THE BLOG
01/04/2014 02:09 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Gay Philadelphia Story, Part 1

In his diaries, Christopher Isherwood wrote about going to Philadelphia's Camac Street Baths when he worked on Philadelphia's Main Line as a conscientious objector. The time was WWII and Isherwood, tiding the train from Haverford into the city, noted that the men "were tall, bony, big-shouldered, fair-haired and quite nice looking, but somehow fatally 'pithed,' as though the marrow had been drained from their bones." The women, Isherwood wrote, "were bright and energetic. They used no makeup, and their white skin was dotted with freckles. They had sandy gold hair, dragged back and twisted into a knot. The country we were passing couldn't possibly have been less 'my sort': It was tame, suburban, pretty, a landscape with secrets."

The baths were a relief for Isherwood, a place where he was able to meet sailors and servicemen. Since the baths were on Camac Street, there were plenty of bars and taverns in the vicinity, too. Until the 1980s, the nucleus of Philadelphia's queer community was west of Broad Street around the area of 15th and Spruce, where bars like the Mistique -- a racially diverse, bohemian drag and jazz bar -- and, later, the Allegro were major focal points of the city's night life.

The story of Camac Street's metamorphosis from quaint thoroughfare to hooligan alleyway -- where police had to send in "troops" to quell riots and drunken brawls -- and finally to a Greenwich Village-style street with literary, sketch and yachtsman clubs, began in 1804 when it was named after Turner Camac. Camac, a wealthy Irish landowner, knew the street as a picturesque little avenue with numerous early American homes and tiny gardens. On the street was the Venture Inn (now a gay bar and restaurant), built around 1670, which began as a tavern but was later used as a stable for the carriages of wealthy Philadelphians. During the Civil War the Venture Inn was also part of the Underground Railway.

In 1937, the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration published a report on Philadelphia for its American Guide Series. The report included a section on Camac Street.

The street kept its respectability until about 1880. Then came a period of decline, and it degenerated into one of the meanest and most disreputable streets in the city. Until 1900 it was the scene of brawls by day and crimes by night, requiring at times an entire squad of the city's police to maintain order. For twenty years the street, lined with brothels and taverns, rotted in a mire of debauchery. Unkempt derelicts of every sort frequented its dark corners and hideaways, the report stated.

In the 1950s and 60s, Camac Street and its environs, especially around the area of Spruce Street, were sometimes the scene of conflicts between gay men and lesbians. The gay men would be walking up Spruce Street at night (for decades considered the area where most of Philadelphia's Center City gays and lesbians could be found), and sometimes were mistaken for straight or gay men invading "lesbian turf." While I was conducting research for Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia, local personality Henri David told me that some "strong looking diesel dykes" would occasionally beat up gay men who wandered into certain areas thought to be lesbian territory. This didn't happen often, David assured me, but it did occur. Many of the gay men were from the city but many more were from the suburbs -- and may have taken the same train that Isherwood took to spend a night at the Camac Baths.

Lesbians came in from different parts of the city as well, although women traveling late at night often had to go to unusual lengths to protect themselves against predatory men. Marge McCann, a Germantown resident who ran unsuccessfully against Clark Polak for the presidency of the Janus Society, an early homosexual rights group, recalled taking the Broad Street subway at night disguised as a boy. McCann would slouch down in the subway seat and adopt a tough pose. (This was her ticket back and forth to the city's only lesbian bar at the time, Rusty's.)

Rusty's was near Philadelphia's infamous TROC burlesque theater, near 10th and Race Streets, and had the paranoid atmosphere of a 1920s speakeasy. Patrons who went to Rusty's had to peer into a peephole in order to be admitted. Joan C. Meyers, an art student and photographer living in Center City at the time, recalls that she was turned away from Rusty's because she was not dressed in a "lesbian uniform," that being short hair with no makeup. Meyers said that her flowing Joan Baez locks caused Bee, a staff person at Rusty's, to say, "We are tired of straight women like you coming around bothering our girls."

In the 1940s and 1950s, there were more gay clubs in Philadelphia than there are in 2003. Many straight bars in those days hosted a "drag night." Henri David, for instance, remembers Sabrina (Jack Doroshow), whom he calls his "drag mother." Sabrina hosted drag parties at his mansion just outside Center City. Recalls David:

He would hire a band, they'd serve booze... They were wild, wild, wild parties. They eventually got raided and they made the news. But the kids were all thrilled because it was like a dream to go to this mansion with a circular driveway, a butler and the whole nine yards. It was so decadent. Sabrina's mother took the money at the door. [He] actually looked like [David's] mother when he was in drag. [She] always wore black velvet and had blond hair, [and] would stand at the door and say, "Hello darling, two dollars." It was a surreal time in our lives. The parties would go on all night. We would rent school buses and bring whole crowds out from downtown... Nobody had cars... we were kids.

Posters advertising drag beauty contests were a staple of 13th Street life in the late 1950s and 1960s. The Hotel Philadelphia (now demolished) at Broad and Vine Streets was the site of the annual Miss Philadelphia contest. The contest was organized by Jack Doroshow (Sabrina), Henri David and Jack Venuti. The big winner in the 1967 nationals was Harlow (Richard Finocchio). Harlow became the star of Frank Simon's 1968 film The Queen. This film, writes Raymond Murray in Images in the Dark (1994), showed the crowning of the new queen while "many of the attitude-throwing, jealous losers bare their sharp claws and venomous tongues, bitching about the winner and her oh-so-tacky dress!" Some time in the 1970s, Harlow transitioned and became Rachel Harlow.

Great strides were made in gay life in the 1960s. Mel Heifetz opened a coffeehouse, the Humoresque, at 2036 Sansom Street for the gay and straight folk-singing and poetry-loving crowd. Philadelphia police in those days harassed Heiftez, not because gay people frequented the coffeehouse but because interracial couples were going there. The New Year's Day Mummers' Parade up Broad Street was one of the few events in the 50s and 60s where gay men could safely assemble in public and camp it up. It was an all-day circus with hundreds of drag queens and other rustic surprises.

To be continued...