Book recounts mass-murder of gays in New Orleans

Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation by Robert W. Fieseler (Liveright 2018) $26.95; 343 pp.

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 up — mostly gay men and a few allies, all for a good time.

That the Up Stairs Lounge even existed was remarkable: just a few years after Stonewall, gay men were still openly persecuted. It was unlawful in many places 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 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, writes 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. Fieseler shares the details and oh, my, they’re wretched. (They were also recounted in local filmmaker Robert L. Camina’s documentary Up Stairs Inferno, and will be covered in a musical Uptown Players is staging in 2019 called The View Up Stairs.)

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 32 who died in the fire — until the Pulse nightclub shooting, the largest mass-murder of gay people in U.S. history. 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 you won’t likely forget.

— Terri Schlichenmeyer