Extract from Life is a Bowl of Cherries by Eric Turton – a memoir-in-development.
It is 1957 and Eric Turton has arrived in London, where he meets a visiting American, Gowan Williams.
Gowan and I did all the sights around London, visiting galleries, museums and churches. He had a great knowledge of English history and would explain how the different wars and politics were related to the English churches. A couple of weeks passed and he said he had some business to do in France, Germany and Holland, and he asked me if I would like to join him and share accommodation. I jumped at the suggestion as I’d been so alone on my previous visit. It would be great to share time with someone who spoke English and enjoyed the same things I did; plus, we were very compatible in ‘other ways’.
‘There is only one hitch,’ he said, ‘and when I tell you this and why I am going over, you may decide to drop the whole idea, and me too’. He paused. I waited. ‘I am a priest with the Episcopal Church’.
I was a little shocked, but answered ‘So, I am an Interior Decorator.’
Our first stop was Amsterdam and we stayed in the Unique Hotel, a highly recommended gay hotel in the town square. Again, we were in an attic-like room about four steep flights up. We went to one of the gay clubs and were invited out next day by a couple of our ‘kin’ to view the sights and dykes around Amsterdam. The fellows had a beautiful home with a small, but lovely, garden, with crowned cranes wandering around, and beautiful statues (all male), and they put on a lovely meal. Unfortunately I lost all the photographs I took around the place. They had been lovers for twenty years and were with a group that was lobbying the Government for gay marriage, mainly for the reason of their real estate and other holdings that could be contested if one were to die. I believe that their efforts then were not in vain.
We left Amsterdam and went on by train to France. Apart from some sightseeing, the main objective for the trip was to visit an old girlfriend Gowan had got pregnant when he was in college. To avoid the shame that this would bring to her ‘good Christian family’ she joined the Carmelite convent and eventually found her way to France. This was a closed order of the church and the only way we were able to talk with her was through a wide mesh grille. Gowan, of course, was wearing his clerical clothes throughout our trip. His friend was a very pretty woman, very pale and ‘virgin-like’. We talked for about an hour, the bells rang and then it was time for prayers. We attended the service and, again, were viewing the service and choir through a cage at the end of the church. A day later we were off to a monastery to see another friend of Gowan’s who was a novice in the Franciscan Order. The trip through the countryside was breathtaking, passing by castles, hand-tilled farms, over mountains with magnificent views over valleys and rivers.
The visit to the Monastery had its moments: Gowan, his friend ‘Paul’, and I spent about an hour roaming the beautiful gardens and throughout the conversation it was clear that we were all of ‘The Brotherhood’. Gowan had an appointment (with the Bishop or whatever) and left ‘Paul’ to show me more of the gardens and buildings. We walked for about fifteen minutes and I was guided into a clump of shrubbery about seven feet high, very concealed. He took hold of my hand and the next thing we were embracing. He was so hungry for love and body contact that the incident was over in a flash. He soiled the inside of his habit, so we made a beeline for the wash house. Then Gowan returned and we had lunch at a long table (bread, fruit and vegetables) and left the Monastery shortly after that. When I told Gowan what had happened he went into fits of laughter and said, ‘I expected that would happen’.
We returned to London after a one night stopover in Amsterdam (for one last fling in Europe). Shortly after that Gowan was to return to New York. The last function we attended was with the Bishop of Oklahoma at the Lambeth Conference at Lambeth Palace – this function was one of the main reasons for Gowan’s visit to London. The sadness was setting in as it was only a matter of days before Gowan’s departure. We went out to celebrate our fortunate meeting and to say goodbye over a farewell dinner. During the evening Gowan made the suggestion that I should visit him in Valley Stream, New York and stay at the rectory as his guest. I replied that I would dearly love to go, but my budget had been stretched to the limit and I’d have to be getting back to Australia, as I’d changed my mind about finding a job in London (the English were not my favourite people).
‘No trouble with that,’ he said, ‘your voice would be put to good use in our choir. For that you’d get $75 a week and you could also make another $50 by doing some yard work around the rectory. You’d have free board and pay your share of the food.’
We spoke of my presence in the rectory and what the parishioners might think. He just said, ‘What can they think? You’re my guest, we met in London, you had planned to visit the USA and I offered you a stay with me and my congregation. They’ll love you, Eric, but not as much as I do. Ha! Ha!’
So there and then I was convinced and went next day to make arrangements. I was to leave a week after Gowan. I went to Heathrow Airport to see him off; he flew out on a Constellation 4-engine Turbo jet. ‘You’ll be getting one of these,’ he said as we watched from a viewing window – then he was gone. I half expected that he could have changed his mind when he got home – but no, he called two days later before I left.
‘Hope you haven’t changed your mind,’ he said. ‘Your room has been made ready by the maid and you’ll be singing in the choir next Sunday.’ The excitement of this new venture made me tremble every time I thought about it.
