I Remember Leslie

Photographs and article by James Loewin

I heard of Leslie before I met her. An issue of Moonshadow, newsletter of the Transsexual Action Organization found its way to Vancouver and I remember reading in the news section that Leslie St. Clair, a counselor at the TS Counseling Unit in SF had undergone sex reassignment surgery at Stanford University. As a young, gay, androgynous male I was intrigued by people with cross gendered experiences and very pleased that some people were bold enough to be publicly out as trans.

In 1974 I visited San Francisco for the first time and stopped by the Nation Transsexual Counseling Unit office, (moved by then to Ellis street I believe.) The office was in the basement of the building, closed when I arrived so I sat and waited on a couch in the outer room. Leslie arrived and what I mean by that was she made a striking entrance, in a long, dark blue denim skirt, a lavender see-through blouse barely concealing beautiful natural breasts, and waist length blonde hair.

We talked easily for a while, she told me about her life growing up in the south, ridiculed in high school for being a feminine boy. She reached into her purse, took a small black and white photo from her wallet and handed it to me. The guy in the photo was a typical high school grad of that era, hair short at the sides, combed across the forehead. Serious, not smiling. “That’s me at graduation,” she said. It was difficult to put the guy in the picture together in my mind with the glamourous Amazon before me, such an amazing transformation! Her mother she said, had been supportive of her transition, making clothes and encouraging her.

She posed for a photo in the office, then we went for a walk to Union Square and shot more photos there and in a department store. When I returned to Vancouver the photo lab I was dealing with lost the negatives to these photos so all that remained of our first photo session were the contact sheets.

Leslie St. Clair, Transsexual Counseling Unit Office, San Francisco 1974 (photo James Loewen)

And so a friendship and collaboration as photographer and model began. I too often wondered how Leslie and I could be friends with such very different views on life, death, politics and race. We also bonded at the movies sharing enjoyment of a wide range of films from many decades.

We had a lot of laughs, and some dark times too. My memories of Leslie and that colourful era and the time spent in San Francisco are as vivid now as if it were yesterday. It’s sad to consider the too early passing of so many people of that time and place. You mentioned Laurie, Diane, and Jan and to that list I add Cherilyn Tabor, another dear friend of Leslie’s.

Leslie was an original, someone who survived the bullying of an abusive father to blossom into a beautiful woman of her own creation. It takes a lot of inner strength to live one’s truth when society is quick to condemn. Leslie navigated that terrain with great skill. On several occasions I saw Leslie charming some new acquaintances, holding them enthralled with her other-worldly aura and southern charm, then reach into her purse and bring out that graduation photo. The effect was always the same. Spellbinding!

Leslie St. Clair, San Francisco 1976 (photo: James Loewen)

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Leslie St Clair: In Memoriam

This morning I received a call from Leslie’s husband of many years that she had passed away.  She had been ill for a number of years and was in serious decline in recent months.  A little over a week ago I learned she was in the final days of her life and that there was little hope for a recovery.

She was one of my oldest surviving friends, from an era when we were the pioneers.

We didn’t have maps or guide books in those days when we gravitated from small towns across America to those few places where we could be ourselves.

We made our way to places like San Francisco based on tiny snippets of information, sometimes only rumors gleaned from chance encounters with strangers who shared the same need to be that we felt within ourselves.

This photo was taken outside the National Transsexual Counseling Unit on Turk Street in
San Francisco’s Tenderloin in April or May of 1972 (Leslie is on the right)

In late winter or early spring of 1972, Jan and I opened the new office of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit on Turk Street in San Francisco.  The new office was supported by a grant from Reed Erickson’s Foundation, whereas the old office on Third and Mission had received funding from the War on Poverty programs.

We had moved the office on a Friday. When I opened the doors on Monday morning Leslie was there. We had received word she was coming from Ron, a wonderful man who has given many of us so much support over the years.

She had arrived after we had moved the furniture and office equipment in and arranged it.  We had called it a day, poured some wine, smoked a joint and gone to dinner, because we left a little early she was stranded for weekend in a San Francisco with little in resources and with no one to call.

