The Rebel Cafe: Sex, Race and Politics in Cold War America's Nightclub Underground

Reviewed by Burton W. Peretti

The Rebel Cafe:  Sex, Race and Politics in Cold War America's Nightclub Underground  by Stephen R. Duncan Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018 336 pages

The Rebel Cafe:
Sex, Race and Politics in Cold War America's Nightclub Underground

by Stephen R. Duncan
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018
336 pages

Stephen R. Duncan’s new book admirably fills a void in the historiography of 20th century American culture. We long have recognized that between the storied nightclub era of Prohibition days and the age of rock ’n’ roll, there was a perceptible but elusive set of nightlife entertainment venues that kept radical left-wing political values percolating during the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. Historians have explored chapters in New York City’s interregnum — David Stowe, for example, covers Cafe Society in the late 1930s, Patrick Burke describes the jazz clubs on 52nd Street, and James Gavin chronicles European-style cabaret — but a comprehensive history, with more of a national perspective, has been lacking. Duncan’s ambitious and wide-ranging work makes a terrific new contribution toward defining the paramount significance of radical and intimate performance venues of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s.

Arriving at such a definition requires careful examination of the numerous nightlife and performance genres which went in and out of fashion in those decades. Duncan evokes Marlene Dietrich as the guiding spirit — the blue angel, if you will — hovering over the trends he is chronicling: transgression, cultural critique, experimental sexuality, and strong nocturnal communion. He first considers the overtly leftist cabarets of the Popular Front era before World War II, particularly Barney Josephson’s highly-publicized Cafe Society, and the burgeoning “Swing Street” jazz clubs on 52nd Street. While Cafe Society and “cabarets” like it catered mostly to elite customers, they espoused racial equality and social democracy; as Duncan says, “the American cabaret eased down the sometimes difficult pill of dissent with a living aesthetic that blended European sophistication with artistic and personal avant-gardism, setting the scene for a new kind of nightclub to enter the American stage.” Racial discrimination on Swing Street hampered its effectiveness, but new venues in Greenwich Village such as the Cedar and White Horse Taverns and the Village Vanguard embraced racial and sexual egalitarianism and avant-garde artistic ideas as their fundamental values. By Duncan’s reckoning, these clubs emerged from radical commitments that founders had made earlier as students at City College of New York or Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

The war had brought easterners to San Francisco, whose urban charm and bohemian literary tradition inspired some of them to create a colorful analog to Manhattan’s scene. The Black Cat Café, the Iron Pot, and the hungry i clubs made San Francisco’s North Beach a destination for the Beat writers, civil rights and labor activists, and modernist poets and painters. By the mid-1950s these destinations and their colorful denizens had captured the imagination of the American media and middle class, paving the way for the stylistic and political counterculture of the following decade.

Featured in Duncan’s narrative are the celebrated Beat writers, such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Kenneth Rexroth, who were “mad” about café talk, sexual experimentation, Eastern religion, and bebop jazz. Also here are the so-called “sick” comics of the late Fifties — Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Dick Gregory — who transformed standup comedy into a sharp rhetorical critique of American society (which, as Duncan notes, it remains today). In addition, pioneering gay and lesbian bar owners and performers, at venues such as the Anxious Asp and The Place at North Beach, nurtured alternative communities and launched the first major flouting of the severe homophobia of the postwar era. As Duncan notes, race and gender remained problematic in the cafes throughout this era. The misogyny of Kerouac and the genteel racism of Sahl, to cite two examples, helped to ensure that the cafes’ legacy had been compromised even before they became appropriated by the mass market.

Duncan’s discussion of jazz in the Rebel Café phenomenon is a weak link in the tale. His two examplars, Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck, while both from California, differed widely in their appeal in the 1950s. In addition, both signed contracts with the giant Columbia record company. Duncan asserts that success in the mass media — such as that enjoyed by the comics Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Woody Allen — disqualified artists from coverage because it lifted them out of the nightclub milieu, but such a standard also would seem to apply especially to Brubeck, and likely to other subjects here too. Also, limiting the discussion to Mingus and Brubeck (with welcome nods to the often-neglected San Francisco saxophonist Pony Poindexter) seriously truncates the portrayal of the jazz scene in that decade, which embraced a wide spectrum of experiences and social attitudes (and, not incidentally, was ravaged by an epidemic of heroin use). Given the emphases and excellence of the rest of his discussion, Duncan’s peculiar attachment to the outmoded term “jazzman” and notable errors — such as multiple references to San Francisco’s Turk Murphy, a Dixieland bandleader and no “rebel” in any sense — especially indicate that the treatment of jazz here requires revision.

The Rebel Café sensitively explores the transition of this culture into the 1960s, which Duncan finds problematic for a number of reasons. On one hand, the shoots of feminism, black activism, and gay and lesbian pride planted by the cafes bore strong stalks in Sixties culture. Duncan makes the excellent point that the performative nature of gay, lesbian, and transvestite life in the nightclubs led directly to the potent campiness of counterculture style. (Camp, of course, found its tribune in Susan Sontag, who, as Duncan shows, formed her intellectual and sexual identity in cafes on both coasts.) On the other hand, Duncan finds much quarrelling in the Fifties over the nature of legitimate self-expression, art, and behavior, which spilled over into the intense cultural debates about “authenticity” in the next decade. The pioneering interracial marriage of Hettie and LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), for example, could not survive new stresses, including LeRoi’s gravitation to the Black Arts movement. Such portraits enrich and inform Duncan’s chronicle. The author also seems to regret the rise of identity politics in the Sixties, which obscured the Rebel Café’s steps towards a united radical community.

Developments in the rest of the country, in important locales such as Chicago and St. Louis, might have received more attention in The Rebel Café than the brief mentions found in the footnotes. Moreover, it is a bit illusory to make it appear, as this book does, that there was a unique symbiosis between New York and San Francisco; for comics and musicians especially — not to mention actors — the Big Apple’s ties with Los Angeles were more heavily traveled and were of greater economic consequence. The Beat writers’ affinity for the two cities, along with Sontag’s, seems to account for Duncan’s choice of locales. His tale of two cities is a fine one, though, and by itself it is rich enough to justify the treatment that it receives here.

The book is highly readable, and it avoids the kind of evidence-starved “critical performance” found in many contemporary cultural studies. Duncan, though, often weighs down brief descriptive sentences with analytical clauses that instantly inflate the scope of his points and needlessly anticipate the arguments of later passages. (Example: “British (and, increasingly, psychedelic) inflections overtook [the Beatles’] bluesy roots — a cultural parallel to the channeling of identity politics during which whites withdrew from the black freedom struggle and women led second-wave feminism beyond the earlier issue of gender equality.”) However, overexcited analysis certainly conveys the author’s enthusiasm for the topic and deep research, and occasionally it does convey a truly powerful insight, such as when Duncan likens some Fifties suburbanites’ search for community in urban nightclubs to their neighbors’ attraction to Billy Graham crusades. As with many worthwhile books, the flaws here seem to mirror strengths which vastly outweigh them. Duncan’s research is massive and thorough; students of the era will be mining the footnotes for a long time. Ambitious in scope and provocative at every turn, The Rebel Café fills a big void in the historiography of postwar American culture, and is highly recommended to any reader with an interest in the era.

Burton W. Peretti is the author of Nightclub City: Politics and Amusement in Manhattan, and several other works of cultural history.