My Memories of William Armstrong Percy III

by Beert Verstraete

I met Bill Percy for the first time in December 1987 at a conference, “Homosexuality: Which Homosexuality?” at the Free University of Amsterdam in a session devoted to the ancient Greek and Roman world, each of us presenting a paper there. His paper came right before mine and took up some time from the time scheduled for it. However, I didn’t mind at all, for his paper was such a performance, namely a highly rhetorical assault on John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality which was certainly right in its sharp criticism of Boswell’s soft-pedalling of the virulent homophobia, from its beginning onwards, of the Christian church. The force of Bill’s well-aimed volleys simply held me entranced. We talked briefly after our session was over but nothing more happened.

Bill and I met again exactly two years later at the annual meeting in San Francisco of the Gay and Lesbian Caucus of the American Historical Association. We had dinner together and discussed, among others, what had been done so far in scholarly work, in the English-speaking world, on homosexuality in Greco-Roman antiquity. Bill was highly critical of Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality – widely acclaimed for its badly needed combination of open-mindedness and high scholarly standards – which he argued showed a latent homophobia by being too focused on physical sex and ignoring the emotive dimension. He said that he had started work on a book on Greek male homoerotism which would correct this shortcoming but was afraid that because of his – as he saw it – precarious health he would not be able to finish it: would I be prepared to help him if necessary? I gladly offered my assistance but then did not hear anything for several years when, finally, in 1995 I received a letter from the University of Illinois Press saying that a Dr. William Percy had submitted a manuscript of his proposed book, Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece, and had suggested me as a referee. I read the manuscript carefully and wrote the publisher that while the author was not a classicist and was therefore entirely dependent on translations of the Greek texts, this study met the scholarly criteria I would expect from a book on the ancient Greek world coming from an academic publisher; however, the book might be considered highly controversial in some circles. Publication took place the following year and I was delighted to see some time later that it received a very positive commendation in a review by Paul Cartledge, the world’s leading expert on ancient Sparta, at the University of Cambridge.

Over many visits to Boston

The publication of Bill’s opus magnum – as I would call it – in 1996 marked the beginning of my friendship with Bill, and with this friendship I would also enter his wide circle of friends. I must have visited Bill at least 25 times, starting in September of that year, my last visit being in August 2019. My friend Terry from Vancouver accompanied me on that first visit and in the early 2010’s my local friend James (Jim) came with me three times – each time we drove all the way from Nova Scotia to Boston. Terry became very fond of Bill, but Jim and Bill just feasted off each other’s voluble loquaciousnes, this mutuality being further bonded by the fact that Jim was also a superb cook and in fact did just about all the cooking for one of Bill’s legendary dinner parties.

At first things did not seem auspicious for Terry and myself after we arrived in Boston late in the evening in September 1996. The taxi driver tried to cheat us by not driving us directly to our destination 39 East Concord Street, but circling around block after block, and when we made it clear we were aware of the con job he was playing on us he threatened to go to the police. We dared him to and he did then quickly comply; I think I deducted a few dollars from the fare that showed on his meter, no tip of course. Bill met us at the front door of the big Victorian house which he owned, and together we went up to his and Barry’s main apartment on the second floor. It was rather dark there; not all the lamps were turned up and with their subdued lights gleaming dully on the heavy, dark furniture, I could not help but think for a few moments that we had walked into something like the domicile of the Addams Family of former TV-series fame. However, Bill, ever the great host, sprang immediately into action. He showed us a cupboard plentifully supplied with spirits, liqueurs, and fine wines, where we could help ourselves, and prepared us a nice snack. I have always enjoyed staying with friends and family where I am encouraged to help myself and not to hesitate to rummage around in the kitchen and refrigerator: just like home! Terry and I were then shown to our sleeping quarters in the front apartment on the third floor. This was the study; it had a sofa as well as a tiny adjoining bedroom with a single bed and two heavy filing cabinets. Eventually, Bill was to join the rear apartment to his own on the third floor and place it at the disposal of his guests.

