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Tinderbox
Cover of Tinderbox
Tinderbox
The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation
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An essential work of American civil rights history, Tinderbox mesmerizingly reconstructs the 1973 fire that devastated New Orleans' subterranean gay community.

Buried for decades, the Up Stairs Lounge tragedy has only recently emerged as a catalyzing event of the gay liberation movement. In revelatory detail, Robert W. Fieseler chronicles the tragic event that claimed the lives of thirty-one men and one woman on June 24, 1973, at a New Orleans bar, the largest mass murder of gays until 2016. Relying on unprecedented access to survivors and archives, Fieseler creates an indelible portrait of a closeted, blue- collar gay world that flourished before an arsonist ignited an inferno that destroyed an entire community. The aftermath was no less traumatic—families ashamed to claim loved ones, the Catholic Church refusing proper burial rights, the city impervious to the survivors' needs—revealing a world of toxic prejudice that thrived well past Stonewall. Yet the impassioned activism that followed proved essential to the emergence of a fledgling gay movement. Tinderbox restores honor to a forgotten generation of civil-rights martyrs.

An essential work of American civil rights history, Tinderbox mesmerizingly reconstructs the 1973 fire that devastated New Orleans' subterranean gay community.

Buried for decades, the Up Stairs Lounge tragedy has only recently emerged as a catalyzing event of the gay liberation movement. In revelatory detail, Robert W. Fieseler chronicles the tragic event that claimed the lives of thirty-one men and one woman on June 24, 1973, at a New Orleans bar, the largest mass murder of gays until 2016. Relying on unprecedented access to survivors and archives, Fieseler creates an indelible portrait of a closeted, blue- collar gay world that flourished before an arsonist ignited an inferno that destroyed an entire community. The aftermath was no less traumatic—families ashamed to claim loved ones, the Catholic Church refusing proper burial rights, the city impervious to the survivors' needs—revealing a world of toxic prejudice that thrived well past Stonewall. Yet the impassioned activism that followed proved essential to the emergence of a fledgling gay movement. Tinderbox restores honor to a forgotten generation of civil-rights martyrs.
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Awards-
About the Author-
  • Robert W. Fieseler is a recipient of the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship and the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing. A writer for The Big Roundtable, Narratively, and elsewhere, he lives in Boston.
Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    February 1, 2018

    In 1973, arson destroyed the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans and also destroyed the city's under-the-radar, blue-collar gay community. Thirty-one lives were lost, and with families ashamed to claim bodies and the Catholic Church refusing burial, the tragedy became an only recently acknowledged catalyst of the gay liberation movement. From a winner of Lynton and Pulitzer Traveling fellowships.

    Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    March 15, 2018
    A history of the 1973 events that set a club in New Orleans--and the gay community--on fire.Gay liberation movements are often associated with the Stonewall riots or ACT UP's transgressive and vital actions during the AIDS crisis. It's not often that the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans, is placed within the narrative of gay uprisings and the reinforcement of community values. In this significant debut, journalist Fieseler has effectively made himself the authority on the subject. On June 24th, 1973, as men and women of all ages enjoyed a coveted evening in the safest place they knew, a gay man, angry after getting in a fight with patrons, poured lighter fluid on the steps leading to the Up Stairs Lounge. The events that ensued were horrific: "Lambent flames reached the back corner of the bar area, and the street lit up with the sound of seventeen people shrieking. Seeing faces burn in the windows, [a patron] yelled for them to jump. Fire ate them up." That night, 32 people lost their lives, but their deaths set fire to a different kind of flame. Fieseler discusses in great detail the conditions in which gay men were forced to live: in hiding, constantly afraid of discovery, putting a straight mask on in public. At the time, homosexuality was still illegal. More shocking, however, is what the author's rigorous research shows about how authorities, the media, and legislators mishandled the fire and aftermath. Through a series of systemic dismissals, linguistic omissions, and general complacency, the event has been largely erased from American history. Fieseler's work is an essential piece of historical restitution that takes us from 1973 to 2003, when homosexuality was finally decriminalized in Louisiana. Powerfully written and consistently engaging, the book will hopefully shed more light on the gay community's incredible and tragic journey to equality.A momentous work of sociological and civil rights history.

