#TBT: A Quick Study of the Beaux Arts Cocktail Lounge – Louisville’s first gay bar

by David Williams

Photos Courtesy of The Courier Journal archives and University of Louisville Photographic Archives

Article Originally Published January 2, 2016

At this late date it’s nearly impossible to write a fulfilling history of the Beaux Arts Cocktail Lounge.  A great many former patrons are undoubtedly deceased.  If still alive, they’re in their late 70s or early 80s.  Their memories may have dimmed, or they may simply be unwilling to sit down with a stranger to talk about them.  So far I’ve been able to interview only one former patron, Dick Angel.  His information plus entries in Caron’s city directories and a few ads and articles from the Louisville Courier-Journal are the only sources we have thus far.  No information could be found at the Filson Historical Society or in the Louisville Free Public Library’s clippings folders.

This report therefore wanders unavoidably from time to time into the netherworld of conjecture, assumptions, speculation, and educated guesswork.  Some observations I make are based on general life experiences in the gay subculture and my knowledge of the pre-1969 gay scene and are noted as such.  If more information becomes available, I’ll insert it into a folder entitled “Bars – Beaux Arts (1947-55)” at the Williams-Nichols Collection, University of Louisville.

Besides a couple of newspaper ads, only one photograph of the lounge’s interior exists (see the appendix).  Catalogued at the University of Louisville Photographic Archives, it shows an establishment with a decidedly French flair, with a hand-painted mural of Parisian scenes and casual tables and chairs.  The photo is one of the few interior shots of a Louisville bar or tavern in the collection.  Its light, breezy atmosphere is faintly reminiscent of the restaurant in a popular film noir of the day, Mildred Pierce, a gay favorite.  The decor reflects the patriotic fervor all Americans felt after the Anglo-French liberation of Paris from the Nazis just a couple of years earlier.

The Beaux Arts, which opened on April 16, 1947, had several inviting features.  First, it was air-conditioned, still something of a novelty at the time.  It also offered music.  Finally, at least at first, it featured a two-for-one special during what we’d today call “happy hour.”  Whatever drink a patron was cradling at 5:15 would be matched for free by the bartender.  One of its specialties was a mean Tom Collins.  Since most offices probably closed at 5:00, it’s tempting to imagine how crowded the place might get!

Within fifteen months of its opening, the Beaux Arts added dining.  An ad from the July 1, 1948 issue of the Louisville Courier-Journal invites the public to its “enticing cocktail[s] and a sumptuous dinner.”  But food service doesn’t seem to have caught on, at least during the evening hours.  Dining is mentioned in only one other ad the following week.  Judging from subsequent Louisville Courier-Journal ads and the Angel interview, the Beaux Arts seems to have reverted mostly to serving alcohol.

What kind of crowd patronized the place?  The Beaux Arts, like most bars at the time, did not start out as gay-oriented.  In a July 22, 1948 ad, it describes itself as the “rendezvous of the smart, sophisticated crowd who demand glamorous surroundings and exceptional drinks” at a moderate cost.  Another ad two weeks earlier pictures a dining and drinking experience with “cronies.”  Its patrons were probably what we would today call “upwardly mobile” or “aspirational” businessmen attracted to an elegant environment where prices were reasonable.

It may also have had a young crowd, perhaps populated by college students or graduates, but that conclusion is based solely on a single classified ad and can be easily discounted.  One man who’d lost his college fraternity pin at the bar placed four classified ads in late 1948 asking for its return.  Of course, the man might have been any age.  Then again, the ad could have been planted by the managers themselves as an inexpensive way to bring attention to the bar.  If so, perhaps they were trying to attract a younger set.

Of especial interest to this study, during July and August 1948 a couple of ads include words later associated with the homosexual subculture.  The July 22 ad notes the bar’s “Music, gayety…” (the word “gaiety” is misspelled, probably on purpose).  And then an August 12 ad reads, “Treat the queen of your heart to a treat fit for a queen.  Start the evening at the gay Beaux Arts…”  So, after fifteen months, had the Beaux Arts already turned gay?

While the words “queen” and “gay” had been used by homosexuals in larger American cities most likely since the 1920s, if not earlier, they wouldn’t become more widely known nationwide as homosexual slang words until after the mid-1950s.  But would they have been known to homosexuals living in smaller cities like Louisville?  Most likely.  Many of them were veterans of World War II who’d been exposed to homosexual subcultures in such places as New York City and San Francisco where “gay” and “queen” were already being used in their homosexual contexts.

