San Diegans awaken on the Friday morning of March 21, 1952, to clear skies, northeasterly winds, highs in the 60s promised by afternoon. Harry Truman is president. Ex-Navy pilot and ex-San Diego State football star John Butler, only 36 when elected in 1951, is the city's first San Diego-born mayor. Irish-Catholic Mission Hills blue blood James Don Keller is district attorney.
If you were here that Friday morning, perhaps you turned to the San Diego Union’s B section. A glance toward the left-hand top corner showed that columnist Robert MacDonald, beneath the headline “Eyebrows Raised by Book on S.D.,” denounced a new book. The book, U.S.A. Confidential, “written by a pair of Easterners, Lee Mortimer and Jack Lait,” had a chapter titled “San Diego — Springboard to Mexico."
MacDonald fulminated: “The book then rolls merrily along (with little regard to actual fact) into a tale about the ‘bars, cocktail lounges and strip joints, all equipped with B-girls and other hussies’ which play to empty houses while most of the sailors crowd into places in lower Fifth Avenue, which offer other — and more frightening — forms of entertainment.”
I like to think MacDonald’s readers hurried downtown that Friday and bought U.S.A. Confidential. I found my copy on Wahrenbrock’s shelves. The San Diego section opens with this:
The fairy fleet has landed and taken over the nation’s most important naval base.
We are hard characters, shocked by nothing; but what we saw in San Diego frightened us. Picture a sailor burg, plentifully supplied with bars, cocktail lounges and strip-joints, all equipped with B-giris and other hussies, and yet the sea-dogs seldom come. The lonesome broads sit by themselves, moodily getting drunk alone, while the fairy dives roll merrily.
There are dozens — packed in every night. Young sailors queue up in the street — waiting their turn to get in. There is nothing anywhere as disgusting as the Cinnabar, in the 800 block on 5th Avenue. Its waiters are prancing misfits in peekaboo blouses, with marcelled hair and rouged faces. They flirt and make love with sailors, competing with the B-boys, a switch on an old institution. These sit at the bar, solicit drinks, kiss and pet customers. At the Cinnabar, dates are made for assignations elsewhere. For those in a hurry jobs are performed in the men’s rooms and telephone booths. Even one bouncer, a six-foot, 200-pound giant, looks queer.
“This couldn’t be true,” I thought. But Lait and Mortimer’s five pages on San Diego made me start asking questions. What was the downtown like in the early 1950s when Lait and Mortimer visited? What about those “B-girls and other hussies”? What about the authors’ charge that gay men “kiss and pet customers” at the Cinnabar? And, who were Lait and Mortimer?
Lait and Mortimer were reactionary conservatives. Their favored targets? Blacks, browns, yellows, pinks, gays, women-who-worked. Alger Hiss. Together with Walter Winchell and Westbrook Pegler, the duo daily attack-dogged all the above, plus Truman and the liberal FDR New Deal apparatchiks who still ruled in the nation’s capital.
Lait (1883-1954), editor of the Hearst-owned New York Daily and Sunday Mirror, and Mortimer (1907-1963), New York Mirror columnist, were what in the 1950s were often described as “colorful characters.” Mortimer, in addition to his columns, was a radio commentator, lecturer on crime and Communism and producer of Oriental nightclub shows and husband to five wives. He was celebrated for his fisticuffs with Frank Sinatra. One evening in the late ’40s, at Ciro’s in Hollywood, Mortimer called Sinatra a “dago son-of-abitch," whereupon Sinatra slugged him.
Lait spent his early career as a reporter in Chicago. He was present in 1934 when the FBI closed in on John Dillinger and ended Dillinger’s life with a barrage of bullets. Lait, however, led a less hectic private life than did Mortimer; when Lait died, in Beverly Hills, he had been married to the same woman for 48 years.
Ed Hutshing for many years served as the San Diego Union’s book editor. Before Hutshing came to the Union, he worked in LA. for the Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. Hutshing recalled seeing Mortimer around Los Angeles. He remembered him as a little guy, one of those guys whom one wanted to punch. Hutshing laughed when I mentioned the Sinatra incident. “That was the one time,” said Hutshing, “that I cheered Frankie, for slugging Mortimer."
Retired sheriffs sergeant Robert Newsom, in his pre-retirement heyday, was a behemoth of a man — six feet something tail and 200-plus ready-to-go-to-fist-city pounds. Described in the five pages on San Diego by Lait and Mortimer as the “bright boy who is an entire posse by himself,” Newsom in a recent interview spoke about the duo’s 1951 San Diego visit. “Jim Hamilton [James E. Hamilton, head of Los Angeles Police Department’s Intelligence Division] brought them into town. We hit the places around San Diego and then went to Tijuana and had dinner at Caesar’s.” That’s about all he remembered.
The area through which Newsom guided Hamilton, Lait, and Mortimer was spoken of in the early 1950s as “Sailor Row” and “The Jungle” and now is encompassed by the Gaslamp Quarter. Sailor Row girdled, roughly, the region between the bay at the Broadway Pier all the way up to Fifth Avenue and the bay on the south side to Ash Street on the north. A particularly notorious square block was that bounded by Broadway and C and Second and Third Avenues, a block whose buildings were demolished in the late 1960s to make room for C. Arnholt Smith’s Westgate Hotel. In the early 1950s, on this square block, were, in the 1000 block of Third Avenue:
- 1008 Broadway Credit Jewelers
- 1016 States Café
- 1020 Graf's Exclusive Furs
- 1028 Gold Rail
- 1036 Hula Hut
- 1040 Cuckoo Club
- 1046 Bright Spot Coffee Shop
- 1048 Aloha Club
- 1050 Black and Gold Room
- 1052 Sheng Haw Low Café
- 1058 Kellys Café
- 1060 Jade Club
- 1064 Turf Café
- 1070 Club Royal
A second area that was unusually lively were the blocks that began at Third and F and extended to Fifth and F. Here, in the early 1950s, a stroller would find:
- 301 Liberty Loan
- 305 Golden State Card Room
- 309 Duck-Inn
- 312 Hollywood Café
- 313 The Vagabond
- 314 Hollywood Theater
- 317 Tattoo Studio
- 321 Arizona Café
- 328 Palace Café
- 331 Charlie’s Café
- 332 Horton Hotel
- 333 Hollywood Barber Shop
- 334-36 Right Spot Lunch
- 337 Elgin Hotel
- 409 Rainbow Gardens
- 416 Little Italy Café
- 419 G.W. Solomon, Pawnbroker
- 420 Playroom
- 423 Washington Hotel
- 424 Shanghai Café
- 425 F.L Carmell, Card Room
- 426 Jack’s Better Hair Cut
- 428 Hi-Life Café
- 429 Spaghetti Joe’s
- 430 San Diego Key Shop
- 431 Blue Sea Grill
- 435 Herman Collins, shoe-shiner
If you want to know what the downtown was like in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a good person to talk with is Jasper Sciuto. He was born in San Diego in 1928 and raised in Little Italy, where his Sicilian immigrant parents ran the Roma Inn. Mr. Sciuto bought the Rio at 770 Fifth Avenue in 1946 and sold it ten years later to Vince Matranga. “Next door was a little Greek restaurant and on the other side was a jewelry store and then there was the Porthole and then the Rainbow Gardens. Spaghetti Joe’s was above me. We were there until 1956 when I went out to the Stagedoor on Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach.
“The Rio was all sailors, a sailor hangout, young navy. It was open from ten in the morning until two in the morning, seven days a week. During pay-days, when the navy got paid, we would do a big business. Business would go down until the first, then payday came and it got good. Then it would go down until the 15th, then payday came, and it got good and then it went down. When the navy left, business was slow, when they came back, business was good.
“Right after the war it was still a little difficult to get liquor. During the war it was difficult. You had to buy ten cases of this or that and then, if you did that, the distributors might give you six bottles of one of your premium brands. We had five or six distributors here then, you have only two now. They sold a lot of beer during the war. But after the war, liquor began to come in.”
Liquor regulations, since Prohibition’s end, had been complex. One rule was that every bar had to serve food. But few bar owners had much more to offer than hot dogs. “All we had was food in the freezer,” said Mr. Sciuto. “We had a stove and all. But nobody ever ordered anything.”
Joseph L Matranga came to San Diego in 1952. Because he was hard of hearing and because he had a cousin — Joseph E. Matranga — in the local bar business, people called Joseph L. “Deaf Joe.”
In a series of recent telephone interviews, “Deaf Joe” Matranga, 86 now, said that during the 1940s, he’d had a liquor store in Inglewood. He lost his hearing and needed, he said, “to make a living somewhere I could manage." With his brother Frank, Joe bought two downtown bars, the Buccaneer in the 800 block of Fourth Avenue and Greens at Fourth and E Greens, Joe said, was “catty-cornered from the Balboa Theater.”
