Now, at 78, I am looking back at six decades of being a Master and wondering what my life might have been if Charley had not decided to have me trained to be his Master.* How many years might have gone by, even a lifetime, with me not recognizing my desires and inclinations for what they were — and still are — if I had not been awakened?
How strange it seems now for me and my friends in those days to be called “the Old Guard,” as if we were the forefathers of some movement instead of just the horny leather guys we were. We didn’t think we were creating a mythology but merely a structure we could function in. Most of the men were ex-GIs from WWII, so many of the disciplines and rituals had a military flavor and influence.
“Sir” used as a term of respect not only reflected the guys’ military background but also the long-established formalities of the British serving class. There were no guidebooks or even much fiction to draw on. The Marquis de Sade and William S. Burroughs offered their viewpoints, but so did Oscar Wilde. Frankly, we fumbled our way most of the time, depending on our brothers to help us become expert in our skills. There was no disdain or condescension toward a novice like me. Rather there was a welcoming into the fold and a generous sharing of knowledge, philosophy, and skills. And always the insistence that we each strive to be stronger, wiser, more skilled, and — above all — more respectful.
What we had in those days was what I would call leather tribes. As with the tribes of the original American Indians, manners, mores, and traditions varied from tribe to tribe and location to location. So while the leather tribes of California, New York City, and elsewhere in the late 1940s and early 1950s had similar styles and expressions of our common kink, there were distinct differences. My personal experience with a leather “family” and close-knit community in L.A. was sadly missing after I moved back to New York, where I have spent most of my life. Although I was born and had grown up in that city, for several years in my 20s I wandered its streets like a nomad, part of the leather tribe but not a member of any family. Later I managed to create my own families — several of them in the course of my long life in the leather scene.
I have drawn on my own experiences to create the stories in this book. The opening novella, “The Slave Journals,” depicts what I imagined an ideal leather group, called the Centurions, might be like. I was very young when I began writing it, and it was never published. All the other stories, written very recently and also previously unpublished, are from the Master’s perspective. They are based on real men and events from my life, but they have been enhanced and eroticized and condensed into first-person narratives by imaginary characters. I hope these will be as entertaining to read as they were to write. References to the Centurions in the later stories are literary license, to give the collection more cohesion. But let me emphasize here that the Centurions never existed; the club is, if you will, my personal myth. But the context for the Centurions was very real, and I lived within it, on both coasts.
The leather scene has evolved, for better or worse, over the decades I have enjoyed its pleasures. Compared with “The Slave Journals,” the later stories certainly reflect my mellowing in those years. Still, I am a product of my training — and of the men who served me and demanded that I match their excellence with my own.
The use of the term “Master” has changed over the years. In the 1950s it typically meant the guy in charge, who had mastered a series of skills and had a strong sense of responsibility toward his partner. This overlapped substantially with the term “Top,” which became popular a couple of decades later. Subsequently “Master” was expanded to include what some think of as ownership. Historically there have always been two distinct meanings, “master” as a person with the ability or power to use, control, or dispose of something, and an owner of a slave. In the language of the Old Guard, either would be considered “correct” if accompanied by a sense of responsibility.
Most of the time, as I learned, slaves choose their Masters, as Charley chose me. You might not agree, but think about the men you know. Haven’t you known cases where a good Master and a good slave get together and have an excellent interaction, and then, a month or two later, that slave surrenders far more completely to another Master? Was that second Master more skilled, or was it simply, as I believe, that he awakened the slave — or possibly vice versa?
Unlike men forced into slavery, a leather slave embraces and surrenders to his role freely and usually quite enthusiastically. But that doesn’t always mean easily or quickly. In the early years, leathermen often referred to the initiation of a novice slave as a process of “breaking” him — like breaking a wild stallion, slowly and carefully bringing him to the point where he could be mounted and ridden. I briefly worked on a ranch in Texas where I watched the cowboys perform this process many times, and much skill was involved. It was important to establish a rapport with the horse, to gentle him, before he could be mounted. But in the end, the horse decided which rider he would surrender to. There was little use for a horse so broken that anyone could ride him. In the early West, a horse was a cowboy’s constant companion and basis of survival; cowboy and horse had to become one.
So the idea of “breaking” a would-be slave was to bring him to the point of acceptance of the Master he wanted. And if you were the Master, you then had to take responsibility for that slave —in some respects, the obligation lasted a lifetime, even if Master and slave parted ways, as Charley and I did.
Humility, not arrogance, is probably the most important quality in both Master and slave, followed by respect and gratitude. Many of the emotions that were expressed by those early leathermen were based on the military’s powerful buddy system, where each man was responsible for and to the buddy he lived and fought with. My own first leather family was composed almost entirely of ex-military men. I was like a young pony in a stable full of trained stallions who nudged me gently toward my manhood.
Do I think things were better back then? Yes and no. Anything that resists change will stagnate, and while not every change is an improvement, it does often lead to something better.
Do I approve of slaves wearing leather? Technically, no — but I certainly like to see a hot one sporting custom leathers that mold around his tight, round butt. The men of the ’50s didn’t have hankie flags to signal their specific kinks or keychains to indicate their roles. We weren’t even sure whether “s/m” (or “S&M”) stood for slave/master or sadist/masochist. We used far more subtle signals, like buckling a garrison belt on the left or right hip, or even wearing a center-buckled belt so that its tongue pointed right rather than left. Today’s sharp distinctions between Masters and Tops, or slaves and bottoms, were unknown to us. We called our partners just that: partner.
But Masters and slaves were easily distinguished from each other by their clothing styles. Leathers, for the most part reserved for Masters, were only available from bike shops and were expensive. Men who were slave identified usually dressed in just a T-shirt and chinos or jeans. When certain word usages changed over the years, it reflected a shift in attitude. For instance, what we called “the work” became “play,” and “equipment” or “gear” became “toys.” Hard-asses, myself included, scoffed at the shift, declaring that “Men work and children play.”
Most of my life I have been both blessed and honored by good friends and excellent partners. Some of these relationships have lasted a lifetime, though, sadly, for many that lifetime was shortened by AIDS. I have elected to keep all of these stories before that time — before safe sex and condoms became literally a way of life.
Amidst all the pain of the plague years, I created a new leather family with five men who sought a safe harbor by bonding together in service to a single Master. They were, and still are, my last leather family, and while we no longer live together, we are still tied by bonds of love and respect.
Growing up in Greenwich Village, I was surrounded by artists, both serious painters and commercial artists who worked on Madison Avenue. I have made images all my life, but the medium has shifted, from pen and pencil to paint to, most recently, Photoshop. My early erotic art was inspired and influenced by Tom of Finland, Bill Ward, and Harry Bush as well as by the great pin-up artists of the female form, Varga and Petty.
The illustrations in this book are not specific to any of the characters in the stories, though a couple do have the Centurion star on their hands. They were created in Photoshop using the various tools that system provides. Dozens of photographs were used as reference for each image. This technique is similar to the Photorealism that was popular with painters in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I have had a long and wonder-filled journey, and I hope that you enjoy this fictionalized glimpse into a world that lives now only in memory. Today’s leather scene still offers glorious men and their beautiful bodies, their throbbing cocks and puckering holes, their leathers and the whips they wield. And still that marvelous single word, “Sir.”
Philadelphia, April 2010
* I describe this partnership in my essay, “One Among Many,” in Leatherfolk, edited by Mark Thompson (Alyson, 1991).
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