Published in Boston Spirit Magazine
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.