Gay history descended upon Lake View's Unabridged Bookstore June 20, when Unabridged employee and local historian Owen Keehnen interviewed Jim Elledge, the author of the recently released Boys of Fairy Town.
The book is a comprehensive look at the lives of Chicago's gay men from the 1860s to just before World War II, and contains both little-known tales of gay life as well as in-depth portraits of seminal figures in Chicago's gay history.
As Keehnen pointed out, gay stories were often "sensational," and therefore covered in great depth in more "scandal-sheet" style newspapers rather than the Tribune. Elledge said his primary means of research were the copious microfilm archives at the public library, as well as the Burgess papers at the University of Chicago.
One of Elledge's research discoveries was the nightclub performer and female impersonator Frances Carrick, who ended up legally marrying a man with Indiana government officials none the wiser. In her time in Chicago, things took a turn when Carrick was accused of murdering an insurance agent who had recently had dealings with Al Capone's mobsters. According to Elledge, Carrick was likely innocent and the police were not pursuing the real killer with any real passion. But as for the trial, "you'll have to read to find out the rest," Elledge teased. As Keehnen said, Carrick's adventures could be a plausible TV miniseries. ( People can find out more by checking out a recent Windy City Times interview with Elledge about his book. )
Sadly, Elledge found there was very little information on any actual girls of Fairy Town. "I couldn't even find enough to fill a chapter," he admitted.
Keehnen observed that many of Elledge's source materials were written accounts, including many firsthand narratives, and that printed material is harder to historically eradicate. An early for Elledge was the diaries of John Wing, a Chicago newspaperman who had chronicled his gay life in diaries since he was 13, including actual names of men he shared a bed with. Although, as Elledge explained, sharing a bed was a much more common back then, and less suspicious. In fact, sharing a bed with a "less fortunate man" was considered "a Good Christian act."
As Keehnen described, Chicago's gay culture took a huge hit after the Great Depression. While the '20s featured a "pansy craze," when overtly gay men were popular entertainers and a drag queen in Bronzeville could make enough money to buy respect, the gay scene was forced underground in the '30s, when ferreting out vice became a public preoccupation. Keehen asked Elledge if the same societal reversal was possible today.
"It only takes a few laws," Elledge replied.
To the delight of all, Elledge also revealed secret histories of Chicago places. Apparently, Museum Campus used to be a notorious gay hobo camp, and if you wore a red tie down State Street by the former Marshall Fields, you were in the market for men. The same was true of Randolph and State under the clockif you crossed your arms.
The well-informed and curious audience wanted to know how exactly Elledge determined who was really gay in an era where the word "odd" in a newspaper may have multiple implications. Elledge described a process of looking for corroborating evidence of a person's sexuality through Ancestry.com and in census records. Did they live with a man for several years? Were they both artists? This was often the best he could do. "Most people didn't leave much behind," he said.
Issues of social class came up in response to other inquiries. Elledge agreed with an audience member that the material he found mostly applied to lower and working class men, who had less income to pay off the police or media if they should be caught in a gay scandal. Races and classes would mingle in Bronzeville cabarets, the home of pianist Tony Jackson, who wrote "Pretty Baby" about one of his male lovers, and where popular jazz acts like Cab Calloway were often backed up by female impersonators. And in general, Elledge explained, class and money struggles created a climate where boys as young as 6 were abandoned on the street or sent to asylums when their families could no longer take care of them. Asylums were also a place where people who had been arrested for masturbatingthe act then code for gay behaviorcould be sent for the rest of their lives.
Chicago in the 1800s, Elledge concluded, was "a real rough place to live."
Related coverage at www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/BOOKS-New-Fairy-Town-book-examines-Chicagos-pre-WWII-gay-life/63232.html .