Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Kooky's Cocktail Lounge

149 West 14th Street today
Kooky's Cocktail Lounge

Location: 149 West 14th Street, New York, New York, USA

Opened/Closed: 1960s to early 1970s

The description at New York Songlines: 14th Street is brief but tantalizing:

149: Was Kooky's Cocktail Lounge, in the Stonewall era, one of only two lesbian-oriented bars in NYC. Kooky, the owner, was said to be hostile to the gay liberation movement, fearing it would cut into her business. Now La Nueva Rampa.

This led to other accounts--none of which said very flattering things about Kooky or her cocktail lounge.

Perhaps the longest and most detailed account of Kooky's is in Karla Jay's Tales of the Lavender Menace: A Memoir of Liberation (2000). Initially, Jay had been happy to discover Kooky's--after finding the Sea Colony and the Bagatelle "dim, greasy, and smoky." (These were two other lesbian bars from the period--both featured here at Lost Womyn's Space.) Her high hopes were soon dashed:

When a new lesbian bar named Kooky's (pronounced "Cookies") opened up on West Fourteenth Street, I decided to try my luck there.

Kooky's was reputed to be a front for the mob, which supposedly ran all the gay and lesbian bars in New York. (Craig Rodwell's Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore was probably the only gay cultural space in New York at that time owned by a gay person.) Kooky, the proprietor, had the air of a retired prostitute or poorly put-together drag queen. She favored pastel prom dresses--the kind that required several crinolines to inflate them properly, were zipped in the back, and called for a strapless bra and large bust to keep the dress up. Perhaps she fancied herself the Scarlett O'Hara of Greenwich Village. Her hair was shellacked into a large golden beehive that suggested that she had last set, teased, and sprayed her hair in the 1950s and then left it permanently in place.

Notice how in Jay's account, all of the "gatekeeping" was in the hands of men, and how expensive and univiting the place was in nearly every way. Your average prison sounded warm by comparison, and your average warden much nicer:

To enter the bar, I first had to get past the bouncer, who stood outside chomping on the stub of a fat cigar. Two other men sat inside the door and collected the $3 cover charge. Once I had been "carded"--I still didn't look eighteen--I was admitted to the smoky interior. On the right was a long bar where every seat was occupied by "regulars." The cheapest drinks cost $1. At a time when I could see a double feature of two classic films for fifty cents, this was an enormous sum for me.

Across from the bar were the bathrooms. When the first bar opened, a female employee sat outside the door and handed patrons exactly three squares of toilet paper on their way in. No one knows how the management decided on three squares as opposed to two or four. Perhaps the exact number of sheets was a tradition passed on from the Sea Colony. Soon the toilet paper was liberated, but the guard remained. No heterosexual bar, no matter how promiscuous in clientele, guarded the toilets in such an overbearing manner. We were constantly reminded that we were degenerates who could not be trusted to be with others of our kind in a public restroom.

On my trip to the bathroom, I used my overpriced pocketbook to hide my empty drink glass, which I slyly filled up with tap water. I wasn't much of a drinker, but Kooky was insistent on pushing her wares. If Kooky thought the customers weren't downing the goods fast enough, she would saunter up to them and announce in a thick Greenpoint accent: "Drink up, goils! Dis here is a bar. If ya wanna talk, go to choich and talk in a pew!" And then she'd make the customer order another drink. The trick, therefore, was to keep a glass looking full while appearing to be constantly sipping it. Customers could pretend to drinking vodka straight up when it was really water (though the drinks tasted mostly like water anyway). This was a risky strategy, as Kooky was not above taking a sip or a sniff of a drink to make sure it was genuine. Kooky was mean, but she wasn't stupid. If anyone contradicted her, she would remove the cigarette that dangled perpetually from the corner of her mouth, pinch it between the nails of her immaculately carmined thumb and second finger, and place it ash upward under the miscreant's chin until the customer bought another drink--or left. The bouncer and the two money collectors obeyed her orders, so even the toughest butch knew better than to be disrespectful to Kooky's face.  

Jay points out that this kind of hostile atmosphere fueled the rampant alcoholism that then existed in the lesbian community--and still lingers on today. Nevertheless, the women were able to remake this oppressive setting into something of their own, as a place to connect with each other and forge their own community:

The bar lesbians were in no position to rebel against Kooky's dictatorship. Instead, they put their energy into creating a network of friends and allies within the bar.

For all the draconian elements associated with Kooky's, they also managed to preserve the bar as women's space (to some degree) by keeping (most) straight men out. Still, there were enough male predators hanging about the place to make it uncomfortable:

But if Kooky and the bouncers bullied their customers, they protected them as well. They kept most straight men from wandering into the bar, which prevented fights between the butches and the men or between the bouncers and the intruders. But occasionally they let in a few men they knew. These generally weren't gay men--the bars were fairly segregated in terms of gender and race, too, not that anyone dared complain. Perhaps the straight men were Kooky's friends or members of the mob. They usually just had a few quiet drinks. Some were "dyke daddies" who would stand around the edge of the dance floor in the back and rub their crotch as they watched the women dance.

Once again, we're reminded about how vulnerable "womyn's space" has always been and continues to be--and how men have a long history of owning/controlling, intruding upon, and violating such spaces.

Jay goes on to describe all the health and safety code violations at Kooky's and the omnipresent threat of police raids, which hovered over nearly all gay and lesbian bars of the time. Not to mention the butch-femme culture that characterized the place. It's fascinating reading, and well worth a look.

Jay never did find a lasting relationship at Kooky's. But at least one couple did. Tim Gay has written a charming account about how his friends Roxy Horen and Susanne Wasson met at Kooky's back in September of 1968. They were together for over 40 years, till Roxy's death from cancer. Susanne intially went to Kooky's on the recommendation of a gay male friend:

“I was wearing burgundy hot pants and a matching vest, with black boots,” Susanne recalled. “I walked in and was immediately bored.”

Susanne went to a table where two women were sitting. Susanne asked one about how she could find another bar, and the woman adamantly said, “You don’t want to go there. Sit down!”

That woman was Roxy Horen, who told me years later, “She was incredibly beautiful. I coudn’t let her leave.”

Kooky's was still around as late as August 1971, as Arthur Bell at the Village Voice mentions it in an article on New York's gay bars and "the syndicate" (Mafia):

In another demonstration against the syndicate, several gay women's groups recently marched from the Lesbian Center on Prince Street to Manhattan's longest running lesbian bar, a place called Kooky's at 149 West 14th Street. They accused Kooky's of watering down and over-pricing their drinks, of insulting their customers, of refusing service to lesbians who work for gay liberation, of physically threatening customers, and of being a syndicate-operated bar. The women demanded that lesbian bars be run by lesbians and that the syndicate stop taking advantage of them. The demonstration lasted an hour and included a few good speeches, lots of "off the syndicate" chants, songs, and anger. During the demonstration, I managed to get inside the bar to have a few words with Kooky herself, a tough kooky of the platinum blonde Claire Trevor school. 

"From what I hear, I think they're communists. That's what they tell me. They don't want people to be in this business. They must be a little sick. I think they're communist."

She flashes a diamond ring in my face. "Why don't we send them to Russia? I feel sorry for them. I think they're sick."

 Is Kooky's a Mafia-controlled bar? "Listen," she says, pushing me out the door, "I think they're communist. I think it's all very sick."

Photo of La Nueva Rampa Restaurant, currently located at 149 West 14th Street

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