One afternoon in late fall 1974, Letty Ritter, a sometime student at the University of Kentucky, happened to be in the Lexington Post Office with a friend she called her “drug buddy,” Alan Johnson.2 As they idly flipped through a binder of the FBI’s “Wanted” posters, they noticed that two of the sought fugitives bore a certain resemblance to two women who had recently roomed in the house Letty shared with several other women on 341 Lexington Avenue. One in particular, identified on the poster as “Katherine Ann Power—5', 150 pounds, light brown hair, hazel eyes, wears glasses”—struck Letty as resembling a woman she had known as May Kelly. But no, she thought, that’s silly, that can’t be May. Then she noticed a second poster—of a “Susan Edith Saxe—5'4"–5", 160 pounds,” with “dark brown hair,” also wearing glasses and with “an identifying black spot in her left eye”—and her suspicions grew. Letty still wasn’t sure, though. After all, the woman they’d known as Lena Paley had blonde hair (though it was likely bleached) and didn’t look exactly like the FBI poster photo. Nevertheless, the more she thought about it, the more she was shocked to realize that her two former housemates were likely the fugitives on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list, wanted for “Interstate Flight, Murder; Theft of Government Property; Bank Robbery,” the posters read. At the bottom of the poster Letty couldn’t help but notice a further alarming warning: “Both may be armed and should be considered very dangerous.” Signed: J. Edgar Hoover. (J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director of the FBI, was dead by then, but the agency hadn’t updated the poster.) Yes, Letty finally decided, Lena and May were indeed Saxe and Power.
Nevertheless, Letty hesitated about what to do with her discovery. Because she was a heavy drug user, smoking marijuana every day and “dropping acid” (LSD) two or three times a week (Ritter 1987)—both of which were illegal with heavy prison sentences for anyone convicted of using, she was afraid of contacting the police or FBI lest they do a house search and turn up drugs or other evidence of drug use, sending her to prison. Alan Johnson, however, told her he doubted the FBI would go after them over a small amount of pot. In the end, Johnson decided it was his “civic duty” to report their suspicion to the FBI and so, pressured by his “straight-laced” girlfriend, Johnson called the FBI on January 6, 1975, at the bureau office in Cincinnati where Johnson lived (Ritter 1987; FBI, January 13, 1975).
Meanwhile, Letty began doing research on Saxe and Power and the Brighton bank robbery by checking through newspapers in the university library. She learned that the policeman who had been killed during the robbery, Walter A. Schroeder, had several kids, which upset her quite a bit. “I felt sorry,” she later recollected, in trying to explain why she eventually cooperated with the FBI and grand jury, “for the policeman” (Ritter 1987).
Moreover, as she thought back on her experience with Lena and May, she realized she hadn’t really liked them, having had a few straightforward confrontations with Lena especially, whom she found too “bossy” and “militant,” constantly harping on political issues. One time, for example, they’d gotten into it over whether Letty’s cat should be allowed on a counter, and it was clear to Letty that Lena and May didn’t approve of her heavy drug use. Letty, who wasn’t particularly political at the time, found herself trying to avoid the two as much as possible. Thus, since she “didn’t even like them,” when the time came to decide whether to testify or face contempt, she “couldn’t see going to jail for them” (Ritter 1987).
On November 12, 1974, at about the same time that the FBI posters caught the attention of Ritter and Johnson, another person, Barry Bleich, a filmmaker connected to Kentucky Educational Television, also happened to notice the poster photos and likewise recognized the two fugitives, especially Saxe, whom he had seen at the health food restaurant Alfalfa where he and she had worked (Kundert 1986; Peterson 1975a). The next day Bleich mentioned his discovery to several friends but decided not to contact the FBI. “They were not criminals to me,” he later told a reporter, Bill Peterson of the Louisville Courier-Journal. “They were just young radicals like we all were at the time. They got caught up in Kent State and the injustice of the war and went out and robbed a bank” (Peterson 1975a).
Somehow the rumors, which by December 1974 were swirling around the Lexington radical community, that Lena and May had been “most wanted” fugitives, reached the ears of a reporter, John B. Wood, at the Boston Globe—probably thanks to Alan Johnson, who notified the Globe through a friend. According to FBI records, on January 7, 1975, a Globe reporter contacted the Kentucky FBI, asking for information (FBI, January 13, 1975). Wood then headed for Lexington, determined to find out if Saxe and Power had indeed spent part of the preceding year in Lexington. On January 12, 1975, Wood published in the Boston Sunday Globe the results of numerous interviews he conducted in Lexington during the preceding week: “Were Susan Saxe and Kathy Power Living in Kentucky?” Wood interviewed Bleich; Letty Ritter; Marla Seymour, later one of the Lexington Six; Betty Rudnick, who was chair of the Nursing Program at UK; and some forty, mostly unnamed, others in the course of his week’s stay in Lexington (Wood 1975a).
Wood gleaned from these sources that Saxe and Power had arrived in Lexington on bicycles in early June 1974 (some of these minor details proved to be inaccurate) and had lived for approximately six weeks in a house called the “Lexington Avenue Women’s Collective”—the house where Letty, Marla, and several others lived—and later for a few weeks in another apartment nearby.
By the time of Wood’s interviewing (roughly January 7–11), most of those who had known Lena and May well were convinced that these two women were indeed Saxe and Power. Marla Seymour, however, portentously declined to identify the two as such. When pressed by the reporter as to why, she replied, “Because this is America.” Although she didn’t elaborate at the time, with those words Marla, almost by instinct it seems, laid down the first line of the Lexington Six defense. This is America. This is not Nazi Germany or any other totalitarian regime where enforced loyalty to the state supersedes all other loyalties—to friends, to family, to lovers. On the contrary.
