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Melvin Dwork

Righting a Wrong
70 Years Later




by Michael Jacoby

Melvin Dwork and I met nearly fifteen years ago. I was a server at Pearl Oyster Bar, a cramped, counter seating-only seafood restaurant in the West Village (NYC). Working there was a bit like working in a bar, so I got to know quite a few of the regulars slinging Lobster Rolls across that marble countertop. But Mel was my favorite. In his 70’s at the time, Mel would entertain me with stories about his travels abroad and experiences in New York City. Mel had been living in the city since the early 1940’s and had fascinating tales to share. I’d never had a friend like Mel before - I was in my late twenties and most of my friends were around my age. Eventually Mel and I made plans to meet one another outside of the restaurant for coffee. As our relationship grew we became better and better friends. Today I consider Mel family.

As a young gay man, what always amazed me about Mel was his self- confidence. He will tell you that he always knew he was gay, and he never thought twice about his sexuality. He doesn’t flaunt it, but he has never made any attempt to hide it from anyone either.

My favorite thing about Mel is his willingness to share his life experiences with me. I’ve learned so much about art, music, dance and the City itself. Mel also shares personal memories that I know are not easy to relive; having lost nearly all of his friends to AIDS in the 80’s. I’m honored that he cares enough about me to share such stories. Some of Mel's stories even inspired me to film my first feature documentary, Ten More Good Years. Without a doubt, Mel has lived an incredibly vibrant life filled with many wonderful friends and loves. A few years back we decided that we would make a new film about one of his most incredible stories, and last Spring we began shooting the first of many interviews for The Undesirable.
 

Mel’s story begins just before the start of the second World War. After high school he studied design at The Kansas City Art Institute and Parsons School of Design in New York. One summer Mel returned to Kansas City from Parsons to be with his family. It was there that he first laid eyes on tall slender young man wearing overalls; who was a painter. It did not take long for the two students to fall in love. They spent hours together getting to know one another as young lovers do. They made love to Jean Sibelius’ classic “The Swan of Tuonela” and read poetry to each other from their favorite book, “This Is My Beloved.” In the midst of this passionate love affair, war broke out and the
Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Within a short time both were drafted. Both knew their lives were about to change drastically. At the time it was common knowledge among the gay community that the Hospital Corp was a more tolerant setting for homosexuals.  Coincidentally, they both joined the Corp, but Mel was stationed in South Carolina while his friend was sent to Louisiana.

Separated, but still madly in love, they wrote to one another, telephoned whenever possible, and on one occasion had a rendezvous in New Orleans. Mel excelled in the Corps and eventually applied for officer’s training. He was accepted and transferred to The University of South Carolina. During this time, Mel’s older gay friends warned him and his friend to stop corresponding with each other because the U.S. Military was increasingly purging the forces of “deviants,” meaning homosexuals. They worried that mail was being opened and that writing love letters to each other posed a serious threat to their safety. Both stopped writing immediately, but it seemed it was too late. While sitting in class at The University of South Carolina, two MPs entered the room and requested Melvin by name and arrested him. Before taking him away, Mel’s superior told him in front of the entire class, “If I were your dad, I’d cut your dick off.” With that Mel was totally traumatized and taken by the MPs to the Charleston South Carolina Naval Hospital and thrown into the brig. He would spend over two months there, much of that time undergoing psychiatric evaluation. Eventually Mel
was asked to sign a series of papers as a part of his interrogation and was undesirably discharged for “unfitness.”

Mel then returned to his family and decided to tell them the truth about his sexuality. To his surprise their reaction was not negative, rather they were glad he was out of the service.

Mel returned to New York City and resumed his studies at Parsons. He discovered that the G.I. Bill would not cover him due to the nature of his discharge.  Due to that fact the director of Parsons, who happened to also be gay,  got him a working scholarship. Mel then continued to pursue his dream of becoming an interior designer. During this time, Mel returned to Washington D.C. two times to try and have his discharge upgraded. On his second visit to D.C. he was told by the commanding officer, in charge of upgrades, not return a third time because there was simply no way his case would be considered. Mel decided to move on and put the discharge behind him.

Following his education at Parsons, Mel was hired as an assistant to a decorator named James Pendleton.  After three years with Pendleton, he opened his own design office, Melvin Dwork, Inc, and went on to pursue his very successful professional career designing for high profile clients such as Robert Sarnoff of RCA and his wife Anna Moffo the famed opera star; as well as the film director Milos Forman.

In the course of events, Mel met a man by the name of John Butler in 1961. John was a prominent choreographer in New York at the time and had been a former lead dancer for Martha Graham. They would remain partners for over 30 years.

Years later, Mel decided out of curiosity to look up his first love from when he was in the service, via an internet savvy friend.  He succeeded in finding him and they agreed to meet  for the first time after sixty years to catch up on their lives.  They arranged to meet and spent a weekend together, at first bemused to see each other as men sixty years older than when they had known each others.  It was an emotional experience for his former friend and sad for Mel to see a man who could not accept himself.

A couple of years later Mel decided to take advantage of the Freedom of Information Act by securing his discharge papers; papers that were once “classified.” The Pentagon sent Mel all of his requested documents, and in reading them over Mel learned the truth about his undesirable discharge. For all those years Mel had assumed that he had been discharged for writing a love letter to his lover. According to the documents now in Mel’s possession, his friend had been entrapped in an investigation of gay service members.  Under interrogation his friend had been forced to give up Mel's name along with others.  Mel's heart sank to think that his friend had given him up, but even more so to imagine what his friend had gone through to be forced to do so.  Mel sent a copy of the documents to his friend and phoned him.  Mel told him that he should not feel badly in that he had inadvertently done him a favor in essentially freeing him from the military which led to his entering his subsequently successful life.

After receiving his discharge papers Mel decided to try to have his status repealed again. In his words, “I wanted to right a wrong.” Mel hired an attorney and got in contact with The Service Member’s Legal Defense Network. Last August Mel received a new envelope from The Pentagon. It contained official documents granting him a repeal of his undesirable status retroactively to 1944. Mel is now the first known World War II veteran to have an undesirable discharge based on homosexuality changed to honorable. When questioned why the Pentagon decided to make this decision, they replied, “because it was the right thing to do.” Mel has become the inspiration for thousands of gay veterans looking to have their status repealed. The Service Member’s Legal Defense Network recently added staff just to handle the volume of calls coming in from LGBT vets looking for the same type of discharge upgrade.

Mel and I were inspired to start filming "The Undesirable" to help others understand how harmful homophobia can be and put a human face on the topic of gays in the military. We know that the repeal of DADT and the reversal of Mel’s undesirable discharge were significant steps in the right direction. We also know that if conservatives have their way, these important advances for our community would likely be in jeopardy. The only way to truly enact change is to change the way the general population thinks, and Mel’s story has the power to do just that.

*Michael Jacoby is an award winning filmmaker. His first feature documentary, Ten More Good Years explores the realities of what it means to grow old as a member of the LGBT community in America today and can be seen on The Sundance Channel, Logo and Out TV in Canada. His recent short film, With This Ring, is premiering at the 26th Annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival as an “official selection” this November.

**Like “Ten More Good Years,” “The Undesirable” is primarily being funded by individuals passionate about the subject matter. You may make your tax deductible donation by visiting www.TheUndesirable.com and clicking on the “donate” button. Thank you in advance for your support.

  2011 Gay Military Signal