L.A. in the Day
Historian Lillian Faderman's latest work reveals a mid-century Los Angeles teeming with queer activity. We have a preview excerpt.
by Lillian Faderman
In Los Angeles before World War II there were only a few places that catered primarily to lesbians. They were usually in the tradition of the upscale nightclub, and they promoted an exotic glamour, much like the lesbian bars of Weimar Berlin. They included Jane Jones' and Tess's (called in its various iterations Tess's Continental and Tess's Café Internationale). The eponymous Jane Jones was a big woman with a basso profundo voice who'd been a singer in movie musicals. Tess's was owned by Tess—a woman who dressed in basic black, pearls, and a great deal of makeup—and her partner Sylvia—who looked like Radclyffe Hall and always carried a long cigarette holder. Both Tess's and Jane Jones' featured male impersonators such as Tommy Williams and Jimmy Renard—tall, broad-shouldered women singers who wore tuxes and bow ties and had tenor voices. Gay women who frequented those nightclubs still remember Jimmy Renard's rendition of "Tonight We Love" and the evening that Tommy Williams brought Marlene Dietrich to Tess's and sang to her. Unlike nightclubs such as Jimmy's Backyard and the Barn that had a large gay male clientele and featured female impersonators, Jane Jones's and Tess's suffered no raids nor closings by the police because the phenomenon of the lesbian was not yet taken very seriously in 1930s Los Angeles.
Even into the 1940s, upscale lesbian nightclubs were still relatively safe. At the Flamingo in Hollywood, Beverly Shaw entertained wearing drag on her top half—a man's jacket and bow tie; and sexy-lady clothes on her bottom half—a short skirt and high heels. At the Gypsy Room on the Sunset Strip, women could be openly demonstrative with one another, as Dottie remembers: "There were a lot of women in tuxedos and a lot in beautiful gowns. Dancing was the thing. We could hug our partner and dance as close as we wanted. We never worried about the place being raided." Perhaps the Gypsy Room patrons were not harassed by the law (as waltzing male couples undoubtedly would have been) because it was still socially acceptable for two women to dance together in the 1940s, and there were so few of these elegant women-only nightclubs that they may have fallen beneath the radar screen of the LAPD.
But lesbian nightspots multiplied in the years after the War. Their clientele was boosted by the many gay women who had come to Los Angeles to work in the defense industries and stayed on. Working-class "gay-girls" beer-and-pool table bars were soon scattered around many of the poorer areas of Los Angeles. They were different from the Sunset Strip and Hollywood nightclubs in that their patrons were regulars: women who "hung out" there and sometimes imposed on anyone who hoped to get along in the bar stringent rules that governed butch-femme dress and behavior. Their working-class style and lingo felt alienating to middle-class lesbians. Terry DeCrescenzo, who had been a social worker, remembers that when she walked into the If Club, "a stereotypical dyke bar," as she describes it, the butches there called to each other, "Here comes a dish of ice cream." She was terrified. "I was in there for eight minutes," she says. Middle-class lesbians generally stayed away from such bars, just as middle-class heterosexuals stayed away from those bars' straight equivalents. As Min, who was a businesswoman, and her partner Marion, who was director of nursing in a Los Angeles hospital, now recall of their one foray into a gay-girls beer bar:
"Some friends sent us to this place in Torrance—probably as a joke. We took one look around and then almost knocked each other over trying to get out. It was a different socio-economic group. First of all, we didn't want beer, and we didn't want to play pool. We wanted a cocktail and to listen to nice music. And secondly, everyone there was either a stomping butch, dressed like a man, or a frou-frou femme. We sure didn't fit."
But for many working-class lesbians ("the industrial set," lesbian-bar owner, Rikki Streicher, called them), those bars were a haven to which they retreated often—so that by the 1950s, such places had burgeoned throughout L.A., and there was a considerable choice of nightspots where gay girls might go: the Lakeshore near Westlake Park, and the If Club on Eighth and Vermont, both of which had started in the decade before but continued to flourish; the Cork Room, the Star Room, and the Paradise Club, where butch-and-femme couples less fashionable than those at the Gypsy Room could dance; the Pink Glove in the Valley that imposed a five dollar cover charge on straight customers to keep them away; the Redhead in East L.A. that welcomed only Mexican-American lesbians; the Open Door (just across the street from the If Club) where lesbian blue-collar and pink collar workers rubbed shoulders with prostitutes—and M & M, a bar with a similar mix that catered primarily to Latinas, where Nancy Valdez remembers being dressed "very butch" when a john said to her, "If you weren't so pretty I'd pop you one," and a femme waitress coming to her defense by throwing a beer bottle and an ashtray at the man.
