Deadly French Quarter fire

A ‘forgotten tragedy’ at a New Orleans gay bar and a new effort to honor victims’ remains

NEW ORLEANS – For nearly a half-century, the remains of gay World War II veteran Ferris LeBlanc have been hidden away in an overgrown potter’s field on the far east side of New Orleans. No one knows exactly where his body lies. There are no grave markers.

LeBlanc was buried there in obscurity with three other unidentified victims of the 1973 UpStairs Lounge arson fire, which killed 31 men and the mother of two of them. Fifteen people, mostly men, were also injured at the popular New Orleans gay bar, which served as one of the city’s main LGBTQ safe spaces at the time. Until the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, the UpStairs Lounge fire was the deadliest known attack at a gay club in U.S. history – often referred to as the “forgotten tragedy.”

While the arson was a tragedy, it was the aftermath – and city leaders’ failure to properly investigate the attack – that continues to be scrutinized. Advocates say the city did not do enough after the fire in 1973 to identify remains and locate families. Historians say a simple search of military records could have helped. Records show 11 of the 32 victims, including LeBlanc, served in the military in some capacity.

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The National WWII Museum, located in New Orleans, honors LeBlanc, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most important battles in World War II, on its website. Pfc. Ferris LeBlanc “served his country honorably during World War II,” the museum wrote in the online biography. “But the credit due to him was denied thanks to the tragic circumstances of his death” in the UpStairs Lounge fire.

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Pfc. Ferris LeBlanc (L) served honorably during World War II but was never given a proper military funeral. LeBlanc (R) enjoys a birthday celebration with his family, who said authorities didn’t notify them of his death in the UpStairs Lounge fire. Photos courtesy of Robert W. Fieseler/National World War II Museum and LeBlanc family

LeBlanc’s family has been embroiled in a crusade with the city over the past seven years to recover his remains for a proper military burial. They want recognition for LeBlanc and the three unidentified victims buried with him in the potter’s field. The family says it’s been a painful journey and calls the effort to recover his remains “absurd” and unnecessarily encumbered by bureaucratic red tape.

“It’s a great tragedy that happened and continues nearly 50 years later. There have been so many hoops we would have to jump through,” Ferris’ nephew, Skip Bailey, told the PBS NewsHour. “We have to find him. It’s the right thing to do, and it is so important on so many levels.”

In the lead up to the 50th anniversary of the fire next year, New Orleans is finally taking steps to actively search for the remains of four victims, including LeBlanc. The city council has now stepped in to right a wrong of the undignified burial, which only amplified the tragedy of his untimely death for LeBlanc’s family.

“I don’t think that the City of New Orleans really tried all that hard to find out who he was,” Lori Bailey, Skip’s wife, said. “One of the things that we had asked the city is, ‘Couldn’t you at least put something out there that there’s bodies found here so people just don’t think that this is a cyclone fence [and] cow pasture?’ And they refused.”

Over the summer, New Orleans City Council member J.P. Morrell led an effort to renew the search for remains and posthumously recognize and honor the 32 victims. In June, the council also formally apologized, noting its “historic regret for the hurt inflicted on the LGBTQ+ community” by the city’s response – or lack of one – to the attack. City leaders “did not offer official comment to the deadliest fire on record in New Orleans history for more than two weeks,” the council’s resolution read. Before the formal apology, a presentation from advocates and authors who wrote about the fire moved some members of the council and the audience to tears.

“The entire identification [of the remains] was summarily dismissed by city government because they simply did not want to go through the effort of notifying his family and also because they simply didn’t care about another dead gay man,” Morrell said.

“We are a city that is seen as one of the most welcoming cities to the LGBTQIA+ community, but we were also a city that was horrifically homophobic,” he added. “As a city, you cannot have that phoenix-like rebirth without acknowledging the death of those kinds of principles and hateful activities. The city we are today is not the city we were then.”

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The UpStairs Lounge crowd gathered in the back theater hall circa 1972. It is believed to be the only existing group shot of the bar’s patrons. The popular French Quarter gay bar was one of the city’s main LGBTQ safe spaces at the time. Photo courtesy of Johnny Townsend

With the urging of the WWII museum, Morrell got the support of all six council members to pass a resolution last week to help LeBlanc’s family cut through red tape to find Ferris’ remains, saying the city has a moral obligation to help. The council’s resolution called out the city’s “callous and deeply inadequate response.” Morrell said he “expects movement in the next four weeks” from the mayor’s office, including access to the potter’s field and help from the Tulane Anthropology Department.

“The fact that 50 years later, we’re still having this conversation tells you what an abject failure the city has had on this issue,.” Morrell said.

The family says Mayor LaToya Cantrell has not lived up to promises made since she hugged LeBlanc’s sister, Marilyn, at a service for the 45th anniversary of the fire in 2018. At the time, Cantrell vowed to “do everything possible” after announcing a task force to look into the unresolved matter. Cantrell’s office did not answer questions from the NewsHour about the city’s efforts to search for the remains.

If the latest resolution does not work, Morrell vows a more “aggressive approach.” He also hopes it will lead to “a larger conversation about trying to find a home for everyone there and possibly a permanent memorial.”

“This is a bit embarrassing, and I just want it rectified as soon as possible,” Councilman Eugene Green said at an Aug. 4 council meeting. “It is just ridiculous that society was ever at this point that someone who served his country and put his life on the line could have come back to the country and was so discriminated against.”

