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Photo of Harvey Milk, Leo Piscopo and Pat VeseyGot Milk?

In an example of less than "six degrees of separation," this Web manager discovered that the father of a close friend was in turn a close friend of gay icon Harvey Milk, prior to his becoming the first non-incumbent openly gay man elected to public office in the U.S.  Long story short, Harvey Milk and three friends—Leo, Pat and Artie—were a tightly knit group in high school, the military, and afterward.  Below are three interviews conducted in 2005:  one with Pat, one with Artie, and one with Leo's daughter Eve, representing her deceased father.  (Photos are courtesy of Pat and Eve.)  The story is one of real male bonding in the 1940s and beyond, characterized by mutual respect and deep affection among these four diverse friends.  Thanks go to the interviewees for their willingness to help in this project, which is offered  as a humble and grateful tribute to a real hero, Harvey Milk.

 

Front: Leo Piscopo. Back: Harvey Milk, Pat Vesey.

Interview with Eve Wilson, daughter of Leo Piscopo

Doug:  Eve, I understand that Harvey Milk was good friends with your late father, Leonardo Piscopo, and that they grew up together on Long Island.  Mr. Milk, as you know, would later become a prominent gay civil rights leader and would be slain in 1978.  Can you give us an idea of who he was as a person, starting with your earliest memories of him? 

Eve:  I met Harvey in 1951 or 1952, when I was either ten or eleven years old, and saw him frequently in our home until I graduated high school.  Our home was in Bay Shore, Long Island, which has the ferry lines to Fire Island.  (There was always a gay summer colony in Cherry Grove on Fire Island and I was always aware of this.  But "gay" was not a part of everyday life in the Fifties.  It was rarely mentioned but not a secret.)  Harvey was always very nice to me as a young person and he was always easygoing.  [Editor’s note:  Born in 1930, Milk was in his twenties at this time, having attended college and now serving in the Navy.]
  
Doug:  Back when they were teens, how did Harvey, your father and their circle of friends spend time together?   

Eve:  My father and his friends spent a lot of time playing sports and enjoying life.  They were mostly poor boys but some families had money and from what I was told those wealthier parents were very generous in treating the fellows to small trips and activities. Young men dressed very well, that is, in suits, and enjoyed dancing, playing pool, going to the beach, and usually had some sort of job. Everyone went to the movies and they were a close-knit group.  When I knew him, Harvey used to come to the house to visit and frequently they would all get together and talk about old times and what they were now doing.  At this time he was in the Navy, while my father was in the Merchant Marine.  When my dad and his friends were in high school they were the generation who got taken out of their senior year and drafted for World War II.  Harvey was alittle younger than my father though, attended college and then served in the Navy in the Fifties. There was a lot of laughter and you could see that they really liked each other and it was very comfortable. He was very nice—polite, pleasant, cheerful and had a big smile.  

Doug:  Was there any indication that he was gay when you knew him? 

Eve:  There was no indication he was gay.  Not with this group.  I don’t think any of them thought about social justice issues either. Many of them were happy to be alive after the war and times were hard.  I think there was at least a decade before he started to become who he is known as now.  

Doug:  But according to Neil Miller’s Out of the Past, Harvey Milk already knew he was gay at age fourteen.  Did your father later feel betrayed that his close friend had not shared this part of himself with them? 

Eve:  No, I don’t think so.  My father was very accepting of everybody but it was, after all, the Fifties and you didn’t talk about it back then.  My father and the other men in the group were extremely handsome and I can imagine that Harvey may have been attracted to them. [Laughs.] But I know Harvey didn’t hit on any of the gang—that would have been a mistake!  

Doug:  Did Harvey exhibit a strong sense of social justice when he was friends with your dad?  Was there any sign that he would later become a civil rights activist? 

Eve:  My father and his friends were frankly surprised that Harvey Milk was the person he has come to be known as—this was not the young man they knew.  Were they shocked?  No.  My father had been around the world many times working as a seaman.  He was very accepting of others.  Was I surprised? Yes.  I am very much into social issues and feel strongly about civil rights. It showed me that people come into their own from many experiences and Harvey Milk was a man of his times, shaped by circumstances. (I would have loved as an adult to have known him. I am very much my own person.  How you come to be cannot always be explained.  I have many gay friends, and they are all very individual personalities.  I know them through my thirty years in the antiques business and my life as a political leader.) 

