BOOKS: ‘Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s’

Will Fellows and Helen P. Branson
University of Wisconsin Press (1957/ 2010), $26.95, 166 pp.

TGIF: Four little letters that, alone, have different meanings. One is a beverage. One, a gentle expletive. One a personal pronoun, and the last is… well, it’s a letter. Add them together, though, and they bring smiles to the faces of weary workers who’ve done their time for the week.

But what if your options for Friday night were limited? What if you couldn’t go out because you couldn’t come out? In Gay Bar, you can read about a woman who solved that problem when doing so was bold.

For most of her adult life, Helen Branson was interested in the occult and what we now call New Age subjects. Straight, married and a mother, Helen was also a woman ahead of her time: She was extremely interested in friendships with gay men.

Back in the 1950s, homosexuality was still considered an illness that could be “cured” with intensive therapy and classes. Gays and lesbians were degenerates shunned with horror by much of straight society. Some even considered gayness to be a threat comparable to Communism.

Helen didn’t care. Her “boys” were welcome in her establishment, as long as they behaved — and she wasn’t afraid to oust anyone who didn’t. She protected her clients from the police, roughnecks, haters, scammers and themselves. She fed them, gave them a safe place to congregate and became a surrogate mother to them. She also studied them, and encouraged their families to love them, too.

Will Fellows had seen a book that Branson wrote in the mid-’50s, and he thought the memoir/social commentary might make a good play. Fascinated, he began to dig into the life and thoughts of this progressive straight woman who embraced gay men.

If Fellows had just left well-enough alone, if he had just let that book stand on its own merits, this book might have been better. Gay Bar — the original version — had its charms. It offered a unique and honest vintage look at gay life from the perspective of a woman who genuinely loved them for who they were and who hated their persecution. Branson had some (very un-PC) theories on being gay, and she was obviously willing to discuss things with anyone who would listen, as evidenced by her friendship and correspondence with a sympathetic psychiatrist who also studied homosexuality.

But Fellows steps in and puts Branson’s words into today’s perspective. I thought his ideas were intelligent and well-considered, but against Branson’s bygone-era charm, they muddy the appeal of the original.

Read it only if you remember that this is more a gay academic history book than it is pleasure reading. If you’re looking for something fun, leave Gay Bar for another day.

— Terri Schlichenmeyer

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 15, 2011.

—  John Wright