The Kings Road, the Gateways Club and The Killing Of Sister George

 

“They had me in bed making love to the girl…close, like baked beans”

Susannah York, Beryl Reid and Coral Brown at The Gateways 1968

Susannah York, Beryl Reid and Coral Brown at The Gateways 1968

In a book originally put together by Hunter Davies in the late sixties called The London Spy – A Discrete Guide To The City’s Pleasures, there are two chapters written specifically for gay and lesbian visitors to London.

The first, entitled ‘Men For Men’, notes around twenty venues where men could meet ‘soul or bed-mates and/or escape the attentions of the fat girls with whom you flew over on your chartered 747′. One of these clubs, under the sub-title of ‘non-dancing clubs’ was called Gigolo at 328 King’s Road (now a carpet shop) and was described by the book as an “Aptly named, hot, incredibly packed coffee bar. A frotteur’s delight. Lots of Spanish waiters and terrified Americans. The Rolls-Royce outside could be the one to whisk you away from it all.”

In the second chapter called ‘Women for Women’ and written by the novelist Maureen Duffy, there is mention of just one venue – the famous Gateways Club.

The Gateways had been in existence at 239 Kings Road on the corner of Bramerton Street in Chelsea since the thirties. It became more or less exclusively lesbian during the war when a huge number of women came to London to work or were stationed nearby and needed somewhere to go they could call their own.

The once green door that led down to The Gateways club

The once green door in Bramerton Street that led down to The Gateways club

A man called Ted Ware took over the club during the war, purportedly winning it in a poker game (“I raise you my lesbian members-only club…”). He married an actress called Gina Cerrato in 1953 and she soon took over the running of the club, joined, after a few years, by an American woman called Smithy who originally came to England as a member of the American Airforce. After an arranged marriage in the early sixties Smithy stayed in London for the rest of her life.

Gina at the Gateways

Gina at the Gateways

Gina at her usual place by the door (screen grab from the film)

Gina at her usual place by the door (screen grab from the film)

Smithy behind the bar

Smithy behind the bar

The membership fee during the sixties was just ten shillings (50p) and no guests were admitted after ten o’clock to discourage people who had spent their money elsewhere. Maureen Duffy explained that ‘rowdies or troublemakers’ were often banned immediately. Being excluded in those days was more than just embarrassing, it was unbelievably inconvenient – the nearest alternative lesbian club would have been in Brighton. Dining out with a girlfriend was often too expensive for a lot of women and even into the sixties women wearing trousers were actually banned from most restaurants. Pubs were still unpleasant places for  women especially if unaccompanied by a man. In 1969 the London Spy guide book’s main advice for women looking for a drink was, essentially, to avoid pubs if they were alone, saying;

You may be thirsty, but nobody, nobody will believe you.

So for many lesbians the Gateways Club was the only relaxing and affordable place they had to go.

still-entrance

The Kings Road in 1968

The Kings Road in 1968

Boutique shopping on the Kings Road 1968

Boutique shopping on the Kings Road 1968

After entering a dull green door on Bramerton Street there was a steep set of steps leading down to the cloakroom (looked after usually by Gina) and the entrance to the club. The smokey windowless cellar-like room was only 35ft long and featured a bar at one end ‘manned’ usually by Smithy. Entertainment was a fruit-machine by a pillar in the centre and a jukebox opposite the bar. It was never known whether Gina and Smithy were a couple (Ted eventually died in 1979) but many suspected they were.
Regulars of the Gateways at the bar (screen grab from film)

Regulars of the Gateways at the bar (screen grab from film)

During the eighties the club became quieter probably because other lesbian and gay venues were opening in London, and eventually Gateways only opened at weekends. The local neighbourhood in Chelsea was also becoming more and more upmarket and the club lost its late-licence in 1985 due to complaints about loud music. Not long afterwards the famous green door was subsequently closed for ever.

Between the 9th and 16th of June in 1968 The Gateways club became internationally famous when it appeared as a backdrop to many scenes filmed for The Killing Of Sister George, a movie starring Beryl Reid, Coral Browne and Susannah York. In 1960, York, a starlet at the beginning of her acting career and newly married, lived in a house at World’s End in Chelsea just a few hundred yards from the Gateways. Although it’s reasonably safe to say that York wasn’t a regular.

