Partner Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, Irmine Droeger
Black Mountain College, Black Mountain, NC 28711
The Tin Angel, 588 Bridgeway, Sausalito, CA 94965
Fallen Angel, 1144 Pine St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Tin Angel, 981 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94111
Mount Tamalpais Cemetery San Rafael, Marin County, California, USA
Margaret "Peggy" Vaughan Tolk-Watkins (November 21, 1921 - June 21, 1973) was an artist who owned the Tin Angel bars in Sausalito and San Francisco during the time of the “beat” generation. She owned the Tin Angel bar in Sausalito from 1948-1952 and then opened the Fallen Angel on the Embarcadero, in San Francisco. The bars became a center for the bohemian night life of the area.
She was born and raised in New York City, where she was a social worker on the Lower East Side, teaching arts and crafts. She attended Black Mountain College. During Word War II she taught children living in housing projects in Richmond in the East Bay.
She came to the Bay Area shortly after World War II and opened the Tin Angel in Sausalito in 1948. Tolk-Watkins featured a very different style of entertainment, leaning heavily on traditional jazz and progressive folk music. But formal entertainment was largely secondary to the club’s appeal. Rather Tolk-Watkins herself, known as a local wit and raconteur, was the main attraction, the club an extension of her own bohemian performativity. Born in 1921 to Jewish parents in New York, her mother a seamstress and her father a low-level gangster, she studied photography under Arnold Eagle in Roosevelt’s National Youth Administration and did social work on the Lower East Side in the early 1940s. In 1945, Peggy Tolk came to San Francisco, again doing social work, teaching art to children and participating in a mural project in the Richmond area. She soon gravitated toward the Black Cat’s bohemian crowd, where she likely first met Rexroth. The following year she bounced back east, teaching children’s art classes at the Negro Baptist Church in Asheville, North Carolina and studying English literature at Black Mountain College. There she met Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, who became her lover, and Ragland “Rags” Watkins, who became her husband. Succumbing to Tolk-Watkins’s “seduction by music,” which included Billie Holiday and Marlene Dietrich records—as well as her literary tastes that ranged from Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood to Marcel Proust and William Faulkner—both followed her back to the Bay Area in 1948. The trio soon became a fixture on the jazz-queer-bohemian scene.
The Tin Angel, which first opened the next year, was more an extension of the Tolk-Watkins persona than a definitive site. Its first location was across the bay from San Francisco in Sausalito and it featured eye-popping colors, including a bright yellow piano, courtesy of Black Mountain friends and local artist Jean Varda. The Tin Angel became a Sausalito landmark, and locals invoked Montmartre and Greenwich Village to describe its flavor, with its jazz bands and abstract art exhibitions—including Enid Foster’s canvas ode to Edna St. Vincent Millay. It closed in 1951 and was followed by two subsequent locations, each in the Embarcadero neighborhood of San Francisco. Throughout, Tolk-Watkins’s razor-sharp conversation and whimsical sense of decor underpinned the club’s allure. Jazz critic Ralph Gleason remembered that while she was “not always diplomatic in her relations with her staff and entertainers,” she consistently enlisted seasoned musicians such as Turk Murphy as part of the club’s “carnival atmosphere.” “Peggy Tolk-Watkins had flair,” Gleason gleefully recalled, contending that she and Helen Noga stood as “important figures in the entertainment world.” As a self-avowed “socialist,” she also was part of the city’s anarchist-libertarian circle. Bringing together elements of jazz-bohemianism and the city’s gay and lesbian community, Tolk-Watkins made the Tin Angel another significant Rebel Cafe site in the 1950s. Moreover, her feminist vivacity and knack for publicity helped promote a new cadre of San Francisco performers who challenged public preconceptions about race and gender, and further solidified connections between North Beach and Greenwich Village.
Tolk-Watkins’ work was shown at the DeYoung Museum in 1960 and she retired that year to devote herself to painting.
Peggy Tolk-Watkins was a pivotal underground figure, a subterranean force whose influence radiated into the mainstream far beyond her individual renown. Not a Hipster, she instead was a prime example of both the Flipster and the Holy Fool—an eccentric aesthete who was a transformative model of possibility for those who met her. Bohemian writer Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, whose first significant sexual experiences were with Tolk-Watkins at Black Mountain College in the 1940s, remembered her as central to her own free-spirited identity. “My time at Black Mountain had radically altered the roadmap of my life,” she recalled. “Early in our relationship, Peggy had told me, ‘You’re not a lesbian. You’re just in love with me.’ Several other women and many years showed me that she had been right. . . In so many ways, Peggy was my creator. From her, I had learned to be fearless, extravagant, a wanderer, an explorer. She had taught me about pain and obsession, betrayal and ambivalence, risk and reward.”
