‘Gay Bar’ offers 1950s snapshot

Will Fellows

“I own a homosexual bar,” Helen Branson declared. “In the nomenclature of the homosexual, it is called a Gay Bar.”

Vivacious, unconventional, candid and straight, Helen Branson operated a gay bar in Hollywood in the 1950s. After years of fending off drunken passes as an entertainer in L.A. nightclubs, this divorced grandmother discovered that she preferred the wit, variety and fun she found among gay men. Enjoying their company and deploring their plight, she decided to give her gay friends a place to socialize. And then she wrote an extraordinary little book, “Gay Bar.” Published in 1957 by a small press in San Francisco, it was soon out of print.

I first became aware of “Gay Bar” several years ago when I noticed the book’s snappy title among the results of an online used-book search. It was an intriguing but expensive item and not what I was looking for, so I didn’t purchase it. Before long I found myself in St. Paul breakfasting with my playwright friend Dean Gray, discussing a script he was working on. Dean asked if I knew of any books that described gay life in L.A. in the 1950s. About the only thing that came to mind was “Gay Bar” – the excellent “Gay L.A.” had not yet been published. That same day, Dean and I were delighted to find a copy of “Gay Bar” at Quatrefoil Library in St. Paul. So began my excursion into the long-gone world of Helen Branson and her boys.

With her freethinking ways and abiding interest in the occult, Helen was very much on the edge, even by Hollywood standards. By the late 1930s she was working as a palm-reading nightclub entertainer in gypsy costume. This was the beginning of what Helen called her “gradual convergence” with gay men. She worked as housemother and cook in a gay rooming house, then managed several gay bars owned by others. In 1952, deciding to operate her own gay bar in her own way, Helen took over a small Melrose Avenue tavern. In 1955, a year of major anti-gay hysteria around the country, she started writing her book.

At a time when most books on “the homosexual problem” were written by psychiatrists who viewed homosexuality as neurosis, “Gay Bar” was truly something new and startling. It was the first book by a heterosexual to depict the lives of homosexuals with admiration, respect, and love. It was published under the author’s real name at a time when it was uncommon for straights to speak out in support of gays. And the book’s introduction was written by a psychiatrist who stated plainly, “I do not consider homosexuality to be a disease.”

Pondering Helen’s observations on gay men’s lives, I sometimes wondered what the men themselves would have said. I was fascinated to discover in two homophile periodicals of that period, ONE magazine and Mattachine Review, a rich trove of voices from the 1950s that complemented Helen’s views. And so I began to imagine a new edition of “Gay Bar,” an interleaving of the book’s original text with other voices from the era, including a fuller portrait of Helen herself, thanks to my conversations with her daughter and grandson.

Today one might regard Helen Branson as a woman ahead of her time, but for the gay men she befriended she was there at just the right time. In 1955, when the California legislature declared it illegal for a bar to serve as a “resort for sexual perverts,” Helen had been running her bar for several years. Thanks to her commitment and savvy it remained open, a relaxed haven, remarkably free of police raids, vice squad surveillance and other anti-gay hazards.

American culture has changed so much since the 1950s, we can never fully grasp what life was like for gay people in that age of anxiety. “Gay Bar” is a time capsule that helps us to get a better grasp of where we’ve been and how far we’ve come. Many of the positive changes that young gays today are able to take for granted were largely unimaginable 50 years ago, even in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco.

By operating her bar during America’s most anti-gay decade, Helen fostered safety, connection and hope for her beloved boys. And because she chose to write a book on their behalf, we have this illuminating sketch of gay men’s lives in a time of momentous challenge and change.

Will Fellows is the author of “Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest and A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture.”