LGBTQ History: MacDougal Street
(This post is the first of a series on the history of the LGBTQ community in Greenwich Village.)
It is easy to assume, in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots, that Greenwich Village’s LGBTQ history happened entirely on Christopher Street. Of course, there’s a lot more to LGBTQ history in the Village than Stonewall, just as there’s a lot more to it than 1969. As far back as the 1890s, ‘fairy resorts’ dotted the Bowery, and by the 1920s, the South Village was home to lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and others, alongside the neighborhood’s new ‘bohemian’ residents. MacDougal Street in particular was lined with speakeasies and tearooms run by and catering to this population. As George Chauncey writes, MacDougal Street became ‘the best-known locus of gay and lesbian commercial institutions.’(‘Long-Haired Men and Short-Haired Women: Building a Gay World in the Heart of Bohemia,’ in Beard and Berlowitz, 162-163.)
In 1912, Henrietta Rodman played an instrumental role in creating the Village as we know it when she brought the re-formed Liberal Club downtown, to 135 MacDougal Street (see note below). She also happened to be a member of the Heterodoxy Club, a radical feminist club founded by Marie Jenney Howe in 1912. Its members were known to include women in same-sex relationships, as well as those in mixed-sex relationships: indeed, they were welcomed, and their relationships treated with as much respect. (Meanwhile, Mabel Dodge found herself having to justify her actions to the club when she decided to marry a male.) Rodman rented out a space for the club to meet at No. 135, establishing a pattern for LGBTQ life in the Village, at least early on: not separate, or hidden, but instead mixed in with and largely tolerated by the rest of the Village’s ‘eccentric’ or ‘artistic’ residents.
For at least a decade, LGBTQ Villagers followed that pattern, patronizing clubs and bars, and attending balls, owned and attended by their heterosexual neighbors. In the 1920s, however, they began throwing their own balls, and opening their own establishments.
In 1925, a Polish-Jewish lesbian immigrant named Eva Kotchever (known better by her gender-blending pseudonym, Eve Addams) opened her tearoom at 129 MacDougal Street. She was called ‘queen of the third sex’ by some, and a ‘man-hater’ by others, and supported that opinion of herself with a sign on the door of her establishment: ‘Men are admitted but not welcome.’ The Greenwich Village Quill announced that ‘Eve’s Hangout’ was a place where ‘ladies prefer each other. Not very healthy for she-adolescents, nor comfortable for he-men.’ (Gay New York, 240) Weekly poetry meetings, musicales, and discussions were held here, drawing many of the area’s prominent poets, as well as Village artists, writers, etc.
On 17 June 1926, the club was raided by the police. Addams was charged with obscenity for her collection of short stories, entitled Lesbian Love, as well as disorderly conduct. She was deported after a year in the workhouse, and was said to have opened yet another lesbian club upon arrival in Paris.
Meanwhile, Villagers mourned the loss of the hangout and its owner. In 1929, a theatrical group in the Village presented a play based on Lesbian Love at Play Mart, located on Christopher Street. The play, called Modernity, had a two-week run, and was closed when the players received word that the police planned to raid it. (Gay New York, 240-241)
In the same year, the Black Rabbit at 111 MacDougal Street was also shut down by the police. This speakeasy had also been one of the Village’s ‘gay stamping grounds,’ well known for its lesbians in overalls and its rum concoctions. The Minetta Tavern took up residence here in 1937, and was quickly taken over by Beat writers and their friends. Louis’ Luncheon, at 116 MacDougal Street, experienced a similar fate: in the 1930s and 1940s, it had been popular among gay men and lesbians, as well as writers and chorus girls. When it closed, the Gaslight Café (where Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso performed before it became a folk club) took its place. In 1975, the space changed hands again, and became a lesbian bar called El Café.
The San Remo Café at 93 MacDougal Street also has a shared history between the LGBTQ community and Beat writers. It opened in 1925, initially as a working class bar. It became a bohemian hangout, attracting, among others, many LGBTQ artists and writers in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Among them were Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, W. H. Auden, Harold Norse, John Cage and his partner (both professional and romantic) Merce Cunningham, Larry Rivers, and Frank O’Hara.
As it seems to have happened in several other cases in the South Village, wherever Ginsberg went to hang out, the rest of the Beats soon followed. Carl Solomon first brought Ginsberg here in 1948. Ginsberg brought Kerouac, and the San Remo Café quickly became the ‘center of [Kerouac’s] social life.’ It is worth noting, perhaps, that this is where Gore Vidal is said to have tried to pick up Kerouac. By Vidal’s account, at least, he succeeded.
Meanwhile, West Third and Fourth Streets were also home to a number of ‘gay’ establishments, particularly where they intersected MacDougal Street. In 1955-1956, the FBI made a list of places of ‘notorious types.’ ‘A majority of bars and restaurants in this area cater to lesbians and homosexuals,’ it says of West Third Street, ‘quite a few of whom reside in the area and are not inhibited in the pursuit of their amorous conquests.’ One of these bars was the Music Box, located at 121 West Third Street c. 1950-1972. West Third Street was also home to Tony Pastor’s, at No. 130 from 1939 to 1967. It attracted gay men, lesbians, female impersonators, as well as tourists who came to see the spectacle. It was raided on moral charges in 1944 for allowing lesbians to ‘loiter,’ but survived, apparently with mob backing. In 1967, its liquor license was finally revoked because of its toleration of homosexuals. (In 1971, the Gay Community Center was located on the second floor of this same building. The Radicallesbians also met here, as did Gay Youth: an organization for GLF members under the age of eighteen.)
In 1945, a lesbian club called Swing Rendevous opened at 117 MacDougal Street. It closed in 1965, as LGBTQ nightlife moved north, towards (you guessed it) Christopher Street. By the 1980s, nightlife had moved out of the Village itself.
Please Note: Some sources record No. 137 MacDougal Street as the meeting place for the Liberal Club. However, we have relied on other sources which gived the address of the club at No. 135 MacDougal Street. These sources include an article in The Morning Telegraph (November 29, 1914) entitled “The New Washington Square, the Rendezvous for Persons of Genius, by Alfred Kreymborg and an essay by Peter Hulme entitled “The Liberal Club and its Jamaican Secretary,” (March, 2017) which includes an copy of the Club’s letterhead with its address at 135 MacDougal Street. Special thanks to Peter Hulme for providing this information.