Susannah York at her Kings Road flat in 1960

Susannah York at her Kings Road flat in 1960

The Kings Road flat with a rather avant-garde painting 1961

The Kings Road flat with a rather avant-garde painting 1961

York in 1965

York on the embankment in Chelsea, 1965

York in 1967

York in 1967

A publicity still from Donald Cammell's film Duffy 1968

A publicity still from Donald Cammell’s film Duffy 1968

Robert Aldrich, the director, whose previous film was the slightly more macho The Dirty Dozen, decided to include actual customers rather than extras when they filmed scenes in the club. Gina, Smithy and the regulars performed stiffly and uncomfortably in front of the camera but when the film was released, for a lot of people, this was the first glimpse of a hidden lesbian sub-culture they had ever seen.

Robert Aldrich celebrating Beryl Reid's birthday during filming

Robert Aldrich celebrating Beryl Reid’s birthday during filming

York and Reid dressed for the Gateways fancy dress scene

York and Reid dressed for the Gateways fancy dress scene

Beryl Reid in the back of a taxi with nuns scene

Beryl Reid in the back of a taxi with nuns scene

When Beryl Reid was first introduced to The Gateways she said;

If I had been here before I did the play I’d never have done it. I didn’t realise they held each other and went to the gent’s loo.

Reid, when shown the script for the film, also baulked at the sex scenes (the original play had none, in fact when Robert Aldrich first went to see the play he didn’t realise it was about lesbians at all) and said;

They had me in bed making love to the girl…close like baked beans…I said ‘No, not on your nelly – or maybe her nelly’. I just could not do it. The thought made me sick. It may be silly, but that sort of physical contact, starkers, with another woman frightened me to death.

The younger actress Susannah York, who was used to playing free-spirited roles in some of her earlier films, was extremely uncomfortable with the ground-breaking sex scene in the film. Aldrich later wrote;
Susannah was a bitch to her [Coral Browne] because she [York] simply didn’t want to do the scene.
Coral Browne, Beryl Reid and Susannah York

Coral Browne, Beryl Reid and Susannah York

The Killing of Sister George can’t be said to be exactly a ‘positive’ view of lesbianism and indeed a critic at the time it was released, suggested that the film ‘dealt with lesbians entirely through the eyes of heterosexual males’. It was a groundbreaking film in many ways and despite the somewhat cliched dialogue, the movie only condemned or criticised the various characters’ foibles and hypocrisies and not really their sexuality. Aldrich said of the character played by Beryl Reid;

Sister George’s loud behavior and individuality . . . are encompassed in her personality, they’re not a product of her lesbianism. . . . She didn’t give a shit about the BBC or the public’s acceptance of her relationships.

The scenes Aldrich filmed at The Gateways were actually notable for their lack of sensationalism (unlike other films at the time trying to cover similar subject matters) and showed the regulars dancing, drinking and flirting just like any other londoners in any other London club.

Beryl Reid learning to smoke a cigar for her role in the film

Beryl Reid learning to smoke a cigar for her role in the film

Buy The Killing Of Sister George DVD here

Buy Maureen Duffy’s novel The Microcosm (set largely at the Gateways Club) here

UPDATE: I got an email from Gina Ware, the daughter of Gina and Ted Ware. She wanted me to correct the fact about Ted winning the club in a poker game. It was actually a boxing match in 1943 being shown at The Dorchester! It cost £100 to transfer the licence.

Gina, interestingly, also wrote:

By the way, Gina and Smithy were not a couple in the romantic sense (though in some senses God knows whose business it is other than theirs bless ‘em). I do know the full story and can assure you I am right. But I can say this, I have never known a friendship like it. They were both at my father’s side when he died. Three more interesting, kind-hearted and unique people you will seldom meet.

I also found these amazing photos which are part of the LIFE collection. They are marked just as Chelsea with not even a date but they are of the Gateways Club and were taken around 1953/4.

Gina Ware around the time of her marriage in 1953

I received this email from Gina about the photographs (which are no longer online):

They are fantastic pictures. Lovely one of my old man bless him. And the pictures of the women speak volumes. Jill Gardiner (author of ‘From the Closet to the Screen, Women at the Gateways Club 1945–85′) and I struggled so hard to try to bring out the particular flavour – it doesn’t conform with the usual views in so many ways. Her publishers edited out a lot as did the Guardian when they published Mum’s obituary – hate to say it but they actually were very inclined to politically correct us in a way I found a bit sickening and counterproductive. Some of it I understand but some of it is just about not wanting to admit that these women were not quite as oppressed and in the closet as they would like to believe – they were not rescued from oblivion and misery by the gay rights movement and academic feminists, they were doing fine themselves – in fact many of the older women reckon they made things that were heading in the right direction (and were a lot of fun) worse. And this is working class women, not privileged arty sorts.

