Mass murder in New Orleans
Robert Fieseler is the author of Tinderbox - telling the story of the fire at the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans. In June of 1973, an arsonist lit a fire in the front stairwell of a second-story gay bar, which had served as the establishment’s sole entrance and exit. Patrons were incinerated within. City officials never publicly named or charged the assailant.
I caught up with Fieseler to reflect on his study of one of the worst mass murders inflicted on the LGBTQ community in the United States.
When did you first come across the story of the fire at the Up Stairs Lounge?
A dean at my journalism school, who’d worked in New Orleans as a young reporter in the summer of 1973 when the fire occurred, initiated me. He asked if I’d ever heard of a notorious arson at a gay bar, which he described as the gay equivalent of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire - an industrial disaster that had served as a turning point for labour rights in the US. He knew the broad strokes - 32 died as the result of a crime, the mayor remained out of town rather than face the emergency, society turned away, families refused to reclaim the bodies. But he couldn’t say more when I peppered him with questions.
Curiously, he couldn’t explain these gaps in his memory, saying it was all ‘too hazy’ despite his proximity to the event. It was fascinating. How could a brilliant author - and an LGBTQ ally, to boot - not recall the deadliest fire in New Orleans’ history, a crime swept under the rug in its day because victims had been ‘sex criminals’?
I sensed that within this haziness lurked some form of mass shock or collective trauma - something endured by the society of New Orleans and then suppressed. My reportorial spidey-sense was tingling. I had to find out more.
What prompted you to write a book about the fire?
There was no choice. I felt tied to this tragedy from the moment I first heard of it - not just as an historian or as a queer American or as a gay Christian or as a formerly closeted oppressor of other queers, but in all of those ways and all those past chapters that compose who I am as a thinking person. So, it wasn’t a logical process so much as being launched from a catapult.
Here was an essential American story with major unknowns that could likely be filled through investigation and reporting, which is and was my major skillset, and it felt like setting this history to rights. Honouring the 32 who were murdered was not just achievable but my duty and my destiny.
The Up Stairs Lounge represented a historically significant moment at a historically significant time at the beginning of a historically significant movement - Gay Liberation, which developed into the broader campaign for LGBTQ rights. How could so many have never heard of this event, even at major journalism schools? It felt like questions fell out of the sky.
What was the research process you followed for the book?
I moved to New Orleans and slept on a daybed in the Wisteria-scented sun-room of my only friends in town. It was terrifying. I didn’t know what I was doing. I left a well-paying job - and a beautiful boyfriend - in New York, even before I had the certainty of a publishing contract.
I become a mole-man in local archives and libraries, not getting enough sun, sniffing out all the primary source documentation I could gather. From there, I reached out to local LGBTQ historians seeking a ‘fixer’ or a well-connected person who could welcome me into what felt like a hidden universe of Up Stairs Lounge survivors and witnesses veiled from me, an outsider, exploring a vastly new culture - a foreign country in US soil.
I quickly found that connector who pulled me into the action - book author, historian and tour guide extraordinaire Frank Perez. We met at Café Lafitte in Exile - the oldest and most famous gay bar in New Orleans on Bourbon Street - and our initial conversation must have been a download of thirty names and numbers.
Were there any key people who weren’t available to you during the research process?
Certain voices can either no longer recall the tragedy without undue pain or have passed away and therefore can no longer relay their stories. My most notable ‘miss’ was the bartender and manager of the Up Stairs Lounge - Douglas ‘Buddy’ Rasmussen. He’s still alive and enjoys a kind of peaceful exile with his longtime partner in rural Arkansas.
On the night of the blaze, when flames erupted through the front door of the bar from the staircase landing, Buddy kept his cool, flicked on a flashlight and safely guided more than 30 patrons out of a little-known emergency exit. Unfortunately, in the mayhem of that burning bar, one of the people that Buddy didn’t save was his inebriated lover Adam Fontenot. Adam sat on his barstool as an inferno surged around him - he burned alive.
