2013 Leather Hall of Fame Inductee
The Mayor of Folsom Street:
The Life and Times of Alan Selby, aka Mr. S
Who was Alan Selby? More dominant and kinky than strictly sadistic, he was the "S" in Mr. S. Leather. He was the original San Francisco Leather Daddy, and the unofficial "Mayor of Folsom Street." [Mary Richards, 1984, Bay Area Reporter.] He was a tireless fundraiser and an incorrigible flirt who mentored hundreds and fucked thousands. Those he knew became better, stronger, more knowledgeable and more powerful for having known him. He led through example, not self-promotion or coercion. He was an inspiration. "Daddy" Alan Selby was an important figure in the history of Leather, and one from whom future generations can glean valuable lessons about the importance of good humor, fearlessness, service to others and working every bit as hard as we play.
Alan Selby was born in Yorkshire England in 1928. He survived the British public school system, which we in the States call private or preparatory education. British boys’ boarding schools have long provided a backdrop for S/m fantasies and scenarios. The discipline, the hierarchy, the sodomy, the canings! Oh My! Even the terminology is evocative. Headmasters, houses, prefects, and of course, the notorious "head boy." Whatever peculiar predilections we may bring with us into the world, our early experiences refine our later trajectories as perverts. It was no different with the young Alan. He had a brother, who he would never describe in later years as anything but "my despicable brother." Why? An unstated rule of family life, whether it is biological or Leather family, is that the more powerful members ought to protect the more vulnerable. When this contract is broken, trust goes with it. He called him: "my despicable brother."
What earned him such life-long contempt? Those who knew Mr. Selby knew how very rare it was for him to speak ill of anyone. "I don’t much care for that man" said about those very few who spoke ill of him was about as harsh as it ever got. He was a gentleman, through and through. Those who knew him well also knew of his life-long dislike of cigars. A bit of old school history answers the Leather History trivia question: "Why did Alan Selby hate cigars so much?" It also provides insight into the man Mr. Selby would become. When Alan started public school in the late 1930s, at about age eleven, his "despicable" brother, several years older, was already a prefect, a young man of authority on his way to being "head boy." He ran with the gang of bullies who ran their house and they terrorized the younger students who were their charges. That’s a tradition, and one that Alan’s "despicable" brother really enjoyed. It’s also a tradition for older brothers to protect their younger siblings. That’s one he didn’t are for so much. Instead of protecting his kid brother, he organized "playful" assaults in which he and his cronies would pin Alan to the ground in the "common room" and force-feed him cigar smoke. He gagged, they laughed and - he remembered. Alan swore to himself that he himself would never be a victim again, and, even more important, he swore that he would never ever be a bully – and he never was. Instead, he became "Daddy" Alan – the benevolent and "very kinky" protector and champion. And what of his despicable brother? Alan cut him off after school and they never spoke again. But to the end of his life – he just really hated the smell of cigars.
He served his country as a medic during WWII. He was very nearly, but not quite, "old navy." Although never particularly observant, he was one of the Tribe. He was a young Jewish Englishman serving his country and their allies in a fight against international fascism. That the Germans were using his people as an alibi for their nationalistic ambitions just made the situation more poignant for him. He didn’t like bullies in school, not even if their ring-leader was his own brother. And he didn’t like bullies on the international stage, particularly when they bent his people’s history to justify genocide. Many years later, during the peak of the Plague years, he would take that youthful sense of moral outrage toward injustice and point it at the HIV/AIDS crisis.
After the war, he became a gentlemen's clothier. During London's "swinging" sixties he worked as a representative for a textile firm, and dreamed of starting his own business. During the 1960’s he also became familiar with the homosexual fetish underground. Many of those men wore breeches, and he was in the business. He recalls:
I remember a time before the Leather Image had truly emerged in London, when Men who were interested in meeting partners who were into S/M used to wear Knee Length Boots, and Riding Britches, and would meet at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. It was quite a gathering of the clan, and many friendships were developed! There were groups standing ostensibly listening to speakers talking on various subjects, but the men in the crowd were also cruising, and would seek out others in the crowd, who they were attracted to, and after contact would wander off together, and play in the privacy of their homes. [Alan Selby, 2000, notes from unpublished autobiography.]
