Mona’s was a renowned Lesbian nightclub in San Francisco. Originally opened in 1934 as a bohemian (rebellious artists and their admirers) club, Mona’s quickly became a gathering place for masculine women and women with same-sex orientation.
Mona’s featured cross-dressing male impersonators who sung parodies of popular music. Curious tourists were attracted to the spectacle of boyish women in tuxedos performing ribald songs. Clientele included women from hundreds of miles away who would take short vacations just to go to Mona’s.
In Nan Alamilla Boyd’s book Wide-Open Town about pre-Stonewall San Francisco, Mona Sargent (the owner of Mona’s) described how she would provoke a customer, who did not believe that Kay Scott (one of her star performers) was female, into making a wager:
I’d say, “No, I’ll tell you what… take her in the back room, and if you can prove [that Scott’s a boy] I’ll give you five dollars.”…So I’d say. “Kay, come here…He doesn’t think you’re a girl… We went into the back room, [and] Kay took down her pants and says “I’m a girl”. So he hands her twenty bucks and says, “I didn’t mean any harm. I just had to know.”
Mona’s hosted a star-studded line-up of performers, including the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs,” Gladys Bentley, also known as “America’s Greatest Sepia Piano Artist.” Bentley was a stocky 250 pound African American Lesbian who traveled from coast to coast, performing at the piano and singing in a tuxedo and top hat.
Workers and customers constantly risked police harassment in Mona’s. Cross-dressing and relaxed rules concerning same-sex courtship, the very things that attracted so much business to Mona’s, could get its premises raided. Although she was not a Lesbian, Sargent risked being arrested for owning and running a nightclub with a reputation for women who dressed like men.
Accounts of performances at Mona’s were not always complimentary. Some performers, in fact, were noted to have terrible voices but they kept the crowds amused with their parody, such as some of Kay Scott’s lyrics:
There goes my gal, she’s changed her name to Mike,
There goes my gal, she’s turned into a dyke.
She’s cut her hair,
She’s wearing shirts and ties,
Now she gives the girls the eyes,
I just can’t figure out how it all began,
There goes my gal, a lesbian
The actual location for Mona’s moved from place to place in San Francisco, perhaps in part due to its scandalous reputation. Its first location when it opened in 1934 was 451 Union Street, and relocated to 140 Columbus Avenue as Mona’s Barrel House in 1936. The bar moved again to 440 Broadway from 1939 until 1948, and the name described its location: Mona’s 440. It then transformed into Mona’s Candlelight at 472 Broadway until it closed for good in 1957. The geographic mobility of Mona’s is a familiar story in the history of Gay spaces, reflecting the tendency for a popular bar (especially its name) to become iconic even when it was no longer located in its original space. Since Mona’s closed, the name of the club lingers in different cities. LGBTQ bars called “Mona’s” have been opened in cities such as Denver and Milwaukee.
Boyd, Nan Alamilla. Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. Berkeley: University of California, 2003.
Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers. New York: Columbia University, 1993
Meyer, Leisa D. Creating GI Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II. New York: Columbia University, 1996.