The Sensitive Flower
The U.S. Supreme Court decision of June 30, 1986, infuriated Aubrey Wertheim. As the director of services for the Fund for Human Dignity division of the National Gay Task Force in New York City, he couldn’t grasp the 5-to-4 vote that upheld a Georgia law to make gay sex between consenting adults illegal. So he marched into a Western Union office two days later and fired off a mailgram to Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Associate Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Lewis F. Powell Jr., William Rehnquist and Byron White, all of whom voted in favor of the law. “It is ironic this close to Independence Day (that) you choose to deny freedom to one out of 10 Americans,” he wrote in the telegram. “As a gay man, I’ve always held the Constitution revered for the civil liberties of all Americans. Clearly, the present court chooses to differ with that document and, with this shameful vote, shows it has great difficulty separating the judicial from the prejudicial.”
Ever since he was born on August 14, 1953, Aubrey always managed to author fighting words that made his points crystal clear. Born Robert Sorin Wertheim, he was the younger child and only son of Robert and Mildred “Millie” Sorin Wertheim, who raised their family at 7272 Scenic Point in a secluded cul-de-sac of Sagamore Hills Township. His father ruled the food industry, first running the family-friendly Wertheims’ Chick Inn in Northfield Center Township from 1947 to 1965, then co-founding the popular Pewter Mug restaurant chain with two business partners in 1962. The Northeast Ohio Restaurant Association even named him “Restaurateur of the Year” in January of 1981. He retired in 1990, after he and surviving co-founder Al Bernstein sold their flagship restaurant near Cleveland’s Public Square to make way for a proposed 60-story Ameritrust Center, a project that never made it further than the drawing board.
At home, “Bobby’s” mother instilled in her son a passion for the written word as a freelance humorist, who submitted “Milliegrams” to such publications as "Reader’s Digest" and "Christian Science Monitor." His older sister, Peggy, also showed an artistic flair by designing silk kimonos, tunics, shawls and scarves in Fort Lauderdale in the early ‘80s before she returned to Sagamore Hills Township to sell real estate.
Bob, meanwhile, ventured into the theater. As a student at Nordonia High School, he starred in such drama-club productions as "Becket" before he graduated in 1970. He then majored in theater during his freshmen year at Ohio University and landed a summer apprenticeship at the old Musicarnival in Warrensville Heights in 1971. But he discovered he was more attracted to playwriting than acting. In 1974, he moved to New York, rented a $120-a-month apartment and eked out a meager living as a typist, chauffeur, usher and casting assistant while pursuing his dream on the Great White Way. Like most aspiring playwrights, he quickly grew accustomed to “ingratiating yourself into a theater and working your way up,” he told Plain Dealer reporter James Ewinger in 1984.
He also adopted the sobriquet, “Aubrey,” as his stage name. And he maintained a regimen of prolific letter-writing sessions to his parents. Routinely lengthy and often peppered with wry wit and sarcasm, the correspondence chronicled his trials and tribulations in the Big Apple. “Perhaps it’s a childhood fantasy of mine, but I’ve always thought theater should begin the moment one enters the lobby, just like temples and schools and government buildings,” he wrote in a February 16, 1976, letter. “Let the building be costumed and trumped and lit, for such is the nature of the business.”
Nearly a year passed before Aubrey got his big break on the off-Broadway stage in the Encompass Theatre of Brooklyn with his comedy, "Pranks." During the first two weeks of 1977, he auditioned scores of actors for several roles, including one that he based on pioneering Cleveland broadcaster Dorothy Fuldheim. He fretted the audition process. “We start casting this week, which I’m sure shall be dreadful,” he wrote on January 5. “Hearing my lines thoroughly mangled by 200 actors I’m sure will devaluate my affection for them (the lines, not the actors).”
Aubrey wrote another letter to his parents a week later, by which time the auditions had drained him of any thought that he could pull off the play in front of an audience. The problem simply stemmed from his inability to find performers with a keen sense of comedic timing. “I refuse to believe the scenes aren’t funny enough. If I made them any broader, we would have to add pies to the prop list,” he bemoaned. “One actress even expressed sensual excitement with a line about a man being ‘Neanderthal in bed.’ And another actress completely surprised us by reading the same line as ‘non-ethereal in bed.’”
Needless to say, "Pranks" flopped after a handful of performances. Aubrey blamed part of its failure on miscast actors, especially the gal chosen to play the short, stout and homely Fuldheim role. He retreated for a time-out in Sagamore Hills Township to house-sit for his parents, who were traveling to Israel. In an April 18, 1977, letter addressed to “the Midwestern Mideasterners,” he soothed his artistic wounds with an “I-told-you-so” rant. “Dorothy Fuldheim is going to be on TV Thursday,” he wrote. “So I can finally show all those idiots at the Encompass why the part I patterned after her couldn’t be played by a handsome woman in her 30s.”