Search and reckoning

UpStairs Lounge Fire Plaque

In June 2003, a bronze memorial plaque was installed in the sidewalk in the New Orleans French Quarter at the corner of Iberville and Chartres Streets. It displays an upside-down triangle, two fleurs-de-lis, a description of the tragedy, victims’ names, and an image of an eternal flame. Photo by Roby Chavez/PBS NewsHour

LeBlanc was a 50-year-old gay man who was loved and accepted by his family. But he never got to be buried with military honors or a flag-folding ceremony. Instead, LeBlanc was placed in a pauper’s grave. His family said they were never contacted to identify the remains.

New Orleans community activist and historian Frank Perez often brings tours to the abandoned site of the UpStairs Lounge fire, where only a memorial plaque on the sidewalk calls attention to the tragedy.

He was with Marilyn each of the three times she got city permission to visit the potter’s field between 2015 and 2018.

“The last time I went out there, it was horrific. They never cut the grass; it’s right next to a trash heap. There’s a bunch of abandoned portalets and a lot of illegal dumping. I wouldn’t feel comfortable burying a dog out there,” said Perez, executive director of the New Orleans LGBTQ Archives Project. “It is absolutely still an open wound, especially for the survivors. But some people in New Orleans still don’t know about it because it never got the attention it should have.”

Perez said he’s also feeling relieved that anyone is finally doing something.

Skip Bailey remembers the visit, recalling that his mom, Marilyn, felt her brother’s presence.

UpStairs Lounge Victim Family

LeBlanc’s nephew, Skip Bailey, (L) and LeBlanc’s sister, Marilyn, walk through the remote New Orleans potter’s field where LeBlanc was buried in obscurity along with three unidentified victims. Photo courtesy of the LeBlanc family

“She broke down, and she said Ferris kept saying, ‘Don’t leave me here,’ and she kept crying on the way to the airport. So, for her, it is really important,” Bailey said.

The latest efforts leave the family cautiously optimistic.

“The city says they’re going to play nice in the sandbox, but we’ll see what happens,” Lori Bailey, Skip’s wife, said.

For years, the LeBlancs felt alone as the story of the UpStairs Lounge fire faded from memory, both from apathy and an unwillingness of the city and its residents to confront the haunting memories. These days all of the victims, survivors, and families have been lifted by a protracted campaign of community activists, journalists, artists, musical composers, and documentarians who continue to tell the same story to recognize the UpStairs Lounge fire as a seminal moment.

Robert Fieseler, journalist and author of “Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the UpStairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation,” chronicled the tragic event not just in his book but to the city council and “anyone who would listen.”

“It’s really felt like we were screaming into the wind at times. People were like ‘Why rake up the past? Why dwell on the negativity of the era? Focus on the now,’” Fieseler said.

“It’s amazing to see the massacre get traction,” he added, as institutions, as well as public officials and leaders, “really take up the torch and recognize how pivotal [the tragedy] was and how much it mattered back in the past and continues to matter now.”

His book details the aftermath of the fire, which was no less traumatic – families ashamed to claim loved ones, the churches in this deeply Catholic city refusing proper burial rights, and a botched investigation all reflected a world of toxic prejudice and rampant homophobia that thrived after the fire.

Firemen walk through the charred ruins of the Upstairs Bar

A view from inside as New Orleans firefighters examine the charred shell of the UpStairs Lounge after a deadly arson fire on June 24, 1973 which left 32 dead. Photo courtesy of Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

LGBTQ advocates, including Fieseler, also criticized news coverage of the event, which was underreported. National press coverage largely ignored the story considering the scale of the massacre. In New Orleans, local coverage has been described as insensitive, callous, and homophobic with little focus on the investigation.

Fieseler believes the historic apology and efforts to renew the search for the victims’ remains are huge and could even spark additional public reckoning from police and fire investigators and the church.

“I think for the first time, head on, they were forced to look at all the different angles and dynamics of the injustice and acknowledge that this wasn’t just history. This was an event so swept under the rug that it continued to be contemporary news,” Fieseler said. “It’s a hard thing to look at and think about in a city that really prefers to just have fun often times.”

Author Johnny Townsend, who was 11 years old and living in New Orleans at the time of the fire, poured through old records and has some of the only photos of patrons inside. He tracked down survivors of the fire and relatives and friends of those killed to compile an account of a forgotten moment in gay history in his book, “Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire.”

Townsend admits the title of his book was intentionally provocative to garner attention; one survivor told him that he heard a firefighter use the slur while the fire still roared. He’s relieved that the city council finally took notice when others rarely have.

“It is important because you’ve been told you’re not worth anything, and now finally, there’s at least some worth. It may not be enough, but it matters that you’re not nothing anymore,” Townsend said. “An apology is not necessarily enough, but it does matter to me that they apologized. It’s still only part of what needs to be done.”

It is also important because LeBlanc’s sister Marilyn and nephew, Skip Bailey, are in poor health. Marilyn is the last of 12 siblings still alive and has been suffering from numerous health issues, including cancer. Fieseler said the city “needs to work as quickly as possible.”

“It would be devastating for the LeBlanc family and for all of their community allies to have put so much work forward only for Marilyn or Skip tragically to not be able to see it,” Fieseler said.

It is a sentiment underscored by Skip Bailey watching the council action from his Tucson, Arizona, hospital bed with hopes that he has time to bring his uncle back home.

“My vow to my mother is that we will find him and bring him home with the rest of the family. I’m not going to stop until I do that, even though I am kind of handicapped right now,” Skip Bailey said while he choked up. “There were points recently when I was probably close to dying, and I kept telling my wife, ‘I’m not done. I have to find Ferris; I can’t go now.’”