It’s June 16, 1972. Jane Fonda had a Best Actress Oscar at home. Watergate was just a condominium complex. Several East Coast states were cleaning up after Hurricane Agnes. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was hovering in the 900s, and Hamilton Watch Co. was close to introducing the first commercial electronic digital wristwatch for $2,100 (about $14,500 in today’s dollars).
And Berwyn Clark and Fred Peterson met for the first time in the Potpourri Bar in St. Louis, Missouri. At the time they had no expectations. Little did they know where that fateful night would lead them.
Photo of the exterior of Mr. A’s Potpourri Bar in St. Louis. Photo originally published in Ciao! Magazine, June 1974.
Fifty years later they are still together, happily retired in their Rosslyn Farms townhouse along with their cat Archie, Berwyn’s LP collection, and memories of trips and dinners and parties and friends gained and lost during five tumultuous decades that saw closet doors fly open, AIDS wreak its havoc, and eventually, gay marriage become commonplace.
Through those years they enjoyed, even thrived in, a relatively smooth, uncomplicated loving relationship. So, what is the secret to their connubial bliss?
“We pretty well established our responsibilities early on,” Fred said.
As Berwyn explained, “Fred took up cooking, I bought the groceries and washed the dishes. We’re still doing that today.”
Plus, for anyone who has sat around stewing while waiting for their other half to get ready to leave for a date or dinner or whatever, well, this couple never had that issue. “Neither of us had to wait for the other,” Fred pointed out. “We are both on the same time clock.”
In many respects, Berwyn added, “We were socially ahead of the times.”
Looking back, such companionable compatibility at home left them free to tackle the ups and downs of careers and the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, all the while making friends around the country and indulging in a love of Broadway, New York City, and travel.
Their household lives began when, several months after they met, Fred moved into Berwyn’s just-bought 800-square-foot condo outside St. Louis. They credit the luck of meeting and their ease at setting up housekeeping with keeping them alive in the years to come.
Berwyn readily acknowledges, “Both of us feel that if we hadn’t met each other we wouldn’t be here today.”
The Potpourri Bar building in February 2022. Photo via Google maps.
Before that fateful June 1972 evening, Fred and Berwyn were denizens of gay bathhouses. A decade later bathhouses found themselves as a central controversial player in the burgeoning AIDS calamity. Many of them would close as bathhouses became places of fear. By then Fred and Berwyn had long since joined the ranks of ex-bathhouse aficionados.
In some respects, their relationship started with a lie—well, more like a fib. When they met, the issue of age came up, naturally. Fred told Berwyn he was 29. Berwyn continued. “I told him I was 29 also.”
Fred picked up the story. “Later we were in a piano bar in Chicago. It was around 2 in the morning, and Berwyn suddenly looked sort of sheepish. I asked him what was up. He admitted then that he was 35.”
Today, in the middle of his eighth decade Berwyn can smile at that little lie. “I felt that anyone over 30 was over the hill. I knew I had to fess up.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing after that confession cleared the air. Sure, Fred had introduced Berwyn to his Arkansas family, and Berwyn did the same later. Both families were accepting. Remember, this is the 70s, when such acceptance was often rare. It was welcomed by both of them because it was not a reality at Berwyn’s job. Berwyn, an ambitious, hard-working rising young star in Westinghouse’s finance department, knew his career could be derailed if he introduced Fred to coworkers as his partner in life.
That careful consideration was behind Berwyn’s decision to turn down two overseas promotions, one to Brazil, another to the UK. Unwilling to leave Fred behind or to endanger his career by taking “his friend” along, they stayed put in St. Louis. Then, in 1984, Berwyn was promoted to a plum position in the Westinghouse headquarters in Pittsburgh.
There were no questions or concerns about them moving together. Fred quit his job, and off they went, to begin another chapter of their lives together in a new city. A city where these two who collected friends like bees collect pollen knew no one.
