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Leather weekend, Leatherman Chuck Renslow subject of new biography
by Tony Peregrin
2011-05-25

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Note: Thousands of leathermen and women will be in Chicago this weekend for the International Mr. Leather, Leather Market and related events.

Chuck Renslow—co-founder of the International Mr. Leather ( IML ) contest and owner of one of the first leather bars in the world—is the subject of a new biography that offers a backstage, all-access peek into the mind and heart of this controversial and well-respected figure.

Over the last several decades, many writers have attempted to pen Renslow's biography, but his complex and inspiring life-story has never made it into book form—until now. Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow, written by Chicago journalists and authors Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen, is the story of a sexual renegade and a savvy businessman whose Chicago bar, the Gold Coast, set the standard for raunchy kink and gay sexual liberation.

Shortly after graduating from Lane Technical High School, young Renslow, who is now 81, launched what was to become a six-decade-long empire, starting more than two dozen businesses in Chicago including bars, discos, photo studios, health clubs, bathhouses, gay magazines and newspapers, hotels, restaurants and bookstores. Throughout it all Renslow dealt with Mafia and police payoffs; anti-gay political policies; harassment from censors; and even controversy within the gay community.

A collaborative effort between the two authors, Baim—publisher and executive editor at Windy City Media Group, which produces the Windy City Times—focused on topics related to media, politics and legal issues, while Keehnen concentrated his efforts on Renslow's early years as well as the topics of leather, IML, bars and bathhouses. Both Baim and Keehnen worked on gathering a wide-range of interview subjects for the book.

"Renslow, at 81, really wanted the biography to be written," said Baim. "He fully supported us, and he knew that we would be looking for the good and the bad—and he wanted that, too."

"Chuck's story is so key to LGBTQ life in this city—and worldwide—not only within the leather and BDSM community but in literally every aspect of gay life," added Keehnen. "I think it is important as a reminder that all these privileges and things we take for granted today exist because people years before us had the balls to do things, oftentimes at great personal risk. Chuck is a risk-taker and he took a lot of them."

Windy City Times: "Legend" is a powerful word—why do you think Chuck Renslow qualifies as a legend?

Tracy Baim: We toyed with many titles. Originally it was more "urban legend" because so many people had so many mistaken notions about Renslow and his "Family." So, the word "legend," in this context, means both debunking the myths, and it also has to do with validating the truth. Renslow is a legend in our community in so many ways. He started more than two dozen businesses, IML, and much more. He was the push behind the Leather Archives & Museum, and he saved GayLife from financial doom.

Owen Keehnen: For me, the legend aspect was just so apparent in talking with the guy. Every single conversation, every interview, every time we met I was excited by just the stories and the history he shared. I would always leave those sessions saying "Oh my God!" Chuck's story is a legend because his life has been almost bigger than reality. The amount he has accomplished—and continues to accomplish—is pretty damn amazing.

Windy City Times: Renslow is known as the "daddy" of his "Family." Over the last few decades, there have been many theories regarding what this whole concept actually means.

Tracy Baim: The "Family" is Renslow's extended family of lovers and friends. They have a mystery about them, but a lot of that is just cultivated from those inside the Family. For the book, we interviewed many current and past Family members, and used interviews by Jack Rinella and others of past Family members who have since died. Renslow, at one time, owned the Dewes Mansion, and many members of the Family lived there, as well as in subsequent Renslow homes.

Owen Keehnen: The "Family" means the "Renslow Family." To me, it was the embodiment of the sort of communal one-for-all and all-for-one 1970s feeling—with BDSM [ bondage/domination, sadism/masochism ] thrown in for good measure. Chuck was the Daddy of the Family and ruled the roost, so to speak, but with a loving hand.

Windy City Times: As is the case with any iconic figure, there are many rumors and myth-like stories associated with Renslow. What are some things you learned about Renslow that might surprise readers and fans?

Tracy Baim: There are many, many myths about Renslow, including ones he happily helped cultivate over the years. In the book, we address as many as we could—some myths proved to be true, and some were false.

Ultimately, the conclusion we came to is that no exaggeration is needed where Renslow is concerned. He did accomplish so much in his life, and some of it was pretty amazing. He was involved in Democratic politics, published magazines and newspapers, fought postal censors, donated to charities, started IML, and so much more. It was hard to get a handle on all of it, but we feel we did our best to capture the essence of the man.

Owen Keehnen: There were so many falsities about Renslow that were printed somewhere, and then reprinted or gossiped about, and they took on this life of their own. A lot of those things proved to be false or exaggerations. However, for me, I think the personal stuff might actually be more surprising than the public aspect. That's one of the things that makes his life so cool is that there is no one area that was boring. I think his personal interests will surprise a lot of people.

Windy City Times: Leatherman features more than 300 images, including murals and drawings by Dom "Etienne" Orejudos, posters for IML, and photos from the Gold Coast, Pride Parades, IML contests, physique magazines and more. Were there any images that you were particularly surprised to stumble upon during your research?

Tracy Baim: The Etienne images are among our favorites, because he was an internationally renowned artist and a Chicago treasure.

