Joyce Vandeveer by Michael Barnes of the Austin-American Statesman
The picture prompted the initial enigma. A woman sporting short, dark hair.
A cigarette. Shadowed eyes, half brooding, half smiling. Like her fastidiously painted lips.
The image could have been lifted from a 1950s book-jacket portrait. A Carson McCullers. Or a Dorothy Parker. Or perhaps a Jane Bowles.
Who exactly was Joyce Vandeveer, whose obituary appeared in the American-Statesman three times last week?
The paragraphs below the photograph answered some questions, but also deepened the mystery. Cold fact: The 82-year-old woman died in Austin on Aug. 23. It seems Vandeveer was a photographer, too, “by trade and passion.” She followed the jazz scenes as well as other cultural and political trends in New York City and San Francisco during the 1950s and ’60s.
She tended bar at Ann’s 440 in San Francisco’s North Beach district — launch pad for the beat generation — and was associated with Johnny Mathis, Lenny Bruce and other breakthrough entertainers.
The beguiling clue, however, in Vandeveer’s obituary was reference to the raid of Tommy’s Place, another North Beach club where she worked as bartender. The unidentified obituary writer drops the metaphorical bread crumbs: “In a harbinger of the Stonewall Riots of the decade to follow, Joyce’s resistance to, and ultimate victory over, a politically motivated police raid …”
Stonewall? Was Vandeveer a lesbian? If not, why bring up the 1969 riots that jump-started the gay liberation movement?
Were that not enough, what caught the eye of many Austin readers was the kicker: “To celebrate Joyce’s life, she would highly recommend a cabernet Sauvignon, or, if one is really grieving, a scotch and water on the rocks.”
“How I wish to have known her!” wrote reader Shelly Kanter to Out & About. “Chivas on the rocks tonight.”
“God she sounded like a fascinating person,” Bea Ann Smith wrote.
“That was some obit,” Dannah Peck wrote “Great photo.”
Austin seemed to enjoy the momentary mystery.
Still, a social columnist is not without resources. A few hours of digging unearthed Mary Kay Sicola, a lawyer with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. Sicola not only cared for Vandeveer during her later years, she wrote the alluring obituary.
“A fluke of the universe brought the two of us together,” Sicola told me over the phone.
Turns out Sicola knew Vandeveer’s ex-girlfriend, who lives in Austin but suffers from Alzheimer’s. (Sicola carefully avoids identifying the ex-girlfriend who, after all, cannot approve of her “outing” due to her current mental status.)
The lawyer and the photographer met 12 years ago. “I stayed in touch with her,” Sicola says of their casual friendship. “Then, three years ago, she asked me to come to Arkansas, where she was living as a shut-in, to take care of her cats while she had emergency surgery. I don’t know why she thought of me — we barely knew each other — but Joyce could spot an easy target when she saw one.”
Sicola did spend three weeks in Arkansas caring for the felines. Later, medical professionals told Sicola that Vandeveer, who had developed ovarian cancer, was on the verge of death. They wanted to place her in an Arkansas hospice. Sicola was concerned that Vandeveer had no relatives or friends there, so she brought her to Austin’s
“I couldn’t let this old lady die alone,” Sicola says, thinking of how gays and lesbians, especially of that generation, are often cut off from families and left with no natural caregivers in their last years. “Within an hour after arriving at Christopher House, she came to. They said: ‘This woman isn’t dying!’”
Vandeveer spent her last three years in an assisted-living facility with a dog, photographs and memories, as well as some new Austin friends. Raised in Los Angeles, she was an only child and her parents predeceased her. She had no family members left.
“She lived happily,” Sicola says. “I tried to find her relatives. Never did. But it turned out to be one of the greatest blessings of my life.”
Joyce Vandeveer had experienced palpable terror in Arkansas, says Mary Kay Sicola. The elderly lesbian appeared unaware that public attitudes to homosexuals had evolved, even in the rural South, over the past 50 years. She even expressed paranoia that San Francisco police would track her down.
Why? What happened at Tommy’s Place in 1954?
According to newspaper archives — and Nan Alamilla Boyd’s chronicle of pre-Stonewall San Fransisco, “Wide-Open Town” — Vandeveer acted
heroically in the face of social and legal persecution.
During the early 1950s, the city by the bay experienced one of its periodic crack-downs on “lesbian thrill spots,” as the press called Tommy’s Place and other bars. The local Parent Teachers Association joined the anti-gay campaign. An Oakland paper smeared Tommy’s Place as patronized by “deviants, bohemians and tourists.”
Despite the inherent humor in this characterization, unprovoked and unrepentant raids and stings of gay clubs — with newspapers printing names and photos of otherwise non-criminal patrons and employees — continued into the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Vandeveer fought back. Not only was she acquitted of serving a minor, her accuser was indited for perjury, an almost-unheard-of legal triumph, even today.
Nevertheless, the bar lost its license and the photographer forfeited her job and apartment. Vandeveer told Sicola that PTA women “would chase her down the street.”
Later in life, Vandeveer would not talk to reporters or researchers about her life, so great was the internalized dishonor.
“They never got their due,” Sicola says of Vandeveer’s generation. “They went to their graves filled with embarrassment and shame.”
Bartender, I’ll take a cabernet, if you have one. And allow me to raise my glass to Joyce Vandeveer.