When homosexuality was a crime, the Blythwood Tavern was a place of refuge.
When Congress was holding hearings to out and fire federal employees rumored to be gay, the Blythwood Tavern didn’t hesitate to welcome men who openly dressed as women.
When gays in New York City rioted after police raided their bars in 1969, the Blythwood Tavern remained quiet, accepting and peaceful.
So perhaps no one should have been surprised when more than 1,000 people showed up at the Feb. 13 wake of bar proprietor Joey Henderson. Sixty cars wound through the city in the funeral cortege. Even business owners who worked near the tavern, people who had never gone inside, mourned.
Henderson died of a heart attack on Feb. 9, two days after his last Saturday night at the bar in the Little Italy section of Jay Street. His spring flowers, freshly planted, were left wilting in the recent cold snap. Pliers and a hand nozzle for his hose were left lying on a windowsill, waiting for him to return.
For 30 years, the tavern had been Joey Henderson’s life. He had no spouse but thousands of friends who knew him from his bar. His closest relationship outside the tavern was with his grandmother, whose married name is Susan Krajewski, who opened the bar and restaurant after immigrating here from Italy and personally welcomed the first customers who walked in the door.
Krajewski had never met a gay man before. And if she was taken aback when a group of men dressed as women cautiously entered her tavern one day, 60 years ago, she didn’t show it.
They explained that they had a “club,” a group of men who wanted some safe place to socialize. They told her they weren’t welcome at any of the other bars in the city.
“Can we bring our club here?” they asked.
As the story goes, Krajewski didn’t hesitate. She told them she welcomed anyone.
“So my mother ran it as a gay bar,” Krajewski’s daughter Barbara Henderson said. “She didn’t know any gay people — she’s Italian and this was 60 years ago.”
When Joey Henderson turned 20, he took over for his aging grandmother. Like Krajewski, Henderson wasn’t gay, his family said, but it didn’t matter. The gay bar stayed gay.
“His door was open to anybody. He didn’t judge you,” said customer Bob Johnson, one of many straight men at the nearby Saw Mill, a biker bar, who would head to Blythwood when their bar closed.
Henderson opened late — at 9 p.m. — and stayed open after most other bars closed. But some of his customers, members of that original club in the 1950s, told him they were getting too old to go out that late. Business began to suffer.
Henderson told them he wanted to open earlier — but he couldn’t. He loved just one person more than he loved the bar, and she needed him during the day. As long as she was alive, he couldn’t open earlier.
“He was doing it all for his grandmother,” said Saw Mill bartender Ellie Smith. “He was like, he ain’t putting her in a nursing home.”
Krajewski had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She needed a feeding tube. Henderson moved her into his home, took nursing classes and courses on Alzheimer’s. He told his family that he would do anything — even sell the house and move with his grandmother into the apartment above the bar — to keep her with him and keep the bar solvent.
“He watched my grandmother all day,” said his sister, Kimberly Henderson. “He would make spinach and squeeze the juice in her feeding tube. He was killing himself to keep it open and take care of her.”
Krajewski, 91, doesn’t know that her grandson is dead. His mother, who is now taking care of Krajewski, said she wouldn’t be able to handle the shock.
“We did not tell his grandmother, because I don’t want her to die of a broken heart,” Barbara Henderson said.
As the family struggled to come to grips with Henderson’s early death — he was 50 — they also had to decide what to do with the bar.
Barbara Henderson runs the Duane Lounge. Kimberly Henderson runs a beauty parlor in the city.
But they agreed that, somehow, the bar had to reopen.
“I want to keep it open for him and my grandmother. He wouldn’t want it shut,” said Kimberly Henderson. “My grandmother was married to that business. My brother basically was. He’d be heartbroken if it closed down.”
So she will run the bar, opening at 4 p.m. to satisfy the customers who can no longer fill the bar late at night.
The three crystal chandeliers over the bar will be relighted, illuminating the photos of drag queens on the walls. The ancient cash register, which can hold money but can’t add, has been retired, but will stay as a decoration in the main room.
Like her brother and grandmother, Kimberly Henderson will carry on the family tradition of operating a gay bar — even though, like her brother and grandmother, she’s not gay. And, like her grandmother, she sees nothing unusual about the loyal clientele.
“I was raised there,” she said. “They treat us like family. They are my family.”