Doug:  As you know, Eve, Harvey Milk lived in NYC in the late 1950s and 60s, then became a highly visible San Francisco supervisor and gay civil rights activist in the late 70s.  He was assassinated in 1978 by an anti-gay political opponent, onetime San Francisco supervisor Dan White.  How did your father react to that news?  And how did you react to it?  

Eve:  I was horrified!  My father was horrified!  All of a sudden the whole thing exploded on me and my curiosity was how did he get from here to there? But whatever, it shouldn’t be this way, that people should be killed for being who they are. 

Doug:  Knowing Harvey Milk in the way your family did, Eve, what do you think he would say to us, whether we are gay or straight?

Eve:  I don’t want to put words in his mouth but I imagine he would share the struggle of not being able to tell even his close friends he was gay.  But I also think, since Harvey became a real activist for what he believed in, he would have shared his feelings and thoughts about the rights of individuals to be who they are regardless of their beliefs.  I think he was about much more than just the gay community.

●●●

Yearbook photo of football team including Harvey Milk and Pat Vesey

Left: Highlighted L to R, Varsity footballers Harvey Milk and Pat Vesey, from the 1947 Bay Shore High School yearbook. The team broke a record by winning 20 straight games.
Yearbook photo of Harvey Milk in football uniform
 
Right: JV footballer Harvey Milk, from the 1946 Bay Shore High School yearbook
 

Interview with Pat Vesey

Doug:  Pat, how old were you when you first knew Harvey Milk? 

Pat:  I knew him when I was fourteen to seventeen years old; he was a year younger than I.  Harvey graduated high school in 1947 at the age of sixteen:  he was a good student.  He went to Albany State College which at the time was a premier school in the New York system of education, and he graduated there at age twenty.  He then joined the Navy SEALs—we were all in the service.  And then I saw Harvey again around 1957 in Forest Hills near New York City at the home of a mutual friend, Peggy Myers.  Also Harvey attended his fifteen-year high school reunion [in 1962]. 

Doug:  What kind of a person was Harvey as a young person? 

Pat:  He was outgoing and had a tremendous sense of humor!  In those years sometimes I would get dressed up in a pinstripe suit and a nice shirt, so they called me “Duke.” If Harvey would see me at a distance down the street, he’d call out, “Hey Duke!”  (He on the other hand once wore an old jacket to a party where everyone was all dressed up—ever the rebel!)

Doug:  Harvey Milk knew he was gay from the age of fourteen.  Did you or any of your group? 

Pat:  No, I didn’t know until the early Seventies when he became active in San Francisco politics—and I was surprised he was gay.  One night I came home from my bowling league; it was about midnight.  My wife was asleep; the kids were asleep.  I picked up a Newsweek to read so I could get sleepy.  There was a small picture of Harvey [but it didn’t quite look like him], and he was described as the first elected gay official of a major U.S. city.  I said, “That couldn’t be Harvey” but then how many people could have a name like “Harvey Milk?” I’ve never heard of another one, have you?  I looked closer and couldn’t wait to see Artie the next day.  Well he had seen the same thing.  Then we figured it out:  he had gotten a nose job!  He had had quite a prominent nose. 

Doug:  Did you feel betrayed that this close friend of yours had never told you he was gay? 

Pat:  No, not at all!   My biggest regret was that I didn’t take up the phone and say, “Good for you, Harvey!” And I always thought that next time I got out to the West Coast I would just stop in to the Castro Street Camera Shop and surprise him, but I never got out there and I never got around to picking up the phone.  You know how you put something off and then you never do it. 

Doug:  Did he ever date girls in high school or otherwise try to pass as straight? 

Pat:  No, to my knowledge he never dated girls.  But there were a couple of girls in our group and he would jump up and dance with them.  

Doug:  Did he have any problems related to his being Jewish? 

Pat:  I don’t think so.  Ours was an eclectic group.  Leo [Piscopo] was Italian; Artie [Schiller] was German-Irish; I’m Irish—I’m referring to extraction of course.  There may have been a couple of black kids that we were friends with.  Harvey’s parents probably tried to raise him strictly, but he wasn’t very religious—I don’t know that he attended synagogue.  His parents had a nice home on the road leading to the ferries that went to Fire Island. 

