Walt Whitman c. 1852
Walt Whitman c. 1852

We know Julius’ was the site of the famous Mattachine Society “sip-in” in New York City’s West Village in 1966, setting the stage for the spark of the modern gay rights movement.

And the events that took place three years later just down the street from Julius’ at Stonewall have been firmly ensconced in our understanding of gay American history.

But you may not be familiar with another bar, Pfaff’s, that operated some hundred years before Julius’ sip-in and played host to some of the city’s most noted artists and bohemians. It had two rooms to cater to a diverse clientele, but one was always filled with gay men.

It’s always tough to call anything the “first” of anything (it’s a claim that many find a way to feel entitled to), but Pfaff’s may very well be the first gay bar in America. Of course, in the mid-1800s, “gay” didn’t mean the same thing as it does now, and even “homosexual” hadn’t made its way into the popular lexicon, so it’s all a matter of semantics.

But the fact remains that the bar is a big piece of gay American history. It’s one subject in a new book by Justin Martin called Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, which offers a rare glimpse at the gay identity of New York in the 19th century.

From Martin’s account:

When he started frequenting the saloon, Whitman was thirty-nine years old. He stood roughly six feet, tall for the era, but weighed less than two hundred pounds. He wasn’t yet the beefy, shaggy poet of legend. His hair was cut short, a salt-and-pepper mix of brown and gray. His beard was trimmed. Only later would he put on weight, the wages of stress and illness and advancing age. Only later would he grow his hair long and let his beard go thick and bushy.

Broadway in Whitman's day, where Pfaff's was located.
Broadway in Whitman’s day, where Pfaff’s was located.

But he was already an eccentric dresser. Whitman favored workingmen’s garb, such as his wideawake, a type of broad-brimmed felt sombrero. He liked to wear it well back on his head, tilted at a rakish angle. His trousers were always tucked into cowhide boots. He wore rough-hewn shirts of unbleached linen, open at the collar, revealing a shock of chest hair. Whitman had a rosy complexion, almost baby-like, and quite incongruous for a big man. Because he was meticulous about hygiene, he always smelled of soap and cologne. His manner of dress often struck people as more like a costume. Or maybe it was a kind of armor, protecting the vulnerable man underneath.

Whitman wound up keeping the company of many younger men at the bar, and he called them “my darlings and gossips” and “my darling, dearest boys.” Martin notes that this was a much different side of Whitman than that which he usually presented to the world:

It’s striking how different Whitman’s manner was with this group of men. One can scarcely imagine him using words such as darling or gossip at the long table in that vaulted room. As everyone does, Whitman revealed different sides of himself to different kinds of people. The two sections of Pfaff’s appear to have served separate social needs for Whitman — as a poet and as a gay man.

For more information, check out Rebel Souls on Amazon.

Via Brain Pickings

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