As Los Angeles prepares to commemorate the long-gone Cooper Do-nuts, accounts of a renowned 1959 uprising at one of its stores are being called into question.
An undated photo of a Cooper Do-nuts shop at 441 South Hill Street in Los Angeles. Legend has it that a riot took place at a Cooper location in 1959.Credit…Courtesy of Milestone Films
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By Erik Piepenburg
The story still resonates: More than 60 years ago, Los Angeles police officers were routinely harassing the gay and transgender people who gathered at Cooper Do-nuts, a 24-hour spot in the city’s seedy gay circuit known as the Run.
Then one evening in May 1959, some fed-up drag queens, hustlers and other customers pushed back, barraging officers with hot coffee and half-eaten crullers. Outnumbered, the police fled but called for backup, and arrests were made. John Rechy, author of the landmark 1963 gay novel “City of Night,” has recalled seeing coffee cups fly.
The Cooper Do-nuts melee has long been noted as a gay uprising a full 10 years before the more famous June riot outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City. It has become such a benchmark of L.G.B.T.Q. resistance that on Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council is set to approve the installation of a street sign commemorating a Cooper Do-nuts shop as part of what it calls “the ongoing work to make Los Angeles a more inclusive place.”
Does it matter that there’s little evidence the Cooper Do-nuts riot happened?
The family behind Cooper Do-nuts, a Los Angeles-based chain of shops that dotted California from 1952 to 1995, can’t vouch for it. “From our perspective, we don’t have concrete proof,” said Jacquie Evans, who runs CooperDonuts.com, a website memorializing the business. She is married to Keith Evans, whose grandfather Jack ran the chain for many years.
Local newspapers and TV stations didn’t cover any clash, which may not be surprising, given how little the mainstream media reported on gay life in those days. But the city had a vigorous tabloid press that would likely have pounced on such a fracas.
Mr. Rechy, the primary source for the story, has talked about witnessing an uprising at a Cooper Do-nuts since at least 2003. News outlets, including The New York Times, have repeated his account.
Nathan Marsak, the author of several books on the history of downtown Los Angeles, isn’t convinced. In a series of blog posts starting in 2021, he has marshaled old photos and city records to assert that there was no Cooper Do-nuts on the 500 block of South Main Street in May 1959 — the time and place Mr. Rechy has given for the fight. (Mr. Rechy also once wrote that it happened in 1958.)
Mr. Rechy now says that the rebellion didn’t take place at a Cooper Do-nuts. In 2021, he told the Los Angeles blog The LAnd: “There was no riot at Cooper’s. It was actually another donut shop, but at that time, people called every donut shop in the city ‘Cooper’s’ because there were so many.”
In an email last week, Mr. Rechy wrote that the “no-name coffee shop” where he saw the riot was on the same stretch of South Main Street where he has long said the confrontation happened.
Mr. Rechy, who at 92 just completed his 18th book, added that he was weary of the “baffling hostility that has persisted” around his account, calling it “undeserved, incorrect, malicious, infuriating and, yes, saddening.”
Even if an uprising happened, no one still contends that it happened at a Cooper Do-nuts. But the city plans to honor the company anyway, as “a safe haven for all members of the queer community regardless of gender presentation,” according to the motion before the council.
The motion, which refers to tales of a Cooper Do-nuts riot as a “claim,” singles out the former site of a Cooper shop, at the corner of Second and South Main Streets, which would be named “Cooper Do-nuts/Nancy Valverde Square” in honor of Nancy Valverde, a lesbian and L.G.B.T.Q. activist.
The proposal has its detractors. Mr. Marsak, the historian, said that while he is all for commemorating gay history, he is skeptical of contentions, especially those from the Evans family, that Cooper Do-nuts was hospitable to the L.G.B.T.Q. community in Eisenhower-era Los Angeles.
“People want to believe because it makes them feel good and on the right side of history and all that,” he said, adding, “Giving recognition to a specific place when the history is not there is fraud.”
Kim Cooper, who runs the tour company Esotouric with her husband, Richard Schave, questioned why Cooper Do-nuts is being recognized when Los Angeles hasn’t landmarked locations whose bona fides are well-established, like the residence of Morris Kight, who co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in 1969.
“It pains us to see politicians making a fuss to ‘honor gay history’ in this performative manner, while real LGBTQ+ landmarks are in danger,” Ms. Cooper wrote in an email. (She is not related to the Cooper who founded the doughnut chain.)
Keith Evans, whose grandfather ran the shops, is undaunted by the criticism. He said his family was “adamant that Cooper Do-nuts was a force for good”; it hired L.G.B.T.Q. people and “basically anybody who needed a job.”
Jack Evans and Richard Cooper started the business in the 1940s; at its apex, Cooper Do-nuts had 33 locations, with a menu that included long johns, old-fashioneds and Bismarcks. Mr. Evans bought out Mr. Cooper’s share in 1952, and ran the chain full time. Other Evans family members followed in leadership roles.
At Cooper Do-nuts, “no matter who you were, you were accepted, and I want people to know that side of it,” said Ms. Evans, a marketing consultant.
Ms. Valverde said that she and her lesbian friends “always felt accepted” at Cooper Do-nuts during an era when it was dangerous to be openly gay. After classes at a barber school, Ms. Valverde said she would walk to the Cooper Do-nuts at Second and South Main Streets for a glazed doughnut, her favorite.
“The minute we got a dime for cutting a head of hair, we’d go there and enjoy each other’s company,” said Ms. Valerde, who is 91 and in hospice. “Once we were together, people could be themselves.”
The Evanses haven’t entirely let go of the uprising story. On their website and a new Instagram account, originalcooperdonuts, they’ve posted archival photos and explain that the riot helped pave the way for Stonewall — if “accounts are accurate,” as the site cautions. In a recent Instagram post, they described the Cooper Do-nuts at 243 East Fifth Street as “a place of refuge for the LGBTQ community, and a symbol of resistance against police brutality and oppression.”
The narrative of a historic battle associated with Cooper Do-nuts may outlast any claims refuting it. That’s what happens when “heroic events have taken on a life of their own,” said the historian Lillian Faderman, whose 2006 book, “Gay L.A.,” written with Stuart Timmons, includes Mr. Rechy’s account of a brawl at Cooper Do-nuts.
“They’re not necessarily accurate,” she said. “But they’re stories of beautiful myths.”
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