In the sixties, as L.A.'s population continued to grow and the city and county to spread out, such bars began cropping up even in small communities and neighborhoods to serve local gay girls who preferred not to travel the freeways—Joan's Place in Long Beach; the Bull Dog, the Big Horn, and the Hialia in the Valley; the Big Candle in Inglewood; the Westwinds in Venice; the Daily Double in Pasadena; Arnie's on Washington; Dee's Merry-Go-Round on Manchester and Vermont, which attracted mostly black gay girls; and the Plush Pony on Alhambra, which attracted mostly Chicana gay girls. When the number of bars increased, so did police harassment inside the bars. Eileen Leaffer, a sociologist who studied L.A. lesbian-bar society in 1967, observed that Los Angeles Vice Squad officers hung around gay girls' bars so often that bar regulars could distinguish them from tourists or "fish queens" (men whose preferred sex act was cunnilingus, and who hoped to meet lesbians in the bars who would be amenable). The regulars in the bars made sure to warn new patrons as soon as they befriended them about the plain-clothes officers in their midst ("He's not kosher. You know...Vice").
LAPD harassment of lesbians outside the bars increased as well. A woman's homosexual appearance alone seems to have been sufficient justification to flash the badge. Masculine looking lesbians, or those congregating around a lesbian bar, or a butch-femme couple simply walking down the street together, were slapped with charges that were often as false as those devised in bar raids. Meko, an African-American woman, says that she and her friends were "hauled in" by the LAPD regularly on weekends—sometimes just for standing in front of the If Club or the Open Door: "They'd lie and say that we were prostituting, and they'd take us off to jail. We'd have to stay there until we got bailed out."
Sometimes, Meko remembers, they were arrested just for walking in pairs, going from one bar to another on Eighth and Vermont, especially if one of them was a "hard dresser" (the term among black lesbians for a woman who wore masculine clothes): "They'd say that we were 'fondling' each other. We'd have to pay a fine for 'fondling,' which was a misdemeanor." Rikki Streicher also remembered that during her mid-century years in Los Angeles, gay-girl couples could not walk down the street safely:
"A cop car would drive up and the cops would say, 'Where are you going?' We'd say, 'We're going to da-da-da, around the corner.' And they'd say, 'Let's see your ID.' We'd have to show ID. And if they somehow got the impression that we're queer, they'd book us. They'd book us on god knows what, but they'd book us."
Driving was no safer: Many patrons of gay-girls bars now recall that they did not dare even to park their car in the vicinity of a bar because "the police might see it and wait for you to come out. Then they'd follow you and arrest you for anything." Police officers seemed all to share the conviction that a woman's mere status as a lesbian was tantamount to her criminality.
The most common reason for police harassment of lesbians on the streets of Los Angeles in the mid-century was "masquerading"—wearing clothing that was deemed appropriate only for men. It is difficult to imagine in our day how disturbed some people have been in the past, even in a major metropolis such as Los Angeles, at the mere sight of a woman in pants (Garbo, Dietrich, and Hepburn notwithstanding), and how intense the efforts were to keep ladies garbed in skirts, even during the war. Though women were donning trousers to work in defense factories, Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron declared to his city council in 1942 that he loathed "to see masculine women much more than feminine traits in men," and he decreed that gender desecration must not take place among the women workers in his City Hall: "Good taste and good sense" must prevail there, he said, admonishing the council members to forbid women to wear pants and not to let the war "undermine these things we like to consider feminine and ladylike."
The 1950s witnessed even more concern over the undermining of things considered feminine and ladylike. Women who had enjoyed high wages and social freedoms during World War II were strongly encouraged to relinquish them for domesticity and dependence in the post-war years. Because cross-dressing women visibly continued to claim a male prerogative, the forces of reaction came down upon them. Despite the two 1950 court decisions that found that women who dressed in men's clothes were not breaking the law, throughout the fifties cross-dressing women were more persecuted in Los Angeles than ever before.
Up to World War II, female transvestites had apparently continued to be treated with relative tolerance in L.A. In 1940 a woman barber who was en route to buy supplies for her shop was arrested by the Vice Squad and charged with being dressed to impersonate a man. But the businessmen in her neighborhood came to her defense by testifying that she was not "impersonating" because they all knew she was a woman, as well as a person of fine character; and—as one sympathetic newspaper reporter (erroneously) stated—there was anyway "nothing in the statute books which prohibits a woman from donning men's clothing." The felony booking charge against her for impersonation was dropped.
