in our young lives, I think most of us had decided that it was chic to be homosexual. I know that I was certainly flaunting it. I’m sure there were a few miserable closet cases that I didn’t know about, but I had no real contact with them…

The very afternoon of our graduation from Oberlin (June 11, 1962) three Conservatory voice majors (me, Ron Schmoltze, and the beautiful Julia [Jolly] Wallace) drove to a summer theater near Niagara Falls, NY, and began our first professional jobs in show business—a first-class production of “Calamity Jane” starring the legendary Ginger Rogers. By the third day, I had slept with the conductor, who became my lover for the next nine years…

I suppose I was actually pleased to be a sexual radical (or “sexual outlaw,” as John Rechy famously called us, in City of Night, 1963). I was certainly not “gay and proud,” however, since that concept had not yet occurred to anybody. And of course, I was wildly promiscuous in New York City from 1964 until I moved to Sanibel Island, Fla., in the late ‘80s. But I’m 65 and invisible now. And it is truly a miracle that I escaped the plague.