When asked how he became Memphis' unofficial gay historian, Vincent Astor responds, "I'm the original queen who remembers too much."
"Back in the '70s, when I was coming out, all we had were beer bars, and I don't like beer. So I'd nurse a Coca-Cola for hours and go and fill it up with water in the sink in the bathroom when I was done. So I actually do remember the '70s," Astor said.
Astor is also the man who managed to hold onto nearly every flier, program, poster, name tag, button, newspaper clipping, and other memorabilia relating to any LGBTQ event he's been associated with. Last week, Astor unveiled "GLBT Life in Memphis: The Vincent Astor Collection" at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. Astor hopes his collection will be the first in the library's series of collections from older LGBTQ Memphians who wish to help document the community's local history.
Astor's collection, which is stored in boxes in the Memphis-Shelby County Room (the Central Library's history room), contains hundreds of sheets of paper (measured in at 13.05 linear feet, in library terms) — programs from past plays put on by the Emerald Theater Company, advertisements from long-closed gay bars (such as the legendary George's), handouts circulated by the now-defunct activist group Memphis Gay Coalition, church programs from the LGBTQ-affirming Holy Trinity Church, and other such items.
"The collection contains clippings, newsletters, fund-raiser notices. There's something in there from when I was a judge at Miss Gay Tennessee. It's the stuff you save to jog your memory, so you can say, 'Oh, I went to this pageant or that event," Astor said.
Astor is a long-time LGBTQ rights activist who fought against the ban on gays in the military and worked to raise awareness during the AIDS epidemic. He's also been a fixture in the local theater community, performing in numerous plays over the past few decades. His drag persona, Lady A, has appeared at fund-raisers and charity events. And he spent a great deal of time working as a reporter for now out-of-print LGBTQ newspapers GAZE and the Triangle Journal.
Although the library already had bound copies of every issue of all of the city's old gay newspapers on file, Astor donated some historic clippings on the AIDS epidemic and the early days of the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center from GAZE and the Triangle Journal. He even donated a few issues of the Memphis Flyer that contained articles pertinent to the gay community.
"There's even a piece of the dance floor of the first gay bar I ever went to — the Front Page. It was a dance bar. There was a strip of storefronts on Cleveland near Crump Stadium, and bit by bit, that strip got eaten by the Methodist [Hospital] complex," Astor said.
The paperwork and other items in the Vincent Astor collection will stay at the library permanently, but the Memphis-Shelby County Room is also running a temporary display of artifacts from Astor through August. In that display, there are hundreds of buttons from Memphis gay bars, gay rights marches on Washington, and other local and national LGBTQ events. There are old matchbooks from the now-defunct gay bars J-Wag's, the Rain Check II, and the Inn Crowd.
Also on display is a dress worn by Lady A at the Southeastern Conference of Lesbians and Gay Men in 1980 and a button-covered leather vest Astor wore in his "years on the fringes of the leather community."
At an opening ceremony in the Memphis-Shelby County Room for his collection last week, Astor instructed those gathered to follow in his footsteps and donate their personal collections to the library.
"Mine is the kernel, and I'm hoping others will follow. On Tuesday [at the opening], I told all the old heads who turned up to go and do thou likewise," Astor said.