Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Bohemian (Cafe Bohemia)

15 Barrow Street today
The Bohemian (Cafe Bohemia)

Location: 15 Barrow Street, New York, New York, USA

Opened/Closed: c. 1969, and intermittently lesbian space going back to the mid 1950s 

This has happened more than once. I find one, maybe two, short references to an old Greenwich Village lesbian bar. And then... Nothing. Zip. Nada. Not another word. And that's when there are gobs of information on the space's other (mostly male/male-oriented) occupants over the years. Lost herstory at its very best. (See Mona's for another example.)

So it was with The Bohemian. Almost by accident, I came across this 2009 article in New York called "Gay Old Times...1969." And in this article I happened to spy the following very brief but intriguing notice:

Miles Davis in front of the
Cafe Bohemia, mid 1950s

The Bohemian (15 Barrow St.)
GSC: “This one is for GIRLS only.”

GSC being the the third annual Gay Scene Guide (1969).

Wow. But I sure had a hard time finding out anything after that. Even my old standby, New York Songlines, had nothing to say about this address ever housing a womyn's space.

I did determine that the building at 15 Barrow Street has been around since the nineteenth century.  In 1955, it became the Cafe Bohemia, a major jazz venue that once featured the first Miles Davis Quintet, Art Blakey's original Jazz Messengers, and Kenny Dorham's Jazz Prophets.

Next thing I know is that in 1990, this place has become the New Barrow Street Ale House, a more-or-less straight bar which still occupies the same location today.

So where's my lesbian bar? Was the 1969 Gay Scene Guide totally mistaken? I was baffled for the longest time.

Then I stumbled upon this little anecdote in Maurice Isserman's The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington.

It seems that sometime in the 1950s, Michael Harrington had become disenchanted with St. Louis, Missouri and its provincial ways, so he decided to move to New York City--and more specifically to Greenwich Village--to become a writer.

On that first night in New York, he found his way first to Louis's bar on Sheridan Square and then moved on to the Cafe Bohemia on Barrow Street. "It was then in a lesbian phase," Michael would recall, "and, like all straight men from the Middle West, I found that fascinating.  I got into conversation with an attractive young woman, but then her girl friend appeared, angry with my heterosexual poaching."

Interior of 15 Barrow Street today
Ha ha. Isn't that amusing? I read on for a few more pages, but this self-styled socialist radical never did acknowledge anything overtly aggressive, invasive, or disrespectful in his actions. Typical male lefty at his finest. He can't even imagine how this "attractive young woman" and her "girl friend" might have felt in battling out the same old sh** with straight boys night after night after night. Nope, he never considers this encounter from their perspective at all. The lezzies are just exotic titilation for wide-eyed "Show Me" state boys, you see.  

But what we do learn is that Cafe Bohemia apparently went through periodic (and no doubt uneasy) "lesbian phases" where lesbians were (somewhat) tolerated as part of a larger (male) bohemian and/or hipster jazz scene. And that one of those phases was apparently around 1969. And that at least one was in the 50s when Mr. Harrington so kindly dropped by. A similar pattern is sometimes seen in other "bohemian" bars as well, whether in New York, San Francisco, or New Orleans. (See, for example, the Pony Stable Inn and Miss Smith's Tea Room.)  A co-existence that was not a co-existence of genuine equals, but one in which lesbians had to constantly defend their marginal territory--and their lovers--from male predation and encroachment. 

Just for the atmosphere, you can listen to a cut from Kenny Dorham's album here, which was recorded live at the Cafe Bohemia on May 31, 1956.

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