Alan Selby (1928-2004) was a San Francisco-based leather community pioneer, fundraiser and was the founder of Mr. S Leather. He was the “S” in Mr. S and was known as the “Mayor of Folsom Street”.
Alan Selby was born in Yorkshire, England in 1928. He was a graduate of the British public school system. British boys’ boarding schools have long provided a backdrop for S/m fantasies and scenarios, which may have served as an influence. He had a brother, who he would describe in later years as “my despicable brother.”
When Selby started public school in the late 1930s, at about age eleven, his brother, several years older, was already a prefect, a young man of authority on his way to being “head boy.” He ran with the gang of bullies who ran their house and they terrorized the younger students who were their charges. That’s a tradition, and one that Alan’s “despicable” brother really enjoyed. It’s also a tradition for older brothers to protect their younger siblings, which is one he didn’t practice. Instead of protecting Selby, he organized “playful” assaults in which he and his friends would pin Alan to the ground in the “common room” and force-feed him cigar smoke. Selby swore to himself that he himself would never be a victim again.
Selby served his country as a medic during World War II. He was very nearly, but not quite, “old navy.” Although never particularly observant, he was one of the Tribe. He was a young Jewish Englishman serving his country and their allies in a fight against international fascism. That the Germans were using his people as an alibi for their nationalistic ambitions just made the situation more poignant.
After the war, Selby became a gentlemen’s clothier. During London’s “swinging” sixties he worked as a representative for a textile firm, and dreamed of starting his own business. During the 1960s he also became familiar with the homosexual fetish underground. Many of those men wore breeches, and he was in the business. He recalls:
“I remember a time before the Leather Image had truly emerged in London, when Men who were interested in meeting partners who were into S/M used to wear Knee Length Boots, and Riding Britches, and would meet at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. It was quite a gathering of the clan, and many friendships were developed! There were groups standing ostensibly listening to speakers talking on various subjects, but the men in the crowd were also cruising, and would seek out others in the crowd, who they were attracted to, and after contact would wander off together, and play in the privacy of their homes.”
1969 was a pivotal year for Selby. That year, he made his first trip to the United States. Although he knew many of the men in London’s Hyde Park scene through outfitting them, he had never, until this time, had an actual S/m experience himself. He recounts: “when I visited San Francisco, that changed dramatically.” He was picked up and schooled by “a very pushy bottom” a boy in a tight leather jacket and tight jeans: a very American boy. The men of Hyde Park looked like Masters of the hunt; this boy typified a different look, one drawn from post-WWII American motorcycle culture and popularized by Hollywood via Brando and his gang.
By the end of his weekend with the wild one, Selby was a convert. The boy took him on a tour of San Francisco Leather shops. He was not impressed by the quality of workmanship or the prices. He thought they were shoddy and too expensive. He returned to London with his sexuality revolutionized and with an idea. Recalling that time, he remembers: “After returning to London, I started working on a range of leather clothing and accessories that I thought would interest Americans. I produced my very first catalog, and came up with the name “Mr. S.” which captured many people’s imagination, and soon catalog requests started coming in, followed by orders. I was very pleased indeed.”
In the Leather Community
In 1969, Selby joined his first Leather club, The Sixty-Nine Club of the United Kingdom. He was introduced to the club through his friend Felix. He explains their unusual name: “The Club had a constitution that there could never be more than 68 Members, so that there could never be a Member # 69. There was often a waiting list to get in. They had to wait till someone resigned, passed away or was removed from membership through a misdeed.” In the Sixty-Nine, he made the acquaintance of fellow associate Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland, and they remained friends until Tom’s passing. He recalls how his days with the club were to shape his future as a mentor. “I learned a lot very quickly from my fellow Club Members, and this helped me in later years to pass on advice to novices who often came to me with questions”
Selby was introduced to the rubber scene during a business trip to New York City. The president of the 5 Senses Club asked him if he thought there would be interest in a similar organization in England. Back across the pond, he placed a small ad in the Gay News, and soon the group that would become the Rubber Man’s Club was meeting. Nearly four decades later, they are still active.
Back in London, Selby met a Mr. Shanks and his friend Mr. Murphy, who owned a leather manufacturing company called SM International. They pooled resources, shared designs, and together opened a small factory in London. He also met his lover Peter Jacklin, a skilled designer and craftsman specializing in leathercraft. To mark the occasion, Jacklin made a collar, which he subsequently wore. It was Jacklin who designed many of the harnesses, studded belts and toys that have since become classics. Alan said of Peter: “He was a very talented boy, and I am pleased that their popularity are a tribute to his memory.”
