Enigmatic might be the best word to describe this organization, which was variously called the Knights of the Clock or Clocks. Gay and lesbian historians differ in their reporting of who founded the group, when it was founded, and what its exact name was. The ONE Gay and Lesbian Archives in L.A. maintains that Merton L. Bird, an African-American accountant about whom little is known, was the cofounder, and that it started up around June 1951. The other co-founder was W. Dorr Legg, who used about a dozen pseudonyms throughout his life, and whose name appears in virtually every anthology of gay history. He earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture with a specialty in urban planning, taught at Oregon State University, lived in New York and Florida, and came home to Ann Arbor, Michigan to care for his elderly parents. Legg’s lovers were, for the most part, African-American, and he experienced racial discrimination first hand (though not, according to John D’Emilio, in Detroit’s black community). Some historians hold that Bird and Legg met in Michigan, drove around looking for a comfortable place for interracial gay couples, and landed in L.A. in the late 1940’s. Lillian Fader-man and Stuart Timmons hold that Marvin Edwards, not Bird, went to L.A. with Legg. Timmons interviewed Edwards for their 2006 book, Gay L.A., which includes a very youthful candid photo. Edwards was forced to leave L.A. after a year or so, when his landlady discovered he was gay.
Legg has been variously described as charismatic, charming, poised, witty, intelligent, controlling, inflexible, and opinionated. A Republican in politics, he chose to live off the earnings of younger men (according to an interview in Joseph Hansen’s 1998 biography of Don Slater). In Legg’s 1994 book, Homophile Studies in Theory and Practice, he described Bird as brilliant and gives all credit for the Knights’ founding to Bird. “Hostility and harassment were the daily lot of interracial same-sex couples in 1950. … [Bird’s] idea was that by coming together to form a mutual aid society, the group could at the very least offer each other encouragement. The decision was to form a California nonprofit corporation and call it the Knights of the Clocks, a deliberately ambiguous title.” Many historians, such as Paul Cain, have quoted from Legg’s book, Homosexuals Today; A Handbook of Organizations & Publications (1956), which he wrote under the name of Marvin Cutler, stating that the aim of the Knights was to “promote fellowship and understanding between homosexuals themselves, specifically between other races and the Negro, as well as to offer its members aid in securing employment and suitable housing. Special attention was given to the housing problems of interracial couples of which there were several in the group.”
Although most sources give June 1951 as the Knights’ founding date, others range from the late 1940’s to the early 1950’s. Perhaps the L.A. group known as the Cloistered Loyal Order of the Conclaved Knights of Sophisticracy (or, sometimes, Sophistocracy, and known as the C.L.O.C.K.S.) lent its name to Bird and Legg’s Knights. It may or may not have been formally incorporated. Jonathan Ned Katz was unable to turn up the legal papers when he searched back in the 1970’s, but Edward Sagarin (the pseudonym of Donald Webster Cory) states in what was originally his NYU thesis, later published, that the Knights incorporated in 1950. Three undated typescripts in the ONE Archives’ file on the Knights contain some information about the C.L.O.C.K.S. Their oath of office, following a Masonic-type ritual, was to “practice the arts of sophisticracy diligently, honestly, courteously, amicably, faithfully, and with all of my ability.” At the end of the installation, the installing officer and “honor guard” intoned: “By the authority vested in me by the State of California, and as a duly elected officer of this corporation, I hereby declare you [name of office]. Honi soit qui mal y pense.” This, the motto of the Order of the Garter, founded in mid- 14th-century England, can be roughly translated as “shamed be he who thinks evil of it.” Instead of the usual titles (president, VP, etc.), the C.L.O.C.K.S. used medieval ones: Exalted Knight, Senior Knight, Bursar, and Scribe (who kept a Tablet instead of minutes).
In the ONE’s file, a few handwritten entries beginning on May 24, 1951, were recorded in an unused 1944 calendar from what appears to be an insurance company. On that date, “application forms were passed out,” “minutes were approved as read,” and the “Vice President spoke of aims of Club.” Gone is the mystique of the Cloistered Loyal Order. One of the Knights’ events was planned to take place in June at the Wilfandel Club. According to the still-active club’s website, wilfandelclub.com, it was established on November 21, 1945, by two black women to provide “people of all races with a public meeting place in Los Angeles during the 1950’s.” Another meeting note, dated July 1, listed members who would sing, play an instrument, dance, and make speeches at an upcoming party. (Bird was listed as one of the speech-makers.) On that same date, there was an entry for a rough draft of letterhead, “The C.L.O.C.K.S./Incorporated/Los Angeles/Calif.” The name “Josephine Baker” appears fleetingly in a meeting note, leaving one to imagine all kinds of possibilities.
