The Essential Harv: Two Dozen Facts About Harvey Mayes (1944–1993)

My first boyfriend died before the Google Age, so there’s not a lot about him online. Today would have been his 75th birthday, so I’m celebrating with a list of things the world should know about him.

  1. Harvey Steven Mayes was born in Brooklyn on June 7, 1944, raised in the Bronx, the eldest of two children (he had a sister, Sara).
  2. His formidable mother was named Bertha, and she had an equally daunting sister named Mildred, known publicly as Aunt Mil, privately as Aunt Dread.
Dread, Bert and Lil Harv

3. His first grade teacher was most likely named Miss Levin but he insisted it was Miss Eleven to the end.

’40s Fashion: Catskill Edition

4. He did well in high school at Bronx Science — unsurprising because he was both book smart and street smart. I doubt he was a troublemaker but as an adult he was stubborn and he sure did like to be right all the time, so I imagine him as one of those know-it-all students who challenged the teachers. A lot.

5. Grad school went on for years and years and years. I’m a little hazy on what degrees were earned but I have a bound manuscript of his master’s thesis on Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, on thin 1965 onionskin paper with occasional holes punched out by the manual typewriter. His longtime mentor and colleague at Stony Brook, the legendary Rose Zimbardo, adored him. She was wild and dramatic and once went missing and was found wandering with total amnesia. The only two things she remembered were Harvey’s name and that he had a “formidable mother” (I’m pretty sure I picked up the phrasing from Rose and her nearly-wiped brain).

The Perpetual Student

6. Maybe I should have started with this: HE WAS IN A CULT. “An Upper West Side therapy cult,” he told me. “Is there anything more ’70s New York Jew?” They were called the Sullivanians and everyone was in severe daily therapy. Two big rules: cut off all contact with family except for money, and no marriage. Cult members all dated and had sex and the women were supposed to have the group’s communal babies. Years later I met a friend of his who had to kidnap her own baby back from the group. Scary shit went down, especially as the cult was crumbling. It’s crying for a Netflix documentary.

With his Sullivanian roommates. Harvey is the mustache in the middle and as a punster, he must have been responsible for the “we all got crabs this summer” photo shoot

7. For all the anti-marriage warnings received, he and his dour girlfriend got married while they were in the cult. (She actually got him into the cult.) I don’t remember much about her except an unfortunate nude “art” photo he kept, and that she had a curious way of making not-quite-malapropisms. Like, she’d say “Six dozen of one, half of another,” but she really did mean a whole lot of one thing and just a little of another. Also, a boat turning over and sinking was “collapsized.” I met her once without knowing it. She was on the sidewalk with a petition, shouting about a nuclear power plant being built as Harvey and I were walking by. They didn’t actually greet one another but he took the clipboard and said wryly, “I assume you’re against the nuclear plant,” and she said, “Damn right I am” with a stone face. “How about your friend, does he want to sign?” she said without looking at me. Knowing I had not yet registered in New York, he said, “No, he can’t vote,” which made it sound like I was seventeen. We walked about a half block before he said, “Sooooo, that was my ex-wife. Wasn’t she fun?”

8. Not only was he married and gay, but so was she. They both came out not long after they divorced, so yeah, whatever, CULTS ARE GREAT. Just a few years ago at a birthday dinner for my friend Helen, I was seated next to a fascinating woman who turned out to be the daughter of the leader — the head therapist — of the Sullivanians. Small world! If you stay on the Upper West Side.

9. They waited too long to leave, so he and his friends got stuck in traffic on their way to Woodstock and never made it.

Early Photoshop. Needles were not his thing, but as he said, “I had a Jewfro to die for.”

10. He wrote an early “gay how-to” book, Loving Man, and co-authored How to Pick Up Girls and America’s Best Pick-Up Spots (don’t ask). More notably, his writing is quoted in Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, in which he’s identified as “Harvey Mayes of the English Department at Hunter.”

11. We met in a bar in the summer of 1984. I was 21 and he was 40. (Yeah, yeah, shut up.) We were together for nine years.

An undated picture from around the time I met him. It’s the photo that’s damaged, not his flesh or hair, but the unibrow was all his.

12. No one loved to laugh quite like he did, and that’s a tall order. Unfortunately, a lot of his laughter was about puns, and the more painful, the better. He found ways to use them incessantly. When a friend asked, “How can you appreciate a form of humor for which the highest praise is a groan?” he replied instantly, “I didn’t as a young man but now that I’m grown…”

13. An audiophile, he always had the latest (as well as some of the oldest) pieces of stereo equipment. His was the first CD player I ever saw but he also held onto a reel-to-reel recorder for too many dusty years. For a while he was obsessed with DAT technology, digital recording that was used in studios but never caught on for consumer use, sort of the Betamax of home audio.

14. He had a gigantic rent-stabilized Classic Six apartment on (take a guess) the Upper West Side. His ex, a wonderful guy named Matthew, lived in one of the big bedrooms, then I moved into another with Harvey, then Matthew’s French chef boyfriend Didier moved in with him. For a few years in the mid-‘80s, the four of us were a crazy new nuclear family. (Flash forward: I stayed in that apartment for thirty years. For about half that time, my ex, a wonderful guy named Zeke, lived in the big bedroom that had been Matthew’s. WHAT A SURPRISE.)