Tolk-Watkins’s influence was guided by a “spider-web deviousness and humor,” as in the poetry of her whimsical book, “Pigs Ate my Roses,” which spouted lines like, “The red rose has a thorn in its side.” Through her friendship with Fantasy Records’ Max Weiss (who became part owner of the Tin Angel in 1956), “Pigs Ate My Roses” and its author, along with her partner Irmine Droeger and Weiss himself, were featured on the cover of Lenny Bruce’s first album, Interviews of Our Times, in 1958. Like Bruce, jazz critic Ralph Gleason wrote, Tolk-Watkins was a “genuine character with a brilliant, erratic mind and a razor sharp wit.” Gleason’s insistence that she “practically invented camp as interior decoration” further underscored her bleeding-edge tastes. Just as Tolk-Watkins’s Sausalito Tin Angel had been an extension of her persona in the late 1940s, the San Francisco location equally expressed her campy sensibility. Its atmosphere was “part Greenwich Village, part Paris,” blending experimental art, cabaret, and queer-culture camp, with intimate tables, Buckminster Fuller globe lights, Renaissance paintings, vintage circus posters, a carnivalesque stage set, and the club’s trademark: a silhouetted tin angel, salvaged from a condemned Manhattan church, spotlighted atop the roof.
For many, the Tin Angel’s Embarcadero milieu—on the waterfront, less than a mile from North Beach—evoked the qualities of a Saroyanesque saloon. While recognized nationally as the club that spawned Odetta’s career, and as a base for Rexroth’s jazz-poetry revival, the Tin Angel was also embedded in the local bohemia. When Time covered the jazz-poetry phenomenon, it unconsciously captured close connections that ran from Rexroth’s poetic performances to The Place. Moreover, Irmine Droeger was part of the Bay Area literary-bohemian scene, a former WAC and a journalist who had studied at UC Berkeley. These links reprised both Tolk-Watkins’s role in the 1940s Iron Pot crowd and her Black Mountain friendship with The Place owner Leo Krikorian. This history also reflected her penchant for bars, which she frequented “for the conversation and the drinks,” as well as friendships with jazzmen such as Dick Mills, whose social circles overlapped with the Beats.
In 1955 Tolk-Watkins expanded, opening the Fallen Angel at 1144 Pine Street, just north of the original Black Cat’s old cabaret district. Columnist Herb Caen quickly placed Tolk-Watkins in this bohemian genealogy, proclaiming her “the logical successor to Izzy Gomez” as the “village character.” The theme of the club’s opening night, Caen reported, was the “Terrible Twenties,” replete with local socialites in flapper and Chaplin costumes. Capturing the evening’s Flipster-Holy-Fool-as-usable-past atmosphere, Caen concluded, “All in all, it seemed like a party out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald nightmare . . . He would have loved all of it—the empty gin bottles, the empty champagne bottles, the empty-headed madness of it all.” The building’s legendary history as madam Sally Stanford’s former brothel further enhanced the Fallen Angel’s allure, underscoring TolkWatkins’s aura of gender transgression and free sexuality. Caen noted that the guests included “Mme. Stanford herself, looking around nostalgically at the scene of past glories (there was enough necking in dark corners to make her feel at home).” The Fallen Angel allowed middle-class patrons to display their sophistication within a safely performative public space—perhaps best illustrated by the fountain in the club’s atrium, which spouted sparkling burgundy and was scheduled to feature stripper Tempest Storm in a “milk bath.” Storm backed out, however, stating her fear that “someone might attack me.” In response, Caen reported, “Miss Tolk-Watkins jumped in, clothes and all. She was not attacked.”
