Marge Summit is a Chicago icon. The former bar owner, community organizer, and longtime activist has been a very visible member of Chicago's LGBT community for more than 65 years.
Marge began hitting the bars in the 1950s and managed several of them before opening her own. She was the longtime owner of His 'n' Hers, a favorite community bar that, among other locations, was right under the Chicago L tracks on Addison. His 'n' Hers catered to both men and women, had an extremely popular open mic night, and served some of the best burgers in town.
Among Summit's numerous accomplishments, she was an organizer of the Gay $ campaign which showed the strength of LGBT dollars, produced the anti-gay violence film Crimes of Hate, and appeared in the award-winning documentary Before Stonewall. Five years ago, Marge met and married the love of her life, Janan Lindley.
Talking with Marge is always a pleasure, and she sure has some terrific stories to tell. The following interview is just a glimpse into this incredible woman's life. Thank you Marge, for all you have done and continue to do for the community.
Windy City Times: So, where did it all begin?
MS: I was born Sept. 3, 1935 on the North Side of Chicago in an attic. My mother went into the attic and was not going to tie off the cord. Luckily, for me, my grandmother, who lived right around the corner, came and saw what was going on and started screaming at my mother. If it wasn't for my grandmother I wouldn't be here.
WCT: And your father?
MS: My father was a whoremonger. I never met him, never saw a picture of him. He left my mother when I was in the belly.
WCT: What area on the North Side?
MS: Milwaukee and Central area, a Polish neighborhood. We lived on Barry. I lived there with my grandparents. My mother dropped us off there after she divorced my father. My brother and I lived with them until we were 12 years old.
WCT: Tell me about your grandparents.
MS: My grandmother was loving and caring, a better parent than my mother. I have great memories of the wonderful food my grandmother made for us. Every meal was homemade. We never had anything processed or store-boughther pierogies and breads were to die for. Her pies. She knew I loved blueberry and apple pies and whenever I came back to visit her later in life she always had that ready for me. As I said, we lived on Barry Avenue. My brother and I shared a hide-away-bed in the living room. There was the living room, my grandparents' room, and a big kitchen. That was it and we survived.
I remember going to the store there during the war. We had food tickets. You could lose your money, but not your food vouchers. My grandmother would also always send me to the store to get her newspaper and since I couldn't speak Polish, I'd just look at the rack of newspapers and say, 'Give me that one.'
The first time I saw someone killed was right there at Barry and St. Louis. There was a grocery store catty corner to our building and a Tip Top Bread Truck was coming down the street and this girl came out of the store and the truck hit her. All I saw was celery and a loaf of bread flying in the air.
WCT: So that was the first time you saw someone killed?
MS: Well, the only, and I'm glad for that.
WCT: So back to your grandparents.
MS: I remember one time coming home from school and my aunt and uncle lived above us. I baby sat for their kids. Anyway, I got a star and a flag on my report card, which meant I got a nickel from my aunt, so I ran upstairs to get my money. When my uncle opened the door, I fell backwards down two flights of steps and busted open my head. I still have a dent in my head from that. I remember my grandma running with toweling and ice and saying, 'Don't worry Margie, don't worry, it will all be healed by the time you get married.' Gram said the same thing for every scrape and bruise.
Eventually we moved from Barry to Kimball. I remember when we were there my grandfather giving me a quarter and saying, 'Here you go, go to Riverview [Riverview Amusement Park on Belmont west of Western, 1904-1967].' In those days, you could spend the whole day there for a quarter. Rides were a penny or a half cent. Riverview was a kid's paradise. I loved that place. The Bobs, Silver Streak, Flying Turns. Not so crazy about the freak show. Loved Aladdin's Castle [the funhouse at Riverview].
My grandfather was strict. He demanded respect and I remember him making homemade Polish sausages. He liked to fix things. He hated my jazz, thought it was noise, but he loved his polkas. He fell down the stairs one day and when they took him to the hospital they found cancer and the only way to stop the cancer was amputate his leg, but the cancer spread. They gave him six months to live and he ended up living another two-and-a-half years. In the meantime my mother and step father came and said they would take us now so we moved in with them.
WCT: How did that go?
