The Donald Vining Diaries – A Fifty Year Chronicle of a Gay Man’s Life

June is Pride Month, an opportune time to highlight the unique diaries of Donald Vining.

Vining was a diarist from the very beginning. At the age of eight, he began documenting his day-to-day activities. He wrote one line, largely practical entries about playing with friends, shoveling snow, taking violin lessons, and getting a dog – and with the dog, the attendant chores. Vining’s diary entry on Wednesday, January 6, 1926, reads “Went to school and cleaned up six dog messes.”

First page of the “Condensed transcript of The Diary of Donald Vining 1926-1958.”
Box 1, Donald Vining papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

While Vining’s adolescent attempts at keeping a diary sometimes fizzled out as the months progressed, a Christmas gift of a diary in 1931 “led to another attempt at faithful diarizing”. By that time, his diary entries had grown longer and sometimes included references to world events, like the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, which, to Vining’s chagrin, interrupted his favorite regularly scheduled Sherlock Holmes radio program.

By 1933, Vining was dreaming big, musing “As actor, author, playwright, investor, I’ll make huge sums. Of course, love means a great deal to me but I’m afraid money will always come first if it is a choice between the two.” He so identified with being a diarist, that it sometimes gave him nightmares. He wrote, “had a very disturbing dream last night when I dreamed that I wrote my diary on the rug and on my shirt cuffs – then somebody cleaned the rug and washed my shirts and the printing disappeared. I was on the point of weeping at the thought of blank pages in my diary.”

A page of the transcription of Donald Vining’s diary, January 15, 1934. Box 1, Donald Vining papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

On December 31, 1934, Vining wrote, “Sixteen and seventeen is a good early age at which to finish one’s first diary. I believe it is such a habit now and I shall never get out of it.” It was a prescient observation. By January 1, 1936, Vining had dropped out of college, where he had been studying drama. “Finances were complicated” he wrote, but he was still determined to keep up with his diary writing. His first resolution for the new year – “to keep a more literate diary.”

In May of 1936, Vining, still a teenager and inspired by a sermon on the topic of love, wrote, “I at once decided never to feel furtive in my love affairs hereafter. Perhaps my lust for those of my own sex is something to be ashamed of, perhaps not. But at any rate my love for them is not. It’s only to be regretted that everyone can’t love everyone else and no love should be considered as other than the finest thing in the world.” It was the beginning of Vining’s many observations on attraction, love, and sex that would pepper his diaries in the years to come.

Vining spent his early twenties attending Westchester University in Pennsylvania, working odd jobs and writing and putting on plays for an amateur theatrical society. Much to his delight, he was eventually accepted for graduate studies at Yale’s drama school, where he was “thrown into ecstasy by the beauty of some of the buildings and the aristocratic appearance of it all.” He harbored fantasies of having his own repertory theatre and was eager to learn “a stage hand’s duties as well as an actor’s, director’s and author’s.” Those weren’t the only fantasies on his mind. On September 26, 1939, he wrote “Am I smitten now! As I came out from Drama 6 I saw him…His hair was wavy with just the slightest tint of red in its blondness. He has very prominent cheekbones and a long angular face. He looks intelligent and as tho he meant business. All this raving after only a glance or two…At last I have someone to pretend I’m in love with.” Dedicated to his diary as always, Vining wrapped up the year by writing, “No days of the year can be counted on to give me such joy as a diarist as do the first and last. I relish the summary.”

By 1941, Vining had graduated from Yale and submitted manuscripts to MGM and 20th Century Fox in Hollywood, but they were turned down. He wrote, “I rebound very quickly to professional setbacks and disappointments, which is either a very great asset or a quality that will lead me and my family smack onto the shoals. How long does one go on achieving nothing much. It always comes out all right in the biographies of successful authors, but what about the many you never hear about? When should one fight on, and when wise up to one’s own inadequacies and give up the attempt.”

Soon World War II was raging, and men of Vining’s age were being drafted. After some reflection, Vining submitted the necessary paperwork to be classified as a conscientious objector but still was required to go through the Army’s induction process. It was there that he was declared unfit for service by a psychiatrist who wrote “homosexualism-overt” on his papers. Vining was relieved to be rejected by the Army and resolved to move to New York City, saying “I know that I must take my talent, education and experience to market before it gets rusty.” In New York, he found some success writing plays and synopses of scripts and reviewing books. He felt compelled to write, saying “I have to have my freedom to write just as much, almost, as I have to have water, food, and sleep.” Vining wrote, “Being in New York is wonderful, high cost of living and amorous misadventures not-withstanding. Much of what I came for has not developed or has lost its appeal, but music and theatre are swell.”

By 1945, Vining was working as a clerk at the Sloan House YMCA. During the war it housed more than a thousand men, many of them enlisted, and was the biggest YMCA in the nation. Vining wrote about practicing his swimming in the Y’s basement swimming pool and keeping an eye out for attractive gay men there and in New York City’s Central Park West, a popular “cruising” spot.

