Synopses & Reviews
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.
“Will Fellows uncovers a remarkable time capsule of how gay folks lived and gathered a half-century ago in a small bar on Melrose in Los Angeles, interweaving the remarkable charm of bar owner Helen Branson’s 1957 memoir with his own deft cultural analysis.”—Tim Miller, performer and author of Body Blows and 1001 Beds
"Few books are unique, but this one comes close. It’s the firsthand, contemporary account by a straight woman, Branson, who owned a gay bar in 1950s Los Angeles. Originally published in 1957, the book shows Branson to be a compassionate and astute observer of gay mores, now providing a rare primary source of gay life in an era from which such information is hard to obtain. Researchers will find material on the relationships between gay men and women, what gay parties were like, and the distinct house rules that Branson set up for patronage of her bar, among other topics. Fellows (Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest) intersperses her narrative with contextualizing historical and political information that greatly aids readers’ understanding. Verdict: Donald Vining’s multivolume A Gay Diary and Ricardo J. Brown’s compelling The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s: A Gay Life in the 1940s are related titles, but these were first published long after the fact. General readers of memoir or LGBT lit, as well as historians, will find Gay Bar to be a charming, informative read."—Library Journal
“By pairing this new edition of Branson’s insightful memoir with a study of 1950s America, Fellows clarifies how ahead of her time Branson was: she believed, for example, that being gay was more than sex and that gay men living together could consider themselves married. This is a stimulating account of support for gay rights pre-Stonewall is an eye-opener.”—Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Will Fellows is author of the pathbreaking, acclaimed books Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest and A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture, both published by the University of Wisconsin Press. He lives in Milwaukee.