Anyone who’s made the pilgrimage to the Stonewall Inn in NYC’s Christopher Park has seen George Segal’s “Gay Liberation” sculpture of two men standing and two women conversing on a bench. Despite the repeated vandalism, calls of Segal’s “whitewashing,” and other controversies surrounding the monument, it remains an empowering testament to the endurance of gay men and women everywhere. Like many artists, Segal worked from models, using friends of his–including the couple on the bench, Leslie Cohen and her wife, Beth Suskin, as detailed in Cohen’s recent autobiography, The Audacity of a Kiss.
Posing for statuary is not Cohen’s only claim to posterity, however. She was also a mover and shaker in the New York City art scene for many years as well as one of the cofounders of NYC’s first women-owned women’s nightclub, Sahara. Although she does cover those achievements, The Audacity of a Kiss is also effective and interesting when relating the life behind the deeds.
Frank regarding the failings of both her prison-bound father and her abusive brother, she is equally plain-spoken about the adoration of her mother, who became in part the only role model she had, and we can all relate to Cohen’s awkward entrance into puberty with all its conflicting feelings and enforced gender role difficulties. We also share the wonderful feelings of possibility in her college years, where she’s almost there in terms of career and study, but still has miles to go regarding her sexuality. This, however, is where she first meets the woman who would many years later become her wife, Beth.
Out of school, she became involved in the art world through Robert Pincus-Warren, managing galleries and finding herself sexually. Once that last piece falls into place, she seems to gain a purpose. Along with some friends, she decides to buck the male Mafia-owned bar trend and go into business with Sahara, the first women-owned nightclub for women. It was an immediate success, featuring live music and fundraisers on Thursday night, throwing Cohen into contact with names like Pat Benetar, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinam, Jane Fonda, and Patti Smith. But, as any bar owner will tell you, managing one is a balancing act. She becomes disenchanted with late nights and cocaine, and eventually the bar is shuttered by the building’s owner, and she has to start over.
Cohen’s story is punctuated by bouts of starting over, especially with the support of Beth, who comes back into her life married. They begin a rollercoaster affair, eventually ending up with each other. Cohen relates the story of her life with candor and a far less self-serving attitude than you’ll find in many autobiographies. Although it’s a short-ish, quick read, The Audacity of a Kiss is interesting and relatable. Well worth the time spent.
© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler