City Life

The Perfect Father’s Day Card For My Gay Dad

June 15, 2020 | by Amy Cohen

Amy Cohen’s sister Linda Rosenberg McGuire and her father Arnold Rosenberg in 1964. | Image courtesy of Amy Cohen

Selecting Father’s Day cards was always a challenge. Arnold Rosenberg had nothing in common with the Hallmark version of dads who mow lawns, play golf, and watch endless hours of sports on TV. He was a meticulous dresser, a follower of fashion, a wearer of jewelry, an opera aficionado, and a lover of gourmet food and fine wine. Although not athletic, he was dedicated to maintaining a trim, toned physique, jogging three miles daily long before running became popular. 

And, as I gradually came to understand, he was also gay.

In September 1978, the month I started high school, my dad moved from our Center City townhouse to his friend Joel’s Pennsylvania Avenue apartment where Joel lived with his five-year-old daughter Sonya. Although there were two beds in their room, eventually I saw through this fictive setup. Their joint subscription to GQ was the surest tipoff. 

The pretense of Joel being just a friend was abandoned within that first year. My dad, known for a bent toward self-aggrandizement, began referring to himself as a folk hero. It’s true that a flurry of other Center City dads left their wives and came out during the late 1970s. But I’m pretty certain that their timing had more to do with their own individual circumstances rather than following my father’s lead.

Amy Cohen and her father in 1982. | Photo courtesy of Amy Cohen

My dad was a University of Pennsylvania-trained attorney who worked at a small firm where he wrote wills, managed divorces, and spent an inordinate amount of time tending to his office plants. Law was never his passion. Civic engagement interested him far more. He was the longtime chair of the Center City Residents Association’s zoning committee. After Joel, Sonya, and he moved from the Art Museum area to Rittenhouse Square, my dad became the first president of the Dorchester residents’ association when the building was converted into condominiums. 

He was active in the Friends of Rittenhouse Square, a public-private partnership between citizens and the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation with a mission “to preserve, protect, and beautify” the city’s verdant jewel. In 1985, my father served as chairman of the first Ball on the Square, a black-tie gala held in a capacious white tent in the center of Rittenhouse Square. 

Much to my dad’s delight, his leadership of the event garnered media attention. The Inquirer’s Sunday magazine featured a spread of their Dorchester apartment. A photo shows Joel looking lovingly at my aproned dad as he prepares to carve a roast chicken. Remarkably for the time, there was no effort made to obscure the nature of their relationship. 

The ball was covered by The New York Times and included a photo of my dad and two members of his committee. “‘We hope this will be one of the most exciting and fabulous social events the city has ever seen,’ said Arnold H. Rosenberg, the chairman of the ball, who lives on the square in the Dorchester condominium. ‘We want this to be the beginning of a tradition, to raise the kind of money it takes to preserve this incredible urban amenity.’”  

Amy Cohen and her father on her wedding day in 1993. | Image courtesy of Amy Cohen

My dad may not have been a folk hero, but he launched a tradition that has raised huge sums of money to enhance Philadelphia’s premier park. The annual Ball on the Square is the Friends’ largest fundraiser and has been held on the third Thursday of June every year since the one my dad chaired. Until this year. During the time of COVID-19, the ball was postponed until October. 

My dad was no stranger to mysterious plagues. As a gay man during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, he lost many close friends. Shortly after the first Ball on the Square, my father, Joel, and Sonya moved to San Francisco, the epicenter of the new disease. By the late 1980s, my dad and Joel had split up. Dad returned to Philadelphia. Joel stayed in San Francisco. In 1993, Joel died of AIDS.

That year was also when I got married. A cherished recollection is of my dad saying in a solemn voice, right before he walked me down the aisle, “Honey, I just want you to know that there are so many gay men who would long to be in my shoes.” 

He continued, “but they’d much rather be in your dress.”

Amy Cohen’s father and daughters Eliza and Chloe in 2001. | Image courtesy of Amy Cohen

Dad then moved to South Florida. Visiting him in West Palm Beach, I saw a stack of magazines entitled Poz, a publication aimed at readers affected by HIV/AIDS. Once again, a magazine revealed something that I couldn’t quite ask and my dad couldn’t quite tell. He eventually quit the charade and revealed that he was HIV positive and had been for quite some time.

With the help of medication, he was able to control his viral load for two decades. In the summer of 2007, HIV caught up with him. He died of an HIV-related lymphoma that September at age 72.

My father and I long had a close relationship. Fundamental aspects of his life experience, however, are unknowable to me. I never asked when he became aware of his sexual orientation. Nor did I ask him what it was like to live with a disease that transformed from a death sentence to a chronic condition. Those were boundaries I chose not to cross.

Remembering him this Father’s Day, I recognize that he gave me those things which are most important for a child. He was interested in my daily life and proud of my accomplishments. He gave sound advice when asked and was supportive of my choices, even when he had not been consulted. He was a doting grandfather to my daughters and a companionable father-in-law to my husband. The greatest legacy: he loved me unconditionally. I miss him every day.

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About the Author

Amy Cohen Amy Cohen spent 20 years as a social studies teacher, most recently at Masterman. She is currently the Director of Education at History Making Productions where she develops educational materials to accompany documentaries about the Philadelphia region. Amy was born and raised in Center City long before the era of sidewalk cafes and pop up beer gardens. She now lives in West Mount Airy with her husband—also a lifelong Philadelphian—and their two daughters.

13 Comments:

  1. Vicki fox says:

    Oh Amy…what an extraordinary tribute to your Dad! It’s so well written I didn’t want to finish reading it. Your dad was so special, charming both me and Larry and inspired dressing well just in case he saw you as you left your house (across the street). He had such style and real class…I was alwAys happy when we all had plans together. I didn’t know about that Rittenhouse Ball tho I’m not surprised he made be so successful! Thankyou for sharing your moment of Arnold with your devoted FB friends❤️🦊😁

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks Vicki!

  2. Wendy wolf says:

    I knew your dad and remember him as full of life. Thank you for writing this piece as it brings back fond memories.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks, Wendy❤️

  3. Jeffrey Sklar says:

    Oh Amy, I have no words for how your article moved me. Thank you for sharing it!

    1. Margaret Guerra says:

      Amy,this is not only one of your wonderful Philadelphia stories, it’s inspiring and personal. Thanks so much for sharing it!

      1. Amy Cohen says:

        Thanks Margaret!

    2. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks Jeff❤️

  4. Evelyn Eskin says:

    Amy, this is such a lovely tribute to your dad. He was a very classy guy and he loved you so much.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks Evelyn!

  5. michael says:

    What an amazing story, what an amazing man, and what an amazing woman! It made me smile, laugh out loud and cry all within minutes. You were blessed with a great father, and he with a wonderful daughter! Thank you for sharing!

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thank you for your kind words!

  6. Mr. Kevin L. Thomas says:

    I can relate to your written word! Well done to have the courage to share. God bless. I can remember in the early 80s playing on the top floor of the Dorchester and driving the buggy around Rittenhouse square. We were very young then but the story caught my attention in the headline and I too can relate, as to my father. He was very charismatic, charming and political.

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