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Paul McMahon, photographer, art critic, gay rights activist

Ralph Hodgdon (left) and Paul McMahon marched in the Boston Gay Pride Parade in 2005. Ralph Hodgdon (left) and Paul McMahon marched in the Boston Gay Pride Parade in 2005. (David Kamerman/ Globe Staff)
By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / April 8, 2011

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Boston art critic and photographer Paul McMahon fought for same-sex marriage by telling the story of his 50-year love affair with commercial artist Ralph Hodgdon.

At gay rights rallies, the couple carried a sign proclaiming their life story through a tote board marking their years together and pictures showing them weathering fashion trends, from skinny ties to handlebar moustaches and disco.

When Mr. McMahon, 78, died of cancer on March 31 at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, his rally sign kept in their Boston apartment said: “50 years together! 6 years married.’’

They wed on May 29, 2004, in a small ceremony on the bridge over the lagoon in the Public Garden. Television news crews captured the couple dressed in tuxedos with lilies of the valley pinned to their lapels. Lunch at the Ritz followed.

“We were always each other’s other half,’’ Hodgdon said. “We were lovers and best friends. I always had the most fun with him.’’

Their marriage license, obtained amid a rush of couples tying the knot when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, seemed like a small addendum to the long, successful partnership until Mr. McMahon fell gravely ill and was diagnosed with advanced leukemia several weeks ago. Hodgdon made the decisions about his partner’s care and took up a bedside vigil.

“At that moment, I realized how important it was we got married,’’ he said.

Their relationship is featured in an intimate documentary titled, “50 years’’ by filmmaker Vincent-louis Apruzzese. In the film, the couple discuss how they almost broke up in their 15th year together and how their commitment to each other may have helped them survive the AIDS epidemic.

“He was incredible,’’ Apruzzese said of Mr. McMahon. “He was just a genuine, real person.’’

Mr. McMahon shared with moviemakers his vast collection of photographs documenting the evolution of gay social life in Boston.

“You never hear about gay guys who are in long-term relationships,’’ Apruzzese said. “I asked them if they would open up and talk to me about it, and they did.’’

Raised in Manchester, N.H., Mr. McMahon set his sites beyond the mill town. As a teenager, he sneaked out of the house to take dance lessons. His father, Owen, once caught him when his ballet slippers fell out from under his coat, Mr. McMahon said in the documentary.

He found his escape during the Korean War, when he was drafted into the US Army, which put him in a special services unit and stationed him in Verdun, France. There, he appeared in shows for the troops and later toured as the lead dancer with a ballet company.

He was 22 and living in New York City when he met Hodgdon, then 20, while the artist was sketching in Central Park. Mr. McMahon was on his way from one party to another. He never made the second party. The pair began talking and went to see “Wuthering Heights’’ together.

“He had on the ugliest green Mandarin-collared shirt,’’ Hodgdon recalled. “Every year for our anniversary he would wear it. It’s still ugly.’’

During their first date, Hodgdon refused to become a one-night stand. “Later on, he told me no one had ever said no to him,’’ Hodgdon said. “At that moment something clicked. He was completely smitten.’’

A few dates later, Mr. McMahon arrived with a pair of gold rings and the offer of an apartment they could share for $14 a week.

They soon moved to New England for a chance to work as extras in the filming of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel’’ in Portland. The pair appear in the 1956 film as fishermen loading baskets of clams on a wagon while the cast sings “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.’’

They decided not to return to New York City and in 1960 moved to Boston, where they endured repeated antigay vandalism at their home in Bay Village and later in Dorchester, Hodgdon said.

Mr. McMahon worked as a silversmith, making jewelry, and demonstrated in the antiwar and civil rights movements. “There was gay-nothing then,’’ Hodgdon noted.

Mr. McMahon also spent more than a decade as a personal assistant to actress Marlene Dietrich while she was touring in a one-woman show. He met her in the 1960s, when she performed at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. He attended every show and visited her backstage.

“I started out as whipping boy, errand boy, then bodyguard, escort, and finally I was being paid as her stage manager,’’ Mr. McMahon told filmmakers.

He was on the road for months at a time. He would call Hodgdon and share accounts of the luminaries who came backstage to see Dietrich, including Bette Davis and Henry Kissinger.

“They’d go to her place, and she’d cook for him,’’ Hodgdon said. “He’d call me and say: ‘I just don’t believe it. Marlene is cooking me dinner, and I’m sitting in her kitchen.’ ’’

Mr. McMahon last spoke to the screen legend on her 85th birthday in 1987.

Mr. McMahon spent 25 years as an art critic in Boston, writing for the Gay Community News, The Mirror, and Bay Windows. He also assisted society maven Mildred Albert with her long-running column in the TAB Newspapers. Albert died in 1991.

“Ralph and Paul were a staple in the theater scene,’’ said Boston public relations specialist Charles J. Cohen, who brokered Mr. McMahon’s interviews with Joan Collins, Phyllis Diller, and others. “They were on everybody’s opening night lists.’’

Mr. McMahon “didn’t always give me a good review,’’ Cohen recalled. “He was a prolific writer. He had a feel and an instinct for what worked on stage.’’

In the film about their lives, Mr. McMahon contemplated the day death would part him and Hodgdon. He says he doubts he would cope very well if he were the first to go and jokes about putting a curse on his spouse.

In addition to Hodgdon, Mr. McMahon leaves his cat, Beauty. At his request, no services will be held.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@mac.com.