Lesbian Pioneers Celebrate 70 Years Together

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported Monday that a local couple will be celebrating their 70th anniversary in August. It’s a charming story, one that would be a big deal if even if they were a straight couple.

Photo courtesy South Florida Sun Sentinel
Photo courtesy South Florida Sun Sentinel

This is how it went recently for Caroline Leto and Venera Magazzu as they sipped lemonade on their couch in Dania Beach: “We’re not going to have a party,” said Magazzu, 97, insisting they are too old for such things.

“Oh, yes we are,” responded Leto, 96, who noted the two can still polka. “This is a big one.”

Indeed. A party celebrating 70 years together is a big deal for any pair. But a celebration of this couple’s love takes on special meaning, considering they had to keep silent about it for decades.

“You just couldn’t tell everyone we were lovers,” said Leto. “You tell people we’re friends, and some thought we were sisters.”

Leto and Magazzu downplay their pioneering role in the gay and lesbian community. But many of their friends and relatives talk it up anyway, marveling at how their love was able to transcend a lifetime’s worth of obstacles.

To mark their Aug. 17 milestone, members of Etz Chaim, a gay and lesbian congregation in Wilton Manors, are planning a party. They hope Leto and Magazzu will attend and show everyone how to do the polka.

“Honestly, I think they are more in love with each other than they were back then,” said longtime close friend and congregation member Gayle Scott. “Look at straight couples. You are lucky if you are married after seven years. … That is an amazing love story.”

In 1939 Leto and Magazzu met at a party in New York. Leto thought Magazzu was stylish. Magazzu thought Leto was funny.

After a courtship of about a year, Magazzu, a teacher, and Leto, a telegraph operator, moved into a tiny house in New York. They spent most of their lives there, with only close family members and closer friends knowing about their relationship.

Magazzu, a former Army medic, said she often fought the urge to tell others, and feared what “outsiders” would think. She believes society back then was more receptive to two women living together than two men — or at least less inquisitive.

“I think most people had their suspicions, but they didn’t really make a big deal about it because it was just two women,” she said. “They didn’t ask, and we just didn’t talk about it.”

Leto’s niece, Patricia Dillion, said she grew up believing the two were sisters and referred to them as aunts. One day, at a family party, an apparently tipsy Leto let Dillion in on a secret.

“She mentioned they got married,” said Dillion. “I was so happy, but then I got sad thinking that all that time they really couldn’t be upfront about it.”

In 1996, the couple registered as domestic partners in New York City. They said they did it because they felt the need to tell everyone about their life together.

Happy anniversary, ladies. Thanks for living your lives fully and showing us how it’s done.

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