As rumors continued circulating about the true identity of Lena and May, one of their former housemates in the “Lexington Avenue Women’s Collective,” Nancy Scott, who had since moved to Louisville, went to the local post office, along with her lover Laura Clark,3 to check for herself. “I looked at Lena’s picture, and I knew it was her,” she reported. “It wasn’t a good picture, but it was her. Then I turned the page, and right in the middle of the Post Office, I yelled ‘May!’ I freaked out.” Bleich offered the Globe reporter an even more positive identification; he said he had noticed a distinctive black spot in Lena’s left eye, which is specified on the FBI poster as a distinguishing mark. “We used to sit across the counter from each other and talk. I remember looking at that spot . . . and wondering what it was” (Wood 1975a).
Curiously, despite what was by then a general awareness in the Lexington women’s community that the women they had known as Lena and May were probably Saxe and Power, none of the people John Wood interviewed for his article had as yet been visited by the FBI. Those visits began shortly after the appearance of the Globe piece. So it appears that it was the article, more than the information called in to the FBI by Johnson and Ritter, that triggered the FBI investigation in Lexington. Indeed, an FBI agent later acknowledged that the Globe article had regalvanized the hunt for Saxe and Power, which by January 1975 had “run out of gas.” Until the Globe investigation in Lexington, the agent admitted, the FBI hadn’t received a single bit of information about the two since the time of the Brighton bank robbery in 1970, a fact acknowledged by FBI director Clarence Kelly in a teletype on January 16, 1975. The FBI didn’t even know if they were still alive. But, the agent revealed, “the Lexington clue started it all. . . . The hunt jumped into high gear” (Jones 1975).
Kathy Power and Susan Saxe had met in the late 1960s at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where they both were students. Saxe graduated magna cum laude—a literature major—in 1970, and Power, a sociology major, was set to graduate the following year. Both were active in the movement against the escalating Vietnam War. Like many activist protestors of the day, they were appalled at the atrocities—such as that at My Lai on March 16, 1968, where several hundred unarmed Vietnamese civilians were slaughtered by American troops—being reported almost daily in the news. The first notice of the My Lai massacre reached the American public on November 13, 1969, when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a series of articles by Seymour Hersh. The Boston Globe featured the Hersh exposé of the massacre the same day on its front page—where Saxe and Power likely learned of the atrocity (Brandeis being within the Boston news compass). In addition, like other antiwar activists, Saxe and Power thought the war was unjust and ill-conceived to begin with.
Also at Brandeis at the time was a charismatic, twenty-five-year-old ex-convict, Stanley Ray Bond, on parole from a nearby state prison in Walpole on an experimental prison-release program. Bond, who had been a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, shared Saxe’s and Power’s opposition to the war, and he and Power became romantically involved. She later said they had been “soulmates” (Franks 1994, 50) because of their shared political vision.
Up to the time of meeting Bond, Power’s activism had been focused on a National Student Strike Information Center at Brandeis set up after the Kent State massacre on May 4, 1970, in which four unarmed antiwar protestors were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen, triggering massive nationwide student protests, demonstrations, and strikes. But during the summer of 1970, she, Bond, Saxe, and two other ex-convicts who had been released to Northeastern University in Boston under a similar parole program—Robert Joseph Valeri, then twenty-one, and William Morrill Gilday, forty-one—formed the Revolutionary Action Force gang, whose purpose apparently was to rob banks to fund the antiwar movement—a sort of “Robin Hood” concept of robbing the wealthy for a just cause, in this case the cause of obstructing the war. In particular, they had in mind a plan to buy “thermite to weld military trains to their tracks.” As the three men had considerable experience in robbing banks—all had been in prison for armed or attempted armed robbery, Bond being said to have committed twenty-five heists within a three-month period in 1968 (Franks 1994, 50, 49)—their expertise could be put to good use. During the summer Bond taught the women how to use weapons, and they read up on how to rob banks and what weapons to use in the Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla, an underground publication. Thus fortified, the gang proceeded to purchase weapons, steal cars, and rob banks in Los Angeles; Evanston, Illinois; and finally at the Bell Savings and Loan in Philadelphia on September 1, 1970. Three weeks later, on September 20, the gang stole guns and ammunition as well as files from a National Guard Armory in Newburyport, Massachusetts. In these cases, Power was not involved in the actual entering and robbery but rather drove the getaway car, while Saxe and the men, armed, carried out the actual robbery operation.
Three days after the Newburyport job, on September 23, 1970, the gang targeted a branch of the State Street Bank and Trust Company on 300 Western Avenue in Brighton, Massachusetts, a section of Boston. Saxe and two of the men, Valeri and Bond, entered the bank. Gilday took a lookout position in a car just outside the bank, while Power was in a getaway vehicle several blocks from the scene. Saxe, in a red wig and purple dress, carried a .30-caliber semi-automatic rifle (Franks 1994, 51), then commonly used by the military in Vietnam. After retrieving several thousand dollars, the three—Bond, Saxe, and Valeri—successfully drove away to where Power was parked, jumped into her car, and made their escape. Gilday, however, who had remained at the scene, shot police officer Walter Schroeder, who died in a hospital the next day.
Power was deeply shocked by Schroeder’s death: “It was like a world shattering,” she later told reporter Lucinda Franks. “It was a sharp, intense pain. . . . There was this overwhelming sense of wrongness, this wasn’t supposed to be about taking lives—this was about stopping the taking of lives” (Franks 1994, 51). Power remained haunted by Schroeder’s death. Bond, in a somewhat fatuous gesture, decided to send $4,000 from the robbery stash to Schroeder’s widow.
After the robbery Saxe, Power, and Bond met up in Philadelphia on September 24. Then Bond and Power, now with dyed short hair, drove south to Atlanta where they separated permanently. Power then flew to St. Louis where in the baggage-claim area of the St. Louis airport a suitcase Bond had given Power exploded due to a cocked shotgun inside. Kathy was not hurt (a couple of baggage handlers were injured, though), but since her ownership of the suitcase was easily determinable, she made a hasty exit from the airport, bought a wig and new clothes at a local department store, and headed for the bus station. She managed to get out of St. Louis without being discovered and made her way to Detroit, where she met up again with Saxe. From that point on, they traveled together, aided by members of the antiwar underground who helped them get fake IDs.
