Pioneering out journalist, radical, and self-described “recovering political hack” Doug Ireland, a stalwart contributor to Gay City News, died at age 67 on October 26. On March 27, his old and older friends got together to celebrate his rich and storied life. The public tribute to Doug was worth the wait.
On the way in to the CUNY Graduate Center, the first sign said, “Doug Ireland memorial straight ahead” and the next “turn right” — “straight” and “right” being two words I would not normally associate with gay leftist Doug, though he was an extremely straight shooter and he was right about most things.
Veteran gay activist Steve-Shlomo Ashkinazy was on hand, recalling his comrade from their Gay Activists Alliance days.
“We celebrated his 30th birthday and it came as a shock,” he said. “I had thought he was about 50. He always gave off that kind of air. And he was the original anti-health person” when it came to smoking, drinking, eating, and recreational drugs.
Projected above the stage was a big, smiling, young picture of Doug with his trademark big glasses, floppy hair, and bow tie, simply titled “Dougie” as he was known to close friends. Another slide read: “Doug Ireland: An American Original” and he was certainly that.
The gathering was presided over by Doug’s old friend and attorney Norman Levy, who said, “No one could make me laugh like Doug Ireland.” Levy read a note from one of Doug’s fellow writers, Nick Pileggi, who wrote the screenplay for “Goodfellas”: “God, Dougie had a big heart, but his brain was bigger.”
Ethan Eldon, an environmentalist and now real estate executive, met Doug in the Democratic reform and Dump Johnson movements of the late 1960s.
“He was 20 or 21, but it was hard to believe because he knew so much,” he said. “Dougie had a passion for politics, and I started introducing him around and in no time at all he was introducing me around.”
Eldon talked about the halting, provisional way Doug came out in those early movement days, “until the third time he came out to me when he defeated his demons and came soaring out, mobilizing gays politically. He always stayed true to his principles.”
Levy quoted some of Doug’s choicest skewerings of the politicians he covered for the Soho News, New York magazine, the Village Voice, and later Gay City News.
“Mario Cuomo is the only politician who hides behind his own candor,” Doug said of the former governor.
“Ed Koch is a closet gay,” Doug said of the late mayor. “Actually he’s a closet human being” — a line that got a big laugh from the assembled.
Former City Councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge, a liberal lion of New York and host of CUNY-TV’s “Eldridge & Co.,” provided some female balance to the male writers and hard drinkers Doug consorted with at the Lion’s Head in the Village and the gay men he worked with at GAA. She met Doug in 1967 through the Dump Johnson movement, which was led by the late Allard Lowenstein. She confided how that campaign succeeded with smoke and mirrors consisting of a few people who were made to seem more formidable — with Doug as the labor person, a correspondent from Wisconsin flown in to give the group “national” credentials, a young Harold Ickes, Jr., son of FDR’s Interior secretary, providing New Deal glow, and Bella Abzug bringing in the anti-war movement.
“Dougie became the center of their dinners,” Eldridge said. “Seemed as if he was at least 40 at 21.”
Political consultant Ethan Geto, an insider like Doug who played a big role in the early gay rights movement, shared that Levy “effectively supported Doug” through many lean years as he pursued his crusading journalism. He talked about going to the movie of “The Boys in the Band” with Doug in 1970 and how Doug was horrified at the self-hating characters, saying, “Oh my God! I knew this is what I was getting into! Gay life is not so gay!” But Geto convinced him that these gay characters “were more like gays in the 1950s.”
“I said, ‘We’re gay and we don’t behave like that,’” Geto recalled.
And the two men each went on to make immense contributions to the LGBT movement.
Geto also told a hilarious story about how Doug resisted going to Studio 54 in its exclusive early days for fear of being rejected by the keeper of the velvet rope (as even Sinatra and Woody Allen had been at times), but Geto went and found out the doorman was a young guy named Mark Benecke who said, “Don’t you recognize me? I was Doug Ireland’s assistant in the Abzug campaign! Doug was my hero!” They were all comped in from that time on.
Allen Roskoff, a GAA veteran and now president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, talked about Doug and him confronting the infamous and closeted Roy Cohn in a gay restaurant, Uncle Charlie’s: “Cohn, sitting with a hot young man, said, ‘This is a gay restaurant!?’ We later found out Cohn owned the restaurant. When Doug asked Cohn if he supported the city’s gay rights bill, Cohn said, ‘No. Gays shouldn’t be allowed to be teachers!’ I said to him, ‘I know a gay lawyer who shouldn’t be allowed to be a lawyer,’” a dig at Cohn, who was eventually disbarred for real corruption before he died of AIDS.
Much was made of Doug’s love of marijuana, smoked freely everywhere from the opening of Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” in which he had a cameo, to the Shiva for Levy’s mother.
“I would be crying if I wasn’t doing this,” Ireland explained to Levy.
Ireland’s close friend Valerie Goodman, an East Side gallery owner, spoke of Doug’s Paris days where “Doug had his two great lovers,” including the late Hervé Couergou.
John Berendt, author of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” who was editor of New York magazine when he met Doug on staff, talked about Doug’s great cover story on a gaybashing in Central Park that had Olympic skater Dick Button as one of its victims — “including an interview with sexologist John Money who said in 30 years of doing research, in every case the perpetrators [of these attacks] were closeted homosexuals.”
Berendt also talked about pressure he got from real estate mogul Jerry Finkelstein to bar Doug from having anything to do with a story on the Manhattan borough president’s field that included his son, Andy Stein, since Doug was close to another candidate, Bobby Wagner.
And Berendt talked about Doug’s last 10 years, suffering from a range of maladies that kept him mostly homebound while still enormously productive as a writer and always working the phones. In the long blackout downtown after Superstorm Sandy, Berendt convinced Doug to come stay in his townhouse on the Upper West Side.
“It was the week of the election of 2012,” Berendt said, “and he was calling operatives around the country saying, ‘Terrible news from Michigan!’ He was an avowed pessimist. Thrived on bad news. But he still had his laugh.”
A musical interlude was provided by award-winning composer David Amram and we were sent on our way by the great Malachy McCourt leading us in “Wild Mountain Thyme.”
McCourt said, “My friend Doug was opinionated, generous, outrageous, blasphemous, and oddly kind even to conservatives. He felt they needed education.”
Dougie educated us all through 50 years of activism and journalism. And his friends gave us a great night to remember him and consider how to bring ourselves up to his high standards.