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Friday, July 13, 2012

Recent Acquisitions: New Archive Houses 55 Years of Art, Activism, and Love

Posted By on Fri, Jul 13, 2012 at 3:30 AM

click to enlarge A newspaper from the SIR archives, which constitute an early donation to the Berner-Heintz archives.
  • A newspaper from the SIR archives, which constitute an early donation to the Berner-Heintz archives.
Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

Robert Berner was waiting in line for movie tickets on Market Street when he noticed an attractive young man staring at him. They locked eyes, but it was too dangerous to speak. Berner had only just arrived in San Francisco, but this was the late 1950s. He had been warned that police didn't take kindly to males loitering in the streets.

"We wanted to get to know each other, so we started walking together, and it just happened to be in the direction of his house," Berner remembered. "We picked up some beer and ice cream on the way."

click to enlarge Berner and Heintz were 25 years old when they met on Market Street, fresh out of the Navy and Army.
  • Berner and Heintz were 25 years old when they met on Market Street, fresh out of the Navy and Army.
When Berner starting dating his late partner of 55 years, William Heintz, there were few public places they could safely go together. They took long drives, exploring Napa Valley and Sonoma when it was still countryside, an area they ultimately settled in.

When they were in the city, Heintz loved to visit the San Francisco Public Library, and asked Berner to donate the majority of his personal belongings to the History Center.

"The elephant was his totem animal," Berner explained, "and here I am, devastated, surrounded by all of his things. He became the elephant in my room, so I saw to his wishes soon after he passed away in February."

Heintz was a well-known journalist in the Bay Area who authored many books, and he was regarded as a preeminent wine historian. His personal achievements, however, make up a small portion of the donation.

"The initial connection had to do with San Francisco history, but there are rich layers that connect Berner and Heintz to the burgeoning LGBT movement of the 1960s, the tremendously fertile poetry and music scene, the calligraphy circle of San Francisco, and the history of wine-making," remarked Tim Wilson, the librarian processing the archives at the Gay and Lesbian Center.

click to enlarge Lou Harrison wrote a letter to Heintz after he recovered from the mumps. According to Berner, "they didn't get it from each other, because they didn't have contact in that way, but they both had it and they lost some of their valued jewelry."
  • Lou Harrison wrote a letter to Heintz after he recovered from the mumps. According to Berner, "they didn't get it from each other, because they didn't have contact in that way, but they both had it and they lost some of their valued jewelry."
The Berner-Heintz archives are less about one accomplished man, and more about a group of well-known men. Heintz and Berner, an accomplished artist himself, regularly socialized with Beat poet Robert Duncan and his reclusive partner, the artist Jess Collins. Their group also included the composer Lou Harrison and his partner, William Colving, an electrician who built tuned percussion instruments.

click to enlarge SIR produced credit card sized "pocket lawyers" which instructed men and women on what to do if they were harassed or arrested by the police, which was often. SIR was regularly infiltrated by the police. Berner said they were mostly after their fundraising money, which they would, without fail, spirit away. There was no mode of recourse available to them.
  • SIR produced credit card sized "pocket lawyers" which instructed men and women on what to do if they were harassed or arrested by the police, which was often. SIR was regularly infiltrated by the police. Berner said they were mostly after their fundraising money, which they would, without fail, spirit away. There was no mode of recourse available to them.

They set out to create a community which accepted them. The Society for Individual Rights (SIR) was formed in 1964, and marked the first time large numbers of gay men and women in San Francisco openly participated in a political entity.

"It wasn't all the sadness and bitterness you find in the books," Berner points out. SIR encouraged its members to focus on more than their sexuality, so while there were successful campaigns and fundraising activities, there were classes offered on calligraphy, along with bridge clubs and bowling leagues.

click to enlarge Sirpamphlet.jpg
"There were big dances with tables that ran 30 feet long, with people of all sorts gathered around it," Berner said. He was overcome with emotion as he recalled how special and free these nights felt, when he was able to hold Heintz's hand in public.

"We had so much fun. We'd still be having fun if Bill was here."

The San Francisco History Center is located on the sixth floor of the San Francisco Public Street, 100 Larkin (at Grove). It is open to the public Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Friday, 12 p.m.-6 p.m., Sunday, 10 p.m.-6 p.m.and Sunday, 12 p.m.-5 p.m.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.
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Alexis Coe

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