In the late 1930s, GonzÃ¡lo Segura, known to his friends as Tony, enrolled at Emory University to study biochemistry. He graduated in 1942 and then took a job with Foster D. Snell, a New York-based chemical engineering and consulting company that the United States Army hired to perform radiation testing. In the utmost secrecy, Segura tested which cleaning agents most effectively remove radiation from human hands. As his career in radiochemistry progressed, he kept silent about his growing attraction to other men. “I learned very early in life, when I was really a child, that this sexuality and all sexuality were things to keep to myself,” he told historian Jonathan Ned Katz, in 1977. He had always assumed that by the time he was in his twenties, he would develop desires for women and then get married and have children.
But in 1954, while on a business trip to Cleveland, Segura stopped by a bookstore and saw a copy of “The Homosexual in America” ââby Donald Webster Cory. âI immediately bought it and was quite fascinated with the book,â Segura told Katz. Cory argued that homosexuals were not individuals in difficulty but members of a distinct minority group who needed to organize and fight for their rights. On the back of the book was a list of other titles dealing with homosexuality. Segura returned to New York and, using the list as a guide, toured Manhattan bookstores, collecting any titles he could find. In a store on 42nd Street, he found Loren Wahl’s novel “The Invisible Glass,” which depicts homosexuality and racism in the military. Inside was a map of Greenberg, the New York-based small press that had published both Wahl’s novel and Cory’s book. The card, Segura recalls, had a note: “If you liked this book and would like to be kept up to date with other books on a similar topic, please let us know.” Segura wrote down his address and sent it to the publisher.
A few weeks later, he received a two-page newsletter announcing the title pick of the month from something called the Cory Book Service. “In the early 1950s in America, Donald Webster Cory probably had the biggest LGBT mailing list in the country, and possibly the world,” David K. Johnson, who describes the book service in “Buying Gay,” his book on the legacy of gay men’s physics magazines, told me. At its peak, the list had at least three thousand subscribers. The service did not have meetings; Cory simply picked books and sent the titles to his readers, highlighting everything from Marc Brandel’s novel “The Barriers Between,” about a man who murders his friend for “unnatural advances,” to “Homosexuality and western Christian tradition â, a gay theological book a story Cory described asâ the book hundreds of our readers have been looking for, âa book theyâ could give to their friends, family and advisers â. Many newsletter subscribers lived in the closet, and while the service didn’t offer a clear way for them to communicate with each other, the mailings offered glimpses of the community.
Operating a gay book service was not without its risks. Anti-Communists, including Joseph McCarthy, had promoted campaigns to expel gay people from government as suspected subversives, leading to the dismissal of thousands of federal employees in what has been dubbed the fear of lavender. After investigations by the Postal Service, US attorneys’ offices have charged and fined publishers of gay material for obscenity; Greenberg paid the government a fine of three thousand dollars in the mid-1950s and had several of his books removed from publication for alleged obscenity. Gay men caught distributing gay books could face worse fines than fines. Federal law allowed up to five years in prison. In some states, when gay people were arrested on moral grounds, “the police often informed bar associations or medical clearance boards or especially schools,” assistant professor Anna Lvovsky told me. at Harvard Law School. “The real shadow that hung over these arrests was the threat of collateral consequences such as job loss.” VÃctor MacÃas-GonzÃ¡lez, historian and author of an article on Tony Segura, told me that many queer people refuse to buy gay books, instead borrowing them through rental services, which are available to a number of bookstores in the time.
And yet, the early 1950s saw a boom in queer literature, driven in part by the boom in cheap paperbacks. Historian Michael Bronski estimated that around three hundred books on gay men were published between 1940 and 1969. The trend was not limited to books on men: “Women’s Barracks: The Frank Autobiography of a French Girl Soldier” , a lesbian novel published in 1950, sold two million copies in its first five years. Vin Packer’s lesbian pulp novel “Spring Fire” sold 1.5 million copies in its first year alone. In âBuying Gay,â Johnson quotes a letter a Massachusetts librarian sent to Greenberg asking for additional titles: âCustomers have asked me to get some ‘so-called’ gay books. “
Brandt Aymar, Greenberg’s vice president, began compiling a list of clients who wrote to him looking for books. According to Johnson, he counted their names and mailing addresses in what he called the “H” list (presumably for “gay”), in hopes of further exploiting the market. In 1951, Aymar published Cory’s âThe Homosexual in Americaâ. Cory called on homosexuals “to extend the freedom of the individual, of speech, of the press and of thought to a whole new area.” The book caused a stir: the first print sold in ten days, and Cory was inundated with letters from readers. As Johnson notes in âBuying Gay,â Aymar decided to combine his âHâ list with Cory’s letters to form the Cory Book Service. Together, they thought, they would have a direct line to the gay book market.
In the inaugural issue of the Books Service, sent out in September 1952, Cory promised that many of the books he featured would be available to his subscribers before they hit the store. He got big discounts from foreign publishers; after purchasing four books, readers received the fifth free of charge. In January 1953, Cory reported that about two thousand subscribers had purchased at least one book. He took advantage of his reach to reprint at least one older book, convincing the publisher of a seven-year novel, “David the King,” by Gladys Schmitt, to launch a new print run, noting that its readers “have has asked us several times over the past few months “about this. The Books Service has also lobbied for English translations of books that had been published in other languages, and has already made available a title that did not yet have an American publisher: “The Charioteer” by British author Mary Renault, which the Cory Book Service offered in 1954, five years before the book was available for sale in the United States
Considering the hostility towards homosexuality at the time, it’s a small miracle that the newsletter escaped censorship. Johnson told me he doesn’t know why the post office never seems to have confiscated him. Cory appears to have had a legal team to verify the books he recommended: When Jay Little, a gay author, wrote to Cory asking him to place his “Maybe-Tomorrow” book with the service, Cory responded. that while he enjoyed the novel, âOur attorneys not only advised, but also ordered us not to use your book.â Despite these obvious precautions, Cory and Aymar chose to operate their business in public: the book service had a physical address in Manhattan, which appeared at the top of the newsletter. To add subscribers, Cory convinced popular photographers, such as George Quaintance, to promote the service, according to Johnson.
The mailing list was also spread by word of mouth. During a discussion group sponsored by the Mattachine Society – a secret gay organization that had formed in Los Angeles in 1950 – someone mentioned the Cory Book Service, and soon after, a participant contacted Cory, asking him for fifty newsletter subscription cards. Separately, another company representative told Cory his service was a “most timely development” and offered to combine the names of “sympathizers” with the company’s mailing list. A deal between the two doesn’t appear to have come to fruition, but Cory made a deal with the newly created magazine. A, promising to send its subscribers mailings of A in exchange for a royalty. “If it hadn’t been for Donald Webster Cory’s list, A magazine, which gay historians consider critical, may not have taken off, âJohnson told me. In 1955, when a small group of lesbians formed the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization in the United States, they sent a message to A, Mattachine and the Cory Book Service. âThey knew it would help put them on the map,â Marcia Gallo, a historian who wrote about the Daughters of Bilitis in her book âDifferent Girlsâ told me.