Scope and arrangement
The Vito Russo papers document Russo's life and career as a writer, lecturer, film historian, and gay rights and AIDS activist. His papers consist of correspondence, journals, appointment books, writings by and about Russo, electronic records, photographs, sound and video recordings, ephemera, and posthumous material. These materials also document the gay rights movement from the late 1970s through 1990 and narrate how the AIDS epidemic mobilized and yet devastated the gay community.
The correspondence in the collection is both personal and professional. Although it is mostly incoming, the collection does include a number of outgoing letters of which Russo kept copies, as well as photocopies of correspondence to Arnie Kantrowitz (one of the collection's donors), which were added by Kantrowitz. Russo's personal journals chronicle his work, relationships, and fight against AIDS. The posthumous material was added by Arnie Kantrowitz and contains obituaries, articles remembering Russo, and programs for his memorial services.
The items relating to Russo's professional life include his writings, lectures, and notes for presentations. His writings consist mainly of articles on film and the gay rights movement. His lectures and speeches are from his “Celluloid Closet” presentations, his teaching at University of California Santa Cruz, and various gay events. Many of the electronic records also related to his professional life. The gay and lesbian ephemera consists of items such as buttons, handbills, and flyers that demand gay rights or celebrate anniversaries of the Stonewall riots. It also includes a large number of programs from gay and lesbian film festivals from the 1980s.
Sound and video recordings account for a large percentage of the collection and include recordings of Russo's interviews, gay events, and his “Celluloid Closet” lectures. Most of the photographs in the collection are snapshots or contact sheets of friends and various gay marches and events.
The Vito Russo papers are arranged in ten series:
The bulk of the correspondence is organized chronologically and covers both personal and professional matters. The material spans 1969 to 1990, but largely dates from 1980 to 1990. The correspondence is with personal friends, organizations requesting him to speak (or thanking him for speaking), activists in the gay liberation movement, politicians, researchers and writers working on topics related to The Celluloid Closet, and fans praising/responding to The Celluloid Closet, Common Threads, his lectures, or articles.
Correspondents include Arthur Bell (approximately 10 items, 1976-1981), Ray Bradbury (1973, 1974), Rita Mae Brown (approximately 25 items, 1975-1988 and undated), Cyd Charisse (1988 and undated), Tom Duane (1988), Harvey Fierstein (1988), Jonathan Ned Katz (1989), Ed Koch (1984, 1988), Craig Lucas (1990), Janet Maslin (1988), Bette Midler (approx. 4 items, 1972-1981), Paul Monette (1988), Randy Shilts (1976, 1989), Liz Smith (approximately 3 items, 1978 and 1984), Lily Tomlin (approx. 6 items, 1975, 1976, 1989, and undated), and John Waters (1988 and undated).
The medical and legal file consists of incoming and outgoing correspondence pertaining to Russo's AIDS treatment, as well as paperwork related to the medical and public assistance he received near the end of his life. The file also includes a letter notifying Russo of a sum of money left to him in Arthur Bell's will, as well as several letters regarding Bette Midler's attempt to stop Russo from showing rare footage of her performing at the Continental Baths in 1971.
The family file contains correspondence from Russo's parents, his brother Charles, and various aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews.
The Jeffrey Sevcik folder contains intimate correspondence from Sevcik, Russo's lover who died of AIDS in 1986.
The University of California at Santa Cruz folder contains correspondence pertaining to Russo's two week lectureship during the 1988-89 academic year, and the two courses he taught from January to March 1990, "The Celluloid Closet: Lesbians/Gay Men in Film" and "Documenting Gay Activism." The file contains paperwork confirming Russo's appointment but most of the material is from Russo's students, who continued to keep in touch with him after he left the campus.
The Russo outgoing folders contain both personal and professional correspondence, including letters to friends, thank you notes, responses to letters received, and letters to the editors of various papers in which he responded to articles promoting misconceptions about gays and lesbians and/or people with AIDS.
The Celluloid Closet folders contain incoming and outgoing materials pertaining to the research for and publication of the book (both the original and revised edition). Correspondents include screenwriters Nancy Dowd, Bryan Forbes, Michael Gordon, Gavin Lambert, Edmund Morris, Edmund H. North, Tom Rickman, Stewart Stern, Daniel Taradash, and Gore Vidal; actors Paul Newman and Christopher Reeve; and others in the film industry including Lindsay Anderson, Edward Dmytryk, Richard Levinson, and Michael Winner. Also included is correspondence from Jed Mattes, Russo's literary agent, and Russo's editors at Harper and Row, as well as material pertaining to requests for movie stills and permissions to reprint them.