Stanley Bond was arrested shortly thereafter on September 27, 1970, in Grand Junction, Colorado. He was killed by a homemade bomb on May 24, 1972, in Walpole Prison in Massachusetts, where he was serving a life sentence. William Gilday was captured in New Hampshire the day after Bond. He was sentenced to the death penalty, later reduced to life without parole. Robert Valeri had been arrested right after the robbery on September 23 in Somerville, Massachusetts.
For the next year or so after the robbery Saxe and Power traveled from place to place in the Northeast, never staying anywhere more than four months. It was during this time that they became lovers. (Saxe already thought of herself as a lesbian.) On International Women’s Day, March 8, 1971, Power and Saxe issued a public letter to Bernadine Dohrn, a leader of the Weather Underground, a radical antiwar group, in response to Dohrn’s “New Morning—Changing Weather” communiqué, issued in December 1970. The Power-Saxe letter was published as “Underground in America” in the feminist journal off our backs on April 15, 1971. In the letter, which has an exuberant—even euphoric—tone, the two seemed eager to make the point that one can live well and joyfully underground as a fugitive: “We laugh with you, knowing what it means to be underground in Amerika—not hiding in a cellar or living tightassed straight lives disguised as good little middle class Nazis, but just being ourselves with new names and faces, singing, dancing, blowing dope and making love and revolution.” Part of their “revolutionary duty,” they wrote, is “to prove to the people that it is possible to live underground in Amerika. . . . We can not only evade the pigs, but have a good time doing it. . . . In short, we are alive and well” (Power and Saxe 1971).
Dohrn’s communiqué had announced a new strategy for the Weather Underground, forged in the wake of a disastrous March 1970 townhouse explosion in Manhattan in which three activists were killed. “The townhouse forever destroyed our belief that armed struggle is the only real revolutionary struggle”; henceforth, organizing, “armed propaganda,” and working together with other radical groups will be equally important. The townhouse operation Dohrn characterized as a “military error,” reflecting “technical inexperience” (Berger 2006, 109).
In response to the Dohrn message, Power and Saxe acknowledged that their Brighton bank robbery was likewise a “military error,” a “fuck-up,” a “political mistake,” which “forced us into hiding.” They did not, however, renounce the use of violence, regret the death of Officer Schroeder, or repent of their actions. Like most radical antiwar manifestos of the day, Power and Saxe’s letter is filled with rage and indignation about the war and the apparent indifference of the American public—clearly their prime moral animus. During the Christmas 1970 bombing of North Vietnam, they found themselves appalled “as [they] walked through the streets watching people do their Christmas shopping and wondering why rocks weren’t flying through the windows of all those big stores with their hypocritical nativity scenes” (Power and Saxe 1971).
In the spring of 1972, Saxe and Power obtained valid Social Security numbers and moved to Torrington in western Connecticut as Lena Paley and May Kelly. They remained deeply bonded emotionally and increasingly committed to radical socialist feminism. During the next two years they lived in the Hartford area where they worked in a health food store owned by Dick and Pat Ensling and openly participated in the alternative feminist community there, frequenting a lesbian bar, the Warehouse, and becoming involved in a consciousness-raising group that included Ellen Grusse, who later with her partner Terri Turgeon refused to cooperate with the FBI and grand jury regarding Saxe and Power in a case that paralleled that of the Lexington Six.
In April 1974, Saxe and Power left Connecticut rather abruptly, traveling by Greyhound bus, to join the Enslings, who had moved to the Stanford, Kentucky, area, about fifty miles south of Lexington. There they helped the Enslings build a house on a rural farm site. While in Stanford, the two occasionally rode into Lexington to have their hair redyed—an important part of their disguise (Power n.d.). When the housing job was complete in early May, Saxe and Power moved to Lexington, bringing with them their high-speed bikes, which they had used to navigate in rural Kentucky. Once in Lexington they sought out the lesbian community and soon found Marla Seymour, a twenty-two-year-old former University of Kentucky student, one of the few out lesbians on campus. Seymour, who worked in a donut shop, had given many talks on lesbian and gay issues and was one of the few women active in the Gay Liberation Front, the only lesbian-gay organization in town. Accordingly, as Marla was well known as a local lesbian leader, Saxe and Power—as Lena Paley and May Kelly—looked her up as someone who could help them integrate into the community.
In their first get-together at a pizza parlor near campus, the two new arrivals told Marla they were lesbians traveling the country who had decided to stopover for a while in Lexington. They didn’t mention anything about their fugitive “most wanted” status. Nor did they in subsequent months ever reveal to anyone in Lexington their true identities. The talk in the pizza parlor devolved into a heavy political discussion—as it always seemed to with Lena and May, many have reported. Marla was impressed by the depth, astuteness, and radicalism of their political thinking. They told her they were getting into separatism—a vein of lesbian feminism that advocated women cutting off completely from men, both personally and politically. This position appealed to Marla, and it became the focus of many heated discussions that summer among Lena, May, and other lesbian feminists in the Lexington community.
Marla decided she liked the two well enough to invite them to stay in the house she shared with several others at 341 Lexington Avenue, the so-called Lexington Avenue Women’s Collective. At the time Marla was living there on the second floor with her lover, Gail Cohee, then twenty-one and a UK student active in feminist political activities. Also sharing the five-bedroom house with them were, on the first floor, Letty Ritter and Nancy Scott, another UK student. As one of the upstairs bedrooms in the house was vacant, Marla thought it might work for Lena and May, who soon moved in. When asked later about her unquestioning acceptance of two strangers, however compatible they may have seemed, Marla said that at the time there was a general feeling of lesbian-feminist community bonding, an unspoken code of solidarity that lesbians should support and trust one another, helping out when needed (Seymour 1987a). Marla felt this connection with Lena and May, lesbian “strays” who had wandered into town and need a pad to crash in—to use the lingo of the day. In the radical counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, this kind of casual linking-up with others in “the community” was far from unusual; indeed, it was a norm, part of the ethos.
