Title: A Night at the Ariston Baths
Author: Michael Murphy
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Release Date: April 25, 2016
Genre(s): Historical, Gay History
Page Count: 230
Reviewed by: Crabbypatty
Heat Level: 2 flames out of 5
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
In rural Pennsylvania, Theodore McCall lives on his family’s farm and works as a clerk at the local general store. While his best friend, Martin Fuller, thrives in New York City, Theodore trudges through life. But on New Year’s Eve, 1902, Theodore’s world is turned upside down, and big changes call for bold action.
Theodore, who has never ventured more than eight miles from home, undertakes the daunting journey to New York City to join Martin. But the Martin he finds in New York is a stranger, a different man, doing things Theodore finds shocking. After just two months in the City, Theodore’s world is upended again as he and Martin are swept up in the events at the Ariston Baths.
Haunted by his experiences in New York, Theodore returns home, wondering whether he’ll ever find happiness in life. When he meets Jasper Webb, Theodore must boldly risk everything for the love he so longs for.
It’s been over 45 years since the Stonewall Inn riots in June of 1969, which have been called the single most important event leading to the fight for LGBT rights in the United States. Michael Murphy’s book “A Night at the Ariston Baths” recounts the story of the first recorded raid on a gay bathhouse on February 21, 1903 in New York City.
Theodore McCall, Murphy’s main character in “A Night at the Ariston Baths,” is elated that June night in 1969:
This was what Theodore had been waiting for since 1903. He had known it was coming. It wasn’t a question of if, but of when and where. Theodore had known the time was close at hand, and he’d hoped he could last long enough to see it happen. […] He had done it. He had survived long enough to witness the beginning of something brand-new.
Michael Murphy has done a wonderful job of introducing the reader to an important piece of history, and making it relatable by creating two characters who are boyhood best friends – one went to the Big City, the second stayed home. When Martin returns over Christmas 1902, he has amazing stories to tell Theodore: “Oh, Teddy. New York City is an amazing place. There are men like us there.” “You’ve found others like us?” Theodore breathlessly asked. He had dreamed of such things. Imagine what it must have been like knowing little of the world outside your small town, and even less about same-sex relationships.
I liked the pace of this book as we learn of Theodore’s life, working in the local store, living at home with his parents, until he moves to NYC. Murphy does a good job of capturing the pace of the city, Theo’s sense of wonder, and how Martin has changed because of the freedom to explore his sexuality. And it is heartbreaking to read what happens in the aftermath of the raid, especially knowing that Murphy has done his research (check out the extensive notes and bibliography at the end of the book) and accurately depicted what happened.
Once Theo returns home, he soon meets Jasper, his partner for over 60 years. Their love story is beautifully told and you can feel the chemistry between the two as they carve out a life for themselves in an inhospitable world. As Theodore says: Hell, it’s never been easy to be gay in this country. Doesn’t matter that we’ve been here right from the start, a part of every single generation that made this country what it is today.
We weren’t going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it’s like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that’s what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.
(Quote from Stonewall Inn riot participant)
I’m a full-blown history geek so this book is completely in my wheelhouse but I think it will appeal to anyone who wants to understand the long struggle for gay rights in America. If you’d like to read more about New York City around the same time period, give Kate McMurray’s Ten Days in August a read.