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Windy City Times 2023-12-13
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BOOKS Owen Keehnen takes readers to an 'oasis of pleasure' in 'Man's Country'
by Andrew Davis
2023-11-27

This article shared 3767 times since Mon Nov 27, 2023
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In the book Man's Country: More Than a Bathhouse, Chicago historian Owen Keehnen takes a literary microscope to the venue that the late local icon Chuck Renslow opened in 1973.

Over decades, until it was demolished in 2018, the Andersonville spot hosted tens of thousands of locals and celebrities (from ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev to Boy George to the Village People) who went there (or the adjoining dance club Bistro Too or the leather club Chicago Eagle) to entertain and/or be entertained in various ways.

In a talk with Windy City Times, Keehnen talked about Renslow, history and, of course, Man's Country.

Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.

Windy City Times: There are so many aspects of Chicago, including LGBTQ+ Chicago. You've written another book about Chuck Renslow, with [Windy City Times Owner and Co-founder] Tracy Baim. So why devote a separate book to Man's Country?

Owen Keehnen: I didn't plan it that way. I think what happened was that bathhouse culture had always interested me, and I felt that the narrative had been hijacked by AIDS. [The view was] that it was just a sex den, when [bathhouses] were much more complex than that.

When Chuck passed away in 2017, the building was torn down in 2018, and the intersection of Clark and Carmen had the Chuck Renslow Way street sign there, it seemed like it was time to tell the story. I had worked on Leatherman with Tracy, I had interviewed Chuck several times for the newspaper, and I knew him socially.

I wasn't sure I had enough material, but I went to an exhibit at the Leather Archives [in Chicago] and saw in the Man's Country exhibit that the front desk kept a journal—but it turned out that the journal had nothing I wanted to use. But by then I had started interviewing people—and it became so clear that Man's Country, and bathhouses in general, was a lot more complex than a lot of people had seen them. Bathhouses had been demonized, but the culture was [complicated]. When Man's Country opened in 1973, you could go there for entertainment; it was like a men's club where you could go for the weekend.

The role that bathhouses played actually changed over the 45 years Man's Country was open. After HIV/AIDS hit Chicago, part of Man's Country became the queer techno club Bistro Too; when that closed, another portion became the Chicago Eagle. So I wanted to write how this compound restructured itself to fit what the community needed. For a while, there was even a clinic there, as well as a store.

WCT: I think something that might surprise some readers is that there was a Man's Country in New York City as well.

Keehnen: Yes. Chuck wasn't looking to buy Man's Country but he was interested in the bathhouse business, and he had purchased half of the property of the Club Baths, in Chicago. When he opened Man's Country, he went to his original investors and they were going to open one here and one in New York.

Chuck wanted to model his Chicago Man's Country much more along the lines of The Continental, in New York—like a private club. But the Man's Country in New York was described as 10 floors of sex and the partners decided to part ways. As I understand it, Chuck took Chicago and the partners took New York.

WCT: You also write about celebrities being at Man's Country, which I found fascinating.

Keehnen: Yes. It shows how the place evolved over time. People took this main stage when the music hall was part of Man's Country—people like [singer/comedian] Rusty Warren,[puppeteer/puppet duo] Wayland Flowers and Madame, and Charles Pierce. It was an opportunity to showcase talent. The fact that it was a gay bathhouse wasn't that much different than if it were a gay nightclub.

Then, as Man's Country evolved, that same stage that had different people in the original bathhouse circuit later had celebrity acts like Divine, The Village People and Boy George. The stage at Man's Country had a long history—and so did the hallways. There were a lot of celebrities who walked along those—sometimes after they performed. [Laughs]

WCT: And I think a question should be devoted to Sally Rand alone.

Keehnen: [Laughs] Sally Rand was a dancer who had been in silent films with Cecil B. DeMille. She was arrested three times in one day at the [1933] Chicago World's Fair for public nudity, even though she was never actually nude. Her thing was "the Rand was quicker than the eye." Her fans and balloons covered her, so she was never exposed.

This was all big news in the 1920s and into the early '30s. So, 40 years later, when Sally was going to be the headliner at Man's Country, she was in her 70s. If there was any apprehension about having a gay bathhouse in the neighborhood, Chuck told me that the older people would say, "You can't be all bad if Sally Rand's playing there." And Chuck loved Sally; she also came back to perform for "Cruising the Nile" and she was a huge ally.

My favorite quote from Sally was when someone asked her what it was like to perform at a club of gay men. I'm paraphrasing but she said, "I haven't seen you guys in action. All I know is that there's a room of half-clothed men and they're paying attention to me." I think, for stories like that, I want the audience to feel the good nature and "almost-innocence" of bathhouses. It was as much good, clean fun as you could have in a bathhouse.

WCT: I actually never visited Man's Country so almost all of the information here was new to me.

Keehnen: Well, part of the reason I wrote this was so I could almost make it like time travel. I collected these anecdotes, personal stories, news clippings and other things so that people would almost feel like they were there—not just people who had been there but people who never had the opportunity to visit. Again, the scene was more complex than people thought.

WCT: If Man's Country were around today, especially in the wake of the COVID pandemic, how do you think it would be?

Keehnen: Truthfully, I can't imagine it surviving any longer than it did without being revamped. After Chuck passed away, it's so hard for me to imagine that story continuing. That's where Chuck's office was; Man's Country was his home base.

WCT: I read that, when he was 87, he was still going in three times a week.

Keehnen: Oh, yeah. Man's Country was such a big part of what Chuck wanted to give the community—which was just this gathering place that wasn't about sex, although it could be about sex. It could be anything you wanted it to be. He originally called it "an oasis of pleasure." Chuck wanted people to experience pleasure in whatever form that meant to them. That's what Man's Country was about—a place to deepen your sense of community in whatever way you wanted.

WCT: What does this book say about you?

Keehnen: I think this book says that I want to expand the way we think of gay history to include the way I remember gay history.

When I talk about wanting to make this time travel, it's selfish, too. I want to time-travel, too. I think if I see places disappearing, my focus has been more on re-creating the places. Like with Dugan's Bistro, with the downtown disco scene; the Belmont Rocks; and Man's Country, I want to show the importance of the community physically coming together.

I don't feel that the fabric of community is quite as tight [these days] because of social media. I also think that, with all the threats out there, it's going to be put to the test in the future. There are so many malignant forces out there. I worry that the bonds we have right now are not strong enough.

I also like to write about people having fun, having sex and hanging out together. I want to write about things that younger people may have an easier time connecting to.

WCT: Yes and, speaking of social media, I think a lot of bar owners started to worry when it became popular. It can take away that physical connection.

Keehnen: Our whole movement—our rights and community—happened because we came together and told our stories. We did things together—physically together. Maybe I'll be surprised.

WCT: But social media can bring people together—like with rallies—so there is hope.

Keehnen: Oh, yes. It can certainly be used to bring people together—not as a substitute for being together. That's when the problem happens. And if we don't tell the stories, the stories are going to be told for us. If somebody tells your story … well, we know how that narrative works out. It's never a good scenario.

WCT: So what do you think you'll cover next?

Keehnen: I have a couple ideas. I want to do something on the importance of different sex spaces other than bathhouses, like the Lincoln Park bushes or Montrose Harbor or the Back 40 at [the shuttered gay club] Manhandler. I want to write from the perspective of the change of surveillance culture.

Man's Country: More Than a Bathhouse is available on online retailers such as Amazon as well as brick-and-mortar spots like Unabridged Bookstore, 3251 N. Broadway.


This article shared 3767 times since Mon Nov 27, 2023
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