Selby was a skilled networker. Whether it was business, his social life or activism, Selby mixed. In 1972, he was working with the owners of “Leather-n-Things” in San Francisco’s Castro District. They stocked Mr. S. products, and a friendship had developed between the men. Sometimes they brainstormed next season’s products. He remembers:
“It was with them that the first Hanky Code was devised and printed in “The Bay Area Reporter” in 1972. This idea took off like a whirlwind, and spread internationally. It was a great way of starting communication. People would wear their bandannas in the back pocket of their jeans, sometimes on their biceps, or even on their ankles, depending on what they were wearing. Despite arguments to the contrary when worn left side you were recognized as a Top, and right side, as a bottom, this was a universal recognition signal. The only problem was in a dark Bar it was often difficult to differentiate between the different colors, like Navy Blue, and Black, Yellow and Orange etc.”
During most of the 1970s, Selby lived an intercontinental lifestyle. He traveled between London and San Francisco, mostly, but business took him to many world-class cities, and he was always welcomed warmly by the local leather communities. As business grew, he and Jacklin opened their own small factory, then their own retail outlet in Wandsworth, South London. They called it “Leather Unlimited” and it quickly became a de facto community center, with the seminal tattoo artist Alan Oversby (Mr. Sebastian) opening a tattoo and piercing salon in the basement of the building.
Move to the US
In 1979, Selby and Jacklin moved from London to San Francisco, bringing their business with them. Harvey Milk, who had died the year before, had been known as “The Mayor of Castro Street.” Selby was to become known as “The Mayor of Folsom Street.” Mr. S. Leather opened shop on 7th Street in San Francisco on June 17, 1979. Like its earlier London incarnation, the SOMA shop operated as an informal community center for the active Leather community South of Market. It was at this original Mr. S. outlet that many of the products now taken for granted were developed, including Shaft lubricants and the shower shot. An early rubber CBT device was called “the Stallion Guard” as a tribute to its origins as a racetrack prophylactic. According to Selby, “the actual item, which is used in England, is inserted into the mare during the racing season, so that the stallions cannot enter them, and so make them pregnant.” He also made contacts, friends and colleagues in the fashion and performing worlds, and he and Jacklin did custom work to specifications, providing leather bustiers for Vivienne Westwood, and stage outfits for Judas Priest.
In 1980, the release of the movie Cruising brought the underground world of leathersex to the attention of a mass audience. Masculine images were already in vogue in gay mens’ circles, and the new popularity of the leather “look” confused a lot of players. Until that time, those styles had been associated with alternative sexualities. In San Francisco, that moment of uncertainty produced a club that is still in existence 33 years later. Selby was at the first meeting of The 15 Association, and although never particularly active, was eventually made a lifetime honorary member.
When the AIDS crisis hit the City in the 1980s, Peter Jacklin became sick. After he died, Selby refocused his attention. Eventually, he sold the business to community member Richard Hunter. Mr. S. still exists, and has since become yet another icon of Leather. Selby threw himself headlong into fighting the plague and supporting its victims. He buried three special boys: After Peter came Bill Gray and then, in 1992, Johnnie Garcia.
Through his work with the AIDS Emergency Fund, Selby raised over a million dollars for PWAs. This was direct assistance: electricity bills were paid, the gas stayed on and food came. For over twenty years, he volunteered at San Francisco General Hospital’s infamous ward 5B: holding the hands and massaging the pain-wracked bodies of the mostly young and often abandoned men who filled those beds. He served on the Godfather Fund, and devoted countless hours to more organizations and individuals than can be listed here. He was proud to have been of service to leatherwomen as well as men, heterosexual as well as gay perverts. He served on the International Ms. Leather board at their inception, and was later named an Honorary Dyke by the San Francisco Womens’ Motorcycle Contingent, better known as “Dykes on Bikes.” He was a regular guest speaker in Human Sexuality at San Francisco State University. He would take his toy bag, enlist a graduate student to carry it across campus, and give very popular “show-n-tell” talks in the Psychology department. In 1999, he was invited to be on the steering committee for the newly-formed Leathermens’ Discussion Group. In 2000, the Selby Fund at the Chicago-based Leather Archives and Museum was named in his honor. In 2002, he was named “Leather Marshall” for SF Pride.
By 2003, the COPD Selby had lived with for years was wearing on him. He was sick, though not many people knew. He explained that he planned to live life fully until close to the end and that when he went it would be fast. He knew when he was going to go, and that is when he went, with no assistance. He said “I think I will go the Sunday after the AEF Gala. I do want to go to my last Gala.” And he did.
Selby died quietly at home surrounded by loved ones in May, 2004, and was memorialized two weeks later in a packed celebration of life at the San Francisco Eagle.