I have hundreds of postcards written by members back to my Dad at the club from all over the world where they were out exploring to find out what the gay scene might be. I even have one where someone writes to say she and her girlfriend were up Macchu Picchu (I think) in Peru and met another member – and that was in the 50s! The material I have gives such a unique view, so direct as well.

It’s kind of sad for me looking back at it all – I so wish I had someone left who would remember exactly who all those people were. Dad wouldn’t be surprised – he always said it was going to be an incomparable story one day. He used to laugh at the News of the World’s strapline ‘All human life is here’ – they don’t know they are born he would say!

Good times at the Gateways Club

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34 Responses to “The Kings Road, the Gateways Club and The Killing Of Sister George”

  1. ally. says:

    the odd thing is that lesbian clubs are still pretty thin on the ground. the only properly dedicated spot is the candy bar in soho – everything else is odd nights here and there and tacked on things like downstairs in g-a-y.
    i wish there were a few more hidden away green doors down to iffy basements – just my kind of spot.
    and quality tunes too – ta very much. hello stranger is one of my all time favourites of all time – it’s barbara lewis by the way.
    bona lavs
    x

  2. gentlebear says:

    I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while now and was utterly delighted to read this post. I’d been curious about The Gateways, and I’ve found scant information about it in relation to Sister George. Thanks for filling in the gaps. As usual, a killer posting!

  3. ian gordon says:

    It’s a long time since I saw this movie, but I don’t remember it being like the trailer. (That had me expecting Peter Cushing to turn up).

    I’m disappointed to read about Beryl Reid’s opinions here. I wonder if that was just her “protecting” herself from the possibility of the public identifying her with the role too much?

    Good film though. I love movies from this era which deal with what were “difficult” themes at the time. “The Leather Boys” being another. And even “The Family Way”.

  4. Simon says:

    Where do you get your photos from? I’m in awe of the content!

    Loving the pic at the top of the page too!

  5. I Am Not The Beatles says:

    Just found your blog – fascinating.

    I haven’t heard that Dixie Cups track for a few years, so that made me smile too.

    Thanks and all the best,

    Ian TB
    x

  6. Profoundly Superficial says:

    I once went to the Gateways. Trying to make my way towards the bar, women seemed to keep bumping into intimate areas of my anatomy. Not that I minded particularly…

    The charismatic Coral Browne was bisexual. Her last marriage was to the “Abominable Dr. Phibes’, Vincent Price.

  7. Dawn says:

    quality blog with some great pics.

  8. Sean Scholfield says:

    Ive just been watching ”Not on your Nellie” which I recall watching as a small child in the very early 70s. Ever since then I was intrigued by that Kings road, and I lived there in the 1980s. I have Lancs parentage as well and I I was always intrigued by Nellie and how she coped among the Londoners. Looking back at it now, it probably was comedy for a four years old but it still has great charm. Note that the hon. ”Audrey Roberts” the late Wendy Richard OBE and Bond girl Alexandra Dane were all barmaids in the program. Superb blog. Thank you so much.

  9. One of my fave films. I first saw it a few years back when “Turner Classic Movies” ran it during their “Gay & Lesbian” week. Coral Browne is absolutely creepy in it and I’m still amazed at how much that film got away with for it’s era!

  10. Neil Jackson says:

    Fascinating, as ever on this site. Certainly puts a new slant on ‘Green Door’ by Shakin’ Stevens. Good to see a rare reference to Maureen Duffy and a nod to the film The Leather Boys – all great stuff.

  11. David says:

    Another fascinating post. How different London was then. Keep it up!

  12. J.D. King says:

    Thanks to this post, I rented “The Killing of Sister George” via Netflix. I hadn’t seen it prior. Well worth viewing! I love Susannah York!

    Keep up the great work!

  13. PhatGrrl says:

    I found your post a while back and through discovering it, was able to find a book written about the Gateways Club. Thank you! Most appreciated.

  14. Rachel Jury says:

    Thank you so much for these pictures. We have developed a musical based on the club and we are having a short run of the show in November 2010, please see http://www.gatewaysproductions.co.uk/ for more information. We would love to contact Gina regarding the porduction and wondered if you could help out at all.

