News
2 min

Playwright John Herbert’s typewriter

A look at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Enter the Church-Wellesley office of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA) and you’ll find that every available inch of space is crammed with books and files. Perched atop one waist-high shelf is a cast-iron Underwood typewriter enigmatically labelled with a yellowing post-it, “2001-061.” This particular ancient writing instrument has much resonance, both personal and historical, for the CLGA’s general manager Robert Windrum.

Raised fundamentalist Baptist in Alberta, Windrum escaped to study visual arts at the University of Lethbridge. A course on Canadian theatre included a study of John Herbert’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes. Herbert had based the successful and controversial play on his experiences when jailed after being mugged. Herbert’s attackers accused Herbert of soliciting sex and so it was Herbert that wound up behind bars. The play contains a shocking amount of violence, nudity and queer content (more so in 1967 when it received its debut New York production). At the time of Windrum’s studies gay content of any kind was hard to find and that Herbert’s work was being “sanctioned by an institution” did wonders for Windrum’s fledgling gay identity.

Years later Windrum was living in Stratford where he was the director/curator for Gallery Stratford. At a dinner party hosted by a friend, Windrum made the acquaintance of a charming woman named Mary. On their third encounter Mary mentioned her playwright brother who turned out to be John Herbert. Windrum was delighted to be able to pry out stories and gossip including accounts of Herbert’s many misadventures as a drag queen in the ’60s, an activity which earned Herbert further time in jail.

When Windrum took the job as the CLGA’s general manager he had to learn to ignore the infinite number of treasures in the stacks and shelves. “Someone would always be arriving with a bundle buggy full of material,” he says, all of it worth investigating.

But he did enquire about the prominent typewriter. It turns out it had been donated, as well as many papers and drag accessories, by his friend Mary upon the death of John Herbert in 2001. It is the very typewriter Herbert used to write Fortune and Men’s Eyes. Windrum was able to peruse Herbert’s files and personal effects, bringing him full circle back to his first contact with gay culture.

Windrum says he has so far resisted the urge to use the typewriter but admires it daily. For those less literally inclined Windrum notes that the CLGA also houses a spectacular pair of Herbert’s sequined shoes.The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives will be holding its first annual Fowl Supper, with the theme Oklahomo, on Sat, Nov 3 at 5:30pm at the 519 Community Centre (519 Church St). Tickets are $45. Call (416) 777-2755 or email general manager Robert Windrum at rwindrum@clga.ca.