When Ulysses Grant Dietz’s older brother gave him a wedding cake topper for Christmas in the early 2000s, he meant it mostly as a gag gift. Made of molded plastic, the topper features two tuxedo-clad men linking arms under a flower-bedecked bower. On the underside, it’s stamped with the words “Adam & Steve.”
The topper’s stamp was a rueful joke—a play on the old homophobic rallying cry, “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” The cake topper itself was a kind of rueful joke, too. It just didn’t seem possible that gay men like Dietz and his partner would ever be able to marry.
Back in January, we published the post “Want to Donate to New-York Historical? Here’s How it Happens” in which we explained the ins and outs of giving an object or work of art to our Museum collection. We described our efforts to expand our acquisitions so they reflect the diverse breadth of life, history, and culture in 20th- and 21st-century America. One of the objects on our wish list was a same-sex wedding cake topper that spoke to the huge shift that’s happened in the U.S. since Vermont became the first state to offer same-sex civil unions in 2000.
Well, the Internet heard our call. When Museum Director Margi Hofer posted the blog post to Facebook, she quickly heard back from Dietz, Curator Emeritus at the Newark Museum, who offered to donate the topper belonging to him and his husband, software engineer Gary Berger.
The fathers of two adopted children, Berger and Dietz—who, yes, is named after his great-great-grandfather, President Ulysses S. Grant—have been together since 1975. They count themselves as part of a generation of gay men who never expected to get married and had to invent their own symbols of fidelity and partnership. The couple has gotten used to making it up as they went: For their 10th anniversary in 1985, they exchanged rings; they upgraded to nicer rings for their 25th anniversary in 2000. And when Dietz’s ever-supportive mother, Julia Grant Dietz, raised the possibility of a civil union after New Jersey legalized them in 2006, they agreed, holding a commitment ceremony in front of their family and friends in their New Jersey home on April 28, 2007. The plastic topper was placed proudly on their chocolate-frosted “union” cake. (The couple weren’t quite done with committing: They got legally married on the first day New Jersey allowed same-sex marriages, Oct. 21, 2013.)
The Dietz-Berger wedding cake topper has now joined New-York Historical’s collection of marital memorabilia throughout the ages, including a 1935 cake topper, colorful cake ornaments from the early 20th century, multiple wedding bands, and even a few preserved slices of cake. “Objects are important historical documents,” says Debra Schmidt Bach, New-York Historical’s curator of decorative arts. “When studied and preserved, objects infused with personal meanings, like this cake topper, can provide unique perspectives on the political and social circumstances from which they came and bring us deeper understanding about the history of our city, state, and country.”
Dietz leads a full life as a parent, partner, and author of gay vampire novels, but he’s first and foremost a curator with a passion for preserving history—including, it seems, his own. “I’ve given my life to the Newark Museum,” he said in an interview from 2012. “I believe in art and the power of art to transform lives. My entire career has been dedicated to connecting people with objects; to telling stories that help people see the world in a slightly different way.”