Late one Friday afternoon, two men in Washington, DC, load up a big Cadillac convertible and begin their 150 mile drive to Rehoboth Beach. They leave the city via Constitution Avenue, which turns into Route 50 heading east.
In Annapolis, they stop for dinner and a couple of drinks at the Chesapeake Inn and wait for the traffic to die down. Already there is a several mile back-up of cars waiting to cross over the just-opened Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
This is the first trip to Rehoboth Beach for 31 year old Bill, an up-and-coming realtor in Washington. Bill usually spends his summer vacation on Fire Island or in Provincetown because he enjoys the gay life there. He has a friend in Provincetown who owns several cottages and from whom he occasionally rents.
This year, though, he has decided to explore Rehoboth. It’s the closest ocean beach to Washington. And, with the Bay Bridge having opened, it’s more accessible than ever. What intrigues Bill most is the potential for close, affordable beach real estate and the hushed talk about more and more gay men spending time there.
Joining Bill that summer in 1952 is his friend Don, a big, easy-going 25 year old Air Force captain. Though recently married, Don has been to Rehoboth before, and at his recommendation they check into the Pleasant Inn, which has “a reputation.” Don knows that if you “get lucky,” either on the beach or at the Saturday afternoon beer bash at the Bottle and Cork down in Dewey Beach, you can safely bring a fellow home. Bill and Don enjoy vacationing in Rehoboth the next couple of summers. During this time, Don leaves the Air Force and he and his wife move to south Florida. But he still comes back to vacation with Bill in Rehoboth.
In 1957, Bill buys a house on Columbia Avenue in Rehoboth’s Pines neighborhood and christens it Verandas, because it has a prominent two-story screened front porch. Like many summer homes in Rehoboth,Verandas was a 3-season house, meaning it was closed down in the fall and then reopened each spring.
Right after he purchased it, Bill began to insulate some parts of the house. He updated the kitchen and installed a stone fireplace. And, he decorated the place with striped drapes and awnings and white wicker rocking chairs on the porch. The living room was comfortable, with wing-back chairs and a sofa. A huge wrought-iron chandelier hung over the dining room table.
According to Don, Verandas quickly became a social hub, as Bill opened his house and his life to an increasing number of gay friends visiting each weekend from Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. “He had a sleeping porch with 2 beds and 3 bedrooms and a berth bed in the kitchen, and they were usually filled—double stacked sometimes, if you know what I mean.”
Don especially remembers the parties. Drunken, loud, and campy are the words he uses to describe them. In his soft Southern voice, he reminisces how after dinner “Bill liked to push his old, upright piano out onto the screened front porch and play and sing old Baptist hymns…and he would wear these silk, high-heeled pumps—lord, he had a whole collection.” The local police paid regular, usually polite, visits to Verandas when things got too loud. If they showed up a second time during the same night their visits were not so friendly and were often peppered with threats and insults to “the god damned queers.”
The 50s, Don reminds me, weren’t a good time for gay men, with the McCarthy witch hunts for communists and gays. And while dancing and romancing may have been the order of the day at Verandas, the conversation around the dinner table was often about the purging of gays from government jobs and from the military. Everyone always knew someone who had lost a job. In Washington and in other cities, policemen routinely raided bars that catered to gays. Blistering anti-gay rhetoric appeared in newspapers nationwide.
In such a climate, a lot of gay entertaining took place in one’s home with the drapes pulled. Revelers at “Verandas” bucked this trend somewhat. Drinking and singing out on the screened front porch, Bill and his guests felt a fledgling sense of freedom and community and anonymity they didn’t have back in the cities where they lived and worked. The men were, however, still cautious. A lot of Bill’s friends in Washington, however, were too afraid to visit Verandas.
The crowd at Verandas in the late 50s was part of a small but growing social network of closeted, out-of-town gays who would visit Rehoboth on summer weekends. Life revolved around the cocktail party. According to Don, “every Saturday and Sunday afternoon there was a cocktail party somewhere around town and they always had a pitcher of Martinis and a pitcher of Manhattans—you drank one or the other.”
Though there were no gay bars per se in Rehoboth, there were many with gay reputations. Don recalls the Bottle and Cork in Dewey Beach and the bar where today’s Frogg Pond is on 2nd Street as places one could cruise discreetly and meet other men. The latter place, says Don, attracted a “younger, local, working-class crowd—I always made out like sin.” The bar at the Dinner Bell Inn was supposedly gay one night per week. And, the Pink Pony, on the Boardwalk and Olive Street, had a gay clientele. Gay men also found cruising opportunities along the boardwalk late at night or among the dunes in the late afternoon.
Verandas is still standing. It’s up the street from my cottage, in the second block of Columbia Avenue. Its paint has faded, as have the black and white striped awnings. And as time passes, so do the memories of the crowd at Verandas.