Deaf Joe was born in Balstaibe, Sicily. His father died when he was 16 months old. “I was five when we came to America, in 1915, to Detroit. My mother’s family was all over here in Detroit, which is why we came. It was a rough trip. Here we were on this boat, this was during World War I, and about three times submarines tried to get us.
“We took the train from New York to Detroit. We didn’t speak any English. Spoke only Italian. I still speak Italian at home but it’s five-year-old Italian. My mother couldn’t speak English hardly at all, but she wanted us to speak English. Italian has a lot of dialects. Mussolini was a jerk but he did one good thing, he made them all talk alike.
“My mother was a mid-wife. My grandmother was a midwife, and my mother had been a schoolteacher, but then when my dad got rheumatic fever, my grandmother said she had better go to school. So she went to the University of Palermo and learned midwifery and she did all right. In those days, Italian people didn’t care much for doctors for their women. She never remarried. She was a beautiful woman, attractive, but she never remarried because she thought stepfathers weren’t good to their children. She made a good living. Her sisters and brothers were there, and they were very, very close. She died in 1949."
Deaf Joe sorted through the litany of Matranga places downtown during the ’50s. “On Third Street we had the Aloha owned by my cousin Leo Matranga; next door to it was Kelly’s, owned by my cousins Joe and Gaspare. The Rio at F and Fifth was owned by my cousin Vince. He passed away a long time ago. Bars, that’s all we knew what to do.
“I ended up being down there about 30 years. We had the Buccaneer from ’52 to 75 or 76 and Greens until 1982. I was open from six in the morning until two at night at Greens and from ten in the morning until two at night at the Buccaneer. The Buccaneer was small, about 20 stools, five booths. Greens was not a lot bigger, but it was steadier, it was almost full all the time. Greens did very good at six in the morning. A lot of civilians, people living in the hotels and little rooming houses there, they would come in, have a few beers and spend two, three hours just talking. They wouldn’t spend much money, but they’d be there. Buccaneer was sometimes terrible in the daytime but at nighttime it would fill up, but daytime it was strictly lousy.
“In the ’50s you had to pay a bartender $15 a day, which was a lot of money. It kept going up. If you like the man you give him an extra couple of dollars. But we had no bartender union; if they’d joined the union, I would have had to close up. I had two bartenders at Buccaneer and at Greens I had four. One waitress at night and a doorman. A janitor. There were times I lost money, when the ships go out, you starved for a while, when they came back, you made a little money, when you came to the end of the year, you just made a living.
“But you could make a pretty good living, sure. You gotta figure, from six to two, seven days a week, every day of the year, is a lot of hours. These other guys go to work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. They are not going to make as much money as someone who works 12 hours a day, 14 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Tony Mirabile’s Barbet was down the street from the Buccaneer. Leo Dia owned it later. Close to Greens was the Panama, owned by Joe Adamo, the Joe who was Momo’s brother. He’s older than me, and I’m 86. When I sold Greens in ’82, Joe was still there. But I’ve not seen or talked to Joe for a lot of years now.
“There were lots of rough times in the bars. You’d get a lot of sailors in there, there’d be fights. And they’d try to pull the wool over your eyes. They tried to fool you about their age, and you’d get fooled sometime. They’d do anything to buy a drink. They felt insulted, some of them, because they came from states where they could drink when they turned 18. They’d say, ‘What am I? A second-class citizen?’ A lot of them, I thought they were right, but I’d say, ‘Look, I don’t make the law.’
“Back in the old days, you couldn’t have a female bartender. I got a ticket one time, it was the most goddamned thing; the bartender was busy and he had fixed a couple of drinks and this one guy kept hollering for a screwdriver, so this gal puts the orange juice in the glass there, and she didn't touch the liquor at all, and it cost me a three-four hundred dollar fine.
“But I don’t give a darn how hard you try, you can’t be there in a bar every minute. I had a doorman at both places, checking ID. That jerk here, Pete Case, his guys said we made a pretense at looking at those ID cards. What a jerk! I was paying those doormen $30 a day to make a pretense, so a guy can buy a 50-cent beer and jeopardize my license? You couldn’t relax. You would be home and the telephone would ring and you would jump, you think maybe it’s the police.
“Back then, in the ’50s, they had about 18 in the vice squad, a couple of teams, down there every night. Every one of them came in, looking for minors. You take the outskirts of town or anyplace else, they’d never go there more than once a month. But downtown, they came every day, every day. They made it miserable, but you know what? They were hypocrites too. There were a lot of nice fellows, but a lot of them were just heels. They’d try their darnedest to get you in trouble. If the traffic is there, like it was downtown, well, then, something’s bound to happen. I never complained. If I did something wrong I kept my mouth shut, but if I was right, I screamed.”
Several Italian or Sicilian bar owners with whom I talked felt that during the 1940s and 1950s, the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) board officers and the SDPD vice squad dealt more harshly with them than with other bar owners. At least two retired San Diego policemen did not disagree with this assessment. One said, “Back then, if you had an Italian surname and $50 in the bank, you were an organized crime figure. When you went into the courthouse, you better have had a good defense. Because if the district attorney’s office said the guy was an organized crime figure or implied he was, the jury was going to sink his butt right there.”
Albert DeSanti, Jasper Sciuto’s cousin, began working downtown after the war. His first job was at Tony Mirabile’s Senator Café. He also worked at Mirabile’s Barbet, managed then by Leo Dia, and for several Matrangas. In 1948, Mr. DeSanti went to work for Sciuto at the Rio. In 1954, he bought the Band Box. “It had been operating since 1935. It was exactly where the county jail is now, the same address, 227 West C Street. It was a sailor joint; submarine sailors used to hang out there."
Mr. DeSanti said that, most mornings, he drove downtown and opened at ten. “Close to paydays I opened earlier. Sailors don’t get off the ship until one. Maybe on Saturday or Sunday mornings you would open early because some sailors got weekend liberty.”
What did Mr. DeSanti do, first thing in the morning?
“Set up my bar, stocked my beer, inventoried my liquor. You wanted to keep a good check on your inventory to make sure your bartenders weren’t being partners. I cut my limes and lemons, cleaned out the jockey boxes. They had to be scrubbed down every day. Cleaning man never touched that. All he did was clean toilets, mop the floor, and he was out of there. But all this other stuff was the bartender’s job. Old Baldy Baldicinni delivered the ice. He hauled it — 100 pounds at a time — over his shoulder and dumped it in the cooler.
“The cocktail lounge sold lots of cocktails. They don’t sell nothing anymore like they used to. Now you go in the bar and drink a straight shot and a beer. Back then, though, you’d sell lots of Manhattans, martinis, pink squirrels, Rob Roys, which is a Scotch Manhattan. Whiskey sours, daiquiris were popular.
“Mostly the sailors were beer drinkers and they drank screwdrivers. That’s all they knew to drink — vodka and orange juice and vodka and Squirt. Pabst Blue Ribbon was promoted back then. Their representatives used to come in a different bar every Wednesday when they had the big fights and if you drank Pabst Blue Ribbon, you could drink free, all you could want. As soon as the fights were over, the guys would switch to the regular beer.”
Mr. DeSanti laughed about rules that said bars had to sell food. “None of them served food. The kitchens in most of these places were smaller than my toilet.
“The law said you had to have a kitchen. This guy from the ABC came to check me out. I had a big kitchen in there. I didn’t have any food. So the guy fined me, threatened to close me up. He said, ‘I will give you one week to put out tablecloths, napkin holders, salt and pepper shakers, make it look like a restaurant. And then I will okay it.’
“So I did all that. I hired a girl to cook. I had a big menu on the wall that I had printed out. I never sold a hamburger in a week. So I called the head guy of the ABC board and said, ‘I want to talk to you. Come down.’ So he came on down. I showed him the menu and he looked at it. He said, ‘Everything is fine. Looks good.’ I said, ‘That’s not what I called you down here for. I want you to order. I can’t sell these sailors a hamburger. Who am I going to sell it to?’
“Here I am, I am paying this girl to cook. I was paying her only a dollar an hour, but in those days, the beer was 30 cents, a glass of wine was 25. So I said to him, ‘What am I going to do? You told me I have to sell food.’ He said, ‘Well, if you sell a hundred dollars’ worth of beer or liquor, put on your daily reports that you sold fifty dollars’ worth of food and fifty dollars’ worth of booze.’ That’s the way it was in those days.