Doug:  How was it that you all were so appreciative of diversity at a time when many people were not? 

Pat:  Well as for myself, I was one of twelve children:  my mother had three sets of twins.  We were not rich—I guess we were poor but didn't know it.  [Laughs.] So we used to go to the Sears Roebuck store.  I well remember in 1945 or 1946 my mother sitting at the kitchen table telling us she had gone to the Sears store that day—and complained to the manager, "I don't see any colored people working here!" Now remember Brown vs. Board of Education was in 1954, so this was almost a decade before that.  So some of who I am came from my upbringing.

Doug:  Wow!  So basically you, Leo, Artie and Harvey were the core members of your social group?

Pat:  Yes.  Less so was Joe Anderson, who became "Father Basil" when he joined the Benedictines.  And there was Joe's sister Marie, who says, "Harvey gave me my first kiss." But you know, she was maybe eleven at the time so there wasn't anything to it—it was actually a greeting kiss when Harvey visited them when he was in the Navy.  And also there was John Nirmaier.  Both Joe and John are deceased; Marie lives in New Mexico; but I'm still close friends with Artie.  The neighborhood hasn't much changed.  If you ever get to Long Island, Doug, I'd be happy to show you around and take you to the bar Artie owned:  I still go there!

Doug:  Thank you!  It’s great to hear that things haven’t changed after all these years, and that you’re still tight with Artie.  Now tell me, did Harvey ever demonstrate any social consciousness or strong sense of justice as a young person?

Pat:  Not really.  Oh, if there were an injustice he would see on the street, he would probably speak out about it, but he didn't really develop that until the Sixties when everybody did.  He was a stand-up guy, though [i.e., he was not one to back down].  This anecdote goes back to when we were in our late teens.  We were in the habit of tossing each other our keys and borrowing each other's cars.  (And you've got to understand this was back when New York cabdrivers were very belligerent.  Nowadays they're often immigrants and very polite, but then they were very belligerent).   One day Harvey and Artie borrowed my car.  I was home and when Artie next saw me, he said, "Paddy, you would have laughed your ass off!  We were in the city around 34th Street and suddenly this cab turned out of nowhere.  We went right straight ahead and sheered a fender right off the cab.  Well the cabdriver jumped out and Harvey jumped out and they were there, nose to nose.  Then the driver quietly turned around, picked up the fender and drove off.  He probably thought, 'This guy is nuts.  I'd better not mess with him!'"

But that’s how Harvey was.  He was such a stand-up guy—he wouldn’t take anything from anyone. 

Doug:  What are some other anecdotes you might tell us that reveal the kind of person Harvey Milk was as an adolescent and young man?

Pat:  Oh he had a tremendous sense of humor!  One time he returned for a visit to Bay Shore and went to the bar Artie owned for over forty years and [stayed after closing time, drinking with Artie until dawn].  The next day Artie said, "All Harvey drank all night long was [cheap] Thunderbird Wine!" But he also would have been just as comfortable drinking champagne, that's how he was.

One time we went to a party about fifteen miles from Bay Shore.  We made a wrong turn and wound up in a neighborhood with these big, expensive homes and large lawns.  We saw this huge place and pulled up because it was obvious there was a party going on there.  Harvey jumped out and said, "I'll check it out!" Well he didn't come out for awhile and then we saw him walk past a window and he tipped his drink to us, like thumbing his nose at us.  Artie said, "Look at the bastard!" Then he came out and we asked him if that was the party we were going to?  Well it wasn't, but Harvey was just having a good time.  "You sonofabitch!" Artie said.  Of course it was all in fun.

When he was in Albany at college, Artie would stop in to see him—and then would report that Harvey knew where all the cheap bars were and those were the only places he would take Artie: where he could get five-cent beers.

He was a regular guy.  I mean in high school after a snowstorm we'd get throwing snowballs at each other and then at cars.  Harvey would be right there in the mix....  I've got the 1947 high school yearbook.  I'm reading his profile:  "Football 3,4; Basketball 3,4; Variety Show; Jr. Prom Committee." Hmm, what do you think?  I'm wondering if he was on Prom Committee so he wouldn't have to attend the prom himself?  Huh, I never thought of that before now.

Doug:  Pat, how did you react when you heard he was assassinated? 