The Arnie Kantrowitz correpondence spans from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. It consists of outgoing letters printed from computer files in 1996, correspondence between Russo and Arnie Kantrowitz added to the collection by Kantrowitz following Russo's death (Kantrowitz added photocopies of correspondence received from Russo), and one letter from Russo contributed by the recipient in 1996. Many of the items are addressed to "Sunny" or "Cher," Russo and Kantrowitz's nicknames for each other, respectively. The letters are largely anecdotal and include many letters and postcards to and from Russo as he traveled through the United States, Australia, and Europe.
The journals, arranged chronologically, span the years 1978 to 1990 and offer a chronicle of the New York gay community as it faced the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. Russo discusses his personal life and relationships; his work on The Celluloid Closet; his travels through the United States, Europe, and Australia; his feelings about gay liberation and AIDS activism; and his struggle with the AIDS virus. Most of the journals contain ticket stubs, photographs, and clippings glued inside.
The 12/14/78 - 9/25/80 journal contains entries pertaining to Russo's research for The Celluloid Closet as well as details of his personal life. During this period he traveled to, among other places, London, Amsterdam, Dublin, Stockholm, and Athens.
The 9/26/80 - 3/29/85 journal includes continued travel to Yugoslavia, Italy, France, Wales, London, and Berlin. It also chronicles his relationship with his longtime lover, Jeffrey Sevcik. Russo writes about how the publication of his book has thrust him into the public eye.
The 3/30/85 - 11/13/87 journal chronicles Jeffrey Sevcik's struggle with and death from AIDS, as well as Russo's own diagnosis. He travels to Australia, London, and Amsterdam.
The 11/14/87 - 6/2/89 journal chronicles Russo's continued struggle against AIDS and his difficulties coping with his family once they know of his illness. Russo also writes about his involvement with ACT UP. He travels to Australia and California.
The 6/3/89 - 8/22/90 journal shows Russo battling serious depression and loneliness. The journal covers his time at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Russo expresses his frustration with the lack of new gay activism as well as his disappointment with the medical profession, which he felt had not taken an activist role in fighting the AIDS virus.
An undated journal contains a short entry regarding Russo's continued disillusionment with the medical profession. A yellow pad labeled "Vito Russo's final week in hospital" contains illegible writing presumably by Russo, as well as notes made by others.
Russo's final journal (8/90 - 11/90) chronicles his last days.
This series contains appointment calendars, biographical information, and a folder of miscellaneous items. The calendars are arranged chronologically and span the years 1977 through 1990. They contain personal and professional appointments, and many list phone numbers in the back. The folder of biographical information includes brief summaries of Russo's life and career, his curriculum vitae, and professional references. The miscellaneous folder contains Russo's daily medication list, a removal permit for the cremated remains of Jeffrey Sevcik, a list of films, and numerous phone number lists.
Added to the collection by Arnie Kantrowitz, the posthumous material contains obituaries for Russo and articles recounting his life and career. A program from his funeral service and invitations and programs from his memorial services in New York and San Francisco are also included.
The electronic records consists of professional and personal correspondence, writings, speeches, teaching materials from the University of Santa Cruz, and a small amount of personal documents. The bulk of the correspondence documents Russo's efforts to secure permission to screen film clips for his Celluloid Closet lectures. Other correspondence reflects his travels; his work as an activist; and his medical care, including his navigation of the Medicaid system. Writings and speeches consists of front matter and addendum drafts for the Celluloid Closet revision; drafts of articles, including Russo's columns for The Advocate; and interview transcripts. Personal documents contain various lists such as his videotape collection, medications and vitamins, and a guest list for a party. The computer files as a whole document Russo's interest in how AIDS was reported in the press. They contain letters to editors commenting on specific articles or topics, as well as notes regarding a 1988 meeting with The New York Times to discuss The Times' coverage of drug and treatment issues.
Subseries V. B. Contains paper copies of the computer files that were printed at The New York Public Library in May and June, 1996, using a borrowed Kaypro 2X computer.
The items relating to Russo's professional life are teaching materials, speeches and lectures, writings, research information, and various awards. The teaching materials are from his two 1990 courses at University of California, Santa Cruz. They include class lectures, syllabi, lists of films for class, student papers, and articles for course reading. The series also contains Russo's public lectures and presentations. The speeches that are identified are from his “Celluloid Closet” lectures, AIDS rallies, film festivals, and various panel discussions. Writings are articles written about Russo as well as his own pieces in gay publications, such as The Advocate, and in more mainstream periodicals, such as Moviegoer. His writings discuss the gay rights movement, gays and lesbian portrayals in film, and the film industry in general. Included in the writings are several columns of the “Russo/Bell Connection” from the New York Native that chronicled the daily phone conversations of Russo and Arthur Bell. Two folders also contain several drafts of Russo's writings.
