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Gay Bar

The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s

Will Fellows

Publication Year: 2010

Vivacious, unconventional, candid, and straight, Helen Branson operated a gay bar in Los Angeles in the 1950s—America’s most anti-gay decade. After years of fending off drunken passes as an entertainer in cocktail bars, this divorced grandmother preferred the wit, variety, and fun she found among homosexual men. Enjoying their companionship and deploring their plight, she gave her gay friends a place to socialize. Though at the time California statutes prohibited homosexuals from gathering in bars, Helen’s place was relaxed, suave, and remarkably safe from police raids and other anti-homosexual hazards. In 1957 she published her extraordinary memoir Gay Bar, the first book by a heterosexual to depict the lives of homosexuals with admiration, respect, and love.
    In this new edition of Gay Bar, Will Fellows interweaves Branson’s chapters with historical perspective provided through his own insightful commentary and excerpts gleaned from letters and essays appearing in gay publications of the period. Also included is the original introduction to the book by maverick 1950s psychiatrist Blanche Baker. The eclectic selection of voices gives the flavor of American life in that extraordinary age of anxiety, revealing how gay men saw themselves and their circumstances, and how others perceived them.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

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pp. vii-xiv

AMERICAN LIFE IN THE 1950s was vastly more complex and fascinating than popular imagination would suggest. Of particular interest to me, it was the period in which homosexuals emerged from the shadows, the crucible within which the modern gay rights movement originated. My chance discovery of Helen P. Branson’s long out of print Gay Bar opened an illuminating window into those fretful, hopeful times...

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From the Dust Jacket of the Original Edition

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pp. xv-xx

Casting a spotlight on one of those gathering places found in every largecity . . . written by a woman who knows her subject from the inside out, GAY BAR tells the humor, the heartbreak, the piercing reality of the lives. But make no mistake about it. The people who are Helen Branson’scustomers are not the depraved and sinister characters so often presented...

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pp. 3-20

In Gay Bar Helen Branson strikes a new note in homophile literature, for in it she accepts and appreciates homosexuals. When we discussed the book together, we were pleasantly surprised to find how thoroughly we agreed on so many points concerning this controversial subject. Therefore I am pleased and happy to set forth some of my views to accompany her book...

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pp. 21

This is how it happened. Over a year ago I had dinner with my friends Faye and Barro. After an imaginative feast we sat in the den talking ceramics, listening to records and discussing events in my bar. Faye said, ‘You should write a book.’ I grinned at her. ‘Me? Write a book?’ The suggestion stayed with me. After much thought I mapped a course.

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Chapter 1

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pp. 23-33

I own a homosexual bar. In the nomenclature of the homosexual, it is called a Gay Bar. My appearance does not make you think of me as a bar owner. My demeanor could remind you of your sixth grade teacher or the librarian in the Maple Street branch library. I am what is called heavy set, have silverhair, blue eyes, and walk in a positive manner. If you met me away from my business, my conversation would be about herbs or my grandson or...

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Chapter 2

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pp. 34-38

Everyone has his problems. He may not like his job, or he is paying for a house or he is starting in business for himself or he has to get a new car. These problems are always with us. The homosexual has other problems that have started when he was young and that remain with him today. He cannot talk them over with those close at home, in fact he...

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Chapter 3

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pp. 39-56

I cannot make an overall statement that all these boys have talent, but the percentage is very high. At least the results seem to show talent in artistic fields.They have one advantage. They can concentrate on the project because they have solitude. Every pattern of living has its advantages and its short-comings. In this group lonesomeness is the phantom that hovers over every one. So they keep active. Add to this a high content of imagination...

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Chapter 4

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pp. 57-63

The police play a very important part in my job of running the bar. There are two parts to the story.First and most important is the activity of the vice squad. I am more or less in the middle. I realize that in a city of this size, and with the large percentage of inverts here, the police have to have a strong hand in...

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Chapter 5

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pp. 64-78

In an endeavor to keep the bar a cozy place for my regular customers, I am eternally at war with undesirables. That is, undesirable from our viewpoint. If an owner of a gay bar does not want the harassment and complaints from the neighbors, he tries to choose a location that is not very elite. In my neighborhood, the large apartment house nearby has police cars standing in front of it many times during the month. The rumor is that some of...

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Chapter 6

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pp. 79-92

When these boys join forces and set up housekeeping, they are said to be married. They refer to each other as roommates and they behave similar to a heterosexually married couple. Many people have the idea that one is masculine and the other feminine but this is not often true, at least from what I have been able to observe. They both work. Each may assume certain duties in the house according to his particular talents. One may be a better cook than the other,...

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Chapter 7

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pp. 93-95

Over and over I have been asked how I got started with gay fellows. It has been a gradual convergence. For many years I worked in night clubs as a character analyst, using my knowledge of palmistry as an entertainment feature. It was there that I became aware that some of the men entertainers were different, but being unsophisticated, it took me a while to realize that they were homosexuals. Even then I did not fully understand the situation. I enjoyed being...

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Chapter 8

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pp. 96-110

Speaking selfishly, probably the outstanding fascination in operating the bar is the fun we have. There is never a dull moment. The fast repartee goes over my head at times and they get a laugh at my puzzled expression. If I chuckle a bit later, that brings another laugh at my slowness. There is no maliciousness in the laughter, just fondness for me even if I am slow. I have a feeling of being in my home and they are my...

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Chapter 9

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pp. 111-115

There is one trait, that most of the boys have, that I deplore. It is that they do not want to fight with their families or friends or even in business and the outcome is that they get ‘taken’ over and over again. I understand this attitude to some extent. I hate a fight but when I feel that I have had enough, then I am a nasty fighter...

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Chapter 10

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pp. 116-128

My straight friends often ask me how these boys got started. They want to know if the boy has been seduced by an older man. At what age did he know he was homosexual? Why does he stay in this life? I do not have any pat answers. There is a pattern of early rearing with many of the same incidents showing, but many heterosexuals have had...

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For the Record

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pp. 129-143

One evening some months ago, just after I had opened for the night, the phone rang. When I answered, a male voice said, ‘Is this Mrs. Branson? ’Yes,’ I replied. ‘This is Dr. Kinsey of Indiana University,’ he said. I was excited, but managed to express my pleasure in hearing from him. He said, ‘Mr. Owen wrote me about you, saying you would like to meet me and would be glad to answer my questions.’ The result of this phone call was a one o’clock appointment...

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pp. 145-151

AN ILLUMINATING PERIOD PIECE, Gay Bar is a small time capsule. Years later we open it and examine the contents, sometimes puzzling over their meaning and significance. Some things we understand well, others not so well. Hard as we may try, we can never fully grasp what life was like for homosexuals in that age of anxiety...

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pp. 153-154

I AM GRATEFUL TO THE VARIOUS INDIVIDUALS who have helped me in the making of this book. For many years, Raphael Kadushin and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin Press have nurtured and brought forth books that document and illuminate queer lives. Dean Gray’s desire to bring Gay Bar to life on the stage motivated me to do the research that led to this book...

Notes on Sources

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pp. 155-163


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pp. 165-166

E-ISBN-13: 9780299248536
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299248505

Page Count: 166
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Gay men -- California -- Los Angeles -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • Gay bars -- California -- Los Angeles.
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