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

7 Responses to “Leslie St Clair: In Memoriam”

  1. Véronique Says:

    Sorry for your loss, Suzan. Real friends are special.

  2. Marlene Says:

    I’m in 100% agreement. I have a number of precious friends after so many years alone and so many years in self-isolation thanks to being trapped in rural Ohio.

    Most of them I’ll never be able to meet in person, but they’re more precious than gold, platinum, silver and diamonds combined!

    I grieve with thee, Suzan…

  3. Caroline Says:

    Nothing is so priceless as a true friend.

    Caroline xxx

  4. Debra Says:

    She had an wonderful friend in you. God bless.

  5. Angela Says:

    Sorry to hear about your friend. Seeing the photo of you and Leslie reminds me that you and Leslie were supporting each other and fighting for our rights even when I was a small girl living on a different continent. That’s very special.

  6. Anna Says:

    My sympathies with your loss, Suzan.

    Can you say what illness took her?

    You have some striking photographs. That of you both outside the counseling centre just months before you SRS is remarkable.

    Was the center, funded by an F->M, for F->Ms too?

    • Suzan Says:

      The Center grew out of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in 1966, documented in Susan Stryker’s and Victor Silverman’s documentary “Screaming Queens”.. It was a riot of “trannie hookers” who were ghettoized in the Tenderloin of San Francisco. In the ensuing months many of the sisters who lived down the street from Compton’s in a residential hotel that was across the street from where that picture was taken started forming groups at Glide Memorial Church, then run by Rev. Cecil Williams. Contact was made with Police Community Relations Officer Elliott Blackstone who was connected enough to get SF Public Health and Human Resources involved. There was War on Poverty money that initially funded the program.

      Reed Erickson, an F to M gave us a grant to continue when we applied for it.

      At that point T to M folks were pretty scarce and while a couple were going through the Stanford Program and were friends we didn’t have much to offer that was specifically targeted. They were able to use the same Public Health Clinic and the same “friends” at the Office of Economic Opportunity.

      But on the whole location matters and where our office was helped determine who utilized us.

      OTOH we had more social contact with the brothers than official. They came to some potlucks thrown by those going through the program and went for coffee, dinner with some of us after the monthly meeting.

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