I was maybe 21 or 22 (in 1963 or so) when I finally ended up in bed with someone for the first time. I say someone, because I can’t remember his name or any other details of the event, other than it happened in his flat at Ashfield in Sydney. Maybe I was too pissed, maybe it was horrible and I’ve repressed the memory, maybe, and most probably, it was so boring and messy there wasn’t much to remember. But it was a start.
I was living quite a double life, respectable Catholic school teacher by day, screaming queen at the weekends. By the way, we didn’t use the words “gay” and “straight” in those days. You were either “camp” or “square”.
The first ever drag show I saw was at the Jewel Box, in Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross, on a Sunday night in the early ‘60s. I went with a mate called Brian Strauss.
Here’s how it all happened. At that time I often spent the weekends at a friend’s beach house at Whale Beach. John Williams’ parents had the upstairs and John and his mates had the downstairs. There would be four or five of us there any given weekend, all straight, oops, square, except for me, very much in the closet.
On this Sunday I gave Brian a lift back to town. I suspected that Brian might be camp, but wasn’t at all sure, so I suggested the visit to the Jewel Box. This wasn’t daring as it was a venue much frequented by plenty of squares – not a specifically camp clientele, rather as the famous Les Girls Revue Bar was to become soon after.
He thought it a great idea, we enjoyed the show and drank orange juice (it wasn’t licensed) and I still didn’t know his sexuality.
A week later, John Williams and I were having a beer when he said, “I hear you and Brian went to the Jewel Box last weekend”.
“Yes, we did,” I replied.
“Whose idea was it?” he asked.
“Mine,” I replied, “Why?”
“Oh, that’s all right then, it’s just that we thought Brian might be a poof.”
So there. They didn’t suspect I was camp, so that sort of let both me and Brian off the hook. (Of course, I discovered as year or so later that Brian was camp. He and I ended up in bed together, but all we could do was laugh, as it all seemed so silly.)
But let’s get round to the real gay bars. The first I remember was the Carlton Rex Hotel in Elizabeth Street in the City. Downstairs were two bars and especially on Fridays after work, the camps would all stream into the Dugout Bar, the squares into the Mariners’ Tavern, right next door. Never the twain did meet.
Gay sex was still illegal, and most of us were leading double lives. The atmosphere was often a bit stitched up at times. I remember one night, just before ten (closing time), the bar useful called, “Five minutes, finish ‘em up, girls.” Eyebrows were arched and lips were pursed until the barmaid, Merle, called out. “Don’t worry, girls – he’s fuckin’ camp his fuckin’ self!” Normal breathing recommenced.
The only beat I remember was Boomerang Street, which no longer exists. It was a tree-lined avenue that ran from St Mary’s Cathedral diagonally down to William St and a few years ago was reclaimed when Cook & Phillip Park was created. One Saturday night late I drove my Triumph Spitfire down it on my way to the Cross to collect the early edition of the Sunday papers. I had never “done” a beat and was not at all fond of them, but I noticed a really cute guy hanging out. On the way back, he was still there and I pulled over. After a brief chat, he got in the car and we drove back to my place in Balmain. He was a Norwegian sailor off the cruise ship Kungsholm. Very charming, perhaps late twenties. I poured him a beer and he asked if I liked classical music. I put on Max Bruch’s violin concerto and a very sexy night ensued. I remember as he got undressed he took a rolled up wad of notes from his shoe where they had been safely stored. I never did the beat again.
After a couple of years the “powers that be” decided there was too much poofy activity happening in the middle of the city, so the Carlton Rex relocated to Kings Cross, where it remained until 2001. Still with the Dougout and the Mariners’ Tavern, still segregated, and certainly no sheilas in the Dugout.
Now, closing time was still ten o’clock, so, if you hadn’t already scored in the pub, where to now? One alternative was a private party. The word would have got around – party tonight at Haberfield, or Randwick, or wherever, here’s the address. So it was very wise to purchase a few bottles of beer at the pub’s bottle shop (the only outlets for take-away alcohol) and be prepared.
The other alternative was an unlicensed nightclub at Kensington, The Purple Onion. These days it has morphed into Ken’s Karate Club, a steam bath. But then, it was the bee’s knees. It was run by Ken “Candy” Johnson, and drag queens like Karen Chant and Rose Jackson (in the days before punning drag queen names) would be very glamorously dressed, miming to Judy, Barbra, Shirley or whoever was the latest hit star. Between shows you could dance on the stage and maybe get lucky.
If you were smart, as well as bringing your own grog, you would bring a milk crate. Then when the girl on the door (entry one pound, or $2) said, “Sorry, love, we’re full up”, you could produce it and say, “That’s OK, I’ve brought my own seat”. Worked every time. I had some fabulous nights there with great friends.
Ivy’s Birdcage, a nightclub at Bondi Junction, was licensed, but only for wine or wine based drinks. I remember a ghastly concoction called Brandivino and also a blue champagne that was marketed with the slogan, “At last, a drink that matches your jeans!” Oh, dear. One night there I got talking to a cute guy of nineteen or so and he said, out of the blue, “You watch us playing footy on a Sunday arvo from your balcony,” and he was right. Sprung! I shared a terrace in Darling St, Balmain with a chemist called Bill Kirwin, also a poof, but about fifteen years older than me. It was down near the Darling St Wharf and my bedroom at the back had a balcony that overlooked the little park by the wharf. I did indeed perve on these young guys on a Sunday and now I ended up in bed with one of them. Memories.
Finally, a guy called Donnie Smith started up a monthly Saturday night dance at the Petersham Dispensary Hall, a public hall out along Parramatta Rd. This was a private non-commercial affair. You brought your own booze and food and paid an entry fee. Along the side walls were long trestle tables covered in butcher’s paper. There was a live dance band playing 50-50 music. That is, alternating with the modern foxtrot and quickstep were the old gipsy taps, Pride of Erin and the barn dance. (No rock’n’roll-type dancing on you own, maybe a jive or a jitterbug). When the barn dance became progressive, in a circle with constantly changing partners, the tradition was, “butch on the outside, bitch on the inside”. Then, if you fancied your new partner, the pair of you could break out of the circle and dance alone in the middle. Neat, eh? For some reason I met up with a couple of long-distance lorry drivers who favoured really appalling drag. There was nothing glamorous about the place, no airs and graces and it was great fun.
So my double life continued through the sixties – no affairs, mostly one-night stands with no complications. Then in 1968 I finally made the decision to see the world. For some time I had been contemplating the traditional trek to the Old Country, as it was called, even if all your ancestors, like mine, were Irish.
One night in the Dugout Bar at the Cross, my rather bitchy friend James (never Jim) Hilton, said, “Look, you’re forever telling us that you are going overseas, why don’t you just go. Look round this bar. You’ve fucked half the people in here and been rude to the other half, so go.” I would like to think that there is a degree of hyperbole in this statement, but must admit, alas, there is also an element of truth.
So I went.