Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation – Robert W. Fieseler

36236137._UY630_SR1200,630_When I saw the cover of this book, I had to stop for a second to see if I could pull up something from my memory about the Up Stairs Lounge.  Satisfied that I had no prior knowledge of the incident described, I decided to buy the book and learn something new.  On June 24, 1973, the people of New Orleans awoke to a typically early summer day.  But by the time the sun set that day, the entire city was on edge and the patrons of the Up Stairs Lounge, an LGTB friendly establishment, found themselves in hell on earth.  Sometime that afternoon, an arsonist intentionally set fire to the building and within minutes, patrons were engulfed by flames and smoke.  The deliberate act claimed more than thirty lives with some victims perishing in grisly manners at the scene. Others met their ends while admitted to the hospital and the survivors were forced to confront mental and physical scars from one the deadliest days in New Orleans history.  And the Metropolitan Community Church, which was friendly to the LGBT community, lost one-third of its membership.   Author Robert W. Fieseler revisits that dark day in which the LGBT community New Orleans changed forever. 

I initially had the thought that there was an antagonist with bias against the LGBT community. Surprisingly, that is not the case and the true story behind the act of arson will leave readers speechless.  After a biographical sketch of the central characters in the story, we arrived at the lounge on afternoon of June 24th.   The mood inside the lounge is typical but a chance encounter between two patrons sets in motion a chain of events that no one wanted, or thought would ever happen.  And the lounge’s reputation as a hangout for LBGT individuals later played a crucial role in the investigation that followed.  The attitudes towards the LGBT community and the crusaders against lifestyles they deemed “unworthy” served as impediments to an investigation that would have been handled differently if the patrons had different sexual preferences.  Further, it may be shocking to some that even in the party City of New Orleans, there was a time when being LGBT was extremely dangerous.   The author pays close attention to these factors as he tells the tragic tale about an incident that should have never taken place. 

A sub-story in the book exist in the form of a good discussion regarding New Orleans social attitudes in the 1960s and 1970s.  At the time, New Orleans was home to a wide range of characters and one had his life changed permanently due to the actions of former New Orleans District Attorney James C. Garrison (1921-1992).  During his investigation into the murder of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), Garrison and focused on several well-known New Orleanians whom he believed were deeply involved in the plot to murder the president. Among these figures was businessman Clay Shaw (1913-1974) who plays a vital role in the story and is also one of its tragic figures even though he was not at the lounge.  Shaw’s homosexuality is critical to the story and shows the risks associated with coming out of the closet.   Fieseler does not go into the Garrison investigation in full detail but does show enough to explain the flaws in it.  And while Shaw did admit to doing domestic work for the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”),  he was never convicted by any court for being part of a conspiracy to murder John F. Kennedy.  

Shaw’s experience reveals another factor in the flawed investigation that followed.   Patrons who either left before the fire, escaped with injuries, or walked away unharmed sometimes had a hard decision to make as authorities searched for the truth.  The choice was not as easy as some may think and came down to a simple dilemma:  help authorities and let it be known that you frequent the lounge or remain quiet and protect your secret life.   Each person placed in this position struggles with their actions and decisions which compounds the tragedy playing out.  Their lives were permanently changed yet some still could not bring themselves to face the reality before them.  And the emergence of anti-LGBT crusaders such as Anita Bryant only added fuel to an already burning fire.  The implications for the Up Stairs Lounge investigation became vividly clear to those who once called it home. 

I mentioned earlier that there was in fact an arsonist.  His story is equally tragic and leaves us with many “what if” questions.  But what is clear is that he was highly disturbed and struggling with his own life at the time of the incident and in the wake of the tragedy.  His name was not known to those outside of a small group of people at the lounge, but his actions were earth shattering and revealed many dark secrets that had been carefully hidden from public view.  Survivors of the Up Stairs Lounge fire were forced to move on in life but none will ever forget that day. They will recall with sadness an era in which simply being LGBT could result in death and legislation was in effect that made life for that community unbearable at times.  Society has come a long way, yet we still have further to travel.  The story of this tragedy by Robert Fieseler should remain with us as a reminder of the dark sides of human nature and the difficulties that come with being LGBT.  

ASIN : B076MD2285                                                                                                       

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