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The Gay ’30s

For a brief but wild time in the twenties and thirties, an openly gay culture thrived in Chicago—a period historians call the “Pansy Craze.” Nightclubs and cabarets drew crowds of homosexuals, lesbians, and voyeurs—among them, sociologists who dutifully recorded the proceedings. Recently rediscovered recollections from that era have landed the city in the forefront of the small but popular field of gay historical research.

Illustration: Isabelle Arsenault

As midnight approached on Halloween Eve in 1932, men in vampy satin ball gowns, French-heeled slippers, teased coiffures, and rouged lips crowded into the Chicago Coliseum. Over the years, the old building, at Wabash Avenue and 15th Street, had played host to political conventions and hockey games, but these men were there to dance the night away.

Lurking in the shadows that evening, a nondescript, bespectacled man in a plain suit and tie scrawled notes. A sociology professor at the University of Chicago, Ernest W. Burgess was carrying out the country’s first extensive research project into homosexuality. “When the drags entered,” he wrote at one point, “there was much laughing, particularly about one elderly man dressed in women’s clothing, glasses, boyish bob and out-of-date costume, shaved but chin showing growth of a beard.”

For a brief time in the late 1920s and early 1930s, similar scenes unfolded up and down the city, as a relatively open gay culture thrived in Chicago, with gay cabarets and nightclubs proliferating throughout the Near North and South sides. By 1930, Variety reported, there were 35 “pansy parlors” in Towertown, the neighborhood named for its proximity to the Old Chicago Water Tower.

A place called Diamond Lil’s, at 909 North Rush Street, was packed so tight with partying gays that people were turned away.

The historian Chad Heap has noted that the flowering of gay life at that time covered much of the city’s ethnic landscape: “African American drag entertainers performed for racially mixed audiences at some of the South Side’s most famous ‘black and tan’ [cabarets]. Mexican ‘queers’ carved out a space for themselves along Ashland Avenue, and ethnic working-class ‘queens’ from the city’s North, South and West Sides met at private parties and public drags throughout the city.”

The nighttime entertainments did not attract just gays. High society and the middle class flocked to the cabarets to gawk or to experience the prurient thrill of dancing with one of the “homos.” The so-called Bughouse Square in front of the Newberry Library was such a well-known pickup spot that the Chicago Gray Line Sightseeing Company included it on its Chicago-By-Night tour, advertising the promise of “the unusual, strange and different” in “gay night life.”

With its wildly relaxed attitudes, Chicago’s Pansy Craze, as the brief phenomenon has come to be known, emerged from Prohibition just as homosexuality first came to be recognized in this country as a distinct sexual orientation. The outburst lasted only until the mid-thirties, when the impact of the Depression and a series of sensationalized sex crimes led to a crackdown. “The Pansy Craze was part of the same phenomenon that produced the Negro vogue in Harlem,” says the University of Chicago history professor George Chauncey. “Massive waves of immigrants from Europe and the American South were arriving in American cities so that white middle-class urbanites became fascinated with exploring the new communities taking place in their midst, whether immigrant, bohemian, black, or gay.”

The remarkable era might have dropped largely from history were it not for the pioneering efforts of Burgess, a founder of the “Chicago school” of urban sociology. He assigned dozens of his students to take notes at nightclubs, interview gay men and a few women, and write term papers on the subject. The results are now contained in 107 linear feet of typewritten reports on fading foolscap, notebooks in longhand, photographs, and other records, all meticulously cataloged and preserved as part of the Burgess papers in the Special Collections vaults at the U. of C.’s Regenstein Library.

Thanks in part to Burgess’s studies-which anticipated Alfred Kinsey at Indiana University by a decade-Chicago has been in the forefront of research into gay history, once a tiny field but now increasingly popular. The country’s two most prominent historians of gay life work here: Chauncey at the U. of C. and John D’Emilio at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Their universities host doctoral students researching gay topics, unheard of as an approved academic endeavor only a decade or two ago. Burgess “encouraged things to be studied that weren’t studied or even looked at by academia,” says D’Emilio.