MS: I loved my stepfather. He was the coolest. Taught me so much. How to lay tile and how to fix things. I helped him build a darkroom. He took one of the bedrooms and converted it into a darkroom. He taught me how to develop negatives and print pictures. He was an amazing man. He died when he was 44. He had a blood clot in his chest and went to work his 3-11 shift at the steel mill. That night we got a call that they were rushing him in an ambulance to the hospital. Medical care was different in those days. So, he was gone before they could save him. I really loved that guy. He died the day before my birthday, so for me, birthdays were not a thing to celebrate anymore.
WCT: When did you first realize you were a lesbian?
MS: I always knew I was different. I didn't know what it was or what that meant. I think I realized that when I didn't want to wear dresses, probably around 10 or 11. My mother married my stepfather when I was 12, and we went to live with him on the South Side. When I had to make my confirmation, he was thrilled because he was going to see me in a dress, but I told him, 'Not for long.' When my brother wasn't around I'd put on his clothes and walk around like I was a big shot. This was the 1940s. Life was just better if you looked like a guy.
WCT: So with not being fond of wearing dresses, when did you realize that liking women was part of being a lesbian.
MS: When I was in high school. I went to Chicago Vocational. I hung out in the school store with all the kids who were bad and smoked.
WCT: The fun crowd.
MS: Oh yeah. Those were my people. We talked dirty and had fun. I met this girl and we were talking and she said, Why don't we go to a show together someday. So I said okay. I was driving already and had a 1935 Pontiac with a stick shift. I paid $35 for that car and even painted it myself with a brush. Anyway, I went and picked her up in my car and we went to the show and then I took her home. By then it started hailing something awful and she said, 'You can't go home in this weather.' I told her I had to let someone know I wasn't coming home and she said, 'Okay, call from inside and then you can come upstairs and sleep with me.' And that was it.
WCT: How old were you then?
MS: A freshman in high school, so 14 or 15.
WCT: And off to the races.
MS: Yes! I used to be in the band and used to play for graduations. I was always a flirt. I had straight girls come to my house just wanting to kiss and I said, 'No problem.'
WCT: What instrument did you play?
WCT: So your kissing muscles got practice.
MS: Oh yes. During graduation we'd be in the pit playing and the school was huge because it used to be a naval academy. Anyway, I'd be in the pit playing and some of the girls I knew would be carrying bouquets of roses and when they walked by me, they would stop and give me a rose. All the guys were asking me, 'Why are you getting flowers from all the girls.' I just told them it was because I was special.
WCT: When did you leave home?
MS: After my stepfather died, my mother went berserk. We had to call my brother home from the service because we needed the help. My mother said she needed to talk to me, she said my dad ( stepfather ) said there was something different about me and my mother couldn't quite put her finger on it. At 16, when my mother found out, she opened the door and said, 'You can't stay here anymore.' She said she couldn't stand that sort of a lifestyle and I said, 'OK, bye.' That was right after my stepfather died.
I was giving my brother a ride to work at the steel mill and said, 'Rich, I'm moving.' He asked me why and I told him because mom doesn't like my lifestyle. Then he said, 'Well stay away from my girls.' I said, 'Rich, you only go out with ugly girls.' And he did too. When I talk about being attracted to beautiful women, I don't meant physical beauty, that's a dime a dozen. I mean beauty in the way women carry themselves and behave. That's beauty to me.
WCT: How did you support yourself?
MS: I was working part time for the phone company in Hyde Park. Then, just before I graduated from high school, they said they were opening an office downtown. There I worked in the accounting department sorting the operator tickets and then giving those to the billing department. Then they opened an office in Harvey, Illinois for those who lived on the South Side. So I went from sorting bills to typing them up. I was the fastest typist there and with the phone company you were always evaluated by production. I knew my section average and was sure to only turn in an amount that was over that so if I came in the next day hungover or something, I could turn in the extras. Eventually I started working on the mainframe computers there, and that interested me. I always loved learning new things.
WCT: What was the first gay bar you went to?
MS: On 99th and Southwest Highway. It was called Lill's. That was before I found Calumet City. At Lill's you had to go in a side door and she put us off as her ball team. We couldn't dance, just drink. I was 15 then, I think. Drinking age was a different story back then. When I went to my first bar in the neighborhood I was 14 and asked for a screwdriver and the bartender gave it to me. No questions asked. That wasn't an issue like today.