What about the altered spelling of “gaiety”? Was management on to something?  Or was it just playing off the idea of “gay Paree,” a common description of Paris?  Probably the latter.

Because the  Beaux Arts continued focusing its advertising on heterosexuals well into the early 1950s, it’s unlikely the bar had turned gay just yet.  We have to assume the inclusion of “gay” and “queen” in these ads was purely coincidental.  The managers were simply being cute.

From late 1950 to early 1951 the Beaux Arts ran a cartoon/advertisement entitled “Bottoms Up” by “A. Highball.”  “Bottoms Up” was a syndicated cartoon out of Milwaukee which could be tailored to the specific advertising needs of local watering holes throughout the country.  It often engaged in naughty heterosexual innuendo.  In one, a wife with a rolling pin confronts her husband as their baby boy looks on.  “He said his first words today…,” reads the caption.  “‘Daddy took nurse to HENRY CLAY HOTEL’S “BEAUX ARTS” COCKTAIL LOUNGE’!”  In another, a man in Arabic costume tells one of his wives he’d like to go to the Beaux Arts to get away from the other wives.  The ads are definitely aimed at a heterosexual audience but offer clues that the makeup of the crowd had shifted.

During these years Louisville’s suburbs were exploding.  Many families no longer lived close to downtown.  Businessmen wanting to have a drink before going home to their wives would have to drive farther.  Many of them wouldn’t.  It was also the height of the baby boom.  Young postwar couples might no longer want to spend as much time at a downtown cocktail lounge after work.  The “Bottoms Up” cartoon/ads provide subtle hints that the Beaux Arts crowds had changed from aspirational to night-on-the-town.

A classified ad from January 7, 1953 may support that change.  In it, a woman asks for return of a coat mistakenly taken from the bar by a “working girl.”  Such a term usually denoted a young woman without a lot of money to spend.  Perhaps the income levels of at least a few patrons were lower than in previous years.  Her presence might suggest a blend of aspirational and night-on-the-town.  Then again, perhaps the ad was planted by the managers to draw more women–and heterosexual men–into the establishment.

The “Bottoms Up” ads hint that the Beaux Arts was beginning to attract more unattached people.  Could homosexual men, who didn’t have to worry about wives and children, have been part of the mix?  That’s quite a stretch but, given the bar’s later history, not out of the realm of possibility.

After February 1951, the Beaux Arts didn’t advertise again for almost two years. Presumably that’s a good sign it didn’t have to. But when it resumed advertising, something feels different.  Two ads from November 1952 read, “Relax and be gay with Reneé at the organ.”  Is this the first time the word “gay” in its homosexual context was used in the pages of the Louisville Courier-Journal?  Had the Beaux Arts finally gone gay?

During the early 1950s, the homosexual word “gay” was just beginning to filter up from the American homosexual underground.  The 1952 ads appeared just as the word in its homosexual context was starting to move, albeit slowly, into common usage, mainly in tabloids.  While most of the public would still have understood it in its older meaning, it’s not inconceivable a lot of homosexual Louisvillians would have recognized its newer one.

Renée Hoffman, whose story will be related later, was a rising star in Louisville who’d just completed two whirlwind years of entertainment on stage and radio.  Although she’d appeared as an organist alongside some titillating acts at Iroquois Gardens, it seems unlikely she’d jeopardize her career by appearing at a cocktail lounge known to be patronized by homosexuals.  It was the middle of the McCarthy Era.  Homosexuals were still widely disparaged.  Considered national security risks, they were being fired from government jobs left and right.  Even consorting with them brought a person under suspicion of also being homosexual.

On the other hand, Hoffman seems to have had a giggly, adventurous spirit.  At a business luncheon in late 1950 she unashamedly kicked off her ultra-high heels so she could operate the organ pedals better.  A front page newspaper photo from December 1950 shows her serenading a Gypsy bride on the accordion.

 Based on these slim clues, she comes across as a bubbly, open-hearted woman, and how could she not be if one of her instruments was the accordion?  If the patrons of the Beaux Arts were homosexual, she might not have thought twice about it.  After all, she was in show business.