Aubrey then described his new $8-a-show job as a “john attendant” for the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of David Langston Smyrl’s "On the Lock-In," a “harmless little number about some men in jail, each with his particular story or complaint.” The play, produced by Joseph Papp’s legendary Public Theater, ran for less than two months on the LuEsther Hall stage. “This is the show I am currently incarcerated in,” he wrote. “I am mightily thumb-screwed with lines like this: ‘Ain’t no ballgame no fun if you don’t know the players.’ A quadruple negative is enough the make the strongest man crack. I’ve decided to eat enough programs to poison myself.”
Besides providing blow-by-blow accounts of his fledgling career, Aubrey’s letters also revealed an intense, unconditional love for his mother, whom he often called “my dearest friend.” His graphic descriptions of rare trips to “dingy” gay-movie houses clearly demonstrated an unabashed openness about his homosexuality to her. For example, a September 11, 1977, missive painted an unusual encounter four nights earlier, when he sat next to a thirtysomething Englishman named Gary, who was vacationing in New York. The pair whispered to each other about the movie’s “absurd” plot. (“Ridiculous business with a man and a telephone cord,” Aubrey wrote.) They left the theater, stopped for a cup of tea and talked about the Londoner’s longtime career as a Royal Ballet Company dancer. “In a lull between small talks, I suddenly decided and put it to him in my flattest prose: ‘Do you want to go home with me?’” Aubrey confided in his mom. “Well, I have since discovered my sex education to be completely supervised by clods. The mere bump-and-grind, rush-hour, push-comes-to-shove school. It really burns me now to think how totally wasted I was in my past two experiences. What clumsy, unqualified lovers they were!”
Aubrey softened his diatribe by explaining that he and his new paramour spent 10 hours in bed in “one long, long, endless river of making love.” In between sessions of “nothing but our hands playing little Braille games with each other,” they talked about meeting in the movie house, their attraction to each other and the differences between American and British perceptions of gays in society. “Is it too, too much to desire a partner with whom one can talk of artistic things?” he asked. “I’ve never presumed myself intelligent -- thought has always come so hard for me -- but I have made myself aware somewhat of my cultural heritage. And it comes as such comfort when one finds another where that appreciation is equaled and, even better, exceeded.”
Naturally, Aubrey’s letter floored Millie, even if she did unconditionally accept her only son being gay. She wrote back, asking why he had to be so explicit in describing his sexual encounters. He attributed it to her raising a “sensitive flower.” “I’m an artist, a creator, who has to have the feedback, be it plays or relations,” he wrote on September 22. “I have to know, even more, be reassured. I shan’t disguise the fact I consider myself somewhat unique. (It’s) partly my own doing, partly what was done to me. I don’t regret the (gay) classification. I often revel in it.”
Aubrey argued that his “revelations” indicated a mindset about gay relationships that had been previously fanned by fantasies. Until Gary, he hadn’t experienced an erotically homosexual connection with anyone. Furthermore, he confessed that he had no close friendships with men in the city. “The two men I slept with earlier were such pathetic lovers that it was I who brought myself to orgasm-seducing my own self into it as it were,” he explained to his mother. “And I thought, how awful it really is, this homosexual sex: awkward and unsatisfying (I really thought this!). And I was really beginning to resign myself to the futility of it all (and, thus, the necessity of fantasy) when this ‘new chap’ came along.”
Aubrey ended the seven-page, handwritten letter with a bombshell: He was flying to England with Gary a little more than two weeks after meeting him. He wrote his first letter from Europe on October 5. After a week in London, the couple had browsed through the city’s Portobello Road market, with its stalls of clothes, books, china and silver. They took in a lecture on the aesthetic influences of a Whistler art exhibit at the Tate Gallery, where Great Britain’s national art collection was displayed. They also toured Kensington Palace and Hyde Park, where thousands of migrating birds impressed Aubrey for “flying on the same wavelength.” The trip ended with a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Wild Oats and a “tiresome” Shaw Theater run-through of Landslide with Deborah Kerr.
Aubrey realized that his new relationship ran the gamut of emotions, from generous, explorative and spiritual to clumsy, destructive and undermining. He thought Gary’s British sensibilities often led to his feelings being “put out to sea.” Still, “the world turns very well at present,” he wrote. “He’s as good a lover as I suspected. And the apprenticeship I’m serving will undoubtedly serve me for some time. But sex aside, there are still so many facets of his personality I take immeasurable pleasure in as well as ruts in the road, which frustrate me more than I can bear at times.”
