The Black Cat Bar, San Francisco, 1950s
20% from all Black Cat Bar print sales will go to the LGBT Foundation.
This menu cover of a scrappy black cat – his body is beaten up and bandaged and he has a defiant and worse-for-wear expression on his face – is from one of San Francisco’s most iconic bars.
The Black Cat Bar originally opened in 1906, was shut down during Prohibition, and reopened in 1933.
In its second life, the bar was initially a hangout for Beat Generation figures like Allan Ginsberg, William Saroyan and John Steinbeck. It was featured in Jack Kerouac’s 1957 masterpiece On The Road, possibly the seminal novel about non-conformity. This menu is dated in the 1950s when these famous counter-culture figures frequented the establishment.
In the 1960s as hippie culture flourished, more and more gay people also began using The Black Cat Bar as a meeting place. Allan Ginsberg described it as “the best gay bar in America… everybody went there - heterosexual and homosexual.”
The vice squad raided the bar repeatedly in campaigns of harassment and owner Sol Stoumen (who was heterosexual) was arrested for “keeping a disorderly house” and lost his liquor license.
Stoumen took the state to court and in 1951 the California Supreme Court ruled that in order to establish good cause to suspend his license, something more must be shown than the fact that homosexuals used the bar as a meeting place. This was one of the earliest declarations of the rights of gay people in the United States.
It was only a partial victory, however, because the court ruled that gay bars could still be closed “with proof of the commission of illegal or immoral acts on the premises.”
Led by the Black Cat’s resident drag queen José Sarria, the bar’s clientele was defiant and – even though arrests continued – patrons would end every evening with their arms around each other singing rousing renditions of God Save Us Nelly Queens to the tune of God Save The Queen.
After decades of legal wrangling and mounting money problems, the Black Cat closed for good in 1964.
In 2007, a plaque commemorating the Black Cat Bar and its place in San Francisco history was placed at the site which is now occupied by Nico, a French styled bistro/brasserie.
Courtesy Private Collection.
Each print is accompanied by a copy of the interior menu where available.
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