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At 129 MacDougal, circa 1926, lesbian tearoom ruled | amNewYork

At 129 MacDougal, circa 1926, lesbian tearoom ruled

BY JERRY TALLMER

Imagined scenarios flesh out sketchy tale of proprietor

They tore down the sign from the front door when in 1926, guided by a female undercover officer, the cops busted Eve’s Hangout.

The sign read: “MEN ADMITTED BUT NOT WELCOME.” Eve had posted it herself. The cops hated it, sneered at it — and not just the cops but lots of alpha males in general (before the term “alpha males” had even been invented).

The sign, then, is but a memory, even perhaps a mere thing of legend — but the building is still right there; a solid little two and a half floors topped by a skylight at 129 MacDougal Street.

What was once the basement lesbian tearoom — where you might read your own poetry or stories or essays; where you might join your ideological sisters in renditions of the hit song of 1926 (“Bye Bye Blackbird”); where you might enjoy an occasional swig of something stronger (and less legal) than tea — is now an Italian bistro called La Lanterna di Vittorio.

Playwright and director Barbara Kahn stopped in there for a cup of tea last summer when she was writing “The Spring and Fall of Eve Adams” — a drama that gets its world premiere under Ms. Kahn’s own direction.

Eve Adams was a real person but that wasn’t, of course, her real name. She was a Polish Jew, an illegal immigrant in Greenwich Village, USA, in the prohibitionary 1920s — and her real name was Eva Kotchever.

The lesbianism was real enough, however, and so was the literature scattered around Eve’s Hangout that enabled the cops to haul her in for “disorderly conduct.” The end of the road was deportation back to the Europe she fled — the Europe of a newer, huger, oncoming form of pogrom.

“What she did with her life is amazing,” says Kahn, “and then just to be an afterthought, after all.” The imagined Eve (actress Steph Van Vlack) is an attempt to right that wrong.

This, by her own count, will be the 17th of Barbara Kahn’s plays that she’s directed at Crystal Fields’s theatrical beehive — most of them history-based. “I’m very grateful to Crystal,” the playwright says. “And last summer I knew I had a slot to fill at Theater for the New City.”

But fill it with what?

Well, “I’m always looking for books about women, gay or otherwise,” and at the library she’d came across “a tiny little footnote” about someone named Eve Adams in George Chauncey’s “Gay New York” (Basic Books, 1994).

“Then I Googled her, and then I Googled the address, 129 MacDougal Street” — finding invaluable material posted by someone named Kreg Wallace — “and then I went to my usual sources: the Municipal Archives, photo collections, and a wonderful street-by-street Website called New York Songlines.

“I finally was able to find a newspaper account of her arrest and deportation — in, surprisingly, Variety [the showbiz journal] under the incredibly homophobic headline ‘MAN-HATER ARRESTED.’ In the text was a paragraph about a ‘secret cult of rich lesbians’ who were ‘supporting’ her.

“But obviously not supporting her enough,” says Barbara Kahn, dryly. Not enough, that is, to keep Eve Adams from being clapped in jail like a common criminal and forthwith deported that same year, 1926, to Paris, France — the home base of an equal and opposite sexual rebel, Henry Miller — whose wife June (Michelle Cohen) was, back in New York, a habitué of Eva’s Hangout (at least in this play).

“I think it’s a really good guess,” says the woman who’d written it. “June Miller worked at the Pepper Pot, on West 4th Street, right around the corner from Eve’s Hangout.”

As for the female undercover officer (Martha Lee) who worms her way into Eve’s confidence only to facilitate the bust against her:

“I didn’t know they had female police in 1926, but they did. They were called The Flapper Squad. The character is invented, but, again, it’s a good guess. Why would a young woman become a cop in 1926? Chances are she’d be from a family of cops.”

There is also in the play a young woman from New Jersey (Micha Lazare), a wide-eyed acolyte to lesbianism, who may or may not have something to do with the young girl from Mount Holly and Camden, New Jersey — who would one day turn out to be Barbara Kahn, prolific director and writer of plays.

“I was a director before I was a playwright,” she says. “My father, who ran a grocery store, was a refugee, which is why I write the kind of plays I write.

“I’m very fortunate. I came to New York just in time to work with some of the pioneers of Off-Off-Broadway: Tom Eyen, Ron Link, Ted Harris, Robert Dahdah — and of course, Ellen Stewart. The first play I ever did at La MaMa was ‘Gravediggers,’ a spoof of horror movies and movie musicals co-written by me and Reigh Hagen and starring the wonderful Butterfly McQueen.”

And where does lesbianism come into the act?

“With the very first thing I ever wrote, ‘Seating and Other Arrangements’ — which was done at the Wings in 1994. A big success. And I thought: That’s a niche I should explore.”

 

 

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