The ’50s are a strange period– so bland and conservative on the surface, but with a lot bubbling up as well that would emerge in the turbulence of the 1960s.
–Neil Miller, author, Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s
Article published in Boston Spirit Magazine September/October 2014
It was a warm day for a cold war. The temperature reached 48 degrees in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 20, 1950. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) strode onto the stage with the down home confidence that endeared him to regular folks. To his audience, the barrel-chested former Marine was a welcome contrast to the effete Washington politicians with their East Coast superiority and secretive ways. The members of the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling were rapt as McCarthy dramatically claimed to possess a list of Communists working in the State Department. Over the next few weeks, his list of names fluctuated between 10 and 57 Communists.
In the end, McCarthy never produced a single one, but the fearful, repressive atmosphere his accusations created, hung over the country for years. Reputations, careers, and lives were ruined.
Labeled, “The McCarthy Era,” this period is a staple of high school textbooks as an object lesson in governmental persecution. Much less known was the mass interrogation and subsequent firings of thousands of gays and lesbians during this same period often called “The Lavender Scare.”
Within the federal government during the Cold War and extending into the 1970s, the assumption was that gays could be easily blackmailed by foreign agents who threatened to expose them as “sexual deviants” unless they provided secret information. Lesbians and gay men soon joined suspected Communists as the hunted. Unlike some of the accused movie stars and writers with leftist pasts, gays were easy targets because they could not retaliate. To complain to a newspaper reporter about forced interrogations and firings, meant admitting to being homosexual, something few people were prepared to do. By the end of the 1950s, over 5,000 federal workers were fired or forced to resign for being gay. Afterwards, some committed suicide, many others took lower-paying jobs in more accepting occupations like hairdressing and food service.
The roundups soon spread to state and local governments and even to private companies. David K. Johnson writes in his book, The Lavender Scare, that a 1958 study estimated “one in every five employed adults in America had been given some form of loyalty or security screening.” But it was lesbians and gays who were singled out and fired. (The military continued to interrogate and fire LGBT people until the practice was outlawed on September 21, 2011.)
In the 1950s, suburban neighborhoods sprouted throughout the country, teeming with new families, who had fled the cities. The young medium of television portrayed heterosexual life as noble and natural, driving gays more underground then they were a decade before.
Given all of this, you would think 1950s gay life in Boston was a depressing combination of secrecy, loneliness, and self-loathing.
Except that it wasn’t.
Sure, it was risky and certainly underground. But for those who went to bars, nightclubs and restaurants that attracted a gay clientele, Boston gay nightlife was rich, varied and even glamorous.
With the exception of the late 1970s, the variety of gay nightlife during the McCarthy Era in Boston, has never been equaled.
Scollay Square still existed then, though its years were numbered. Located where Government Center is today, the area attracted gays to its bars, burlesque houses and theaters. John H. grew up just outside Boston in the 1950s, and recalls the burlesque houses as an introduction to Boston nightlife. “There was a group of gay guys in my high school who dropped out to move into town. We never said anything but we all knew they were gay. They took us to the old Howard and the Casino. It was dirty comedians followed by strippers. It wasn’t sexy for us but it was exciting. There was one stripper named “Countess Bareassity.” After the shows, we’d go to the bars.”
Boston was a more active port of call for sailors then and they where regular visitors to Scollay Square bars, especially the Lighthouse, Half Dollar, and Silver Dollar. Gay men and sailors could meet at one of these bars and take a room at one of the cheap, nearby hotels. And if you were down on your luck or too drink to go home, you could spend the night at the Rialto, a 24-hour movie theater where men met for sex.