Well, now it was my turn to fly on the Constellation – the newest and best aircraft of its day. After checking in I took my seat in a large waiting room and suddenly became very conscious of a man who was facing me about ten yards away. When I caught his eye he gave a half smile. I think I blushed and smiled back, then buried my head in a magazine. He had the features of Burt Lancaster with a neat crew cut; nicely dressed, carrying a briefcase. I looked up again, our eyes met and he made a gesture with his head towards the bar at the refreshment area. At the same time there was an announcement over the public address system calling for passengers on some flight or other. With that he smiled, shrugged his shoulders, picked up his briefcase, looked at me, shrugged again and continued to the departure gate. About five minutes later another call came over the PA for some passengers to report to the exit gate. My name was one of them. ‘What’s up?’ I thought, ‘something must be wrong.’ Yes, something was wrong alright – with all this flirting, the plane I was travelling on was held up waiting for me to board. I was hurried on to the plane and taken to my seat. I looked down to see who I might be seated with. Lo and behold! The gentleman from the waiting lounge. Those planes have two seats on either side of the aisle and there were not many passengers. After being served the evening meal and having a couple of drinks (martinis) which he ordered to his special recipe, the hostess was swooning over the guy. That made two of us. The cabin lights were switched off, leaving only a blue strip of light on the floor. We covered ourselves with the rugs, nestled in together and made love for the rest of the journey. I will not describe how – I’ll leave that to the imagination of the reader – but I will say we both qualified for the reputed Mile High Club.
Gowan was there to meet me at the New York airport. My companion was with me. I introduced them and my companion asked if we’d like to accompany him by helicopter to Boston for ‘a concert’. He was, it turned out, high-up in either the Boston Pops or the Philharmonic Orchestra – I am not quite sure which, but this is one name I will keep secret for the sake of the children. It is truly amazing how many men are bisexual and can keep both sides separated.
The invitation was graciously declined by Gowan and we drove to Valley Stream, about 19 miles from New York City. He was amused by my Mile High story and related this on many occasions to his gay friends who, in turn, would joke with me and would greet me by saying, ‘Come fly with me baby’.
It didn’t take long to settle into life in the rectory or to take my position in the choir, dressed in cassock and starched surplice, armed with hymn book; and to do my duties around the grounds. Gowan worked hard for the people of his parish and was forever visiting the sick or out raising money to build a kindergarten on the land – this was well in progress when I came to stay. The rectory was a two storey wooden home, as most are in the outlying areas of the city. It was a most attractive house with comfortable furnishings. The bedrooms were upstairs – we each had our own. There was a very large living room with a television set (black and white – colour was not available then and, also, we did not have television in Australia at that time). I used to sit glued to it in the evenings. Most of the shows were musical, some of my favourites being the Dinah Shaw Show, Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, Andy Williams and, of course, World News. Barbra Streisand made her first TV appearance on the Dinah Shaw Show. I will never forget this strange-looking woman in a white dress walking through white painted ladders against a black background. I expected someone of her appearance to go into a comedy act like Fanny Brice or Beatrice Lilley – but she sang. Her voice sent chills up my back and I even applauded her performance on TV. From that time on I’ve always been a fan; along with my other darling of the screen, Judy Garland.
As time passed my routine at the rectory was reduced to singing in the choir on Sundays and doing a bit of cooking; the housekeeper looked after the other chores. I enrolled at NYU. On occasions Gowan would have a visit from some of his friends or ‘friend’ and I would make myself scarce if required. On one such occasion, Gowan had an urgent call out and asked me if I would entertain his friend Don, who was arriving by train that evening, until he got back.
Shortly after he left, the doorbell rang. I answered the door, and standing there was a black man with a big smile. ‘Hi, Gowan home?’ ‘Come in, give me your coat. No, Gowan won’t be back for a while and he asked me to be your host. My name is Eric and you’re Don. What would you like to drink?’ and so the chit-chat went on for a while. I couldn’t take my eyes off him and as we spoke our eyes seemed to be locked together. He was intrigued by my accent. ‘I just love hearing you talk,’ he said, ‘as a matter of fact, I like everything about you.’ I responded with a tremble in the voice, ‘And I you,’ Next thing we were embracing on the lounge, kissing so passionately we almost devoured each other.
After a time Gowan arrived back and we had a little supper and talked some more. Don and he went into the kitchen and spoke for a few minutes, then came in and announced that it was too late for Don to go back to the city; he’d be staying the night and if I didn’t mind he’d be sleeping with me. Gowan was grinning like a cat that had swallowed a mouse. Who was to know then that this affair was going to last for years?
Don and I went into the city next day in the late afternoon. I was then attending NYU starting at 4.30, doing two classes and finishing at 8.30. I would then catch the subway back to Valley Stream, arriving home late at about 10.
Don walked me from the subway to NYU. Neither of us wanting to walk away, we made arrangements to meet for a coffee at Nedicks, a coffee bar near the entrance to the subway at Greenwich Village, at 3.30 the next day. This became our regular meeting place.
[Eric Turton 2008.Photo by Marco Bok]
Eric Turton is 94 years old and is currently developing his memoir. This is an excerpt from Life is a Bowl of Cherries. Eric has been a stalwart member of Mature Age Gays (MAG), a traveller and a man of many careers. World War II broke out and when he turned 18, he enlisted in the RAAF and served three years. After the war he started his working life at David Jones where he worked his way up to Display Manager. Turton has also worked as a performer with JC Williamson in Annie Get Your Gun. Moving to New York he became a Head Overseas Buyer for furnishings and antiques, eventually being asked to return to David Jones. He has been an antique dealer, and run a tourist office. He has many tales to tell.