For decades the Mafia controlled gay bars, and in the 1950s Lee Mortimer was the first to unmask the relationship. Mortimer was a hybrid crime reporter/gossip monger who penned the syndicated column New York Confidential which took a walk on the Big Apple's wild side. The intrepid muckraker had a field day when he discovered that the wise guys were behind the so-called "daffodil dens." Although a homophobic tone is pervasive throughout his writing -- Mortimer obviously relished coining terms by which to slur gays -- the clear target was the mobsters. Indeed, Mortimer was a consistent crusader against the Mafia, and throughout his journalism career exposed a number of its rackets.
Mortimer first took aim at the mob's pervasive involvement in gay bars in his 1952 book USA Confidential with co-author Jack Lait, and the pair claimed:
All fairy night clubs and gathering places are illegal, and operate only through pay-offs to the authorities. They are organized into a national circuit, controlled by the Mafia which also finds unique opportunity to sell dope in such dives. Many gangsters like it that way, too, after indoctrination in prison.
By the late 1950s Mortimer launched a campaign through his New York Confidential column to shine a light on the mob's role in gay bars. Mortimer specifically named the establishments and their addresses, identified the wise guys who were behind them, and explained in detail how the racket worked including the use of front men or clean names so everything looked legitimate on paper and the use of bribe or ice payments to keep the precinct cops and liquor authorities at bay.
In his September 10, 1959 column Mortimer explained "how it works":
A "clean" man without a record is put on the licenses of queer dives and bust-out joints and gets paid from $50 to $100 a week for the use of his name and from then on the real ownership is never looked into except perfunctorily. In addition to arrangements for the original okay monthly "ice" runs from $350 a month on a small operation to $600 a month for resorts grossing up to $4,000 a week, and more in proportion. When a place gets "hot," the joints are told they've got to take a ten day suspension to cool off. But if they get "too hot" then the intermediaries or lay-off men advise them in advance to "sell" to another guy with a clean sheet, who won't have any trouble passing the board and preserving the license.
Some of the gay bars may have been seedy dives and staffed with intimidating goons but they otherwise were sophisticated ventures. Closely-held corporations through which the mob laundered its money sometimes provided financing for the gay bars and the purchase of the buildings out of which they operated, and white-collar professional teams which included lawyers and accountants structured the transactions. None of this escaped the attention of Mortimer who wrote in a November 25, 1960 column: "Be a good idea for one of the probes to go into the whole relationship if any between the mobsters and the real estate agents, lawyers shylocks and fixers who set up the homo joints and hire the Queens."
According to Mortimer all the gay bars were either owned by the mob or paid off the mob, and in a September 4, 1959 column he writes:
Greenwich Village is reserved exclusively for the Mob. Non-Mob joints may operate uptown if they make their "fix" through the boys (some of whom have been named here). If they don't see the right people they get knocked off while places next door, running even more openly, are not bothered. Legitimate businessmen have great difficulty obtaining licenses, but Sing Sing graduates (working through the proper front men) seem to have no trouble.
Mortimer notes the rich irony that "tough guy" mobsters were running bars "for the dainty hand-on-hippers," and sympathizes with the exploited patrons who are under the mob's thumb in an August 7, 1960 column:
Not one of the joints in this town catering to the so-called "unfortunates" is owned by one of the "unfortunates." The Mob is in -- or back in -- or protecting everyone and that's why they operate . . . It may be hard to believe that apes and goons like Tony Bender, Vito Genovese and all the other so-called tough guys, including imprisoned Frank Costello and exiled Joe Adonis collect tribute from the dainty hand-on-hippers, but they do. They're the ones I’m gunning for, not the deviates who excuse their aberrations on the grounds of sickness.
Mortimer correctly identified mob boss Vito Genovese and his Greenwich Village capo Anthony "Tony Bender" Strollo as the queen bees behind the gay bars in the 1950s. Others whom Mortimer identified with a hand in the racket at the time were Genovese capo Vincent Maura and Bonanno soldier Tony Mirra. Mirra was the mobster who nearly twenty years later would unwittingly introduce undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone a/k/a Donnie Brasco to the Bonanno family.