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    April 16, 2018
    Journalist Fieseler’s eye-opening first book examines the 1973 arson attack on the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans, which killed 32 people and which was, until the Pulse nightclub shooting of 2016, the worst attack on a gay club in American history. The book begins with a scene from the morning of the fire in which bartender Buddy Rasmussen and his lover, Adam Fonte, drive to the bar. The chapter on the fire itself is a haunting recreation of what it was like for those trapped inside, including Fonte, who died, and Rasmussen, who made it out and led a group to safety. Fieseler then focuses on the public’s largely ambivalent response to the attack, which received little media attention and a less-than-thorough police investigation that failed to identify the culprit. He describes how the gay liberation movement virtually shut down in New Orleans in the fire’s aftermath and adds that “the Up Stairs Lounge... exposed a majority of citizens as at best apathetic towards homosexuals while also revealing that civil rights movements of the era were tone-deaf.” Though Fieseler’s prose leans toward overreach—“Humidity, so thick with vapor that breathing air could feel like crying tears, would almost routinely reach 100 percent”—his attention to detail and intricate exploration of the material is spot-on. Fieseler shines a bright light on a dark and largely forgotten moment in the history of the gay rights movement.

  • Kirkus Reviews [Starred Review] Fieseler's work is an essential piece of historical restitution that takes us from 1973 to 2003, when homosexuality was finally decriminalized in Louisiana. Powerfully written and consistently engaging, the book will hopefully shed more light on the gay community's incredible and tragic journey to equality. A momentous work of sociological and civil rights history.
  • Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon This vital book chronicles one of the worst outrages against gay people in modern America, and it does so with fantastic vividness. It restores a forgotten chapter of horror to our national narrative of rights. Robert W. Fieseler reminds us how deep prejudice was, not only on the part of the man who set the fire at the Up Stairs Lounge, but also in the media that ignored the story and the population that took no interest in it.
  • Samuel Freedman, author of Breaking the Line Tinderbox is a work of enormous significance that announces the arrival of a gifted new author. Robert Fieseler writes with acuity and compassion about mythic themes—love, faith, death, grief. And as he does so, he chronicles an essential event in gay history, the tragic fire that propelled the movement for social and legal equality.
  • Nicholas Lemann, author of The Promised Land In his impressive, meticulously reported debut as a nonfiction author, Robert Fieseler vividly re-creates the world that produced a galvanizing tragedy, a fire at a New Orleans bar in the summer of 1973 that took thirty-two lives. In reminding us of the furtiveness of gay life even in a tolerant city, and of the official culture's hostility to it, Tinderbox is riveting and unforgettable.
  • Ronald K. L. Collins, University of Washington Law School, coauthor of Mania: The Story of the Outraged and Outrageous Lives That Launched a Cultural Revolution As in a Shakespearean tragedy, the ghosts of the closeted and disrespected dead resurrect to tell their stories in Robert Fieseler's Tinderbox. Compassionately written and extraordinarily reported, the book demonstrates that memory is a life-affirming force that can triumph over the injustices of death. Tinderbox will likely take its place in the canon of the history of gay rights in America.
  • Library Journal [Starred Review] A vivid, fast-paced, and essential LGBTQ and social history.
  • Parul Sehgal, New York Times Fieseler handles contradictions with finesse, parsing the closet's long shadow over gay life in New Orleans, one reason the [Up Stairs Lounge] tragedy did not catalyze the kind of outrage and activism that followed the Stonewall rebellion.... The book is loving, sensitive, and diligent.
  • George Chauncey, Columbia University, author of Gay New York This book provides a vivid portrait of the hardscrabble lives of the dishwashers, grocery clerks, soldiers, and other working men for whom the Up Stairs Lounge became a sanctuary, and then a heart-wrenching reconstruction of the horrifying hour it turned into a deathtrap. Its account of the aftermath of this tragedy is equally illuminating—and sobering.
  • Dave Wheeler;Shelf Awareness Journalist Robert W. Fieseler salvages [an] unsettling moment in American history from the edge of forgetfulness in a remarkable, potent remembrance.... It's indescribably moving to learn in a final author's note that survivors hesitant to speak on the record for Tinderbox came forward with urgency after the Pulse massacre. Their testimonies, Fieseler's rigorous research and his amiable prose make this a vital, inspiring volume in the annals of gay history.
  • Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volumes 1–3 Robert W. Fieseler has given us a profoundly moving and deeply researched reminder of the tragic and ghastly costs of bigotry, silence, and the closet. We must never go back. Tinderbox is more than a memorial. It is a call for our ongoing struggle to build movements for love and dignity for everyone everywhere.
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Tinderbox
Tinderbox
The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation
Robert W. Fieseler
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