While Vining still harbored an interest in playwriting, by 1949 he had taken a job in the Development Office at the Teacher’s College of Columbia University. Much of his diary in the 1940s, 50s and 60s documented the minutiae of everyday life – searching for an apartment, caring for his cats, and airing work grievances. His diary revealed that he enjoyed knitting and needlepoint and played mahjong and bridge. He maintained a busy social life and capitalized on the benefits of living in New York City. Visits to museums were frequent and he was a regular movie goer. He enjoyed opera, symphony, ballet and theater performances, often recording his impressions in his diary.

Vining eventually settled into a long-term relationship with Richmond Purinton. As the year was drawing to a close in 1956, Vining, then 39, wrote, “As I look around me, I seem to have all I ever wanted even if perhaps not so much of any one thing as I used to envision. I have a companion I love who fills my days and years with a nice balance or surprise, whimsy, thoughtfulness, and dependability. I have books, a bank account that permits travel, a job I don’t resist rising to in the morning, small but pleasant rewards from writing and painting, and I have New York.”

Vining long admired Samuel Pepys, who was known for his mid-17th century diary. Pepys’ diary is remembered today for its insight into upper-class life in London. It seems that Vining saw himself as a sort of gay New York City Pepys. By 1959 he had agreed to give his diary to Yale. He wrote “So now I don’t have to worry about offering it elsewhere and have only to pack it and send it off…Then I can stop worrying about fire, etc.” Vining spent his evenings transcribing his diary, writing “I must say that as I do the transcription I become convinced that with the chaff threshed away mine is a very good diary on the whole, ranging from poor in the Tech years to superb in the years where actual quotes characterize people very well. I am committed now to the dream that it will be published eventually but this is a little difficult to guarantee for its great value lies in its utter frankness.”

The American Heritage Center’s copy of Vining’s diary is largely typewritten transcripts, but when Vining was traveling, he resorted to writing in longhand.

A handwritten page of Donald Vining’s diary, July 11, 1969. Box 5, Donald Vining papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

He was widely traveled, often spending up to a month at a time abroad, frequently in Europe. While away from home he was exceptionally observant, making note of cultural differences, architecture, museum artefacts and more.

Photographs taken in Italy from Donald Vining’s diary, May 1963. Box 4, Donald Vining papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

While Vining and Purinton were a couple for decades, their relationship was not strictly exclusive, and Vining wrote of his trips to the gay bath houses of New York City. His March 1982 diary notes, “we went home and had supper. Afterward I set out for Everard. During my first five minutes in the steam room and elsewhere I saw 6 handsome bodies that showed Everard is still the place. Beauty thinned out after that but still I had one of my better nights.”

Publicity photo of Donald Vining from A Gay Diary 1975-1982. Box 5, Donald Vining papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Eventually, after failing to find a publisher for his diary, Vining founded Pepys Press and published a five-volume series simply titled A Gay Diary. The dedication page read, “To THE UNABASHED Those thousands of gay men and lesbians who didn’t wait for the Stonewall Rebellion and Gay Liberation to live full and loving gay lives without undue regard for what family, church, psychiatrists or state thought about it. My true kin.”

Cover of the A Gay Diary 1975-1982. Box 5, Donald Vining papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Vining had been a diarist for more than 50 years and had produced thousands of pages of single-spaced typewritten diary entries. He said he made “no attempt to touch up the self-portrait by removing warts nor to make improvements in the quality of the writing, often poor due to haste, fatigue, and, I’m afraid, blind spots in my mastery of capitalization, punctuation, and grammar … On the one hand I should have loved to amplify, explain, retract, or rephrase a thousand passages but on the other hand I felt it unfair to cosmeticize, patronize or apologize for my younger self.” Reviewers at the time praised his published work as “unquestionably the richest historical document of gay male life in the United States”.

Vining’s diaries capture his evolution from precociously observant boy to gay senior citizen. His last published diary entry, written on December 31st, 1982, begins “As an interim piece of writing I decided to work on the little 500 word essay for SAGE’s contest on MY LIFE AS A LESBIAN OR GAY: THEN AND NOW. I fussed and fussed with it long after working hours and way out of proportion to the rewards offered.”  He concluded “Since this entry rounds out fifty years of diary, it makes a very natural place to stop. For now, at least.” Vining passed away in New York City on January 24th, 1998, at the age of 80 and is buried alongside Richmond Purinton in Maine.

The Donald Vining papers at the American Heritage Center consist of five boxes of diary transcripts and a published copy of A Gay Diary 1975-1982. There are edited and original diaries from the the years 1926 through 1982. The New York Public Library also houses Vining’s correspondence, diaries, novels, play scripts, stories, articles, scrapbook, two videotaped interviews, two of his original childhood diaries (1926-1927), and typescripts of his diaries, 1926-1970, illustrated with photographs, that Vining called his “Diary Digests.”

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


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