WCT: Tell me about Calumet City at the time.
MS: A friend who I went to high school with came over one day and said she found this bar in Calumet City so I said, 'Let's go.' This was called The Music Box and it was a girl's bar. Right next door was Mister B's and that was more a boy's bar. Music Box was 2 [a.m.] bar and Mister B's was 4, so I would close the girl's bar and then go to the boy's bar. That was where I met all the guys. One of the guys that hung out there was a window dresser at Goldblatt's downtown and and he had a place in Cedar Lake, Indiana. So sometimes we'd close the bar and then go and party some more at his place. Then the Music Box closed. I'm not sure why they lost their license. Afterwards, a gay guy and a straight guy opened a bar called Our Place in Hammond. I loved it because it was a mixed bar with both men and women. I have pictures of all the great gay guys I met there who I called my girlfriends. I gave them names like Sophie and Donna May. That mix of gay guys and women was always the most natural to me. I hung out at Our Place for a long, long time.
WCT: And this is in the 1950s?
MS: Yes. Then a friend's sister opened a bar called The Patch on Wentworth Avenue. That was all lesbians. I had so many gay guy friends by then though that I didn't go there much. I had to go to bars where everyone was accepted.
WCT: Where are some other places you'd go in the 1950s?
MS: I'd go downtown with my gay friends and they would take me into The Millionaire's Club because they were members. And we'd go to Cafe Margarita and the Gaslight, which had a gay speakeasy on the third floor. I swiped a cup from there. When you walked into the Gaslight Club they had a library room and then a piano bar and then upstairs you knocked on a door and a guy opened the peephole and you said, 'Lou Sent Me.' Then he'd let you in. It was a speakeasy. I couldn't go alone because I was a woman and technically you couldn't go with another girl. So, I had the cover of three or four gay guys. One of the guys, Donna May, and I would get up and do the cha cha and we were good. But people never realized that I was the one leading.
WCT: Are many of these guys you hung around with in those years still around?
MS: Some. None of them died of AIDS, but one did die of cancer. They are all over the country now. Some of them I have found and we keep in touch.
WCT: I know you've said before that you get along better with gay men than with lesbians. Why?
MS: I guess I got along better with them because the women mostly didn't get my or the guy's humor. I love the dishing humor that they had and soon I was doing it. Back then a lot of gay women didn't like the guys, so I only went out with women who could get along with them.
WCT: Any other bars you recall?
MS: There was also a bar on Lincoln Avenue called the M&M Lounge that was run by a gay guy who had a cocker spaniel that was always there. He used to order pizzas for the crowd. There was another place called Club Evergreen in Cabrini Green in the early 1960s. Very friendly to gays, but we could not slow dance together. Fast dancing was OK, but not slow. I liked that place because they had a live band. Seemed like people of color never minded us being in their bars. In the early 1960s I got a tux for Halloween and took my date and a few others to Roberts Show Lounge [6222 S. Parkway Blvd.] to see the Jewel Box Revue. I met Stormy, the only real gal in the Jewel Box show, to come and sit with us. She was great and we all had a wonderful evening. No one batted an eye at us. Another place I went to was C'est la Vie, that was an early gay bar. Not a Black bar though.
WCT: Ever get caught in a raid?
MS: I almost did. I was at the Midget Inn on Montrose and Kedzie. The first floor of that place was a straight bar and then you went through the bar and up the stairs and there was a big room for gay women with a jukebox and a bar. When it got raided, the cops had to come through the bar and up the stairs, so there was time to get out. We kicked out the screens to the windows and jumped from the second floor and started running. That was in the 1950s. That was a bad decade for us gay people. Old Man Daley [Mayor Richard J. Daley] did not like us at all so he raided our bars all the time.
WCT: So even if they were syndicate bars, they weren't under police protection?
MS: If they liked you, the bar people would let you know about things. For example, there was a bar on Lincoln called Chez Ron, another women's bar. If the guys who ran it liked you, they'd say, 'Don't come here next weekend, we think we're going to get a raid.' That place you had to pay a $2 cover to get in which was a decent amount of cash in the 1950s.
WCT: So gay bars had a cover?
MS: Lot of them did and then they'd serve rot gut liquor in the call brand bottles.
