Arts & Culture » Culture

BARchive: Saucy Sausalito

by Michael Flanagan

Juanita Musson with her restaurant's chef
Juanita Musson with her restaurant's chef  (Source:Courtesy Sausalito Historical Society)

If you have moved to the Bay Area recently, you no doubt think of Sausalito as a quaint touristy town - the perfect sort of place to take visiting relatives. You do not think of it as a party town and certainly don't think of it as an LGBT party spot.

It hasn't always been that way. In her 1966 book "Lady of the House," the future mayor (and former madam) Sally Stanford described it this way:

"Sausalito attracts characters. Our beatniks are deluxe, and wash all the way down to their necklines. We boast a large colony of 'gay' citizens. Our bars are rated to the degree of heterosexuality."

Stanford knew what she was talking about. One of the waiters in Valhalla, the restaurant she opened in 1950, was Dick Walters, who would go on to become known as a San Francisco bartender and Bay Area Reporter columnist (and legend) Sweet Lips. No one was better at rating a bar's degree of heterosexuality than Sweet Lips.

By the time Stanford arrived, Sausalito had a long-established bohemian reputation. During the Prohibition era, it was a hotbed of bootlegging and rum-running. The book Sausalito from the Sausalito Historical Society explains that the only way into town was by ferry boat - and a simple call from a member of the ferry crew before leaving San Francisco made sure that by the time Feds arrived "an air of temperance pervaded the town."

The first place that could properly be called a gay bar was The Tin Angel (588 Bridgeway). On February 21, 1949 Herb Caen's column announced:

"Chester Arthur, grandson of the 21st President of the U.S. will act as chef (he's a gourmet) on the site of the old crab market. Artist Jean Varda is doing the re-doing."

The Sausalito Tin Angel was the first of Peggy Tolk-Watkins' Bay Area bars. It would later become the gay-friendly Glad Hand from 1952 to 1969. Both Tolk-Watkins and Varda had attended Black Mountain College; she as a student, he as a professor. Arthur was also known as Gavin Arthur and would later cast the horoscope that set the date for the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park. Works by Arthur are currently on display in the Lavender-Tinted Glasses exhibition at the GLBT Historical Museum.

A 16-year-old Susan Sontag gives us a glimpse of the Tin Angel on May 28, 1949, its opening night in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947 - 1963:
An October 1954 Independent Journal cover story with a threatening headline, "'Keep Out Of Marin,' Sex Deviates Told." courtesy Sausalito Historical Society

"A (Tolk-Watkins) opened the Tin Angel last night and H (Harriet Sohmers Zwerling) asked me to come. Until I got drunk I thought it all rather depressing - H was high right away and spent the evening being hysterically amiable to all the women whom she'd slept with during the last year (and now loathed)... B and A got very drunk, naturally, and broke out one of the windows."

If this sounds a bit like a madhouse, it's worth knowing that Tolk-Watkins and company were not at all out of the ordinary in Sausalito. Another character, Juanita Musson, ran a number of small restaurants in Sausalito before settling into Juanita's Galley on the Charles Van Damme ferryboat. In his memoir, Let No Stranger Wait Outside Your Door, Lou Kief describes her:

"Juanita Musson was never a beautiful woman, nor was she articulate or polite... At almost three hundred pounds she was definitely a force to be reckoned with and never shied away from a good fight. Juanita was a restaurateur like none you've ever known."

Musson's biography Juanita! by Sally Hayton-Keeva talks about her relationship to the gay community:

"People of the gay persuasion gravitated to the Galley where they were warmly welcomed either in drag or out...One early evening she received a call that a sizable contingent of her customers had been arrested for dancing naked on the sand of a nearby beach...she got into her station wagon and roared off to bail them all out."

Musson was an avid animal lover known for walking around her restaurant with a live chicken (named "Chickenshit") and asking men, "Do you think my cock is bigger than yours?" There is a hint of her serving style in the title of her cookbook, Juanita's Eat It or Wear It Cookbook.

Musson's Galley lasted in Sausalito till 1963, when the IRS moved her on to Sonoma (and she opened another in a series of restaurants). One thing is certain: if she hadn't existed, John Waters would have invented her.

Arrests of the sort Juanita intervened in were unfortunately common in Sausalito in the late 1950s and early '60s. The Independent Journal had been publishing headlines like "'Keep Out Of Marin,' Sex Deviates Told" since 1954. In 1959 there were arrests at the Flamingo Inn (2007 Bridgeway) and the bar was referred to as a "hangout for sexual perverts" in August 1959 in the Chronicle.

The Alcohol Control Board tried to revoke the license of the Bridgeway Inn (621 Bridgeway) because of homosexual conduct in June, 1963. The Independent referred to the bar as "a place where men talk in high voices and women talk in low gruff voices."

True to its contrarian nature, however, Sausalito fought back. Following a March 31, 1959 article in the Independent entitled "Sausalito Holds War Council on Sex Deviates" in which the Mayor and Police Chief discussed efforts to "rid Sausalito of homosexuals," there was a raid on the evening of April 11.

The Chronicle reported it the next day: "Sausalito 'Surprise' Raid-but No Vice." It seems there were no gay people to be found in the bars when the task force of State, county and city law enforcement attempted their raid. Somehow the news had gotten out. The spirit of resistance from the days of prohibition was still alive in Sausalito.

It is somewhat ironic that the police were trying to "clean up" Sausalito. Late in life Sweet Lips told his caregivers Coy and Sal Meza that the town had acted as a refuge for gays from San Francisco when the heat was on in the city and that a few San Francisco bar owners had houses in town that acted as safe houses for people avoiding the police.

By the late 1960s, the reform efforts seem to have subsided. Businesses geared toward gay tourism. The swimwear store Surf N Sand of Sausalito opened, and the bars The Sausalito Inn (12 El Portal) and the Two Turtles (688 Bridgeway) opened by 1968.

J.P.'s replaced the Bridgeway (which survived the ABC hearing) in 1972. The resumption of ferry service in 1970 resulted in the Sausalito Inn ad campaign, "Take A Ferry to the Sausalito Inn and Take A Ferry Home."

Sweet Lips complained in the B.A.R. that he could never find one of the "ferries" that would come home with him, however.

The advent of the ferries also saw an upturn in the tourist economy in Sausalito - and that may have ended the days of the gay bars there. After a fire in 1979, Two Turtles relocated to San Francisco (741 O'Farrell). J.P.'s closed by the mid-Seventies.

The Sausalito Inn was the last to close in 1988. Today, what remains is what was described in a 1975 article in The Advocate: "the other bars in town tend to range from mixed to non-gay to who-can-tell and who cares."

And for a pleasant tourist town with an amazing history, perhaps that's enough.


The author would like to thank the Sausalito Historical Society.

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