Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cafe des Beaux Arts Ladies Bar

Cafe des Beaux Arts Ladies Bar
Cafe des Beaux Arts Ladies Bar

Location: 80 West 40th Street, New York, New York, USA

Founded: The Cafe des Beaux Arts was founded in 1901, but the Ladies Bar within the Beaux Arts Cafe dates to 1911.

Closed: The Ladies Bar closed in 1921, though the Cafe de Beaux Arts apparently did not close till somewhat later on. I am unable to verify the exact date.

Cafe des Beax Arts was one of the great "lobster palaces" of  turn-of-the century New York. Unlike the old-fashioned saloon which catered almost exclusively to working-class men, the newly glamorous cafe (and later the cabaret) was designed with the "smart set" man AND woman in mind. (Think Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady. In fact, it was at the Cafe des Beaux Arts that the two had their legendary dining duel. The deal was this: if Lillian could match Diamond Jim course for course, he would grant her a big diamond ring the very next day. Lillian shrewdly removed her corset before the start of the contest, and apparently won handily.)

The creation of a mixed-gender setting for after-hours socializing was actually an innovative move at the time, as urban night life until then did not include "respectable" women (those women who did appear in bars were assumed to be prostitutes or otherwise "loose" women). Nevertheless, there was still a great deal of public anxiety over women consuming alcohol in the company of men, as bars were very much considered "male" spaces. For example, the Cafe Martin, which opened in 1899, did not admit women unless escorted  by a man.

Louis Bustanoby, owner of the Cafe des Beaux Arts, devised a rather ingenious solution to all this: the first known "ladies bar," which was regarded as "a freak" when it opened in 1911.

From the New York Times, October 12, 1913:


Milady Wants Tipples Which Will Match Her Gown or Her Eyes--Does Not Care So Much About the taste--Rainbow Rivaled by Products of the Drink Mixers to Meet Feminine Demand

There is a place in New York where there is a bar for women--just a regular bar, like the one the male person drops into to get his morning's morning. It is run exclusively for women, and no man can buy a drink there unless chaperoned by some member of the other sex.

This bar is patronized not by women of a doubtful class, but by women of social standing and assured position. It is the Cafe des Beaux Art, at Fourtieth Street and Sixth Avenue, of which Louis Bustanoby is the proprietor.

It differs from the bars run for men in certain particulars, one of which is that whereas night is the best time for business in a man's bar, the afternoon is the time when the woman's bar does its most rushing business.

The reason? Simple enough. The afternoon is the time for shopping and also the time of matinees. When Milady has made her rounds of the department stores, or has come out of the theatre, she feels the need of a little freshener and drops into the Cafe Des Beaux Arts and rests her dainty foot on the bar rail while Francois and Gabriel, the two bartenders, ask her whether it shall be a cocktail or a highball.

Sometimes she comes alone; sometimes she comes with a lot of women friends; sometimes she comes with her husband or some male friend, who could not get served if he did not come under her protective wing.

Then in the evening, after the theater, she is likely to drop in again with her escort; she has now become his escort, and she steers him up to the bar and asks him what he will have. But it remains broadly true that the afternoon is the best time for business at the bar.

The other day a SUNDAY TIMES reporter spent an afternoon and an evening at the Cafe des Beaux Arts getting revelations. He had been a little skeptical about the quality of the trade that the cafe drew, but a few minutes spent in the cafe removed his doubts and convinced him that the woman's bar is patronized by the best people in New York.

The Times reporter went on to make several interesting observations about the apparent differences between a women's bar and a men's bar--observations that are certainly curious nearly 100 years later.

