WHEN I STARTED working on Vito Russo’s biography in 2007, I had hometown access to his papers at the New York Public Library (NYPL). Arnie Kantrowitz, his best friend and literary executor, had deposited them there in 1995. Along with the 200 interviews I conducted of Russo’s surviving friends and family, the NYPL archives would tell his full story. I hoped. But there was a problem. Russo’s will stipulated that five boxes of his papers would remain sealed until 25 years after his death, which would be November 7, 2015. What could be hidden in those boxes? Arnie kindly interceded for me with the head of NYPL’s Manuscripts and Archives division. As Russo’s literary executor, could he request early cracking of the five seals? “Absolutely not.”
Vito Russo (1946-1990) is a name that may be familiar to most readers of this magazine. Russo was a pioneering gay rights and AIDS activist and the author of The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (1981; revised, 1987), which became the foundational text of gay and lesbian media studies and later the inspiration for a much-praised documentary, The Celluloid Closet (1995). A co-founder of glaad and act up, he was also the posthumous star of his own documentary, Vito (2012). This film and my biography, Celluloid Activist (2011), give his full history, so I won’t recount it here. But back to the sealed archives and the secrets they revealed upon their opening late last year.
The dilemma I faced was this: could I really tell Russo’s life story without access to all of his papers?