You’ll never forget that one night. The drinks were cold; the weather, warm; and you were out to have fun with friends you loved and those you hadn’t yet met. You’ll never forget the table, the music, the lights, or the name of the bar – and if you did, as in the new book “Tinderbox” by Robert W. Fieseler, there was probably a reason.
Sunday afternoon, June 24, 1973, started like every other Sunday at the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Bar manager Buddy Rasmussen opened the place for its weekly Beer Bash, at which patrons could drink all afternoon for a lowered price. Buddy had come with his “lover,” Adam, and as other regulars filtered in, the music started, drinks flowed, and the Up Stairs Lounge filled mostly with gay men, a few allies, and good times.
That the Up Stairs Lounge even existed is remarkable: just a few years after Stonewall, gay men were still openly persecuted, legally and otherwise. It was unlawful in many places, for instance, for a man to dance with another man; gay sex was once punishable by life in prison. But there was the Up Stairs Lounge, quietly advertising with a canopy out front and welcoming to the public, although there were rules in place.
It was, perhaps, the breaking of one of those rules that started the trouble: early that evening, witnesses remembered a fight over hustling (forbidden activity in the Up Stairs Lounge) and two men were kicked out. Though no one will ever know for sure, it’s believed that one of them walked down the street, purchased a container of lighter fluid, returned, and dumped the can’s contents onto the wooden steps of the hundred-year-old building.
He dropped a flame and walked away. Within seconds, says Fieseler, “No one was going into the Up Stairs Lounge… nor was anyone coming out.”
And if that doesn’t chill you, there’s a lot more about “Tinderbox” that will, starting with what immediately follows those words: page after page of stomach-twisting details of death by fire and the horror of publicly burning alive. Author Robert W. Fieseler shares the details and oh, my, they’re wretched.
That’s only part of the shock of this book. It continues with controversy within religious organizations, gay-friendly and otherwise, and birthing pains of activism that seem as painful to read as they must’ve been in life. As he’s telling the story, Fieseler continues to remind readers that officials seemed not to care about solving this crime, despite that there were survivors to mourn the thirty-two who died in the fire.
And then there were the families who turned their sons away, even in death.
Through all this, Fieseler asks – and answers - why we largely don’t know the whole of this tale. His answers are multitudinous, compassionate, important in a historical context, and emotional. He says, of this account, “With the last bodies laid to rest, the story faded from minds” but “Tinderbox” makes it one youwon’t likely forget.
“Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation” by Robert W. Fieseler
c.2018, Liveright $26.95 / $35.95 Canada 343 pages