No correspondence survives to document the relationship’s life span. But it’s safe to say that it ran its course by 1982, when Aubrey began to juggle time as both a playwright and activist for the National Gay Task Force in its offices at 80 Fifth Ave. A volunteer at first, he was eventually hired as the agency’s director of services at a time when the task force was going through amazing expansion spurts. “As our movement grows larger, the traditional pursuit and visibility are no longer enough,” Executive Director Virginia Apuzzo said at the time. “We need to move from access to responsiveness and from visibility to full participation. We must not just think, but do.”
To accomplish her goals, she brought on board Jeff Levi as the task force’s first lobbyist in Washington. He also was the first activist in the nation to focus on issues linked to Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID, a “mysterious fever” that had killed nearly 300 gay men and infected another 800 nationwide by the end of 1982. Because the name of the disease implied it only affected homosexuals, Apuzzo and Levi both successfully urged the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to change the designation to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.
At the same time, Aubrey established “Circles,” the first-ever toll-free hotline in the United States for AIDS information. He also took part in other agency directives, such as the launch of the first crisis hotline to combat anti-gay violence, which conducted a nationwide survey to track hate crimes and report them to the U.S. Justice Department. AIDS fundraisers soon followed. Aubrey was earning $11,269 a year.
His scriptwriting was paying off, too. In 1980, he submitted 11 play proposals to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. The renowned theater eventually bought the rights to a one-act story that never made it to the stage after all. Instead, after four years of negotiations, PBS chose to air his play about a museum director’s romance with an anesthesiologist. With Mimi Kennedy and Jeff Goldblum in the leading roles, "Popular Neurotics" was broadcast on the network’s American Playhouse series on February 14, 1984.
Later in the year, Aubrey applauded the task force, when it received its first round of federal funding for community-based AIDS service agencies. And to make itself all-inclusive to both sexes, the organization changed its name to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. It also revamped its objective to willingly negotiate AIDS drug-testing programs with the Federal Drug Administration as well as to endorse militant demonstrations in Washington over the sudden spike in the number of hate crimes. “For several years, we have pressed the federal government to respond to the violence, yet the actual response has been denial and neglect,” fumed Levi, who had been promoted to executive director by 1985.
Aubrey also returned to Cleveland that year to speak at a Black & White Men Together meeting to groan about the lack of solidarity within the gay community. He equated the human-rights movement to a teenager, who was still learning the ropes 16 years after the Stonewall riots of 1969, when demonstrators protested a police raid of a gay bar in Greenwich Village. He specifically called Cleveland a “grudge country.” “That’s what I say to myself when I feel the plane easing into Hopkins Airport,” he told the crowd. “When I get here, I’m usually dealing with five percent progress to 95 percent grousing. It has to stop now. We no longer can squabble and separate into little cliques and contingents like adolescents, because this demands an adult response. And forget 16-years ago since Stonewall. The heat is on. We have to graduate.”
Aubrey then spoke in June at the National Volunteer Management Conference on the University of Southern California campus in Los Angeles. During the workshop, “Networking With Nontraditional Volunteer Communities,” he pleaded with managers of mainstream church groups, health-care hotlines and counseling services to include gays, lesbians and their supporters as clients and volunteers. Although there were 44 community centers, 174 hotlines, 250 college clubs, 136 newspapers and more than 200 Alcoholics Anonymous groups catering to the LGBT community nationwide, it wasn’t enough, he argued. “Despite this seemingly glowing success story, that fact is what we offer is woefully inadequate,” he said. “Most parts of the country have absolutely nothing for gays and lesbians. The smallest effort can make the greatest difference in changing attitudes, retiring very tired stereotypes, removing the stigma associated with gays and lesbians. We have always been beside you serving. We have always been there among those you serve. Wouldn’t it serve all of us better if we could tell you our names?”
Then there was Aubrey’s infamous tirade by telegram after the 1986 Supreme Court ruling in favor of Georgia’s sodomy laws. The vote resulted in the first organized LGBT demonstration against the high court, at which an estimated 5,000 protestors descended on the nation’s capital to rally against its decision. By the end of the year, the task force had convened at the Southeastern Gay and Lesbian Conference in Atlanta to try and repeal the law.
