San Francisco celebrated Pride in big style this past weekend, a fitting time to pay tribute to the late gay activist and internationally famous icon, Harvey Milk, with a look at letters from his early, pre-political life.
Harvey Milk was born in New York in 1930, nearly 40 years before Stonewall and 42 years before his move to San Francisco that changed the course of history.
Through his letters, written 1956–1962 to his good friend, Susan Davis Alch, a picture emerges of a young man preoccupied with universal concerns: love, work, money (mostly, lack of), where to live, relationships, bars and hangouts, and more. He is by turn playful, extravagant, distracted, eloquent and humorous. He writes of his unrequited love for John Harvey and his relationship with and love for Joe Campbell.
He is a young man, unhappily working for an insurance company, still trying to find his role in life. On the subject of money, there is never enough of it. Not enough to travel to see Sue, not enough to eat and drink at pricey restaurants and bars. In Manhattan, his job “pays well,” but the cost of rent is high. In a letter dated Sept. 1, 1960, he writes that “better apartments rent $1,200–1,500,” and the cost of “better coops” ranges from $80,000–250,000; and hundreds of tall apartment houses “rent like this.” “Where do all those people get their money from and why can’t I get some,” he laments.
More on life in New York City is documented in a letter dated Aug. 27, 1958: “You asked, How’s New York. Answer: Cold, Dirty, Hard, Cruel, Rough, Demanding, Beautiful, Magnificent, Wonderful, Exciting, Fascinating, Sensational…the most wonderful place to live if you realize that everywhere there are faults & see beneath the surface of the dusty surface to see the polish and beauty, as in an antique that has sat for years in a corner, covered with the dust of time until one day you rub off a little & see the beauty of the finish & excitingly, you rub off more & more until the whole lies in full view – a work of art that pleases the heart & eyes as well as the mind – and even the touch gives a fine sensation.”
In a darker note, with anti-gay harassment foreshadowing the 1969 Stonewell riots, he writes on July 11, 1960, “The bars have had a tough time lately and most are closed.”
Throughout the letters, Milk makes clear the importance of his highly regarded friendship with his correspondent, Susan Davis. Again, in the letter dated Aug. 27, 1958, he writes “…if I was (sic) straight I would fly to Chicago to sweep you off your feet and rush you to the nearest Justice of the Peace.” He is extravagant in his praise. In the same letter, he closes by saying, “My very best to the most beautiful girl in Chicago & the 2nd most beautiful girl in the world (I told my mother that she is first).” In yet another letter, dated June 24, 1961, he writes of her marriage: “…of course I am crushed and tormented that you are no longer Sue, but ‘Mrs. George Alch.’”
This sense of humor is apparent throughout the letters. In one letter, he writes, “Dear Sue,” with an arrow pointing down, with the instruction, “Start Here,” followed later by “Turn to Next Piece of Paper,” “Start Here After Finishing First Page,” and so on, until concluding with a final arrow and the words, “Start to Write Reply.” In another letter, he writes in a circle, starting with the outer edges of the paper and working his way to the center. In yet another, each line continues on the back of the page, requiring the reader to flip the paper back and forth, to continue the sequence of thought. For the most part, the letters are hand-written, on company stationery, yellow notepads, thin yellow parchment, airmail-type stationery – clearly, whatever was handy.
Resilience and a fighting spirit are among the values we find in his letters, also foreshadowing his critical future role in the struggle for LGBT rights. Briefly, he and Joe Campbell moved to Dallas, found it not to their liking, and subsequently returned to New York. On writing about his mother’s illness in a letter dated Aug. 1, 1960, he says, “My mother has been on borrowed time for 2 ½ years, we realize it can come anytime – but we do not walk with bowed heads, instead we walk happy & full of life for the present.”
Harvey Milk served on a submarine with the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, and later was stationed in San Diego. Perhaps moving back to California was already his destiny, when in the June 24, 1961 letter to “Mrs. George Alch,” he writes: “You picked a most treasured and fascinating city to get married in. I spent over 6 months in SF when I was in the Navy and loved every inch and hill.”
Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972. He ran multiple times for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and was elected City Supervisor in 1977, the first openly gay man to be elected to major political office in the country. He, along with Mayor George Moscone, was shot and killed by a former member of the Board of Supervisors, Dan White, in November1978, just ten months after being elected to the office. The story of Harvey Milk and his activist role in San Francisco politics and gay and lesbian rights was memorialized in the 2008 film, Milk, in which the actor Sean Penn played the role of Harvey Milk.
The U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative Forever stamp in honor of Harvey Milk on April 21, 2014. A dedication ceremony for the new stamp was held in San Francisco on May 28, 2014, and the stamp immediately sold out at the Castro Street Post Office. The stamp is available at local post offices and online through the U.S. Postal Service.
Credit: HARVEY MILK ARCHIVES – SCOTT SMITH COLLECTION, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY. Special thanks to Tim Wilson, curator and librarian of the James C. Hormel Center Archives; Susan Goldstein, City Archivist; and to all the staff of the San Francisco History Center and Book Arts and Special Collections Department of the San Francisco Public Library for their gracious assistance.