Tag Archives: 1950s

Kerouac fans want to restore writer’s Florida home

Some Jack Kerouac fans are trying to raise money to restore the Tampa Bay-area home where the writer once lived.

The “On the Road” author lived in the St. Petersburg home in the 1960s with his mother and his third wife. He died of gastric hemorrhaging at a St. Petersburg hospital in 1969.

“I’m glad to see you, because I’m very lonesome here,” Kerouac told a St. Petersburg Times reporter who visited him shortly before his death.

The house is still owned by Kerouac’s brother-in-law. It’s been mostly uninhabited since the 1970s, but it still contains some of Kerouac’s things. A 1969 telephone directory for Lowell, Mass., is shelved on Kerouac’s desk in the bedroom, and an official mayoral proclamation for “Jack Kerouac Day” in Lowell hangs on one wall, near a Buddha statue and a crucifix.

Pat Barmore tells the Tampa Bay Times that Kerouac’s legacy is strong enough to merit and fund repairs to the home. Kerouac’s brother-in-law, John Sampas, who lives in Massachusetts, asked Barmore to take care of the property.

Barmore is working with other fans to start a nonprofit called Friends of Jack Kerouac. They host Kerouac-themed concerts at the Flamingo, a St. Petersburg bar where Kerouac drank and played pool.

Among the problems that need attention: a window replacement, broken furniture and some resident rats. Barmore and the other fans hope to clean up the house to make it look like it did when Kerouac lived there, and then perhaps open it for the public or for other writers.

The mailbox still contains fan mail for Kerouac.

“Dearest Jack,” reads one note. “Thank you for everything. Your work is why I write, and write to live.”

“Hey Jack, We came by to say hello,” says another. “Sorry we missed you.”

‘Gay Bar’ offers 1950s snapshot

“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.”