A lifelong bachelor, Burgess remains something of an enigma. Little is known about his personal life-he lived in Hyde Park near the Gothic university towers with his sister, Roberta, and vacationed at a summer home in Indiana.

He himself took part in the research. He attended at least two drag balls in 1932 and was so intent on his observations at a New Year’s Eve “fairy ball” that he followed several of the drag queens into the bathrooms. “[They] put up their dresses to urinate,” he recorded in his distinctive, slanting, bold script.

His students’ reports are vivid. The party was just coming into full swing when one researcher arrived at the Ballyhoo Café, at 1942 North Halsted Street, at 11:30 p.m. on September 24, 1933: “Seventy-five were queer fellows and 25 queer girls. The hostess dressed in masculine style was queer as well as the M.C.” The girls-"mentes,” as they were called-got drunk on gin. Probing all the while, the researcher asked one to dance. He reported that she talked about the “jam” people-code for “straight"-and confided that queer people despised them.

The student returned to the Ballyhoo two months later for more reporting: “Mack, the master of ceremonies and also a female impersonator, who is about six foot three inches tall, and very slim in build, gave his number. Dressed in female costume, he impersonated a woman and walked gracefully about the room making wise cracks. Someone in the crowd called out for him to give the ‘Alice in her little blue gown’ number. As he sang the song, he made gestures toward his lower extremities:

“‘Then in fashion it grew,

“‘And I did, do dodle do.’”

 For decades beginning as early as the 1880s, the Chicago doctors James G. Kiernan and G. Frank Lydston published reports on “sexual perverts” in “sexology” essays for their medical journal. “As shown by some recent arrests, certain cafes patronized by both Negroes and whites, are the seat of male solicitation,” Kiernan wrote in 1916. “Chicago has not developed a euphemism yet for these male perverts. In New York they are known as ‘fairies’ and wear a red necktie. In Philadelphia they are known as ‘Brownies.’” In its famous 1911 report on prostitution and other illicit activities, The Social Evil in Chicago, the Chicago Vice Commission described a homosexual subculture of “at least 20,000,” which had developed its own cant and networks.

Of course, antisodomy laws and others modeled after British statutes banning “crimes against nature” had been in effect across America since colonial days. (Most have been repealed only in recent years; in 2003, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a Texas law outlawing sodomy between consenting adults was unconstitutional.) Surprisingly to many, however, homosexuality was a visible and even accepted part of working-class street life in the first decades of the 20th century. In his celebrated book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, Professor Chauncey showed that until the 1930s, working-class men engaged in sex with other men without feeling that they were abnormal. There were rules about what had to take place for them to retain their identification as “normal"-they had to be receiving the sexual favors, for instance, not providing. In those days, most wives didn’t engage in oral sex, and to get it, a man typically had to find a prostitute or a gay man.

Chauncey showed that popular sexual identities had shifted over the past century. Prior to the Pansy Craze, a man was perceived as manly if he exhibited the outward signs of his gender-masculine looks and behavior. But Chauncey posits that after the voyeuristic slumming during the Pansy Craze, the middle class constructed a view of homosexuals as different from themselves, as “the other.”

By the Roaring Twenties, Chicago had evolved into Sin City, offering an array of vices and entertainments, many dominated by gangsters. Those tumultuous years were marked by enormous social upheaval-women obtained the vote in 1920, bobbed their hair, and embraced emancipation, while post–World War I modernist European ideas poured into the cauldron of Chicago’s explosive growth. Throughout the Midwest, tales of Chicago’s freedoms reached secreted gays. Burgess collected a May 1934 letter written by a Saginaw, Michigan, man named Bill to a Chicago friend: “Yes, I did hear of your gay parks and beaches,” Bill wrote. Back in Saginaw he had to lie low because “as for gay places there just aren’t any in town. We generally go to Detroit.”

Chicago’s Democratic mayor William Dever began his term in 1923 with crackdowns on the city’s illegal saloons, vowing to “drive hard against every vicious cabaret in every part of the city.” But his actions were unpopular-even the Chicago Tribune opposed Prohibition. Gangsters were said to be grossing almost $13 million in beer sales, gambling, and prostitution during the first two terms of Dever’s predecessor, William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson. When Big Bill emerged from retirement to run again, in 1927, he promised, “We will not only reopen places these people have closed, but we’ll open 10,000 new ones.”