Pat:  Oh my God, I almost cried.  I didn’t actually cry but I almost did.  I must have said to my wife, “Only the good die young” or something like that because that’s how I felt.  I severely regretted not going to see him, or even picking up the phone.  

Doug:  Is there anything else you can tell us about Harvey? 

Pat:  His nickname in high school was "Glimpy." I don't know how we got these nicknames and I don't know how he got his.  My wife will ask me, "Where did these names come from?" and I say, "I don't know!"

Doug:  Pat, thank you so much for helping us understand Harvey Milk in his younger years.  He is a personal hero to me as well as to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. 

Pat:  I’m happy to help you with this, Doug.  I don’t believe other accounts of Harvey’s earlier life are very accurate, since the authors didn’t interview us who knew him best.  After Harvey was murdered, [one author] did some research at Bay Shore High School and interviewed the librarian, Eileen Mulcahy.  She referred him to us, Harvey’s friends, but he didn’t follow up on it.  I want to do this.  For Harvey.  

●●●

Photo of Harvey Milk and friends on the beachPictured L to R:  Artie Schiller, Leo Piscopo, Leo's girlfriend, Harvey Milk, John Nirmaier and John's girlfriend Anne Subiondo

Interview with Artie Schiller

Doug:  Artie, I understand that you, Pat, Leo and Harvey were good friends in high school and beyond.  What made Harvey Milk a good friend to you? 

Artie:  He was one of the funniest guys!  And he was also smart:  he graduated high school at sixteen and then graduated Albany State Teachers College at twenty.  After high school he went to college and I went into the Merchant Marine and we used to correspond.  He was a helluva guy.  He played football and basketball.  And believe it or not, he always had the prettiest girl! We used to double-date. 

Doug:  Oh?  Pat couldn’t remember that Harvey ever dated girls in high school. 

Artie:  Yes he did—and the girls were always real pretty! 

Doug:  Well did you have any idea he was gay in his growing-up years? 

Artie:  No way in hell.  But that never bothered me.  You’ve got to understand, Doug, I’ve been going to Fire Island since 1938, and of course Fire Island was a haven for gays.  I never saw him there though.  He could have gone but I never saw him there.  The first clue I had, we had high school class reunions every five years.  He didn’t come at the fifth year or the tenth year, but came for the fifteenth year in 1962.  Harvey was just Harvey, but he had different tastes.  Of course when he was here for that reunion, all he would drink was Thunderbird Wine.  After that reunion we lost track and I never did see him again. 

Doug:  But did you feel bad that this close friend of yours had never come out to you? 

Artie:  It didn’t bother me.  When he did come out, that was the greatest thing!  Back then if they were gay they kept it to themselves.  But then Harvey had the courage to come out, and then a lot of people also did. 

Doug:  What was your reaction when you heard he was an openly gay public official in San Francisco?

Artie:  It was the late Seventies when he was elected supervisor.  I always had CBS on the radio when I used to manage a couple of Off Track Betting branches, and that's when I heard it.  I said, "I'm gonna go out and see that guy!" But it wasn't until after he was killed that I got there and saw the Castro Street Camera Shop, which now was the Harvey Milk Democratic Club.  This was the early Eighties when I went there for a fundraiser.  But the people I talked with didn't know him personally, just knew about him.

Doug:  Was that an emotional experience for you? 

Artie:  It was curiosity more than anything. 

Doug:  What was your reaction to the news of his assassination? 

Artie:  That pissed me off.  That really pissed me off.  I wanted to go out there.  You know, Dan White killed Moscone, the mayor [of San Francisco] and Harvey—I guess he didn’t like what was going on and it built up in him until it found an outlet. 

Doug:  It seems that the first thing people say about Harvey is that he was fun. 

Artie:  Everyone got along with Harvey.  Everybody.  He was witty and smart. 

Doug:  Pat told me about you and Harvey and the New York City cabbie… 

Artie:  Yeah, I think I might have been driving when we took off the rear fender of that cab.  It didn't do anything to our car.  Harvey got out, saying, "I'll take care of this!" Then he started hollering at the cabbie—who had a fare waiting in the back seat—until the cabdriver just got the fender and left.  He probably thought he had a nut job on his hands!

Doug:  Then there was the time you all got lost going to the party and wound up at another one…

Artie:  Yeah, he just went in and was drinking and walking past the windows.  That's how friendly he was and got along with everybody. 