First of all, despite the reader's first impression that it was mostly middle-aged matrons that were frequenting the Ladies Bar, that assumption turns out to be somewhat misleading. In fact, the same unnamed Times reporter goes on to mention that it was actually the "high-school girls" who came "in droves"--and they were seldom accompanied by young men. With a rather patronizing (anxious?) admiration, the Times reporter remarked upon the "practiced" way in which these young women would swing themselves on to the barstools and drop their feet on to the foot rail at the bar. Perhaps it is to be expected that he explicitly associated the casual ease with which these girls comported themselves with masculinity: the "matinee girls line up at the bar after the experienced manner of a crowd of male Broadwayites." Not surprisingly, he seemed determined to locate some sign of reassuring femininity in all this, which in fact soon appears:

It's a bar just like any other bar, but there are some things you see there you wouldn't see in a coarse masculine bar. For instance, five minutes after the THE TIMES reporter came into the place a nice-looking middle-aged lady took her place at the bar, called for a cocktail, and while Francois was making it she proceeded to power her nose. You never say that in a man's bar, did you? No, of course not.

She took her hat off, patted her hair and straightened it, and reached for her powder puff. By the time Francois had mixed the Manhattan she had her nose neatly powdered and her hat back on her head. She drank the cocktail, tossed the price haughtily over to Francois and departed.

Francois, the head bartender, explained to the reporter in extensive detail how fussy the ladies were with their drinks, but how they expressed a true appreciation for the artistry of a well-made "New Orleans Fizz or a Sazerac cocktail."

However, the owner maintained that the ladies weren't so much concerned with the taste of their drink as its other vaguely aesthetic--or even metaphysical--qualities:

"The women," said Mr. Bustanoby, "differ from the men in this--they don't care so much about the taste of their drink as they do about the color of it. They want it to match the color of their costumes, or the color of their eyes.

"The toughest experience we ever had was when a woman came in and wanted a cerise drink. That fairly staggered Francois, who is not easily staggered.

"They wanted pearl-colored drinks, amethyst drinks, opaline drinks, and it keeps the establishment busy trying to think up new color combinations."

"That application for a cerise drink," said Francois, "was not the really the worst experience I ever had, Mr. Bustanoby. I think the limit was reached when a woman came in and asked for a drink that would match, not her costume nor her eyes, but her soul. She said she had a baby-blue soul and she nearly drove me to desperation trying to prove to her that it was impossible to make a blue cocktail. She said it was the color of her aura."

A baby-blue aura? The ladies bar certainly attracted some, uh, interesting patrons.

The preference for distinctly "feminine" drinks carried over into the women's food preferences as well. While their husbands might content themselves with the standard "free lunch" bar fare of the day--the usual "corn beef and cabbage and the swiss cheese"--the ladies desired concoctions that were almost surreal in their originality: "Salted almonds which are boiled in deep sea water, ripe olives, and miniature sandwiches of pate de fois gras." The ladies' apparent inclination towards "cheap" perfumed cigarettes was also noted. This suggests that the ladies pointedly rejected any cultural pressure to conform to "masculine" bar culture norms, but felt free to invent and create new cultural norms as they saw fit.  

But for all their good-natured complaints, both Francois and Gabriel seemed quite protective of their lady patrons and their "space": "The only time either one of them gets stern is when some man approaches the bar and tries to buy a drink. Then he is firmly told that he cannot buy unless he is chaperoned by a lady." In addition, it seemed that the ladies could be quite territorial about their place within the bar. As Louis Bustanoby related:

"There was a mild-looking, middle-aged woman who used to come in here and insist on having the same chair every time--she wouldn't go to the bar, but always took her drink to a table. The chair came to be known as 'Mother's Chair.' She has stopped coming here now, but to this day if you ask the waiters where So-and-So is they will cast a glance around and reply, 'she is sitting in Mother's Chair.'"  

In that same vein, it was not unusual for the women to have their own "private glasses" reserved for them. Hearing a summons along the lines of "Jacques, get one of Mrs. Jones's glasses" was not uncommon.

Another interesting observation from the time is that the women tended to treat more, and were more inclined towards drinking as a social activity. As Louis Bustanoby explained:

"You hardly ever see a woman come up to the bar and take a lonely drink, as many men do. They want to drink in a crowd. You will hear them say, 'This round is on me,' and insist on it, and when the check is put down you will see them fight for it. Women put more value on being regarded as good fellows than men do."

