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A Welcome Treasure

  • Aug 21, 2010
Fellows, Will and Helen P. Branson. "Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s", University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.

A Welcome Treasure

Amos Lassen

Every once in a while a book comes along that makes the reader sit up and take notice. Will Fellows's "Gay Bar" is one such book as it gives us a look at an aspect of gay history and is so well written that it is hard to stop reading.
Helen Branson owned a gay bar in the 1950s at a time when gay bars were few and far between. She was in her 60s then and like the times she was not what we would call progressive. She did not let everyone in and preferred that the men who patronized her bar not be obvious about their homosexuality and there was a rule of no sexual touching. In the 50s on Melrose Avenue in Los Angles, she opened her bar and in 1957 she published a book about it. Will Fellows found the book some fifty years later and fills in what was missing. Branson had been a palm reader and this is her memoir about the place she ran. We see her as a warm and compassionate woman who loved her gay customers and seems to have understood them. The 50s were a time when California law prohibited "inverts" from gathering in bars, and vice squad entrapment of "deviates" was usual. Author Fellows gives us a new edition of Branson's memoir and we get a look at one aspect of gay America that could possibly have been lost forever. We meet a woman who was well ahead of her times and who believed that being gay was more than just sex and that gay couples who lived together considered themselves to be married partners. Here is a book about gay rights from before the Stonewall is an eye-opener. This is time capsule that shows us how gay people lived and where they met. Fellows analyzes the atmosphere of Helen's bar in order to give us a look at the culture of this country back then. Taken as a whole, this is a fascinating look at gay life "back in the day" and it is filled with detail and insights. It is extremely well written as it opens us to an almost forgotten period of GLBT history.
Basically "Gay Bar" is about a straight women who owned a gay bar and I agree there is nothing special there--yet. What is special is Helen Branson who gives us this primary source text of what gay life was like "back in the day". There is information about the relationships between gay men and gay men, gay men and women, a look at what gay parties were once like and what kind of behavior went on at Helen's bar. Fellows has taken the original 1957 narrative and adds historical and political information and we get an informative and en lightening reading experience.
As far as we know, the 1950s were an infamously anti-gay period in American history and this was when Helen decided to open her bar. She had been an entertainer in cocktail bars and was a divorced grandmother who liked gay men because of their wit and fun. Because of this she decided to provide a place for her gay friends to meet and socialize even though the gathering of gay men was prohibited by California law. She created a relaxing atmosphere that was relatively safe from police raids and other anti-homosexual hazards and in 1957 she published her memoir "Gay Bar", the first book by a heterosexual to lovingly and respectfully depict the lives of homosexuals. Now Will Fellows has taken her book and fills in what was missing and brings back the original introduction to the book by Blanche Baker as well as adding not just his own commentary but excerpts from letters and essays that were published in the gay media of the time. The book is an invaluable look at an anxious time in our history and how gay men saw themselves and how they were seen by others. Here is a book that should be the centerpiece of every gay man's library--it is that important.

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December 09, 2010
Great review! I would love to read about a woman who bucked tradition to do what was right- does opening up a bar make her Joan of Arc? No. But, having courage to do what's right and protect people's right to have a beer and socialize is commendable. Thanks for sharing :)
About the reviewer
Amos Lassen ()
Ranked #208
I am an academic who reivews movies and books of interest to the GLBT and Jewish communities.   I came to Arkansas after having been relocated here due to Hurricane Katrina. I was living in … more
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From a 21st-century perspective, 1950s bar owner Branson wasn't particularly progressive. The 60-something matron barred "the obvious homosexual" from her modest tavern, strongly preferred patrons who could pass for straight, and didn't allow sexual touching. But the onetime palm reader's spunky memoir about running a gay bar on a crime-prone stretch of L.A.'s Melrose Avenue, first published in 1957, is filled with warm affection for "my boys" and with an uncommon understanding of (and sympathy for) gays, at a time when California law prohibited "inverts" from gathering in bars, and vice squad entrapment of "deviates" was commonplace. By pairing this new edition of Branson's insightful memoir with a study of 1950s America, Fellows (A Passion to Preserve) clarifies how ahead of her time Branson was: she believed, for example, that being gay was about more than sex and that gay men living together could consider themselves married. This stimulating account of support for gay rights pre-Stonewall is an eye-opener.
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ISBN-10: 029924850X
ISBN-13: 978-0299248505
Author: Will Fellows
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press

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