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

In turn, Brown relates the tale of a friend of his, Dale, who was fired from an office job at Central Coal and Oil. Someone had made an anonymous call to the company saying, "You got a cocksucker working for you. His name's Dale."

"Dale was out of the door and out of a job that same morning," Brown continues, "and he spent the afternoon in the Garrick Theater, hiding in the dark, slumped down in his seat, sick to his stomach, sure he would never get another job, and panicked at the thought that he would have to go home and tell his mother that he had lost his job." To a generation that had grown up in the Depression, Brown explains, "A job was a sacred thing."

 

Because we are dealing with a community that took such necessary caution to protect its privacy, there is virtually no record left of its experiences, which makes Brown's book unique. Gay St. Paul? In the Forties? What do we know of it? Kirmser's itself is gone: The building it inhabited at 382 Wabasha St. was razed, replaced by the courtyard to the Norwest Center.

Even those homosexuals who went across the river, to the Viking Room in downtown Minneapolis's Radisson Hotel, have little to look to for memories. Brown speaks of this group disparagingly (he calls them "Ribbon Clerks" and "piss elegant"), his distinctly working-class tastes chafed by their pretensions to sophistication. The Viking Room, with its dark-stained oak finish and Arthur Wilberg murals showing scenes of Scandinavia, was "too high-class for us," filled with "bored-looking fellows who sat around in vested suits and Countess Mara neckties, drinking martinis and gossiping about the latest antics of Mae West as if they actually knew her." The Viking Room is gone too, along with any memory that it once catered to a homosexual crowd. All that remains of the place is a silver scale-model Viking ship designed by Edward Caldwell that currently hangs in the similarly named but nowhere near as fabulous Viking Lounge of the new Radisson--an artifact from Minnesota's gay history, misplaced and mute.

Brown's memoirs do much to give the era a voice, and it's a distinct one. A lifelong journalist, having worked as a court reporter for the Alabama Journal, court reporter and sports editor for the Fairbanks Daily News Mirror, and as the Minneapolis bureau chief for Fairchild Publications, he writes in a spare, no-nonsense style. There is something bleak about Brown's book--"deadpan," as the book's editor, William Reichard, describes it. Although Brown enthusiastically recalls his first encounters with the work of Willa Cather, his clipped descriptions bring to mind authors like James M. Cain and David Goodis. It's memoir as noir, describing the grim, grotesque experiences of huddled, hunted figures (in this, the book recalls another of Brown's favorites, Sherwood Anderson).

Take a look at Brown's description of a gay-bashing in Kirmser's in the chapter we're excerpting: The style is uncluttered and terse, a series of short, jolting sentences, followed by the sort of cruel denouement that noir authors adored. Brown, having interfered with the fight and taken a knockdown punch to the jaw, returns to his booth to discover his blandly handsome boyfriend glaring at him. "They looked at me as if I were a stranger, an unexpected and unsettling appraisal," Brown writes. Finally, the boyfriend speaks: "Why did you get into it?"

In fact, Brown's tough, common-Joe voice sometimes parrots the tone of the men's magazines described earlier. He rankles at effeminacy; it is almost possible to see him shudder in horror at the more queenish characters who inhabit his book, such as the wedding guest in Bette Davis drag from our excerpted chapter, or the characters he meets during a brief, unsuccessful move to Greenwich Village. Brown moves there fresh out of high school, lured by the promise of a city where he might feel normal. Instead, he is appalled at what he sees. Describing a drag show, he says of the performers, "There was something vivid about them, almost exciting, except for their eyes. Their eyes were not alive, but blank, cold, and glittering, hard as steel; they were ball-bearing eyes, machines that measured and challenged every member of the audience." The audience, it should be noted, didn't seem to mind--but then Brown is repelled by them as well. When the drag show ends, and the emcee rises and calls for applause, Brown notes that "the beasts in the audience obeyed."

He flees to St. Paul, and then into the navy, with equal failure (he eventually reveals himself to be a homosexual to his commanding officer, receiving a dishonorable discharge that, Brown notes, was not overturned until 1981). He secured part-time work in the circulation department of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, lying about his discharge (he claimed he was 4-F because of a punctured eardrum--a real ailment, but not the source of his dismissal). And then he found his way to Kirmser's.

 

There was nothing spectacular about the bar; as the book makes clear, it attracted an evening crowd of homosexuals simply because it tolerated them. The owners, always referred to in the book as Mr. and Mrs. Kirmser, were a middle-aged Alsatian couple who had met while working together in a butcher shop near the turn of the century.

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