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

Their son, Philip Kirmser, now a professor emeritus at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, tells of his parents growing up under German rule in Alsace following the Franco-Prussian war. Kirmser fled Alsace at the start of the century to avoid being drafted into the German army, and he found work in restaurants in Chicago. He brought his wife out a few years later and moved to St. Paul to work at the Saint Paul Hotel. The Kirmsers opened their bar/restaurant in 1930, working long hours, as Brown describes: "They opened in the late morning, cleaned up from the night before, put on the noon soup, and made the coffee, then worked straight through until closing at 1:00 a.m. every day except Saturday, when state blue laws dictated a midnight closing the minute the Sabbath began."

Both Brown and Philip Kirmser, who sometimes worked in the bar, make it clear that the Mr. and Mrs. Kirmser were fully aware that they had a different crowd in the evening. "If some of our conversations got a little loud or a little careless when [a] stranger was present, Mrs. Kirmser would 'Shoosh' the offender, adding a curt nod toward the straight customer nearby," Brown writes. "We always enjoyed these little acts of conspiracy on Mrs. Kirmser's part, her willing participation in the ruse that kept all of us safe."

"My parents were tolerant people," Philip Kirmser says of them. "They accepted Negroes in the bar when some people frowned on that. After all, they had some experience with intolerance," here referring to their childhood in occupied Alsace.

Mr. Kirmser died in 1954, and the business proved to be too much for an elderly woman to run on her own. She sold it a few years later. As quietly as it had existed, the bar faded from public view, and the secret community that had dwelled inside it went elsewhere.

Brown's book, written in Minneapolis during the 1990s after his retirement, brings this lost world back into the present. Which is, in some ways, a fitting place for it. Many of Brown's frank observations of gay life 50 years ago could easily slip into a memoir about Club Metro or the Saloon: the role of cruising and promiscuity in gay identity and the competing significance of stable partnerships, the sometimes uneasy alliances between gays and lesbians, the injustice of discrimination in the workplace and the military, and, last but not least, the status of the bar as a locus for homosexual culture.

Brown himself died in 1998 after having sent his manuscript to the University of Minnesota Press. His rough draft was smoothed into shape by poet and short-story writer William Reichard, who cleaned up the text's elliptical narrative and pared the book down into a tight, tough little collection of memories. Here is a look at a St. Paul that has seldom been documented, and at a moment in gay history that is usually shrouded in silence. Those who experienced the history had so much to lose if they were exposed. In one of his most sharply drawn paragraphs, Brown describes the haunted look cast upon him by the officer who presided over his dismissal from the navy. "Odd, how in just a second you can find so much exposed in another man's face: horror, compassion, and something else, something like recognition."

 

 

This story is an excerpt of the chapter “Lucky” from Ricardo J. Brown’s The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s: A Gay Life in the 1940s, published by the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2001 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota.

 

Lucky was something right out of the Wish Book, the name we gave to the big Montgomery Ward mail-order catalog that our families got during the Depression. "I wish I had that" or "I wish that was mine." That thick, glorious catalog--almost eight hundred pages and weighing at least five pounds--was a winter's entertainment when I was a boy.

We'd often sit around the kitchen table near the stove those cold winter nights and page through that enormous book. Its slick polished pages, finished in a fine brown tone the color of new pennies, were crammed with beautiful pictures of clothes, toys, furniture, kerosene stoves and coal stoves, diamonds and windmills, bicycles, summer horseshoes and winter horseshoes, and flowery linoleum rugs so richly patterned that the makers of the catalog showed them in rare, full color. There were pictures of console radios and mantel models, banjos and ukuleles, shotguns and bear traps, studio couches that turned into beds and real beds and books of every variety. One page, advertising Sex Facts Plainly Told across the page from Tales of Tarzan, had been cut out by our mother, but not before I'd seen a curious reference to something called Birth Control.

We reveled in all the things we couldn't afford, dreamed of our favorite things, a cowboy outfit with a clicker pistol and a fire-engine-red Lone Eagle coaster wagon for me, a horsehide aviator's helmet with earflaps and goggles for my brother, an electric train, an Orphan Annie wristwatch that Elizabeth liked, bathtubs and water closets in glowing, glorious white, like marble, rare works of art that all of us, even my dad, admired; all the things that Mother yearned for--a matching mohair living-room set, a console radio, and her greatest dream of all, an electric wringer washer.

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