One Sunday, a patron of the UpStairs Lounge at the corner of Chartres and Iberville streets in New Orleans was ejected for getting into a fight with another customer. Before he was tossed out, no less than two fellow patrons at the weekly Sunday beer bash recalled the man uttering a threat about “burning” the remaining patrons out. A short time later, someone doused the wooden stairway to the second-story front door in lighter fluid and lit a match. With the noise of the party and the anticipation of a taxi arrival, bartender Buddy Rasmussen asked Luther Boggs to open the door.
As soon as the door opened, a backdraft ripped through the entire 40’ length of the bar. The “fire proof” door melted. The burglar proof bars on the windows trapped all but the slimmest of patrons. Decor went up with a sigh as the flames set upon the confines of the bar. In the crowded confusion, Rasmussen herded some 30 patrons through the front room, the dance hall, and out to the back room. Disused accouterments were thrown aside to reveal a fire exit where Rasmussen and his group escaped. To contain the fire, the fire escape was closed. Yet as the group made it to the streets below, screams and horrific scenes of people burning alive assailed those outside. Some went back to help their friends and their lovers only to share the same fiery grave.
The fire burned for less than 20 minutes, but all told thirty-two people lost their lives and fifteen were injured. The front-page news should have lasted days, weeks, even months. Public outrage should have had people marching in the streets. Law enforcement should have pumped their full resources into investigating the crime and finding the perpetrator.
But this was America in 1973. “Gay” still meant “happy” and homosexuality was stigmatized as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The Christian view was that homosexuality was a sin. The shock of the tragedy was immediate only insofar as no one knew the UpStairs Lounge was a clandestine gay bar. As the nature of the establishment was unveiled, passers by, first responders, and the general public generally understood this fire was nothing more than judgement upon those who were sick, who sinned. The highly compartmentalized and highly functional closeted gay culture in New Orleans at the time clashed with the newly spawned Gay Liberation movement. While those with ties to the fire tried to come to grips with the event—by grieving their losses, by leaving the city, by ignoring the tragedy—the actions and inactions of political, governmental, and legal bodies made it abundantly clear that not all crimes were treated equal.
If you are at all interested in gay history, Tinderbox is an absolute must read. Like many, I had never heard of the UpStairs Lounge, but I’m a fan of nonfiction so I thought I’d give this book a go. Fieseler breaks the event down into three chunks. First, we are introduced to several of the victims, learning about their histories prior to the night of the fire. These are often tender vignettes of lovers going about their day to day lives. One of the most memorable ones for me describes the drive Buddy Rasmussen and Adam Fontenot take past the still-under-construction New Orleans Superdome. The second chunk starts by setting the scene the night of the fire—who was there, what they were doing—and accounts almost minute-for-minute who does what as The UpStairs Lounge is completely consumed by flames. The third part focuses on the local and national reaction to the tragedy. Fieseler does a quality job gently reminding this (outraged) reader that “few legal protections existed to prevent the firing of gays and suspected gays” and the Lavender Scare in the 1950s where the Department of State fired some 5,000 people for being gay. This is also the part of the book that zeroes in on one particular character named Nunez, about whom there is a “preponderance of evidence” suggesting he set the fire and constantly evaded the, well, lazy arm of the law.
The author really does his homework for this book as well. There are literally dozens of citations per chapter covering all manner of medium—including interviews with some of the survivors. Knowing Fieseler put in the legwork to track down countless news articles, magazine articles, archival information, that he reached out to survivors and their kin, helped not just tell the story, but lend credence to those passages where there is no way Fieseler could have know what was happening. That said, I can easily imagine the author gathering enough personal accounts from friends and family and so on to reasonably hypothesize such scenes.
One other element that features prominently in the book—and that helps keep it from being all about the pain and suffering of such a horrific act—is the gay liberation theme. There is a sense of defiance in the beginning. The UpStairs Lounge patrons are not going to let their closeted lifestyle stifle all sense of self and the lounge provided a safe place to rejoice in being themselves. After the fire, Fieseler’s message shifts to juxtapose the safe-for-gays-as-long-as-you’re-in-the-closet (more than a few patrons were actually married to women and had families) with shifting public opinion in the wake of the Stonewall Inn Riots. Here, too, there was a mighty struggle between the comfortable-but-closeted life many in New Orleans were willing to accept and a wider, national movement to be out and proud. Compared to the devastation we read about the fire, the inclusion of this wider perspective gives the reader some hope. Personally, tying the UpStairs Lounge tragedy to national efforts for gay visibility and equality helped me connect the event to a broader context. Which is not to say Fieseler stops the discussion about the fire—whatever wider topics are discussed are done so in a way that makes their connection to the fire clear. For example, the long, slow process of getting a permanent plaque to commemorate the lives lost in the fire.
Tinderbox is not just a story about a fire in a bar. There are intimate profiles of several of the victims and survivors, snippets of their histories pieced together by Fieseler’s painstaking research. There recounting of the fire itself tore me up, wanting everyone I’d just learned about to make it out safe and knowing that wouldn’t happen. There is a bit of true-crime to the Nunez character, clearly the most obvious suspect but never formally charged or even serious pursued by law enforcement. And there is hope that past wrongs can be at least partially assuaged by recognition.