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Tommy Eleanor Vasu

Tommy Vasu

Lesbian bar owner


Eleanor "Tommy" Vasu was born in Ohio around 1917-18; she moved to San Francisco in the late 1940s. She was famous around town for her short hair, expensive suits, Cadillac convertible, and gangster friends. Community historian Pat Bond described Tommy in these words:

"She made a lot of money and she would go with hookers a lot. And she would buy them fur coats and John Fredericks [sic] hats. Anything you wanted, Tommy could get it for you. You wanted a watch, she'd bring out forty watches. She liked being a gangster, like Frank Sinatra, that kind of [thing]. She was in drag from the time she was twelve. All her life."
Roberta Bobba said that Tommy "passed as a man completely... role-playing was so embedded in her." Herb Caen described Tommy as a "a short-haired, long-tempered girl ... a gentleman among ladies."

Tommy's 299 Club opened at 299 Broadway at Sansome (not extant) in 1948. Tommy's 299 was the first bar in San Francisco owned by an openly lesbian woman, Tommy Vasu. Tommy's 299 Club was located in a four-story brick building two blocks west of the Embarcadero.

Like Mona's Barrel House, the floors were covered in sawdust. The Firenze Hotel filled the upper two floors of the building and was known to be a hot spot for prostitution. Several oral history narrators recalled that Tommy was heavily involved in prostitution, and served as a pimp for girlfriends involved in the sex trade. Prostitutes and lesbians mingled freely at Tommy's 299, according to Charlotte Coleman.

The illicit activity drew the attention of police in 1949, and the club was raided, resulting in the arrest of eight women on vagrancy charges. Boyd calls Tommy a "lesbian entrepreneur" and notes that "policed women like Vasu manipulated the laws and cultural practices that restricted their behavior to build economic resource and expand the public space available to lesbians in San Francisco."

Vasu went on to open two more lesbian bars in North Beach, Tommy's Place and 12 Adler Place. In addition to running bars, Tommy operated the Romolo parking lot at 530 Broadway from the late 1950s through mid-1960s. Later she ran Tommy's Place at 529 Broadway from 1952 to 1954, across from the then new City Lights Bookstore. In 1954 the bar was closed by the vice Squad.

Tommy Vasu
Couples (including Jeannie Sullivan and Tommy Vasu, right), Mona's 440 Club, San Francisco, California, c. 1950. Photo c/o foundsf.org. - Mona's 440 Club generally is credited as being the first lesbian bar in the United States and Tommy Vasu (far right) was the first known lesbian to legally own a bar in San Francisco.

One of the most publicized police raids in San Francisco history occurred on September 8, 1954, when officers raided Tommy's Place/12 Adler Place in North Beach - at that time the only queer space in the city owned and operated by lesbians. The bars and restaurant were run by entrepreneur Eleanor "Tommy" Vasu, along with her girlfriend, Jeanne Sullivan, and bartenders Grace Miller and Joyce Van de Veer. Police arrested Miller and Van de Veer on suspicion of supplying narcotics to minors. Two of the bartenders were charged with serving minors, and then some heroin, probably planted, was found in the ladies' toilets.

The next morning, photographs of the two women leaving jail appeared in the newspaper under the headline "Arrested." Their ages and home addresses were included in nearly every article reporting on the case. After a long and very public legal battle, the jury found Grace Miller guilty of selling alcohol to minors and sentenced her to serve six months in the county jail. Media attention and public pressure in the wake of the Tommy's/12 Adler raid forced the two bars to close. Tommy lost her license and one of the bartenders was convicted.

She still ran the parking concession. In the late 1960s she had a expensive blond girlfriend who was on heroin. And Tommy became a dealer to supply her needs. She was busted in 1969 and served five years in the California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi.

Apparently Walter Stanley Keane loved to play liar's dice, a bar game akin to poker. He often played the game with Tommy Vasu, a.k.a. "Tommy the Dyke." Vasu, a legend in North Beach's gay and lesbian community, liked to wear double-breasted suits and a fedora, and owned a stake in Tommy's Joint, a popular lesbian bar at 529 Broadway - making her the first out lesbian to enjoy legal ownership of a drinking establishment. She was also something of a gambler and never tired of taking Walter's money. The games between the two would start at $20 (a significant sum in the '50s) and often go into the hundreds.

Tommy's 299 Club closed in 1952. The building at 299 Broadway was demolished sometime between 1956 and 1959 to make way for an Embarcadero Freeway on-ramp. In August 1969, Tommy Vasu was convicted of selling heroin and served five years at Tehachapi State Prison in Vacaville, California. She was murdered a few years after she was released.


Sources: http://lgbt-history-archive.tumblr.com/ - https://zagria.blogspot.it/ - https://www.nps.gov/

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