New York City was the other urban magnet for homosexuals in the 1920s and 1930s. As Chauncey documents in Gay New York, cabarets in Greenwich Village and Harlem headlined female impersonators and gay-oriented entertainments. One of Chauncey’s graduate students, Chad Heap, now an assistant professor of American studies at George Washington University, concentrated on the same period for his thesis, which documented how the Pansy Craze captivated Chicago. (Heap’s account, tentatively entitled Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1890-1940, will be published in book form by the University of Chicago Press.)

In Burgess’s sociological examinations of urban Chicago, he studied all sorts of populations-African Americans, the poor, and prisoners, for example-with his most extensive work concentrated on the institution of marriage. He began investigating the homosexual community in the late 1920s, and no evidence suggests that anyone objected.

The term “gay” would not be in wide currency until the 1940s and 1950s, except as code to the cognoscenti. Homosexuals themselves used the words “faggot,” “fairy,” and “queer,” or they sometimes called themselves “temperamental,” but the sociologists were not quite sure what term to use. As a result, they threw around words such as “indeterminates” and “third sex,” as well as the pejorative “degenerate.”

One student, Conrad Bintzen, submitted his “Notes on the Homosexual in Chicago” for Burgess’s Sociology 270 class. The report included Bintzen’s field observation at one of the cabarets of mixed race-called “black and tans"-on the city’s South Side. (Excerpts from his report, like the others cited in this article, are presented as written, edited only slightly for clarity.)

“Through the blue cigarette smoke you can make out the outlines of crowded tables,” Bintzen wrote. “Before long, the orchestra strikes up a tune and the master of ceremonies appears on the stage. This person is a huge mulatto with wide shoulders and narrow hips. . . . It [sic] is a lascivious creature that strikes the normal as extremely repulsive. With a deep husky voice it begins to sing a wild song and as the tempo increases the stage rapidly fills with a remarkable collection of sexual indeterminates. Each is dressed in a long formal, and each has the same peculiar physical appearance.”

Bintzen’s paper continued: “After the floorshow the homos danced together . . . in all sorts of fantastic routines. They all act far more feminine than a normal girl, carrying filmy handkerchiefs which they draw out of their sleeves and flutter around . . . . They talk and joke about girdles and brassieres, which seem to be the source of most of their humor.

“Quite a number have painted fingernails. Some of the customers are just there to watch and ridicule the homos. The management not only encourages the displays, but has arranged a complete line of cosmetics in the men’s lavatory.”

My own investigation into Chicago’s gay history began in a roundabout way, when I started researching a book on Allerton Garden, a botanical masterpiece on the Hawaiian island of Kauai founded by a Chicagoan, Robert Allerton, and his lover, John Gregg Allerton. The son of the wealthy meatpacker Samuel Allerton, Robert was profiled in the Tribune as the city’s “most eligible bachelor,” but he preferred men. According to my research, to keep up the disguise, he adopted John Gregg as his “son.”

Robert and John had left Chicago in the late 1930s, and I wanted to find out what was going on in the city that drove these elegant, sophisticated men to move to what was essentially a sugar plantation island for the rest of their lives. I was not entirely surprised to find that Chicago had grown inhospitable to gays just about the time the Allertons left. But I was also transfixed by the startling, sometimes poignant first-person accounts contained in the Burgess papers. That feeling increased when I visited the Chicago Historical Society and started listening to audiotapes of old-timers describing early gay life for the historian Gregory Sprague. He collected material for a thesis on Chicago’s gay history but died of AIDS in 1987 before it was finished.

A man named Galen Moon, for example, told Sprague he was 14 and fresh from an orphanage in New Orleans when he went to work in the Chicago Athletic Club kitchens in 1916. One day the chef told him to don a busboy’s jacket and deliver room service to one of the residents, a Dr. S. “The Dr. was much more interested in who brought food than the food on the cart,” Moon recounted to Sprague. They had sex and the doctor introduced the young man to other wealthy residents for more of the same. One day the doctor asked Moon, “You need some money, don’t you? I know of an opportunity where you could make $100 a night. . . . There would have to be a pair of you. There’s a student at a hospital I know who would be glad to work with you.”

