TagRae Bourbon

Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons

Before World War II, there were quite a few nightclubs on the Sunset Strip where gay people were welcomed and accepted — which is not to say these were gay bars as we know them today. There are quite a few references to the presence of gays and lesbians on the Strip back then in Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons — including performers Bruz Fletcher and Rae Bourbon and club owners Jane Jones and Tess Wheeler.

Kirkus Review:

An exceptionally literate, overstuffed chronicle of gay Tinseltown.
In alternating sections on Los Angeles lesbians and gay men, historian Faderman (Naked in the Promised Land, 2003, etc.) and freelance journalist Timmons, respectively, deliver an exhaustive account. Beginning in the 1880s, both groups migrated in droves from less liberal locales to freewheeling, anonymous Southern California, and a supportive, unified community emerged even as laws against sodomy and “masquerading” (i.e., cross-dressing) kept guard over the city’s bedrooms. These enterprising pioneers were soon followed by vaudeville exiles who flocked to Hollywood and built its entertainment foundation. Post-Prohibition nightclubs catered to such “sexually flexible” entertainers as Marlene Dietrich, James Cagney and Mae West…
Vital intellectual fare brimming with fascinating history.

Publisher’s Description:

The exhortation to “Go West!” has always sparked the American imagination. But for gays, lesbians, and transgendered people, the City of Angels provided a special home and gave rise to one of the most influential gay cultures in the world. Drawing on rare archives and photographs as well as more than three hundred interviews, Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons chart L.A.’s unique gay history, from the first missionary encounters with Native American cross-gendered “two spirits” to cross-dressing frontier women in search of their fortunes; from the bohemian freedom of early Hollywood to the explosion of gay life during World War II to the underground radicalism set off by the 1950s blacklist; and from the 1960s gay liberation movement to the creation of gay marketing in the 1990s.


For more info: University of California Press

1942: Navy Bans Gay Clubs

Building at 8711 Sunset Blvd, site of Cafe Internationale, as it appears today; inset: Rae Bourbon

Building at 8711 Sunset Blvd, site of Cafe Internationale, as it appears today; inset: Rae Bourbon

During World War II, thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen on their way to the Pacific theater were granted their last stateside leaves in Los Angeles. Many of them headed out to the local bars to blow off steam, of course. But in June 1942, the Navy took the unusual action of placing about 30 bars and nightclubs across the city off limits to sailors.

“These taverns and bars are not safe or proper places for servicemen to patronize,” a Naval commander told the Times. “Firm handling is necessary to eliminate that undesirable fringe of the industry.” The precise nature of the unsafe and improper activities going on in these night spots was left unstated — but it must have been pretty bad if the Navy felt the need to protect sailors from it, especially since the Navy was sending these same men off to risk their lives in the Midway, Guadalcanal and other death traps in the Pacific.

There is one possible clue, however. Two of the clubs were on the Sunset Strip — Chez Boheme at 8950 Sunset Blvd. [map] and Cafe Internationale at 8711 Sunset Blvd. [map] — both of which were, using today’s term, “gay friendly.” (Gay bars as we know them today — clubs that cater to gay men or women — were a post-war phenomenon.)

The star attraction at Chez Boheme that summer was Rae Bourbon, a female impersonator and one of the last big stars of the Prohibition era “Pansy Craze.” Cafe Internationale, on the other hand, was owned and operated by Elmer and Tess Wheeler and catered to women. As the 1940 guidebook, “How to Sin in Hollywood” put it:

When Your Urge’s Mauve, [go to] the Café International on Sunset Boulevard. The location offered supper, drinks, and the ability to watch boy-girls who necked and sulked and little girl customers who… look like boys.

Like Chez Boheme, Cafe Internationale offered cross-dressing performers, but these singers were women dressed in male drag — two who were quite well-known then were billed as Tommy Williams and Jimmy Renard. According to historian Lillian Faderman, co-author with Stuart Timmons of Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians, Marlene Dietrich was in the crowd at Cafe Internationale when Tommy Williams performed one night.

As a result of the Navy ban, state authorities revoked the liquor licenses for Chez Boheme and Cafe Internationale. A new club, the Starlit Room, opened in the Chez Boheme space three years later, and Rae Bourbon returned there for a six-month run. Cafe Internationale owner Elmer Wheeler sued in 1942 to have the license reinstated, but he died that December and the club closed for good. His widow Tess opened another club later and became a fixture, along with her partner Sylvia Reiff (who was said to look like Radclyffe Hall), in the burgeoning Los Angeles lesbian scene after the war.