The Gay '40s

A man named Flaming Youth cruised the tearooms, drag weddings hit Lake Minnetonka--and everyone remained cloistered in the closet: An excerpt from Ricardo J. Brown's memoir of gay life in old St. Paul

Have you ever seen that Warner Bros. cartoon titled "Book Revue," set in a drugstore late at night? The camera flashes over row after row of magazines from the 1940s, and one after another they spring to life. As a peculiar jazz score swings in the background, Daffy Duck--dressed in a zoot suit, his hair coifed into a pom-pom of blond curls--launches into a breathless scat. In turn, characters pull themselves from the pages of real-life glossy weeklies with titles like Rogue and Photoplay.

Interesting, those magazines. Flipping through them nowadays, we get a look at a Forties not preserved in Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation. I used to be obsessed by them, the men's magazines and the crime magazines of the period. While weeklies such as Life presented an optimistic America--a country returning from World War II to an unlimited future of high-paying jobs, comfortable suburban homes, and family outings to ballparks--the crime stories showed a side of society that simply wasn't making it. Here were the stories of dope fiends holed up in

seedy hotels, rolling drunks for their pocket change. Here were prostitutes, their throats slashed in the back seat of taxicabs. Here were photographs of children, sleeping seven to a bed in a row apartment, asphyxiated in a fire. And here were stories of homosexuals. The vice squads would storm public restrooms or private apartments, leading dozens of men out to the paddy wagon, each man covering his face with his hat or his coat to hide from the blinding flash of the press photographers.

The magazines printed photographs of drag queens, still in their dresses, sitting unhappily behind bars, giving the photographer a weak smile. The caption underneath the photograph was inevitably surprising: She stormed the beach at Normandy!, it would say, or This "lady" was once a priest!

Homosexuals turned up only in the crime magazines--where they were arrested--or in the men's magazines--where they were attacked. There was a language used in these latter magazines that is not often found anymore, a style intended specifically to describe "weak" men. Effete male movie stars were described as "simpering" or "flouncing." When homosexuals appeared in stories, they inevitably "giggled" and "twittered." Gay men could be expected to "screech" at each other when they were fighting, and "coo" at each other when they weren't.

In a typically hard-boiled manner, these magazines told stories of bartenders de-queering their bars with baseball bats, or of tough guys slapping uppity queens at parties. Indeed, our noirish Daffy Duck cartoon returns repeatedly to a nelly newspaper columnist clapping and laughing like a little girl, and the closing image has a brutish criminal repeating the gesture. Come to think of it, just how many Warner Bros. cartoons ended with one of the characters suddenly being struck queer and waggling a finger, decrying the others as "thilly"?

These images seem strikingly merciless nowadays, and maybe we shouldn't be surprised to discover that as far as homosexuality in the Forties went, these were close to the only public images available. Gays and lesbians kept a necessarily low profile in those days, even with one another. "The only point of reference we had was Oscar Wilde," one writer from the era explains bitterly, "a man destroyed by the public discovery of his homosexuality, a scandal so great that it came down to haunt even people like us half a century later, despite the conspiracy of silence, censorship, and hypocrisy."

The author of that line is Ricardo J. Brown, writing about a working-class gay bar in downtown St. Paul during the Forties in his new book The Evening Crowd at Kirmser's, to be published in August by the University of Minnesota Press. "We never just walked into Kirmser's," Brown writes at the beginning of his memoir, "nothing as simple as that. We scouted the terrain to see who might be watching us. If the coast was clear, we stepped forward quickly, yanked the door open, and lunged inside, head down, moving toward the cover of a booth or the safety of a barstool out of range of that small, oblong window."

Brown's book is a document of such furtiveness--after all, Kirmser's itself was nothing outrageous. It was a small, nondescript bar, "long, narrow, and deep, like a tunnel," according to Brown. It wasn't even a uniquely gay bar: "Kirmser's was a workingman's bar," Brown writes, "straight in the daytime and queer at night. Its daytime customers were day laborers, cabdrivers, old clerks, pensioners, railroad men, and a few tough old barflies who found the dim, quiet interior restful and the prices reasonable." Brown confesses that most St. Paul residents were unaware that the evening crowd at the bar was gay--in fact, many St. Paul homosexuals didn't know about the place. So why all the secretiveness?

Because, Brown explains, any breach in anonymity could have devastating results. Brown's narrative is a document of camouflage, and of the terrible possibilities that could accompany any breach of discretion. Voices were kept low at Kirmser's, last names were never used, and customers sat, almost unconscious of doing so, with their backs to the window. When they saw each other outside the bar, they would avert eyes and refrain from speaking, or fabricate blustery explanations for their families as to how they knew each other. "We didn't like to take chances," Brown writes.

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