Friends and fans toast ‘Sip-In’ leader Leitsch

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Mon., March 12, 4:30 p.m.: According to his friends, Dick Leitsch, an original Mattachine Society mainstay and Julius’ “Sip-In” organizer, is “near the end.”

“His cancer has metastasized and his prognosis is only another four to six weeks,” said a source.

Leitsch’s friends organized an “open house / gathering” at his Upper West Side home this past Sat., March 10.

“Dick wants to hear the praise while he still can!” the source said.

Dick Leitsch, staring at bartender, and, from left, John Timmins, Craig Rodwell and Randy Wicker, at the Sip-In at Julius’. Their groundbreaking civil-disobedience action in April 1966 preceded the Stonewall Riots, which happened only a few blocks away from Julius’ three years later. The photo above captures the moment when the bartender decided to stop serving the four activists after they declared they were gay. Photo by Fred W. McDarrah

And he’s been hearing it. According to Helen Buford, Julius’ owner, between the day of the party and this Monday, Leitsch received three separate letters on official letterhead from Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton all commending him for his ground-breaking beverage-ordering action and contributions to civil rights.

“I should have done this years ago!” Leitsch reportedly cracked of the letters.

Leitsch, now 82, thought up the idea for and led the legendary Sip-In, on April 21, 1966, in Greenwich Village. He was joined in the radical — at the time — act by Craig Rodwell and John Timmins. Randy Wicker joined them once they were at the bar.

Leitsch was the then-president of the Mattachine Society, an early American gay-rights group, and Rodwell was its vice president. Timmins was also a Mattachine member.

Julius’ location has had a bar since it was a speakeasy during Prohibition.

In the 1950s, the New York State Liquor Authority had ruled that bars should not serve alcohol to disorderly patrons — and that a gathering of gays, by definition, was considered disorderly. By 1966, Julius’, at W. 10th St. and Waverly Place, had already transitioned to attracting a gay clientele, yet the management was still “harassing” queer patrons.

In the action, the three men entered the place, and — announcing they were homosexual — ordered drinks. The bartender started making them drinks, but then put his hand over the glasses, an iconic moment captured by famed Village photographer Fred McDarrah.

The society subsequently challenged New York’s law on the matter and the court sided with them, ruling that gays were not inherently disorderly and should be served.

The Sip-In is considered one of the first acts of gay civil disobedience in U.S. history.

Rodwell and Timmins are now dead. Wicker — who used to own a light store on Hudson and Christopher Sts. — is still alive. Years before the recent explosion of surrogate pregnancy, Wicker became an advocate for human cloning as a way for gays to reproduce.

A Kentucky native, Leitsch moved to New York City, where he met Rodwell while walking down the street in Greenwich Village. The two became lovers, and, after some initial skepticism, Leitsch got involved in the Mattachine Society.

As a journalist, Leitsch reported on the Stonewall Riots, and also did an early interview of  Bette Midler back when she was starting out and wowing the crowds in the gay bathhouses.

Julius’ has a regular Mattachine Party one Thursday evening each month. For the one on Thurs., March 15, it’s hoped that Leitsch will be in attendance — and signing copies of the famous McDarrah photo of the ground-breaking beverage action — at 9 p.m., though the usual party will be from 10 p.m to 2 p.m.

Julius’ will also host a special Sip-In 52nd anniversary celebration on Sat., April 21, starting at 7 p.m. It will feature ’60s drinks — such as sidecars — and music, and people will be dressing in ’60s clothes, as well as a re-enactment of the Sip-In.

Bar owner Buford said this past Saturday’s party for Leitsch was special. He was up and walking around, socializing and displaying his usual wit.

“It was wonderful,” she said. “As ill as Dick is, he was a phenomenal host. There was so much love in the room. It was actually a nice way to say goodbye — sharing laughter and photos. He was telling stories, he was just holding court, which was great. I’ve never experienced anything like that. When most people are sick you don’t see them till they are in the coffin. He wanted to do it his way.”

Buford said expectations are not high that Leitsch will be able to attend next month’s Mattachine party on April 19 or the Sip-In recreation two days later.

She said Leitsch told her he planned for his funeral to be held at the Church of the Village, just north of the Lenox Health Greenwich Village, on Seventh Ave. at W. 12th St. She said when she asked him where his final resting place would be, he said,  “There, as well,” adding, “Come by sometime and have a drink with me.”

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