In 1973, a man purchased a can of gasoline from the Walgreens in the French Quarter of New Orleans. In an act that he would never be indicted for, he proceeded to “the Upstairs,” a New Orleanian gay bar, where he used the fluid to ignite the stairwell of the bar, a passage already conducive to flame, trapping many patrons inside. In a span of minutes, the Upstairs fire spread. The fire would ultimately claim 32 lives.
While dozens lost lovers, family, income and security, and as the community scrambled to understand the implications of the fire, response from government and police officials was dampened. Media reported on the event in unusual scarcity. The attack on the Upstairs Lounge threatened to slip into oblivion. LSA alumni Robert Fieseler, however, is determined to stop that from happening. I had the opportunity to speak with him about his recent research on the Upstairs Lounge fire that culminated in his first book, “Tinderbox,” recently named a finalist for The Randy Shilts Award — a conversation that proved amiable and educational. Fieseler is rightfully confident in his understanding of the event. His passion is refined and prominent. He is as articulate in speaking as he is on paper.
“I look for the cracks in the concrete that I can fall down,” says Robert Fieseler on the writing and research of “Tinderbox,” which details the 1973 calamity. “Where it seems like something that’s solid in our society but actually doesn’t make any sense.” He’s talking about the cleavages in history that get smoothed over too quickly, events like the Upstairs Lounge fire that, while slighted for many years, act as something of a juncture, invisibly shaping the course of today. It’s these invisible histories — perhaps call them icebergs, with most of the story unseen beneath the water from a traditional view — that Fieseler looks for when he researches. “Tinderbox” is the product of the discovery of one of these quiet but salient fractures: the Upstairs Lounge fire.
“Tinderbox” tells the story of the Upstairs Lounge brilliantly, researched and presented in a fashion that remains both remarkably professional but intimate. Fieseler’s account reaches beyond solely the events of June 1973 and allows readers surveys of both the events leading up to the fire as well as its long-reaching consequences. The work provides well-researched evidence, filling between the bricks with careful investigations of those involved in the incident, relying sometimes on dutiful descriptions and literary imagery.
Fieseler spoke to me about the precariousness of writing about tragedy. He nodded to the fragile responsibility that accompanied both his descriptive writing of the 1973 events and the presentation of uncontested essentials. Everything he wrote, from the color of walls to the countenance of victims, had to be traceable back to a source. “It was maddening,” Fieseler says. “It creates a level of accountability.” The balance of character investigations and textbook facts that make “Tinderbox” so compelling also made Fieseler’s research all the more important. There was the need to be honest and fair to the victims and the city of the time, he explained, something he felt was impossible to contribute without entrenching readers into the lives of patrons and witnesses. It is this investigation that makes “Tinderbox” so evocative.
And so, research was both consuming and impactful. Fieseler spent time in archives around the country to stack his nearly seventy pages of citations on the event, though it was mostly his conversations with those who had lived through the fire that he spoke to me about. These talks were difficult but necessary. “Individuals sensed that although it would be painful to rehash and, to a certain extent, relive a lot of these events … that there would be some broader purpose,” he says of the interviews he conducted. “There were a couple conversations with people that were some of the greatest moments of my life and that I would never take back.” Conversations happened both in and far from New Orleans, one even taking place in a jazz club. Fieseler decided to directly quote these interviews in “Tinderbox,” and they are certainly successful. The first-hand accounts from fire survivors scattered through the work make the event all the more real for readers.
When asked about the politicizing of the fire, Fieseler said that he doesn’t believe it’s possible to separate the event from the politics of the time. “It’s woven into the fabric,” he says. He pointed to the people affected and the lack of a response from leaders and community members that only worsened the scenario, leaving victims without funerals, families without income and thousands who refused to even acknowledge the term “homosexuality” when reporting on the event. “People forget the era of criminalization (of homosexuality),” Fieseler says, “and what criminalization meant … for the victims and how people suffered mentally.”
At the end of our conversation, I directed the dialogue to Fieseler’s experience at the University. He openly recounted his struggle as a gay college student in a time of remarkably low visibility, nodding to coverage of the queer community by The Daily in helping him come out. “I hope that we live in a day and age where people aren’t struggling [with their sexuality] in college,” Fieseler told me. “Coming out is a great thing. I mean, do it while you’re young and cute, please,” he laughed. In a later and more thoughtful note, he nodded to the weight of the story “Tinderbox” tells, one far more important than any one individual. It is a horror that events such as the Upstairs Lounge ever occurred. And it is the research and passion of those like Fieseler that ensure it will never happen again.