“The work was hard. You had only three days, maybe four days, to make a month out of it. The sailors got paid on the 1st and the 15th. They didn’t make much, maybe $100. They went into town and spent it in three or four days. The rest of the days they were on credit. I had sailors that came into my bar, I used to laugh and say they were stationed in San Diego and they’d never seen San Diego, because they were broke. I would give them credit and when payday came they would pay me and then they didn’t have enough money to go anywhere else. They couldn’t go in another bar and have credit because the other bar owners didn’t know them. I had guys who were in the navy here for four years and never saw the inside of another bar.
“When the Suez crisis happened , the navy left San Diego and got shipped out on the East Coast. I felt like I’d paid for it, because all these sailors left owing me money.”
When did Mr. DeSanti first have television at the Band Box?
“In the mid-1950s. I had an old Raytheon, but it never worked half the time. I didn’t want to put it on because when I did I was losing money on the jukebox. I wanted people to put quarters in the jukebox, I made 50 percent on it. Why would I want to put the television on? Mostly, we kept the TV unplugged. The TV cost you money, the bartender would watch some stupid movie and not pay attention to the bar. It was boring, no action. People come in to have a good time, not watch TV. The only time we turned it on was for an important sporting event — big fights. The Ingemar Johansson and Floyd Patterson fight in 1959, my place was packed. The second time they fought, in 1960, it was really packed. The fight didn’t even last long. I lost money on that, gave them all free food and everything and there was a knockout in the fifth round and everybody went and left. These things are okay if they last 15 rounds; they last a few, you lose money."
I asked Mr. DeSanti if the sailors started fights.
“Oh, yeah. Bad, bad. You know, all these movies you see when all hell breaks loose, picking up stools and this and that? Well, when I worked at the Barbet, I was probably about 23 then. At the Barbet we had a bouncer. This bouncer was a retired navy chief, he caused more trouble than he was worth. One night, there was a guy he roughed up and threw him out of there, over a girl or something. So, this guy he booted out went to another bar where his crew hung out and he brought them back and everybody ordered a bottle of beer without a glass. Man, I’m telling you, I’ve never seen anything like it. There was blood all over the place. This is for real, not in the movies. We had an old shore patrol billy club and I am banging that on the bar, Break it up! Break it up!’ And this big sailor grabbed that billy club and he came after me and I jumped over the bar and I ran toward the plaza. I said, ‘I ain't coming back.’ I never was a big guy but I used to be a champion wrestler in high school, but when somebody’s got a billy club, you gotta run.
“The Panama [827 Fourth Avenue] used to have fights. Old Joe Bananas got a guy and smacked him over the hat with a baseball bat and splattered his head and the guy threw a shuffleboard weight at him. Every night there was an ambulance out there.”
In 1950, now-retired SDPD homicide lieutenant Ed Stevens, born and raised in San Diego, was “a skinny, round-shouldered, raw-ass recruit who hit the street with a pistol, a pair of handcuffs and a ticket book.” “When you rode Beat 21 [the Sailor Row area, roughly, was designated by the San Diego Police Department as Beat 21], you fought every night,” said Stevens. “I used to have to go change clothes because I had blood all over my uniform shirt. In those days you always had two uniforms, and the more prosperous guys had three. I’d go into the station and wash the blood out of my uniform shirt and hang it up to dry and borrow one of those more prosperous men’s extra uniform shirts. There wasn’t a night you didn’t get in at least one fight.
“Every bar downtown had a different ship that used that bar for its home base. The bar owners, of course, encouraged this. The more the sailors could use a certain bar as a gathering home place for their guys, the more money they would spend. But this made it more difficult to drag drunks out of these bars and to stop fights, because a guy’s shipmates would always come to his defense and then the fight was on.”
Downtown watering holes were by no means all sailor bars. Barton Sheela was a deputy district attorney from 1951 to 1955. I asked Mr. Sheela where, downtown, people of the professional class lunched, where they dined and danced during the early 1950s. “Most of the town bigwigs would eat lunch at the Grill [in the U.S. Grant Hotel] and later there would be a few of them around in the evening.” Sheela replied to my query as to what dish at the Grill he especially liked by recalling, “Shrimp Cabrillo, a shrimp dish prepared with lemon, wine, some oil or butter, and it was," he laughed, “very good. They had hamburgers they sold for four or five bucks as good as any you could get in San Diego, they had tremendous roast beef.” A.J. O’Keefe, said Mr. Sheela, who was second in command under District Attorney James Don Keller, often took the deputy D.A.s to lunch at “Admiral Kidd’s, a navy place where they had good food, or he would take us down to 12th or 13th and Market, to a delicatessen-type place. Of course, when you first started in the D.A.’s office, a lot of guys brought their lunch in brown bags.”
If Mr. Sheela were taking his wife out for an evening downtown, he said he might have taken her to the Grill or to a Chinese restaurant called Georgie Joe’s, on Third or Fourth Avenue, south of Broadway [George Joe’s Chinese Village Café and Mah Jong Room, 628 Third Avenue, “featuring,” its advertisement read, “the finest in cocktails and mixed drinks, extraordinary native Cantonese food”]. “Georgie Joe’s had a good bar. They had good Chinese food, but in the late evening it was mainly a bar." Mr. Sheela and his wife, he said, “would not have gone to the so-called sailor bars. They weren’t gathering places, but we might drift into one. But, normally, you wouldn’t take your date or your wife into one of those bars."
Bob Guthrie, born and raised in San Diego, graduated from Point Loma High School in 1940 and went on to college at San Diego State, studying for a degree in business administration. Guthrie served in World War II as an Army Air Corps pilot; after the war he came back to Southern California and graduated from UCLA at the end of 1946. He took a Job in downtown San Diego at Sears, across from Marston’s, in the executive training program. “When I came back to San Diego that year, my brother was a promoter here. He used to have the midget auto races at the Balboa Stadium. He also brought in big bands to the Mission Beach Ballroom — Woody Herman and guys like that And he also had the first San Diego pro football team, called the San Diego Bombers, in the 1950s.”
Mr. Guthrie left Sears in the early 1950s and went into business for himself, opening a series of stores — Guthrie’s — that sold name-brand fashion women’s wear. Mr. Guthrie and his wife, during this time, not infrequently went out in the evening. In the early 1950s, the Guthries would go to Lubach’s, the El Cortez, Grant Grill (although Mrs. Guthrie reminded him that ladies could not go there until dinnertime), and the Little Club downstairs in the Grant.
Mr. Guthrie, a swing dance enthusiast, fondly remembered the Pacific Square Ballroom on Pacific Highway and Ash. “This was in the early 1950s. One of the hot singers of the day, Jack Leonard, with Tommy Dorsey’s band, had a hit titled 'Marie.' And we all wanted to go down to hear Jack Leonard. And he wasn’t there that night. Instead, they had a skinny little guy named Frank Sinatra. He was a new kind of singer then, a crooner.
“The best ballroom in all Southern California was Mission Beach, a beautiful big roomy ballroom with terrific bands that would come to town. My brother booked bands after the war. The most prestigious one he brought in was Woody Herman — Woody Herman and his Herd — and he paid him $22,500 for a one-night stand. Les Brown was in San Diego from time to time. I remember going up in the early 1950s to Camp Kidd up in Balboa Park, an officer’s club. Being a retired officer, I could use that, and a lot of San Diegans used to go up there; it was a very popular dance place.”
I asked Mr. Guthrie what ladies whose husbands were professionals wore, then, when they went out in the evening. “Ah,” Mr. Guthrie sighed, “in those days women wore the whole package — high heels, girdles, stockings, gloves, hats, and furs. And perfume — Chanel 5, Arpege, My Sin, Shalimar.”
As to gay bars in San Diego, now-retired Jim Harrell, who put in 31 years with the SDPD, recalled, “We went after them pretty good, but usually it was on complaints." During World War II, Mr. Harrell said, there was a bar at 916 Fifth called the Top Hat that had a gay clientele. “We worked with the navy a good bit. The navy put those places off-limits because they were protecting the sailors. The navy wanted to put the Top Hat out of bounds. At that time it was on along in the 800 block of Fifth. We had one guy from the navy by the name of Flowers. Flowers had been a boxer in his time, and he talked kind of gruff. We put him and another navy guy in there with a couple of pigeons, about 19 years old, which was against the law, but we put them in there. Flowers kept coming out and giving us a rundown on it.
“Flowers was getting drunker and drunker while this was going on. He finally came out and he said, ‘Harrell, I think we got something. One of them queers in there told another one, “Go over and tell those two sailors over there. I’ll blow both of them.” The other queer said, “You hog, I want one." '
“So, anyway, we went in. We didn’t have much to arrest them on, but we arrested them. Then, a few weeks later, all of a sudden the thing disappeared. I found out about it, because I had a few friends in the navy. I asked, ’What in the hell happened?’ And my pal from the navy told me, ‘The investigation you started there was getting up into the ranks a little bit, so they just put these guys all over the place to get away from it.’”