Once installed in the Lexington Avenue collective, Lena and May soon became the center of an informal discussion group that included Jill Raymond, a twenty-three-year-old UK student who lived nearby; Nancy Scott; Sally Kundert; and Debbie Hands, as well as other feminists in the vicinity. A sign posted at the collective’s entrance on the bannister of the stairs leading to the second floor signaled the separatist stance of the occupants:
Attention all XY (male) chromosomes and other mutants. You are now leaving friendly territory and entering Amazon. (Peterson 1975a; Wood 1975a)
The sign usefully reflects the mood and attitude typical of lesbian feminists at the time. They knew they were a hopelessly menial and powerless minority whose thoughts and positions counted for nothing, and so, knowing how brazen statements such as the above would be taken in the “mainstream” world, they were issued as much in a mood of campy humor as in a serious political vein. Nevertheless, ironically, the powers-that-be of that mainstream world—namely the FBI and judicial authorities—apparently took this and similar Amazon bravado seriously, much more so than did lesbian feminists themselves. How seriously, the Lexington community was soon to learn.
Several days after Lena and May moved into the collective, a blazing shootout occurred in Los Angeles between the police and a radical bank-robbing gang that called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Four hundred and ten officers attacked the house where the SLA members were hiding; they used five thousand rounds of ammunition and eighty-three tear gas cannisters (Burton-Rose 2010b, 119). Six SLA members were killed, among them a lesbian couple, Camilla Hall and Patricia Soltysik. The whole conflagration was shown nationally live in real time on television.
Several of the women at the Lexington Avenue collective—including Lena, May, Marla Seymour, and Gail Cohee, as well as a visitor from Connecticut, Ellen Grusse, who had been part of Lena and May’s circle in Hartford—gathered around the TV set that evening to watch the horrifying drama unfold. When they realized the SLA lesbian couple—Hall and Soltysik—had been killed, “a weird sense of ambivalence grew in the room,” Kathy Power later reported:
These were women like all of us and not like us at all, it seemed. . . . They were lovers; they were freedom fighters; they were violent outlaws. They were horrifying; they were fascinating. I stayed silent. No one knew of Susan and my secret story as fugitives and formerly violent revolutionaries ourselves.
Throughout the coverage Susan cried, wailing, “that could have been us.” No one really understood what disturbed her or what she meant. I recall a certain coldness, trying to manage Susan’s feelings for the sake of our safety. (Power n.d.)
Perhaps the others were so focused on what has been called the “Compton massacre” exploding before them on the TV screen that they didn’t notice Lena’s strange reaction. “It was hideous,” Marla later recalled, “and very frightening to see” (Seymour 1987b).
All did not run smoothly that summer of 1974 at the Lexington Avenue collective once Lena and May moved in. Letty Ritter, for one, found Lena in particular overbearing and, as noted, spent her time avoiding her as much as possible. On the other hand, Marla found herself somewhat in awe of Lena’s brash outspokenness and pride in being an out lesbian. From Lena, Marla later said, she was exposed not only to a lot of new political ideas but also, more personally, she learned “to carry myself with less fear about what people think.” Because they seemed so much more politically sophisticated than she, Marla at first felt like “a political moron” in discussions with them but “finally learned I could argue with them . . . effectively” (Seymour 1987a), and that was a sort of personal triumph.
Lena did seem to have a magnetic effect on some of the women who knew her. Discussions with her and May, which often took place over beer on the front porch of the Lexington Avenue house long into the summer night, were “intoxicating,” Jill Raymond later recalled. The intellectual “give and take” made her “feel I had something to contribute” (Raymond 1987a). Like Marla, Jill felt empowered as she learned she could hold her own with these sophisticated Eastern politicos. “I never felt put down or looked down on,” she later wrote, “because Kentucky wasn’t Brandeis” (email to author, March 19, 2018). Letty, who did not share the others’ enthusiasm for Lena and May, felt her housemates—especially Marla and Nancy—were too bedazzled by the two; indeed, she thought, “they idolized them” (Ritter 1987).
One of the main topics of their heated political discussions was the question of the use of violence to further antiwar, anti-imperialist campaigns—whether that struggle should be “armed” or nonviolent. The SLA deaths in Los Angeles were on their minds as they questioned the effectiveness of guerrilla actions, such as robbing banks or the Weather Underground tactic of setting off symbolic bombs. For Jill these discussions were entirely theoretical. She felt that “the SLA people were nuts” and their actions pointless, but she noticed that Lena and May seemed to identify with the two lesbian lovers who were killed in the SLA conflagration. In the study group Lena and May formed, the women read Marxist texts such as Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book” and writings by Marx himself, but the discussions remained more like bull sessions than serious plans of action. “I felt like our conversations over beer were like a spirited jousting match in the best sense,” Jill reminisced. Lena and May were not entirely consistent, Jill realized; they called themselves separatists but identified to some extent with the SLA women who were involved in mixed-group actions. And, much later, after she was captured, Susan Saxe, the erstwhile Lena, seemed to repudiate a separatist position in her defense of the use of armed actions in the antiwar movement. But what impressed Jill, despite their inconsistencies, was how Lena and May “were driven by passion for revolutionary change” (email to author, March 19, 2018).
In addition to their heavy political discussions, Lena, May, Jill, and other lesbians in the group would occasionally go out dancing at the Living Room, a gay and lesbian bar in downtown Lexington (later renamed the Montparnasse). On August 8, 1974, they watched television together as President Richard Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment. To celebrate this momentous event, Jill Raymond recalled, several of “the gang of us” went out for “a night of dinner and beer” (email to author, February 13, 2018).
