by Avi Eindorot
Friends and causes in common meant that sooner or later I’d end up at Bill Percy’s salon. It was a place I would frequent over four decades whenever I was in Boston. Percy’s stately apartments were in his once-slum, now-chic South End brownstone. East Concord Street never shook off all its former grit – post-1980s gentrification couldn’t stop its being half a block from Boston’s public hospital and near its open-air opioid market. Yet venturing through Percy’s impossibly heavy front doors one passed via wormhole into antebellum splendor and hauteur. Percy’s rooms were chockablock with an English country home’s worth of bric-à-brac arrayed floor to ceiling.
Bill reigned here, impresario of an international salon, a plexus of diverse demimondes and intellectual margins variably obscure, cutting-edge, and cranky. At any given weekly Tuesday brunch one might find militant gay activists, writers taking time out from their garrets, ex-cons and the lawyers who helped cut their shackles, priests both frocked and nus, HIV-denialists, and academics current and cancelled and never quite launched. No one was cancelled here, but everyone was called to account with sharp questions. Those heavy front doors were always open, sometimes for months at a time, to itinerant scholars down on their luck or between jobs.
Bill presided with witty banter, cheap jug wine served in no-two-alike goblets, and excellent seafood (until Morse Fish sadly closed across from the park on Washington Street – Boston’s colonial hanging grounds). In a pinch, Bill’s partner Barry could be counted on to whip up something tasty. The price of admission was debriefing about recent projects, any fresh gossip, and inevitably some irascible needling. The reward was hearing the news and innumerable stories about Bill’s many lives and pursuits from worlds gone by – the segregationist South, all-boys Middlesex prep, postwar Princeton, and the pre-CIA Office of Strategic Services.
Scion of a family of Southern gothic literary legends, Bill made his life in the North, embodying the shuttle that had knitted the United States into being. New England’s early prosperity after all owed so much to the slave trade, as did its righteous airs when Boston finally got seized by abolitionist fervor. The checkered history of overwrought Puritan principle marbled with gutsy opportunism gave Boston radical political potentials – not least in the 1970s for gay liberation, whose major scholars and activists Percy was friend, colleague, confidante, and sometimes scold.
A crossroads of regions, eras, ages, classes, and ideologies, Percy’s salon represented the fertility of gay life before it grew rainbow-flagged and picket-fenced. Beneath Percy’s taste for scandal and the outré was commitment to righting wrongs others were content to gloss over, speaking the truth as best he could, and supporting those who paid the price for doing same.