In 1957, just as the obscenity trial over “Howl” was coming to a head, the Mattachine-associated Pan-Graphics Press published a much different cri de couer: Helen P. Branson’s Gay Bar.
With an introduction by Blanche M. Baker, M.D., “America’s first advice columnist for homosexuals” who, according to historian and author Will Fellows, preferred the fluidity of Gavin Arthur’s Circle of Sex to Kinsey’s Scale and believed that gay men and women were reincarnations of souls previously embodied by the opposite gender, Gay Bar is a fascinating artifact—a sparse, conversational series of essays about life at Helen’s, a Los Angeles gay bar that managed to be both unabashed and discreet. Although the initial print run of 3,000 sold out, Pan-Graphics never paid Branson any royalties outside of her $200 advance.
But then, Gay Bar was not written to be a best seller. It was propaganda, intended “to amend the erroneous public thinking about places called ‘gay bars.’” It was also a courageous act by a straight, single 60-year-old woman whose strength and dedication to her gay friends was enormous—and hardly the norm—in an era when non-conformism was “the major, perhaps the only, sin of our time,” as Fellows quotes another American psychiatrist from the 1950s.
In this reissue of Gay Bar, Fellows has dusted off Branson’s and Baker’s words and placed them alongside snippets of letters and clippings of articles from the period. Throughout this slim book, he provides a dry, informative commentary that reads between the woman’s lines. His extensive research and brief asides remind us that all was not calm before the storm of gay civil rights—that the 50s were more of a clandestine cloud-seeding.
As we know now, World War II helped numerous gay men (and women) discover themselves. Connected by a few publications (most notably ONE and the Mattachine Review), those who strived for love despite strident loathing by the world around them were given hope in 1948 when Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male began to explain homosexuality to the rest of the populace. Kinsey (who, Fellows tells us, eventually met and interviewed Helen Branson) also said that gay men were everywhere, which turned out to be more frightening than illuminating.
Add to this restless stew a splash of Communist paranoia, and soon ruined careers, families, relationships and suicides followed.
Although Helen’s at 5124 Melrose, a few blocks east of the RKO and Paramount lots, was “one tiny twinkle in L.A.’s ever-changing constellation of gay gathering places,” its existence provided a relatively safe haven for her “gay boys.” An anomaly at a time when straight men ran gay bars, Helen, a former “character analyst” (or palm reader) at underground homophile clubs, set out deliberately to build her own establishment that catered to gay men exclusively. That is, professional “manly” gay men for Helen were the first to admit that her big-hearted fag adoration had its limits.
She treated “screeching” gay boys affected by “the swish” as she treated hustlers, suspected vice and other undesirables. Helen’s “club” of a gay bar wasn’t the kind of place anybody could enter without her approval; yet, despite expulsion to anyone with bleached hair, limp wrists and eyeliner, it didn’t hurt if one had the biting wit and outrageous hyperbole of a screaming queen.
With a half-century’s hindsight, it’s humorous to read how Helen, her boys and their fellow homophiles fumble about with the reasons and rationale behind who and why they are, or in Helen’s words, “how these boys get started.” The book is also fascinating to read at a time when our culture-at-large romanticizes and reassesses last century’s conformist mid-section.
Note to Hollywood: Someone should jump on this book. The time seems ripe for Queer as Folk meets Cheers meets Mad Men.
I can see it now: Helen’s starring Betty White, with Neil Patrick Harris, David Hyde Pierce and Sean Hayes in grey flannel suits. Perhaps Liam Neeson could reprise Kinsey for a cameo—or maybe omnipresent homophile James Franco could give it a whirl?
That would be a howl.
—— GAY BAR
The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s
By Will Fellows and Helen P. Branson
University of Wisconsin Press
Hardcover, 9780299248505, 186pp