Thursday, 26 February 2015

All sweat and sway

"All sweat and sway of so many people dancing in a small space, that was part of the excitement. It was the electric atmosphere created by a lot of lusty women that made the club so special, not the surroundings." - Maggi Hambling, artist

Hearing the magnificent Jill Gardiner reading fascinating "oral history" accounts from lesbian women in the murky mid-20th century at Polari on Monday has prompted me to do a bit more reading about the notorious Gateways club, the subject of her book From the Closet to the Screen.

From the utterly marvellous London history blog Nickel in the Machine:
The Gateways had been in existence at 239 Kings Road on the corner of Bramerton Street in Chelsea since the thirties. It became more or less exclusively lesbian during the war when a huge number of women came to London to work or were stationed nearby and needed somewhere to go they could call their own.

A man called Ted Ware took over the club during the war, purportedly winning it in a poker game (“I raise you my lesbian members-only club…”). He married an actress called Gina Cerrato in 1953 and she soon took over the running of the club, joined, after a few years, by an American woman called Smithy who originally came to England as a member of the American Airforce. After an arranged marriage in the early sixties Smithy stayed in London for the rest of her life.

The membership fee during the sixties was just ten shillings (50p) and no guests were admitted after ten o’clock to discourage people who had spent their money elsewhere. Maureen Duffy explained that ‘rowdies or troublemakers’ were often banned immediately. Being excluded in those days was more than just embarrassing, it was unbelievably inconvenient – the nearest alternative lesbian club would have been in Brighton. Dining out with a girlfriend was often too expensive for a lot of women and even into the sixties women wearing trousers were actually banned from most restaurants. Pubs were still unpleasant places for women especially if unaccompanied by a man. In 1969 the London Spy guide book’s main advice for women looking for a drink was, essentially, to avoid pubs if they were alone, saying: "You may be thirsty, but nobody, nobody will believe you."

So for many lesbians the Gateways Club was the only relaxing and affordable place they had to go.

Between 9th and 16th June in 1968 The Gateways club became internationally famous when it appeared as a backdrop to many scenes filmed for The Killing Of Sister George, a movie starring Beryl Reid, Coral Browne and Susannah York. In 1960, York, a starlet at the beginning of her acting career and newly married, lived in a house at World’s End in Chelsea just a few hundred yards from the Gateways. Although it’s reasonably safe to say that York wasn’t a regular.
From Lost Womyn's Space:
During the 1970s, as many gay and lesbian people became more politically motivated, members of the Gay Liberation Front staged a protest at the bar. This action did not make Gina happy.

Though supportive of social acceptance for lesbians, and keen to create a lively venue where they could enjoy themselves, Ware was never involved in political campaigning. When her club was the target of direct action by the Gay Liberation Front in 1971, who pulled the plug on the jukebox and urged the horrified Gateways women to come out of the closet, Ware called the police, and had the demonstrators thrown out.

Many of the GLF members were arrested and charged with obstruction. Not surprisingly, the Gateways wasn't popular with many radical feminists either, because they believed it wasn't political enough. Political activists were tolerated at the Gateways, though, "as long as their politics were left at the door on the way in."
The club wasn't to last the test of time, however. From the Brighton OurStory blog:
Over the years lesbian and gay clubs have arrived and vanished with the sidereal rapidity of waves landing on Brighton beach. That this would happen to The Gateways Club, the most famous Chelsea cellar in the lesbian litany, had been inconceivable. But it did. On September 24th 1985 the final strains from the vinyl whirring on the DJ’s turntable died away and the lights went out on a chapter of lesbian history which had, amazingly, endured for forty historic years.
RIP The Gateways.

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