Moon and his partner ended up at a place near Crystal Lake called the Officers’ Club, a private lounge with food and a bar and a glass enclosure where Moon and his partner put on “demonstrations,” as Moon termed it. “We went out there once a week for five weeks,” he recounted. “Put money into [a] savings account. I had no trouble, whatever, going through with the thing. There was a bed covered with silk, and the whole atmosphere was enough to sort of help you out. The audience disturbed me at first, the first time, a little bit. All these guys watching, maybe 40 or 50 men. The doctor told me it was a club for military officers. I’m sure it was not approved by any services of the kind.”

Some interview subjects, both with Sprague and with Burgess’s students, revealed a longing for marriage, family, and social acceptance and their torment over being homosexual. A 27-year-old man identified only as Mr. X told a student, “I seemed to know all my life that I was not like other boys.” At 15, he began to engage in homosexual relations in earnest, but hid it from his mother. He went to a roller rink to meet partners and cruised the beaches at night, though he continued to teach Sunday school on the weekends. Then, he said, he met a man named Harold, with whom he dreamed of setting up housekeeping. “The only failure in gay life that I can figure,” he told the interviewer, “is flitting from one to another and never having a thought of having and finding a mate that you can be happy with. Ending up being an old Aunty that isn’t wanted by anyone.”

Another Burgess subject, known as Case E, said, “I felt there was something wrong with me that I admired men. I thought it was the worst thing that could happen to anybody. I knew how people made fun of sissies. I always had a terrible feeling that I would be found out, and I felt inferior to men. . . . Homosexuals mean very little to me, because their life seems so futile; there is nothing to their lives, and that is why I do not associate with them.”

Another unnamed interviewee, immediately after describing a homosexual encounter, segued into expressing his desire for marriage. His gay friends counseled against it. “One fellow said, do not get married until you are absolutely sure you are not that way-queer-because it is a terrible situation to be in,” the man recounted. “I told them I would get married some day and they would laugh. . . . Every man should marry and have children.” The Pansy Craze reached its height in 1933 as Chicago prepared for the Century of Progress world’s fair exposition. Organizers, criminals, and social reformers geared for an explosion of entertainment offerings, both licit and illicit. “Happy days will be here again when the World’s Fair opens next June,” one brothel owner was quoted as telling a Juvenile Protection Agency investigator. Dozens of cabarets opened on the South Side, a boon to Chicago’s Depression economy. The drag shows featured at the K-9 Club (advertised as “Chicago’s oddest Nite Club"), at 105 East Walton Street, drew capacity crowds.

The fair closed down in the autumn of 1934, about ten months after the repeal of Prohibition. But legalizing liquor didn’t create a boom in nightclubs, bars, and permissiveness. Rather, the opposite occurred. The crush of the Depression descended. The tourist trade evaporated. Even the prostitutes complained. A young New York hustler named Rodey who traveled to Chicago for the fair told one of Burgess’s students that business turned bad after the fair closed: “The Depression has hurt hustling. I used to get $5.00 but now sometimes go down the alley to get $.50 or $1.00.”

Still, reformers demanded that Mayor Edward J. Kelly clean up nightlife, and they campaigned against strippers and female impersonators. Early in 1935, police padlocked the K-9 Club and the Ballyhoo. Two lesbian cafés, the Twelve-Thirty club, at 1230 Clybourn Avenue, and the Roselle Inn, at 1251 North Clark Street, were shut. In October 1935, police raided two State Street nightspots, the Cabin Inn and the De Luxe Cafe. “Put on pants or go to jail,” police ordered the drag queens. For a while the black-and-tan cafés were allowed to continue their drag shows, but then they, too, were shut down. Police raided the Halloween Balls at the Coliseum. By 1935 Mayor Kelly had eliminated gay nightlife.