And then there was Park Square. The Punch Bowl, Jacques, the Napoleon Club, and Mario’s were all within a few blocks of each other. Unlike the Scollay Square bars that were ostensibly straight but frequented by gay people, these bars were expressly for gay people. The Punch Bowl was not hidden or at all secret. You could not miss the bold, cursive letters on it’s front: “The Punch Bowl.” In an interview with the Lesbian Herstory Archives, activist, Barbara Hoffman spoke about going to the Punch Bowl in the 1950s, “I still remember walking into this packed bar. It was an hour before closing, and they were six deep at the bar. I asked (my friend) Rodney if everyone here was gay, and he said yes. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Three blocks away, the Napoleon Club attracted a successful, older crowd. Liberace sometimes dropped by after a concert downtown. “The first gay bar I went to was probably was the Napoleon Club,” recalled the late Conrad Shumway in a 1995 interview with the History Project. “I think it was just one room downstairs (then) and a little entryway where you hung your coat. And of course, you had to wear a jacket and a necktie. The hatcheck girl, Ivory Rubin, would give you a beat-up old tie to put on. It would look like hell.“
Shumway had moved to Boston from Vermont in the early 1950s. One day, he walked into the Lincolnshire Hotel bar on Charles Street for a drink. “It was really a men’s bar for the hotel but the hotel’s business was fading away and it turned into a gay men’s bar. I met my partner there on June 27, 1952. He was in the real estate business.” Shumway and his partner ran boarding houses on Beacon Hill for the next 20 years.
Playland and the Chess Room were located in what later became the Combat Zone, Boston’s adult entertainment area in the 1960s- 1970s. The Chess Room served a dressy clientele of older men looking for younger men. It was in the basement of the Hotel Touraine. “The bartenders were hot as hell, but they didn’t like the gay clientele. To hold the job, they were told by the manager, ‘you’ve got to be nice to these people, they bring money in here. Behave.’ They wore white jackets with black bow ties, very proper. You had to wear a neck tie in there, too,” said Shumway.
Playland and 12 Carver Street attracted a more relaxed clientele. Blue-collar truck drivers mingled with Harvard students. Playland even had a few regular black patrons, unusual in Boston gay bars at this time. Phil Baionne, owner of 12 Carver Street (now replaced by the Transportation Building), was a large man who liked to mount a swing and glide over the crowd. Recalled Shumway, “He’d get all juiced up and get in his swing and say, “Now it’s time for Papa to swing. And she would sing “Summertime” and she’d wear a big straw picture hat with ribbons and bows and the ribbons hanging down and they would fly out and here she is, 300 pounds with this great big straw picture hat on… If she fell, she’d kill 300 people.”
After the bars closed, gay people went to the Waldorf Cafeteria and Childs — all-night eateries on Tremont and Boylston streets. Sometimes the noise level got so high the manger threw them out.
The highlight of the gay social season in the 1950s was the Beaux Arte Ball. The ball began in 1952 at the Fensgate Hotel at 534 Beacon Street, according to Shumway. The hotel manager was not happy when men waltzed into the lobby dressed in chiffon and ladies arrived in tuxedos. The ball moved to the Punch Bowl for several years where it attracted giant crowds, including many spectators who waited outside to see the men in drag enter in their lavish outfits.
One year, according to Shumway, a cab driver brought his wife to view the ball attendees. After the oohs and ahhs died down, he was heard to say to his wife, “Some of them look better than you. With that, she slapped him.”
The bleakest hours of the Lavender Scare of the 1950s have something in common with the height of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Under siege, queer people still danced and partied even as they were scapegoated, punished and neglected by their own government and society. For LGBT people, perhaps “the band plays on” because celebration is our gospel music. It defiantly proclaims: we’re still here.
What was it like to be queer in 1940s Boston? It’s impossible to fully capture the diverse experiences of LGBT people at any given time, much less a decade as momentous as the 1940s, but by reaching into the archives of The History Project, Boston LGBT archive, we can get a glimpse into the lives of five people who lived in a place and time that is at once familiar and alien.
The South End in the 1940s was a densely populated neighborhood of bars, restaurants, cheap hotels, and rooming houses. Prostitutes mingled with bookies at joints like the Junee Café (“When It’s Thirst, Come Here First”). On Washington Street, you could take in a floor show at the Hoffman Grill, which specialized in the “Finest Italian American food.” In was perfect for anyone who wanted to live anonymously.