WCT: So did the syndicate bars have other demands. I've heard rules about jukebox and liquor distributors and linen companies.
MS: Yes, you had to take their jukebox service and sometimes their beer brand demands.
WCT: What other places did you frequent?
MS: Oh, a lot of them. I found Volleyball, which was a women's bar right next to the Century Mall. I also went to Louie Gage's bar out on Mannheim Road. That was a great bar. They had a piano singer there by the name of Georgia Brown and she was terrific.
WCT: When did the raids stop?
MS: The raids were off and on. Old man Daley stopped the raids for a while when his son Michael was caught in a gay raid on Astor Street. We actually had a lot of house parties during the era when the raids were so bad.
WCT: You were also interviewed in the Emmy winning 1984 documentary Before Stonewall ...
MS: Yes, they were filming in Chicago, and one of the producers asked me if I wanted to be in it. Of course I did, so they came by and filmed it.
WCT: When they talked with you, what did you want to get across about the pre gay-liberation era?
MS: I wanted them to know how bad it was to be gay and that our lives were always lived in the fear of being murdered or raped or beaten up. It was not an easy time to be gay, but we endured and came out of it OK, I think.
WCT: What was the first bar you worked at?
MS: Togetherness. Ralla Klepak's bar on Hubbard off of Clark Street [61 W. Hubbard].
WCT: What did you do there?
MS: I was a bartender and then I managed it for her. I was working full time downtown. That's when I was doing mainframe computer stuff. So I was working downtown and I went to Togetherness. I loved the bar. Togetherness was about everybody being together and I loved that. Togetherness was a cool drag bar. The Baton hadn't come into its own yet. The Baton was on the corner of Hubbard and Clark and then moved into where it is now [436 N. Clark St.] when The [Sugar] Shack closed.
Anyway, one day I was talking to Ralla and said, 'You know you're getting ripped off.' These bartenders are having a field day because you're not around. I happened to go to a party at one of their apartments and they had half gallons of liquor. Not many people have a lot of half gallons of liquor in their homes. So, Ralla asked me to manage it. She asked me to come in to the bar after my day job. So I came in at 11 and worked until 5 in the morning. I took the money, counted it, and gave her a list of what needed to be ordered. I also found out who was stealing and got rid of them. Togetherness was a fun place.
WCT: Togetherness was in the early 1970s, right? Tell me about some of the drag performers who were there.
MS: Roby Landers was there. Leslie Rejeanne, Jan Howard, Tina King. Tina King was the first woman I knew that went to New York and had a sex change.
WCT: Do you remember what numbers they did at Togetherness?
MS: Leslie did the Diana Ross numbers. Jan Howard did the sexy stuff. Jan was legally blind. So when I went up to tip her I took the candle from the table and held it over my head for her to see. As for the other two, really can't remember the numbers.
WCT: How long did you work at Togetherness?
MS: Two years maybe.
WCT: What did you do after managing Togetherness?
MS: Then I was at P.Q.'s which was a disco on Clark and Erie [661 N. Clark]. Big disco, very early, before The Bistro. I liked that bar because it was men and women and gay and straight. That place was always packed. Always. I heard the Bistro was opening down the street [420 N. Dearborn] and I told the owner, 'This place is going to take away your business' and he said, 'No we'll be OK.' And once the Bistro opened, you could go through P.Q.'s with a pool cue sideways and not hit anyone. So I went there after all this happened and the owner said I'd been right and asked me if I wanted to take over P.Q.'s. I said, 'OK,' but I wanted it to be a girl's bar. So, I used my initials and that became MS.
WCT: I never realized that, always thought MS was a nod to feminism.
MS: No, but it was right when Ms. Magazine was becoming big too. So we closed P.Q.'s down and cleaned it up and reopened as a girl's disco. The bar was huge. The front bar was good-sized and had a pool table and pinball and a bar. Then restrooms were down the hall. Then the hall opened up into this big room. That's where the disco was. There was a huge horseshoe bar and a DJ booth and the patron seating area was on platforms that went around the dance floor. The setup was wonderful.
MS: I ran MS for three years and this bar was mixed Black and white and I liked that. I had a nice ball team, but it was half Black and that was back in the time when things were different. So when we played ball, everything was out for our team and safe for the other. I remember this one game, my girls were getting mad and I said, 'No, if that's how they have to win, let them.' When we got back to the bar I had food laid out for them and I had trophies made up for them. They were all champions in my book.
