The Fabulous, True Story of
A Daring Woman and Her Boys
In the 1950s
Helen P. Branson
(Wisconsin)Most everyone in this day and age forgets that there are other "gays" in the world ... not just those who are slugging it out in the courts of California and the streets of Vatican City.
There is, for example, Mount Gay in Bridgetown, Barbados which we believe was invented (along with its rum) centuries before "Gay Pride" came on the scene. Then there is the straight-laced, straight-faced [See Fig. 1] Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, a physicist and chemist who floated --- gaily we presume --- over the rooftops of Paris in 1804 in one of the first hot-air balloons of all time.
And despite the dictionary definitions --- "exuberant," "merry, "keenly alive" --- let us not forget the Enola Gay which was not exactly a hot-bed of "keenly alive," being the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, 6 August 1945. (The bomb was dubbed "Little Boy," inspiring, in 1980, a group called "Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark" to record "Is mother proud of Little Boy today?")
Before the 1950s you could be a "gay blade," could go to "gay Par-ee," and even have "a gay old time:" no pun, nor joke intended. If you were John Gay, you might have been a drunkard but you were probably not homosexual. Gay stole Jonathan Swift's idea of pulling together the street songs of London of the 1720s to make an opera about the lowlifes of the street, the most famous of which was to become "Mack the Knife."
In our own day, Mack the Knife is famous not because of Gay, nor even Bertolt Brecht --- who did a splendid Weimar version of the "Beggar's Opera" --- but some schnook by the name of Bobby Darin who took the version made famous by Louis Armstrong (this gets complicated) and recorded what was then called "a cover:" a white musician's dubbing of the original. For in those days it was considered disreputable to have a black singer on radio, especially in the south.
More acceptable for middle class Americans would be a "white" singer --- Pat Boone, Bobby Darin, Elvis Presley --- to steal the lyrics from the black performers and produce a more-or-less exact imitation, without the inflection (and usually without the fire).
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Having gone by way of Butte not to say Altoona to make my point, let us now go to 5124 Melrose in Los Angeles, the home of a 1950s gay bar run by Helen Branson. Gay bars in those days were mostly hidden from sight, even in California, because the California legislature had decreed that no bar could serve as "a resort for illegal possessors or users of narcotics, prostitutes, pimps, panderers, or sexual perverts."
Thus because its clientele involved one of the five "p's" --- Helen's bar could have been shut down by the state board of liquor control. In addition, William Parker, the police chief of Los Angeles, saw "homosexuals as a grave danger to society ... an element to be suppressed."
One of the reason that her bar was able to survive, unmolested was possibly that she paid the local police to stay out of it, but also that she was militant on the subject of her clientele. Which, according to Fellows, was strictly " no screaming-queen drama scenes spilling into the parking lot. Certainly no physical intimacy."
Helen wanted no problems, and was quick to hustle anyone out the door who acted fey, or who used the bathroom for any extra-curricular activities.
She had no choice. Those who live in the present century have no idea of the way gays lived in the 1950s. Fellows quotes the Hollywood Citizen-News that editorialized that homosexuals "created situations that are obnoxious and alarming to normal people." Employers were urged to screen their workers,
to weed out homosexuals and other abnormal characters. Hordes of abnormal people can do great harm to Los Angeles, just as the presence of even a few obnoxious characters in the film industry can damage it.
Outside of California, it was little better. As David Carter wrote in his book Stonewall --- quoted by Frank Rich in a recent New York Times article --- "at the end of the 1960s homosexual sex was still illegal in every state but Illinois. It was a crime punishable by castration in seven states. If a homosexual character appeared in a movie, his life ended with either murder or suicide."
Is it any wonder that Branson and other owners of gay bars across the nation kept the lights down, the windows curtained, and the clientele under wraps. What was different about Branson is that she wrote a book about her bar, and her "boys" ... and she published it. The book is reproduced here, with alternative chapters by Fellows trying to capture, for the reader, the temper of the times, quoting extensively from the early gay publications of the Mattachine Society .
Gay Bar is mildly interesting because of its history, and even that Branson was such a creature of her times. She demanded that her clients stay in the closet at all times. She was sympathetic, was a good listener (as all bar-keeps must be), but had strange notions about the people who depended on her for escape from the loneliness imposed on them by a closed and unforgiving society.
She made sure that everyone was in disguise, and she carried the peculiar notion that the main reason "her boys" did not want to marry was because "most women do not keep house well enough for the gay man." Many of her customers, she said, have houses or apartments
that are often decorator's dreams. [But] this mixed marriage that is on the rocks is being wrecked by her slovenly ways in the house after he comes home from work. He has been drinking to forget it and she drinks to keep up with him.--- Richard Saturday