For 50 years, down an unassuming side street in the exclusive borough of Chelsea, West London, “the bohemian hung out, the artists drank—and naughty sex happened.”
So explains former Great British Baking Show host Sandi Toksvig in a new film, Gateways Grind, a documentary that charts life behind closed doors at the longest running lesbian club of all time—and, as Toksvig says, “the most famous lesbian club in the world.” Opened first as a mixed-gender venue in 1931 before men were duly barred 35 years later, the green door of the Gateways club ushered in regulars from Patricia Highsmith to British artist Maggi Hambling.
The Killing of Sister George, the 1968 film adaptation of Frank Marcus’ 1964 play about an aging lesbian soap opera diva, was shot there with the club’s real clientele dancing alongside its stars Beryl Reid and Susannah York. Mick Jagger once tried to convince the owner to bend the women-only policy for him, promising to wear a dress if he were to be allowed down the rickety steps and into the throbbing basement beneath.
Trudy Howson, LGBT poet laureate, was a teenager in Lancashire, northern England, when she first came across mention of Gateways. She was reading a review of The Killing of Sister George—one that decried the “terrible club” in which it was filmed—“and I just read it and thought, I’ve *got* to go to that.” Howson knew she was a lesbian, but “I’d never even met a gay person… so for me, it was like a beacon.”
The club was owned by Ted Ware, who had won the lease in 1943 following a boxing bet. A group of his lesbian friends had been banned from the Bag O’ Nails pub in Soho, their much-loved haunt, so he offered them the space, which would go on to become a landmark in the community until its last night in 1985.
He ran the club along with his wife, Gina—an Italian actress who ruled the enclave off the famed King’s Road with glamour and an iron fist. Behind the bar was Smithy, a Californian who had served in the U.S. Air Force, who Ted had invited to move in with them to the family home. (All Gateways-goers assumed she and Gina were in a relationship.) Often running about the place was Gina Jr, Ted and Gina’s daughter, who was tasked with wiping down bottles of tonic water stored in the garage, and counting threepenny pieces from the cash register for the cigarette machines.
The first time she descended the steps, “I thought it was completely scary and madly exciting,” Howson recalls. “None of the women that I was interested in were really interested in me, because there was a very strict dress code at the Gates during that period”—her waist-length hair casting her as too femme to find someone in that same coterie. Still, the place was a byword for steaminess, where everyone would head in search of a drink, a dance, and more.
Indeed the documentary is named after the move conjured up on its floors, where women would gyrate closely enough to bring each other to orgasm. Which was “very surprising, the first time it happened,” Howson laughs.
“It was a great place to get off,” Hambling concurs in the film, admitting she was barred twice for dancing suggestively. It all speaks to a sexual freedom denied beyond the green door; where you could lose your job in a department store or as a teacher or nanny for being a lesbian.
“It was a secret club, and it made people cling together,” Howson reflects of “the tribe” created there. Whatever pretenses were upheld to employers or even relatives at Gateways, “everyone knew… Any kind of shame, or fear or anxiety that they might have been feeling in the outside world about being gay or bisexual or just even curious, was completely shed once they went down those steps.”
Jacquie Lawrence, the film’s director, never got that experience firsthand, moving to London a couple of months after the club closed. “I just missed it,” she chuckles. In Gateways Grind, though, she has been able to breathe new life into the place—and the juggernaut keeps growing.
The woman who DJed at the club on its final night got in touch with her only this week; since the film was shown at festivals (including Inside Out in Toronto, where it won the audience award) and aired on the BBC in the U.K., “we keep hearing more,” she says. “We do have more and more stories, and more artifacts, more archives”—so many now, in fact, that she hopes to corral them into an exhibition and take them on the road.
“My hope was that as many people in many cities and as many countries as possible, would realize what a rich, rich history we have in this smelly little basement off the King’s Road.”
Since appearing in the documentary, which will also air at the British Film Institute in London this weekend as part of Pride month, Howson has been contacted by others who used to frequent the place. As fun as the reveries are, Gateways Grind speaks to something bigger, she thinks: the need to tell women’s stories from a time where they were swept under the rug. The film suggests putting up a blue plaque—an English Heritage scheme initiative to mark places of historical significance—outside the now-painted-over door of the club.
The outcome of the application is still pending. Which is “ridiculous,” Howson says of the plaques heaped upon “old posh men… we get Lord, Lord, Lord—but what about these places? The Gates enriched and empowered so many lesbians’ lives; it made them feel that they were worth value.”
“This is what happens to lesbian landmarks in history; they literally get painted over,” Toksvig says in the film, seeking to right the situation with a can of green emulsion. “These stories should be revered, not concealed.”
Lawrence hopes Gateways Grind will do that, and serve as “a clarion call for lesbians to tell their stories… we have been invisible,” she says, but, with more dramas like Gentleman Jack rising to the fore, that mindset no longer has a place. “We are becoming more visible, and we’ve got even more exciting and intriguing history to tell.”
THE GATEWAYS CLUB by Trudy Howson (LGBT Poet Laureate)
It was a place where hearts-desire bloomed.
A secret, known only by a few.
Where women became who they wanted to be,
Let their sexuality shine through.
Down a narrow stairwell, in a Chelsea street
With Smithy guarding the door,
Was every kind of Butch and Femme Lesbian,
One visit, and you came back for more.
Listening to the juke box in a smoke-filled room,
Learning the “Gateways Grind.”
Making new friends over drinks and cigarettes,
Who were experienced, tough and kind.
What stories were told, what daring deeds
Were shared amidst laughter and tears.
Whilst flirting and kissing and vying and lying
Awash with vodka and beers
I’ll never forget the Gateways Club
And its place in my Lesbian past
How it opened a world of possibilities for me
May its legend flourish and last