Remembering John Headley

In 1998, Margie Perrone flew to California, alone, to attend and speak at a private memorial service for her beloved cousin Johnny Headley, who had died in a nursing home there.  Johnny had been gay.  The other guests at the service were Johnny’s brother Bill, Bill’s wife Anne, and fifteen or so of Anne’s relatives. Margie knew that many of  Anne’s relatives – not Anne, not Bill – were born again Christians who disapproved of Johnny’s sexual orientation.  Nonetheless, Margie planned to speak frankly of Johnny’s homosexuality – it had never been a secret within the family.  She was entering the lion’s den.  This is what she said.

Remembering John Headley

by Margie Ridge Perrone,  March 21, 1998

In my early twenties I found a surrogate elder brother in my cousin Johnny.  That was when he began to invite me for weekend visits to Manhattan.  He took me to off-Broadway plays and sophisticated restaurants, dazzling an unworldly Philadelphia girl.  When I moved to New York he asked me to stay with him and his lifetime companion, Henry, in Greenwich Village until I found a place to live.

I loved staying in their spacious apartment filled with books, prints, and the treasures Johnny and Henry picked up at auctions.  Every night we sat down to a delicious dinner served on fine china with beautiful linens and crystal.  In the evenings, we read or took walks around the Village checking out bookstores and antique shops.  During the six weeks I was with them, they always made me feel welcome.  Eventually I found my own apartment and descended into a far less organized and elegant existence.

We stayed in close touch, visiting back and forth, always interested in each other’s doings.  Once, when I was home alone with the flu, Johnny stopped by at noon with soup.  When I was homeless for a week or so between apartments, back I went to that civilized haven on West 16th Street.  I knew I could always count on Johnny for friendship and support, and he was the one who gave me away at my wedding.  We saw less of each other after I left New York and eventually Johnny and Henry moved to North Jersey. However, our regular visits and long telephone conversations kept us close.

I always looked up to Johnny.  He knew so much about so many subjects:  literature, science, music and opera, china and silver, bridge, investments, politics, New York history, religion and later, birds and photography.  All this without a college education or the benefit of a sophisticated environment in his early years.

Johnny held responsible positions in the research laboratories where he spent most of his working life and at his beloved Church of St. Mary the Virgin where he served as treasurer and vice-president of the board of directors.  He became an expert on parish history and on arcane matters of ritual.  When it was time to recruit a a new rector, Johnny was sent to Chicago to interview the prime candidate.

In his relations with others – his family, his friends, his lover – Johnny was warm, thoughtful and true.  I’ve already described his kindness to me.  His step-mother Aneta, came to count on his regular telephone calls during her last years.  Most significant was his 42-year relationship with Henry Burley, which brought fulfillment an lasting happiness to them both.
MCP and Johnny
(Johnny holding 4 year old Margie, 1935)

I admired Johnny’s character and accomplishments all the more because I knew the obstacles he had overcome.  Since boyhood he’d suffered epileptic seizures for which medication was not available until he was well into adulthood.  I believe he lost at least once job because of his epilepsy, and when he had a seizure during a Boy Scout trip the scoutmaster kicked him.  There was no money for higher education he was so obviously suited for, and not much opportunity of any kind in Depression era Bridgeton, NJ.  Also, I can only imagine how lonely and frightening it was to be a gay teenager during those years.

In some ways, however, Johnny was very fortunate.  He had a plucky, resilient temperament that helped him bounce back after numerous setbacks.  Early in life he developed the deep religious faith that sustained him until the end, and at at St. Mary’s, for nearly fifty years he found an environment which nurtured him personally and spiritually.  Perhaps most important, he had a loving family.  His parents and his brother accepted him as he was and supported him, even if they didn’t always understand him.  Indeed, his brother and sister-in-law, Bill and Anne, were there for him when, a few years ago, when he could no longer care for himself.

Because his distressing last years are still vivid to us in our minds, I want to replace those sad images with recollections of Johnny when he was his former, true self.  Recalling that person – his warmth, his energy and enthusiasm, his achievements and his courage – we can with a full heart give thanks for Johnny’s life.

Some years later Margie and I returned to California for a last visit with Bill.   A Marine veteran who had been wounded at Guadalcanal, Bill told me that he was never in his life so proud of anybody as he was of Margie that afternoon when she honored Johnny Headley.)