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Vivacious, unconventional, candid, and straight, Helen Branson operated a gay bar in Los Angeles in the 1950s—America’s most anti-gay decade. After years of fending off drunken passes as an entertainer in cocktail bars, this divorced grandmother preferred the wit, variety, and fun she found among homosexual men. Enjoying their companionship and deploring their plight, she gave her gay friends a place to socialize. Though at the time California statutes prohibited homosexuals from gathering in bars, Helen’s place ...
Vivacious, unconventional, candid, and straight, Helen Branson operated a gay bar in Los Angeles in the 1950s—America’s most anti-gay decade. After years of fending off drunken passes as an entertainer in cocktail bars, this divorced grandmother preferred the wit, variety, and fun she found among homosexual men. Enjoying their companionship and deploring their plight, she gave her gay friends a place to socialize. Though at the time California statutes prohibited homosexuals from gathering in bars, Helen’s place was relaxed, suave, and remarkably safe from police raids and other anti-homosexual hazards. In 1957 she published her extraordinary memoir Gay Bar, the first book by a heterosexual to depict the lives of homosexuals with admiration, respect, and love.
In this new edition of Gay Bar, Will Fellows interweaves Branson’s chapters with historical perspective provided through his own insightful commentary and excerpts gleaned from letters and essays appearing in gay publications of the period. Also included is the original introduction to the book by maverick 1950s psychiatrist Blanche Baker. The eclectic selection of voices gives the flavor of American life in that extraordinary age of anxiety, revealing how gay men saw themselves and their circumstances, and how others perceived them.
Outstanding Book, selected by the Public Library Association
Best Books for High Schools, selected by the American Association of School Libraries
“Fascinating, poignant, hilarious, and eye-opening. Fellows adds depth, detail, and insight to Branson’s groundbreaking original work.”—Philip Gambone, author of Travels in a Gay Nation.
"Few books are unique, but this one comes close. It’s the firsthand, contemporary account by a straight woman, Branson, who owned a gay bar in 1950s Los Angeles. Originally published in 1957, the book shows Branson to be a compassionate and astute observer of gay mores, now providing a rare primary source of gay life in an era from which such information is hard to obtain. Researchers will find material on the relationships between gay men and women, what gay parties were like, and the distinct house rules that Branson set up for patronage of her bar, among other topics. Fellows (Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest) intersperses her narrative with contextualizing historical and political information that greatly aids readers’ understanding. Verdict: Donald Vining’s multivolume A Gay Diary and Ricardo J. Brown’s compelling The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s: A Gay Life in the 1940s are related titles, but these were first published long after the fact. General readers of memoir or LGBT lit, as well as historians, will find Gay Bar to be a charming, informative read."—Library Journal
“By pairing this new edition of Branson’s insightful memoir with a study of 1950s America, Fellows clarifies how ahead of her time Branson was: she believed, for example, that being gay was more than sex and that gay men living together could consider themselves married. This is a stimulating account of support for gay rights pre-Stonewall is an eye-opener.”—Publishers Weekly
“We typically prefer our pop culture shiny and new with the tags still on, but author Will Fellows’ latest makes a strong case for vintage shopping.”—Modern Tonic
“Fascinating and vigorously lucid, this book is a precious time capsule jetting readers back over a half-century ago to a time when the gay community was threatened, defiled, beaten, and stigmatized without restraint, thankful to have folks like Helen Branson on their side, but fully aware that the fight for equality was only just the beginning.”—Bay Area Reporter
“This incredible inside look of a gay bar in 1950s Los Angeles, owned and operated by a straight woman, Helen P. Branson, reflects our gay history as well as Los Angeles culture. Writer Will Fellows adds commentary and historical perspective in this fascinating memoir that was written in 1957.”—Frontiers
Breakfasting in Saint Paul in 2006, my playwright friend Dean Gray and I discussed a script he was working on. The story centered on his Uncle Irvin, who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s on an Iowa farm and moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s in pursuit of a music career. Irvin killed himself there in 1963. Dean asked if I knew of any books or other materials that might provide insight into what it was like to be a gay man in Los Angeles in the 1950s.
About the only thing that came to mind was Gay Bar, a book that I had never seen but had noticed among the results of an online book search. Its snappy title and intriguing description had lodged in my mind. That same morning, Dean and I were delighted to find a copy of Gay Bar at Quatrefoil Library in Saint Paul. So began this foray into the long-gone Hollywood world of Helen Branson and her boys.
