Fieseler, Robert. “Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation”, Liveright, 2018.
Love, Faith, Death and Grief (The Review)
Some of you might have noticed that I have already written about “Tinderbox” but part of my title said “This is not a review” but in many ways it was. There are only so many ways that you can write about something and I used a fair share of glowing material back then so that will not change. I have since reread “Tinderbox” twice and I am a bit stunned at how much I did not catch inn the first reading. Hence we now have my “real” review and it will be every bit as glowing as my “non-review”. (Warning: Some of this might sound familiar).
As many of you know, I was born and raised in New Orleans and until I moved to Israel in the mid-60s, I was fairly active in the New Orleans gay and literary communities. That might help to explain why I try to read whatever comes out about the Crescent City. Robert Fieseler’s book is not only about New Orleans, it is also about gay New Orleans and when I first heard about it and that the author, like myself, was living in Boston, I knew that not only did I have to read the book, but that I would have to meet the author.
I was a bit surprised about what Fieseler chose to write about to be his swan dive into the swimming pool of gay literature. His book “Tinderbox” is an in depth and intense look at the fire at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans that killed 32 people in 1973. There were already two books written about it, one in the last few years as well as documentary film that was making the rounds of the LGBT film festival circuit and is available on DVD and Blu ray. I wondered if there was a need for another book; it seemed to me that everything that could be said had already been said. When Fieseler told me why he wrote this, he totally pulled me into himself. It was not that long ago that we had the terrible shootings at Pulse in Orlando and what I did not realize was that until that horrific incident, what happened at the Upstairs Lounge was the most brutal crime against gay people in American history. New Orleans had long ago closed the case and then we had the Pulse as if history was repeating itself.
“Tinderbox” looks at what happened at the Upstairs Lounge and incorporates it into the American civil rights movement. As we read we never lose the grief that came with what happened that Sunday in New Orleans. It is interesting that this horrible event has re-emerged as a catalyzing event of the gay liberation movement. Fieseler takes us through the tragic event that claimed the lives of thirty-one men and one woman on June 24, 1973 and what had been, until 2016, the largest mass murder of gay people. He gives us a look at “a closeted, blue- collar gay world that flourished before an arsonist ignited an inferno that destroyed an entire community.” That event alone was traumatic but so was what happened afterwards. Families were too embarrassed and ashamed to claim the bodies because the dead were gay people, the Catholic Church refused proper burial rights, the city of New Orleans was impervious to the survivors’ needs and we become aware of the total intolerance and prejudice that was part of the city, a place where whites and blacks got along but where straights and gays could not. The fire took place after Stonewall and during the beginnings of gay liberation in this country. There was a new kind of activism that came into being after the fire and it was the basis for a young gay liberation movement.
For those of you who are unaware, the arson of the gay bar the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans sees to have been an act of revenge, allegedly committed by a small-time crook and alcoholic gay hustler by the name of Roger Dale Nunez. Nunez had tried to hustle one of the clients at the bar and in doing so he broke the no hustling rule and was asked to leave. He became very angry and an altercation followed resulting in Nunez being punched in the face and then physically removed from the bar. Two patrons claim they heard him yell, “I’m going to burn you all out,” or “I’m going to burn this place to the ground.” Apparently, Nunez certainly came back later that evening to set fire to the bar but that was never officially proven. Due to the ineptitude and prejudice of the times, and because he committed suicide years later before he could be arraigned and justice served, the case was closed. How Nunez managed to elude the law, many times over is fascinating but it is so discouraging and disgusting the New Orleans Police Force was so inept regarding this case.
Fieseler writes not just about the fire but also about the world that allowed it to happen. New Orleans has always been a center of gay life and there were certainly no surprises about it. One would think that with the open and carefree lifestyle of the French Quarter that no one would really care about anyone’s sexuality yet the gay life of the city remained in the closet and a world of paradox replaced what we might have thought of as tolerant. We see here the furtiveness of gay life in a tolerant city as well as the official culture’s hostility to it. I have always found it interesting, however, that New Orleans drew famous people into its gay scene. I met and saw out frequently a world famous playwright, a major television star and a major film star not to mention closeted members of Congress, a famous district attorney and a mayor who drove around the French Quarter picking up boys.
What happened that Sunday afternoon was one of the worst outrages against gay people in modern America, and here Fieseler relates it to us in all that it was. In effect, he is restoring a chapter of history that was once lost to us because those involved did not matter enough to be included. We become very aware of the depth of prejudice that was and there are no exceptions and that includes the media that covered the story when it happened. And yes, there are surprises here. More than once I had to stop reading to either dry my eyes or to sit back and think about something I had not heard before and this was the community that I had once been a part of.
Fieseler brings the tragedy to life again through his meticulous research and survivor interviews and in doing so he damns homophobia and the comfort some found in the closet. He analyzes the event from many angles and as he does, he shows the failures of the New Orleans police department, the fire department, the mayor and the mayor’s office, the local and national press, the Church and so on. The broader political, spiritual and personal implications are still in effect today.
The Upstairs Lounge fire was the largest mass murder of gays in American history, until 2016 in Orlando, Florida. And yet, in 1973, Fieseler shows how the Lounge disaster for the most part was swept under the rug because you cannot have mass deaths if you want the good times to roll. Everyone in command was part of the negligence and indifference to the fire codes in the French Quarter, “the gay ghetto”; the investigation was a disaster due to the ineptitude and bias of the police and fire departments; the local and national American press buried the story on the back pages; the mayor who stayed mostly silent and away; and the closeted gay community was too afraid to take a stand. As if that is not enough— the slow response from the fire department ended in confusion over the location of the bar, its layout, its fire exits, and the need for proper equipment to help the victims escape. The burned remains of the victims were left on display for hours due to the thoughtlessness of officials and first responders, and the press corps was free to mosey through remains of the site and take photos. There was infighting, misconceptions, and a New Orleans mentality that plagued the New Orleans gay community, a community which suddenly had to now deal with the beginning of a national gay protest movement and the Metropolitan Community that now wanted more visibility and more congregants. Important and recognizable gay figures were treated with mistrust and scorn and their intentions were questioned when they tried to call national attention to the Up Stairs Lounge fire. Families too ashamed to claim their loved ones and the Catholic Church refused proper burial rights.
Fieseler is a wonderful and powerful storyteller. I watched him as he addressed the Boston History Project about his book and everyone was mesmerized. He comes alive when he speaks and when alludes to the lying implicit in the enforcement of “the closet,” and how lying causes more lying. He tells us that in New Orleans “The closet grew to function as a governing institution for non-heterosexual life in twentieth-century America, which explains precisely how a makeshift bar like the Up Stairs Lounge could burn to its foundations and, in so doing, disappear from memory.” Having come out in New Orleans, I have to rubber stamp what he said.
This is a painful book but a necessary one. We must never allow ourselves to forget that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Unfortunately those who came before us in New Orleans had to deal with trauma, pain, and emotional shock and we become truly aware of human frailty, moral weakness, evil, and bigotry. It is not too late to accord those who needlessly died the honor they had in paving the way for the rest of us and they paid the ultimate price. “Tinderbox” will become even more important after we synthesize all that it has to say. I am in awe of the research that was conducted, I am in awe of the beautiful and informative prose with which it has been written and I am so glad that honor has been restored to a forgotten generation of civil-rights martyrs. We all owe Robert Fieseler a great deal for all he has done with this, his first book.