While Kentucky was (and is) a deeply conservative state, Lexington itself harbored a longstanding radical left-wing community attached to the university. During the late 1960s, as the Vietnam War escalated, it was the site of numerous protest demonstrations, and a Lexington Peace Council—some of whose members were later active in the Lexington Six defense committee—became an active organizing center for antiwar activities.
As in the antiwar movement nationally, the Lexington activists ranged from those who embraced violence as a necessary tactic to pacifists, such as in the American Friends Service Committee, who insisted on nonviolent protest. Some of the Lexington radicals saw themselves as socialists. By the early 1970s, some of the women socialists in Lexington became socialist feminists, seeing class and economic conditions as essential components of women’s oppression. They formed a study group they called the “Red Star Sisters”—the nomenclature another example of inflammatory brazenness issued half-humorously, half-defiantly, knowing full well the mainstream public would likely be freaked out by such a title, hearing it as the “Women’s Maoist Group” or some other scary label (Sutherland 1986). In fact, the group did read writings by Mao and other Marxists and adopted some classic Marxist practices, such as having “criticism/self-criticism” sessions. But the group’s atmospherics was often one of jovial banter that belied the ferocity of its name. Jill Raymond, one of the Lexington Six, was a member of the Red Star Sisters.
The most massive antiwar eruption in Lexington occurred after the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in May 1970, along with hundreds of other protest marches throughout the country, one of which at Kent State University in Ohio turned deadly on May 4. Following the Kent State killings of antiwar protestors, a blocks-long protest march was held at the University of Kentucky on the evening of May 6. Late that night, as the demonstration was winding down, the campus ROTC building was set on fire. Shortly thereafter, a young woman, Sue Ann Salmon, who happened to be walking home from a 7-Eleven store carrying a bottle of ginger ale, was arrested for arson (the ginger ale presumed by the police to be a Molotov cocktail). Sue Ann, who later became an active member of the Lexington Six defense committee, spent a night in jail before the police realized they had made a ludicrous mistake. The perpetrator of the ROTC arson was never found.
Tensions remained high at UK when the following day Governor Louis B. Nunn, saying he was determined to get all those “woolly boogers” on campus, ordered the Kentucky National Guard onto the university grounds. The guardsmen were armed with loaded and bayonetted weapons. A curfew order was issued, and those who defied it were tear-gassed and run off campus. Within a couple of days the campus was shut down, final exams effectively canceled, and the school year was over. Great and long-lasting hostility had been engendered, however, between the police, university authorities, government, and judiciary on the one hand, and the protest community on the other. That enmity—the sense that government authorities are out to get you if you take a nonconformist political position—remained a constant in the Lexington radical community, as it did in the antiwar movement throughout the country. And, although none of the Lexington Six were yet on campus for the 1970 uprising, such feelings of being under siege were palpable in the lesbian-gay community of Lexington in 1975 when the FBI arrived on the scene in pursuit of Saxe and Power.
Members of the lesbian-gay community had additional reason to feel persecuted in Lexington in the early 1970s. As one gay member of the community remarked, at the time “we kind of expected to be harassed as gays and lesbians” (Taylor 1987). In November 1972, the president of the University of Kentucky, Otis A. Singletary, turned down a request by the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), submitted the previous year, to be recognized as a student organization. A second application led to a suit and countersuit filed in January 1973 with the U.S. district court. On October 10, 1973, the district court judge, Bernard T. Moynahan Jr.—later the judge in the Lexington Six case—dismissed the claims of the Gay Liberation Front that such a denial was a violation of its First Amendment rights to assembly and speech. Otis A. Singletary v. Peter Taylor was appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting in Cincinnati, which denied the appeal on May 9, 1974, saying the university’s denial of gay and lesbian students’ right to assemble as a bona fide student organization did not constitute a violation of the First Amendment.
This seemingly illogical decision was a demoralizing blow to the gay and lesbian community. “Everybody” began to feel “like the U.S. government was rapidly turning into a police state,” one of the plaintiffs in the case, Peter Taylor, remembered (1987). It was clear the law was not on their side. In fact, homosexuality was a crime in Kentucky, as in other states, in 1974. (Ironically, it was in 1974 that the state revised its penal code to include lesbians under its sodomy law specifications; see Morrison 2001, 1165.) The penalty for even consensual gay or lesbian sexual activity was a year in prison and a five hundred dollar fine. It wasn’t until 1992 in Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Jeffrey Wasson that the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down the state’s sodomy law, and 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas that the U.S. Supreme Court finally determined that laws criminalizing homosexuality were unconstitutional nationwide.
As a despised minority, gay men in Lexington were especially targeted, routinely subjected to physical violence. Carey Junkin, a leader of the gay community on campus, later one of the Lexington Six, was on one occasion beaten up on campus and, as one activist recollected, “this was condoned.” The feeling was “he asked for it.” Street harassment was common; men were physically attacked in the parking lot outside the Montparnasse, on at least one occasion with a baseball bat (Hackney 1989). One evening a gay activist was arrested while sitting outside on a porch stoop with a male friend. As no one could pay the bail, he sat in jail a few days until he finally feigned a suicide attempt, hoping thereby to be sent to a mental institution where he thought he had a chance of gaining his release. There, however, he was put on Thorazine, which laid him low until finally a family member found out what was happening and had him released (Taylor 1987).
Homosexuality had been especially stigmatized in this country during the so-called Lavender Scare, a pogrom paralleling the “Red Scare” of the McCarthy era—the 1950s—when somehow in the minds of the authorities, homosexuality became associated with communism, so gays and lesbians—then referred to as “perverts”—were by definition considered security risks (Johnson 2004, 114–15). In 1951, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover initiated a “Sex Deviates Program” collecting thousands of files on people suspected of such so-designated behavior (Weiner 2012, 214). (Those files were systematically destroyed in 1977 [Johnson 2004, 238 n.6].) In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower issued an executive order officially banning lesbians and gays from serving in the federal government, and homosexuals were barred from immigrating (Weiner 2012, 214; Hobson 2016, 106). Earlier, as commander of Allied forces in post–World War II Europe, then-General Eisenhower decided to purge the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps of lesbians. When he asked his secretary—the intrepid Nell “Johnnie” Phelps—to draw up a list of known lesbians, she replied, in an act of personal resistance, “I’ll be happy to do this . . . but you have to know that the first name on the list will be mine” (Sears 2001, 342 n.19). Eisenhower then canceled the order. Unfortunately, there were no Johnnie Phelpses around in 1953 to restrain President Eisenhower when he issued Executive Order no. 10450.
