Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed the State of Michigan after a plan to kidnap her and other Michigan government officials was thwarted by state and federal law enforcement agencies. She started by saying thank you to law enforcement and FBI agents who participated in stopping this [...]
BY SHARON GITTLEMAN
HUNTINGTON WOODS – On the morning of April 5, 1956, Frank Martin never realized his life would change forever.
Just one week before his 18th birthday, Martin went to his classes at Pershing High School in Detroit, just like he would on any other normal day. Then he headed over to the Fisher Building to his job as a stock boy.
At 6 p.m., he hopped on a streetcar to meet a friend for coffee.
He never arrived.
While he was riding on the trolley in downtown Detroit, he noticed a man who resembled a young Frank Sinatra stepping on board.
Martin took one look at the twenty-something man’s curly hair and handsome face and was lost.
“He got off the streetcar,” said Martin. “It wasn’t my stop, but I got off anyway.”
The fellow, a former Navy man, knew something was up.
“He stopped and looked in a window and over his shoulder,” said Martin. “I did the same. Then he asked me, would I like a cup of coffee?”
Fifty years later, Martin, 68, and Al Vezza, 76, are still together.
“We were going steady from the first day,” said Vezza.
Even in the 1950s, gay pride wasn’t a strange concept to Vezza or Martin.
“I always knew, was always very comfortable,” said Vezza. “I never had a problem with it. You belong to a unique society everyone can’t join.”
You might not match up the pair in your mind if you met them separately.
Martin is shy and sophisticated with a romantic nature.
Vezza is very much an alpha-male – strong, self-confident and independent.
They both grew up in very different families.
Martin’s mother’s adventures began when she was nearly kidnapped by white slavers at age 19.
A yellowed newspaper clipping framed and hung on a stairwell wall details Wilma Martin’s struggle against the unsuccessful attacker she fought off with a butcher knife.
It was just her first run-in with kidnappers.
“My mother stopped at a cleaners in 1946,” said Martin. “It was pouring rain. She left my four-month old sister Harriett in the car.”
A man skulked out of a nearby bowling alley, snatched his sister from inside the auto and started running down the street.
“My mother chased him, grabbed the baby and followed him until the police arrived,” he said.
Martin admits once wishing his mom was more like his friends’ parents.
“I wanted June Cleaver,” he said, “My mother smoked and drank a beer a day.”
Vezza admired his partner’s mom.
“She was funny and outgoing – not a mean bone in her body,” he said.
Vezza came from a huge family with seven boys and a girl – and plenty of love to share with everyone, including Martin.
“My nephews would come up and give him a big hug and kiss,” said Vezza. “My mother loved Frank. He’d have second helpings of spaghetti at our big Italian dinners.”
After he finished his tour of duty, serving on the U.S.S. Valley Forge during the Korean War, Vezza worked for 35 years for Ford Motor Company.
Then the couple opened a bookstore they ran from 1976 -2001.
Take a peak inside their Huntington Woods home and you’ll see mementos of a lifetime spent together.
There’s snapshots of the couple and friends during a trip to see the palaces and canals of Venice and a wall packed with photographs of family members, including Martin’s little sister Harriett.
Vezza and Martin helped raise Harriett Martin May, who was just 10 when they met, said Martin.
“She was more like a daughter than a sister,” he said.
When his sister married, she lived in a series of cities across the country with her husband Frank May.
She despised one community her husband’s job took them to – Raleigh, North Carolina.
Martin swung by in 1983, for a visit with his sister and brother-in-law, who worked for a stodgy corporation.
Without thinking about the false impression he might leave, May asked colleagues for names of gay bars and other fun LGBT nightspots.
Then his boss called him into the office.
“He asked him, ‘Are you gay?'” said Martin. “He said, ‘No, but my brother-in-law is.'”
A month later the firm offered May a job in San Francisco – with a big raise.
“My sister decided it was due to me,” he said laughing.
Martin and Vezza enjoyed their own trip to California.
Actor George Pentecost, Martin’s boyhood friend, appeared on Broadway, in TV shows like Happy Days, the Rockford Files, L.A. Law and Roswell and in movies including “All the President’s Men.”
Thanks to Pentecost, Vezza and Martin got to meet stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Helen Hayes and Dick Cavett.
“One of the perks of being gay is meeting Elizabeth Taylor,” said Martin, laughing.
In 1996, Pentecost took the couple to the Warner Brothers Studio commissary.
“I said, ‘Where are all those stars you keep talking about?'” asked Vezza. “Frank said, ‘You’re sitting next to George Clooney.'”
Other Hollywood mementos – gifts from Pentecost, are hung on the walls in the couple’s elegant Tudor-style home, including wardrobe sketches of Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert signed by Ernst Lubitsch, the director of “Ninotchka” and other beloved films released from 1914-48.
Generations-old secretaries, Japanese screens, oil lamps from 19th Century British sailing ships, antique phones, thousands of books and a peaceful garden with sculptures and statuary take pride of place at the couple’s home, one of the stops on the 2006 House Tour in Huntington Woods this summer.
What has kept Martin and Vezza together for 50 years?
“It just developed day by day and then before we turned around, it was 20 years together and then 30 years,” said Vezza. “We didn’t have a big plan.”
Martin said he has one bit of advice for couples starting out today.
“Don’t make your lover your best friend. If you lose one you lose both,” he said. “You need someone to tell, ‘That SOB! Why does he have so many pairs of Levi’s in the wash at one time?'”
Recently, the couple celebrated their anniversary at a party, with dozens of friends and neighbors invited to share their joy.
Their mail deliverer was on the list.
“Call me, I have great stories,” she said laughing, after learning the couple would be interviewed for BTL.
She handed Martin his letters and flyers.
“My legs still ache from dancing,” she said.
Five years ago, a strange coincidence hinted that the couple’s lifelong romance was truly a match made in heaven.
The pair were browsing at the “Art in the Woods Fine Art Fair,’ not far from their home, when something caught Martin’s eye.
“I looked across the aisle,” he said. “There was this picture in a bin full of photos. It happened to be on top.”
It was a watercolor portrait of the streetcar where they met – #235, the Log Cabin Trolley.
They bought and framed the painting along with a copy of a ticket dated April 8, 1956 – the last day the streetcar operated, just three days after they set eyes on each other.
“We might not have ever met,” said Martin, with a wistful smile.