I was taken by her immediately,  she had a model like superstar quality. She said she was broke.  I took her to breakfast at Compton’s Cafeteria, down the street because she was the first one through the doors of our new office and besides I was reading the memoirs of a New York model and she said she was a model.

When I asked to see her portfolio and she didn’t know what I was talking about I realized she was in the process of self-creation the same way I was.  She might not have have been into existentialism the way I was, but nonetheless she was actively creating herself.

We were so different, I sometimes wonder how we became friends.  I was a left wing, atheist, Yankee and a Berkeley hippie with a deserter boyfriend and a feminist streak.

She was as southern as a character from a Tennessee Williams’ play.  Conservative, Mormon and oh so flamboyant. Light as air to my movement heaviness.

Some have asked where we found common ground? Appropriating as well as repackaging the tile of a Pauline Kael book, “We Found it at the Movies”.

I love Goddard and Antonioni , Fellini.  She reminded me of the black and white movies I had grown up on, feeding my fantasies in the dark of the small town movie theater and on the small screen of the black and white television.  I loved Kate Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart.  She taught me to appreciate the campiness of over the top actresses like Jean Harlow.

When she first came to San Francisco she was taken in by a sister who lived in Project Artaud, a former factory in the Mission/Portero District near Franklin Square.

She fit in like an Andy Warhol Superstar, an Edie Sedgwick, a Candy Darling.

We became close friends, part of a clique.  There were other members of that clique, mostly drawn together by the office and the process of going through the Stanford Program.

We were in many ways a new wave of sisters, the first of the really modern.  We were better educated and less stereotypical.  We tossed out lines from books and movies as pithy epigrams.  We clubbed, dancing our nights away in bars and disco strung from North Beach to the Castro.  From The Stud on Folsom Street to the clubs on Polk.

We discussed movies, books and art as well as dishing the dirt over meals at Hamburger Mary’s and The Haven.

We looked at Vogue because it offered us style and fantasy as well as fashion and beautiful photography.  We learned our make-up and style from Vogue.  I studied composition from the photographs.

I got a camera and then another.

By 1974 I moved to Los Angeles and Leslie too soon left San Francisco.  I was trying to be a model. When Leslie came to LA I tried to get her interested in actually modeling as well because she was one of my favorite models.

I was coming out as lesbian and she was straight.  I showed my love for her with my Nikons, photographing he on a beach as desolate as a shot from an Antonioni film.

We had adventures and misadventures fueled by coke and Quaaludes, the glamor of Sunset Strip.

We hungered for different things. She  Her life goals were to have husband and home combined with an upper class glamor contrasted with my desire for an artist’s loft and an  “interesting life”.

She went off to Florida and Diane Mancuso’s tutelage. Diane being the most glamorous of our gang.

She enter into a short lived marriage with James Loewin, an attractive young photographer from Canada.

I lost touch with her for several years prior to reconnecting with her while she was living in Canada.

She was divorced and remarried to a man named Rod. When Jan and I visited her in Vancouver we discovered that she and her husband had adopted a large number of various primates.

Coupled with Leslie’s life long obsession with the collecting of antiques this made for a most interesting home.

Along the line I gained from Leslie a love of thrift and antique stores, garage sales and flea markets.  She would have been right at home appraising various antiques on the PBS show “Antique’s Roadshow”.

We shared many dear friends over the years and grieved the loss of most of them.  So much pain, so many talented people.

We were the last of a circle of friends. Laurie, Diane, Jan and all the other of our gang are dead leaving us filled with grief and emptiness.

I am so sad for Rod, who love her and stood by her these many years in sickness and health for Leslie was truly a diva with all that entails.  Some time sweet as honey, other times petty and demanding.

She was truly written by Tennessee Williams, that creator of women both larger than life and yet constriained.

Knowing that she was ill I sent her an excerpt from the book I am working on describing our first meeting.  she told me that she was awestruck by me just as I had been with her.

Friendships that span much of an adulthood,  surviving not only happy times but times of bitter disagreement and swearing you will never ever speak to the other again, only to mutually apologize a few years later are the rarest of all the jewels we discover over a lifetime.

Farewell Leslie.  Those of us who love you will always remember you, kindly and fondly