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'Wow, what a long engagement that was!'

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010; E08

The way Henry Schalizki tells it, his second encounter with Bob Davis came in 1945, when his fellow serviceman arrived in Hawaii to entertain the troops with the USO.

"You can be a little more elegant about it," Bob interjects. "I was starring in a play -- not entertaining the troops! The play was 'Room Service,' and I had the pivotal role."

They'd met three years before at a little restaurant in the Providence Biltmore Hotel. Boris Karloff was also there, but the two spent the evening talking to each other.

When a poster went up advertising the play's run in Hawaii, Henry recognized the photo of Bob. During intermission, he went backstage to reintroduce himself, and invited Bob out for a drink. Bob agreed and, once the curtain fell, hurried to remove his makeup and get to the lobby.

Fifteen minutes passed, then 20. No Henry. "I was very toasted that day," recalls Henry, now 88. "I walked out on his show."

"And I've never really forgotten that," says Bob, 89. "I was so good in the second act!"

Still, three years later, when Henry walked into a Baltimore bar where Bob was sitting alone, they quickly retraced their acquaintance. Bob had just moved to town for a job as a personality on a fledgling television station. Henry had grown up in Charm City and returned after the war to take a job with the B&O railroad administration.

When Henry learned Bob was staying at a seedy boarding house, he invitedhim to stay the night in his guest room, saying, "tomorrow we'll find you something."

But that never happened. They fell in love, and Bob "stayed and stayed" -- through good times and bad, sickness and health, through Stonewall and Vietnam, through the terms of 12 U.S. presidents, starting with Harry Truman. Through the loss of more friends than they care to count. They stayed together long enough to witness what they thought was impossible: Last Sunday, they exercised their newfound right, exchanging vows on a rooftop overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, turning their six-decade relationship into a marriage.

"Wow, what a long engagement that was!" Bob said to their guests. "Sixty-two years! Something had to give."

"We needed each other," Bob said recently from a wingback chair in their Chevy Chase penthouse.

From the beginning, they traveled and socialized and spurred on each other's early passion for the theater. In his childhood, Henry had escaped an impoverished, dysfunctional life on the afternoons when his grandmother took him to a Baltimore matinee. Bob, always looking for an audience, began acting as a boy, working his way up to community theater and trying to make it in New York before becoming a broadcaster. Now they were devoted patrons, hitting every opening in town.

The two never shared their affection openly, nor did they completely hide it. Bob was always invited along to dinner parties at the homes of Henry's railroad colleagues. Henry regularly attended Bob's social engagements.

"We were considered a couple, curiously enough, considering the homophobia in existence at the time," Bob says. "They seemed to enjoy our company."

And while bigotry never dominated the couple's lives, the relationship they held most sacred was never fully acknowledged. "What they don't know won't hurt them,' " Bob remembers thinking. "Let's not antagonize people."

Even among their families, it was never discussed. At the end of his life, however, Henry's dad wrote a letter instructing the two to take care of each other. Bob's mother always adored them both.

Being gay, even in the 1950s when they moved to Washington, was never their biggest relationship challenge. In the beginning, Henry's drinking held that title, until Bob called in two men from Alcoholic's Anonymous to stage an intervention in 1957. Henry agreed to go to meetings -- always accompanied by Bob -- and never touched a drink again.

Since then, their conflicts have been more mundane. "We still have disagreements. You should have disagreements," Henry says. "It keeps it healthy." Just this month, Henry was in the hot seat for wearing white socks to a formal dinner party. "He said, 'Well, Van Johnson wore red socks,' " Bob recalls. "And I said, 'Well, you're no Van Johnson.' "

"It's hard to live with yourself sometimes," Henry says. "Never mind for two strangers to live together and get used to each other."

In Washington, Henry launched a successful career in real estate. Bob landed at WGMS radio, where he often covered theater and movies, hosting a lunchtime interview show at the Kennedy Center that afforded them the opportunity to become friendly with such stars as Lena Horne and Angela Lansbury. They bought and sold houses and collected paintings and sculptures that now fill their two-bedroom condo.

"Everything in this apartment has a story," Henry says. "And if you have about 50 years, we'll tell you all of them."

In 2008, they were awarded a Helen Hayes Governor's Award for their support of local theater companies -- they'd attended 6,000 openings by then. It was there, before a black-tie crowd, Bob says, that Henry outed them.

"I have been greatly loved," he said in his acceptance speech, while looking at Bob. "And I've loved greatly in return."

"I thought, 'Oh my God,' " Bob says. "We're out now, and it's all your fault. I felt badly about it -- angry at first."

Of course, it wasn't much of a revelation to a theater crowd that had seen them together for years. The speech got a standing ovation, and for months people approached to tell the couple they'd become a source of inspiration.

"I think the reason it was so moving is that there were many in that audience who realized a relationship like ours could exist," Bob says. "There was still hope that they could accumulate enough love between two people to make it last."

And it really has lasted, Henry says. "We're not only friends, we're lovers, we're brothers and, incidentally, along the way, in 1990, I legally adopted Bob."

True story. When Henry was 69, he legally adopted Bob, who was 70. It gave them legal protections, offered an advantageous inheritance tax rate and made the pair into a family.

They think a lot about death -- Bob especially. He takes solace in a prediction from a numerologist that they'll die together, but every time Henry comes home late or doesn't pick up the phone, Bob worries something has happened. And plenty has already happened. Henry has suffered colon cancer and a detached retina. He has had a quadruple bypass and a titanium rod inserted into his spine. Bob's had prostate surgery, serious heart trouble and ailments that necessitate a daily rainbow of pills.

Acting as bookends to memoirs of Tony Bennett and Lucille Ball and a dozen other volumes are two urns engraved with Bob and Henry's names. They're made from the same slate as Jackie Kennedy's gravestone, Henry explains. And until they're placed side by side at Arlington National Cemetery, Bob adds, "they're good for holding M&Ms."

These six decades together have gone "like that!" Henry says, snapping his fingers. "It's like life goes. My advice to anybody is, 'For God's sakes, enjoy your life.' "

When gay marriage became legal in the District, Henry set his sights on a wedding. Bob wanted no part of it. "We're accepted as two human beings, always as a couple. I said, 'I don't see any reason for it,' " he recalls. "Besides that, Vera Wang will never make a gown for me to wear."

Henry reminded Bob of the reaction to the Helen Hayes Awards speech. Their shared life is the contribution they've made to the gay rights movement, he argued, and marriage solidifies that. "We've been an example," he says.

So on June 20, at 5 p.m., the white-haired men walked out onto the balcony of the presidential suite of the J.W. Marriott and faced each other under an arch of billowing silk and saffron-colored flowers. Sixty-two years -- to the hour -- after they got together in that Baltimore bar, Bob and Henry were wed. (The adoption had been nullified several weeks before.)

Their 60 guests, including Councilman Jim Graham and Helen Hayes Awards Chairman Victor Shargai, gathered around a grand piano as local actor Will Gartshore sang show tunes during cocktail hour.

Later, as the sun lit the sky over Washington in pinks and purples, their maid of honor, Linda Levy Grossman, Helen Hayes Awards president and chief executive, stood to toast the couple. "They have never, ever, ever needed a label for their love," she said. "They are simply the air that each other breathes."

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