Robert Newsom did take Lait and Mortimer to the Cinnabar, which was a bar where homosexual men met. The 1951 telephone book lists the bar as “Cinnabar Cocktail Lounge” and gives the address as 852 Fifth Avenue and the telephone number as FR(anklin)-2628.
William “Bill" Heritage, a retired SDPD officer, went on the police department in 1942. He took out two years to go in the service and then rejoined the department in 1945. He worked Beat 21 during the time when Lait and Mortimer came to town. “If you rode on Beat 21, you were the hotshots. Boy, we were the hotshots,” Heritage laughed, adding, “or at least we thought we were.”
About the Cinnabar, Mr. Heritage said, “It was a typical joint with a bar and some tables and a lot of toe dancers hanging around. It was a homosexual hangout, a queer joint. One time a bunch of them got together and they took all their clothes off and they were going to see how far they could get down Broadway. They didn’t get very far until they got all scooped up. A few days later, Jansen, who was the chief of police, said, ‘Put the roust on that place.’ So we just damn near shut them down for a while.”
Heritage never saw gay men dancing. “They didn’t dare. That was agin the law. They’d get busted. The vice squad would have arrested them. Two girls, nobody would have cared. But two men, that was a violation of city ordinance whatever-it-was.
Ed Stevens remembered, “Queer bars were not well thought of in those days. Men didn’t dance with men. If you wanted to dance, you better go find a lady partner. So when we hit the door, if there was any dancing, it stopped. Anyway, the dance floor there was the size of a tabletop. And if guys were doing all those nasty things in the phone booth and bathroom, they were pretty discreet about it, because, needless to say, that kind of sex activity between people of the same sex was not only frowned upon, it was illegal. Any kind of handholding, kissing, anything like that, they were gone. Also, this bullshit about men being all gussied up as barmaids, I have no recollection of that I do know that we would not have tolerated any body contact between customers and employees; it was in the city ordinance that there couldn't be body contact. When we walked in that door, everybody was on his and her best behavior. The vice squad checked those places often enough, it wasn’t rampant the way they described it.
“They did have a bouncer. What he did was check IDs at the door to make sure everyone was 21, because when we went in that place we routinely carded anybody under 30 just to fuck them around. We would also check anybody that was working there that we didn’t know personally. We checked their health card. They had to have a health card to serve food and drink in an eating establishment If they didn’t have one, we would throw them in jail.”
Another retired policeman, who went on the force shortly after the war, responded peevishly when I read him Lait and Mortimer’s description of the Cinnabar. “I don’t believe one iota of that. Most of the time I can recall, the Cinnabar was strictly off-limits to military personnel. Certain places the navy put off-limits. Off and on, different ones would be off-limits. Anything that was known as a homosexual bar was off-limits, period. If a sailor got rolled in one of the bars, for instance, why, the navy would put it off-limits for 30 days or 60 days and then it would be back on again. The navy disciplinary board would do that. We had meetings together all the time with the vice squad, once a month.”
Dave Barreras, born in 1935, for almost 40 years has owned Dave’s Display World. As a boy, during and after World War II, Mr. Barreras peddled the San Diego Tribune through downtown San Diego. “So I know,” he said, “practically every alley and nook and cranny.” Mr. Barreras remembered the Cinnabar. “When I went to the Cinnabar I couldn’t believe it, because I didn’t know what gay was then. The way I remember it, it was a long bar with red lighting and packed with military people, packed. In the back of the bar there was a platform and a guy named Juan Flores played the piano at night. I didn’t know anything about gays at all, but the bartenders were very feminine. And I think they wore blouses, but I’m not sure. If you can imagine a kid going to the Moulin Rouge, that’s the effect it had on me, the Cinnabar.
“In that period, the gay bars were sort of mixed Although there were some gay bars that were definitely gay. It’s very interesting because San Diego, I think the population when I came here was probably 200,000 maybe. So we had I can remember at least in the ’50s, five or six roaring gay bars in San Diego, which is very strange. People don't believe it. I could even name some of them. There was the Blue Jacket [750 India Street], later was called B.J.’s. It was just a little tiny beer bar. Near there was another gay bar called the Bon Voyage [616 West Market]. It was right across from the police department.”
An advertisement placed in the Reader, asking if anyone recalled the Cinnabar, brought several telephone calls. One caller, who preferred not to give his true name, identified himself as George. He was born in San Diego in 1922. "I am 74 years old” he said in a booming, clear voice. His father was a bookkeeper for the Bank of Italy and died when George was 12. “My mother was very young and she never remarried. I asked her later on why, and she said, ‘I didn't want a stranger coming in and giving you lickings.' Those days were different than they are now.”
Over the years, George worked as a bartender at the Hotel Del, the Grant, and the Chee-Chee Club. “I stayed there at the Chee-Chee quite some time. Then I went to another very popular place called the Harbor House, not the one that is there now, this was down by where the ferryboats used to go back and forth to Coronado, right next to the ferry landing. It was a beautiful place. Back then, if you asked a cabdriver to take you to a fish place, they would take you either to Anthony’s or to the Harbor House.”
About the Chee-Chee Club, George explained that it was “not the one on Broadway, but the one that used to be on Fourth Avenue across from the Grant Hotel between Broadway and C Street. I went there after the war. Next door to it was the Plaza Hotel, which is still there, and right next door there is a drugstore, which is still there and used to be a nice store, at Fourth and Broadway. Downtown is nothing what it used to be.”
I asked George what the popular drinks were during the early 1950s. “It was mostly highballs, beer and highballs. A 7-High — whiskey and seven, Seagram’s and 7-Up. They didn’t have that many fancy drinks at that time like ‘Sex on the Beach’ with strange names to them, suggestive names.”
The people who owned the Cinnabar when Lait and Mortimer breezed through town, said George, were Sid and Evelyn Peritz. ‘They bought it from a very prominent man named Abe Kahn — A.J. Kahn. He owned Bradley’s, he owned the Texas Liquor stores, he owned quite a few things."
George warned that he was going to reminisce. “I am going to go back to the 1930s. There used to be, on Fridays and Saturdays, from 12th and Market up to 12th and Broadway, markets all the way. People used to come down there to buy things. I remember Abe Kahn having a market there, selling oranges and apples. I was a kid, and on Saturdays, so I amid have enough money to go to the movies on Sunday, and then I was only paying ten cents, I used to sell the paper, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner down there. Once I went up to this man who was standing there with a woman. I said, ‘Examiner, Mister?’ and he said, ‘I already did.’ I was embarrassed."
George knew Sid and Evelyn Peritz, who owned the Cinnabar. After George got off work, he sometimes stopped by the Cinnabar. “It was a very popular place, not only for gay people. Lots of straight people used to go into there too. It was packed, it was mobbed. They would have to close the door.
“Thursday nights they had talent nights. They would give $25 for the first award and a bottle of champagne for the second. The girls from the burlesque down on F Street used to come in and they would perform up on the stage. Can you imagine? It was quite a place. Anybody could come in and get up on the stage. There was a little black fellow who used to come in, a marine, and he used to get up there and sing on talent night and lots of times he won. He sounded like Billy Eckstine. He was terrific.
“There were lots of marines and sailors, and later on the navy got alter that and the navy wanted the sailors to stop going there. Now they couldn’t do a thing about it.”
George bought a copy of U.S.A. Confidential when the book came out. “Sid Peritz told me about it. He read it. He got a big laugh out of it, that’s all”
As to Lait and Mortimer’s charge that customers kissed and petted, that “for those in a hurry jobs are performed in the men’s rooms and telephone booths,” George made clear his outrage. “The Peritzes never allowed that, that never went. That didn’t go then. That never happened in the Cinnabar. And there wasn’t any room for it. The authors exaggerated to make the book more interesting.”
When Lait and Mortimer visited the Cinnabar, Sid and Evelyn Peritz had owned it for little more than a year. Ed Stevens remembered that in 1953, Sid “was killed in an airplane crash. So Evelyn ran the bar. She was a gorgeous woman, a blonde and a good-looking blonde too.”
Bill Heritage remembered, about Sid Peritz, “He was a flier, flying his own plane, he got ground up in the mountains somewhere.” Asked about Evelyn Peritz, Heritage allowed as how he too thought her attractive. “She was a good-looking broad.”
Yet another retired SDPD officer, who prefers that his name not be used, also recalled Evelyn Peritz. “Evelyn the model,” he called her, and went on to say that, yes, she was extraordinarily beautiful.
About the plane crash, George offered that “Sid was going hunting in his plane, and matter of fact, Evelyn was supposed to go with him, but she didn’t, because she had a cold.” George sighed, said, ‘They were nice people.”
