May 20, 2019
Facts matter. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, the Project is highlighting how place-based research and documentation are important tools used to clarify some of the myths and misinformation surrounding the iconic Stonewall Inn and the history-making riots of June 1969.
Here’s what you’ve heard: The original establishment opened in 1930 as Bonnie’s Stone Wall, a tearoom at 51-53 Christopher Street. Bonnie was said to be the lesbian owner; Stone Wall supposedly selected in homage to The Stone Wall, the pseudonymous lesbian memoir by Mary Casals published in 1930. It was considered a notorious tearoom and raided by the police.
Fantastic and colorful … but false (with the exception of the address)
The romantic story of the lesbian owner Bonnie and her desire to reference Mary Casals’ book is in print and often repeated, but newspaper accounts, conveyance documents, phone listings and other contemporary — albeit unromantic — sources used by historic preservationists reveal that to simply not be the case. The factual account of the Stonewall Inn’s name has no direct LGBT associations, but is steeped in Village history.
“Bonnie” was, in reality, Vincent Bonavia, a local Village businessman with a nickname presumably derived from his last name. He originally opened the Stonewall Inn at 91 Seventh Avenue South in 1930. In 1934, a year after Prohibition ended, “Bonnie” relocated what was not a tearoom but a former speakeasy, to 51-53 Christopher Street, opening it as a restaurant and bar, where a large vertical signed was installed calling attention to “Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn.”
Here, from the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s 2015 designation report for the Stonewall Inn as an Individual Landmark: “After a vacancy of about a year, late in 1934, the Stonewall Inn moved to the commercial space at 51-53 Christopher Street. The Stonewall Inn, sometimes known as Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn, presumably in honor of its proprietor Vincent Bonavia, opened for business at 91 Seventh Avenue South in 1930. Purportedly a tearoom, a restaurant serving light meals and non-alcoholic beverages, it was in fact a speakeasy, which was raided by prohibition agents in December 1930, along with several other Village nightspots.”
Spread the facts; correct the record. And take the time to read our Stonewall 50 factsheet, created for instances precisely like this. “Stonewall: The Basics,” co-produced by leaders in LGBTQ history documentation, interpretation, and outreach, is an easy-to-understand guide to the people, circumstances, and legacy of the Stonewall uprising. With millions of people expected to visit the city for Pride month, this is our community’s opportunity to get the facts right about this history-making event, and our history at-large.
Image: Matchbook cover advertising Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn, c. 1940s. Courtesy of Tom Bernardin.