Tolk-Watkins’s queer-feminist persona was embodied in her self-presentation: when not dressed in period clothing for big nights like the Fallen Angel opening, she preferred Brooks Brother’s shirts and corduroys, which she tailored and dyed pink, orange, or red—colors repeated in the Tin Angel decor. Her pixie-crop hairstyle, at once reminiscent of the Jazz Age and—as she often declared—Prince Valiant, topped off her sartorial statements. Tolk-Watkins completed her cross-dressing usable-past persona with a series of aliases, from “Bubbles Rabinowitz” to “Snowhite Goldstein,” which, with Beat-like word-playfulness, simultaneously satirized the names of infamous San Francisco madams and her own Jewish heritage.
This intertwining of lesbian and prostitute overtones made Tolk-Watkins’s milieu symptomatic of Cold War-era sexual transgression. As historians Nan Boyd and Donna Penn have argued, “The very essence of the lesbian, like the prostitute, was an expression of uncontained female sexuality,” a defiance of women’s ideological containment. This was seen concretely in underground North Beach bars such as Tommy’s, where lesbian owner Tommy Vasu welcomed prostitutes as patrons in the early 1950s. Conversely, however, with the statistical reality of increased middle-class female sexual activity since the 1920s, prostitution diminished, making it a small-scale street business, as lavish bordellos like Stanford’s became unviable after World War II. The Tin and Fallen Angels, therefore, were spaces in which new notions of sexuality could be publicly explored, with Tolk-Watkins as a sort of socio-sexual scout, guiding initiates through unfamiliar territory and translating the transgressions of places like Tommy’s into legible terms for middle-class patrons.
Although the Fallen Angel closed within a year and Tolk-Watkins sold the Tin Angel space to jazzman Kid Ory in August 1958, she was not afraid to come out swinging once again, immediately opening a third Tin Angel on Vallejo Street which lasted through 1960. Meanwhile, an incident in a Sausalito nightspot demonstrated Tolk-Watkins’s determination to claim social space on her own terms. As she was drinking at the bohemian Bridgeport Inn, a young man reportedly approached Tolk-Watkins’s “girlfriend,” with the result that the Tin Angel owner “splintered a glass over his head.” The conflict continued next door, at Leo Krikorian’s cafe, the Kettle, where, “Before it was over, three other free spirits . . . went through two plate glass windows. No one was hurt.” In a follow-up report in the San Francisco Chronicle, Tolk-Watkins insisted, “I didn’t hit him with a glass, I whacked him with my fist. If I’d hit him with a glass, he wouldn’t have been able to walk.” While perhaps fueled by alcohol, this incident both paralleled Tolk-Watkins’s assertiveness in the largely masculine world of nightspot owners and was a forceful defense of her queer identity.
This identity was inextricably linked to her performative, cosmopolitan, and edgy Tin Angel persona. Tolk-Watkins was, as Gleason put it, the quintessential nightclub “raconteur,” always ready with a clever quip and with “the knack, as had some of the most successful night club entrepreneurs in New York and Paris, of getting interesting people to come to the club regardless of the entertainment.” A letter to friends Bill and Joan Roth in 1960 contained some of what must have greeted patrons at the Tin and Fallen Angels. Opening with the salutation, “Sunday 8 A.M. Happy Easter . . . (If J.C. could get up early so can I.),” Tolk-Watkins proceeded to detail the legal and financial problems of the Tin Angel, as her current partners failed to pay the water, gas, and electric bills or file unemployment and union paperwork. “Then finally down to the last bottle of very ordinary white wine and a suggestion from Internal Revenue that we get the federal tax stamp,” she complained. “With fastidious partners like these I should be able to embrace my enemies.”
Nonetheless, Tolk-Watkins marched on undaunted. “I am in excellent humor lately,” she wrote. “As my mother Sadye said so profoundly, ‘My Peggy had such a happy childhood, she feels guilty, that’s why she’s going to a doctor. . . .’” After declaring that “I decided to give up all booze for the summer also reading MAD Comics,” she concluded with a statement that encompassed her wit and fierce independence: I decided no matter what happened to the famous Tin Angel, to my law suits, to my adoring lovers?, to my disenchanted with me family . . . the atom bomb and my P.G. and E. bill, I was going to paint paintings. . . . I felt and feel deliciously ruthless and strong in my need and desire to come hell or high water paint . . . Actually my son and my paintings and my friends are the only things I love and need and give me dignity and potency. She concluded by relating an act that encompassed both her role as the Flipster and the Holy Fool, a symbolic rejection of the trappings of postwar media and materialism: “Actually this rebirth began very few days after an evening that WITH NO AUDIENCE AND DEAD SOBER I KICKED THE TELEVISION SET DOWN THE STAIRS AND RIGHT OUT THE DOOR AND OUT OF THE HOUSE . . . FOR REAL. (and it’s not easy to be suave when you have a spiral staircase.)”