According to George, Evelyn Peritz was a model. “At one time,” said George, “she appeared in some of these signs, on billboards. I remember one billboard that had a photograph of Evelyn. It was for Lucky beer. It said, 'You’re lucky to live in California and drink Lucky beer.’ ”
An article in the San Diego Union on October 7, 1953, tells the tale in its headline:
S.D. Men Die in Fiery Plane Crash
Idaho Hunting Trip Ends in Tragedy in Remote Country
Two San Diego business men were killed in a plane crash in Idaho’s remote Selway River country Monday afternoon, the Associated Press reported last night from Grangeville, Idaho. Dead were Sidney Peritz., 46, of 4242 Cossoy Way, owner of a cocktail lounge at 852 Fifth Avenue, and Richard L Williams, 31, of 6938 Eastman St., a liquor salesman.
The bodies of the two men, who took off from Montgomery Field here Monday morning on an elk hunting trip, were taken from the charred wreckage of the four place Belanca plane late yesterday.
The plane, the AP report continues, piloted by Peritz, crashed and burned on the west slope of the Bitterroot Mountains. Peritz was coming in to land at a remote forest service landing strip, when he apparently noted that one of his wheels was retracted. He turned away from the strip and flew up a dead-end canyon and crashed. An Idaho official said if the pilot had turned the other way, he would have been in an open river valley. The fiery crash started a forest fire in nearby timber.
The Union Adds that Peritz’s wife, Evelyn, was “an expectant mother.”
The former Evelyn Peritz, long remarried, still lives in San Diego. We spoke one morning by telephone, but only for a moment. She remembered nothing about the Lait and Mortimer mention of the Cinnabar. I read her the paragraph describing the bar.
“Nothing true at all about that. Absolutely nothing. When we bought the place in about 1950, it was the Cinnabar. We changed it immediately, from that. It was a gay bar. We changed the name [to the Famous Door] and changed the clientele. We bought it about 1950 and changed it. I ran it for ten years, even after my husband died, I ran it. We had very good clientele. That was another life, that was another day. I hate going back and thinking about it.”
I said to the former Mrs. Peritz that everyone recalled her as unusually beautiful. She said, “I guess when you are young, you maybe are a little prettier than you know you are at the time.” She said she had to get off the telephone, that she was about to be late. She explained, “I have a hair appointment. It’s like getting an appointment with the Pope.”
When I asked about downtown during the early 1950s, people continued to mention A.J. Kahn. A.J. (1894-1970) and his wife, Fannie Kershman Kahn, were Russian immigrants. The Kahns came to San Diego from St. Louis in 1926. A.J., or Abraham, or “Abe," as he variously was called, operated a produce market and later branched out into real estate, a liquor store chain called Texas Liquor, bars and restaurants, including for a while, the Club Royal, and for many years, Bradley’s Five and Dime Bar, located on Horton Plaza. As everyone says who speaks, now, about A.J.: They had three sons — Irvin, Yale, and Julius — and they all got rich. Irvin was a developer. Julius got involved in Vegas. Yale owned a nightclub, Top’s on Pacific Highway, reputed to be the spot where Dan Rowan and Dick Martin got their start (and wonderfully written about in local author Lorenzo Madalena’s Confetti for Gino). People also mentioned that A.J. had “mistresses,” that he bought them cars and jewels and furs.
I asked Mr. Barreras if he remembered A.J.
“I sure do," he said. “A very, very wonderful man. I remember him very well. And at Bradley’s, of course, he had the world-famous Filipino bartenders, who were renowned because they’d been A.J.’s bartenders for years. One was called ‘Big Boy,’ he was a great big Filipino, and then there was Nick and Ralph. Those are the three that I remember. They were with him forever, until he died.
“A.J. was very, very wealthy. He couldn’t really quite get into the social community, mainly because he was a bar owner, and secondly because he owned the Texas Liquor stores, and God knows whatever other shadings, you know what I mean? And being Jewish. So that bar was kind of his plaything. Bradley’s, he loved that bar. I’d play shuffleboard with him, that was his favorite. He was a very colorful Damon Runyon character.
“You’d go in and say, ‘A.J., I need a hundred bucks. ’And he’d give you a hundred dollars. No nothing, no to-do. He never forgot it, but he was very generous that way. A heart of gold as far as I knew. And the people who worked for him seemed to love him because they were with him for years and years and years. So far as I was always told, he was quite good to them.”
At the Club Royal, Mr. Barreras recalled “a wonderful woman, she was sensational. She was real pretty, she was black, and to me she looked like a Phyllis Diller, maybe because her hair was blond. She bleached it and it was straight. She sang and she played the piano. She would pound that piano like crazy. And I remember she had a foul mouth. The vice squad would come in, and she’d call them all these dirty names. Filthy, wonderful stuff. And she just kept playing the piano and could care less, you know what I’m saying?”
Everybody with whom I talked told me that the downtown streets grew quieter in the years after World War II. When President Truman ordered U.S. troops into Korea in June 1950, marines and sailors once again packed into the dark, narrow downtown bars. Ed Stevens spoke about the sudden change that took place after June 1950. “Every bar owner in town was buying dollar cigars and standing in front of his sailor bar like he owned the world again. At the same time these guys were busy recruiting these little farm girls that had followed their boyfriends in the service here. They recruited them to hustle drinks in the bars. These were the B-girls."
Stevens and Bill Heritage laughed at Lait and Mortimer’s assertion that the “lonesome broads sit by themselves, moodily getting drunk alone, while the fairy dives roll merrily.”
“Ridiculous,” Stevens snarled. Stevens went on to explain that once the Korean War ended downtown nightlife’s postwar minicrash, it was quite the other way around: there were two or three horny sailors and marines for every woman. The College Inn, the Paris Inn, the Hacienda, they all had ballrooms and dancing. “In these places,” said Stevens, “there were always girls meeting men. Friday and Saturday nights, girls would go in twos and threes and fours to the College Inn, where they had live dancing and bands. Women of all descriptions filled those places. And they were meeting more men than they knew what to do with.”
Then, there were the B-girls. “The bar owners called them waitresses, but they were B-girls. Their job on paper was to serve drinks, off paper it was to grab these sailors by the crank and do whatever they could to buy drinks.
“B-girls were not all two-bit whores. They were girls that followed their boyfriends to the West Coast, where they were deployed and then got stuck in San Diego. They started looking for work, and most of them having no skills at all, well, anybody can sit on a barstool and encourage pimply faced sailors to buy drinks. The girls weren’t by any means all bad girls. They were from small towns in the Middle West and ranches in Texas. Some of them were just naive and had no idea what life in the big city was all about.”
When I asked Heritage about the B-girls, he turned dour. “Those girls were so pathetic. If they weren’t blowing the bartender and the owner, they got thrown out on their ear. We used to call them ‘hamburger whores,’ because that’s about what they were down to. They lived in little hotels downtown. What few clothes they had were all over the floor. They lived like animals, really. Pretty sad. Most of them had come out here following some sailor — ‘You know my boyfriend, he wears a white hat and his name is Bill.' They didn’t have any idea what they were getting into. They’d go broke. They’d look for a job as a waitress and the next thing you know they’re working in the bars. They were a sad lot, those girls. I always felt sorry for them.”
Stevens said that the presence of the B-girls often led to brawls. “Those B-girls would hustle drinks all night. During the course of the evening they would be more friendly with some servicemen than others. It usually depended upon who had the most money. The favorite trick of the bar owners was to have the girls encourage these dumb hicks into buying champagne, a $5 bottle for $25 or $30, an obvious rip-off. And then as the evening wore on, in the course of encouraging these sailors and marines to buy more and more booze, these same sailors and marines began to think they were going to get lucky. If they were there at two o’clock, they would get to take this young honey home. The drunker they got, the prettier those girls got. At two o’clock, it was common for two or three sailors or marines to be waiting for the same girl and all of them thinking that they had exclusive rights. And exclusive rights were settled on the sidewalk in front of the bar. At closing time there would always be terrific fights. The last guy standing got to take the girl home.”
Other than B-girls, other women would go into the sailor bars, said Stevens. “Waitresses from those downtown joints, gals who clerked at Thrifty Drugs at Fourth and Broadway, Walker-Scott at Fifth and Broadway, they might drop in for a drink or two after work before they went home.”
Another retired San Diego policeman, who wishes to remain nameless, also recalled the B-girls — “These were the gab that would screw for a glass of beer and a sandwich, where a poor prostitute would starve to death.” This gentleman remembered that there were many small hotels downtown to which girls would take sailors. “Above the Club Royal was the Savoy Hotel. And there was the Lubin Hotel on C Street and three little bars down below that, at about the 200 block West C. In those days we had City Ordinance 26.86, and that was ‘you cannot cohabit.’ When the bars dosed, we’d check the hotels for late arrivals. If we found a couple ‘cohabiting’ and the guy was a sailor, then we would get the shore patrol to come get the sailor and we would put the girl in jail on a health hold.”