But any social isolation they might have felt didn’t last long. Fred, the more gregarious of the two, explored the city’s gay society. Soon they were active in the Steel City Bowling League, volunteering during the AIDS crisis and at the front desk for Renaissance City Choir concerts, and trekking out with the Outdoors Club. Though that club disbanded some time ago, they’re still friends with former club members.
Friendships are a big part of their lives, they said. They feel the loss of long-time friends deeply. But they have fond memories too, like the time they were sitting in a restaurant below the Parthenon in Athens with their frequent traveling companions (and dearest friends) Lou Defazio and Lloyd Welling when who should walk by but two other good Pittsburgh friends.
They have toured often. Europe was a repeat destination; they celebrated their 25th year in Paris. But they also covered much of the U.S., including the gay meccas of Provincetown, Key West, Saugatuck, Michigan, San Francisco, and New Orleans.
One of their favorite stories from those travels involves the singer and anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant. (How anti-gay? She once referred to gays as “human garbage.”) The setting was New Orleans. Mid-70s. She was featured in a parade down Canal Street. Fred and Berwyn, ever the curious duo, decided to watch, and maybe jeer a little. They sat down on a set of steps for a good view of the passing hatred. Only when they stood up to leave did they notice that they had been sitting at the entrance to the Canal Baths, a popular gay bathhouse.
Doubtless, their favorite destination is the Big Apple. They figured they have stayed there 35 times, sometimes twice a year. Attending Broadway shows became a ritual; they have all the Playbills from every show they saw. They never miss a chance to end a Broadway night at their favorite sing-along bar, the timeless Marie’s Crisis.
On June 20, 2012, they walked into New York’s historic City Hall and got hitched, one year before the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the ban on gay marriage. A line of similar couples greeted them. By the time they were ready to say their I-dos, they had been joined by a lesbian couple who volunteered to be their witnesses.
From their homes—first in Mt. Lebanon, then Crafton before their current home–Berwyn commuted to work, putting in long hours at Westinghouse while Fred took on some part-time jobs. He eventually enrolled at the Art Institute to learn photography. Later he joined a company working in a Bridgeville office building. He really found his stride, however, in 1998 when he became one of the first people to sell anything on a new online site—eBay. That effort proved so successful that he continued selling antiques and collectibles until retiring this year.
That was 24 busy years posting, selling, and shipping all manner of stuff, but Fred kept the business running because he had one simple goal: “I was shooting for 10,000 positive feedbacks from customers.” He didn’t quite make it, but close enough. “I eventually got 9,970 positives and not one negative.”
Berwyn doesn’t have many hobbies beyond going to car shows. Fred, for his part, is a published poet, active in the Pittsburgh Poetry Society. His book of poems, Writing by Flashlight, tells the story of growing up in the 40s and 50s in Arkansas, the seventh of eight children of a sharecropper father and mother.
Nowadays, they are happy to admit “there’s a certain sameness to what we do,” as Fred said. They keep busy, visiting friends, hosting lunches and dinners, attending cultural events downtown, and trying not to miss Pittsburgh’s annual gay pride festivities, like this year’s grand event. At home, there’s even a breakfast routine: bacon-and-egg sandwiches every Wednesday, pancakes or French toast every Sunday. Sure, they say they have daily “disagreements,” but, then they’ve never spent one night apart in 50 years. They’re proud of that.
All that their life together has meant to them and their legion of friends for 50 years will be celebrated Sunday, June 19, at a nearby clubhouse. Counting among the guests is a friend of Berwyn’s from 1971.
“Fred’s been planning this for about 15 years,” Berwyn said good-naturedly. He knows how to throw a party: there will be singers for “us and our friends to enjoy” and the catering will be provided by Tullulah’s Catering, the same company that catered their 30th anniversary party.
“I know we’ll have a good time, but I’ll be glad to see the 20th,” Berwyn noted with a smile.
“We want to arrange everything so that it’s a fun and comfortable party for everyone,” Fred added. Still thinking about others’ “fun and comfort.” That describes the devoted pair exactly. Friends for life, with many friends.