Soon Chicago and the rest of the country hurtled into a full-scale sex panic, driven by what came to be known as the “Moron Menace.” Beginning in 1936, a series of crimes, petty and heinous, by peeping Toms, rapists, child molesters, and murderers surged onto the front pages of the tabloids. Homosexuality began to be seen as a mental disease and its practitioners were equated with psychopaths and child molesters, all of them called “sex morons” and “sex fiends.” There was legitimate concern-a higher than usual number of attacks on women and children were reported over two years in Chicago, but few by homosexuals. That didn’t stop police from stepping up their surveillance of theatres and cruising spots, including a stretch of South State Street that had become popular, and routinely arresting gays seeking consensual sex.

And then, on November 13, 1936, five-year-old Antoinette Tiritilli was lured from the McLaren schoolyard on Flournoy Street by a man with the promise of candy. He slashed her throat. In her last words to rescuers, she described her attacker as a “fat man with a white face.” When captured, Andrew Capoldi, 27, would be dubbed “the gorilla man” due to his hulking form and pockmarked features. The lurid Chicago American blared details across its front page in two-inch-high type and pronounced Capoldi the most disgusting sexual degenerate in Chicago history, “one of the most dangerous sexual morons who ever lived.” He was convicted of murder and sent to a penitentiary for the “criminally insane” in Menard.

By December 1936, reformers were agitating for stronger laws and punishments.

A bill to castrate sex criminals gained momentum in the legislature. The Chicago American trumpeted revelations that sex criminals had easily escaped in recent years: “danger! One thousand escaped feeble-minded and insane persons . . . most of them capable of bestial sex crimes . . . at large in chicago!”

Nearly every day, the papers played up reports of sex crimes; no matter that they happened as far away as Buffalo or Tacoma, Washington. Fifty irate clubwomen in hats descended on the mayor’s office calling for action. Fears rose so high that the city council passed a law to require “moron alarms"-sirens or bells on fire escapes to warn of intruders. The reformers succeeded in pressuring the Illinois legislature to pass a sexual psychopath law in 1938, providing that anyone even suspected of deviance could be sent for an indeterminate time to the psychiatric division of the penitentiary at Menard or to the Illinois Security Hospital at Chester. (Michigan was the first state in the country to pass such a law, followed by Illinois, then a spate of others. Since then almost all of these laws have been eliminated.).

Once the fad of slumming at gay nightspots disappeared in the late 1930s, its existence was soon nearly forgotten. Chauncey discovered it only by chance, in the 1980s, as he was researching New York City’s early gay history for his Ph.D. thesis at Yale University. Scrolling through rolls and rolls of microfilmed archives of entertainment newspapers, such as Variety, he noticed the growing number of clubs in Times Square with gay performers, often described as “pansies.” “Suddenly I saw so much material and realized that there was a pattern of something we didn’t know existed before,” he remembers.

Because many gays and lesbians died alone during periods when homosexuality was vilified, their personal papers were not saved, or their families destroyed embarrassing documents. Historians typically sift through vast amounts of material on gays to find smatterings of references or documentation. Only in the past 10 or 15 years have archivists recognized these documents as worth saving. There has been tremendous excitement among gay historians as they uncover and collect this material, and the thrill of discovery is part of the attraction of the field. “It’s what makes me love doing research,” says Professor D’Emilio. “You get to read things that weren’t meant to be read. The best stuff is when you realize that this is really uncensored.”

By the time the Pansy Craze was over, “most people began thinking of themselves as either hetero- or homosexual, while a century ago people did not think of themselves or organize their emotional lives through those categories,” says the historian Chad Heap.

Of course, suppression could not kill homosexuality, only drive it underground, and ironically the crackdown led to a dispersal of gay entertainments. When female impersonators were banned in Chicago and New York City, they went on the road, popping up in Milwaukee, Atlantic City, and beyond. And another social upheaval was about to occur, one that would blow open the closet with gale force. World War II and the military draft would bring together thousands of men, from rural prairie states and seaside cities. Concentrated in such large numbers, gay men inevitably gathered and began to talk and compare their experiences. Irrevocably, the stage for openness among homosexuals was set.

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