I also remember that when he was at Albany State Teachers College in the late Forties I was a sailor on a tanker.  In the fall of the year we'd push as much product, heating oil or whatever, as far as we could up the river but couldn't go farther than Albany—there wasn't enough water in the river.  I'd call him and he'd know all the bars where he'd take me for five-cent beers.  He knew all the bars.  I visited him there maybe half a dozen times.

Doug:  How did he get the nickname “Glimpy?” 

Artie:  I think I laid that on him.  There was a character on The Dead End Kids or The Bowery Boys, and [Harvey] looked like him.

Doug:  Is there anything else you can think of to tell us about Harvey? 

Artie:  Well, last year in 2004 he was installed in our high school's Alumni Hall of Fame.  It's an honor—not just anybody is installed.  Harvey was posthumously presented with a trophy for being astute and accomplished:  they knew all about who he was and what he had done.  But after the festivities nobody was there to pick up the trophy.  I went up and said to the organizers, "Hey, what happens to Harvey's trophy?" They said they had called Harvey's relatives, his nephews and all, and no one was [able to come].

So I have it.  Yeah it's only a memento, but it's important to remember who he was.

●●●

Harvey Milk's senior photo with profile in his high school yearbook

Harvey's graduating profile from the Bay Shore High School yearbook

Update, April 2009  

Pat Vesey, aged 81, continues to share his memories of Harvey Milk in interviews and with anyone who expresses an interest in knowing more about the young Harvey before he became the gay icon.  Pat sees it as a way of both honoring Harvey Milk the person, as well as furthering Milk’s message of inclusion and equality.  Since the above interviews, Pat has uncovered more information:

  • The “trophy” as mentioned by Artie above was actually a plaque.  Pat did some sleuthing and determined that the Bay Shore High School Alumni awarded plaques, not trophies.  Artie is now deceased and Pat is trying to locate the plaque that Artie received in Harvey’s stead in 2004.

  • Pat's friend, Peggy Myers, recalled Harvey as shy with her and her friend Gloria, "but always with a twinkle in his eye."  (Pat on the other hand never thought of Harvey as shy.  Was he only shy with girls?)  Thinking back, Peggy also noted that all of their crowd were Roman Catholic except for the Jewish Harvey.  And she never had a clue about Harvey:  "We thought gays were Fire Island inhabitants and no one we thought we knew."

  • Harvey occasionally got into some trouble, the kind of trouble that goes with being an adolescent boy not always slavishly devoted to rules-keeping.  Pat's brother, Tom Vesey, recalled that Harvey and several others were caught by their football coach, Cliff LaPlatney, smoking while watching a football game.  Their penalty was many laps around the field.  As Pat observed, “If Harvey had not been puffing enough on the cigarette, he sure was panting by the end of the laps.”  Another time, according to mutual friend Gene Mack, Harvey was standing on the left-sided running board of a moving car when the car took a sharp turn and almost grazed an oncoming vehicle.  He easily could have lost an arm, but only trashed his jacket.  “There was just no keeping him down though,” Pat recalled.

  • Artie Schiller's sister Betty recalled Harvey was always instigating arguments and then quietly leaving the scene with his friends in an uproar.  On one notable occasion he got his friends arguing about whether a particular beneficent organization was using too much donated money for overhead. Then he quietly slipped away, leaving a tremendous verbal fight in his wake.  Artie suddenly looked around and asked, "Where’s Harvey? That bastard!  He always starts fights and then walks away!"

  • Pat also got this anecdote from Betty.  In his early 20s, Harvey was home for the holidays and stopped by the Schillers’ to pick up Artie to go to a party.  But it was coming up on Christmas, and the Schillers’ outdoor Christmas lights were not up yet.  Artie’s mom insisted that Artie put up the lights before going to the party but Artie resisted, as it would make them late.  So Harvey said, “Where are the lights, Mrs. Schiller?”  and then got busy.  Shortly Harvey called Artie and his mom outside to see the lights:  Harvey had fashioned the lights into a Star of David, which was shining brightly from the Schiller home.  “That’s BS!” Artie shouted.  “This is a Christian home!”  But Artie’s mock indignation was belied by the fact that the Schillers kept that Star of David up all that holiday season.

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