Owen Keehnen: The images really bring so much of the story to life. My favorites are the Etienne/Dom murals and artwork, as Tracy mentioned, as well as the pre-AIDS photographs. They really help to capture the feel of an era and show this incredibly vibrant gay life that is all but forgotten today. My favorite image is one of two leathermen on a motorcycle outside Jumbo Jarry's, which was a hot dog stand and hangout area across the street from the Gold Coast bar. That photo says volumes about the era and the area.

Windy City Times: The dark "pit" inside Renslow's Gold Coast leather bar set the standard for raunchy kink and gay sexual liberation. Describe the Gold Coast and its place in Chicago gay and lesbian history.

Tracy Baim: The Gold Coast had several locations over its many years in business. It was among the first gay leather bars in the U.S., it was the longest lasting, and it's the birthplace of IML. It's most recent home was in Andersonville where T's is now located. In Leatherman, we relive the bar through the memories of dozens of men ( and a few women ) who went there over the decades.

The Gold Coast experienced bar raids and was, truly, a raunchy place. Renslow actually paid off the Mafia and the police for several decades to keep the bar open—even into the 1980s. Some people thought he was just a front for the Mafia. But he denied this and says he, like other gay bar owners, just paid off the Mafia and police to stay open. The book details this extensively.

Owen Keehnen: For me, the Gold Coast almost became a character—the smoke; the scrape of the boots on cement; the camaraderie; The Pit, with the sex going on, the catacombs beneath the old sidewalks, the great cast of characters that tender bar there, the hanky code on their business cards, and even the chute for cans and bottles. It became legendary as the prototype for the gay leather bar, and as this sort of flag for gay sexual liberation. Sure, it was a raunchy bar, but it was also a center for this amazing community that was developing. And the tales from that area—from the few square blocks of that River North neighborhood in the 1970s—are pretty incredible.

Windy City Times: Renslow famously danced with another man at the 1977 inaugural ball for President Jimmy Carter, and he actually moved in some pretty famous circles. What are some of his favorite memories of interacting with celebrities?

Tracy Baim: He danced with Bill Kelley, our co-editor on the book, at that event. He interacted with Marlene Dietrich and has a signed photo from her. He rubbed elbows with every Chicago mayor starting with Daley Senior. He pushed Mayor Jane Byrne to cover gay employees in city government protections. Entertainers and dancers ( Nureyev! ) hung out at Man's Country and his Center Stage disco ( including Sylvester and Grace Jones ) . I actually think the political folks mean more to him than celebrities, and those photos are the most prominent on his office wall.

Owen Keehnen: He was so coy about a lot of the celebrity things. We have the names of some famous Man's Country and Gold Coast members and guests, but Chuck is pretty discreet about saying this person or that person is a member of Man's Country. In addition to those names Tracy mentioned, there's some great stuff from and about Lynn Lavner, Al Parker, Divine, Rusty Warren, and Sally Rand. If those names don't ring a bell you are in for a treat because in this book you are going to be introduced to a real cast of characters.

Windy City Times: How does Renslow view the world of leather today?

Tracy Baim: I think that one of Renslow's proudest achievements is the founding of the Leather Archives & Museum. Because of that museum, he believes the leather world will be strong for decades to come. And, of course, the same can be said for IML. Renslow sees that leather is much more accepted now and a part of the mainstream—gay and straight—but he thinks there is still a need to preserve that legacy of the past.

Owen Keehnen: Chuck has a huge commitment and attachment to the Leather Archives & Museum and its mission to preserve the lives and history of so many outside the sexual norm. In leather specifically, I think the thing that surprises him most is that all the leather stuff began as a symbol for BDSM play, and that over the past 50-plus years it has turned into this giant consumer market. As he said to me "It was never about the leather—that was only the symbol."

Windy City Times: What's up next for the Leatherman?

Tracy Baim: Renslow is still is very involved in all of his businesses. He is being honored in June by the Kinsey Institute for his contributions to gay and lesbian Chicago history, and for his formation of the Leather Archives & Museum. He always speaks at IML, and will do so again this year. He talks of retirement, but he really loves being involved in life every day. He even still talks—and boasts about—his boyfriends.

Owen Keehnen: Chuck loves to go to work. I talked to him the day of the huge blizzard this past winter and he was so upset because he couldn't get his car out and head into the office. The only thing Chuck loves more than that is sex and love, of course. For Chuck, it is always about falling in love and when I last counted he was still juggling three boyfriends.

Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow is published by Prairie Avenue Productions, 414 pages, $24.99 black and white ( ISBN 1-46109602-2 ) , $79.99 color ( 1-46111908-1 ) . It is available on Amazon.com and on Kindle ( soon to be on iPad ) . People can search for the title, for the color version type ( color ) after the name. It is also available at Women & Children First and Unabridged bookstores.

Baim and Keehnen will be joined by Renslow at the Leather Market at International Mr. Leather this weekend at the Hyatt, for 2 p.m. booksignings Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They will also do a talk and booksigning at Women & Children First Friday, June 24, 7:30 p.m.

Tracy Baim is publisher of Windy City Times.


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