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Harvey Milk’s Chutzpah

Issue 243

Jessica Max Stein Feb 1

Another biography of Harvey Milk?’ I thought with a twinge of annoyance when I saw Lillian Faderman’s latest book, Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death. Certainly, the scrappy gay activist is deservedly iconic, and his short, storied life makes for compelling reading. But Milk hardly needs to be rescued from history. His face is on a postage stamp; he’s the token gay in Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential Individuals of the 20th Century”, featured in the “Heroes and Icons” section alongside Anne Frank and Mother Theresa; and he was portrayed by no less a household-name hetero than Madonna’s ex-boyfriend Sean Penn in the star-studded, Oscar-sweeping 2008 biopic Milk. Furthermore, why try to top Milk’s canonic 1982 biography, The Mayor of Castro Street, in which San Francisco journalist Randy Shilts reports directly from the front lines? But Faderman’s new biography, in Yale University Press’s “Jewish Lives” series, retells Milk’s legend in light of his Jewishness, and in doing so makes it an intriguingly timely tale.

As Milk became a mainstream icon, his Judaism was largely written out of his story (Penn’s prosthetic Cyrano-nose notwithstanding). Part of this is due to the faint praise of assimilation: invisibility (“Oh, I don’t even see you as a Jew!”). I appreciate that Faderman embraces Milk’s relationship to Judaism as it is meaningful to him, a flexible, respectful treatment of the true diversity of American Jewish expression that we don’t see often enough. Milk said he was “not theologically oriented” (though he referred to God when taping messages to be played in case of his assassination, a version of “no atheists in foxholes”); most often, he referred to himself as a New York Jew, observing his Judaism culturally and tribally. Would we think of Milk as “more” Jewish if he wore payes (side-locks), or sprinkled his famous speeches with Yiddish phrases? Would Milk have become as iconic if his family name were still Milch?

It’s a scary time to be a Jew in America right now, in a way that it hasn’t been since Milk (b. 1930) and his cohorts in the silent generation grew up glued to their radios for news of their relatives back in Eastern Europe. Milk’s grandfather Mausche Milch was one of the first Jews on Long Island in the days when the Klan openly paraded there; he quickly anglicized the family name. The now-Milks co-founded the Woodmere synagogue as well as the local Jewish-friendly country club, since the existing one was “restricted.” Milk celebrated his Bar Mitzvah just days after word emerged of the Warsaw Ghetto rebellion against the Nazis, a tiny, resilient David crushed by the gargantuan Goliath, a story he retold for the rest of his life.

As with assimilation, Milk could be a veritable chameleon on a variety of fronts. He butched it up as one of the only Jews at Bay Shore High School, while secretly picking up men at the Metropolitan Opera and in Central Park. He did stints as a college student, a high school teacher, a Navy deep-sea diver, a Broadway actor and even a Wall Street wonk eagerly leafleting for Barry Goldwater, before moving at age 42 to San Francisco, where the legend as we know it usually begins — hanging his Bar Mitzvah picture on the wall of his famed Castro Street camera store.   

Here, Milk’s life and Faderman’s narrative both hit their stride. Faderman paints Milk’s political career as the culmination of all his previous “lives.” Milk is often misremembered as a baby boomer, because in that generation he found his true cohorts. He used Castro Camera as a base to organize, garner support and build coalitions for five hard years of lost elections before winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, thus becoming “the most prominent homosexual in America.” As with his Judaism, Faderman also refreshingly embraces Milk’s sexuality, easily dismissing any ostensible contradiction between participating in a free sexual culture and valuing romantic partnership.

A master storyteller in full control of her material, Faderman deftly situates Milk’s tale inside the larger narrative of LGBTQ liberation that she sketched out in 2015’s sweeping tome The Gay Revolution. Her confident, streamlined narration is broken only by the occasional perfect quote. Milk is so well-drawn he practically walks out of the pages, though some of the supporting characters could be more sketched out. The story builds suspensefully, even for readers who already know the outcome, without being overly dramatic or sensationalist. Like narrative nonfiction at its best, the book reads like a good novel, one that you can’t put down.

Particularly riveting is Faderman’s treatment of Milk’s murder — at just 48 years old, at the hands of a fellow supervisor, less than a year after taking office — presented in a series of devastating scenes. However, and especially in the book’s denoument, Faderman owes a debt to Shilts, cherry-picking his best details and drawing upon his original research, though her own additional no-stone-unturned scholarship tweaks and updates Shilts’ information and interpretation of events. She vividly brings to life the riots that raged in the streets when Milk’s murderer Dan White, claiming he was whacked out on too many Twinkies, received a sentence of just seven years for killing both Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone. (White would serve five years, and commit suicide upon being released.)

People called Milk paranoid or a diva for anticipating his own assassination, but instead he was prescient — again, largely due to his Jewish identity, as Faderman makes clear. Milk’s trailblazing openness as a gay man stemmed directly from his years of being out as a Jew in the face of danger. Like many of his generation, the Holocaust was real to him, and recent. Easily gays could be next. “If a bullet should enter my brain,” he said, “let that bullet destroy every closet door.” To claim Harvey Milk explicitly as a Jewish martyr, not just a gay one, is a powerful move in an era of reinvigorated hate, a different kind of coming out. This is a delicious and a necessary book.

Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death
By Lillian Faderman
Yale Books, 2018


Illustration by Lynne Foster.