However, in other respects, the ladies bar was remarkably similar to its male counterpart. Again, as Louis Bustanoby finally conceded:

"There really isn't any difference between between a man's bar and a woman's bar, except in minor details. Why, when a lot of women are sitting over at a table, and some one they know comes in, there will be a scream of 'Oh Bessie, come over here and have a drink with us,' just as you would see in a man's bar." 

However, the egalitarian comradery within the ladies bar did not carry over to the world at large, where women's lives were still tighly regulated and policed by men. And the customers knew it. However, the women also exercised their own form of resistance. According to Louis Bustanoby, "most"  of the lady patrons carried "breath killers" so "as to make their husbands and fathers believe they had not been drinking." These "breath killers" took the form of "scented chewing gum" and in some cases, "ripe olives"--"the best breath killers known to women."

Generally, the Times gave the impression that this new ladies bar was nothing more than an innocuous and harmless entertainment for bubble-headed society females after a strenuous afternoon of Broadway theater. That is not how all quarters of New York society regarded it. In fact, the Bustanoby brothers almost lost their license over this silly ladies bar idea. And it was only because they had a good lawyer--Jimmy Walker, the future mayor of New York--that they prevailed.

Why? The spector of female sexuality, of course--the promotion of "immoral tendencies." We see a hint of this in the Times article, when Louis Bustanoby was asked if there was "cabaret dancing" by his "women patrons." He pointedly denied it and insisted that if "they want to dance I let them go down [to] the cellar and do their dancing there."

In fact, the Cafe des Beaux Arts was not only famous for inventing the "ladies bar." It is also credited with inventing the "gigolo"--the attractive young man (or "lounge lizard") who was paid to dance with the ladies. As the American Weekly noted in 1942,

"The ladies bar at Bustanoby's, the first of its kind, attracted idle but gay women who had nothing better to do than dance with the gigolos the proprietor thoughtfully provided--the first of whom was Rudy Valentino."

Of course at the time, Valentino was nothing but a "penniless youth" with a flair for the tango. But the tango was widely considered an "obscene" or "lascivious" activity at the time.

Though there are lots of hints as to repressed heterosexual desire among the "neglected wives" at the "ladies bar," I have found no direct references to sexual attractions between the ladies per se. That does not mean they didn't exist. Historically, bars and taverns have promoted erotic contact between customers as part of the general revelry. So it's difficult to believe that as a prototype for the lesbian bar of the future, the ladies bar did not allow some women to find love for each other over their "forbidden fruit" cocktails.

Unfortunately, the ladies bar was an early victim of Prohibition, so we don't know whether it would have survived on its own or eventually gone co-ed. In July 1921, Andre Bustanoby filed for bankruptcy (his uncle Louis had died in 1917), and the Cafe des Beaux Arts went into receivership. The old "Bohemian element" had long departed, and the Cafe's "traditions of gaiety" just couldn't be sustained without "liquid refreshments." According to the Cafe's manager, the atmosphere at the ladies bar was "now that of a lunch counter."

How to experience the Cafe des Beaux Ladies Arts Bar at home: Why not invite some lady friends over for some old-fashioned turn-of the-century cocktails? I wish I could give you the recipe for a "forbidden fruit" cocktail, but that's no longer possible, as "forbidden fruit"--a brandy-based liqueur with a light citrus and honey character--is no longer made.However, you could always try a New Orleans fizz or a Sazerac cocktail. Failing that, you could settle for a somewhat less adventurous Manhattan. Now settle back with your drinks in hand and watch the glorious Rudoph Valentino strut his stuff.

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Photo: The Cafe de Beaux Arts Ladies Bar. Photo is identified as being from 1907, but this is apparently from 1913 or around the time of the Times feature on the ladies bar.  

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