An embarrassingly ignorant exchange recorded between J. Edgar Hoover and then-President Lyndon Johnson in October 1964 gives an idea of how prejudiced authorities were against gays and lesbians well into the 1960s:
Johnson: “I swear I can’t recognize ’em,”
Hoover: “It’s a thing that you just can’t tell sometimes. . . . There are some . . . who walk kinda funny . . . [so] you might kinda think might be a little bit off or maybe queer.” (Weiner 2012, 249)
Police routinely harassed gays and lesbians throughout the country, raiding gay bars and arresting customers. Finally, in a celebrated revolt on the night of June 27–28, 1969, in New York City, patrons at the Stonewall Inn bar rebelled against such harassment and fought back against the police. This iconic moment is now seen as a turning point in gay-lesbian movement history. Resistance groups, such as the Gay Liberation Front in Lexington, began to form all over the country.
Meanwhile, a “second wave” women’s movement was beginning to sweep the country as well. By the late 1960s, radical feminist publications such as Notes from the First Year (1968), Notes from the Second Year (1970), and Notes from the Third Year (1971), began appearing. Many of the key ideas of second-wave feminism, such as the “personal is political”—that power relations extend to the bedroom, that the oppression of women is the root evil in society, and that women should form their own political liberation movement—are found therein. “Feminism,” Boston feminist Roxanne Dunbar declared in 1968, “must be asserted by women . . . as the basis of revolutionary social change” (1970, 48). In “Sexual Politics: A Manifesto for Revolution” (1968), which also appeared in Notes from the Second Year, Kate Millett declared, “When one group rules another, the relationship between the two is political. . . . All historical civilizations are patriarchies: their ideology is male supremacy. . . . Government is upheld by power, which is upheld through consent . . . or imposed by violence. . . . There may be a resort to the latter at any moment when consent is withdrawn—rape, attack, sequestration, beatings” (1970, 111). Millett’s characterization would prove oddly prophetic of the political situation faced by the Lexington Six in 1975. Their consent withdrawn, severe reprisals ensued.
In 1971, the first major statement of second-wave lesbian feminist theory, “The Woman Identified Woman,” appeared. Issued by a New York collective called the “Radicalesbians,” a group that formed in the wake of the Stonewall uprising, it provided this famous definition: “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion. She is the woman who . . . acts in accordance with her inner compulsion to be a more complete and freer human being than her society cares to allow her.” The authors urged women to refuse to be “male-identified,” which meant defining themselves in terms of men’s needs and ego-driven priorities. Instead, one should be “woman identified”: “Only women can give to each other a new sense of self. That identity we have to develop with reference to ourselves, and not in relation to men” (Radicalesbians 1971, 81, 83).
Another article in the same journal that undoubtedly had a huge effect on lesbian (or would-be lesbian) feminists of the day was “Loving Another Woman” by Anne Koedt, which described the “coming out” experience in terms many could readily identify with: “All of a sudden . . . I was flooded with a tremendous attraction for her. And I wanted to tell her I wanted to sleep with her. . . . At the same time I was totally bewildered” (1971, 26).
Other influential works that began theorizing lesbianism in feminist terms were Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love’s Sappho Was a Right-On Woman (1972), Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon’s Lesbian Woman (1972), and Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation (1973), which effectively argued for a separatist lesbian political movement. “In Amerika They Call Us Dykes” was issued in 1973 by a “Boston Gay Collective,” a group of nine lesbians, as part of Our Bodies, Ourselves, an enormously popular feminist health manual, which eventually sold millions of copies. And novels like Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) and Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah (1969) helped make the political personal. As with many second-wave feminists, numerous political lesbians had been active in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. LGBT historian Lillian Faderman notes, “The fervor they’d once put into ending racism or the war in Vietnam, they now put into lesbian feminism” (Faderman 2015, 240).
With the ideas of the gathering women’s movement flooding the country, women in the Lexington community—as elsewhere—began examining their own lives in terms of these newly articulated feminist insights. Those who were married began to consider how restrictive some of that institution’s prescribed roles were. Those who were unmarried questioned why intimacy was only allowed in marriage between a man and a woman. Many began seeking new kinds of intimate relationships. Works popular in the counterculture like Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) and Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body (1966) proposed that eroticism had been constrictively channeled into genital hetero sex and that it should be freed up, diffused, and expressed in other ways, what Marcuse, following Freud, famously called “polymorphous perversity” (Marcuse 1962 , 44).
New York radical feminist Shulamith Firestone applied some of these ideas to women’s restricted hetero situation in The Dialectic of Sex (1970), another seminal second-wave source. “All animal needs,” she complained, “for love and warmth are channeled into genital sex; people must never touch others of the same sex, and may touch those of the opposite sex only when preparing for a genital sexual encounter.” But, she maintained, it is not a matter of eliminating love or eroticism. On the contrary, “No one wants to get rid of [eroticism]. Life would be a drab and routine affair without [it]. That’s just the point. Why has all joy and excitement been concentrated, driven into one narrow, difficult-to-find alley of human experience? . . . When we demand the elimination of eroticism, we mean not the elimination of sexual joy and excitement but its rediffusion over . . . the spectrum of our lives” (Firestone 1971 , 147, 155).
