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The First Time Edie Windsor Cruised at a Lesbian Bar

Edie Windsor

The civil rights icon who helped defeat the Defense of Marriage Act gifts us with her posthumous memoir, A Wild and Precious Life, out today. Read a thrilling excerpt below.

I made the move to New York City in November of 1951. Blackie and Rick drove me, the car packed with several suitcases of clothes, my makeup, my record player and collection of show tunes, and a folding director's chair. The only furniture was a twin mattress and box spring strapped to the roof of the car. I wanted all new furnishings to symbolize my new life.

When we arrived in Greenwich Village, the sidewalks overflowed with young people. It was a sunny fall day, and boys lounged on stoops in short sleeves, with cigarettes dangling from their mouths, and every other girl wore slacks. There was a hum in the air, an electric current like a shock directly to the center of my brain that made me feel instantly alive and awake. I knew this was where I was supposed to be.

We turned onto West Eleventh Street and the sun dipped behind the buildings. The Village suddenly seemed dark and quiet, ominous, almost. But I refused to let that deter my excitement. We found parking right in front of the building, and they all followed me as I unlocked the front door and began the three-story climb to my new apartment.

"Here we go," I said, twisting the key in the lock and swinging the door wide open. I strode right in, even though there really wasn't very far for me to walk. Blackie and Rick held back doubtfully.

"It's perfect," I called out to them, still lingering in the hallway.

I was lying through my teeth. The place was a wreck, with peeling, water-stained wallpaper and a bathtub in the kitchen. "Come in!"

"I don't know, kid," Blackie said. He shuffled inside and cupped his hands over his face, trying to peer through the gloom on the other side of the room's only window, which faced a dismal air shaft. "I feel like I'm in a Sylvia Sidney movie."

"It's temporary, and it's great," I snapped, annoyed that he'd evoked a tragic noir film star, widely regarded as having the saddest eyes in Hollywood. "Please help me get my things."

We moved it all up the stairs, and Blackie promised to return by himself in February to help me move into my real apartment on Cornelia Street before I sent them on their way.

My salesgirl experience at Gimbels landed me a job selling cosmetics at Whelan's Drug Store in the heart of Times Square. I loved seeing all my matinee idols on billboards seven stories tall, and the lights at night sparkled brighter than Atlantic City, completely blocking out the night sky. My eyes had become much more attuned to the hidden gay sexual energy in crowds around me. Times Square was nowhere near as sordid as it would become in later years, but I learned to keep an alert eye on the men and women loitering near the narrow novelty stores that sold kinky books in the back. It was now obvious to me that these people were on the hunt for sex.

They weren't the only ones.

The bar I'd heard so much about was only a ten-minute walk away from my new apartment, and as I rounded the corner for my first visit, I could make out a small sign that read The Laurels hanging next to a stoop and above several recessed steps. The street was deserted until I saw the door open and two women exit, strolling away in the opposite direction, deep in conversation.

It didn't occur to me until I was through the door that I'd never once been to a bar by myself before. Hell, I'd never even ordered my own drink before. But the sudden wave of nerves disappeared as soon as I began to absorb the sights and sounds around me. Everywhere I looked, women were laughing and talking in small groups. The air was thick with smoke, and upbeat jazz poured from a jukebox in the back corner. The song ended and a show tune came on, one I couldn't immediately place, but every woman there seemed to be familiar and sang along.

Some wore suits and hats, and I perked up even more as I noticed several women looking me over appreciatively.

I wasn't quite ready to enter the crowd yet, so I made a beeline for the end of the bar closest to the door, where a woman who looked to be in her midforties, with curly blond hair, thick glasses, and rolled-up shirtsleeves, approached me from behind the counter.

"What can I get for you this evening?" She flashed a warm smile, and I smiled back.

"Whiskey sour," I said, feeling incredibly proud about my first independent drink order. I took a seat on the barstool and tipped her generously when she brought me the cocktail. I casually turned in my seat so that I faced the room and surveyed the crowd, unable to keep the enormous grin off my face.

This was what I'd been waiting for. Laughter, friendship, dancing, smoking, and best of all, the promise of sex everywhere. You could see it in every flirty glance or prolonged stare, every arm slung tight around a shoulder. I heard it in every joyous off-tune singing voice and could even smell it through the cigarette smoke, all the bodies packed in tightly together, mixing into a heady scent that I inhaled deeply.

I finished my drink faster than I'd meant to but shook my head at the bartender's offer of another. I wanted a clear mind as I scanned the room again, trying to find just the right woman to approach. It didn't take me long to find her.

Her hair was dark and about the same length as mine, cut just below the ears. She dressed like me as well, casual, without spilling too far into either side of the butch/femme divide. She looked firmly in the middle. Not to sound close-minded, but she looked normal, and that was important for me at the time.

Normal doesn't negate beauty, though. She had large, gorgeous eyes, and we'd been exchanging glances for some time, so I finally stood and strode across the room toward her. Her friends seemed to understand they should suddenly make themselves scarce, and by the time I arrived in front of the woman, it was just the two of us facing each other. I stretched out my hand and flashed my winningest smile.

"Tell me your name," I said. "I'm Edie Windsor, and I'm new here."

From A Wild and Precious Life by Edie Windsor with Joshua Lyon. Copyright (c) 2019 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Publishing Group.

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