Sunday, March 26, 2017

286. The Mafia and Me


Bill Hope: His Story: ($20: Softcover: 6X9”, 158pp: 978-1-68114-305-7; $35: Hardcover: 978-1-68114-306-4; $2.99: EBook: 978-1-68114-307-1; LCCN: 2017933794; Historical Fiction; May 17, 2017) is the second novel in the Metropolis series. New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his scorn for snitches and bullies; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; his brief career on the stage playing himself; his loyalty to a man who has befriended him but may be trying to kill him; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder. In the course of his adventures he learns how slight the difference is between criminal and law-abiding, insane and sane, vice and virtue—a lesson that reinforces what he learned on the streets. Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a yearning to leave the crooked life behind, and a persistent and undying hope.
          This is the second title in the Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.  The first in the series is The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), mention of which appears at the end of this post. 

         The book can be ordered from Amazon and will be shipped after the release date of May 17, 2017.  But the paperback, which goes for $20, will cost an additional $4.95 for shipping, unless you order books totaling $25 or more.  The book is also available now from the author and will be mailed immediately ($20 + postage).  And now on to bars and the Mafia.

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         In New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, before the advent of Gay Liberation, it was common knowledge in the gay world that most of the gay bars – bars specifically serving the gay community – were run by the Mafia.  This reminiscence conjures up in my mind a jam-packed, smoke-filled interior with a thug standing guard at the door to keep out desirables, so the undesirables would hobnob in peace – or at least without the annoyance of heterosexual tourists.  Jam-packed they certainly were, on Friday and Saturday nights, far exceeding the capacity -- conspicuously posted on the wall – that the law allowed, and smoke-filled as well.  But as for the thug at the door, I can now recall only one bar – a discotheque known as the Goldbug – with a forbidding guardian of the portal.  (More of that anon.)

         The Mafia’s control of New York gay bars in those days is covered in detail by Philip Crawford Jr.’s The Mafia and the Gays, self-published in 2015, which delves deep into such sources as FBI files now accessible (with deletions) to the public; New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) records; gay memoirs; and newspaper articles and columns of the time.  Obtaining a copy, I have scanned it for accounts of some of the bars I patronized back in those long-gone days when the gay community lived a subterranean life visible only to those knowing heterosexuals who enjoyed participating in it – far more women than men – and to those who exploited it for profit.  So what have I learned?  Plenty.

         The Cork Club at 375 West 72nd Street was mentioned in 1954 in an FBI New York field office report listing bars “catering to homosexuals and queers.”  Since this was a part of the FBI’s Top Hoodlum Program launched the year before, the Cork Club was presumably a Mafia-run joint.  It was also the first gay bar I ever visited, tremulously curious, in the company of a knowing friend in the fall of 1953, and subsequently one that I visited frequently on weekends, since it was only a short subway ride down from my dormitory at Columbia University, where I was doing graduate studies in French.  There was no thug at the door, only a friendly hat-check woman, plump and cheerful, who urged the clientele to attend the Cork Club picnic.  The very thought of being seen in daylight with a throng of queers put me off, but in the club’s shadowy interior I first beheld a very femme gay kid walking in a very fake way, doing his best to fulfill the heterosexual stereotype of gay.  He turned me off, but on other occasions I made my first connections there, some of them delightful, but none of them destined to endure.  And this in a bar that the FBI had its eye on, but where the Mafia’s shadow was nowhere to be seen. 
         Heterosexuals occasionally visited the Cork Club as tourists, and there was no gatekeeper to keep them out.  Once I saw four guys just outside, hesitating to enter.  “C’mon, c’mon,” urged one, but the others were not persuaded; in the end they walked off, presumably to some hetero bar where they would feel more at ease.  But on another occasion two hetero couples got in.  “Do you want him?” one girl asked me, indicating her boyfriend.  “No,” I replied, “he’s all yours.  I’m not attracted to straight guys.” Which was true enough.

