Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Howdy Club

Howdy Club football team (1944)
Howdy Club

Location: 47 West Third Street, New York, New York, USA

Opened/Closed: 1930s - 1940s

The Howdy Club was reputedly a lesbian bar in New York's West Village. We're told that "elaborate floor shows for lesbian audiences" took place there back its heyday. Some of the names associated with the Howdy Club include "burlesque tease artist" Red Tova Halem; an Errol Flynn lookalike/entertainer identified only as Gail, who performed there before World War II; and dancer/entertainer Clover Fern Mamone, who was reportedly a "headliner" at the Howdy Club for "many years."

Lisa E. Davis observes the following about the Howdy Club:

The Howdy Club is the earliest club I know about that hired lesbians as entertainers--strippers, singers like Blackie Dennis, and chorus boys who might serve the first round of drinks, then join the floorshow. They were paid a token $10/night, but made a small fortune in tips. The Howdy dates back to the late 1930s, when many midtown operations that featured strippers and other risqué acts moved downtown to the Village, fleeing from Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's attempts to clean up the troublesome Times Square area--target of many subsequent cleanups.

Here's how the club was promoted in the New York Post in January 1936:

Howdy Club-- Continuous entertainment on West Third Street. The Village at its strangest--and not for the squeamish. 

The Howdy Club went from merely "squeamish" to downright dangerous when a New York City police officer was shot there during a robbery and subsequent gun fight in April 1938. He later died after being hospitalized. One of the robbers also struck a patron on the head when she attempted to aid the police. She committed suicide the very next night by jumping from a 12th story window. It was insinuated that a brain injury caused by a skull fracture caused the suicide, but it also seems likely that her death was fueled by panic over the press exposure. The woman, whose name was Norma de Marco, was just 22 years of age. One of the radio patrolmen at the scene later credited de Marco with saving his life.

Read here for a rather curious account regarding de Marco's final hours before she "plunged from a girl friend's apartment window at midnight." The "girl friend," who was identified as Dorothy La Marr, was a "hat check girl at the Black Cat, another Greenwich Village Club." On the night of de Marco's death, the two "girl friends" had been out "drinking in several clubs" in "the company of two young men." After returning to La Marr's apartment, de Marco apparently started screaming something about "going crazy" and her eyes "bulging out." La Marr and the "two young men" attempted to quiet her, and then the "two young men" departed. According to La Marr, "I started to put her to bed, and when she was undressed I decided a shower might help her. When I turned my back she ran to the window and jumped." The reporter tells us that de Marco's suicide "caused a new sensation in the Bohemian 'hot spots' of the Village which she patronized."

Three male GIs at the Howdy Club
As is often the case, in calling the Howdy Club a "lesbian" bar, certain complications arise regarding definition--and not just because the club admitted men. Back in this era, the law itself often barred women from gathering in a public drinking establishment without a male escort (though laws did NOT bar all-male saloons and bars). These prohibitions were stepped up during the war years, as Allan Berube explains:

Some cities and states, however, in wartime efforts to discourage prostitution, prohibited women from drinking at a bar, tending a bar, or even from entering a tavern unescorted by a man. Cities clamped down on women's public heterosexual activity, barring those who appeared to be "victory girls" (wartime prostitutes) from hanging out in bars, hotel lobbies, and bus stations. Partly because of such restrictions, lesbian GIs rarely found a predominantly female bar in any city, although "men only" bars were common. Instead, together with lesbian civilians, they carved out their own social territories in corners of bars frequented by gay men, such as the Black Cat in San Francisco or the Howdy Club in New York City, and often went out in the company of their gay male friends.

The Howdy Club floor shows were not to survive the stepped up police harassment of the war years. According to a December 1944 article in Billboard, the Howdy Club had been forced to suspend its "cabaret actvities" because of "morals charges" as of November 20, 1944. Ironically, it was a performance featuring a male dancer exhibiting "feminine characteristics" that closed the place down. The charges were brought by two policewomen--not the first time that policewomen had been used to close down a lesbian gathering place (see Eve's Hangout - also featured here at Lost Womyn's Space).

The Howdy Club was apparently out of business as a lesbian establishment by 1945, as jazz guitarist Eddie Condon (1904-1973) signed a lease for the "old" Howdy Club in July of that year. He continued to operate the Howdy Club as a jazz club for the next twenty years or so.

Photos: The Howdy Club football team, c. 1940; three male GIs at the Howdy Club

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