As we woke up next morning daylight was streaming through the tall windows set beneath the high-ceiling, and as the morning moved along I began to appreciate more and more the unique interior décor qualities of Bill’s apartment, especially the main part on the second floor: the large sitting room, where Barry slept and the big TV was located, the equally large dining room, the ever-so-tiny kitchen with standing room for only two persons, the two minuscule bathrooms, and finally the large bedroom at the rear where Bill slept and the perpetually turned on TV showed the ticker-tape Dow Jones updates streaming across its screen: yes, Bill had made himself independently wealthy, not dependent only on his professor’s salary. Amusedly I’d describe the interior décor as a whole as eclectic bohemian, some of which, though, did give me real aesthetic pleasure: lots of antique or near-antique furniture, classical Greek wall relief sculptures – reproductions of course – objets d’art, genuine or faux, and lots of bric-a-brac. By far my favorite art work was a magnificent painting, done in the 1920s, of Bill’s great-aunt Wilma. Books everywhere of course. Clutter there certainly was. A lot of kitchen supplies had to be housed on shelves and in cupboards in the narrow hallway outside the kitchen, and most egregiously of all, produce from greengrocers and farm markets – to which I often accompanied Bill when he still did this kind of shopping himself – was sitting in baskets on the floor of the dining room along with one-gallon bottles of cheap wine. I came to relish the color, the Dickensian eccentricity and exuberance of it all, so different from the Dutch bourgeois alles moet netjes zijn (“everything has to be neat”) milieu in which I grew up as a boy.

Thanks to my numerous visits I really got to know and love Boston. What a grand beautiful city steeped in history! Usually, I would set out to explore myself. But especially in my early visits I benefited from the company of Bill and occasionally of Barry, and was also joined by my friends and fellow guests. Terry, Glenn (for one visit in 1997), and James. Terry was very generous in inviting me to join him in his travels outside Boston, taking me in 1996 to Provincetown – I loved the boat trip – and later in 2003 we did New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore by rail. I had visited New York and Philadelphia before with my past partners Brian and Scott, but Baltimore – which at the last moment we substituted for Washington, where both of us had been before – was a quite a revelation, a rather poor city in comparison with the other seaboard grandees but blessed with an impressive waterfront. Boston itself had so much offer: its great two art museums, the Boston Museum of Fine Art (which I would rank only a little notch below New York’s Metropolitan Museum), the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (with its magnificent Botticellis), Copley Square, iconic churches, grand streets and boulevards, the Commons with the State House, Old Boston, the Athenaeum, Quincy Market, and beautiful historical neighborhoods like Bill’s own South End, with its block after block of meticulously restored Victorian homes.

I also explored Cambridge, on the other side of the Charles River. My friend Glenn, who joined me. actually preferred it to Boston because of what he regarded as the European atmosphere of its downtown. I found the Harvard University not as impressive as I had anticipated but admired its Civil War Memorial Hall and the three fine museums associated with the university.

When Bill was still teaching I accompanied him a few times to UMass Boston, where he treated me to lunch and introduced me to a few of his colleagues, including a congenial elderly mathematician of Hungarian background, whom he consulted on the methodology of doing statistics, a topic he felt was of relevance to the book on the age of Roman marriage he was co-authoring with me. One afternoon I also sat in on his office hours. With his students, Bill was certainly the stern disciplinarian when dealing with laziness and lack of motivation, but there was also ample patience and kindness. That same afternoon I sat in on a class of his: it was both Bill the lecturer and the provocateur, with him continually encouraging, even cajoling, his students to speak up. I once took a side-trip to the JFK Library, which was located nearby on the waterfront. It was a compelling and moving experience for me: I was 19 when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated and the tragedy of that horrific event had been imprinted forever on my mind.