Even so, it’s debatable whether the November 1952 ads are proof the Beaux Arts had gone gay.  Hoffman was too well-known an entertainer among the general public.  Her appearance at the Beaux Arts, I feel, would have attracted an audience much broader than the homosexual population.  The managers were probably still playing off the “gay Paree” idea in these ads.  Maybe they liked the sound of “gay” paired with “Renée.”  I seriously doubt they would have been so bold as to openly seek gay patronage at the height of the McCarthy Era.  The federal government might begin staking out the place.

It’s tempting to speculate, though, how a homosexual man in-the-know might have responded to the word “gay” in the ad copy.  Might he have thought the bar was giving him a subtle signal?  Might he have misinterpreted it and thought perhaps the bar had become homosexual-friendly?  Did the November ads have unintended consequences?  It’s certainly fun to speculate, but at this point it’s impossible to answer any of those questions.

It wouldn’t be long before the Beaux Arts clientele switched to gay, but my instinct tells me it hadn’t happened just yet.

Because there’s absolutely no documentation about the bar for that crucial period between late 1952 and early 1954, this study now has to lend itself temporarily to educated guesses, pure speculation, and my own subjective observations even more than it has before.  There are too many questions without answers.

Between November 1952 and April 1954 the Beaux Arts placed no ads in the Louisville Courier-Journal.  Again, as before, maybe it didn’t have to, but was there another reason?

 If after 1952 the managers began to see more homosexual patrons in the evenings, it’s unlikely they would have advertised, hence the long hiatus.  Well into the 21st century, Louisville gay bars did not advertise in non-gay newspapers.  What if the Beaux Arts had advertised to the general public and new heterosexual patrons showed up only to realize the crowd was no longer theirs?  Word of mouth would have destroyed its business overnight.  Even gay men might start shunning the place for fear of losing employment if spotted.  Men continued to be arrested for sodomy.  The city was still tight-knit and insular.  Word would get around.  Fear of exposure remained prevalent in Louisville as late as the 1970s and 80s.

Another speculative clue:  in March 1954 three under-age boys tried to get a drink at the Beaux Arts early one Sunday morning before closing.  When they were refused, a ruckus ensued and a bartender and waiter were injured.  If the bar were still being patronized by heterosexual men and women, would they have caused a stir?  In my experience young heterosexual toughs have been daring each other to walk into gay bars since anyone can remember.  Perhaps this was another instance.  If so, it might indicate the bar had been gay for some time, as it would have taken awhile for word of mouth to filter down to the city’s youth.

My guess is that sometime during 1953 the bar switched to gay.  Maybe the heterosexual crowd had wandered off to a new hot spot.  When the bar managers realized what was going on, they probably thought it best to keep their new clientele an open, wink-wink secret.  Homosexuals were, after all, keeping the place afloat, so why rock the boat?  From 1951-52 the bar hadn’t advertised probably because it didn’t have to.  From 1952-54 it didn’t probably because it didn’t want to.

We do know that by 1954 the crowd had definitely turned gay male, at least in the evenings (lesbians were scarce).  Angel started hanging out there that year.  The next year he’d meet his future lover there.

 After nearly two years, on April 25, 1954, the Henry Clay Hotel, the establishment’s manager, placed an ad in the Louisville Courier-Journal mentioning the Beaux Arts, but the next stand-alone ad for the bar wasn’t until August 19, when it announced an appearance by the Odell Baker Trio.

Odell or O’Dell Baker led a local Negro musical group whose style of music was sometimes labeled “boogie-woogie” by the Louisville Courier-Journal.  Ads for their appearance note they’d been on television.  They played through September 4.  Baker most assuredly wasn’t gay.  Was the Beaux Arts trying to get heterosexual patrons back to the bar after the March ruckus?  Or did Baker not care for whom he was playing?

Shortly after Baker left, the Billy Rudolph Trio, another black group, performed several shows.  Little is known of this group.  It played through early October.

Angel recalls there’d been a woman who played the piano at the bar, but he apparently never saw her.  “[E]veryone kept saying, ‘she’s coming back!,'” he told me in his 2011 interview, as if she’d been a favorite entertainer for some time.  It was most likely Renée.  An early 1955 ad is probably a reference to the same Reneé mentioned in the November 14, 1952 ad.  She was scheduled to sing at the Beaux Arts on February 23, 1955.

