Book Review: ‘Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation’ by Robert W. Fieseler
The June 24, 1973 arson of the gay bar the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans was apparently an act of revenge, allegedly perpetrated by a ne’er-do-well, small-time crook and alcoholic gay hustler named Roger Dale Nunez. Nunez had tried to hustle one of the clients at the bar, breaking a time-honored rule. When requested to leave, Nunez became enraged, an altercation ensued, and Nunez was punched in the face and then physically ejected. Two patrons reportedly overheard Nunez shout: “I’m going to burn you all out,” or “I’m going to burn this place to the ground.” Nunez almost certainly came back later that evening to make good on his promise, although his crime was never officially proven. Due to the ineptitude and prejudice of the times, and the fact that he committed suicide years later before he could be arraigned and justice served, the case was closed. In fact, the story of how he miraculously eluded the law, time and again, by pure chance, a lover’s fear of being outed, a sham marriage, and the general incompetence of the police, makes for a fascinating story in its own right.
More than a tale of one heinous tragedy, Fieseler, by way of meticulous research and survivor interviews, enlarges the scope of his history to create a sadly damning account of the workings of homophobia and the closet at that time in American history. Fieseler analyzes his tale from many angles, in the process of which he succeeds in indicting the failures of many institutions: the New Orleans police department, the fire department, the mayor and the mayor’s office, the local and national press, the Church, Anita Bryant, the military, and the many closeted citizens around the country looking to “maintain the status quo.” Indeed, the broader implications, political, spiritual and personal in this story, still resonate to this day. The 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting loomed large in my conscience as I read this book.
Thirty-one men and one woman lost their lives in the Up Stairs Lounge fire. It was, at that time, the largest mass murder of gays in American history, until Omar Mateen killed 49 LGBT people in 2016 in Orlando, Florida. And yet, in 1973, Fieseler details how the Lounge disaster for the most part was swept under the rug; its cause worsened by the negligence and indifference to the fire codes in the Vieux Carré’s gay ghetto; an investigation bungled by the ineptitude and bias of the police and fire departments; a local and national American press burying the story on the back pages; a mayor who stayed mostly AWOL and silent; and a closeted gay community that became too afraid to take a stand. To make matters worse, a slow response from the fire department ended in confusion over the location of the bar, its layout, its fire exits, and the need for proper equipment to help the victims escape. The charred corpses of the victims were furthermore left on display for hours through the thoughtlessness of officials and first responders, and the press corps was allowed to wander through the site and take photos. One burned body sat in the middle of the street for passersby to gawk over.
There were other failures and missteps as well, brought on by the suspicious infighting, misconceptions, and “bubble” mentality that plagued the New Orleans gay community, a community which suddenly found itself confronting a fledgling national gay protest movement and the MCC Church with its hunger for gay souls, more visibility, and more congregants. Three majorly recognized gay figures, Morris Knight, Morty Manford, and Troy Perry, were consequently greeted with mistrust and scorn when they arrived in New Orleans, their intentions questioned when they tried to call attention nationally to the Up Stairs Lounge “holocaust.” Fieseler cautions us that the learning curve was steep back then for gay activism, and the arc of the moral universe long. We learn of families too ashamed to claim their loved ones, and how the Catholic Church refused proper burial rights. Regrettably, it wasn’t until 2003 that a commemorative plaque was placed on the street outside the extinct bar’s unmarked entrance.
Fieseler is especially to be commended for the masterful way he weaves the threads of his narrative into a richly provocative and compelling story. There are many historical figures in this enormous account, attested to by the three-page character list at the book’s opening, as well as an included map of the Vieux Carré. I liked particularly Fieseler’s short Preface, which succinctly introduces the story and gives us a context for its significance. He admirably compares the Lounge’s arson to the Pulse nightclub shooting, and points out, correctly I believe, that:
Every social movement in American history has a body count. From Wounded Knee, a massacre of the Lakota by U.S. cavalry in 1890, to Emmet Till, a black teenager lynched in 1955 for supposedly whistling at a white woman, to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, an industrial disaster in 1911 that killed more than a hundred people and exposed the slavish conditions of Gilded Age labor, it is routinely through death that we reckon with violations of our basic liberties. The full impact of these reckonings–for Native Americans, for the civil rights movement, for organized labor–often takes years or even decades.
Fieseler alludes to the lying implicit in the enforcement of “the closet,” and how “lying begets lying,” leading to a “mire of untruths.” And most astutely he points out that historically, “The closet, thus, grew to function as a governing institution for non-heterosexual life in twentieth-century America, which explains precisely how a makeshift bar like the Up Stairs Lounge could burn to its foundations and, in so doing, disappear from memory.”
This is a sobering story, one that exposes unspeakable trauma, pain, and emotional shock. It is fraught with human frailty, moral weakness, evil, and bigotry. The twists and turns of fate and coincidence, the lessons of bravery and kindness, and the blatant instances of deceit and intolerance, made me lean forward and take notice. Fieseler concludes: “This book, then, is about those generations who battered their heads against padded walls and fell so that events like the Up Stairs Lounge might be known and aligned with America’s larger civil rights story.”
Any good book is an awakening of sorts, and as good books go this was certainly that, but beyond that, Tinderbox was for me a moment of true epiphany and self-reckoning; primarily through its cathartic bridging of the closeted gay past, the AIDS years, the social advances of the early 2000s, and the gay present. This was a book which reaffirmed and renewed in my own heart the quest, the yearning for dignity and justice in my homeland.
Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation
By Robert W. Fieseler
Hardcover, 9781631491641, 384 pp.