Café Jay, W Channel Rd & Chautauqua Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90402
Jay de Laval was a gay designer with a long career as a con-man in California. He had a reputation for tasteful decorating. He designed the interior of Villa Amanda, Lennie Newman was a boyfriend of Jay de Laval and assistant chef in his restaurant during the 1940s. De Laval was a friend of William "Bill" Caskey before Christopher Isherwood met Caskey, and also of Ben and Jo Masselink.
Jay de Laval was a friend of Denham Fouts and very much a part of the Santa Monica Canyon circle. In the mid-1940s he opened a small French restaurant, Café Jay, on the corner of Channel Road and Chautauqua in Santa Monica. Café Jay was a restaurant by the ocean, with excellent food. Jay's was a charming place-tiny, artistically decorated-and always packed. It was a favorite dining place of Greta Garbo. She came in early for dinner one night before she went to Europe, looked around, and said to Jay, "Where are all the celebrities?"
Jay had a vague reputation for being crooked. Later on, it was said that he had had to leave California to avoid arrest; this was after he had settled in Mexico. But, when you tried to find out exactly what he had done that was illegal, it seemed that he hadn’t gone much beyond running up big bills and then failing either to pay them or return the merchandise. He was also, obviously, a bit of a con man. It was easy to imagine him using his considerable charm to get money out of rich old women; his role as the Baron de Laval was probably related to this.
Jay was large and well built, though inclined to plumpness. He was very blond (maybe artificially) and he had big blue eyes. His eyes didn’t sparkle like Collier’s, they stared. Despite their seeming boldness, they revealed nothing inward. Jay was all on the surface, all smiles and gossip and camp. It was only when he laughed loudly that you got a hint of madness.
He was not only a very good cook but a marvellous host. He could take you into the kitchen and fix a meal for you both without ever losing the thread of the conversation or making you feel awkward because he was doing all the work. He was also, it seems, a marvellous seducer. Christopher Isherwood knew of this only at second hand, of course; he wouldn’t have dreamt of going to bed with Jay and Jay certainly didn’t want it. But the testimony of half a dozen boys who had had sex with Jay and then talked about it to Christopher was quite impressive. Most of them had been literally seduced––they hadn’t wanted to do it but Jay had made them like doing it. “It was crazy,” one of them told Christopher; and another said, “He made me feel beautiful.” Jay himself, when congratulated by Christopher on his conquests, said modestly, “It’s quite simple––you just have to start doing all kinds of things to them, all at once, before they realize what’s going on.”
Jay de Laval opened another restaurant in the Virgin Islands, and in 1950 he was briefly in charge of the Mocambo in Los Angeles. Eventually he left California, settled in Mexico, and opened a grand restaurant in Mexico City in the early 1950s. There he also planned interiors with the Mexican designer Arturo Pani, and advised airlines on food, creating a menu for Mexico Air Lines and crockery for Air France. He divided his time between Mexico City and a condominium in Acapulco.
Mexico City attracted international gay visitors between the 1940s and 1960s, with its cultural life, low cost of living, the intelligentsia’s leftist orientation, and the city’s architectural beauty. Some international visitors settled permanently. Foreign homosexuals found opportunities in couture and design, including milliner Henri de Châtillon, furniture designer Emmett Morley Webb and restaurateur and designer Jay de Laval. Earl Sennett, an instructor at Mexico City College in the 1940s and 1950s, directed the Mexico City Players, a theatrical troupe that included political dissidents like John T. Herrmann.
Modern style represented the values and stability to which the middle class aspired, and offered clean lines and high-quality natural finishes. Gay interior designers such as Arturo Pani (with Jay de Laval) and Webb were also in great demand among the gay elite. Posh gays competed to outdo each other in their homes’ expressions of originality, taste and elegance. Composer Gabriel Ruiz and physician Elías Nandino constantly re-upholstered and reappointed their homes, fighting over the best tradesmen and decorators; Nandino’s one-upmanship went so far as to use fishbowls – with live fish – as lampshades.
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