A scintillating salon

Social creature that he was, Bill had a wide circle of friends in Boston but also nationally and internationally. The large majority, not surprisingly, were gay men, but there was also room for straight men and women. Two of them will always stand out in my mind. John Lauritsen, author, editor, and eventually the publisher of the Pagan Press, a graduate in classics at Harvard, was bound to make a big impression on me. Slightly older than myself, he was a gay activist in the 60s and 70s, very much to the left of center, a Trotskyite in fact, and very good-looking to boot. During the AIDS crisis – I learned this from Bill, John never brought this up himself – he gained notoriety for questioning the scientific consensus on the aetiology of the disease. His socio-political ideology also began to swing well to the right – with the big exception of his continuing sexual radicalism – with views on gun control and race relations I found deplorable, although, to his credit, he kept them largely out of conversation. He was an “aesthete,” as Bill liked to call him, blessed with an antiques-appointed Boston home – except for the messiest imaginable kitchen – which included a grand piano. He was a great cook and Bill and I were his guests several times. He was a great enthusiast of Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom he claimed was bisexual and at the center of a coterie of bisexual men – he wrote a book on this subject. This enthusiasm I shared. However, I did not follow him in attributing the novel Frankenstein to Shelley rather than to his young second wife, Mary, although she herself did admit she got a good deal of help from her husband. Misogynist that John was, he believed Mary did not have the intelligence and creativity to write such an astounding work. I, however, have read Mary’s remarkable apocalyptic novel, The Last Man, and am able to say, therefore, that John was completely wrong.

I am very glad, though, that John and I corresponded off and on with each other over the years and I mourned for him when he passed away very suddenly in his home last spring. I am sad that, as far as I know, he never shared his life with a true partner and sad also that I never got around to sending him the truly magnificent poem by the Canadian poet Charles G.D. Roberts celebrating the centenary of Shelley’s birth in 1890. Therefore, I am all the more pleased that the major collection of papers, SameSex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West, of which I was the co-editor, contains a paper by him on the Shelleyan Circle.

The other friend of Bill who continues to stand out in my mind is Warren Johanssen, who boarded with Bill for several years but died well before my first visit. I became already acquainted with him, though, in the 1980s when, in a fiery article, he lambasted John Boswell’s 1980 book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, for soft-pedalling the medieval Catholic Church’s hostility to homosexuality – I had already found some bad inaccuracies in that part of the book which looked at the political and social history of ancient Rome. Warren, a phenomenal multilingual scholar, was of enormous assistance to Bill in his research, as Bill himself always generously underlined.

There was a constant coming and going of people at 39 East Concord Street: friends and acquaintances dropping by, dinner guests, cleaning ladies, secretaries who were usually also his ever-needed typists – and who eventually morphed into the people working Bill’s computer – tenants, tradesmen, and, during his final years, personal care workers. Being the ultimate people person, Bill fully relished all this hustle and bustle – he would have been a most unhappy solitary man. Even when I went to a walk with him to go shopping or sat with him in the nearly small park, which was adorned by a delightfully good-sized fountain, the need to socialize was never absent. The park was bordered by a large low-income housing complex whose residents were mostly black; these, too, Bill drew into his orbit with a friendly greeting and, sometimes, a little chat. Yes, one might sense at times a bit of condescension there. but it came with a kindly demeanor that came naturally with Bill’s being, after all, a Southern Gentleman, an integral part of his unique charm that never deserted him. I should mention his dogs: during the 23 years of my visits, he had three in succession: Pete, Jack, and Missie. He was very fond of each of them and they always accompanied him on his walks. Regretfully, after Missie passed on and with his failing health, dogs could be no longer a part of his life, but a somewhat reclusive large cat stayed on.

Bill started his academic career as a medievalist. A few decades I ago read the book, The Age of Recovery: The Fifteenth Century, which he co-authored with Jerah Johnson and was published by Cornell University Press in 1970, and I remembered then that its central thesis was amply demonstrated by my native city of Zwolle, which prospered greatly in that century and saw the erection of the two large churches, the impressive architecture of which I took in almost every day when I attended my high school in the city center.

