Monday, June 14, 2021

Guest post: The 1960s lesbian bar that will haunt me forever

[This is one in a series of guest posts by Anna Lvovsky. Her book, Vice Patrol, examines the history of antigay policing at midcentury.]

I imagine all historians have at least one: that story that they cut for perfectible sensible, defensible, perhaps even good reasons, but that continues to haunt them whenever they think back on the book. For me, that story is about Helene’s, a lesbian bar operating in the fall of 1960 in the small borough of Roselle, New Jersey.

In many ways, Helene’s was similar to other lesbian bars in the 1960s. It ran under a veil of secrecy, with a front room catering largely to men giving way to a hidden bar with a jukebox, a dance floor, and tables crowded almost entirely by women. Patrons at Helene’s could cast off the outward trappings of femininity demanded of women in public, sauntering “with a heavy step” around the bar, waving cigarettes and buying each other drinks, wearing men’s slacks, sweaters, ties, and dress shoes. They also cast off any signs of deference in their interactions with the men who wandered in. After one liquor agent tried his luck asking a regular to dance, she cut him short. “You kidding me?” she asked and walked off with a flourish, to the barely concealed delight of the other women. Wary of drawing too much attention, the bartender sometimes warned patrons against dancing together, but on multiple occasions liquor agents reported seeing women clasping each other’s waists in the middle of the dance floor, gazing “very intimately” into each other’s eyes or swaying cheek-to-cheek.

It was that intimacy that made Helene’s stand out. Lesbian bars in the 1960s were often owned and operated by straight men, some (though not all) of whom viewed their patrons with a mix of derision and cold business interest. But both the owner, Helene, and her bartender, Marilyn, were women, and both seemed to be part of the crowd they served. Helene’s routinely hosted the same group of friends; to an unusually degree, agents remarked on how many regulars they recognized. One night, Helene herself was standing by the jukebox when a woman dancing nearby reached out and began tickling her stomach, encountering some playful resistance before Helene gamely submitted to the attack. (At a hearing before the liquor board months later, Helene would testify that the woman was alerting her to an open zipper.) Another night, a patron named Lulu celebrated her birthday. That same group of women gathered around to serenade her while Marilyn emerged from the kitchen bearing a small cake. I wasn’t there, of course, but I imagine the liquor agents receding against the back walls of the bar, watching as the women crowded together, the lights dimmed, their faces lit up by candles.

Lulu’s birthday was the fourth time that liquor agents visited Helene’s that fall. Questioned in her kitchen about the “apparent lesbians” singing to Lulu, Helene was unflappable. “I don’t see any,” she replied. “How can you tell?” By that point, the agents had amassed more than enough evidence to convince the director that Helene was guilty of serving gay customers. Taking into account Helene’s clean record—and acknowledging “little, if any, improper conduct” by her patrons beyond the fact of being lesbian to begin with—the director issued a forty-day suspension rather than revoking her license. But the suspension may have been enough to doom the bar. Within roughly a year, the same location was being operated by a different owner, serving a clientele that raised no similar suspicions.

Happily, though, that wasn’t the end of Helene’s involvement in New Jersey nightlife. Five years later and roughly forty miles south, city officials in Long Branch would gather to celebrate the opening of Off-Broadway, a cocktail lounge with a nightly singer and a live band. A local reporter captured a picture of the mayor presenting flowers to the two owners: a “Miss Claire Tischler” and “her partner, Helene Borisewski.” The nature of the partnership, of course, remains unknown.

Helene passed away at the age of 103, about a year before I discovered these materials. Her obituary celebrated the same charisma and irrepressible spirit on display in her encounters with the liquor board, as well as her loving ties to a host of nieces, nephews, and friends. It made no mention of a spouse or partner. Nor did it bear any traces, really, of Helene’s life as a daring entrepreneur. I tried to contact a relative to ask if they might be interested in sharing more about Helene’s remarkable life, but I never received a response.

Few of these details appear in my book. With earlier drafts of my first chapter already far too long, the argument seemed to be disappearing behind the weight of too many anecdotes. Perhaps it would have made sense to dig deeper with additional leads from the family, I told myself, but the lack of response felt like a sign. Looking back, I suspect that I was also wary of following the research trail too closely—afraid that learning more about Helene’s might have led to a story that betrayed that vibrant, blissful place glimpsed, however briefly, in the records. Perhaps another historian, though, will pick up the trail, and write the account that Helene and her friends deserve.