Remembering the French Quarter Bar Scene in the 1950s
By Fred Bookhardt
“For what they are worth, here are my recollections of the bars I visited in the late 1950s.
My name is Fred Bookhardt. I volunteered for the draft in 1954 as the Korean War was ending. After training, I was sent right back to New Orleans, stationed at Camp Leroy Johnson, which was out by the lake. I mention this for two reasons. First, that was when I was coaxed out by a fellow MP and squad member who was bi-sexual, had a wife and child back in California and was an excellent bottom. One of the advantages of being an MP was that we had a list of all the off-limits bars which were mainly gay bars. So when I was discharged in ’56, I knew where to go. I started hanging out at Lafitte’s in Exile when it was a relatively new bar, having moved from its former location in Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop to the other end of the block and into a vacant grocery store. Hence, the name, in Exile.
Back then, it was a combination bar and art gallery with burlap on the walls and an art show that would change regularly. While predominantly gay, it had several straight people who were also regulars. The juke box played Nat King Cole and other romantic music that was popular at the time.
I met Tennessee Williams there several times, usually for the first time since he was too drunk to remember the last time. Back then, we called hm Tommy. One night a young man was leaving the bar and a couple of guys near the door said, ‘He’s a friend of Tennessee Williams.’ The youngster overheard this and yelled back, ‘Friend, hell, I used to fuck him.”
Dixie’s Bar of Music was another bar I sometimes visited. It was supposedly mixed but I only met gay guys there.
Dixie and her band entertained us with Miss Dixie on the clarinet. Her sister, Irma, manned the cash register. My friend, Elmo Avet, one of the town’s great characters, was close pals with the famous actress, Helen Hayes, and he took her to Dixie’s one night. I’m told she had a good time.
Catty corner across the street from Dixie’s was Les Rendezvous. It was painted lavender leaving no doubt for gays as to what kind of bar it was. Sometimes in warm weather, the crowds at Dixie’s and Les Rendezvous would gather on the corners, forcing straights to parade between the groups who yelled out scores for the men. “He’s a 9. Nooo, a 6 at best.” Etc.
Tony Bacino’s, on Toulouse near Bourbon, was another gay bar but I preferred the smaller bar in the back of the patio, in the old slave’s quarters. The bartender / bartendress was Candy Lee who kept us entertained with her raunchy humor.
One night, a straight couple wandered back, opened the door and just stood there, frozen, as if they had seen some alien from outer space. Candy asked them what they would like to drink. No answer. So Candy spoke up in a louder voice, ‘What would you like to drink?’ Still, the rude couple just stood there silent. So Candy screamed at them, ‘Alright, bitches, what do you want?’ They fled.
There were other bars but those were the main ones I frequented. I vaguely recall Wanda’s 7 Seas. On Iberville, I think. And it may have been the place which had a tombstone as a coffee table.
The bar on the left of the carriageway at Pat O’Brien’s was not a gay bar but it was the place where closet queens hung out, afraid to be seen in a gay bar.
Alice Brady was the best known lesbian in town. I sometimes went to her bar, a lesbian bar, where some Bourbon Street strippers hung out. It was amusing to think of these gals entertaining men for whom they had no interest. I would play pool with Alice who usually wore a man’s suit and bragged that she bought all her suits at Brooks Brothers.
And, shortly before I left New Orleans, La Casa de Los Marinos, became popular. It was not a gay bar but a bar for Latin American sailors. However, it was discovered by some Newcomb art students and soon became a hangout for gays and others who liked off beat places. Latin music on the juke box and some of us kept time with the music with rhythm sticks or bongos. I still have a 50 cent piece with flattened edges from keeping time beating my coin against my beer bottle.
Colorful memories of over a half century ago. Then I left NOLA to make my career in NY as an architect and that’s where I spent most of my adult life but returned home when I retired, 12 years ago. I left NOLA because it was too small and too slow and returned for the same reason.