Under the influence of some of these ideas, women in the Lexington feminist community began experimenting with new ways of relating to others—especially to other women. At first, these new ways were not, in many cases, sexual or intended to be sexual. Rather, it was a matter of trying to extend intense, loving, and erotic experience beyond the narrow confines of heterosexual marriage. The women in the Red Star Sisters began, for example, experimenting with alternative living arrangements, such as cooking together, having meals together, even sleeping together nonsexually. Collectives formed, such as the one on Lexington Avenue where Lena and May lived. Another was a group that lived in a large house they called “Off Hand Manor” at 1625 Nicholasville Avenue—later the initial site of the Lexington Six defense committee.
So there was in the Lexington community of the time a spirit of personal exploration of new ways of living and relating. Inevitably, perhaps, the new closeness, trust, and intimacy women had begun feeling toward one another led in some cases to physical intimacy and lesbian love. As Jill Raymond later remarked, all of a sudden it seemed everyone “began to fall in love with each other” (Raymond 1987a). “It was a time,” one member of the community recalled, “when one wasn’t sure whether someone was a lesbian or not” (Sutherland 1986). Thus many women in the community were in 1974 awakening to a new lesbian identity, in various stages of transition. This was the case with several of the Lexington Six.
The second-wave feminist movement had therefore arrived in full force by the early 1970s in Lexington, Kentucky, and was affecting women in deeply personal ways. The ideas of the movement were in energetic circulation, being widely discussed and personally enacted. On September 22, 1971, Gloria Steinem and Florynce Kennedy, leading national feminists, gave a talk to a standing-room-only crowd at UK. Among their proposals was one for a women’s studies program. Such a proposal was formulated on campus shortly thereafter but, as with the GLF’s quest for academic legitimacy, was rejected unanimously by the Academic Affairs Committee on March 15, 1973. The courses continued, however, as electives, and several of the Lexington Six women took them.
Other feminist projects took hold. A Rape Crisis Center was set up; a Lexington Women’s Yellow Pages was published, which listed organizations providing trustworthy services for women; a Lexington Women’s Center was established; a Lexington Free Clinic provided counseling by volunteers for gays and lesbians as well as pregnancy, birth control, and abortion information; a Kentucky Women’s Political Caucus became active; and the university had a Council on Women’s Concerns, of which Gail Cohee, one of the Lexington Six, served as chairperson in 1974.
On March 4, 1973, the Kentucky Women’s Political Caucus held a conference on the UK campus. Among the fifty or so in attendance were Jill Raymond, Gail Cohee, Mary Dunn, Margaret Wendelsdorf, and Barbara Sutherland, the latter three of whom were Red Star Sisters and later on connected with the Lexington Six defense committee. Also in attendance at the conference was Anne Braden of Louisville, a nationally known civil rights activist.
The Lexington feminist community was thus a vibrant, energized group of a hundred or so when Saxe and Power arrived in the early summer of 1974. By the end of June, Saxe, alias Lena Paley, had been hired as a cook in the health food restaurant Alfalfa. Saxe was by all accounts an innovative and health-conscious chef. Power also had culinary talents, having won a Betty Crocker cooking prize in her youth. Occasionally, Saxe would fix special meals for the collective on Lexington Avenue where she and Power resided. On July 11, Kathy Power, as May Kelly, obtained work at Broughton’s Farm Dairy as a receptionist. By this time Saxe had dyed her hair carrot red, which puzzled some of her newfound friends, given her by then militant feminism, but most wrote it off as a consistent eccentricity. Saxe occasionally called herself “Lena Luna” and implied that aspects of her identity were a campy self-invention.
After about six weeks at the Lexington Avenue Women’s Collective, Lena and May moved to another apartment at 367 South Broadway where one of their neighbors was Carey Junkin, then president of the GLF and later one of the Lexington Six. Many who knew them commented on the evident love Lena and May felt for one another. Even Letty Ritter, who was otherwise critical of the two, noted it approvingly: “You could see the affection they had for one another” (Ritter 1987). On one occasion while they were still in the collective, May went out for an evening apart from Lena and was late coming back. According to Ritter, Lena became very upset and began crying on the porch waiting for May to return. It seems Saxe feared Power had been apprehended—always a looming concern.
Power left Lexington not long thereafter—in early to mid-August of that year—to return to Hartford to help a friend, Carol Romano,4 who had been diagnosed with breast cancer (Franks 1994, 53; Power, email to author, September 29, 2018). Carol was a member of the feminist circle in Hartford that had included Lena, May, and others. She was a trusted friend, so trusted that she was the only one of the group to whom Kathy and Susan had revealed their true identity (Power, email to author, September 29, 2018).
Carol apparently shared this information with her ex-husband, Jim.5 As Carol recovered from her breast cancer surgery, she began to seem increasingly hostile to Kathy, accusing her and Susan of betraying the women’s movement by allying themselves with the (male) left, seeing them as “part of the Left conspiracy to make a revolution that once again left women behind” (Power n.d.). In this it seems Carol may have been influenced by Jane Alpert’s “Mother Right” article (see below), which appeared in August 1973 and argued that feminists should dissociate from the male-dominated New Left.
As Carol became increasingly hostile, Kathy sensed that that her friend might be about to turn her in—a feeling ratified by an urgent phone call from another friend, Ellen Grusse, who suspected as much. So, Kathy immediately left Hartford. Power later recounted, “After about six weeks, I began to get very hostile vibes from this woman, and my instincts told me to get out. It was excruciatingly painful” to feel thus betrayed. According to New Yorker reporter Lucinda Franks, the FBI “swooped down” on the Hartford community only hours after Power’s departure (Franks 1994, 53), thought to be as a result of Carol’s or Jim’s informing the FBI of her presence.