After Bill, encouraged by the Boston poet-activist Charley Shively, whom I got to know well over the years, came out of the closet, so to speak, he threw himself into the study of Greco-Roman antiquity with a heavy emphasis on how male homoerotism and homosexuality fared in its societies and cultures. This finally issued into what I have already called his opus magnum, Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece, and it got him going anew in the lecture circuit. He was a guest speaker at my university in 1997, staying at my place and meeting my friends some of whom, especially June and her Indo-Canadian husband Nirmal, invited him to their home, were really taken in by his charm as the perfect Southern Gentleman. His lecture was well received by his open-minded audience who had, on the whole, a typically Nova Scotian appreciation for Bill’s style of humorous bonhomie. One catty question, though, “What benefit did those Greek boys really get from sex with adult men?” – this is only my paraphrase omitting the vulgarities – coming from an always outspoken woman, an adult student in the classics program. Bill sailed around it beautifully. He outdid himself in the lecture he gave at the 1998 annual meeting of the Classical Association of Canada in Ottawa: about halfway through his presentation, he departed from his script and launched into a vivid foray of his erotic appetite as a boy already well versed in the art of cruising, with a particular predilection for sailors. There was a half-audible gasp from his audience and Bill got the publicity he always craved; as he said, in a slightly different context, a bad review is better than new no review at all.

Age of marriage in Rome

I am proud I played a major role in the research and writing of The Age of Marriage in Rome, published in 2002, in which I was a co-author with Bill and his former graduate student, Arnold Lelis. It was Bill who seized upon the book’s topic, for he was troubled by the fact that in the 1980s the long existing scholarly consensus on this subject – namely, a very early age of marriage for both Roman women and men – was overturned. In this view, this state of affairs applied only to the upper classes where indeed it was supported by the literature, which, however, reflected only the views and the social mores of the upper strata of Roman society. For the practices of the lower classes, the scholars turned to epigraphic evidence, of which there was a huge amount, namely tomb inscriptions from which they gleaned and interpretated the numerous data which, so they claimed, supported their view, namely that Roman women married not quite as young as the older scholarship held, that is, in their early and mid-teens but rather in their late teens. Their conclusion, however, on the age of marriage of Roman men outside the elite classes was far more radical: Roman men married not in their late teens or early twenties but in their late twenties and early thirties. Utterly wrong and completely at odds, as Bill liked to emphasize, with the pro-natalist views and practices of Roman society from the Early Republic onwards. In its interpretation of the epitaphic evidence, the new scholarship started off from basic assumptions which were seriously flawed, and we showed how these could and should be corrected in order to support the older scholarship. We did not win over the supporters of the new consensus — these included very eminent scholars — I guess there was too much at stake for their academic reputations. However, one review in Phoenix, the journal of the Classical Association of Canada, while rather negative and indulging in a lot of what I’d call nit-picking, did allow that the current and well established views on the subject were in need of re-examination. Even better, Luuk de Ligt, an expert on Roman social history at the University of Leiden, was very supportive, especially on the age of marriage of Roman men, and in fact provided us with new data, from the cemeteries of Christian Rome, which confirmed our conclusion on the age of marriage of Roman men.

Two days ago I looked at the 2005 publication, which I mentioned earlier and was co-edited by Vernon Provencal, colleague of mine in classics at Acadia University, and myself, and I was still, after 17 years, very happy with the quality of its 14 papers contributed by American, Canadian, and Dutch scholars and ranging across the width of the Greco-Roman World, including four papers which took the reader into the reception of Greek and Roman same-sex desire and love in the later West; for three of the latter Bill had introduced me to the authors. Within a few years after the start of my visits to him, Bill, like the true, stubborn mentor, he was, had encouraged, even prodded me to write the definitive book on Roman homosexuality he claimed I had within me, flattering me by saying I was the world’s greatest expert on the subject – flattery indeed since I had only a couple of published papers and some book reviews on the subject to my credit. However, any ambition I had might have had in that direction was pre-empted anyway by the publication in 1999 of Craig William’s excellent Roman Homosexuality, and I was happy with the step I eventually took towards the major project I was in charge of together with Vernon.