         The Cork Club was just the beginning of my explorations, which soon  extended to Greenwich Village and a string of bars on West 8th Street: the Old Colony at 43 West 8th, and a little farther down the block, the International and (I think) a bar called Mary’s, and just across the Street from the Old Colony at 40 West 8th, a popular nightclub, the Bon Soir.  My favorite was the Old Colony, which functioned as a hetero restaurant during the day and then metamorphosed into a gay bar at night.  Juke boxes were an essential part of the gay bar scene, and I can still recall the rendering of “The whole town is talking about the Jones boy,” which found immediate resonance with the throng of Jones boys crowding the bar, sipping beer, and cruising.  Even more memorable was the plaintive rendering of “Annie doesn’t live here anymore,” a song dating back to 1933 and later sung by Eartha Kitt in plaintive English and Marlene Dietrich in German:

Annie doesn’t live here anymore.
You must be the one she waited for.
She said I would know you by the blue in your eye,
Checkered suit, a fancy vest, and polka-dot tie.
You answer to that description, so I guess that you’re the guy.
Well, Annie doesn’t live here anymore.

This song too found resonance with its message of lost love and missed opportunities, of fault and failure and its consequences.

         One of my least favorite memories of the Old Colony was the “last chance” moment when, on Saturday night close to the 4 a.m. closing, there came the announcement “Last Call!” – a summons to the last drink of the night, and the last chance to connect.  Connect I rarely did, disliking the desperate intensity of the moment, but on one occasion succumbed when a decent-looking slightly older guy gave me a nod and a smile.  And it was under the same circumstances that a friend of mine, likewise new to the scene and even – to his virginal delight – on one occasion labeled “chicken,” was spirited off by a chunky older man to distant Queens for his deflowering – a rather drab event, he reported to me on the morrow, but necessary and long overdue.

         The Bon Soir just across the street was a different experience, for one went there not to cruise but to be entertained.  The crowd at that time was a mix of gay and straight, and I remember two female performers, but not their names, one white and one black, both popular with the gay crowd and basking in their favor and applause.  It was a fun place, free from the tensions of cruising.  Only now have I learned that in the 1960s Barbra Streisand made her debut there, a prelude to enduring fame.

         So much for my first experience of the bars of the Village.  Mr. Crawford’s book informs me that the Village bars were controlled by the Genovese family, one of five Mafia families active in the city.  Their dominance in Greenwich Village resulted in part from the presence of a large Italian immigrant population in the South Village that was tolerant of their activities and unlikely to complain to the authorities.  Vito Genovese also excelled in marketing heroin to addicts, and two of his lieutenants were fronts for him, operating the Bon Soir.  None of this was known to the 8th Street clientele, nor was I aware at the time of any dancing at the Bon Soir, but Crawford says that Vito Genovese was a frequent guest there, and that the gay dancing there was wild.  But that dancing was in the 1960s; when I went there in the 1950s, dancing in gay bars was almost unheard of.  But the authorities had their eye on Vito Genovese; he was arrested for running heroin in 1959 and died in prison a decade later. 

         The Cork Club and the 8th Street bars were fine, but for a more elite experience one went to the East Side, and most specifically to the Blue Parrot at 152 East 52nd Street, which was part of the so-called “Bird Circuit,” a string of gay bars that included the Golden Pheasant on East 48th Street and the Swan on East 54th.  The Blue Parrot was just a bit more tasteful and elegant than the West Side and Village bars, though this may have been mostly in the imagination of visiting West Siders.  On the East Side I felt like a tourist, which is probably why I never seemed to connect there.  The Blue Parrot too appears in the FBI’s 1954 list of queer bars, along with the Cork Club and many others, though which Mafia family operated it is not stated. 

         For true East Side elegance and exclusiveness, nothing matched Regents Row on East 43rd Street, where I never ventured.  Coat and tie were mandatory, and a certain snobbish East Side elegance prevailed.  When a casually dressed young friend of mine connected with an older man at Grand Central Station, he was whisked away to Regents Row, where there was a great fuss about attiring him in a jacket and tie to make him presentable.  When I told this story later to an elegant older acquaintance at Provincetown (my only visit there and another story), he said with mild annoyance, “Yes, it used to be a nice place, before they started bringing in every Tom, Dick, and Harry.”  Be that as it may, Mr. Crawford informs me that Regents Row was run by Tommy Dowling and his lover Lucky Moore, who reportedly had ties to the Mafia.