But Aubrey decided the time had come to move back to Northeast Ohio, where he could replicate his New York mission in the Midwest. So, in 1989, the Lesbian-Gay Community Center of Greater Cleveland hired him as its $18,000-a-year director of services. His first significant contribution to the center was the creation of the youth group, Presence and Respect for Youth in Sexual Minority, or PRYSM, for which the editors of the Gay People’s Chronicle bestowed upon him its annual Community Service Award in January of 1990.
In the June 17, 1990, issue of the "Plain Dealer," Aubrey wrote an op-ed piece whose timing coincided with Cleveland’s Gay Pride Festival that weekend. With a theme of why he was proud of being gay, his article cited famous homosexuals -- from Michaelangelo and Alexander the Great to Gertrude Stein and Martina Navratilova -- who had “graced our side of the fence.” He cheered on the steps that gays and lesbians had taken to become empowered and respected in mainstream society. And he argued for equal rights for all Americans, regardless of their sexual orientations. “Heterosexuals take it for granted that the right to love and pursue happiness through relationships is an automatic given in modern-day life,” he wrote. “What we celebrate is our individual and community’s triumph over hate and persecution. What we demand is the return of our birthright to hold another (human) being freely, to be held without fear.”
Aubrey continued to roll up his sleeves and institute new programs at the center, even though it grappled with a paltry $32,000 annual budget. He organized the Mary Ann Finegan Project to help train rookie police officers on LGBT issues and report hate-crime statistics to the FBI. He also founded the Living Room, which was the first-ever drop-in center in the Midwest for people with AIDS and HIV. And he helped organize monthly community “salons” to brainstorm gay issues.
On the side, Aubrey kept up his playwriting. He produced the first act of his latest piece, "Make Way for Dyklings," at Cleveland Public Theater every Thursday through Sunday between February 7 and February 24, 1991. Directed by Amanda Shaffer, the play swapped stage time with another one-act, Geralyn Horton’s "Talking Politics," in a double bill under the lesbi-friendly title, "Girls Into Women."
But by the fall of 1993, the strain of running the center while struggling to write scripts began to show. In a September 18 letter to fellow activist “Julia of the Spirit,” Aubrey vented his frustrations about both his job and inability to shop around Dyklings to a theatrical market larger than Cleveland because of “false leads and bogus producers.” “I do love just doing the youth group,” he wrote. “In many ways, I am decidedly over organizing the Cleveland community, a more disenfranchised, discombobulated and unaware collection of homothexuals (sic) you could not find outside of, perhaps, Bosnia.”
Aubrey turned in his resignation a few months later in 1994 to concentrate on the theater. He became a member of both the Dramatist Guild and the Cleveland Play House’s Playwrights Unit. And in a house he shared with a roommate and his dog, Malique, at 3053 West Blvd. on Cleveland’s West Side, he successfully negotiated to stage "Dyklings" at the Washington D.C. Art Center. The play was ultimately nominated for the theater’s Helen Hayes Award for “Best Original Play.“ It eventually was presented at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center in Massachusetts in 1996 and the Lambda Theater in Sacramento in 2000.
One of Aubrey’s dramas, "Genuine Article," about newspaper columnist Fannie Fern received sparkling reviews after it premiered at the First Night Festival in Columbus in 1996 and the Cleveland Play House a year later. And his last work, "Captivity," put Alzheimer’s disease under a microscope after his mom, Millie, was diagnosed with the memory-erasing illness in the mid-‘90s.
Aubrey himself would be rattled with a physician’s news that he had developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2001. For two years, he tried to stave off the effects to treat the cancer. Regardless, the Wertheim family was hit with devastation twice in less than two weeks. On December 29, 2002, 83-year-old Millie died at Pine Valley Care Center in Richfield Township. At Metro Health Medical Center in Cleveland 11 days later, the lymphoma took Aubrey’s life on Thursday, January 12, 2003. “In the ‘80s, I fought AIDS. In the ‘90s, I fought Alzheimer’s. And for the last two years, I have been fighting lymphoma,” he told his doctor shortly before he died. “I am tired.”
Aubrey was the third in a line of gay activists in Cleveland to die in three weeks, following the deaths of 54-year-old Ron Rooy, who ran the New Hope Alternative Therapy Group, and 45-year-old Joe Carroccio, who led the Cleveland chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT-UP. After Aubrey’s death, mourners remembered him as a “balanced and compassionate man.” “He was looking to advance the agenda of equal rights and protection while building relationships and empowering people,” said Ed Boyte, a former board member for the center and manager of its Mary Ann Finegan Project. “And he did it all while having a great time.”
Aubrey Wertheim’s body was cremated at Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery, 26200 Aurora Rd. in Bedford Heights. His remains were returned to his father. He was 49 years old.
Copyright 2010 Cris Glaser