1969 was a pivotal year for Alan, as it was for the world. That year, he made his first trip to the United States. Although he knew many of the men in London’s Hyde Park scene through outfitting them, he had never, until this time, had an actual S/m experience himself. He recounts: "when I visited San Francisco, that changed dramatically." He was picked up and schooled by "a very pushy bottom" a boy in a tight leather jacket and tight jeans: a very American boy. The men of Hyde Park looked like Masters of the hunt; this boy typified a different look, one drawn from post-WWII American motorcycle culture and popularized by Hollywood via Brando and his gang. By the end of his weekend with the wild one, he was a convert. The boy took him on a tour of San Francisco Leather shops. He was not impressed by the quality of workmanship or the prices. He thought they were shoddy and too expensive. He returned to London with his sexuality revolutionized and - with an idea. Recalling that time, he remembers: "After returning to London, I started working on a range of leather clothing and accessories that I thought would interest Americans. I produced my very first catalog, and came up with the name "Mr. S." which captured many people’s imagination, and soon catalog requests started coming in, followed by orders. I was very pleased indeed."
There was no stopping him, now. In 1969, he joined his first Leather club, The Sixty-Nine Club of the United Kingdom. He was introduced to the club through his friend Felix. He explains their unusual name: "The Club had a constitution that there could never be more than 68 Members, so that there could never be a Member # 69. There was often a waiting list to get in. They had to wait till someone resigned, passed away or was removed from membership through a misdeed!" In the Sixty-Nine, he made the acquaintance of fellow associate Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland, and they remained friends until Tom’s passing. He recalls how his days with the club were to shape his future as a mentor. "I learned a lot very quickly from my fellow Club Members, and this helped me in later years to pass on advice to novices who often came to me with questions"
He was introduced to the rubber scene during a business trip to New York City. The president of the 5 Senses Club asked him if he thought there would be interest in a similar organization in England. Back across the pond, he placed a small ad in the Gay News, and soon the group that would become the Rubber Man’s Club was meeting. Nearly four decades later, they are still active.
Back in London, he met a Mr. Shanks and his friend Mr. Murphy, who owned a leather manufacturing company called SM International. They pooled resources, shared designs, and together opened a small factory in London. He also met his "very kinky" lover Peter Jacklin, a skilled designer and craftsman specializing in leathercraft. To mark the occasion, Peter made a collar, which he subsequently wore. It was Jacklin who designed many of the harnesses, studded belts and toys that have since become classics. Alan said of Peter: "He was a very talented boy, and I am pleased that their popularity are a tribute to his memory!"
Alan was a networker from well before the term existed. Whether it was business, his social life or activism, Alan mixed. In 1972, he was working with the owners of "Leather-n-Things" in San Francisco’s Castro District. They stocked Mr. S. products, and a friendship had developed between the men. Sometimes they brainstormed next season’s products. He remembers:
It was with them that the first Hanky Code was devised and printed in "The Bay Area Reporter" in 1972. This idea took off like a whirlwind, and spread internationally. It was a great way of starting communication. People would wear their bandannas in the back pocket of their jeans, sometimes on their biceps, or even on their ankles, depending on what they were wearing. Despite arguments to the contrary when worn left side you were recognized as a Top, and right side, as a bottom, this was a universal recognition signal. The only problem was in a dark Bar it was often difficult to differentiate between the different colors, like Navy Blue, and Black, Yellow and Orange etc.
During most of the 1970’s Alan lived an intercontinental lifestyle. He traveled between London and San Francisco, mostly, but business took him to many world-class cities, and he was always welcomed warmly by the local Leather communities. As business grew, he and Peter opened their own small factory, then their own retail outlet in Wandsworth, South London. They called it "Leather Unlimited" and it quickly became a de facto community center, with the seminal tattoo artist Alan Oversby (Mr. Sebastian) opening a tattoo and piercing salon in the basement of the building.
In 1979 they moved from London to San Francisco, bringing their business with them. Harvey Milk, who had died the year before, had been known as "The Mayor of Castro Street." Selby was to become known as "The Mayor of Folsom Street." Mr. S. Leather opened shop on 7th Street in San Francisco on June 17, 1979. Like its earlier London incarnation, the SOMA shop operated as an informal community center for the active Leather community South of Market. It was at this original Mr. S. outlet that many of the products we take for granted were developed, including Shaft lubricants and the shower shot. Cleanliness is next to kinkiness! An early rubber CBT device was called "the Stallion Guard" as a tribute to its origins as a racetrack prophylactic. According to Alan, "the actual item, which is used in England, is inserted into the mare during the racing season, so that the stallions cannot enter them, and so make them pregnant." Modified, it made "a great cock and ball bondage toy." He also made contacts, friends and colleagues in the fashion and performing worlds, and he and Peter did custom work to specifications, providing leather bustiers for Vivienne Westwood, and stage outfits for Judas Priest.