I asked Ed Stevens about the expression “hamburger whore.” His answer: “By saying ‘hamburger whore’ it doesn’t mean they were outright whores. They might have been a little bit carefree about who they went to bed with. But rarely did money pass hands with those gals. When two o’clock came, the bars closed and there were half a dozen places downtown where people would get together, where the B-girls and sailors and marines and cops would stop in and have coffee. The guy who had picked up a gal to go home with, the two of them might stop at one of these places before they went back to her place and the guy would buy them each a cup of coffee and a hamburger. So that is the etymology of the term ‘hamburger whore.’ ”
Not infrequently, Stevens said, “a middle-aged woman, for one reason or another living in those marginal downtown hotels on a monthly basis or visiting from out of town and going in sailor bars, would meet a young sailor. Come closing down it was pretty common to find a 21 -year-old sailor with a woman in her 40s. We would catch these young sailors with these middle-aged women in the room in flagrante delicto. We were pretty much gentlemen. We let the lady put her clothes on and got the man out in the hall and then when she got on her clothes, we talked to them together. Usually, the story that these sailors would tell you, in order to keep from going to jail, was, ‘Well, officer, we are thinking of getting married.’ ”
Stevens began to laugh. “What we sometimes did, my partner and I, was this. I would say, ‘What a coincidence. My partner here happens to be an ordained minister, and I know there’s a Gideon Bible in the bed stand. Hand me that Bible, Father John. Okay, folks, we are going to have a ceremony right here and now.’ If you did that, they’d start crawfishing. Pretty soon, they would tell the truth.”
Ed Stevens added to this, “Real whores for the most part had pimps who were cabdrivers. They had different kinds of clientele. Some whores only worked on Friday and Saturday when boots were out on liberty. There was one woman I pinched once who had nothing but Chinese men for clients. We tailed her cabdriver pimp one afternoon to an apartment up on Fourth and Upas, and she turned those five Chinese gentlemen in 15 minutes, a whole cabload of them. When they came out, we were driving in an undercover car. This cabdriver was going like hell down Fourth Street, and we wanted to catch these guys and get one to talk to us. The hood went straight up on our car. Here we are, going 50 miles an hour with our hood up in the air, and we didn’t get him stopped until Fourth and Market.
“Anyway, we got them all stopped. I was talking to this one man, and all he wanted to do was stay out of jail. He said he would tell us anything we wanted to know. I was asking leading questions to get him going. I asked, ‘How was that girl up there?’ And he says, ‘Too fast, too fast.’ I said, ‘ Whaddya mean?’ And he told me, ‘One push, all over.’ We booked the guys and then we went up and pinched the gal.”
Carla Davis wasn’t a B-girl and she wasn’t a prostitute and she didn’t begin to work downtown until 1958. But she did begin to go downtown before ’58. Mrs. Davis lives now in a downtown hotel, with, she said, her mother’s ashes in a box there in her room with her. When Mrs. Davis was a youngster in Mount Hood, Oregon, she recalled that her mother supported them by working as a waitress. “I remember she was five foot tall and never weighed more than 110 pounds, and it was fascinating to me to watch her carry a tray of big plank steaks with one hand” Mrs. Davis came to San Diego “June 14, 1952. I was 14. I came on the Greyhound bus alone by myself from Portland, Oregon. My mother had just finished her 90-day trial period at Convair, the night shift was what she worked.” Mrs, Davis, as a teenager, had several run-ins with the law. “I think,” she said, “that I was just trying to get my mother’s attention” She recalled that when she was 16, her mother turned her over to the Youth Authority as a habitual runaway.
Before Mrs. Davis was 21, she worked in several places on Imperial Avenue. Then, after she turned 21, she came downtown and applied for a job as a cocktail waitress. “Downtown was where you worked. Mission Valley, all was out there was cow pasture and juvenile hall.” For two years Mrs. Davis worked at the Club Royal at 1070 Third Avenue.
Waitresses didn’t wear uniforms; they wore their own clothes. “The girls could wear anything — Capri pants and little halter tops, regular cocktail dresses,” said Mrs. Davis. “I had a red dress, just a straight dress, with a little red sailor collar and a sailor tie, the dress came to my knees. I wore Springolators and stockings. When you worked behind the bar, usually you wore some slippers because they had those slatted grates on the floor and if you wore heels, the heels would get caught in the grate. So you always had your little house slippers and when you went back out on the floor, then you put your heels on.”
Pay was minimum wage — $1.25 an hour plus tips. “You stayed busy. You didn’t even realize how tired you were until the bar closed. You were too busy. If you were a good cocktail waitress and it was a good bar, you were busy. And, oh boy, people could drink.”
At the time Mrs. Davis worked downtown, women were allowed to serve drinks but they were not allowed to pour liquor from bottles into glasses. “They didn’t have women bartenders. If the bartender was gone to the bathroom, you could draw beer from behind the bar, but if the bartender was in the bathroom and you had to mix a drink, you would set the glass up there and get some man to pour it from the bottle to the glass. Then I would put the soda or the orange juice in and stir it up and serve it.”
“Nice places,” one old-time bartender told me, “didn’t have women working behind the bar. But in the sailor bars, sure, you’d see this. One way around the law was to put the woman’s name on the liquor license. Then a girl could say she was an owner and pour.”
In addition to serving drinks. cocktail waitresses were expected to encourage customers to spend money on more than the booze. Mrs. Davis said, “They had the pinball machines and shuffle board games in the bars. It was the cocktail waitress’s job to get the guys not only to buy drinks but to play those games, because the owners got a percentage of all the games and the jukebox. Most of the girls got to be pretty good at doing this.”
About “vice,” Mrs. Davis offered, “You had your pimps and your prostitutes, the whole bit. There used to be girls who would trick customers to go up the stairs in these dark hotels and guys would jump on them and rob them, that kind of thing.
“You had a lot of prostitution. You did. And girls standing on the streets. The cops would drive by. They’d say to the girls, I’m going up the street and if I come back around and you’re still standing here, you’re going to jail.’ But then I also remember that the cops used to pick you up and take you to jail and you either went to Frost Lumber yard and gave it up and got the hell beaten out of you or you went to jail, and sometimes you went to jail anyway. They used to beat the women up. The women would be so scared.
“They could pick you up and hold you. When they had the old city jail before they even had the county jail, there’d be 15 women on suspicion of grand theft and on a health hold. They would get you if you were standing on the street corner on vagrancy or suspicion of grand theft and the next day they would drop the grand theft and keep the health hold. They had this doctor and if you would promise the doctor that you would go to the health department and take your sulfa tablets for seven days, he’d let you out. So you’d go get your sulfa tablets and flush them down the toilet. But some of the girls had gonorrhea and they had to be treated.
“They had a judge named Judge Crawford that lots of the girls used to go before. There was a joke that went around among the girls that if things went well the night before for Judge Crawford, like if him and his wife got along, then you’d get out of jail, and if they went bad, you were gettin’ time, you were going to do a couple weeks, a month, three months, six months, whatever. You did your time in the city jail.”
A retired policeman had said to me, “Giving the bar owner or the bar manager a blowjob was part of the employment interview for a lot of these gals.” I asked Mrs. Davis if she heard about this kind of behavior. She said she had but added, “It never happened to me. I had a strong personality. My feelings could be hurt easily, but I had a definite idea of who I was going to sleep with and who I wasn’t, and wasn’t nobody going to make me sleep with someone I didn’t want to. I worked in one place about 20 minutes because I am behind the bar and the bartender is behind me and rubbing on me and I turned around and slapped him. There were bars where I knew a lot of prostitution went on, and there were hotels the girls took them to, little small hotels.”
Mrs. Davis talked about a bar customer who regularly left her big tips and made her big promises about his talents as a lover. She recalled that she said to the bartender one evening, “ ‘I’m gonna shut this guy up.’ The guy and I got in a cab, went to the Ebony Motel, used to be on 32nd off of Market. This guy had two moves: lay down and get up. He didn’t do either one of them very good. I got in the cab and left him in the motel and went back to my work. I never saw this guy again. You always ran into a lot of guys like that. Get the girls to come up on them and they’d run. It was a lot of talk.”
A friend of Mrs. Davis’s worked as a prostitute. “She was walking down the street one night and she saw 20 sailors straight from boot camp coming up the street and she’s counting, ‘$100, $200, $300...' She’s counting the sailors and she’s counting her money. The vice squad came into the Hotel San Diego to arrest her one time and she went out on the fire escape, but she couldn’t get away because all she had on was her bra and her panties.”