According to FBI records, however, this assumption is not correct. Carol and Jim appear not to have informed on Kathy in the fall of 1974 but did so in late January 1975, when contacted by FBI agents, who had located them through the Lexington phone records of Saxe and Power obtained in the Lexington investigation (FBI, January 29, 1975). In a series of interviews in early February 1975, Carol and Jim told the FBI that they had been close friends with Saxe and Power but when they learned in April 1974 about the women’s connection to the Brighton bank robbery, the couple broke off the friendship and told the two “they wanted them out of town or they would turn them in” (FBI. February 5, 1975). Saxe and Power then left for Kentucky. Carol and Jim verified that Kathy Power had returned to Hartford in August 1974 to help Carol with her surgery. But at this time they developed a theory that Saxe and Power had revealed their identity in order to compromise Carol and Jim as accessories after the fact. To check out this theory, Jim, who had a key to the apartment where Kathy was staying, stole letters between her and Susan (FBI, February 5, 1975). These letters were tendered to the bureau. The names found in the letters were then forwarded to the FBI in Lexington (FBI, February 7, 1975), and letters of this kind were later used to identify Susan Saxe after her arrest. The FBI was suspicious of Carol and Jim, however, given that they had known about the identity and whereabouts of “most wanted” fugitives for almost a year. The FBI director ordered the Hartford agents to put “all-out pressure” on them and to threaten the two with a charge of harboring fugitives until “full cooperation [is] obtained” (FBI, February 5, 1975).
In any event, because of the hostility that had developed or redeveloped between Kathy and Carol in mid-fall 1974, Kathy left Hartford and alerted Susan Saxe, who was still in Lexington, that she feared the FBI was hot on their trail. Saxe abruptly left Lexington shortly thereafter. The two met up again for a few days in late October somewhere in the Northeast. During this meeting they decided to split up over the issue of how openly they should participate in political activities. Saxe felt frustrated at not being fully able to do so, but Power felt such a step would be suicidal; she sensed it invited capture. As it turned out, Power was right.
Meanwhile, back in Lexington, several women who knew the two women well and had grown fond of them were shocked and devastated by their sudden departure. Strong emotional bonds had formed among the women, forged by their shared lesbian-feminist political vision, as well as personal camaraderie. “She didn’t even come say good-bye,” Marla Seymour later lamented, referring to May (1987a). Of those who knew Lena and May well, Jill Raymond had gotten perhaps the closest to the two, especially to May. On the eve of May’s departure from Lexington, she and Jill spent the night together in Jill’s apartment (Raymond, email to author, February 13, 2018). So May’s sudden departure was especially “hard to take,” Jill recounted (Raymond 1987a). In fact, except for one phone call a few weeks later, Jill wasn’t to see or hear from Kathy Power again for nearly twenty years.
Lena’s departure was also abrupt. She told her friends her mother had had a heart attack but gave no details as to where her mother was or when or if she would be returning to Lexington. Nor would she give them a forwarding address, which struck her friends as especially harsh. In explaining her sudden leave-taking, Lena told her Lexington friends that relationships are existential, implying it was best not to get tied down to any one place or to other people. Her friends were somewhat mollified by this explanation, because it fit in with the somewhat freewheeling aura that surrounded the vagabonding duo, and because they themselves were seeking new ways of relating to others that would allow for more personal freedom and independence. Still, their seemingly casual departure hurt. When Lena said goodbye to Marla, she gave her a gift—a book of poems—saying, “Believe me, we’ll see each other again” (Seymour 1987a). Lena also left behind in the Lexington Avenue house an “objet-trouvé” sculpture she had made of a purple toy rabbit inside a small crate, entitled “The Introduction of the Absurd into the Mainstream of Lesbian Culture”—signed “Lena Luna (c. 1974)” (Wood 1975a).
Several weeks after May’s departure, Jill Raymond received a collect call from her from Hartford. May said she was calling from a payphone in a gay bar called The Warehouse. According to FBI records, this call was made on September 23, 1974. A bartender recalled to the FBI that he had seen Saxe and Power there in the fall of 1974 (FBI, January 23, 1975b). Sometime later, when the FBI search intensified in Connecticut and Lexington, the bureau discovered (or fabricated) another Warehouse phone call. A teletype report, dated February 25, 1975, issued by the New Haven FBI office and sent to the Louisville office, which was overseeing the Lexington case, includes the following notation:
Pursuant to a subpoena duces tecum it was determined that a collect call was made to the telephone of JILL RAYMOND, Lexington, Kentucky from telephone 728–9006 on April 12, 1974 for a period of 48 minutes. It was determined that this phone was listed to a pay telephone at Delchard Warehouse, Inc., 61 Woodbine St., Hartford, Connecticut. (FBI Report, February 25, 1975)
The FBI has the date of this call as April 12, 1974, which Jill maintains is incorrect: “I had no prior knowledge of anybody up there [Connecticut] . . . before they showed up in Lex” (Raymond, email to author, December 19, 2017). Kathy Power recently confirmed Jill’s statement: “That April 1974 date is most definitely wrong. I never knew Jill before we moved to Lexington in May 1974” (Power, email to author, October 1, 2018). Kathy did call Jill from Hartford sometime in September or early October 1974, the day she left Hartford for good—a phone call both remember (Power, email to author, September 29, 2018; Raymond, email to author, February 13, 2018)—and which, as noted, the FBI also had record of.
So the April date is either an FBI error or a “dirty trick,” something we know from the COINTELPRO papers (see below) that the FBI was quite capable of: in this case, tampering with evidence. If they did so, that is, changed the date, it could be that they were trying to implicate Raymond on a charge of harboring fugitives. The April 1974 date would imply that Jill had known Saxe and Power before they arrived in Lexington—assuming the call was from them—and thus that she might have been willingly harboring them. The FBI teletype is stamped FUG SUP, their code for harboring fugitives. As it turned out, the New Haven authorities, which issued this report, were more focused on the harboring fugitives issue than the government officials in Lexington, although that became an issue in the appeals litigation. It is also worth noting that in this report the FBI also got the “Warehouse” reference wrong, mistaking the gay bar in Hartford for an actual warehouse. However faulty the evidence it contained, the February 25, 1975, FBI report nevertheless appears to have played a significant role in the federal judiciary’s decision to prosecute the case of the Lexington Six.