Women who cross-dressed in the postwar years were not as lucky. Like the woman arrested for "male impersonation" in 1940, Nancy Valdez was also a barber, but her run-ins with the law fifteen years later were brutal. During the time Nancy was a student in barber school, she was arrested "almost every weekend" because she wore short hair and men's clothes: "Drapes I'd get off the rack and a tailor would alter them. A sweater with tweed in front and wool in back that cost me twenty-seven dollars. The cops would get me for masquerading and then add on stuff, like they'd say I was drunk too, even though I was cold sober." Usually the police would take her to Lincoln Heights Jail, where she would spend a night or two before her case was heard in court the following Monday. "The cops would bring my clothes in as Exhibit A. Sometimes they'd sit behind me, goading me, laughing, saying things like 'Better not fuck around with my wife.'" Nancy says the police worried her so much that "whenever I'd see a black-and- white I'd run and hide until they were gone." In 1959, tired of repeated jail stays when she didn't run fast enough, she went to the Los Angeles County Law Library on Hill Street, checked the penal code, and found that the courts had already decided in 1950 that women were not breaking the law simply because they wore men's clothes. She provided her lawyer with that information and he used it in her defense. Finally, she says, she stopped being thrown in jail.
But though her arrests ceased, malicious police harassment did not. Once she became a barber, her neighborhood policeman found an extra-legal way to trouble her and even to threaten her livelihood: "He'd walk his beat where I worked. He just didn't like the way I dressed. He'd knock on the barbershop window with his nightstick, really loud, and my customers would jump to the ceiling. It's a good thing I had steady hands or I would've nicked their ears off lots of times."
Nancy admits to having been defiant in her younger years when she was repeatedly accosted by the police: "They used to tell me, 'I want to see you in a dress.' I said to them, 'Sit down and wait 'cause you're gonna get tired.'" But clearly it was not her defiance alone that brought about her persecution. Even if a butch woman complied with the rules of dress and did nothing to challenge law officers, she ran the risk of police harassment anyway, sometimes for surprising reasons. Frankie Hucklenbroich, who stood at 5'11', tells of dressing up in a skirt, high heels, a woman's blouse, and a tailored jacket when she was job hunting one day in 1957. At the end of the afternoon she'd gone to meet her girlfriend at Coffee Dan's, a restaurant in Hollywood whose clientele included gay people and largely-oblivious heterosexuals:
"And suddenly these cops are descending on me and telling me to get up and step outside. They wanted to arrest me. I kept asking, 'What have I done?' I hadn't a clue. Everyone was looking. Finally one of the cops said that I was a man dressed up in women's clothes! "No! I'm a woman!" I kept telling them. They ended up calling a police matron who took me into the ladies room and made me prove that I wasn't a guy."
While Frankie's story may be uncommon, the stories of mid-century lesbians who were arrested for cross-dressing—in big American cities—are not. An urban myth soon emerged in lesbian communities that had little basis in legal reality: that is, that the police could not arrest a woman for masquerading if she was wearing three articles of women's clothing. Flo Fleischman believed the myth, just as most gay women did: "In those days," she says "if you were dressed in drag you went to jail; so though I'd wear mostly men's clothes, I'd also be sure to be wearing a bra and girl's underpants and some other thing—nail polish or earrings or a man-tailored shirt that buttoned like a blouse or maybe pants that zipped up on the side." Gay women held on to the "three articles" myth as though it were a talisman. But it did little to help them avoid capricious arrests.
Because the police were so hostile to them, lesbians all too often internalized the notion of their criminal status and saw themselves as outlaws, separate from much of the human community, regardless of who they really were and what they really felt about their fellow beings. The costs of that outlaw self-definition could be dear, to themselves certainly, but also to the larger society. One Los Angeles woman illustrates those costs by telling the sad story of an incident that occurred in 1965:
"I'm driving on the freeway…It's about empty…sunset…and this VW bug is in the fast lane. I'm in the right lane. I don't know if the guy had a heart attack or what happened. He came careening across at a right angle and smacked into the concrete. I had all this paranoia that if I [stopped and called Emergency] the cops are going to pick up a dyke and stuff like that…so I was afraid to stop. I always regretted it. I don't know what happened [to the man]. I panicked and got the hell out of there because I was dressed like a dyke."
The memory and her sense that— because of police hostility against people like her—she had failed her own rules of responsible and decent behavior have haunted her ever since.
Excerpted with permission from Lillian Faderman's forthcoming Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Lavender Tandems, and Lipstick Lesbians (Perseus Books).
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