Yet another event, dated August 4, was to be a “midsummer frolic” beginning at 9 p.m., with draft beer and spaghetti. The last social event mentioned was a Valentine’s meeting with a “social program” planned for Saturday, February 16 . Events seemed to be admission-by-card only. Other cryptic entries mentioned the Loan Fund, Housing & Employment Committee, the Membership Committee, the Entertainment Committee, and the Legal Aid Committee, of which Bird was chair. “NAACP” is noted without any further comment. Interestingly, Bird’s name is consistently spelled “Byrd” throughout, and C. Todd White’s book lists “M. Byrd” as Merton Bird’s pseudonym. Some members’ names and addresses are written throughout the entries, and there’s an intriguing mention of a seal and articles of incorporation. Sagarin remarked that meetings were originally held monthly, and then semimonthly. Meetings, he said, usually drew about 35 attendees, with a larger group attending the socials.
Reproduced in Legg’s 1994 book and credited to “ONE’s Baker Memorial Library and Archives” is a 1951 invitation, engraved in Gothic script, to a Knights social event: the fourth anniversary party of “Gene and Edward” on May 12, 1951, from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Legg stated that guests at that event were “a comfortable mix of races and assorted personal relationships including both men’s Beverly Hills employers and their families.” ONE Archives’ handwritten meeting notes do include some female first names, and one name that could possibly begin with “Mrs.”
When did the end come? ONE Archives’ file contains no information about the group beyond a handwritten list, dated February 15, 1952, of fourteen members (including Bird and Legg) who owed dues. On that date, the group had $14.15 in the bank. In 1952, Legg and Bird numbered among the founders of ONE, Inc., a group within the Mattachine that published ONE magazine. White mentions that Bird appeared to have offered the Knights’ charter as a model, or to offer a merger with the Knights, neither of which were accepted. Sagarin noted that “for all practical purposes it had disappeared from the scene” by 1953, though an occasional meeting was held after that date.
A 1966 article in Tangents magazine by Richard Conger implied that the Knights, “formerly of Los Angeles,” were represented at the ONE Institute Midwinter Session, an educational program for gay men and lesbians held on an almost yearly basis in various cities and considered a precursor to today’s academic programs. The Institute was the brainchild of Legg. Sidney Roth-man reported of the Knights: “Its originality lay in its avowed intention to enroll men and women alike and their parents and other relatives on an interracial basis. Its meetings and large social gatherings appear not to have been matched in attendance until this present year (1965) by a few social events staged in San Francisco as the joint effort of several homophile organizations in that city. The Knights continued for three or four years but eventually found themselves overshadowed by another Los Angeles development … The Mattachine.” (Conger and Rothman were, according to Vern Bullough, two of Legg’s pseudonyms.)
When Legg died in 1994 at the age of 89, he was survived by his partner of over thirty years, John (Johnny) Nojima, who died a few years ago. Very little is known at this time about Merton L. Bird.
ONE’s file contains the names and addresses of some of the earliest Knights. Can any of them be traced? Are any of their addresses close to those noted on the map of “significant locations” in White’s book? What might the archives of other California institutions contain? Did any of the Knights’ files migrate to other gay organizations following a very celebrated “heist” of papers in 1965 by another ONE, Inc. founder, Don Slater, due to personal and professional disputes with Legg? Does the NAACP’s L.A. chapter keep records back to the 1950’s? What about the archives of the Wilfandel Club? More research is waiting to be done on this fascinating and pioneering organization.
I’m grateful to the archivists at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives in LA., particularly to Loni Shibuyama. This article would not have been possible without Lillian Faderman ‘s assistance, and I would, also like to thank Philip Clark, Wayne Dynes, Joseph Hawkins, and C. Todd White.
- Bullough, Vern L. Before Stonewall; Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. Harrington Park Press, 2002.
- Cain, Paul D. Leading the Parade: Conversations with America’s Most Influential Lesbians and Gay Men. Scarecrow Press, 2002.
- Conger, Richard (pseud.). Where the Mainstream Flows. ONE 14:2, 1966.
- D’Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States. 1940-1970. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983.
- Dynes, Wayne. “W. Dorr Legg.” in Gay & Lesbian Biography, edited by Michael J. Tyrkus. St. James Press, 1997.
- Faderman, Lillian, and Stuart Timmons. Gay LA.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. Basic Books, 2006.
- Hansen, Joseph. A Few Doors West of Hope: The Life and Times of Dauntless Don Slater. Homosexual Information Center, 1998.
- Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the USA.: A Documentary. Crowell, 1976.
- Knights of the Clock(s) File. ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, Los Angeles. Legg, W. Dorr, ed. Homophile Studies in Theory and Practice. ONE Institute Press, 1994.
- Rothman, Sidney (pseud.). The Homophile Movement. ONE 13:12, 1965.
- Sagarin, Edward (pseud.). Structure and Ideology in an Association of Deviants. Arno Press, 1966.
- White, C. Todd. Pre-Gay LA.: A Social History of the. Movement for Homosexual Rights. Univ. of Illinois Press, 2009.
- Martha E. Stone, literary editor of this magazine, is a reference librarian by day.
- Unearthing the “Knights of the Clock”, The Free Library, 2010 https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Unearthing+the+%27Knights+of+the+Clock%27.-a0226665866