Matthew (smoking) & Harvey (drinking). Ah, the ‘70s.

15. Harvey had a sizable social circle. He was widely loved and he was a fantastic host. Dinner parties are rare in Manhattan due to size restrictions (dining rooms and kitchens both) and the ease with which jaded New Yorkers can get extraordinary food without cooking, but Harv served it up with style. He did an impressive crown roast of pork. His fried chicken was fried in butter, drizzled with butter, I think also stuffed and wrapped with sticks of butter, served on a bed of butter foam and butter pats with melted butter on the side. Our friend Annie called it “cookies with bones.”

16. TeleSession was the company at which he worked the entire time I knew him. In those days a conference call was essentially a magic trick, and it was his life. At these telephone conferences, he’d sit at a big console and the eight or ten participants would speak and their lines would light up so he knew who they were and could address them by name. His biggest clients were pharmaceutical and agricultural chemical manufacturers, so he was fluent in both Doctor and Farmer. He told me that on his first day, the HR Director, who had a name something like S. Elizabeth Harmon, sat him down and explained the scope of the job and the health benefits and the 401K and the travel and the schedule and on and on for about ten minutes. When she finished she asked, “Do you have any questions?” and he said, “Yeah, what’s the ‘S.’ for?”

17. I’m not just saying this for a reaction: I don’t know how he put up with me. I was a callow new wave brat from the Midwest and he was a sophisticated native New Yorker. But I’m glad he gave me a chance because we fell in love and I learned from him how to be an adult in the world. I certainly learned how to be a discerning gay man from him, and I’m talking old school gay. Not just opera and campy movies but stories from his friends who were at Stonewall, and the twins, Armand and Renaldo, who were twenty years older than he was and talked about the secret bars in the ’50s with code words and drunk Westchester husbands in angora sweaters.

An early ’90s shot showing off my unfortunate long hair

18. He got me a Samoyed for my 25th birthday. I named her Ripley after my college friend Alice and the Sigourney Weaver character in Alien. She was my dog because that was the deal but she would have preferred to have been Harvey’s dog, which I understood.

Ripley, the Winking Samoyed

19. By the late ’80s, most of our friends were being picked off by AIDS. Harvey was very clear-eyed about having tested positive and accepting his death sentence. He was fascinated by the treatment (fluent in Doctor) even though he knew he wouldn’t survive. He made it to 1993. The first six months of that year were rough, as he continued to work until the day he could no longer go into the office. (That went on my “how not to do it” list.) After that he spent the next few months slowly stepping off the planet.

20. Wow, his old friends sure showed up as he slid away. A couple former Sullivanians were there nearly every day, one of them commuting from outside Albany (his wonderful old girlfriend, Susie). The outpouring was massive, a testament to the man he was. Thankfully I had picked up on how to be a good host because some nights there would be a dozen people at the apartment. Of course they all needed to spend as much time as they could with him and of course they all needed martinis, so it was basically a long death watch party. Two friends wrote poems.

Untitled by Geoffrey Brackett
Icons From an Easier Time by Lisa Sack

21. His friend Lisa’s poetic line, “will you dwindle to a skull and clutter of bones?” proved prophetic (“the essential Harv,” my friend Laura said, holding his skeletal hand). Everything shrank except his eyes, which were huge in their sunken sockets and made him look terrified — and perhaps he was. It was a full house for Thanksgiving, then on Sunday night, November 28, 1993, after the last out-of-towner left, he completed his disappearing act, at home in bed. (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had just started on TV so I’ll always blame River Phoenix, who played Young Indy.) Right after the body was taken away and we stood in the silent room, Ripley freaked out in a completely foreign way, jumping and lurching and crying, an unbearable noise that barely sounded canine. Dogs know things.

22. Harvey wanted his ashes thrown from the roof of the apartment building, the place he’d spent the most time and identified with a good life. Was it illegal? Probably but I didn’t care. Like, what, someone would notice extra grime floating down on a New York street? Those people are tough. They’ve been sprinkled with death every day. Matthew and I brought his ashes — “cremains,” which include bone fragments — and I tossed the first handful. They caught in the breeze for a second, then flew right back and stung me in the face and eyes AND COATED MY VERY TONGUE. We laughed so hard I ached and felt dizzy and thought I might fall over the edge and wouldn’t that be perfect? It was so like Harv to have the final word, especially something like “Ashes to ashes, mouth to mouth.”

23. When I got back down to the apartment, Ripley sniffed my hand and freaked out again in the same way she’d done when the corpse was wheeled out. Dogs know things. She would live for nine more years — as long as my relationship — and when she died, I lost Harvey again, for real.

24. Or maybe I truly lost him when I left the apartment for good. As I prepared to move to Connecticut with my husband in 2015, I walked through the rooms alone one last time, empty as I’d never seen them. My entire adulthood had been spent there. It was my launching pad into the real world. I never would have had my amazing life if I hadn’t moved into Harvey’s enviably huge and cheap apartment in 1985 and just stayed. I thought I’d get teary but I didn’t. It’s not like I had a lost youth to mourn; I had one to celebrate. “Besides,” I thought, “now that I’m grown…”