I will not dwell at length here on the two near-debacles in publication which started with the near-cancellation of the 2005 book by the Haworth Press and was followed four years later by the nearly fatal obstacles that beset the publication of its sequel, Censoring Sex Research: the DebateOover Male Intergenerational Realities. I was mightily relieved, therefore, when Tom Hubbard, blessed as he was with his sure-footed experience in the worlds of American academe and publishing, joined me as co-editor and eventually secured publication with the Left Coast Press in 2013, and in addition also took care of the final editorial work. During these years of trial and tribulation I developed a healthy appreciation for a scholarship that does not hesitate to be socially engaged and thus is willing to run the risks of controversy, even bitter controversy, and to defy the onslaughts of calumny and willed ignorance. Bill did so in his own unique style, and later on Tom, thanks to his coolheadedness and his superb organizational skills, could look at his own victories and achievements. It is good to leave the scholar’s proverbial Ivory Tower lest it become your prison.

Bill as a historian

A few more comments on Bill as a historian. For Bill doing history was, above all, telling a story, and in order to do this effectively one must choose an appropriate style, and for him this had to be a style and manner of elegance, free as much as possible from academic jargon and abstraction: after all, history is about individuals and the societies and cultures created by them. Thus it is not altogether surprising that Paul Cartledge of Cambridge University, in his positive review of Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece, which I have already mentioned, commented favourably on Bill’s writing like a Victorian gentleman – and, I would add, like a Southern gentleman. This quality, attractive certainly to myself even if somewhat old-fashioned, will immediately strike any reader of Bill’s 1996 opus magnum and of the lengthy lead-in paper he contributed to the 2005 collection of papers published by the Haworth Press. We must not forget, though, that, thanks to his years of graduate study, one year of which was spent in Italy and culminated in his doctoral dissertation on taxation in a medieval Italian kingdom, he also acquired the virtue of careful, meticulous scholarship, as shown, for instance, in the fact that he was always au courant with the existing scholarship on the subject under consideration. This scholarly strength, in combination with Bill’s capacity for sound, common-sense judgment, could lead him to illuminating insights: I have already shown that Bill was absolutely right in seeing that the current views on the age of marriage in ancient Rome were in flagrant contradiction to the strong pro-natalism of that society, and I must also call attention to his convincing solution, in the aforementioned 2005 paper, of the puzzling fact that in the course of the 5th century B.C.E pederastic scenes were to disappear from from Athenian painted tableware pottery.

I must add a half-comical foot-note here. Bill told me once that he wanted to write a paper, “Sappho Was a Man,” to be put on his website, along with a flashing light in order in order to attract the attention of browsers: “this will really get the lesbitarians riled up.” Wacky and mischievous, of course – but with a substratum of — admittedly speculative — truth: Sappho was almost certainly a historical figure but would have composed her poems orally for idem circulation and transmission, for hers was still an almost completely oral society and culture, and this state of affairs was to last for generations. Her poetry, therefore, entered the creative oral-culture mainstream in which male symposia were also immersed; there is no reason, therefore, to exclude the possibility that at these occasions, too, the Sapphic corpus was embroidered upon and indeed enlarged. The great Athenian dramatists of the fifth century B.C.E. were to demonstrate that Greek men were capable able, in their art, of exploring and portraying the outer and inner lives of women.

Final thoughts

I am concluding with some recollections and observations based mainly on face-to-face and telephone conversations with Bill, all these leading up to the setting up less, than a decade ago, of the Foundation named after him. Bill was very fond of the adjective “elegant,” which he bestowed on individuals, families, and households which obviously met his criteria of culture and good taste embodied in the epithet. A bit of social class prejudice obviously came to the fore here, although I must again emphasize that Bill got along conspicuously well with people of the working classes. Did I meet this standard? If so, my ranking in this respect must have shot up even more when I told Bill my uncle Herman, my dad’s youngest brother, had served for many years in the Dutch diplomatic service. Bill always admired my gift for diplomacy, which I somehow combined with being “fearless,” as he put it. Maybe Herman and I shared certain genes in which this gift was encoded. There was also the idiosyncrasy of Bill’s love of gossip – actually not all that exceptional since I have met my share of straight men who were very good at it. Having spent much of my life at a small-town university, where gossip is, not surprisingly, endemic, although not so much now since most people there seem to spend most of their lives behind the computer, I never saw much malice in it: it was more like entertainment, like that provided by a TV sitcom, to liven up humdrum lives.

