Tommy’s Joint, 299 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133
Tommy’s Place, 529 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133
12 Adler, 251 Saroyan Pl, San Francisco, CA 94133
Eleanor Frances “Tommy” Vasu (May 29, 1917 - September 21, 1978) was a lesbian bar owner.
Eleanor Frances Vasu was born in Ohio, the daughter of John and Mary Vasu, both Romanian immigrants. Tommy spent her early life in Cuyahoga, Ohio (1920 census address) and Brownhelm, Lorain (1930 census address). She completed up to the first year of high school. She lived on a farm in Vermilion, Ohio in 1935. By 1940, Tommy lived in Pontiac, Michigan with her younger brother, Romy, along with a lodger named Walter M Wedersky. In the census records, Tommy was listed as head of the household. Her profession was listed as "sales clerk" and her income was $230.
She moved to San Francisco in the late 1940s. She was famous around town for her short hair, expensive suits, Cadillac convertible, and gangster friends. Community historian Pat Bond described Tommy in these words: "She made a lot of money and she would go with hookers a lot. And she would buy them fur coats and John Fredericks [sic] hats. Anything you wanted, Tommy could get it for you. You wanted a watch, she'd bring out forty watches. She liked being a gangster, like Frank Sinatra, that kind of [thing]. She was in drag from the time she was twelve. All her life."
Roberta Bobba said that Tommy "passed as a man completely... role-playing was so embedded in her." Herb Caen described Tommy as a "a short-haired, long-tempered girl ... a gentleman among ladies."
Tommy's 299 Club opened at 299 Broadway at Sansome (not extant) in 1948. Tommy's 299 was the first bar in San Francisco owned by an openly lesbian woman, Tommy Vasu. Tommy's 299 Club was located in a four-story brick building two blocks west of the Embarcadero.
In 1948, Vasu opened Tommy's Joint with Jeanne Sullivan, her girlfriend, Grace Miller, and Joyce van der Veer. The bar was located at 299 Broadway Street in a four-story brick building. The bar was located in the bottom two levels of the building, and the floors were covered in sawdust, reminiscent of another local lesbian bar, Mona's 440 Club. The two upper levels of the building were occupied by The Firenze Hotel, which was known as a location to meet with sex workers. Some local historians claimed that Tommy worked as a pimp. According to FoundSF: "The 299 Broadway site was where businessmen from the nearby financial district could find a willing hooker out of sight of prying eyes at places like Paoli’s. Stevedores from the docks close by also partook of the hookers on paydays. The hookers were the girlfriends of the butches who hung out there."
Like Mona's Barrel House, the floors were covered in sawdust. The Firenze Hotel filled the upper two floors of the building and was known to be a hot spot for prostitution. Several oral history narrators recalled that Tommy was heavily involved in prostitution, and served as a pimp for girlfriends involved in the sex trade. Prostitutes and lesbians mingled freely at Tommy's 299, according to Charlotte Coleman.
The illicit activity drew the attention of police in 1949, and the club was raided, resulting in the arrest of eight women on vagrancy charges. Boyd calls Tommy a "lesbian entrepreneur" and notes that "policed women like Vasu manipulated the laws and cultural practices that restricted their behavior to build economic resource and expand the public space available to lesbians in San Francisco."
Vasu went on to open two more lesbian bars in North Beach, Tommy's Place and 12 Adler Place. In 1952, the bar moved to 529 Broadway Street, where it was renamed Tommy's Place. When this happened, Tommy's Place became connected with another lesbian bar, 12 Adler Place. For all intents and purposes, the two bars were one bar. They shared a staircase and a liquor license. The bars were connected with a split-level mezzanine. At Tommy's Place, the liquor license was under Sullivan's name, who owned a 94% stake of the liquor license in total. At 12 Adler Place, the remaining 6% of liquor license was in Miller's and van der Veer's names. Vasu could not have the liquor license in her name due to previous convictions. This created a dynamic in which Tommy's Place was the upstairs location, where customers came to see entertainment. There was a corner bar that could accommodate about 15 people, tables for two along both walls, and framed photos of women on the walls. Meanwhile, 12 Adler was the downstairs lesbian pick-up bar, patronized by butch and femme lesbians. The 12 Adler location was smaller and darker. Customers could enter the bar at either address, and choose which bar space to socialize in. Most female customers chose to socialize in 12 Adler.
In addition to running bars, Tommy operated the Romolo parking lot at 530 Broadway from the late 1950s through mid-1960s. Later she ran Tommy's Place at 529 Broadway from 1952 to 1954, across from the then new City Lights Bookstore. In 1954 the bar was closed by the vice Squad.
One of the most publicized police raids in San Francisco history occurred on September 8, 1954, when officers raided Tommy's Place/12 Adler Place in North Beach - at that time the only queer space in the city owned and operated by lesbians. The bars and restaurant were run by entrepreneur Eleanor "Tommy" Vasu, along with her girlfriend, Jeanne Sullivan, and bartenders Grace Miller and Joyce Van de Veer. Police arrested Miller and Van de Veer on suspicion of supplying narcotics to minors. Two of the bartenders were charged with serving minors, and then some heroin, probably planted, was found in the ladies' toilets.
The next morning, photographs of the two women leaving jail appeared in the newspaper under the headline "Arrested." Their ages and home addresses were included in nearly every article reporting on the case. After a long and very public legal battle, the jury found Grace Miller guilty of selling alcohol to minors and sentenced her to serve six months in the county jail. Media attention and public pressure in the wake of the Tommy's/12 Adler raid forced the two bars to close. Tommy lost her license and one of the bartenders was convicted.
She still ran the parking concession. In the late 1960s she had a expensive blond girlfriend who was on heroin. And Tommy became a dealer to supply her needs. She was busted in 1969 and served five years in the California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi.
Apparently Walter Stanley Keane loved to play liar's dice, a bar game akin to poker. He often played the game with Tommy Vasu, a.k.a. "Tommy the Dyke." Vasu, a legend in North Beach's gay and lesbian community, liked to wear double-breasted suits and a fedora, and owned a stake in Tommy's Joint, a popular lesbian bar at 529 Broadway - making her the first out lesbian to enjoy legal ownership of a drinking establishment. She was also something of a gambler and never tired of taking Walter's money. The games between the two would start at $20 (a significant sum in the '50s) and often go into the hundreds.
Tommy's 299 Club closed in 1952. The building at 299 Broadway was demolished sometime between 1956 and 1959 to make way for an Embarcadero Freeway on-ramp.
In August 1969, Tommy Vasu was officially convicted of selling heroin. She served a five year sentence at Tehachapi State Prison. She was reportedly murdered shortly after her release, on September 21, 1978. She was 61 years old, and her last recorded address was in Glendale, California.
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