Friday, June 17, 2011

Miss Smith's Tea Room

Miss Smith's
Miss Smith's Tea Room

Location: 1353 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, USA

Opened: 1954

Closed: 1960

Here's what Nan Alamillo Boyd says about Miss Smith's Tea Room in Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965:

In 1954, Connie Smith, who had previously waitressed at the Artist's Club (a divey straight-owned lesbian hangout in the late 1940s) began running Miss Smith's Tea Room, which she managed until 1960. Located on Grant Avenue, it was called "dark and dreary" by the Daughters of Bilitis convention guide, but most visitors remember it as a fun beer joint, a bohemian place, with sawdust on the floor.

In its day, Miss Smith's was well-known for its Wednesday poetry nights, and we're told that "most of the Beat poets hung out there." Indeed, there is frequent mention of Miss Smith's Tea Room in the memoirs and reminiscences of various Beat writers and artists. Yet somehow, this "arty" element lived side by side with Miss Smith's reputation as a "lesbian pick-up place."

Despite the sedate name, Miss Smith's Tea Room (which pointedly did not serve tea) was certainly not immune from the San Francisco bar raids of the 1950s. In fact, Miss Smth's had its liquor license revoked in 1956, after a series of raids that also involved at least two other lesbian bars: Paper Doll at 524 Union Street and Copper Lantern at 1355 Grant Avenue. These other bars, however, merely had their liquor licenses suspended.

Laveta Connie Smith was an interesting and courageous character who certainly deserves more recognition. Her obituary, dated April 29, 1995, fills in some of the missing details.

Laveta Connie Smith, a restaurateur who was a flamboyant figure in North Beach during the 1950s, was found dead Wednesday in her home in San Francisco.

She was 67 and died of natural causes, according to the medical examiner.

She was the proprietor of Miss Smith's Tea Room, at 1353 Grant Avenue, described in The Chronicle in 1957 as "a tavern that serves wine and beer, but no tea, to North Beach Bohemian types."

The establishment was a pioneering gay bar, and its proprietor was unsuccessfully charged under the statutes then used to disrupt meeting places for homosexuals, including laws against serving liquor to minors and being "a hangout for perverts."

Ms. Smith also operated a jazz record shop on Grant Avenue and briefly ran The Court of Liars, a bar near the city's old Hall of Justice on Montgomery Street.

She was married in the 1950s to Henry Thomas, a Welsh-born dissident veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish civil war and a notable North Beach figure in his own right. He died in the 1980s.

The couple divorced in 1958.

No survivors are known, and no service is planned.

Miss Smith's Tea Room later became the Coffee Gallery, and still later the Lost and Found Saloon, a "raunchy rock bar." Janis Joplin and Grace Slick were some of the performers who appeared there. It is now Maggie McGarry's, an Irish pub. 

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