  15. eve says:

    For part of my degree I studied ‘The killing of Sister George’ and I managed to contact some people from the scene in ‘The Gates’. I was interested as I went there myself many times. Some of those people were actually outed by the film and had no idea what they were taking part in. I still have the letters from them.

  16. willow says:

    Sorry Eve, to say the extras didn’t know what they were taking part in just isn’t true. I was an extra and a member of the Gateways at the time. Weeks before filming in the club, when asking members if they wanted to participate, Gina and Smithy made it perfectly clear what the situation was. Members had a choice and those of us who said yes had a great time.

    The extras were there all day Sunday. When we weren’t needed, the production team had rented a house nearby where we all relaxed until we were called. For lunch, we went to a local school (cast as well) where the catering company produced a great lunch. We were paid £10 for the day which was generous pocket money.

    There has never been a club like the Gateways and there never will be again. R.I.P. Gina, Smithy and Ted…thank you.

  17. Coral Browne must have enjoyed making SISTER GEORGE as she had a gay relationship with the very butch Mary Morris, who even in her 70s drove around in full leather on a motorcycle. Coral was really in her element as a modern-day Tallulah Bankhead!

  18. lezbo-liz!! says:

    Cool article. Fascinating subculture in Britian. I would have liked to check out that club in the 60s…. the women in the club look like they would be fun to be around. BTW — sorry Susannah York and Beryl Reid didn’t like the lesbian love-making aspect of Sister George…. they were both great in the movie. Too bad Susannah York was bitchy to Coral Browne because of her own homophobia… makes me remember the line “me thinks thou protest too much”…. ya know what I mean?? P.S. It occurs to me that Susannah York played lesbian scenes and characters in other movies… X, Y and Zee for instance, in which she is seduced by none other than Liz Taylor. I was a big fan of Susannah’s… may she rest in peace.

  19. Nicky says:

    Just found this amazing site,I used to go to Gateways in the early-mid 70,s,about 8 of us all couples would travel up from Brighton on a saturday early evening,pick up some friends from East Croydon then drive onto Gates,it was a truly great place to be we always had a fab time & were always up for going the more often the better. Yes loved The Killing Of Sister George & was crazy about Beryl Reid!

  20. P Taylor says:

    The DVD’s of 60′s films such as Sister George are remastered and exquisite to look at. I wonder why films such as Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Up The Junction are not shown on tv anymore. As a friend said to me, after I told her I had watched a new copy of Up The Junction, ‘those films should be on telly more, they are historical, social dramas, they show people what the era was like.’

  21. lucrari de licenta…

    [...]The Kings Road, the Gateways Club and The Killing Of Sister George[...]…

  22. Helen says:

    Enjoyed this trip down memory lane very much. Frequented club in early 70s but was probably happier in clubs like the Masquerade in Earls Court and Yours and Mine in Kensington. It was hard to compete with the butchiness of Gateways Butches! Walked past the club by accident about a month ago and it brought back many memories. My recollection of the entrance though was that we had to go down those basement stairs, not in by that street level door – have I got it wrong? Gina was always sexily delicious – I used to find it hard to move beyond the desk at the door. Saw Killing of Sister George as a play and then film. Enjoyed both; remember being warned at a cocktail party held by my parents of this terrible show in London and firmly aasserting to the woman holding forth that I’d already seen it and thought it was an excellent play. Can actually remember hearing sobs in the theatre from the row behind at the point where Sister George talked about putting her feet onto the damp foot prints after Childie had taken a bath. Happy days…. Makes me feel very old looking at this now but I’ve enjoyed it , thanks!

  23. Rose Sanford says:

    Going through some old things and found my Gateways pin. Went to London in 1972 with 2 friends and met a couple of marvelous gals who took us to the Gateways and for “membership” fee, we got a pin. Had a terrific time and all the “girls” were just grand to us Yanks. This site brought back many wonderful memories.

  24. Sandra Taylor says:

    This all brings back so many memories…..of the struggle. I had my first intro to ‘The Gates’ in 1971. It was so good to be amongst lesbians. I had struggled so long against my sexuality. I met Smiffy and Gina. I also had membership of Arena magazine. It wasnt very good print quality but it was good to read, and again realise I wasnt so strange nor alone.

