"You should try the Garfield Salad," says J. Garfield DeMarco, retired cranberry magnate, former Republican Party chieftain in Burlington County, and originator of the fresh seafood-and-greens combo on the menu at Maplewood.

The popular Hammonton, N.J., restaurant is where DeMarco celebrated his 77th birthday in July - by marrying his longtime boyfriend.

It's also where he seems to know everyone and vice versa.

"Happy new year, sweetie," DeMarco says to Maplewood baker Karen Lange, who made his wedding cake (a two-tiered Italian rum masterpiece).

"I love you," she says, giving him a hug. "Say hi to Billy for me."

Billy is William Wilson, 51, a Pennsauken native and service-industry veteran whom DeMarco met at a 1995 AIDS fund-raiser in Center City.

They live in Hammonton, where DeMarco was born and where, seven decades later, the Hammonton Gazette printed an announcement of his same-sex wedding.

"He's a gem of a guy," Wilson tells me by phone. "Being married does feel special. We've tied the knot."

Says DeMarco: "It's almost magical, the ceremony. I've had other relationships, but they were somewhat different. Billy's life and my life are intertwined."

During our two-hour lunch at Maplewood, the public figure, whom this newspaper once described as a GOP party boss with an "iron thumb," whom one environmentalist dubbed "the Antichrist of the Pinelands," and whom local politicos sometimes referred to as "God," is nowhere to be seen.

Instead, DeMarco, whose arthritis forces him to rely on a cane, is more like an urbane gay raconteur. He feels free at last to tell tales about a self he once had to keep hidden.

As a member of the generation after DeMarco's, I missed, thankfully, the worst of the restrictions arbitrarily imposed on gay life. But we baby boomers knew some of the same fears - of exposure, harassment, or worse.

"How many lives were destroyed by prejudice? One fellow I knew committed suicide," he says. "For me, one of the worst things was pretending. I feel sorry for the nice young ladies who had to put up with my [charade]."

Sitting across the table, DeMarco is congenial, amusing, and earthy, sprinkling the conversation with vintage political dish and tastefully racy tales.

"I knew that my [gay] attractions were there as long as I can remember," he says. "I had a fair amount of experience."

But as the middle son of a prominent family that owned nearly 10,000 acres of Burlington County farmland, young "Gar" kept quiet about his sexuality.

"I told my father when I was 21," he recalls. "He said, 'There isn't any of that in our family.' He was wrong."

On a Fulbright scholarship to Italy after his 1959 graduation from Dartmouth, DeMarco fell in love with a man for the first time.

But it wasn't until he had earned his Yale Law School degree, in 1964, that he abandoned the notion of marrying and having children with a woman.

"I realized it was totally implausible," he says.

After the sudden death of his father, DeMarco took over the family business in 1965.

The great debate about the future of the Pinelands had started, and soon drew him into politics; he and other large landowners strenuously opposed efforts to create a national reserve.

And while he once had been a registered Democrat - "I voted for JFK and LBJ," he recalls - DeMarco was elected Burlington County Republican chairman in 1974.

"I felt that the gay issue would come to the fore [publicly], and I was concerned about that. Mostly because of my mother," DeMarco recalls. "But the issue never came up."

DeMarco served as county chairman until 1991, and continued as chairman or cochairman of the historically patronage-laden Burlington County Bridge Commission until 2006.

Surprising many, he sold to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation - at half the appraised $24 million value - the 9,400 acres his family had farmed for six decades. A portion of the 15-square-mile preserve has since been named in honor of DeMarco's family. He calls the conservation decision "one of my proudest achievements."

In recent years, he became more public about who he is, penning an eloquent letter to a Dartmouth alumni magazine.

"I was reminded of the claustrophobic and psychologically terror-filled environment for gays in the 1950s," DeMarco wrote. "I remember a lecture [about] how often students who committed suicide were either gay or fearful of being gay. I am sure that such thoughts plagued many students."

The letter was published in 2010. Several years later, in an Inquirer story, he identified Billy as his partner. By then, they were discussing marriage.

They decided to wed after the U.S. Supreme Court rendered gay marriage legal nationwide. Anne M. Patterson, a New Jersey Supreme Court justice who voted with a unanimous court to approve same-sex marriages in the state, was one of their officiants.

There have been other changes in DeMarco's life as well.

"I sold my place in Medford, and Hammonton, Atlantic County, is now my voting residence," says the former Republican boss.

"I registered as an independent."

kriordan@phillynews.com

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