Of course, taking on the mob was not without its risks, and Mortimer wrote about "threatening telephone calls" he received from "the boys" Vinnie Maura and Tony Mirra. For example, on August 31, 1959 Mortimer ran the following alarm:
I'm still alive (but living on borrowed time). This is another chapter on Tony Mirra, a low and despicable hoodlum now out on bail on a narcotics conspiracy conviction and Vinnie Bruno Mauro, a former small-time punk who tosses around a lot of weight as a lieutenant of fearsome Tony Bender. I am a reporter, not a cop and usually do not volunteer knowledge to law enforcement agencies which have their own means of obtaining same. I print it instead, which is how I make my living. Apparently such exposures are hitting where it hurts. I was "advised" to lay off. When I failed to follow such advise, I was warned to lay off. I have been threatened before and I have been slugged before. The experience is no novelty, but it gets boring. In order to ensure against a reputation (or in its event to guarantee that silencing me does not silence my information) I turned the names and a list of some 25 key establishments over to seven local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and you can be sure that the latter cannot be "reached." Indeed if anything happens to me they'll look for those thugs first. It would just be too bad for them if commies, Castro-lovers, or Sinatra-lovers got me instead. (Maybe the mob should provide me with a bodyguard.)
It was not beyond Mortimer occasionally to flip the script on the mobsters. For example, in his August 7, 1960 column Mortimer writes about visiting a gay bar at 15 Greenwich where "a gorilla followed us out and around the corner, but we turned the tables and followed the hood right back into the place."
Mortimer's New York Confidential column may have titillated the gentle readers but undoubtedly it also served as a guide for his gay readers: Davi Club at 78th Street and Broadway ("lost its liquor license for the usual reasons" but "is in business bigger than ever selling 'set ups' to an 'all-boy' clientele which stands bumper-to-bumper at the bar and out into 78th causing a traffic hazard"); Calvin's at 55th and 3rd Avenue ("crowd starts early and by midnight the entire entourage is there"); The Lion on West 9th ("put on the Armed Forces Police index, but it's selling liquor and packed every night"); Frank's on East 81st Street ("a 'Raided Premises' sign in the window . . . but apparently it doesn't interfere with business as usual"); Regents Row at East 43 Street ("right after the fire, Regents Row customers were advised there'd be a bigger and better club after Labor Day"); and The Rendezvous on lower Madison Avenue ("another favorite rendezvous of the hand-on-hip set").
Gay historians often unfairly malign Lee Mortimer as little more than a hateful man obsessed with shutting down gay bars. The characterization is not accurate. No doubt he shared some of the prevailing homophobia of his time. However, in many of his books and columns he wrote about enjoying his visits to the gay bars -- "tourists come to gape (I did)" -- and in an August 1, 1960 column wrote the following:
I'm no crusader or moralist. I'm not out to get anyone. I know what goes on in big cities (and on farms, too) and I'm not trying to spoil anyone's fun except the gangsters, crooked politicians and a handful of crooked cops and liquor investigators who cut in on it.
Mortimer's purported obsession with gay bars is overblown by his critics, and they miss the point of his campaign which was to bring down the mob and clean up local government as he eloquently expressed in his September 9, 1959 column:
The blind alley of gangdom-influence-pressure ends in a solid wall which none may crack or vault. These few paragraphs of mine may seem to be minor league stuff in face of the jungle of crime, murder, terror and fear that the streets of New York have become. But the conditions of which I write tie in with the other in the general breakdown of law and order, the indifference of the courts and the "pressures" on honest cops. Incidentally, everyone has "interviewed" me except the D.A.'s office which still maintains its monumental indifference.
More than fifty years later the mob allegedly still has a hidden hand in a few gay bars in New York, and the D.A.'s office "still maintains its monumental indifference."
Further reading that may be of interest: