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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

#2454 - Cafe Lafitte In Exile, New Orleans - 3/17/2014

Cafe Lafitte's in Exile, New Orleans, LA
Cafe Lafitte in Exile in New Orleans claims to be the oldest gay bar in the country. While it is difficult to identify when the bar started catering primarily to gays, "Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop" was founded in 1933 by straight but gay-welcoming Roger 'Tom' Caplinger and his partners Harold Bartell and Mary Collins. "In Exile" authors Perez and Palmquist note:
'Although the bar could not be classified a "gay bar" as we think of that term today, it was as gay friendly as the times would permit.'
However when the building's owner died in 1951, the building was sold at auction and a new owner took over Lafitte's, and did not welcome gay patrons. "Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop" remains in business to this day in the location, now catering to (straight) tourists. In 1953 Caplinger and his partners opened "Cafe Lafitte in Exile," which welcomed his former patrons, and remains definitively a gay bar today. However, dating the current "Lafitte in Exile" as the same bar as Caplinger's original Lafitte's would be inconsistent with a more typical approach, where people routinely treat a bar business run by a series of owners under a single name and in a single location as the same bar. That is, the more established approach would be to count Caplinger's years in the Blacksmith location in the age of the bar still operating there, rather than in the age of the new one he opened a block down Bourbon Street two years later, even if his theme and most of his patrons moved with him. By these criteria the oldest gay bar in the United States is probably the White Horse Bar in Oakland (for more on this question, see this page.)

In any case, there is no question that the bar is packed with history, has been momentous and comforting in the lives of many gay men over many decades, and has served as a semi-regular haunt of many significant writers and artists. The gossipy history of "In Exile" quotes a patron about the two mostly famously associated with the bar:

“One evening I saw Truman Capote sitting at the bar talking with someone. I approached him and said, ‘I don’t mean to come on to you but I’ve always admired your work. My I buy you a drink?’ And he responded, ‘Only if you sit and have one with us.’ He was so sweet, not at all bitchy like some have said. He even signed a beverage napkin for me. Another time I saw Tennessee Williams standing by the flame. As I neared him I could see he was very, very drunk but I introduced myself anyway. He gave me a very limp handshake, like a dead fish, and mumbled something incoherently, which kind of grossed me out, and almost fell down in the process.”

Today it remains a comfortable hangout for gays or straights, with an "eternal flame" (part of a fountain before one owner tired of patrons using it in lieu of the loo) and friendly bartenders. I've lost the name of the bartender on the lazy Monday evening that I wandered in, but I recall a long, interesting chat about the bar, music, life, and New Orleans.



901 Bourbon St, New Orleans, LA 70116 - (504) 522-8397
Est. 1953 (current location)
Web site: lafittes.com - facebook
Reviews: nola - gaycitiesyelp - tripadvisor - wikipedia - neworleansonline

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