After Dean Gray's play, Uncle, had been staged in New York, Dean and I began to discuss creating a play based on Gay Bar. He would take the lead on playwriting, and I would try to find out more about Helen Branson. We knew from her book that Helen had been born in the mid-1890s, possibly in Nebraska, and that she had a grandson. I hoped to locate her grandson, though my chances for success seemed meager. I didn't know if he was still living, or if it was his mother or his father who was Helen's child.
Through the Social Security Administration, I obtained a copy of Helen's 1937 application. It indicated that she was born in Almena, Kansas, to Leo and Fannie Pyle, on December 17, 1896. At the time she filled out the form she was 40 years old, unemployed, living in Los Angeles. This was a compelling start, but what next? My friend Kim Karcher suggested that I do some research on Ancestry.com. To my astonishment I was soon looking at a 1930 U.S. Census form that detailed a household of three in Glendale, California: Helen P. Branson, 33, born in Kansas; Zebulon S. Branson, 35, born in Nebraska; and Helen C. Branson, 10, born in Idaho.
Zebulon! Also via Ancestry.com, Los Angeles County voter records from 1924 through 1948 gave biennial snapshots of the Branson family's home address and Helen's occupation. She went from a "housewife" in Glendale in 1924 to an "entertainer" in Hollywood in the late 1930s and early 1940s. About 1933 a separation occurred: Zebulon moved to Orange County, and Helen and her daughter stayed in West Hollywood. Helen's grandson still eluded me, but these were exciting discoveries. A picture of Helen's life in Los Angeles was beginning to emerge.
The online California Death Index revealed that Helen Pyle Branson died in Sacramento on January 7, 1977. Sacramento County supplied a copy of the death certificate, which confirmed that Helen had been divorced. Caroline B.Hammond of Sacramento was listed as the "informant" on the death certificate. I wondered who that person might have been—neighbor, friend, care provider?—but I did not pursue it. And then the crematorium provided the thrilling breakthrough, a copy of the cremation certificate on which Caroline B. Hammond was identified as "daughter." Of course! Helen C. Branson Hammond went by her middle name, Caroline, because her mother's name was Helen. Why hadn't I thought of that?
I was soon having lively conversations with Caroline, 88, and her son, Russell, 59. Both seemed stunned and delighted to have been discovered as Helen's descendents fifty years after her obscure little book was published. They were generous and candid in sharing their memories of the remarkable person they knew as Mother and Granny.
I concluded my quest to find living links to Helen Branson by trying to locate any gay man who had been acquainted with Helen or her bar. Success seemed unlikely. Helen used only pseudonyms in her book, for obvious reasons. Helen's daughter could not recall the names of any of her mother's gay pals, and none of the archival materials related to the book revealed their identities. Helen's bar was a tiny place in a very large and rapidly growing city with a highly transient population. More than fifty years later the youngest of Helen's boys would be about eighty years old and could be living far from Los Angeles. Posting my research notice in the senior services area of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center brought no response. My inquiries to Prime Timers chapters around the country brought several sketchy recollections of various L.A. gay bars, mostly in the 1960s and later, but nothing about Helen's.
Today one might regard Helen Branson as a woman ahead of her time, but for the homosexual men she befriended, she was there at just the right time. Reading Helen's observations on gay men's lives in the 1950s, I sometimes wondered what the men themselves would have said. I was thrilled to discover in two homophile periodicals, ONE magazine and Mattachine Review, a rich trove of contemporaneous commentary that amplified and complemented Helen's views. In voices authentic to the 1950s, gay men expressed their opinions, fears, pleasures, and hopes. And so the idea of this new edition of Gay Bar emerged, an interleaving of the book's original text with related writings from the same period, including a fuller portrait of Helen herself.
Gay Bar is a homespun memoir by a woman who enjoyed the company of homosexual men and deplored their plight. What the book lacked in literary quality, it more than made up for in audacity. Helen Branson's informal but earnest book appeared at a time when most books on "the homosexual problem" were written by male authorities, especially psychiatrists who viewed homosexuality as neurosis. Highlighting the buoyant and recently appropriated word "gay" was an edgy move, but Gay Bar was truly something new and startling. It was the first book by a heterosexual to examine the lives of homosexuals with admiration, respect, and love. And it was published under the author's real name at a time when homosexuality was anathema to most Americans, including many homosexuals themselves.