For years, Buddy would talk about the fire to reporters and authors who came calling, but it seems that, sometime around the 25th anniversary of the fire in 1998, it became too painful for him to recount the death of Adam. Clearly, reliving these moments offered no catharsis, only unanswerable questions. According to friends still in contact with him, a part of Buddy still wonders if he did enough that night, during those few impossible seconds of chaos that meant death for so many, including a man he loved dearly. It’s too much for a mind to bear.
I reached out to Buddy, as due diligence, in the course of my reporting and heard nothing back from him and understand why. Although, in many ways, Buddy was the centrepiece of Up Stairs Lounge bar culture, I had to find ways to include his story without making him a central character, which would have been the easy and obvious route for me in the book. I actually think that not having him as an interview, and being forced to find Buddy’s old police statements and comments to newspapers, forced me to work harder and ultimately produced a better piece of work.
What were some of the most surprising aspects of the story that you discovered during your research?
It’s hard to recall what didn’t surprise me in the early reporting stages of the book. When I began, the historic tragedy had already attracted well-known scholars and activists, who produced several worthy documentaries and journalistic features and books. That body of work was intimidating, and a part of me wondered if there was any additional story to be discovered. At the very least, I thought my work would be some roundabout manner of informing myself.
There wasn’t supposed to be anything new. I remember sitting in the special archives section of the New Orleans Public Library - scanning microfiche - and finding a piece of evidence that flew in the face of all previous scholarship. I’d been led to believe that the New Orleans’ Archbishop Philip Hannan had never made a statement about the Up Stairs Lounge fire, despite his being in town in June of 1973. Supposedly, Hannan died in 2011 having never done so - a cloud of callousness and austerity that loomed over his great legacy.
Here I was, a first-time author in the same archive through which all of these experts had passed, and there, in the 19 July, 1973 issue of the Clarion Herald - the newspaper for the Catholic Archdiocese - I found that very Archbishop offering up prayers for the Up Stairs Lounge victims, and calling the fire a ‘holocaust of human lives.’ I couldn’t believe the evidence in front of me, I remember thinking to myself - why would I be the first to see this?
It dawned on me that the Up Stairs Lounge was starting to show narrative threads, through which storytellers would pass in making a familiar series of conscious or unconscious turns on a path to delivering what was becoming a familiar Up Stairs Lounge narrative. This happens all the time with historical storytelling. Look at all the familiar yarns about Stonewall or Harvey Milk. Prior research builds upon prior research, resulting in a foundation of assumptions that isn’t always questioned, though the result - powerful narratives about 20th century homophobia - largely appeals to its audience.
I saw an opportunity to make a radical departure. It occurred to me that a new book would have to both leverage and remove itself from the established framework by posing questions that, it was clear from my vantage, hadn’t been fully asked. I hope saying that doesn’t upset some of my predecessors, who made important contributions and whom I deeply respect. All history builds on the palimpsest of itself, and yet each new work, if it’s to escape a category and reach a critical mass, must insist upon being its own piece of art.
Some major questions, central puzzle pieces really, that demanded exploration - What was the sociopolitical context surrounding this terrible blaze? If the fire existed in a 1970s, Creole world different than this one, then how did that world function? Could such a world conceal evidence like Archbishop Philip Hannan’s statement on the Up Stairs Lounge? These were my breakthrough points of inquiry, where it became clear to me that I was now telling a different type of queer narrative - one about an arson that took place in a 1973 society where closeted gays were invisible criminals, who often turned on each other, and seven out of ten Americans in the mainstream perceived homosexuality to be ‘always wrong.’
That sort of account was more nuanced and, to me, more honest than one in which I’d transplant contemporary values for the purpose of shaming the past or crafting a cautionary tale about 1970s America. I didn’t want to punish the past, much as a queer person like myself might be tempted to. I wanted to understand it and, if possible, to reconcile seemingly incomprehensible behaviour with a broader picture of human nature.