I won Bill over once in persuading him – I Latinist, he the Hellenist – in a lengthy outburst of alcohol-fuelled eloquence, that Roman was by no means inferior to ancient Greek literature, expounding as I did on the unique emotive qualities of Roman love poetry, which was one of my academic specialties. He, on the other hand, won me over with his argument that the South should have been allowed to secede from the Union; in actual fact, as I began to see, the American Civil War was a war of secession, not a real civil war like, like the Russian or the Spanish Civil War of the past century. Lincoln and the Northern states fought the war, in their own words, to preserve the Union; the abolition of slavery was only the inevitable result of the North’s victory. I have always been fascinated by counterfactual history, fictionally answering the question, “What if?” However, I recognize that if secession had been allowed the North would certainly have rescinded the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and so North and South would have been embroiled in serious, perhaps even conflict, anyway. The upshot of it all was that slavery was on the way out in the Western world – the British Empire had abolished it in 1833 – and the South would have been increasingly pressured to follow suit; I believe it would have done so well before Brazil abolished it in 1886. I speculate it would have been far more acceptable to the white South in that case and, as a great boon to the blacks, there might have been much less of the degradation of blacks in the Jim Crow of the post-Reconstruction South.

Bill had very decided social and political views, being a traditional Republican insisting on small government and low taxes. By contrast, my views are of the social-democratic order, a fact obviously stemming from my Dutch and Canadian background. In addition, Bill was an almost big-style landlord and thus the apartments at 39 East Concord Street were rented out as capitalist investments, alongside those in the stock market. They were not available to prospective tenants within the context of a social-economic policy of subsidized rents for low-income people, so Bill, while being a conscientious landlord who kept his apartments in good order, charged the going rate for rents in a an admirably restored but very expensive neighbourhood. Bill learned most definitely what my views were, but he never harangued me about them and maybe even respected them; his fundamental open-mindedness also revealed itself here.

Finally, there was the big, big issue of pedophilia. Bill and I were utterly agreed on the calamity of the pedophilia panic that had been sweeping the world since the late 20th century and the gross injustices, even barbarities, it inflicted on gay sex offenders, who once released from prison, were still not rid of the injustice but were treated as pariahs by society. (Bill here showed his capacity for practical benevolence by giving major financial assistance, in the form of substantial loan with good terms, to three young men, who were thereby enabled to set themselves up in a business of home repair and improvement.) It was not surprising, therefore, that a circle of Bill’s friends, led by Tom Hubbard, began to coalesce towards a more organized and articulated fight for the badly needed reforms in the especially cruel American judicial and penal system, and this led to the formation, within the past decade, of the Foundation named after Bill. I am happy to think that the William A. Percy Foundation was already making gains, small though they still were – I am thinking here of the book service to prisoners, prisoner surveys, various small research projects, and now, very recently, the hiring of a professional criminologist – before Bill passed on.

When I received the news of Bill’s death I was of course deeply saddened, but the mourning was offset by thoughts of consolation – Bill had lived to a ripe old age surrounded by friends and blessed with conspicuous achievements as a scholar and activist – but now his passing, as the days and the weeks go by, cuts even more deeply. He was a unique friend, a true American Original, whom I will always miss dearly.

A final note: I had been concerned about Bill’s partner, Barry, but have talked with him on the phone and have been gratified to hear that he was charting a good path for himself into the future.

November 2022
New Minas, Nova Scotia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *