Friday, March 21, 2014

Tess's Cafe Internationale

8711 Sunset Boulevard today (insert is female
impersonator Rae Bourbon)
Tess's Café Internationale

Location: 8711 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California, USA

Opened: 1936

Closed: 1942

Martin Turnbull is brief and to the point:

Tess’s Café Internationale – Lesbian nightclub on Sunset Boulevard (60/47 & 87)

Fortunately, there is a more detailed description (somewhat modified and edited here) in Lillian Faderman's Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians.

Columbia record by
Miss Jimmie Reynard
In Los Angeles before World War II there were only a few places that catered primarily to lesbians, and they were very different from many bars that emerged in the years after the war. The prewar bars were usually in the tradition of the upscale nightclub, and they promoted an exotic glamour, much like the lesbian bars of Weimar Berlin.

Miss Jimmy Reynard
Tess's (called in its various iterations Tess's Continental and Tess's Café International) was owned by Tess--a woman who dressed in basic black, pearls, and a great deal of makeup--and her partner Sylvia--who looked like Radcliffe Hall and always carried around a long cigarette holder. Tess's featured male impersonators such as Tommy Williams and Jimmy Renard, tall broad-shouldered women singers who wore tuxes and bow ties and had tenor voices. Gay women who frequented Tess's remember still Jimmy Renard's rendition of "Tonight We Love" and the evening that Tommy Williams brought Marlene Dietrich to Tess's and sang to her.
Miss Tommy Williams

Unlike nightclubs that had a large gay male clientele and featured female impersonators, Tess's suffered neither raids nor closings by the police because the phenomenon of the lesbian was not yet taken very seriously in 1930s Los Angeles.

According to Playground of the Stars, Tess's was one of about 30 Los Angeles area bars and nightclubs that was made off-limits to sailors by the U.S. Navy. This was in June 1942. Once again (in a somewhat modified and edited account) is what they say about it:

“These taverns and bars are not safe or proper places for servicemen to patronize,” a Naval commander told the Los Angeles Times. “Firm handling is necessary to eliminate that undesirable fringe of the industry.” The precise nature of the unsafe and improper activities going on in these night spots was left unstated — but it must have been pretty bad if the Navy felt the need to protect sailors from it, especially since the Navy was sending these same men off to risk their lives in the Midway, Guadalcanal and other death traps in the Pacific.

Miss Jimmy Reynard at
Mona's Club 440 in San Francisco
And here's a little more about Tess's itself:

Café Internationale was owned and operated by Elmer and Tess Wheeler and catered to women. As the 1940 guidebook, “How to Sin in Hollywood” put it:

When Your Urge’s Mauve, [go to] the Café International on Sunset Boulevard. The location offered supper, drinks, and the ability to watch boy-girls who necked and sulked and little girl customers who… look like boys.

Marlene Dietrich

Café Internationale offered cross-dressing performers, but these singers were women dressed in male drag — two who were quite well-known then were billed as Tommy Williams and Jimmy Renard.

As a result of the Navy ban, state authorities revoked the liquor licenses for Café Internationale.  Elmer Wheeler sued in 1942 to have the license reinstated, but he died that December and the club closed for good. His widow Tess opened another club later and became a fixture, along with her partner Sylvia Reiff in the burgeoning Los Angeles lesbian scene after the war.

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