Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation by Robert W. Fieseler:
Café Lafitte in Exile, a tavern for the “genteel,” not only survived but thrived in the wake of a 1969 incident in which Laisder Mendoza, the twenty-five-year-old gay son of a Venezuelan industrialist, had gotten into an argument with a lover, exited the bar, and then plowed his pickup truck through the building’s front door, injuring three. Five years earlier, Mendoza had been arrested by the vice squad and booked for “attempted crime against nature,” but, because he was a closeted member of diplomatic society, it does not appear that he received any comeuppance for that charge or for driving his truck through the bar.
Tennessee Williams frequented Café Lafitte in Exile but avoided acknowledgment of his homosexuality because the content of his plays roused enough controversy as it was: he feared it would escalate if his “mad pilgrimage of the flesh” were to become common knowledge. Some critics, such as Time magazine’s Louis Kronenberger, were especially keen to goad Williams as an artist “obsessed with violence, corruption and sex” or a man whose “profanity often seems to relieve . . . [his] own feelings rather than his characters.’” Williams’s dance between out-ness and closeted-ness created paranoia and psychological breaks. Consequently, the playwright suffered a diminution in self-worth. “I once had the idea, the hope, of being a major artist,” he confessed to his lover, Frank Merlo, in 1957. “I know I am a minor artist who has happened to create two or three major works.” At the time Williams wrote these words, he had already won two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.
Still, the playwright Williams, the shipping titan McDonogh, and the diplomat’s son Mendoza had all been moneyed men with the means to live in a gray space. In a pinch, they could bribe or influence their way out of trouble with law enforcement or the press. Homosexuality, for the affluent, was often something to be managed and concealed like a drug addiction, a “social tic” that would only read on the surface of the deranged or confused. It was still relatively common, for example, for the closeted rich to “keep a boy” in the Quarter, a young lover well maintained, at least temporarily, for the wealthy man’s own pleasure. “It was more of a class thing,” agreed Jane Place, who waitressed at a gay-friendly French Quarter diner. Upper-class gays could have their way in this world of complex graces. One gay fraternal order, for example, held a Mardi Gras ball at the luxurious Hotel Montelone in 1970, but no pictures appeared in the newspapers. “There were the high societies,” Place noted, “and then there were the derelicts, that you knew they weren’t going to live very long. It was very sad because you could almost pick their fate by the group they were in.”