Branson, Helen P. and Will Fellows. Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010. 186pp. $26.95. ISBN: 978-0-299-24850-5.
Gay Bar is an excellent combination of historical content and modern context, sprinkled with funny stories throughout. Originally published by Helen Branson in 1957 in a print run of only 1,600 copies, the book was sold through homophile press outlets and at alternative leaning bookstores. Although that initial run sold out, it was never reprinted. Recently, Will Fellows discovered the book, and his added commentary on the author and the era shines light on the often overlooked period of queer culture after World War II and before the uprisings at Comptonâ€™s Cafeteria and the Stonewall Inn.
After a failed marriage and several stints as a hostess and manager at other bars, Branson opened her own gay bar in Los Angeles. Several years later, she wrote a small book about â€œher boysâ€ and the bar, giving insight to the social lives of gay men in the 1950s. Her intention was to give straight readers an idea of what gay people were actually like, and also to illustrate some of the problems they faced due to discrimination. Although the bar was generally a fun, social place â€• and many of the vignettes reflect this â€• Branson was well aware that outside of her establishment most of the customers faced the real threat of losing everything if anyone found out that they were gay. Partly to protect her customers, and partly due to her own prejudices, Bransonâ€™s neighborhood bar had very strict rules about who was welcome: generally straight-acting men who were introduced by another regular â€•and who was not: strangers, unaccompanied women, or anyone who was too obviously queer. Within those constraints, her bar became a safe haven for men looking for friends, dates, or even potential jobs.
Interspersed throughout the original chapters, the historical context that Will Fellows adds about both the time frame and about Helen Branson herself makes this a book well worth reading for historical, as well as entertainment purposes. His careful research explains the social mores of the 1950s, and helps the reader understand how welcome Helenâ€™s bar was to the men who met there.
Gay Bar is a quick, pleasant book to read. Bransonâ€™s writing style is brash and direct, but always friendly. Fellows writes in a similarly accessible style, and the two compliment each other nicely to form a cohesive narrative.
Highly recommended for public libraries, and recommended especially to patrons with an interest in queer pulp novels, as Gay Bar adds some historical perspective and depth to the social lives that are found in The Beebo Brinker Chronicles and similar period genre fiction.
Reviewed by, Emily Faulkner
Adult Services Librarian
Chicago Public Library