Charles Gautreau stands in front of his mirror over the sink in his room in the New York Streets area of the South End. He applies mascara and lipstick, puckering his lips and widening his eyes, he slowly turns into his drag persona, Thelma. Charles shares the room with another man, Peter Seifried, whose drag name is May. They have trouble paying the meager rent and often spend what money they have on drinks and makeup. One time, they got so hungry, they captured a swan in the Public Garden and attempted to cook it in their room until the landlady found out and stopped them, or at least that is how the story went. If life was not easy, it could at least be glamorous with just the right touch of make-up and attitude.
Thelma and May liked to promenade up and down Tremont and Washington Streets, looking for men. Sometimes they ventured to the bars in Scollay Square but their bars were Playland and The Empty Barrel on Broadway in Bay Village. One night, a drunk man on Castle Street, asked May for a light. Two nearby undercover police officers jumped out from behind a lamppost and arrested May on suspicion of solicitation. While in jail, she was also charged with armed robbery. May had no involvement in the robbery and after providing an alibi, was released. From then on, she believed the police were out to get her.
During this time, James Lord, aged 20, had just arrived at the Army Specialized Training program at Boston College where he was ordered to study everything related to France: its language, culture, history, and customs. This was not hard duty for an intellectual like Lord. As a young gay man, he was also delighted to explore the pleasures offered by World War II Boston. A friend told him about the bar at the Statler Hotel (now Park Plaza). “The lobby was long and high, expensive and gold-plated, busy with war-time visitors. The friend recommended that Lord book a room and then proceed to the bar and pick someone up. ”It was packed with servicemen, several rows deep, standing along the crescent-shaped bar, too many to count…Crowded tight together, jostling back and forth, not one lady…among them.” When he squeezed into the bar, a sailor turned to Lord and said, “Hey, cutie, you must be new. I could blow you out of the water.”
Jean S. knew she was a lesbian but still she was “very naïve in those days.” She joined the WAC, an auxiliary corps of the Army, and was stationed at Fort Devens. She was then assigned to the Boston Army base and lodged at the Franklin House in the South End, which served as a barracks. “My commanding officer turned every head at the Boston Army base – 5’6”, curly blond hair, cute as can be and a smart cookie. She played around but she had a partner in Georgia.” Jean and her fellow WACS frequented a bar Bernstein’s, a few blocks away. Even though she knew there were other lesbians in the detachment, she did not cruise them or get cruised by them. “You just didn’t at this time. You just wouldn’t make reference to it.”
Preston Claridge, scion of a Mayflower family stood in his Harvard dorm room, knotting his tie. Everyone at the party he was invited to that evening in Wellesley would be gay and he was excited. “I always thought being gay was fun.” His friend Bernard, an older man, gave “tea parties” in which scotch was served to his gay friends and visiting servicemen. “It was there I danced with a beautiful young blond sailor named “Veronica,” because of his Veronica Lake style of hair falling over one eye.”
Claridge later attended a party at the Copley Plaza for sailors from the Baltimore, a ship stationed in Boston Harbor. There were about 40 Marines assigned to the Baltimore and Claridge estimated that between him and his friends, they slept with 90% of them. “”Once they discovered they could get a little cash and free food…they seemed to fall all over themselves to meet us.”
Cruising continued along the paths on Boston Common during the war. Then, as today, encounters did not always turn out well. Headlines in The Midtown Journal, a South End scandal sheet, announced, “Down Maine Man Meets Buddy on Common. Loses Bankroll, Pants, and Confidence.” Another one: “Lonesome Man 23, Beats Friend for $3 In Snatch From Drawer in Room.”
Whatever happened to Thelma, May and the others portrayed here?
Thelma and May’s story was serialized in The Midtown Journal in the early 1940s, by writer and publisher, Frederick E. Shibly. According to Libby Bovier of The History Project, Charles Gatreau (Thelma) later worked as a housekeeper for gay bar owner, Phil Baione. The Midtown Journal’s serialization claims that Peter Seigfried, (May) was accidentally killed in Detroit soon after moving there from the South End. Preston Claridge served as an assistant headmaster at a private school for many years. The late James Lord became an art critic and author and was friends with Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and Picasso. Jean S. and her partner Louise Y. (names withheld at their request) became successful photographers in Boston. Louise worked at Bachrach Studios and with legendary photographer, Bernice Abbott.