Why do you think that the tragedy of the Up Stairs Lounge has almost become a forgotten piece of our history?
For decades, the Up Stairs Lounge fire fell to the historic wayside because straight and closeted gay constituencies in New Orleans conspired to downplay the import of what happened on the night of 24 June, 1973. Those thirty-two deaths, some equivocated, were tragic but negligible because no one powerful or ‘important’ - in a stratified class society like New Orleans - had perished. In the mores of that time period, only a few ‘sex criminals’ had burned.
Straight constituencies, alarmed at open discussion of homosexuality in a city increasingly dependent on the tourist dollar of business conventioneers and young partiers, either ignored the blaze or attempted to sideline it with a discussion of fire codes. Closeted gay constituencies, some benefiting financially from the status quo by running successful businesses or passing as heterosexual in their uptown or corporate worlds, didn’t exactly welcome the idea of overturning codes of sexual secrecy in a system that - through bribes and a few friends in high places - had served them well.
Straights and closeted gays both made excuses in shunning both the fire and the radical Gay Liberation leaders who descended upon New Orleans to raise awareness and combat the silence that followed. A veritable panic had ensued when an explosive event like the Up Stairs Lounge fire thrust the city’s gay subterranean - which had existed for decades if not centuries in an unspoken corner with the other vices - into the spotlight. Hundreds of people flocked from the French Quarter to watch the burning bar. The New York Times ran the story of the Up Stairs Lounge fire on its front page.
That panic and concern evaporated almost immediately, however, when the nature of the bar that burned, and who had burned within it, was ‘outed’ in print and broadcast on television. The city felt not grief for the dead but humiliation for the release of the dead’s secrets. A powerful sense of denial then set in, as if the event itself became a ‘closeted’ topic. This widespread renunciation, in historic New Orleans, could make a burning building vanish, along with all of its screaming voices.
What response have you had so far to the publication of the book?
The most generous response, by a long shot, has come from New Orleans itself. Contemporary New Orleanians are amazingly receptive and eager to learn new aspects of the Up Stairs Lounge. I’ve appeared at more events in that city and sold more copies of Tinderbox than any other place - including my hometown of Naperville, Illinois, where my mom is virtually running a door-to-door campaign.
It’s difficult to articulate the degree to which the city has pivoted from its prior state of disavowal to fully embrace the Up Stairs Lounge legacy. For example, at the recent memorial service for the 45th anniversary of the tragedy, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell walked down the centre aisle of Saint Mark’s Methodist Church in the French Quarter and recognised the fire as part of city history.
Her words and her presence, even in 2018, were absolutely momentous - it was the first time any New Orleans mayor had attended an Up Stairs Lounge event in person. The crowd inside the church was on its feet and in tears. At that service, Mayor Cantrell also announced the creation of a task force to protect sexual minorities, which solidified New Orleans’ place as a kind of sanctuary city - standing against the insidious, nationwide campaign of encroachment upon LGBTQ freedoms.
What do you hope that people feel when reading Tinderbox?
I hope that readers feel connected to a world that they otherwise might never have to know - the 20th-century powder-keg of America’s gay underworld, which thrived in the so-called Big Easy. A world of individuals denied humanity, denied visibility, denied life and full citizenship because of an innate characteristic - something so natural and fundamental as how they manifested desire and sought love. I hope they stretch their imaginations to see who they’d likely be in a different time and place - among the majority of individuals who perceived the fire through the accepted lens of homosexuality being criminal behaviour and homosexuals being violent predators. Too often, we cast ourselves heroically into the past, but the truth is that most of us would not be heroes but bystanders.
I hope that readers bear witness to the enduring legacy of the Up Stairs Lounge - in spite of decades-long efforts to stifle it - and see a blueprint for how to own their stories and fight those who might deny them by claiming that a shared past didn’t happen and, therefore, didn’t matter. Denial, or the ‘closeting’ of the truth, is the most common mark of the oppressor, and oppression, I’m sorry to note, is one of the most predictable patterns of human nature.