The building at 150 West 4th Street has early LGBT history in its incarnation as the Mad Hatter, which was located in the basement from 1916 to c. 1930. The first tearoom in the Village, the Mad Hatter attracted a bohemian crowd (and a number of upper class “slummers” who came to watch them). Eliza Helen Criswell – who went by “Jimmie,” had short hair, and wore sandals, artsy smocks, and tailored suits and ties for formal events – owned the establishment with her partner Mathilda Spence for a number of years.
Beginning in 1945, the ground floor space was the location of the Pony Stable Inn, a lesbian bar. Like other Greenwich Village lesbian bars of the 1940s-1960s, such as the Sea Colony and the Bagatelle, the Pony Stable Inn attracted mostly working-class white women who adhered to strict butch/femme gender roles [for an explanation on butch/femme, see the entry on the Sea Colony]. Almost all gay bars of the time in New York City were run by the Mafia and frequently raided by the police. A McCarthy-era tactic of infiltrating gay spaces with informants was also common, making women reluctant to talk to those they did not know for fear of police entrapment. Acclaimed Black lesbian feminist, writer, and activist Audre Lorde wrote of the reluctance to speak with anyone at a lesbian bar at the time for fear of coming across a plainclothes policewoman: “There were always rumors of plainclothes women circulating among us, looking for gay girls with fewer than three pieces of female attire. That was enough to get you arrested for transvestism, which was illegal.” Women also did not speak to strangers because, in the words of Lee Zevy (who would later co-found Identity House NYC), “Nobody talked to anybody because everybody was deeply, deeply in the closet, even at the bar.”
Despite the community-imposed and legally-imposed rules about how to dress and conduct oneself, lesbian bars were some of the very few places where lesbians could meet each other at that time, and for that reason they were very meaningful to those who frequented them. Zevy describes the elation she felt setting foot in the Pony Stable Inn, her first-ever experience in a lesbian bar:
“We walk into this bar and twenty women turn around and start staring, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I think I just went to heaven!’ Best feeling, and terrifying.”
Lorde also describes the importance of lesbian bars to her and fellow lesbians in mid-20th-century America:
“What we both needed was the atmosphere of other lesbians, and in 1954, gay bars were the only meeting places we knew.”
The Pony Stable Inn closed in January 1970, several months after the Stonewall uprising.
This entry was written by project consultant Gwendolyn Stegall.