I came across this piece today via Twitter and The Advocate magazine. It’s a write-up by Dianne Anderson-Minshall about the death of Yvonne “Miss Dixie” Fasnacht, at the age of 101. I love stories like this, because I’m a history geek, but also because it’s characters like this that provide inspiration for writers like me.
Anderson-Minshall bills her as a legendary New Orleans gay bar owner. And it’s a great story. So read on…
Dixie’s Bar of Music became a place where LGBT folks mingled comfortably with luminaries like Helen Hayes, Danny Kaye, Walter Cronkite, and more than one congressman, long before coming out of the closet was considered an option. According to NOLA.com, Dixie’s was opened on St. Charles Ave. in the Central Business District in 1939. A decade later she moved it to Bourbon Street in the French Quarter.
Dianne Anderson-Minshall, “Legendary Lesbian Bar Owner Miss Dixie Dies at 101” (The Advocate, 19 November 2011)
Other bar patrons included Tennessee Williams, Rock Hudson, and Gore Vidal. She was known as elegant and proper, a devout Catholic, and would unplug the jukebox on Good Fridays. Her bar wasn’t known as a pick-up joint, because Miss Dixie didn’t allow that kind of hanky-panky in her place. It became the place to go, famous on various circuits, and known for its Mardi Gras parties. She always looked out for her patrons. When the bars were raided by the police (a regular occurrence then, especially in gay bars), Miss Dixie would bail out all the patrons, using money from the cash register.
NOLA.com offers a little bit more about Miss Dixie here. She was a traveling musician before she ended up running the bar with her sister, Irma. Fasnacht played saxophone, clarinet, and tambourine in all-women bands. She got the moniker “Dixie” because she traveled to Pittsburgh to play a gig and she’d never seen snow before. Because of her reaction, her fellow musicians dubbed her “Dixie,” and it stuck, she said. In 1964, she sold the bar (then at its Bourbon Street Location). She and Irma had lived above it, and Fasnacht said that they were getting older, then, and it was difficult for Irma to climb the stairs.
They bought a cottage at the end of Bourbon Street and held Mardi Gras parties on their patio for years. Irma died at the age of 91 in 1993, but Miss Dixie continued to hold the parties. In 1989, she was one of two Honorary Grand Marshals for the 19th New Orleans gay pride parade.
Well, a story like this just makes me want to learn more. So I did a little digging, and came across this piece by Sherrie Tucker in Ms. Magazine, from winter 2004. “Rocking the Cradle of Jazz: These are the Women Who Changed the Face of Music” introduces readers to some of the women involved in the early jazz movement (1920s-1940s), including some in New Orleans. She includes a few paragraphs about Fasnacht, noting that throughout the 1930s, she traveled and performed in all-women bands like The Southland Rhythm Girls and the Sophisticates of Swing. In 1935, the Southland Rhythm Girls appeared in the film Speedy Justice.
In 1957, Tucker writes, Fasnacht and pianist Dorothy Sloop and other musicians recorded an album called “Dixie and Sloopy,” but the record company would not let them use their regular bassist, who was a man (I suspect that was because then the novelty of an “all-girl band” wouldn’t help push sales). Years later, when she was in her 90s, Fasnacht still expressed displeasure about that incident. As a cool aside, Dorothy Sloop may have been the inspiration for the song “Hang on Sloopy,” which was performed by groups like The McCoys in the 1960s. Sloop was originally from Ohio, and that song is now the official rock song of the state.
Fasnacht was born July 7, 1910. Her mother died of brain cancer when she was 8, and her older sister, Irma, who was 18 at the time, had to take on more responsibility with the family. They took in boarders while their father worked as a bartender, hotel manager, and salesman. He also played drums, and bought Yvonne her first clarinet. She organized her first band, the Harmony Maids, but left them to join the Smart Set after that band stayed at Irma’s boarding house. An adventurous thing to do, given that the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. In 1933, the Smart Set broke up and Fasnacht ended up back in New Orleans after Gene Austin, manager of another all-women band The Bricktops, saw her play. He took her and two other members of the band back to New Orleans, where they played in the Sophisticates of Swing and the Southland Rhythm Girls. They hit the road again, touring in the Northeast.
In 1937, Fasnacht’s father died and at that point, her sister Irma opened a bar. Fasnacht was in New York at the time, and she decided to return to her home city and help Irma with the bar. And thus began her legend in that aspect, but it wasn’t all she did. One of her other notable accomplishments was as a commercial artist who pioneered silk screen processing for The Idea Shop in New Orleans, where she helped create movie show cards (sort of like postcards that advertised movies; see here).
Catch a short piece about her here (scroll down), thanks to Ambush Mag. She was a hero in the local LGBT community, and according to New Orleans historian and filmmaker Peggy Scott Laborde, she was elegant, sophisticated, and “one of the era’s great personalities in the French Quarter.”
What a great story. A life well-lived. Goes to show you that you never know who’s right down the street in your neighborhoods. So get out there, and see who shares the world with you.
And, FYI, the Washington Post has a little obituary on her, too. Click here.
USAToday has this piece on her.
Find a 1938 billing for the Southland Rhythm Girls here.
And find a great article about Fasnacht’s early life and entry into music HERE. There are a couple of great photos of the Southland Rhythm Girls and the Sophisticates of Swing at that link. You’ll also be able to hear Fasnacht sing a bit.
And check this link, too, at WWLTV.com. Great stuff there, too.