EAST HADDAM — Preserved letters, diaries, photographs, a house and its gardens tell the story of Frederic Palmer and Howard Metzger, two men who met fell in love in the 1940s and lived together as a couple as openly as society allowed.
Considering the time period, what’s unique about Palmer (1901-1971)and Metzger (1921-2005), who lived in the historic Warner-Palmer House at 307 Town St., is the fact that their personal history is preserved at all, and intact at that.
“The Palmer Warner House contains a complete record of [Palmer and Metzger’s] lives and that’s highly unusual in LGBT history for many reasons,” said Kevin Jennings, an LGBT historian and board member of Connecticut Landmarks, which owns and operates the property. “LGBT lives tended to not get preserved — often LGBT people themselves felt compelled to conceal or even destroy evidence of their intimate lives.”
Jennings, who spoke by phone on Friday, said the fact that the property came into the possession of Connecticut Landmarks with the complete record of the lives of Palmer and Metzger intact is highly unusual. “In fact I know of no other property in the country like it,” he said.
Palmer-Warner House was built in 1738 by John and Mehitable Warner. Palmer’s mother,
Mary Brennan Palmer, purchased the house in 1936. Frederic Palmer lived there with his mother until her death in 1943. Palmer, an architect, was a member of the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, which was later renamed Connecticut Landmarks and he bequeathed the property to the organization in 1948.
The house is crammed with the layers of history from original 18th century wall sconces to a 400-album collection from the 1970s. Outside, where the couple created topiary animals in the gardens, statuary that Metzger liked to collect can be seen. The barn where Palmer and Metzger kept their cars, including a Rolls Royce Phantom II and Phantom III, has also been recently restored.
The exact date the couple met is still not known, said Erin Farley, collections manager for the property, who started cataloguing every object in the house in 2016 and still has the upstairs study and entire attic to finish.
“We have tons of documentation, Frederic’s photo albums, diaries, his letters. We know he met Howard through a mutual acquaintance and they hit it off, they have tons of things in common, like antiques, gardening, going to theatre and music,” said Farley. “We’re still establishing the exact date that Howard moves into the house but we think it’s about 1945.”
Pinning down the date is difficult because Palmer wrote in his diary every day from 1941 to 1962, including “the high and low temperature, the weather that he saw, who he wrote to, where he went, correspondence he received, it’s thorough,” she said. “I think I’m in October 1945.”
Farley is painstakingly working her way through all of Palmer’s diaries, inked in his tiny script in the old-fashioned format of five years worth of entries per calendar day on one page.
In addition to the diaries, the house contains Palmer’s letters to Metzger, who was in the Merchant Marines during World War II.
“We have letters that Frederic wrote to Howard throughout the relationship, not just when he’s in the Merchant Marines but even into 1956. Whenever Howard was away from the house, Frederic was writing to him prolifically and almost daily — we have are 5- to 11-page single-spaced typewritten letters.”
Since letters during the war were censored, the couple were said to have a code for communicating.
“Palmer would sign off his letters ‘you know what.’ I’m pretty sure that means ‘I love you,’” said Farley.
After Metzger moved in, he and Palmer lived as a couple and “were “out but not publicly out” by today’s standards, Farley said.
“They were not super-closeted, they lived here together. People knew them in town and it wasn’t like Frederic kept Howard hidden either — he would take Howard to family functions,” she said.
The couple invited their gay friends to the house, creating a social space during a time when being homosexual was illegal.
“Frederic wanted to provide a space where they could come and be as they were, where they could bring their significant other. That’s huge during that period, 1945 on, it’s pre-Lavender Scare and coming up into the McCarthy era. It could have dire consequences if you were outed, and that’s something that’s a really big part of our story — they weren’t out and probably couldn’t have been out.”
Farley said it was important to understand that the house museum and exhibits were not “outing” Palmer and Metzger posthumously.
“For us to talk about them now is not outing them because it’s a different world,” she said.
Palmer and Metzger lived through a century’s worth of changing attitudes toward homosexuality in the United States, said Jennings.
“When Frederic was born, being gay was considered a mental illness, being gay was a criminal offense, but by the time Howard died, Connecticut was on the verge of passing marriage equality, so they literally lived through a revolution in social attitudes toward LGBT people,” Jennings said. “They were as out as it was humanly possible to be given the time period they lived in. They never pretended they were heterosexual, everybody in their community understood who they were and what their relationship was to one another.”
Jennings said every LGBT archivist has heard horror stories of people coming in and burning letters or destroying diaries because they didn’t want their relative ‘embarrassed’ by revelations after their death. The ‘embarassment’ was felt by heterosexual relatives not by the dead gay person, he said.
“There’s an old joke that heterosexual descendants of gay couples tend to ‘straighten up’ the houses of their gay relatives after they die,” he said. “What that means is they literally come in and destroy or remove artifacts that reveal the same sex aspects of their relatives’ lives, so the historical records of gay couples are often damaged or incomplete.”
There is more awareness of LGBT history in 2019 but a lot of personal artifacts have been lost, he said.
“Howard and Frederic been preserved whole and intact and that is unheard of — it’s a unique opportunity to tell a story that’s never been told in a historic site in our country ever before,” he said.
Tours of Warner-Palmer House are available May – November and require reservations. For more information, click here.