Baim, Tracy and Owen Keehnen. “Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow”, Prairie Avenue Productions, 2011.
I have anxiously awaiting the arrival of “Leatherman” ever since I heard it was being written by two of my favorite GLBT writers, Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen. It finally came, just on time to take my mind off of getting ready to go to New Orleans for the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival and I am so glad it did. I can now go to the festival and brag about the book and brag I will. Leatherman was Chuck Renslow who lives as an openly gay man in Chicago in the 1950’s, a time when we just did not come out publicly. But this wasn’t all that was important about Renslow; it was just the beginning and now we have the story of a true gay American hero as related to us by Baim and Keehnen. Renslow was a gay activist and an entrepreneur and he helped change the face of American gay life. He was active for more than sixty years as a businessman and as a gay icon. He was a bar owner, had photo studios and health clubs, bathhouses, he ran gay magazines and newspapers and had hotels, restaurants and bookstores. During the times that he did this, he had to pay off the Mafia (many of us do not know that there was a time when the Mafia actually controlled the gay bars and businesses) as well as the police, He suffered from censorship and the gay community was split in the way they followed him. There was also a great deal of harassment and things were nothing like they are today. I do not know if today we realize what courage it took for Renslow to be out and open at a time when this was not done and the truth of the matter is that it could have been an issue of life or death.
Renslow also began dabbling in beefcake photography in the 50’s and he ran the Kris Studio which became one of the leaders in beefcake photography. Renslow was not alone; his partner was Dom Orejudos (who was also known as Etienne and Stephen) and the two men totally supported each other. Out of their studio came magazines- “Triumph”, “Mars” and “The Rawhide Male”. Renslow also produced some films out of the studio.
The Chicago community knew him as the man who transformed the Gold Coast Show Lounge into a leather bar and not just any leather bar but one that became famous (for a lot of different reasons) all over the world. It was famous for the erotic murals by Dom (then known as the artist Etienne) on the walls and for what some would call the clandestine sexual activity that went on there. There was a dress code for those who came and anything was fine as long as it was uniform, cowboy or leather. Sex groups and motorcycle clubs came out of the bar and there was a lot of kinky sex going on in the area known as the Dark Pit. What Renslow wanted the bar to be was a place where gay men could meet and have sex as they explored themselves and each other. Rawhide in New Orleans followed the guidelines set in Chicago at the Gold Coast and soon leather bars began to pop up all over the country and even the world.
The Gold Coast also has a history of being the location of the first leather contest which in 1979 became the International Mr. Leather Contest which is still held annually in Chicago and is one of the most popular of gay events and right up there with circuit parties and Southern Decadence.
At one time gay bathhouses were seedy establishments that provided instant gratification and little more than a sex club. Renslow changed that with “Man’s Country”—it was a sex palace sure but it also provided entertainment and had shops and a Music Hall with top entertainers.
Renslow did not shirk from politics. He worked with legendary Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. He went to President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration ball and danced with another man. He was active in the fight against censorship and lobbied against unfair police practices and entrapments. He went head to head with orange juice queen, Anita Bryant. He worked with the Kinsey Institute and actually performed sex floor researchers. He had friends who were celebrities (Divine, Sylvester, Dietrich, Nureyev and Crisp) and his White Parties were the talk of the town and the gay community.
Renslow bailed out the dying gay paper in Chicago, “Gay Life” and he ran it and through it he spoke out against the ignorance of AIDS and he gave a great deal of money to AIDS charities. He was well aware of how much AIDS devastated our community and he founded the Leather Archives and Museum which provided for a history of the Chicago gay community to have a history and so that those that we lost to AIDS would be remembered.
There was a group created by Renslow which was made up of his friends and sex partners who came together out of love and it was a family that provided solace when it was so badly needed. And Renslow has not stopped and he continues working for the GLBT community. The book tells is who he really was and of the myths that surround him. He is well known by many but understood by few and I am sure that this book will change that. I don’t know Chuck Renslow personally but I sure know a lot about him now. This is positively one of the most readable books ever and I can tell you that my copy arrived at 10 this morning and I sat down and did not move until I finished it a few moments ago. What is so unique is that you feel Baim’s and Keehnen’s love and respect for the man throughout and it evident that this was a labor of love.
The book also includes a wealth of visual aids—with over 300 pictures and drawings as well as IML posters. This is a joy of a book because you not only learn about one sensational man but you also get a sense of the history of our community. Renslow is very lucky to have two writers like Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen tell his story. They should both be very proud of the job they have done but then they had a really fine person to write about.