Publishing has its legends and its stars, and when Publishers Weekly president George Slowik told me that he met Bob Weil—editor-in-chief of Norton’s Liveright imprint, whose authors have included Robert Crumb, Patricia Highsmith, Primo Levi, and E.O. Wilson—on New York’s Fire Island and that they talked about upcoming books, I knew there would be one for me. And when I heard about Tinderbox, the story of the Up Stairs Lounge fire in New Orleans in 1973 and its place in gay history, I had my book.
I grew up in Greenwich Village; I went to the infamous 82 Club on East Fourth Street when I was a teenager (you’ll have to look up that bit of New York history if you want more—I’m not talking); I saw the devastation wrought by AIDS. But I’d never heard of the Up Stairs Lounge fire, the unsolved case of arson that was the largest murder of gay people until the 2016 massacre at Pulse in Orlando, Fla. The stairs up to the club were doused in lighter fluid and set ablaze; when the door was open a fireball spread through the club like “a flame shot from a flamethrower,” according to a survivor who had served in the military. A suspect was arrested but never charged, and he committed suicide in 1974.
Weil makes it clear, when we have lunch to talk about this book, that he views it as much about civil rights history as gay history. The story of the fire is seminal, not only because of the many deaths but because it disappeared from the nation’s consciousness, because it took place in New Orleans, and because the victims and survivors were mostly blue-collar workers. Stonewall was four years earlier, but gay culture in New Orleans existed under the radar in 1973. Weil remembers it; he was 17 years old when the Up Stairs lounge fire occurred.
The aftermath of the tragedy was, according to Weil, “more telling than the fire itself.” Many families “were too embarrassed to even claim their dead; the Catholic church wouldn’t bury the bodies.” Weil references American literature: “The Scarlet Letter is the fundamental American novel. There’s a long strain in American history of persecution of the other.”
So how did the story of this terrible fire that claimed the lives of 32 people—a story that received so little attention in the media when it happened—become a book on Liveright’s 2018 summer list? Robert Fieseler, the author, calls it magic. Fieseler graduated from Columbia University School of Journalism in 2013. His mentor was Samuel Freedman, whose coveted book writing seminar Fieseler took. “I always had a dream to write a book that mattered—that dealt with civil rights, gay rights, human rights. I didn’t expect it would come about in a six-degrees-of-separation scenario,” Fieseler says.
That scenario started with Weil: the book was his idea. He tells me he was having lunch with Nicholas Lemann of the Columbia journalism school, and he asked if Lemann thought there was a book in the Up Stairs Lounge Fire. Lemann, who is from New Orleans and had worked at the New Orleans alternative newspaper the Vieux Carré Courier at the time of the fire, said he thought it was a great idea. Weil visited Freedman, who suggested Fieseler.
As Fieseler puts it, “one email changed my life”; more poetically, he credits providence. It was, he says, “like placing a hand into a glove.”
Although Fieseler had written short pieces, he says he had never undertaken a project of this magnitude: “I knew it would be a challenge. I wanted the book to be a definitive telling of this history from a journalistic and historical perspective rather than the perspective of gay activism.”
If there was any question whether Fieseler was the right writer for the job, it didn’t linger. Weil was, Fieseler says, “overcome by my enthusiasm.” He adds: “It started out as an arranged marriage and morphed into a loving adoption. He was an editor looking for a vessel to take on the responsibility of telling this story.” Fieseler moved to New Orleans for a year and a half, and again providence stepped in. Two good friends were living in the city and had a spare room.
“There wasn’t a lot of money,” Weil says. “It was a first book.”
But Fieseler tells me he was “going to write this book with or without a contract—the book became it’s own monster.” His goal was to talk to the survivors, the families of the victims; he felt it was important to get them to open up. “When I interview, I say who I am and get personal,” he says. “I give over the steering wheel and usually, after the first interview, people are willing to talk.”
Some families couldn’t talk about it any more, and Fieseler notes that, at the time of the fire, there was no counseling and the gay community had reason to distrust psychiatry, which then often focused on “curing” homosexuality. After talking to the survivors and the families, he felt responsible for telling the story.
Weil calls Tinderbox “a heroic example of reporting.” He adds, “It became an obsession for Fieseler; he went into archives all over the country.”
Fieseler says that, although the book was Weil’s idea, between the idea and the book proposal, Weil realized that his baby had become Fieseler’s baby. “Bob made me fight for it,” Fieseler says. “The proposal had to be great for it to go forward. But at one point, Bob said to me that, even if the book didn’t work for Liveright, ‘I know handing it to you is the right thing.’ ”
Liveright gave the go ahead for the proposal in mid-2015, and the manuscript, with Weil as editor, went through several versions starting in early 2017. The final copyedit was done this past August.
Weil is excited about Tinderbox. When it launches this summer, there will be an event in New Orleans, possibly with the survivors of the fire, but Weil is aware of the sensitivity of the subject. “Parts of the book are hard to stomach,” he says. It’s a story of a city and a time and a community. What was it like to be a closeted man in New Orleans in 1973? The gay culture was macho. The men who died in the fire were longshoreman, grocery clerks—six were married, five had children.
I tell Weil that my husband was at the Stonewall Inn when the riots started. Weil asks me if he was gay. My husband? The Italian-American tough guy from central casting? I say “no,” but then Weil and I look at each other, and together we admit, “Who knows?”