         How did the Mafia get control of the bars and run them?  Quoting various sources, Mr. Crawford makes it crystal clear: a “clean” man with no police record would apply for the state liquor license, for which service in the 1950s he got $50 to $100 a week from the mob.  And since Italian names were associated with the Mafia, this front might have a name not ending in a tell-tale vowel; Irish and Jewish owners were not uncommon.  The real owners, the Mafiosi, would keep t  the shadows, only occasionally setting foot on the premises.  If the bar got “hot” – meaning it was getting too much attention, maybe from a crusading newspaper columnist – it would suspend operations for a ten-day cooling-off period.  And if it got “too hot,” the owners would be advised to sell to another “clean” operator who would have no trouble preserving the license.  And the police?  They were of course paid off.  More than once in a jam-packed gay bar I saw policemen in uniform enter, proceed to the back of the bar for a brief meeting with the manager or owner, and then leave, taking no notice of the patrons and their numbers far exceeding the posted capacity.

         A variation of the Mafia gay-bar operation in the 1960s was what was called a “bust-out” operation.  Mobsters would take over a bar and have gay agents inform the Village gay crowd that a new bar was opening, usually one upstairs or downstairs and thus not visible from the street.  A juke box was installed, patrons flocked, and in the dim light dancing was allowed, and marijuana as well.  All this was of course illegal, but the owner wouldn’t bother to pay off the police.  If he could keep the place open for six months before it got raided, he had made his money and was ready to move on to another bust-out operation.  And if problems with the law developed, the Mafia had lawyers available, among them Roy Cohn, the notorious attack-dog lawyer and AIDs denier, who later became a friend of President and Mrs. Reagan and seemed to have a finger in every pie (see post #237).

         Supervising the authorities’ monitoring of the Mafia in those days was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover himself, who got a weekly report on them from his New York Field Division.  Cooperating with the FBI was the New York State Liquor Authority, eager to cancel the license of any Mafia-run operation, including gay bars.  FBI reports and newspaper columns of the time refer frequently to “fag bars” and “queer joints,” and to gay men as “so-called unfortunates,” “dainty hand-on-hippers,” “deviates,” and “undesirables.”

         Julius’s, a bar/restaurant at 159 West 10th Street that I occasionally visited, has a special place in gay history.  When I first came to the Village in  the early 1950s, it was described to me not as a gay bar but as “Princeton on a weekend.”  It was a colorful joint with sawdust on the floor and barrels for tables, and unlike out-and-out gay bars, the interior was quite visible from the street.  By the late 1950s it was attracting a gay male clientele, and in 1964 it was bought by William Fugazy and George Chase, two local businessmen apparently without ties to the Mafia, though Fugazy knew Roy Cohn, whose keen and and vicious legal talents were often at the service of the mob.  Trouble came to Julius’s in November 1965 when plainclothesman Stephen Chapwick visited the bar and observed patrons whom he described subsequently in an SLA hearing as wearing “tight clothes” and speaking with “shrill voices,” calling each other “honey” and “deary.”  Some fifteen exhibited “limp wrists,” and five were walking about in a “mincing gate.”  It was immediately clear to Mr. Chapwick that Julius’s had become a nest of degenerates.

         (A personal aside:  Yes, in my experience gay bars sometimes attracted very femme young kids who might exhibit limp wrists and call each other “honey,” but I never saw what might be called a “mincing gate,” except when gay kids were jokingly imitating the straight world’s stereotype of gays.  And these kids were always a minority, albeit a conspicuous one, in the bars.  As for Plainclothesman Chapwick, he was simply expressing the heterosexual world’s view of gay people.  Today, of course, he comes off as hopelessly “square” – the worst label one could get in those days in either gay or mixed Village bars.  Yes, times have changed.  His testimony at the SLA hearing – a serious matter back then -- now comes off as funny.) 