Renée Hoffman was a popular local entertainer in the late 1940s and early 1950s who played the accordion, organ, and piano.  Daughter of Jewish immigrants from Romania, she began to draw notice after organizing a cancer benefit show at the Armory in 1947.   In late 1950 she played four shows a day at the Strand Theater in downtown Louisville before embarking on an extensive run at Iroquois Gardens, a Tudor-style night club on New Cut Road in the South End.  There, she appeared with such B-grade acts as Carmen del Carmen (“Golden Girl of the Golden West”), Benny Ray (the “Original Atomic Comic”), and Zorine, Queen of the Nudists.  Her association with such acts might indicate a certain degree of liberality to her personality.

Three or four times a week from early 1951 to August 1952 she had her own fifteen-minute radio program at 10:45 in the evening on WKLO-AM, then located in the Henry Clay Hotel.  It’s not known which instrument she played on these broadcasts, but it was probably the organ.  That’s what she played in the fall of 1950 at the Strand and Iroquois Gardens, and it’s what she played during her first Beaux Arts gig in November 1952.

After 1952 her appearances in Louisville tapered off.  In 1954 her father, a grocer, died.  Eleven years later a Louisville Courier-Journal article notes she was living with her aging mother, who was 84.  Perhaps family had taken precedence over career.  When she resurfaces in the pages of the Louisville Courier-Journal, it’s generally for a benefit concert.  Her last, in March 1968, was for a sorority dance to benefit the Binet School for Perpetually Handicapped Children.

Hoffman is something of a transitional figure. In late 1952 she’d played before most likely a heterosexual crowd, but in early 1955 her audience was homosexual.  Judging by Angel’s comments, she seems to have been an early gay crowd favorite.  Reneé Hoffman is yet another one of those shadow figures in Louisville LGBT history whose full story has yet to be told.

In its later years was the Beaux Arts a gay bar in the modern sense?  In some respects, yes. While there was no dancing or kissing, Angel doesn’t remember the crowd being all that discreet.  Yet were an outsider to ask if the patrons were homosexual, it’s doubtful anyone would have acknowledged it.  They wouldn’t have in the 1970s, either, when I started going to gay bars.

Like so many other bars, it probably had two sets of clientele:  a heterosexual crowd early in the evening and a homosexual one later at night.  During the same period, Louisville’s first known lesbian bar, Aunt Nora’s, on Cane Run Road in Pleasure Ridge Park, was similarly schizophrenic.  In the front it was a VFW Hall, but in the back behind a curtain it was a lesbian bar.  Such dichotomies continue at many watering holes to this day.  One notable modern example is the “Mag Bar” (Magnolia Bar and Grill) at Second and Magnolia.  From 4-9 it’s a neighborhood bar, but then it attracts college students and members of Louisville’s cultural underground.

The last newspaper article about the Beaux Arts appears on February 21, 1957.  It notes the Henry Clay Hotel was being sold.  “The new owners,” it notes, “plan to remodel the Beaux Arts cocktail lounge on Chestnut….”  But there are indications the bar had already closed two years earlier.  The 1956 Caron City Directory notes that 306-08 W. Chestnut was “vacant.”

By then, Nolan’s Cocktail Lounge had opened a few doors west on Chestnut Street.  Perhaps it and another bar on Fourth called Gordon’s, both of which had a gay clientele, were drawing the crowd away.  The March 1954 ruckus at the Beaux Arts couldn’t have helped.  After the February 1957 news article, the Beaux Arts disappears from the pages of the Louisville Courier-Journal forever.

According to Caron’s City Directory, from 1956-61 the Henry Clay Cocktail Lounge occupied the same space, and then the Bungalow operated there briefly in 1962.  But the days of imbibing, live music and revelry would never return after the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) bought the hotel that same year and turned the former Beaux Arts space into a dining room for its members.

There are a lot of tantalizing clues about the history of the Beaux Arts in the pages of the Louisville Courier-Journal.  Hopefully there are other unknown sources that will one day bring it further out of the shadows.  But for now, the best we can conclude is that the Beaux Arts started out in 1947 as an establishment that attracted heterosexuals but became gay-oriented most likely around 1952-53, remaining so until closing in 1955.

The Beaux Arts is the first establishment in Louisville known to have catered to homosexual men.  Despite a lot of dissimilarities to a modern gay bar, it can nevertheless be rightfully considered the first recognizable gay bar in Louisville.

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