Gay Bar was also noteworthy as the first book published by Pan-Graphic Press in San Francisco. Co-owned by Mattachine Society members Harold Call and Donald Lucas, Pan-Graphic was itself a bold enterprise. It did printing for Mattachine and two other homophile groups, Daughters of Bilitis and ONE, Incorporated. That all three of these pioneering groups originated in California in the 1950s reflects the fact that, especially after World War II, Los Angeles and San Francisco were major destinations for American gays and lesbians in search of community, tolerance, and opportunity.
Helen Branson started writing Gay Bar in 1955, a year rife with witch hunts and other antihomosexual initiatives. It was only ten years after the end of Hitler's frenzy, in the midst of a growing civil rights movement, with many Americans intent on demonizing Communists and homosexuals. Moreover, many homosexuals themselves were inclined to see homosexuality as indeed a problem. A Mattachine Review writer described the threatening but not hopeless scenario: "So long as 'omniscient' psychiatry is a veritable Babel on what homosexuals are, public acceptance will be slow. Perhaps acceptance is not what awaits us. Psychiatrists may make good their aim to cure us all. Or they may decide variety is not without advantages.
"Two possible directions face us; one, a sort of 1984, a world of deadening conformity and regimentation, with psychiatrists for police, and the other, a more liberal, 'open' society, in which all would have latitude for working out their own destinies. And between these two chief possibilities, a number of middle roads open, offering greater or less freedom for social variants."
A thoroughgoing nonconformist herself, Helen wrote her little book in support of variety and freedom. To appreciate what Gay Bar represented when it appeared in 1957, it is essential to recognize that an enormously conformist conservatism pervaded American life at the time. Mattachine Review remarked in 1957 on "the creeping scourge of mediocrity that is becoming all too commonplace in our social structure today. Conformity—the tendency to avoid thought, discussion and action on unpopular subjects (the homosexual problem is only one of them)—is becoming a fashion. It hangs like a thread-suspended sabre over the heads of those who dare to speak out."
It is impossible now to comprehend the intensely conformist character of American culture in that time. But it is enlightening to consider that, in its current usage, the word "conformity" has pejorative connotations that did not exist until the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s reshaped the American mindset. Until then, conformity was widely understood as a personal achievement in social adjustment, not as a failure in self-expression. To be like others was to do one's part in fostering social harmony and national strength.
In some ways this conformist imperative was as central to the sensibilities of homosexuals in the 1950s as it was of heterosexuals'. With gender roles part of the bedrock of conformity, blending in with the mainstream of regular Joes and Janes was tremendously important to many gay men and lesbians. Homophile organizations endorsed gender-role conformity as key to winning acceptance by "normals." But this chronic masquerading exacted a toll that was sometimes devastating. Homophile activist Bob Bishop of North Hollywood remarked on this in a letter to Mattachine Review in 1958: "In our culture, the spiritless homosexual is soon beaten down to the ground and forced to conform to a pattern for which he is completely unsuited. He soon learns to pass under the guise of masculinity and of course this role demands that he be critical of all overt homophile activity."
Gay Bar provides glimpses of an important and neglected aspect of gay American life in that era: Gays were often obsessed with conforming to mainstream gender norms themselves and demanding the same of others. Helen Branson makes observations that pertain to this topic, as does Dr. Blanche Baker in the book's introduction. But this phenomenon is most richly documented in the words of gay men who were trying to navigate the hazardous cultural terrain of the 1950s.
This masculinity mania among homosexual men represented a huge change in American gay culture. In fact, the dominant mode of self-presentation among American gay men underwent a complete inversion from the first several decades of the 1900s to midcentury. An attitude of embracing, accentuating, even exaggerating one's femininity was replaced by an attitude of fleeing femininity and accentuating, even exaggerating, one's masculinity. Mr. B. of San Francisco described the feminine attitude in a letter to ONE: Homosexuals in the 1920s "all pretended to be more effeminate than we were to attract attention. Most people thought we were harmless, amusing clowns."
Donald Vining elaborated in the 1980s: "Many of today's gays ... might well run into their closets and pull the door shut if they encountered a flock of their predecessors, who were often much gaudier and bawdier than most contemporary gays. Some of us did indeed avoid their flamboyant company, wince at their behavior, and try to merge indistinguishably with the run of humanity. Most, however, did not. We did not see ourselves as set apart from straights only by our sexual orientation. We conceived of ourselves as far superior beings—wittier, quicker to appreciate everything cultural, more sensitive, and if nature gave us the slightest assist, more stunning to look at." Gay people, Vining said, "didn't make themselves conspicuous to attract only the attention of their peers; they wanted straights to notice too—to notice and envy. They wanted society to notice and realize that this bright and beautiful being was one of those whom they derided as 'queer.'"