In 1980, the release of the movie Cruising brought the underground world of Leathersex to the attention of a mass audience. Masculine images were already in vogue in gay mens’ circles, and the new popularity of the leather "look" confused a lot of players. Until that time, those styles had been associated with alternative sexualities. In San Francisco, that moment of uncertainty produced a club that is still in existence 33 years later. Alan was at the first meeting of The 15 Association, and although never particularly active, was eventually made a lifetime honorary member. He recalled: "This took place in a building on Ritch Street in San Francisco, with the original six founding members and myself. David Lewis who was the first President of the Club, and a very wonderful Man, also started the Gay quit smoking class. He had 15 people in each class and had a 66 2/3% success rate in each class who stopped smoking completely."
Business was good, and the City was alive with men, sex and leather. All that would change quickly. When the AIDS crisis hit the City in the 1980s, Peter Jacklin became sick. After he died, Alan refocused his attention. Eventually, he sold the business. Mr. S. still exists, and has since become yet another icon of Leather. He threw himself headlong into fighting the plague and supporting its victims. He buried three special boys: After Peter came Bill Gray and then, in 1992, Johnnie Garcia.
Through his work with the AIDS Emergency Fund, he eventually raised over a million dollars for PWAs. This was direct assistance: electricity bills were paid, the gas stayed on and food came. For over twenty years, he volunteered at San Francisco General Hospital’s infamous ward 5B: holding the hands and massaging the pain-wracked bodies of the mostly young and often abandoned men who filled those beds. He served on the Godfather Fund, and devoted countless hours to more organizations and individuals than can be listed here. He was proud to have been of service to leatherwomen as well as men, heterosexual as well as gay perverts. He served on the IMsL board at their inception, and was later named an Honorary Dyke by the San Francisco Womens’ Motorcycle Contingent, better known as "Dykes on Bikes." He was a regular guest speaker in Human Sexuality at San Francisco State University. Hewould take his toy bag, enlist a graduate student to carry it across campus, and give very popular "show-n-tell" talks in the Psychology department. In 1999, he was invited to be on the steering committee for the newly-formed Leathermens’ Discussion Group. In 2000, the Selby Fund at the Chicago-based Leather Archives and Museum was named in his honor. In 2002, he was named "Leather Marshall" for SF Pride. He loved it, and described the long, slow ride up Market Street in the white convertible: "I had 4 hot Leather boys as wheel monitors, who added to my pleasure as I happily waved to the crowd along the way."
He was a legend in Leather, and at the hospital. He flirted shamelessly, and had the goods to back it up. He was the ultimate Daddy, a dominant man and alpha male who nevertheless lived to be useful to others. He was also, as he would say smiling about others: "very kinky." He had a heart of gold and a will of iron. By 2003, the COPD he had lived with for years was wearing on him hard. He was sick, but not many people knew. A few close friends did. He wanted to go out and do things and see people and flirt with the boys. He wanted everyone to see him as he was: cheerful and strong and alive. He would have been aghast at any show of sadness or pity or to be thought of as a man who was dying. He explained that he planned to live life fully until close to the end and that when he went it would be fast. He knew when he was going to go, and that is when he went, with no assistance. He said "I think I will go the Sunday after the AEF Gala. I do want to go to my last Gala." [Personal communication with the author, April, 2004.] And he did. He died quietly at home surrounded by loved ones in May, 2004, and was memorialized two weeks later in a packed celebration of life at the San Francisco Eagle.
Mr. S – "Daddy" Alan Selby was an Englishman who was proud to have become an American citizen. He adopted the City of San Francisco, and it, in turn, adopted him. He was a gentleman and he was a Leatherman. He lived his life with good humor, courage, compassion, generosity and grace. If we can incorporate these characteristics, apply them to our lives and impart them to the generations coming up, then the spirit of this great man will never die.