This began as an attempt to exorcise my curiosity as to Lait and Mortimer’s passage about San Diego’s downtown. I ended by buttonholing almost 100 people who were downtown during the late 1940s and through the 1950s. Some, like the former Mrs. Peritz — “Evelyn the Model,” whom everyone recalled with such pleasure — did not want to fret back over a past that now must seem better forgotten. Four women, all of whom had downtown “careers," put me off with variations on “That was another life, another time. Best left in the past." Others, particularly men like the retired policemen and businessman Dave Barreras, recall this era with delight. Still others weren’t willing to talk; downtown, for them, was too closely associated with vice. I tried diligently to find someone gay who frequented the Cinnabar in the 1950s. One nun was kind enough to ask around among older gay men. Nobody recalled being in the Cinnabar. The consensus was that everyone from that era had either died or left town. As for the bouncer, the “six-foot, 200-pound giant" who, to Lait and Mortimer looked “queer," no one remembered him.
I had Xerox copies of the yellow pages from old telephone books. I enjoyed, reading aloud, the names of downtown bars and cafes — the Koffee Kup, the Chat & Chew, Tommy Sheng’s Sheng Haw Low Café, the Ship Ahoy, the Cuckoo Club, the Hula Hut, the Blue Sea Grill, the Duck-Inn, the Hi-Life and the High Seas, the Club Royal, the Gold Rail, the Bright Spot, the Club Romance. Jimmy Kennedy owned the Club Romance. One day I asked a guy named Mark, a swabbie during the late 1940s, about Jimmy Kennedy, and this is what he said;
“Jimmy Kennedy and his brother Walter, the story they tell is that they used to be railroad car cardsharps. When I knew Jimmy Kennedy he owned the big, classy bars, like the Club Romance at Second and C. It was a nice place. It had a big band. Then at First and C, the Kennedys owned the College Inn, a Western place. Roy Hogshead was the bandleader there.”
“Roy Hogshead?” I said.
“Yup,” Mark said, adding, “one of Roy’s favorite songs in those days was...” and Mark began to sing in a wonderful, deep basso:
Early one morning while making my rounds
Took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down
Went right home and I went to bed
I tucked that loving .44 beneath my head.
Woke up next morning, a quarter to nine,
I spied the sheriff coming down the line,
He said, Willie Lee. your name is not Jack Brown,
You’re the dirty rat who shot that woman down.
One presence continued to haunt me as I studied up on downtown San Diego in the postwar years. If we were in church right now, a shouting, testifying church, I might get up out of my pew and say, “I want us to remember a woman tonight...”
Fifty years ago this December, this week, in our town, a young woman was here who didn’t have many more days to live. Jack Webb wrote about her in The Badge. James Ellroy wrote a vaguely fictionalized account of her murder, as did John Gregory Dunne. But it is to John Gilmore’s superb nonfiction Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder (Zanja Press, 1994) that I owe much of this account:
Late morning. December 6, 1946, in Los Angeles, 22-year-old Elizabeth Short telephoned her friend Ann. She asked Ann to meet her at the Brown Derby. When Ann arrived, Elizabeth excitedly told her that she had a “new beau." A navy officer. He promised that if she went to San Diego, he’d get her a job at the naval hospital. Problem was, she was short on cash for the ticket and a hotel room in San Diego. Ann handed over $20, which Elizabeth promised she'd repay soon as she got her first check.
Elizabeth Short — “Betty” she also was called, and “Beth” — was a pretty, even beautiful, young woman. She stood five feet six inches tall, weighed 118 pounds, had a high forehead, a pert upturned nose and gray green eyes, shoulder-length black hair rinsed with henna. Betty was a would-be actress, would-be cover girl and sometime-model. One of five daughters of divorced parents, she was what was called, back then, “the product of a broken home.” During the war she made her way from her Massachusetts hometown to Los Angeles. About as close as she got to stardom was trading a shoe salesman a pair of black suede pumps for a blowjob. She was a lonely, pathologically lying, mixed-up little prick tease, who because of a vaginal structural anomaly may never have had actual intercourse. She wrote bathetic love letters on perfumed stationery to the near-strangers with whom she consorted. She carried in her purse a newspaper dipping about an Army Air Corps major who shot down eight planes in China and died August 10, 1945. She took out the clipping and showed it to people; she explained she’d been the major’s wife, she’d had their child, the child died. The major, indeed, had been a boyfriend, and eventually a reluctant one. Three months before he was killed, the major wrote to his mother that Beth had penned him 27 letters in 11 days. He was concerned, he wrote his mother, that “Miss Short really loved him."
December 8, 1946, a Sunday, five years and one day since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Beth headed to San Diego. Maybe the story about the naval officer was a lie. Maybe Beth was just down on her luck. And, maybe — no one knows — maybe she was running from someone. We do know she almost obsessively, from her pale skin out, wore black — lingerie, dresses, slacks, hosiery, hats, and gloves. I like to think that the black garb was reference to, an underlining of, her feigned widowhood. Maybe she wore black that day. Nobody, now. remembers. Dressing all in black was more unusual then than now. Also unusual was Beth’s request to her Los Angeles friends that they call her “Black Dahlia,” in reference to her favorite film, the then-new Blue Dahlia. The latter, a Raymond Chandler script, written while Chandler lived in La Jolla, has war veteran Alan Ladd return home to an alcoholic and unfaithful wife. The wife’s soon found murdered, with Ladd’s service revolver. Ladd goes on the lam with tough-talking blonde Veronica Lake, and the duo seeks Ladd’s dead wife’s killer.
If Beth got an express bus to San Diego, the trip took two hours. In 1946, the drive down from L.A. was on old 101. The express stopped at San Clemente and Oceanside. If she caught the milk run, the trip took three hours; the bus stopped again and again. She must have arrived at the bus depot on First and Broadway a little before suppertime. Beth waited, retrieved her two suitcases and her cosmetics case. She hefted up the three bags and walked into the depot's cafe. Thirty-some round stools were lined along the counter. Beth put down her bags, pulled herself up on a stool, ordered coffee. She sipped at the coffee, paid, then asked the waitress if she could keep her place while she ran into the depot and checked her bags. The waitress said yes, and soon Beth returned. She ordered more coffee, said a man was supposed to meet her and it looked like he wasn’t going to show up.
A few minutes passed. I don’t know this for a fact, but I tend to think that Beth picked up off the counter a copy of the Sunday paper and riffled through until she came to the movie pages. The Broadway offered Olivia de Havilland and Lew Ayres in The Dark Mirror, in which beautiful Olivia played twin sisters, one good sister and one bad sister, and a Technicolor featurette, South of Monterey. The Cabrillo — “Open All Nite!” — advertised The Glass Key, a 1942 Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake film and the 1941 Blonde front Singapore. Four or five theaters were showing the brand-new Western, Bad Bascomb, with little Margaret O’Brien. Then Beth hit upon it, the movie she wanted to see. At the Aztec, at Fifth and G.
Beth thanked the waitress, picked up her purse and cosmetics case, and headed out onto Broadway. Certainly, by then, the sun had fallen into the ocean beyond Coronado. Streetlights glimmered. Beth walked up Broadway toward Fifth. If she turned down Fifth Avenue, she may have walked past San Diego Hardware, past the front door of the Cinnabar. Maybe Beth saw the “six-foot 200-pound giant” who, to Lait and Mortimer, would look “queer.”
Normally, Beth walked with a sway to her hips. This Sunday evening, she may have been too weary. She had to be more than a little scared about what was going to happen to her. So that perhaps she didn’t pay any mind if a sailor put his two fingers in his mouth and whistled. Maybe she didn’t hear if he said, “Hubba! Hubba!”
By then darkness was complete. As she walked, she may have seen on the southeast corner of Fifth and G the Aztec marquee. The glowing letters spelled out The Blue Dahlia, her movie, her special name. It must have seemed to her like a sign that she’d done the right thing, come to the right place, that everything in the end would turn out okay. She bought a ticket, took a seat.
Here’s what Pauline Kael had to say about The Blue Dahlia (99 minutes; B&W): “This untidily complicated thriller threatens to turn into something, but it never does. The director, George Marshall, doesn’t provide a tense atmosphere or a hard-boiled pace, and though the screenplay is by Raymond Chandler, the picture just drags along. The performers’ responses are too slow, the acting throughout seems lifeless, narcotized. The plot involves Alan Ladd as a Navy flyer whose adulterous wife (Doris Dowling) is murdered; a nightclub proprietor (Howard Da Silva) whose own estranged wife (Veronica Lake) is attracted to the flyer, and the flyer’s psychoneurotic buddy (William Bendix) who can never remember just what he’s been up to. There are also voyeurs, blackmailers, baffled cops, and mugs in the pay of the nightclub proprietor. Ladd takes many a mauling before he gathers the heroine (Lake) in his arms. Three of the players — Dowling, Da Silva (who wears a mustache here), and Frank Faylen — had appeared in The Lost Weekend the year before and each had done good, distinctive work, but, like the rest of the cast here, they sink without a trace."
