Lew Todd, Fierce But Diplomatic Activist, Dead at 82

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The gay rights movement changed history, and it changed Lew Todd from a private person into a public servant who helped integrate LGBT New Yorkers into the city’s political life as well as the inner workings of its government.

Todd, decisive, pragmatic, and amiable, left his mark on New York City, and when he died on September 3 at 82 after an extended hospitalization, he left behind friends from all walks of life. In addition to gay New Yorkers who will miss him, there are undoubtedly fellow shipmates from his Korean War service in the Navy and members of the Fire Department, where he had administrative responsibilities for the last 10 years of his work life, who fondly recall the deep impression he left on them.

Lew Todd, in the Navy during the Korean War and (below) later in life. | COURTESY: STEVE-SHLOMO ASHKINAZY

Todd was a small businessman approaching middle age when Stonewall mobilized the gay community. Still, he threw himself into the flurry of largely youthful and ebullient energy that the 1969 Christopher Street riots spawned. Activists challenged the general public while scrambling to organize their fellow gays. Ending shame and reflexive timidity was a recurring preoccupation of the lengthy meetings the fledgling Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) held in the Firehouse on Wooster Street in Soho. Politics galvanized pride.

GAA was perhaps most famous for its zaps, unexpectedly sudden and militant demonstrations that took direct aim at the sources of pervasive anti-gay policies that persisted well into the 1970s. One zap attacked the Taxi and Limousine Commission for its requirement that any gay applicant for a hack license furnish a psychiatrist’s note attesting to their mental stability.

Todd jumped into the gay liberation movement with both feet. The owner of a Mr. Softee ice cream route, he sold his business to help pay for his activist pursuits.

Todd was a pragmatist, and funneled his energies into organizing gays around the country. He and Morty Manford, a lawyer and gay activist whose life was cut short by AIDS, took to the road over a six-month period to encourage new GAA chapters across the US. Hitting gay bars at peak hour on Wednesday nights, they would ask the bartender to turn off the music so they could explain the organization to patrons. The new chapter would then meet on Friday or Saturday evening to elect officers. At each venue, they would leave copies of “20 Questions about Homosexuality: A Political Primer,” the foundational GAA pamphlet, and hope for the best. At the Firehouse, Todd and Manford’s efforts were dubbed the Johnny Appleseed Project.

At home in New York, Todd had a knack for mentoring. Allen Roskoff, a lifelong activist who now heads the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, was a close friend who learned lobbying and public relations skills from him. They put their know-how to practical use. One evening, Todd, Roskoff, and a few friends visited the Rainbow Room, a swank nightclub at the top of Rockefeller Center, and started dancing together. The venue flunked that test. Earl Wilson, a gossip columnist for the then-liberal New York Post, was on hand to record their expulsion. Steve-Shlomo Ashkinazy, one of Todd’s lovers and a lifelong friend and fellow activist, said the zap provided evidence of the city’s pervasive public accommodations discrimination and strengthened the argument for a local gay rights law.

Gay marriage was a demand in those early glory days of activism, as was the call for an end to mob control of gay bars. In 1973, Todd, Ashkinazy, and others invested in the Ballroom, a restaurant and nightclub what would serve a homosexual clientele on West Broadway in Soho. The group chose the location for the low rents then available in the neighborhood, but knew they were running up against the State Liquor Authority’s regulation against serving homosexuals in bars. Todd and his partners never went to court, instead simply filing an application with the SLA, which folded rather than fight the issue. The Ballroom became the city’s first club operated by and for gays.

A practical approach toward government became a Lew Todd trademark. The Ballroom was widely praised for its food, and Todd and Ashkinazy soon became friends with Joe Papp, the founder of the Public Theater. When Papp’s son Anthony, who also died young of AIDS, came out, Joe asked them to offer him a job and mentor him. The elder Papp, in turn, gave the Ballroom the catering contract for the Public, which later led to a similar deal with the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The Ballroom became fundraising central for the movement –– at a time before finding money to support political and social causes became the professionalized pursuit it is today. For many groups, fundraising had largely been a matter of passing the hat, so the Ballroom parties represented a big step forward; countless groups reached out to Todd for help in staging benefits. Todd’s commitment to providing space for gay community fundraising continued when he and others opened Chez Stadium on Greenwich Avenue.

After Ed Koch was elected mayor in 1977, he quickly became a lighting rod for criticism within the gay community. Though the former silk stocking district congressman was more responsive than his predecessors, many activists lambasted him for not doing enough, especially when AIDS emerged in 1981 and 1982. Koch was equally ferocious toward his critics. It was at this point that Todd made a decision that defined his public life as the community moved toward the ACT UP era of militancy –– he supported the mayor. Todd brought his Koch loyalties to his role as a founding member of the city’s Stonewall Democratic Club.

Todd leveraged his ties to the mayor and his role at Stonewall to keep lines of communication between the city and the gay community open even during the tensest days of the AIDS crisis. In the early ‘80s, the leadership of a nascent community center, where many LGBT groups had offices, wanted to purchase the former school on West 13th Street where they had been tenants for several years. The onslaught of AIDS made the need more pressing, but among the center’s board members were some of Koch’s harshest and most vocal critics. The mayor threatened to block the purchase by putting the building up for sale at a public auction, a move that would have priced the community center out.