         As a result of Chapwick’s report, the SLA issued an order dated April 1, 1966, suspending Julius’s liquor license for 30 days because the licensee had allowed “homosexuals, degenerates, and/or undesirables to be and remain on the licensed premises on Nov. 12-13, 1965, and conduct themselves in an offensive and indecent manner contrary to good morals.” 

         But that was not the end of it.  On April 21, 1966, three members of the Mattachine Society staged a “sip-in” at the bar, identifying themselves as homosexuals, insisting that they were orderly, and asking to be served.  Denied service by a bartender willing to cooperate, they challenged the liquor rule in court.  “3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars” ran a New York Times caption the next day.  Though some accounts credit this trio of “deviates” with overturning the state law, it was in fact the restaurant itself that challenged the law, triggering a 1967 court ruling that a bar could not be deemed disorderly simply because homosexuals gathered there.  Far from denying service to homosexuals, Julius’s had long since been protesting harassment of its gay customers.  Since then it has appeared in several films and today it announces itself proudly as New York’s oldest gay bar. 

         Not mentioned by Mr. Crawford is the Gold Bug, a Mafia-run discotheque popular with gay men and lesbians alike in the 1960s.  I’ll admit that I don’t recall its exact location, but my partner Bob informs me that it was in the basement of a Village residence where Edgar Allan Poe once lived.  If so, that would have been a red-brick townhouse at 85 West 3rd Street where Poe and his wife resided in 1844-45, since acquired by New York University in 2000 and mostly demolished.  Guarding the entrance was a burly character charged with keep desirables out, so the undesirables could revel inside.  One was required to buy a drink downstairs at the bar, before joining in the dancing on a crowded dance floor.  One didn’t go there to talk, since the music was deafening.  One went there to dance, and Bob and I danced there wildly, immersed in flashing strobe lights whose effect was psychedelic.  Arriving there once after Bob and some other friends had already entered, I was stopped by the guy at the door, presumably because I didn’t look undesirable enough. 
         “I’m joining some friends here,” I insisted.
         “What bars do you go to?” he asked.
         I had to think a moment, since I didn’t go often to bars.  “I go to Carr’s,” I said.
         A magic word; the door swung open.

         Carr’s was an old-fashioned “talk bar” at 204 West 10th Street, a place where gay men actually went to talk – and of course (at first) to cruise.  It had a woody interior with a bar that some remember as a carved extravaganza and a sight to cherish.  It was here that I met my partner Bob on a fateful day in June of 1968, after which I went there occasionally, not to cruise but to see friends.  It was a neighborhood bar, relaxed, never “hot” like the Gold Bug, never “in.”  Gradually the clientele aged, and it earned the name of “the Elephants’ Graveyard.”  Though it probably paid off the police, it didn’t have the feel of a Mafia-run joint.  In all the years I went there, it never occurred to me to wonder who “Carr” might be.  Years later I heard that it was closing, but I didn’t bother to go there that last night.  Bob did and met many of our friends, and even reported that a Mr. Carr, the owner, had materialized and was there to say good-bye to his patrons.  To this day I regret that I didn’t attend this farewell festivity, where I could have found many friends and talked with Mr. Carr himself, pointing to the very bar stool where, years before, I had met my longtime partner.  I’m sure he would have been warmed to the cockles of his heart.

         So much for the gay bars of another time, a time when they were the only social scene for gay people, unless a friend invited you to a party in his apartment.  A sad yet joyous scene that has been celebrated and deplored in memoirs ever since, a scene reminiscent of the speakeasies of the 1920s, and one that, like those speakeasies, marketed pleasure to a knowledgeable clientele and enriched both the mob and the police.

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          BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series,  tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client   It is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

          Coming soon:  Patients from Hell (to balance out post #283, Doctors from Hell).  Unless some other idea overwhelms me.

          ©   2017   Clifford Browder

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