Tolk-Watkins’s use of the term “audience” was appropriate. Despite the fact that she was not a performer in a traditional sense, her public persona, combined with her work as a painter, approximated what would come to be known as performance art—an heir to the Dada tradition. Tolk-Watkins’s primitivist paintings garnered positive reviews during an exhibition at San Francisco’s De Young Museum and she provided the album cover for Brubeck saxophonist Paul Desmond’s first solo album, released on Fantasy Records in 1956. As Fantasy co-owner Saul Zaentz wrote in its liner notes, “The album represents the first serious attempt to fuse primitive art with modern jazz.” Zaentz added that “Tolk-Watkins has a permanent exhibition on display at one of the nation’s finest galleries, the Fallen Angel in San Francisco.” This intertwining of jazz-bohemian aesthetics and performative identity continued through the De Young showing, with Tolk-Watkins humorously proclaiming to the press that one of the paintings was a forgery. According to one compatriot, she “wanted to set up her easel in the de Young and copy her own painting so that she could hear what the spectators were saying,” wryly adding another layer to her “forgery” hoax, but the museum objected. Another story has it that she once showed up at a friend’s house “wearing a Persian lamb fur coat from the thrift store and a Jackie Kennedy mask. When she took off the mask she had on a Hitler Mustache.” For Tolk-Watkins, the division between life and art simply offered more opportunities for provocative transgression.
In addition to the Tin Angel’s publicly performative role, the club served private mutual aid functions much like The Place did for local bohemians. Its “hat-check girl,” for example,” was Tolk-Watkins’s mother Sadye, who lived in a nearby low-rent hotel and acted as a motherly mentor to neighborhood prostitutes. Legends abound concerning Tolk-Watkins’s largesse with Tin Angel employees, ranging from freely sharing money from the till for medical bills to giving a Jaguar to a waitress when the car didn’t meet expectations. (“Before she let her actually take it,” recalled her son Ragland, who was living with his father after the couple became estranged in the early 1950s, Tolk-Watkins took the hood ornament off the car, “and mailed it to me in Mississippi because I had always loved it.”)
Such generosity (or, as her son says, “Generous or a show-off—I’ve never been able to determine”) was tempered by nightclub economics, with higher operating costs than bohemian bistros, as well as her mercurial nature, which sometimes resulted in poor treatment of employees. And many of Tolk-Watkins’s financial problems were her own, as alcohol abuse complicated an already unpredictable business—another tale of creative self-destruction paralleling those of Jack Kerouac or Lenny Bruce. Moreover, San Francisco’s complex sexual politics tempered the Tin Angel’s liberatory potential. Perhaps fearing a shutdown by authorities if the club developed a reputation as a queer venue, Tolk-Watkins sometimes refused admittance to overtly gay or lesbian patrons.
Yet, even after the Tin Angel closed for good in 1960, she demonstrated an anarchist-bohemian spirit that skirted feminism and queer culture, maintaining a presence in Sausalito’s saloons, such as Krikorian’s Kettle. Artist and writer Brio Burgess remembers Tolk-Watkins as a mentor from the time she met her in 1963 until the nightclub owner’s death from cancer in 1973. Tolk-Watkins helped Burgess’s brother get a job at the Kettle and shared a house with the siblings in the late 1960s, offering Burgess space and time to write. Throughout, Tolk-Watkins steered Burgess through her development as a nonconformist “using a dialectical method of telling me a story and then asking me to tell . . . what she said in my own words.” These sessions also included moments of outrageousness, with Tolk-Watkins’s “drug- and alcohol-inspired performances” as a “folk musicologist” who sang songs “when she was ‘in her cups’, quite often around 4 a.m.” Burgess nevertheless claimed Tolk-Watkins as a central influence, a model of possibility for a new generation of outsider women. Writing in 2002, Burgess concluded: “Peggy was a poet and a painter, a mother and a nightclub owner, an entrepreneur, an operator, a godmother and a comedian, a tragic clown. She was rough, she was tough, and had been built to last . . . she’s lasted in my mind for over thirty years.”
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