Remembering Vincent Astor

Vincent Charles Astor

b. December 6, 1953—d. January 17, 2023

Vincent Charles Astor, who for decades chronicled and archived the history and experience of LGBT+ people in Memphis and around the mid-South, has died. He was 69. Astor, who gained local and regional acclaim, along with some measure of notoriety primarily via his alter ego, Lady Astor, was an historian, author, organist, actor, volunteer, and archivist. For more than half a century, Astor documented the experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people starting with the emergence of the gay rights movement in the mid-South in the early 1970s through the AIDS epidemic that began in the 1980s, and throughout the tumultuous period that ensued, which included the implementation and eventual repeal of the U.S. Military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the fight for marriage equality, and the resulting backlash culminating in the flurry of political and policy repercussions still posing a threat to the rights of LGBT+ Americans.

Astor was born and grew up in Memphis. In 1971, he gained admission to Southwestern/Rhodes College where he graduated in 1975 with a bachelor of arts degree.

He was involved with the saving and first renovation of the Orpheum Theatre starting in 1976. Through 1987, he was an organist and archivist who was much-photographed and interviewed in relation to the Orpheum. He played the Wurlitzer organ on many occasions.

Astor was also a Bartender/Actor at Circuit Playhouse/Playhouse on the Square for fourteen seasons in the 1970s-1980s.

He was among the founders of organizations that effected great change in the lives of gay and lesbian Memphians. He was a founding board member of Memphis Pride, Inc., serving as co-chair in 1994 and 1995. He was also a founding board member and benefactor of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center (MGLCC, which later became OUTMemphis) where the Vincent Astor Archives of Gay and Lesbian documents and memorabilia is housed. He created its Roll of Honor.

Astor reported local news as a columnist and contributor to Gaze newspaper and the Triangle Journal News from the mid-1980s until their demise, and he contributed to Focus Magazine. He participated in virtually every publicly held Gay/Lesbian Pride celebration and event held in Memphis since 1980, often as a leader or organizer, but always as a cheerful volunteer.

Whether writing or speaking, he was a natural storyteller and used that gift as a volunteer docent with Mallory-Neely House and for WKNO and WONDERS. He was a perennial Father Christmas for several organizations. He donated artifacts to Mallory-Neely House, Woodruff-Fontaine House, Rhodes College, the History Department at the Hooks Central Library, U of M Special Collections, Museum of Science and History (Pink Palace), the OUTMemphis archives, and the Orpheum theatre.

Astor was a square dancer, contra dancer and waltzer who loved all three forms equally. He was an online presence as well, contributing more than a thousand memorials for family members, friends, and others at Find A Grave, a free service identifying itself as the world’s largest gravesite collection.

Astor described himself as never forgetting a slight but always remembering a kindness. He told friends he wished to be remembered as a proud gay man who did his part to record and enhance the lives of gay men, trans persons and lesbians in Memphis, TN.

Astor liked to point out that his date of birth occurred very near the time that Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of the British Empire. That mention was invariably accompanied by a couple of rare, silent moments during which the listener was allowed to soak up the significance of two great queens’ separate yet parallel entries into the public consciousness.  While one worked hard to bring her subjects out of the darkness and terror caused by a war that threatened their very existence, the other did much the same over in England. They each managed their respective callings with a mixture of success and failure, but Vincent as Lady Astor did it with her hair down—and eventually with her hair completely off—as he learned to fully inhabit his complete identity as a proud gay man in the heart of the South.

Vincent’s funeral will be on Saturday, February 4, 2023, at 10am at Calvary Episcopal Church with a reception to follow in the Great Hall. 

In addition, the Orpheum Theatre Group will host a Celebration of Life for all of Vincent’s friends on Saturday, February 11, 2023 from 2-4pm in the theatre lobby. 

A Personal Note

I knew Vincent for 35 years. I served with him as a founding board member of the MGLCC. We stayed in touch after I left Memphis, mostly via Facebook. Last year, I read about a health scare he suffered and mistakenly believed for several minutes that he’d died. I wrote him about that, and I asked him if he would mind if I penned his obituary should he die before me.

He replied with several pictures of his monument, which he’d erected in a prime spot near the entrance of historic Elmwood Cemetery, telling me, “I have already begun the process (of preparing for death) as you can see. It is the queerest monument in the tri-state area at least. And it’s recycled stones to boot.”

In June 2022, I went to Memphis, and we met for lunch at Mulan, then we went to Elmwood where he posed against his obelisk. I asked him why it was important to have an obelisk and why had he gone ahead and installed it now? After remarking that he certainly couldn’t install it *after* he died (an excellent point), he reminded me that the obelisk represents immortality. He said he liked the symbolism, it was a fitting monument for the setting, it didn’t take up too much room, and it offered plenty of space for him to engrave on it whatever he wished. On the front is engraved “Sacred to the Memory of a Proud Gay Man” and below those words are photos of Vincent and Lady Astor. Another side of the monument has the names of his parents and both sets of grandparents. Another side reads, “Historian, Author, Organist, Actor, Volunteer.” And the last says, “He did his best to enhance the lives of gay and lesbian Memphians.”

We left the cemetery and went to the Museum of Science and History (which I’d only known as the Pink Palace) to take in the impressive LGBT+ Pride exhibit. Vincent had donated a leather vest completely covered with buttons he had collected over several decades of Pride events. He offered some scurrilous anecdotes relating to a few of the artifacts to the volunteer docent minding the exhibit. She took it all in with nervous excitement, nodding enthusiastically at each new morsel he threw out. As we left, Vincent said, “The best part about being a good docent is knowing all the gory details not fit for public consumption and then finding opportunities to dole them out to people who are dying to hear them. Everybody likes going behind the scenes and learning what they never heard in history class.”

Yet he could be coy, too. In the messages we exchanged leading up to our meeting, I sent, “I’m wondering if a story I’ve heard (and repeated) about you is legit or apocryphal. It seems you were taking requests one afternoon at the Orpheum when someone asked if you did hymns. Did you really nod and start pointing around the audience saying, “Yes. Him. And him. And him. And him. And him.”

Vincent only replied, “Hmmmmm…could be….” I couldn’t get him to say more on the subject.

Despite a bent toward the bawdy, one of Vincent’s magnetic qualities was an audacious innocence, a fearless purity that could inspire or intimidate, yet invariably fascinate. It was the thing that fueled the impulse to create his own monument so he could experience the joy of sharing it with his friends. There are people who simply respond to life, some of them quite effectively. But the remarkable people are not content to simply respond. They grab life by the throat and turn the tables, actively shaping it into something better. It is a welcome but rare quality, and Vincent was a superb example of its manifestation, and he was a role model when it came to its practice. 

Vincent was a unique and transformative figure in Memphis LGBT+ history. His goal was to improve the lives and enhance the life experience of his LGBT+ brothers and sisters, and he did that. It is his legacy, but inspiration was Vincent Astor’s greatest gift, and it is one that survives him. His work and his voice inspired many and irritated some, both in and outside the gay community. But he was there from the beginning, and he paid attention. His astute observations and careful archiving cement his place in the history he documented so diligently.

Perry Stevens is a former reporter with a B.A. in journalism from the University of Mississippi and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He is employed as a Writer/Editor by the Federal government where he has worked as a public information officer for the US Centers for Disease Control and a program manager responsible for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s LGBT Special Emphasis Program. He lives in French Camp, Mississippi and can be reached at