To those who loved the Up Stairs Lounge, it was a kind of paradise.
A gay club that doubled as a church, it was a sanctuary in 1970s New Orleans at a time when homosexuality was considered sufficient grounds for deportation, in a city where assaulting gay people was sport for college fraternities and local ordinances made it unlawful to rent or sell homes to “sex perverts.”
It was a place of assured discretion and warm, easy brotherhood. The bartender kept a microphone behind the bar to announce regulars by name à la Ed McMahon (“Heeeeerrree’s Luther Boggs!”). If you were new, you were “honey” or “sweetheart.” On Sundays, you could pull up a pew in the morning and return in the evening for a $2 bottomless beer night that drew more than 100 people — from longshoremen to doctors to a hustler who went by “Napoleon” and dressed the part. At 2 p.m. the bar would open, and an extended family of lovers, exes and strays would begin to gather in the lofted rooms, around a white baby grand whose keys were worn from use.It was where the men prayed and played and danced in the drag revue. And on the night of June 24, 1973, at just shy of 8 p.m., with the sun yet to set, it was where they died.
Thirty-one men and one woman perished in an arson fire, the largest mass killing of gay people in this country until the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. They included ministers, veterans, trust-fund kids and fathers of young children. Many were veterans. Almost all were closeted. The arsonist was never caught but was suspected to be a patron enraged at being thrown out of the bar for fighting.
In “Tinderbox,” Robert W. Fieseler tries to align the fire with other bloody moments in civil rights history — the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the 1963 firebombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the 1969 Stonewall Inn Rebellion. He asks why those incidents have been enshrined in memory and the Up Stairs Lounge forgotten.
His research suggested something like a conspiracy of silence. Newspapers scarcely covered the tragedy. The police investigation was cursory. Even among local historians there was a stubborn, inexplicable reticence. “It says something profound that, in a natural storytelling community, one story remained off limits,” Fieseler writes. Some survivors were adamant their pain should not be politicized. “The Up Stairs Lounge was not a gay rights tragedy nor did it ever play a part in any gay rights movement,” one told him. It should never be “used” to promote a cause.
Fieseler handles contradictions with finesse, parsing the closet’s long shadow over gay life in New Orleans, one reason the tragedy did not catalyze the kind of outrage and activism that followed the Stonewall rebellion. The book is loving, sensitive and diligent. It is also overstuffed, unfocused and vexing. When I say “Tinderbox” should be taught in journalism schools, I mean it as praise and rebuke.
There is smart media criticism in these pages. Fieseler examines how the tragedy was covered (or more usually ignored), tracing newsroom attitudes toward homosexuality and the euphemisms used to report on gay life. “A popular place on Sundays” was a common way to refer to gay bars, implying that brisk business on the Lord’s Day put an establishment at odds with Christian values.