“There has been us”: John Foster and Juan Céspedes

From 1970 until 1993 John Foster was a lecturer in history at the University of Melbourne, specialising in German and Jewish history. He met Juan Céspedes, a dancer and refugee from Cuba, in New York in 1981 and the two began a relationship the same year that the first reports of young men contracting PCP and Kaposi’s Sarcoma in Los Angeles and New York foreshadowed the AIDS pandemic. The two men battled prejudice, immigration restrictions and differences in class, race, language and age to bring their lives together.

Ephemera from the John Foster collection, 1997.0085

Juan died of AIDS in Melbourne in 1987 in his early 30s. As Juan lay dying, he despaired at his life, telling John “I have accomplished nothing” to which John replied “There has been us”. In that spirit in the seven years he had left, John wrote and published a memoir of Juan called Take Me To Paris, Johnny.

The memoir won acclaim, with literary critic Peter Craven calling it a “literary masterpiece…Unparalleled in Australian letters…Makes most fiction, here or elsewhere, look paltry by comparison”.

The John Foster collection is another memoir to their relationship; intimate in its materiality. It includes two pairs of Juan’s ballet slippers, a recipe book written by both of them, and more. It is full of the ephemera of a relationship.

The collection, and of course the publication document a tragic time that shaped the gay community in Melbourne and across the world irrevocably, not least because they evidence the love and longing on which that awful disease fed and spread.

Feature image: Juan Cespedes ballet slippers, John Harvey Foster collection, photography by Peter Casamento, Casamento Photography


John Foster, Take Me to Paris, Johnny, (2nd edition) Text Publishing, 2016.

John Rickard, ‘On John Foster’, Australian Book Review, no.381 May 2016

Peter Craven, ‘Introduction to Take Me To Paris’, Text Publishing blog, 2016

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