Psychotherapist Albert Ellis was obviously familiar with this pattern of gay self-appreciation. In a paper titled "How Homosexuals Can Combat Anti-Homosexualism" he advised that homosexuals should "abhor all feelings and actions which would tend to show others that they, the homosexuals, consider themselves in any way superior to ... non-homosexuals." Ellis revealed his awareness of tight-knit gay communities when he said that gays should "avoid being over-clannish," should "resist in-group favoritism," should "refuse to help other homosexuals economically, socially, vocationally, or otherwise JUST because these others are inverts."
Ellis went on to advise that homosexuals "try to refrain from flaunting their homosexual tendencies in public, and should reserve their use of other-sex dress, mannerisms, vocal inflections, etc. to private gatherings." And whether in mixed company or among their own kind, Ellis believed that homosexuals "should avoid undue sentimentalism, super-romanticism, and self-pity and should accept the realities of everyday living. By the same token, they should avoid exaggerated cynicism and despair and grant reality its valid, if at times sombre, due."
Doc Ellis was just no fun at all. By the early 1950s, changes in American culture had made the gaudy, bawdy homosexual an endangered species. The reverencing of psychiatry, the disconcerting impact of Kinsey's sex research findings, the mindset of the postwar return to normalcy, the vilification of nonconformists and Communists—as a result of these and other influences, homosexuals were not likely to be regarded as harmless, amusing clowns.
Central to the demotion of the pansy was a broadening in the range of male types who identified as homosexual and chose to live accordingly. In the first several decades of the 1900s, men who were largely homosexual but not markedly effeminate were often quite likely to marry women and rear children, leading lives that were largely indistinguishable from those of normals. By midcentury these types of predominantly homosexual men who could have managed to pass quite convincingly as heterosexual were increasingly choosing not to do so. But effeminate self-presentation was not for them. Though living in ways that accommodated their homosexuality, it was important to them to accentuate and spotlight their masculinity.
This inversion of dominant self-concept among American homosexuals was a messy process. The clash of opposing sensibilities contributed to the severe "bitchery-butchery" that pervaded the 1950s homophile arena. "One of our headaches is the screaming, feminine-type homosexual," a Mattachine member told a reporter. "Most of us can't stand them and we have little luck persuading them to conform." A fellow who resigned from the Mattachine Society in 1954 offered a different view, lamenting that the organization was intent on excluding from membership not only Communists but also "the so-called 'swish.'" He remarked sarcastically that, compared to determining Communist Party connections, the identification of swishes was requiring more subtle approaches, "for only the holiest of holies have dared to judge where their behavior patterns end and the 'swish' begins."
Thus did the homophile world of the 1950s come to be dominated by masculinist values. By the early 1960s, homosexuals with more masculine self-presentation seemed to be stealing the spotlight from the pansies, perhaps even outnumbering them. "People still think in terms of the effeminate stereotype," said Donald Webster Cory, "but it is becoming widely known that this image represents only a small minority of the minority."
Excerpted from Gay Bar by Will Fellows Helen P. Branson Copyright © 2010 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System . Excerpted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 15, 2013
Posted February 27, 2012
The sections Helen wrote are better than the sections Will Fellows wrote. I would have rather had the book be just her writing, with none from him. Definitely not the book I was expecting.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 5, 2010
More than a decade before the uprising at the Stonewall Inn, gay bars existed in most major cities, but were often poorly-run establishments targeted by homophobes, mobsters and police entrapment. Helen's bar was different, a 1950's oasis located in a crime-riddled area of Los Angeles, where quiet, closeted gay men could meet, drink and socialize with their peers. With her intuition and experience working in other bars, Helen screened new customers, tipping off her regulars through various methods when she was unsure whether they were legit. She became their protector, friend, occasional advisor and confessor, and they were very loyal to her in return.
The late Helen P. Branson released her memoir "Gay Bar" in 1957, and it became one of the first books by a heterosexual to portray gay men with empathy, love and respect. In this re-issue, Will Fellows takes Branson's original chapters and interleaves updates, subsequent research and commentary to put them in perspective. While Branson's observations occasionally mimic the stereotypes about gay men at the time, it's clear that she had only admiration for "her boys" and was thankful for the chance she had to be with them. The book is really a "time capsule" of gay history, not a scholarly work, but a look at a time and place one would otherwise not discover. It is both enchanting and enlightening reading for open-minded people of any age or sexual orientation, and I give it a full five stars out of five.
- Bob Lind, Echo Magazine