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Los Angeles  
 
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Gay Culture and Community: 1940-1946

Developments in literature, photography, the fine arts, architecture, and popular music, including jazz and cabaret, may also have helped bring into being the conditions that made feasible the creation of a gay community and later a gay movement in Los Angeles.

During World War II Los Angeles expanded greatly. As a center of wartime industry and military activity, the city attracted people from around the country, either as workers or as members of the military. The wartime dislocations gave individuals opportunities to begin lives less encumbered by family ties and associated inhibitions. The people who came to the city as a result of the war contributed to the growth of the Los Angeles gay and lesbian scene and its glbtq population because many of them settled in southern California permanently.

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During the war diarist Donald Vining wrote of cruising Pershing Square for soldiers on leave, a not uncommon practice among gay men of the time. Lesbians worked with other women at defense plants in the San Fernando Valley, and many of them remained after the war to create pockets of communities in the Valley, where they also opened and owned lesbian bars, such as Club Laurel and Joani Presents.

Gay men and lesbians were also part of the world of Los Angeles musicians and night club entertainers during the war. The contributions of African-American jazz musicians in the area of Los Angeles known as Central Avenue have been well documented, but less is known about the rich gay and lesbian life in Central Avenue. When giving oral histories of this era, jazz musicians have cited a number of gay and lesbian bars. One woman performer noted a lesbian bar called Ebb's on Vermont Avenue, where she saw women kissing in the booths, and she was afraid to use the rest rooms.

Brothers, located near 38th Street and Central Avenue, opened in the late 1930s. Run by women known as "he-shes," it was probably the first black gay bar in Los Angeles. It was an after-hours establishment with pillows on the floor and incense, music, and soft lights. It lasted until after the heyday of Central Avenue itself.

Gladys Bentley, a self-styled "bull dagger" lesbian, for many years lived in a home just four blocks off Central Avenue, famous to African Americans as "the most exciting street outside of Harlem." Ethel Waters, Louise Beaver, and Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel all lived near each other on Harvard Boulevard.

Another significant bar of the 1940s was Café Gala on the Sunset Strip. Created outside the "pansy" model, it survived the frequent crackdowns to stand out large in the nightclub and cabaret history of Los Angeles. Owned by the Baroness Catherine d'Erlanger and featuring gay singer Johnny Walsh, the nightclub attracted gay and lesbian stars and other Hollywood notables, who could drop in without fear of being caught up in a raid. Cole Porter and Judy Garland were among its patrons.

Tennessee Williams lived briefly in Santa Monica when (mainly not) working for MGM as a screenwriter during the war. His stories and memoirs note the rewards of riding on streetcars with servicemen during blackouts, and his short story "The Mattress in the Tomato Patch" gives a joyous description of Muscle Beach (then in Santa Monica) in 1943, as well as of the glorious California weather, "the great white and blue afternoons of California."

While physique photography was not unique to Los Angeles, the city became one of the most important producers of the new art. Among the significant physique photographers located in Los Angeles were Bruce Bellas (Bruce of Los Angeles) and Bob Mizer, who created his Athletic Model Guild in 1945. Mizer's photography featured military trade and young men of the streets. It had a great influence on later gay artists such as Mel Roberts, David Hockney, John Sonsini, and others.

However stylized and camp they may now seem, the physique photographs met a need for gay erotic images, and their popularity around the country made clear that there was a homosexual market that could be tapped for commercial and, ultimately, political purposes. Magazines publishing these works also had ads for gay men's clothing, such as posing straps and bikinis.

Some of the most important explicitly gay novels were written soon after World War II and some of them were set in Los Angeles. For example, some scenes of Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948) are set in Los Angeles. In several later novels, particularly Isherwood's A Single Man (1964, dedicated to Vidal), scenes of gay life in the 1940s and the 1950s are recreated nostalgically, including bar life in Santa Monica Canyon and the relations of gay men with military men during World War II. Joseph Hansen in Living Upstairs (1993) also looked back to the Hollywood gay bar scene of the 1940s.

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