At some point during this, Beth fell asleep in her seat, her head fallen toward her shoulder.
Enter 21-year-old Dorothy French, Aztec theater cashier. When the house lights went on that night, Dorothy spotted Beth, still sleeping. She awakened her. Beth told a tale about missing her connections. Dorothy ended by taking Beth home to Pacific Beach, to the two-bedroom house at 2750 Camino Pradero in the Bayview Terrace housing project that she shared with her little brother Cory and her mother, Mrs. Elvera French, a widow employed at the naval hospital.
Beth stayed until January 8. She never got a job. As far as anyone knew, she never looked for a job. Nights, she went out. Downtown. She dressed in black silk stockings, black dresses, a black cardigan embroidered with jet beads, a black hat with black veil, black gloves. Imagine her in the Frenches’ cramped bathroom, turning her head backward to check her stockings; imagine her straightening the black seam that ran from heel up her leg to the point on her warm thigh where the stocking’s wide hem clips to her black garter belt. Imagine her turning that broad-browed face to the bathroom mirror and slicking the deep carmine red lipstick across her tremulous lower lip. Imagine her licking the tip of her pinky and slicking back her dark eyebrows. Imagine that she gazes into the mirror. Imagine that she smiles. Forget that you know what will happen soon. Let yourself believe what she believes: she has another 50 years to live. Let yourself believe she’s an old woman, alive right now, that she’s a grandmother, even a great-grandmother, that she has her own little apartment up at Luther Tower, that even as you hold the paper open in your hands, she dips a tea bag up and down in her china teacup.
Beth had a date, almost every night, with one after another man she met. On at least two occasions, she went out with a naval lieutenant. On another, 24-year-old Sam Nevara, who lived at 2416 Columbia Street, escorted her back to Pacific Beach after they saw a movie. Some nights she didn’t come home. She slept until noon on the Frenches’ couch. She got up, slipped into her black silk kimono, sipped coffee, polished her toenails and the fingernails around whose cuticles she gnawed. She rinsed out her lingerie and hosiery, shampooed and set her hair. You set your hair then by taking a long strand, twirling that strand around your index finger into a tight coil; then the coil was pinned down against the scalp with a bobby pin. Late afternoons, she wrote letters. One afternoon she sent poor embarrassed 12-year-old Cory out to the drugstore to buy her a box of Kotex. His mother and his sister worried because he had such a crush on Beth, worried that he saw too much when Beth lounged about in the black silk kimono. Sometimes, late in the afternoon, Beth walked to a nearby cafe — Sheldon’s Sandwich Shop at Balboa Avenue and Pacific Highway — and made collect telephone calls; the Frenches, as was not uncommon in 1946, had no telephone.
On the afternoon of December 15, Robert Manley, a Los Angeles hardware salesman, in San Diego on business, drove down Broadway in his Studebaker coupe. Manley was a veteran, married with a three-month-old son. He saw Beth standing near the corner of Third and Broadway. He rolled down his window, asked directions, offered her a ride. She climbed in. They drove to the French house. They made a date for that night at seven. Manley found a motel, rented a room for two. He stopped at Harry’s Café on the 3500 block of El Cajon. At Harry’s, Manley asked for advice as to a nice place for dining and dancing. The waitress suggested Jimmy Kennedy’s Hacienda Café at University and 47th. A glance at the telephone book’s yellow pages showed him that the Hacienda offered “DANCE and ROMANCE; DINE and WINE; CONTINUOUS ENTERTAINMENT, IRRESISTIBLE MUSIC.”
When Manley and Beth strode into the Hacienda, no music was playing. Manley ordered drinks. Beth got out her newspaper clipping and recounted her worn tale of widowhood and the dead baby. She told Manley she was down on her luck, that she was wearing out her welcome with the Frenches. Beth didn’t like the Hacienda menu; she thought it fancier than what she wanted. But that little mattered, as things turned out: the waitress told them the kitchen was closed for the night. They were high from their drinks and stopped at a drive-in. Manley had a hamburger, Beth a sandwich. By then it was an hour past midnight. Beth asked Manley to take her home. They kissed chastely. Manley said he’d like to see her again. She suggested he send a telegram when he next planned to be in town.
Christmas Eve, Beth took the bus to Broadway with Dorothy, who had to work at the Aztec. Beth met Dorothy at the theater at midnight to go home on the bus with her. A man approached Beth and they fell into conversation. In a few minutes, Beth whispered to Dorothy that he had asked her to have dinner at his house. Beth did not return to Pacific Beach until late Christmas Day. New Year’s Eve she met a date at the El Cajon Club at 4017 El Cajon Boulevard. She drank too much and passed out. Early the next morning, he deposited her at the Frenches’ front door.
January 8, Manley returned. He’d telegraphed ahead, as promised. He and Beth were to meet downtown at four in the afternoon. She wasn’t there. He drove to Pacific Beach. Beth was waiting, with suitcases packed. She told Manley she had to get back to L.A. Immediately. Manley suggested they wait until morning. She agreed. He took a room for them at a motel. He suggested they try the Hacienda Club again. Beth consented and then demurred. Because, she said, she figured she wouldn’t be back in San Diego for a while, she wanted to go to the U.S. Grant, where they had a band. Manley said he’d be happy to take her there. At the Grant, a band played but not a soul was out on the dance floor. Manley ordered drinks. Beth, on the way to the Grant, had seemed ebullient. At the Grant she turned moody. She repeatedly glanced to the door. Manley thought perhaps the girl asked to go to the Grant in hopes that she would see someone she knew.
Next they drove to the Hacienda, where a band played and dancers circled the floor. Beth’s good mood restored itself. She and Manley danced, they drank. They left, stopped and bought a sack of hamburgers at a drive-in. Then it was back to the motel, where Beth changed into a sweater and set hungrily to her hamburger. She pushed up her sleeves to avoid dirtying the cuffs. Manley noticed scratch marks on her arms above the elbows. Beth chewed and explained, “I have a jealous boyfriend. He’s not a very nice guy at all.”
There was no lovemaking. Next day, the couple drove to Los Angeles. Beth wanted to be dropped off at the Biltmore, where she planned to meet her sister, whose husband taught at UC Berkeley. At 6:30 in the evening, January 9, Manley helped Beth into the hotel with her suitcases. Manley never saw Beth again.
Early morning, January 15, 1947, at 39th and Norton in Los Angeles, on a patch of bare earth, a passerby spied a naked female corpse. She, the body, had been cut in two. At the waist. Her killer had arranged her as if she were a woman in sexual rapture — her legs spread wide, her arms lifted above her head. Her face had been sliced open from ear to ear and her flesh gouged and criss-crossed with minute stab wounds. The body had been drained of blood, scrubbed clean and her black hair, henna-rinsed, had been shampooed.
The San Diego Union's headline on January 16,1947, read:
WOMAN IN LOS ANGELES MUTILATION DEATH TRACED TO S.D.
The nude and mutilated body of a young woman, found in a Los Angeles vacant lot Wednesday, was identified by FBI agents yesterday as that of Elizabeth Short, 22, who had resided in San Diego for nearly a month recently.
The body was bisected at the abdomen and contained multiple gashes and bruises. The mutilation occurred after death. She had been beaten and slashed about the head and face, mutilated about the body, strangled and finally cut or sawed in half. There were rope burns, indicating she had been bound on the wrists, ankles and head.
Scores of relatives of missing girls besieged police headquarters seeking to determine if the killing victim was the one they sought but these attempts to fit the descriptions together brought no positive result.
The Union noted, “Police were seeking all possible information about the background of the girl, who like thousands of other young women, apparently was lured here by the anticipation of getting jobs.”
San Diego Police Department detectives Ed Stotler and Gerald Walk visited the French home. “I had a premonition Miss Short was in trouble,” young Dorothy French told the detectives. She added, “When I read newspaper accounts of the slaying, I was confident that Miss Short was the victim.” She was. And her killer was never found.
— Judith Moore
Next issue (January 2): When hoods moved to Kensington...
Judith Moore is recipient of two NEA Fellowships for literature, most recently in 1996. She is coauthor with Sue Coe of X, published by Raw Books and Graphics and reissued by New Press. She is author of The Left Coast of Paradise (Soho Press). Her newest book. Never Eat Your Heart Out (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), will be published in January 1997.