Henri David was Philadelphia's highest-profile gay person before gay was fashionable.
When Henri came out, more than 60 years ago, it could get you killed, or badly beaten. In some places, it still can.
Some stars — Elton John, Stevie Nicks, members of Duran Duran — are customers of his unique jewelry. Philadelphians know him as the guy who throws the biggest, wildest Halloween parties. His party is always on Halloween — which happens to be the name of his Center City jewelry shop — and this year's 50th edition will take place Oct. 31 at the Philadelphia 201 Hotel, at 17th and Race.
Imagine: 50 annual parties, which have attracted up to 3,000 people each, and have been staged at hotels all over town. (The 25th was at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. In one of his elaborate costumes, Henri made his entrance on a flatbed truck.) It's an amazing record, and if you think, "It's just a stupid party, what's the big deal?" you miss the point.
The first was at the now-gone Philadelphia Hotel, at Broad and Vine, on Oct. 31, 1968, when America was convulsed with protests against the Vietnam War and segregation, and heartbroken at the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
In the midst of that chaos, there was no "gay agenda" that anyone could hear. Few people even knew a gay person (or so they thought).
Long before Philadelphia started waving rainbow flags, Henri's Halloween party was a place where gays and straights could socialize, even ogle each other, in a safe space provided by Henri.
"It's one of the few traditional events to last 50 years in Philly," says Franny Price, executive director of Philly Pride Presents, which organizes two other big parties — Pride Day and Outfest.
For me, over the four decades I've attended Henri's Halloween — including the 20 years I was honored to be a judge of the costume contest that begins after midnight — the party was a place to see and be seen, make new friends, smile at people and guess their gender, maybe get a little drunk, and maybe get a little lucky.
In addition to the heavy disco, the primary sound of the party is laughter.
Why he launched Halloween parties is simple, Henri tells me during a conversation in his home next to his two-level Halloween jewelry store at 1329 Pine: He wanted people to be able to dress up and have a good time. That's also why — in one of his many eye-popping high hats — he emcees Philly's Easter Parade.
Having a good time has been his North Star since his growing-up days in Strawberry Mansion, the adopted son of loving Orthodox Jews who kept a kosher home.
By age 12, he says, he knew he was gay, but dated girls. "I was going out with them to get my hands on their younger brothers," says Henri. Ever the iconic showman, it's sometimes hard to know when he is — pardon the expression — being straight.
He hates the term queer.
"When I was a teenager, it would have been a derogatory," he says. "Many in my age group find the word off-putting."
That age group? He's 72, and he won't touch a computer or email. His store has no website and it doesn't accept credit cards. His eccentricities are offset by bright, expressive eyes, a clean, shaved head, and an elaborate handlebar mustache.
His chin is up, as always. even though his spirits were down following a painful breakup two years ago with his lover of two decades. At his age, starting over is a challenge.
When he started the Halloween parties, he resembled Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith. He confesses to mammoth amounts of unprotected sex: "It was the '70s, we all did," he says. "I'm amazed I didn't get AIDS."
He regrets nothing but says his last two relationships lasted 21 and 10 years. "I'm a family person," he says simply.
"I just recently started dating. There are a lot of strange people out there, " he says, arching his eyebrows. "Who didn't know that? But at least I'm ready."
A favorite quote that he uses all the time is: "It doesn't matter who you love, or how you love, only that you love."
One year at the Halloween party, I found someone to love, and we developed a relationship. Maybe Henri will have the same good fortune this year.