  25. Sandra Taylor says:

    Helen – no you havent got it wrong. We did have to go into the side entrance and then down steep steps into the club.

  26. Jill Gardiner says:

    Much enjoyed the pictures and comments on this website, and am glad that my book ‘From the closet to the screen: women at the Gateways Club 1945-1985′ (Pandora Press) was helpful in putting this blog together. You might likr to know that after being out of print for some time, ‘From the closet to the screen’ is now available again, due to popular demand. It’s available from Gay’s the Word, or you or your local bookshop can order it online from http://www.centralbooks.co.uk.

    As I have met and interviewed Susannah York, I would like to defend her from the critical comment above. Susannah simply was not keen on doing any sex scenes at that time, with a lot of male cameramen watching. It wasn’t the fact that the sex scene was with a woman that phased her, she said she would have felt the same if it had been a scene with a man. I think it was the first sex scene she had been asked to do, at a period when these scenes were often viewed as pornographic. Susannah was generous in taking plenty of time to speak to lesbian and gay interviewers, and to the gay press, even before it was at all fashionable for celebrities to do that, and the Gateways girls told me that both she and Beryl Reid were really friendly to them, choosing to spend breaks from filming asking them about their lives.

    I don’t think we should take the word of Robert Aldrich about an actress who was brave enough to alllow herself to become a gay icon as early as 1969. He didn’t script the sex scene at all in advance so neither Susannah York nor Coral Browne knew what to expect. Coral Browne was allowed to keep all her clothes on, so may have found it less of an ordeal.

    Aldrich was not noted for his sensitivity, and also horrified the owners of the previously secret and protected Gateways by announcing the name, address and phone number of the club on screen, without consulting Gina, Smithy or Ted first. As a result, a petrol bomb was thrown down the stairs not long after ‘The Killing of Sister George’ came out.

    Finally, you may also be interested in The Speed Twins, a new play by Maureen Chadwick, which is a love story set in an afterlife version of the Gateways, which will be on at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith from 29 August to 28 September 2013.
    http://www.riversidestudios.co.uk/cgi-bin/page.pl?l=1370426957.

    Maureen Chadwick, a former Gateways member, is the author of various award-winning TV dramas, including Bad Girls. She shares her own experiences of the Gateways in a recently published article ‘Dyke Heaven?’ in ‘Gaze: the modern review’ – also currently available via this link:

    http://www.bigbroad.co.uk/news/dyke-heaven/

  27. Rae 70's barmaid/on door says:

    Great pics and memories, love to all the girls, best time of my life

  28. Val muir says:

    Great, brings back many happy memories as I was there during the filming of sister George. I do recall seeing Susannah York sitting outside reading War and peace!

  29. sue e says:

    fond memories of Gateways. I was there in the 80′s. You had to come down a long staircase and everybody would watch as you came down the stairs. Gina was always sat in the corner… keeping an eye on the staff and the till.

  30. Jackie Davies says:

    Well we’ll now I’m 59 went to the gates at age 21-25 amazing place anyone remember me Jackie Davies Norma and jan and a shy welsh girl who never spoke
    There was cowboy joe and Irish and the twins at the door and Rita with the amazing teeth would love to touch base

  31. Jan Bridget says:

    Gosh, that took me back. Started to go down Gates in 1971 when I’d come out of the WRAF and was coming out. It became a bit of a local as I lived with my partner just over Battersea Bridge. Last time I went was in 1980 but then moved back up North.

  32. Nicky Shier says:

    I frequented Gateways from 81 to 85 I was a very trendy lady and worked up the road at The Ace Sauna..Gina kept her beady eye on me waiting for a chance to say her famous words..”Your barred” you were usually re enstated after a month..Sunday afternoons were the best..allways recovering from Saturday’s disco..at the crack of 3pm we would all leave to follow on to the curry shop next door..or the Chelsea Pot or Stalions for the tea dance and then the mad dancing to “Nothing can be finer than to be in Carolina”.The names I remember are DJs , Ellie ( Smithy’s girlfriend)..Gail and Odette..Clubbers Bernice .Cheryl.sharon.taff ( fran ).. little Linda McFadden and big Deb..Yoh Lynne etc..

  33. Ken says:

    I always through the 1956 song The Green Door was a ref to Gateways — can this be the case? ‘what’s that secret you’re keeping…’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vle44kNHxDg

  34. Yes! Finally someone writes about lesbian film.

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