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Journal of the History of Sexuality 12.2 (2003) 171-204

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The B-Girl Evil:
Bureaucracy, Sexuality, and the Menace of Barroom Vice in Postwar California

Amanda H. Littauer
University of California, Berkeley

"ONE SERVICEMAN FLEECED BY A B-girl said it was like having teeth extracted by novocaine." So San Francisco Examiner reporter Ernest Lenn described the experience of being "taken" by a "slick" San Francisco B-girl in January 1953. Posing as a visitor from New York out on the town, Lenn lounged at a Tenderloin bar and asked one of the "quietly dressed" women sitting "demurely on [a] bar stool" if she would like a drink. Employing a common "B-girl subterfuge gimmick," the "brunette in [a] tailored gray suit" accepted a beer and explained that she was a private secretary dropping by for a nightcap before heading home. As the night wore on, her "Death Valley thirst" for drinks paralleled her physical intimacy with Lenn. The woman abandoned the "ensconced romance," however, the moment Lenn's money dried up. Then "the thermostat did an immediate nose dive," the brunette hurried off to meet a friend, and the "fleecing" came to an end. 1

In an interview with Lenn, "Ginger," a former B-girl, provided an inside perspective on the B-girl trade. "In the B-girl racket," she explained, "you think you'll find excitement, meet all sorts of guys, easy money. But brother, you work." By studying the technique of other "Bs," Ginger learned "the approach—how to make a pickup; how to keep the drinks coming; how to keep tab of each drink with a matchbook; what to do when the customer gets too amorous; how to get rid of a customer, when [End Page 171] he's broke. . . . We meet a sucker, hit pay dirt, and start digging." So why, Lenn inquired, did Ginger quit the racket? "It was the sitting there listening to the customers, night after night. Sitting there, taking it. The holding hands, and necking. Drinking all those phony drinks. . . . And besides, honey, the blankety-blank barkeep was shortchanging me on my earnings." 2

Throughout the history of saloons and bars, women have lured men into buying them drinks in exchange for the promise or receipt of sexual favors. In their post-Prohibition American form, so-called "B-," or bar-girls, worked in cities around the country, periodically moving in and out of the public eye according to the machinations of local policing, politics, and reform. In 1953 the perceived problem of B-girls entered political discourse in California and flooded Bay Area newspapers in stories like the ones above. The drive to put San Francisco B-girls out of business was fueled by political figures, including, most prominently, San Francisco District Attorney Thomas Lynch, California Governor Earl Warren, State Attorney General Edmund Brown, and California State Assemblyman Julian Beck. They employed such tactics as increased enforcement of existing liquor laws, shakeups of local police departments and liquor control boards, the passage of new criminal statutes, and, ultimately, the reform of liquor law administration itself. Enforcement authorities in the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and on the California State Board of Equalization responded to political and media pressure to suppress B-girl activity, shaping the contours of the campaign in the process. 3

Newspapers exposed and sensationalized tricks of the B-girl trade. Tales of bar raids, vice investigations, and the B-girl "menace" loomed on the front pages of San Francisco's major newspapers throughout the winter and spring of 1953. Stories involving local urban graft and barroom exploitation had remarkable staying power, though they were occasionally supplanted by national stories reporting the latest victim of HUAC, the execution of the Rosenbergs, and, of course, the birth of Desi Arnaz Junior. The public, however, was curiously quiet. Although the story's implied associations with organized crime, promiscuous sexuality, consumer fraud, San Francisco's urban underworld, and cold war subversion held public attention long enough to sell papers, public...