Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s
Will Fellows has uncovered a gem with Gay Bar, a re-issue of the 1957 novel by Helen Branson. The original memoir, typed up on an old Polish typewriter, tells the tale of the gay establishment she operated in 1950s Los Angeles. The story revolves heavily around her clientele, a group of businessmen and entrepreneurs whom she affectionately refers to as “her boys.”
While most gay bars of the era were sketchy at best, Branson was committed to providing a clean and safe environment for her boys. She was notoriously strict about the men she allowed into her bar. Newcomers would be screened upon arrival and “troublemakers” would be thrown out without a moment’s hesitation. Helen’s commitment to maintaining her bar, combined with the affection she felt for her boys, are what garnered her loyal following. For the men that frequented her establishment, Branson was more than just a bar maid. She became a part of their lives, often acting as counselor and friend.
Branson’s book is notable for a few reasons. Aside from being one of the first-known publications written by a heterosexual to treat gay men with any semblance of respect, Branson’s portrayal of homosexuality stands in stark contrast to academic publications of the time. While most papers categorized homosexuals as “deviants,” Branson outlines the similarities between hetero and homosexuals. She makes a point to tell the individual stories of her clients, demonstrating a human side to a group that was generally thought of as selfish and unfeeling.
Fellows provides social commentary throughout the book alongside passages from era-appropriate, gay-friendly publications. This, in combination with Branson’s assertion that her boys grappled with “real problems”, help create an authentic snapshot of 1950s gay culture. Excerpts from ONE Magazine, the first pro-gay publication in the United States, outline the loneliness, anger, and frustration that some homosexual males endured.
Gay Bar is not an academic piece, but rather, a story of friendship and compassion. While Fellows’ commentary demonstrates how far gay rights have progressed, it also serves as a reminder that ignorance and stigma persist. Homosexuals continue to face enormous societal challenges, largely due to a lack of understanding. It is for this very reason that books like Branson’s are so important. I do not only recommend Gay Bar for its readability but also for its empathy.
We would all be better off if we learned to embrace one another as readily as Helen Branson.