This week in the South Florida Gay News, I wrote about Jack Rutland who had been Director of the Museum of the New York Historical Society, and, "Mr. New York Eagle 2000".
“Ask me anything! I’m an open book! Written by Proust!”
So said Jack Rutland as he ushered me into his office while a subordinate within earshot outside the door snorted with amusement. He wasn’t the only one laughing. From the moment you enter the Stonewall Library and Archive, you are in the presence of smiling and welcoming volunteers and staff who are glad you stopped by and who intently want to share with you all the fascinating assets of the library. If it is true that the tenor of any organization filters down from the top, the amiable atmosphere of the library is due to the personality of its executive director and most valuable asset, Jack Rutland. I am seated in his office and we were off to the races.
I remarked that every time I enter the library, I find Jack in a state of excitement and tense preoccupation with the details of his responsibilities. Did he not get the memo that Fort Lauderdale is where men go to relax?
“”Yeah, I get that a lot. I’m working a fifteen-hour a day job in a resort community. When I returned to Fort Lauderdale, a friend said ‘Jack, you’re not in New York anymore. You can unclench your hand.’ But that’s just not me.”
Returned to Fort Lauderdale?
“Yes. I was born here. Then I lived in Dallas, Portland (Oregon), Charleston, DC and then in 1991, New York City. That is where I was aiming all along.”
I wondered how Jack got into the museum business.
“I got a degree in American Art from Duke. I was offered a job sight unseen in Portland and I took it and drove out there. Loved it. This has been my only profession. I got into it in 1978. That means 32 years in May. I started when I was 13….and finally I got to New York as Director of the Museum of the New York Historical Society. I thought that was my dream job, and now this is.”
I told Jack that I considered him the “keeper of memories” in his role as head of the pre-eminent collection of archived queer stuff. I supposed that he had favorite personal queer memorabilia.
“I remember dancing at the gay bars of Raleigh and Durham when I was at Duke, and the police would shine flashlights at us on the dance floor because it was illegal for men to dance closely with men. I remember the first person I met when I came out. A drag queen named Africa. I was this sweet little Southern blueblood and she was this fabulous creature. I wonder where she is today. I’m telling you this because my personal archives are experiential, they are not physical or material. You would be shocked if you saw my home. It’s not what you would think a museum director would live in. It’s very spare. I am the most minimalist person imaginable. There is only one box, and I have instructed my closest friends about that box. If anything happens to my home or if I am away, they know where that box is and they will save it for me. It has some things in it that are special to me. Birthday cards from my parents. Ticket stubs from Cher and Streisand concerts. That kind of thing. One box only.”
I admitted that I knew a little bit about Jack’s previous life in New York City and I asked him about how he became “Mr. New York Eagle 2000”.
“I did it for all the right reasons and I got all the right things out of it. I was 43 years old and The Eagle was where I hung out. All my friends went there or worked there. It was my place. My home. My church. A friend said ‘You should enter the contest because you are the best representative of this place and what it’s all about.’ I wasn’t young and all muscled up like the other contestants but I had a one and a half hour interview with the judges and after I won they told me that it was because of that interview. They could tell that nobody could represent The Eagle better than I could. I got an obscenely huge studded leather sash.”
The yenta in me learned that Jack is single and I asked him what kind of man appealed to him and why such an attractive fellow should be single in a town full of men.
‘Yeah, this town is full of men, but they’ve all met me. Seriously, I always say I want ‘Someone complicated.’ They need to be intelligent. Maybe complex is a better way to describe what I like. Oh, and they have to be willing to live next door. I want to keep my own space.”
I changed the subject, asking Jack to name his gay hero.
“All the little boys and girls who dare to come out and have the courage to live their true life. Not denying your own truth. I was a very gay little boy. When people asked me what I wanted to be, I always said ‘A June Taylor dancer’, and I was dead serious about that.”
Jack Rutland is also dead serious about inviting you to visit the Stonewall Library and Archive, 1300 East Sunrise Blvd, Fort Lauderdale. www.stonewall-library.org