The series also holds information that Russo presumably used as background material for his writings, teaching, and lectures. Files consist of clippings of articles regarding gay rights and gays in film, notebooks, lists of films, interviews and writings by others, the proposal for The Celluloid Closet to be made into a documentary, and permission requests to use film clips. The awards in the collection are certificates, plaques and statues. The awards do not provide much information on the honors other than the name of the award and the presenting organization.
This series consists of ephemera relating to gay and lesbian rights and interests. These include pins and buttons, notices and flyers for protests and events, programs for gay and lesbian film festivals, the constitution and newsletter of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), and information relating to the AIDS Quilt. Many of the handbills calling for political action are signed by “The Red Queen.” The series also has ephemera celebrating anniversaries of the Stonewall Riots of 1969. One booklet from 1979, entitled Stonewall Romances, includes personal accounts of the night of the riots. Other ephemera includes gay magazines, information about the media arts organization Frameline, and a program from Finocchio's female impersonator club in San Francisco.
- 1978-circa 1991
The video recordings are arranged in alphabetical order and consist of interviews and lectures by Russo; broadcast productions; and film clips used in Russo's “Celluloid Closet” lectures. There is also a recording of the Second Annual Media Awards Presentation for the Alliance for Gay Artists in the Entertainment Industry. Interviews and lectures consist of an interview of Russo by radio personality Zane Blaney and two versions of a “Celluloid Closet” lecture in Oregon. One version is the complete lecture while the other is a condensed edit of the lecture interspersed with film clips. The broadcast productions include episodes of Our Times, a topical television show that Russo hosted on a variety LGBT issues; segments of the Emerald City television show including interviews Russo did with John Waters and Larry Kramer; Vito's Legacy; The Inaugural Display of the NAMES Project Quilt; and The Lavender Peacock/Hen: Gays and the Broadcast Media.
The sound recordings consist of interviews by Russo; talks and appearances; protests, rallies, and events; and miscellaneous recordings. The interviews were conducted for the Celluloid Closet and for articles Russo was writing for gay and popular publications. There are Celluloid Closet interviews for both the initial publication (1981) and the revised edition (1987). Russo interviewed directors, actors and actresses, and screenwriters, as well as musicians, novelists, and other journalists. Notable interviewees include directors Robert Aldrich, Pedro Almodóvar, Kenneth Anger, Federico Fellini, and Stephen Frears; actors Spalding Grey, Ian McKellan, and Martin Sheen; actresses Whoopi Goldberg, Barbara Hershey, Jessica Lange, Bette Midler, and Lily Taylor; writers William S. Burroughs and Tennessee Williams; and musicians David Bowie and David Cassidy. Some of the audiocassettes contained multiple interviews on a side. In these instances, all interviewees are listed.
There is a series of travel interviews (circa 1989) that appear to have been collected on a trip across the United States which include street preacher John 3:16 Cook and his wife Magickal Marissa in Las Vegas, a dance troop composed of senior citizens called the Arizona Pom Pom's, and an interview with gay soldiers in the military and the owner of a gay bar they frequented, among others.
Protests, rallies, and events consist of an ACT UP press conference regarding the FDA protest; the ACT UP demonstration on Wall Street; an anti-nuclear demonstration in Washington, D.C.; names being read out loud for the NAMES Memorial Quilt; a Human Rights Campaign Fund Dinner; and the Christopher Street Liberation Day, which Russo officiated.
Talks and appearances include Celluloid Closet lectures Russo presented at both gay community centers and academic institutions, including his last lecture at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco in 1990, and interviews Russo gave on the radio and to other journalists. There are multiple interviews of Russo by Zane Blaney which span from 1970 to 1989.
Other recordings consist of a panel discussion at the New York Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival, a telephone chat line that Russo was participating in, segments from the Gay Liberation Follies, the Killing of Sister George radio spots, and the cast album for the AIDS musical Dirty Dreams of a Clean Cut Kid. Recordings related to Arthur Bell include his memorial service and two phone conversations between Bell and Russo.
The photographs consist of snapshots, contact sheets, and negatives of friends and gay and lesbian events. Included are gay marches, street fairs, vacations, stills from movies used in The Celluloid Closet, and portraits of famous women. Many of the events and people are unidentified.