Earlier this month, Mayor LaToya Cantrell hoisted a rainbow flag at the entrance to New Orleans City Hall, where it would hang next to the city, state and American flags throughout Pride Month.
A municipal display of LGBT support would have been unlikely a generation ago, but to the patrons of the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar on the second floor of a building at the corner of Chartres and Iberville streets in the 1970s, it would have been impossible to imagine.
It was 45 years ago this month that a man bought a can of Ronsonol lighter fluid at a Walgreens on Canal Street, walked to the Up Stairs Lounge, emptied its contents on the stairs and struck a match. Within minutes, the bar was engulfed in flames and choking smoke. Ceiling tiles and fabric melted and stuck like napalm to the skins of the people inside. With the entrance blocked and the windows barred, an emergency exit hidden and a fire escape with no stairs, patrons were trapped.
Though the blaze was controlled in 17 minutes, firefighters found the room a crematorium with 28 bodies inside — "stacked like pancakes," in the words of The States-Item the next morning. Four more people died from injuries in the days afterward. (Had bartender Buddy Rasmussen not led 15 to 20 people out the hidden emergency exit, the death toll would have been higher.) The bodies were burned so badly that positive identification was impossible; New Orleans Police Department officers relied on scraps of identification. One of them, Maj. Henry Morris, cautioned, "We don't even know if these papers belonged to the people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there, and you know this is a queer bar."
"The fire came quickly and it was snuffed out quickly," wrote Lanny Thomas in The States-Item. "But the holocaust is one of the worst this city has seen." The Times-Picayune's headline compared the scene to "DANTE'S INFERNO, HITLER'S INCINERATORS."
One of the most lethal fires in New Orleans history made headlines for a few days and then rapidly faded from the papers (though not from French Quarter gossip). Then-Gov. Edwin Edwards never acknowledged the loss of life; then-Mayor Moon Landrieu only mentioned it when pressed by reporters days later. Archbishop Philip Hannan only referred to it obliquely in a church newspaper. Churches of all denominations refused to hold services for the dead; a memorial service finally was held by St. Mark's United Methodist Church. There would be no municipal or civic memorial, however, for the 32 people who died at the "queer bar."
And the city, it seemed, forgot, or chose to forget — until some people insisted we remember.
In 2014, Robert W. Fieseler was at Columbia University's School of Journalism, studying under Nicholas Lemann, the New Orleans-born New Yorker writer who began his career at the 1970s alt-weekly Vieux Carre Courier. Lemann mentioned the Up Stairs Lounge fire to Fieseler, who wanted to know more. But Lemann couldn't remember much. As Fieseler found out, Lemann wasn't alone in what his student calls "forced forgetfulness, or collective amnesia."
"I thought I was pretty well schooled in LGBT history, from Stonewall to Harvey Milk," Fieseler adds. "But in between, there was something that happened in New Orleans that affected a generation."
Fieseler began two years of research and two more of writing, and the result is his first book, Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge and the Rise of Gay Liberation (Liveright Publishing Corporation, $26.95), which was published June 5. Fieseler interviewed survivors, traced their family trees and pieced together official reaction to the fire through newspaper clippings and police and fire reports.
"That these deaths occurred in a gay bar was traumatic for the city to acknowledge," Fieseler says. "But the fire forced the city to acknowledge that homosexuals existed, even as they would say 'I don't know what occurred.'"
According to Frank Perez's book In Exile, there were a few small LGBT dive bars on the seedy lower end of Iberville Street at the time — The Cavern, Wanda's and Mom's Society Page — places that attracted hustlers, trans people and others who may not be welcome at more "respectable" bars. There also was a bar catering to gay African-Americans, The Safari Lounge.
The Up Stairs Lounge — while firmly blue-collar — had more of a neighborhood feel; there were sing-alongs at a piano and a small dance floor. One of the side rooms was used for Metropolitan Community Church services, drag shows and amateur theater. Besides its local clientele, it also was a refuge for closeted people around the South who could come to New Orleans, climb the stairs and relax among gay men. Though it wasn't immune to police raids, the owner and bartenders enforced their own rules, and NOPD largely left the bar alone.
The tenuous existence of the Up Stairs, Fieseler says, was testament to the "Janus-faced nature" of a port city with a long history of licentiousness overlaid with strong Catholic beliefs. While New Orleans might have tolerated "queer bars" that didn't draw too much attention to themselves, raids were common and newspapers regularly published the names of people caught in those raids. Bar owners paid off cops; bartenders discouraged public displays of affection or any kind of cross-dressing that might draw unwanted attention.
"This way, money could keep floating between parties: 'This authority I'm paying off is in essence helping me keep my secret,'" Fieseler explains. "And it was a very effective way for the city to accommodate the dichotomy, almost a neo-Victorian solution."
And that suited many of the patrons, too. "They were individuals who had never come out or been rejected by their families, and it allowed them to keep their New Orleans life," Fieseler says. "Many had been runaways, or excommunicated from their church or their family. But these were individuals who were living very full lives within the city — they had companionship, joy, a job — so long as it was never acknowledged publicly they were gay."
While the popular perception is that NOPD and the New Orleans Fire Department swept the arson investigation under the rug, Fieseler says that's not completely true.
"I had to decide at a certain point: When does sloppiness become negligence and when does negligence become intent?" he says. "Certainly for the first week there was exemplary police work, cataloging and chronicling critical evidence."
That diligence didn't last. The major suspect in the case, a barfly and hustler named Rodger (or Roger) Nunez, who had been thrown out of the Up Stairs shortly before the fire, hid in an apartment just down the street. Though Nunez was questioned more than once — and, reportedly, confessed to several people, including a nun and the Iberville Street bartender Miss Fury — he never was charged and died a few years later.
Fieseler suggests that the outcome suited both the LGBT community of the day as well as the city leadership. Had there been a trial, survivors would have had to testify in open court, effectively outing them to families and employers, and it "would prolong the level of embarrassment the city would sustain, regionally and nationally," he says. It was a time when even just knowing gay people could carry risks; Fieseler found a 1972 case where three Jefferson Parish sheriff's deputies were fired for "associating with a known homosexual" — when they socialized with their wives' hairdresser.
Though the New Orleans LGBT community gained power and rights in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, it wasn't until 2003 when a plaque was installed on Iberville Street commemorating those who died in the Up Stairs Lounge fire. Since then, the event has been memorialized in at least two other books (Johnny Townsend's Let the Faggots Burn and Clayton Delery's The Up Stairs Lounge Arson), two documentaries (The Up Stairs Lounge Fire and Upstairs Inferno), an off-Broadway musical (The View Upstairs) and an art installation by Skylar Fein, Remember the Up Stairs Lounge, which is in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art.
The Up Stairs Lounge's downstairs neighbor bar, the Jimani, still exists and is a popular late-night spot for service industry workers. On its website, the Jimani has a page memorializing the tragedy, and minces no words:
"Thirty-five years from now, let's hope we look back and wonder what the fuss over gay marriage was all about," it says. "But history won't remember anti-gay bigots kindly, whether they were cowardly murderers like the unknown arsonist who firebombed the UpStairs Lounge in 1973, the people of New Orleans who callously disregarded a fire that took 32 of their fellow citizens' lives because it happened at a gay bar or today's misguided opponents of same-sex marriage."
— To read an excerpt from Tinderbox on Buzzfeed, visit www.tinyurl.com/tinderboxbook.