Todd quietly offered advice and assistance to the center’s board in identifying recruits who could help them make the case to Koch that he should ignore his adversaries for the greater good of the LGBT community. Over time, voices trusted by the mayor persuaded him to back off from plans for an auction and instead negotiate a sale of the building to what is now known as the LGBT Community Center.

Todd spent the last decades of his life as a shrewd conciliator in difficult circumstances. A member of the city’s Loft Board, he helped pave the way for large spaces downtown to be opened up to residential uses against the business community’s determination to retain industrial zoning there. On behalf of the LGBT community, he was an ambassador to Democratic leaders with religious and other constituents whose demands and priorities clashed with the needs of gay New Yorkers. Todd became widely regarded as a man of discretion who could smooth troubled waters.

Perhaps most remarkable was Todd’s success in steering through mainstream politics –– he was a big supporter of Alan Gerson’s successful 2001 run for the City Council in Lower Manhattan –– while retaining the love and respect of activists on the left, like Roskoff and Ashkinazy, who were often critical of compromise. It was Lew Todd’s gift to the gay cause that he could reconcile its unprecedented flowering with the conservative temperament of New York society’s more conventional pillars.

Funeral services for Lew Todd will be held Thursday, September 13 at 11 a.m. at the Greenwich Village Funeral Home at 199 Bleecker Street, between McDougal and Sixth Avenue.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

Perley J. Thibodeau says:
This is the first that I've heard of this man who was so brave to not only come out as a gay man back in those overly oppressive times, but to also help others teetering on the brink of following suit, but afraid to do so thinking that they were alone in the world, and fearing the dire consequences. Biographies of these gay civic leaders both living and deceased should be a regular feature of Gay City News in order to show the new generations that they too can spend their spare time in creating more much needed change for the sake of gays all over the world. Eulogies extolling the merits of these admirable persons who have made contributions to the world at large after the fact are nice but, it's even more appropriate to let them know they are loved and appreciated while they can still be aware of the fact, and able enjoy it.
Sept. 8, 2012, 4:38 pm
Steve Weinstein says:
Very nice article. Never knew that about the Ballroom.
Sept. 9, 2012, 11:27 am
David Ehrenstein says:
He was a very great man.
Sept. 9, 2012, 2:43 pm
Billy Glover says:
Even though I did not have the privilege of knowing this person, it is good to know at last people who have worked for the cause of equality for homosexual Americans got credti while they lived, and their work is on record with the obituary. The reason why our movement is so strong is people like this-who learn of the work, join and support it, and don't wait for others to lead, or some "savior," but do what they can-young glbt people now must carry on his work.
Sept. 10, 2012, 10:40 am
John DE Salvio says:
I certainly have vivid memories of the Stonewall Riots, having been in the bar when it was raided. I wiggled my way out the front door while the cops were beating up on folk singer Dave Van Ronk, who had been rejected from the Five Oaks bar at Christopher and 7th Avenue S. He then came to Stonewall, not having a clue what kind of bar it was. Although I met many people - including Larry Kramer - who got the gay rights movement going; I don't remember Lew Todd. May he rest in peace.
Sept. 10, 2012, 10:41 am
Daniel-Chicago says:
Thank you for this thorough and well-written obituary and tribute to Lew Todd. I had never heard of him, but am so thrilled that quiet and dedicated gay people like him are remembered and written about so that the rest of us can appreciate and be proud of our heritage. There are doubtlessly thousands of people like Lew Todd who have changed our world for the better, but have not sought or received the limelight. Thank you!
Sept. 10, 2012, 9:36 pm
Dirk McCall says:
I had the honor and privilege of working with Lew Todd for 18 years. He was an inspiration and always devoted to helping advance the cause of LGBT equality. One of his legacies will the ongoing work of the Stonewall Democratic Club of NYC, the state's largest LGBT Democratic organization, and it's ongoing work in the political and community organizing arenas. Lew's wisdom and guidance will be greatly missed.
Sept. 16, 2012, 5:08 pm
Hal Offen says:
Sorry to hear of his death and glad to see his commitment honored in this obit. I knew Lew from the early days of GAA. I liked his sense of humor and warmth. He was one of many dedicated activists who gently and firmly pressed our issues with GAA as the springboard, so that 40 years later, our accomplishments are far beyond what I, for one, dreamed possible in only a few generations. We created a movement that spread worldwide. I always take delight when I encounter so many non-gays who now see being gay as the equivalent of just another flavor. In these Days of Awe, the Jewish High Holidays, we emphasize Tikkun Olam, repairing the world or leaving it a better place than we found it. Lew Todd certainly did that. A blessing on his memory.
Sept. 18, 2012, 6:43 pm
Shelley Ackerman says:
Lew was a very dear longtime and loyal friend. His obit should have been published in the NY Times, he made that much of a difference. God Bless you and thank you for being in my life and for all that you have done for so many
Jan. 11, 2013, 4:13 pm

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