Mine was really the only integrated bar for gay women at the time. When the late-night crowd from other bars showed up I said, 'If they bother you let me know, don't touch them. That's just what they want. Let me know.' Those other crowds always tried to antagonize my Black girls. One night they started in so bad that I told the DJ to turn the lights on and lower the music. Then I got on the microphone and said, 'Let's get one thing straight, we're all gay and we're all going to get along. If you start in with my girls again, I've got a garden hose in the back and so help me I will turn it on you.' Then someone started giving me some lip and a friend and I picked her up and carried her to the sidewalk and I said, 'There, now you're barred.' I grew up seeing prejudice all around me. I wasn't going to take that shit in my bar. That whole thing just always struck me as so ignorant.
WCT: Tell me about your MS float in the Pride Parade.
MS: We had won Girl's Bar of the Year that year. A friend of mine had her lover in town and this woman was an exotic dancer and I painted her gold. I learned how to mix the body paint with olive oil and how not to paint the palms of their hands and the bottoms of their feet. You can kill someone if you do it wrong. Anyway, she was a statue riding on our float like the award we won for Best Girl's Bar. Well, when she was riding on the float we'd hit a bump and her tits would bounce and everyone would say, 'Oh my God, she's real. She's alive. We thought she was a statue.'
WCT: When you had MS was when you adopted your daughter, Tanya, right?
MS: Yes. When I had MS, a gay woman who came to the bar was a case worker and through my conversations with her she realized I liked kids. She said I should become a foster parent. I said I can't, I'm a lesbian. She told me they didn't have to know that. So I did. I got Susan, who was pregnant with Tanya, first. Then I fostered another child who didn't do well in a home with men in it, so now I had two and a half kids. Next came an emergency case, a rehabbing drug addict who just had a child. Now I had a full house. I didn't need the checks since the bar was doing very well. They all had great clothes and 10-speed bikes and water beds to sleep on.
One day I came home from work and went straight to bed. When I woke up, it was to a very quiet house. I asked my friend's daughter where all the kids were and she said children and family services took them away. Seems the one who didn't like male dominance told her advocate that I had molested her. Short storyI told CFS that I wanted her to go on the stand to say that. She chickened out, but they still sent Susan and Tanya, the baby, to live with the advocate. Then one day Susan called and asked if she and Tanya could come home. They had nothing to eat and no milk or food for the baby. The advocate was busy with a new boyfriend. I said of course. When they got to my house I called CFS and told them I had the two children back and if they wanted to, they could take me to court. They dropped the case.
With adopting Tanya, I got a great lawyer. The case worker was harassing me. She would come to the house unannounced to see us. She had a spy that came into the bar. When I finally found out about that, I took her to court. The case worker didn't show, so we had to subpoena her. She came the next day and had one line about my not being a good parent. The rest was all accusing me of being gay. The judge got so mad at her, he slammed the gavel and said, 'Adoption granted.' That was music to my ears. I went into the side room to get Tanya. Then the case worker came in and said she was not finished with me. She would get me and take that child away. My lawyer told her if she didn't leave us alone he would be back in court to take action to sue her and CFS. So that was how I got my wonderful daughter, Tanya.
WCT: What year was this?
MS: Tanya was born in 1973 and the adoption went through in 1974/'75.
WCT: Speaking of that, you are also an important part of starting a local parents support group, around the time PFLAG ( Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays ) started in New York in 1972.
MS: I had a friend, Guy Warner, who use to come to the bar and he worked with Mattachine Midwest. This was in the mid 1970s. He talked to me about counseling parents of gay children. I said OK, as long as I could bring two other people along, an entertainer and a nurse who worked in a hospital. That's how it began. When that group started to get bigger, they started [a more formal group]. I loved the fact that I could change a few parent's minds and help them learn to love and accept their gay kids.
WCT: Why did you bring the entertainer and the nurse?
MS: I wanted them to see gay people were from all walks of life, like some priests and nuns were gay. You really can't tell until we tell you we are gay.
Next week, the final part of our interview with Marge Summit.
Part two at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Chicago-Icon-The-Marge-Summit-Story-Part-Two-of-a-two-part-feature/61478.html .