The Steamboat Club of New Orleans, the city’s oldst social organization for gay men, is approaching its 70th anniversary having been founded in January of 1953.
It began with twelve older influential gay men. Often they would meet informally at the Bourbon Coffee House and share ideas. After some planning sessions for “Steamboat” in 1952, the first official meeting of the then newly organized club was held at the home of Arthur T. “Boo” Gaudet. There were ten charter members, each of whom shared common interests in the New Orleans Opera and Mardi Gras.
One of the charter members was Leon Khalil Zainey who believed the community needed such a social organization like “Steamboat” since, in the 1950s, gay men were extremely closeted and feared reprisals and lost careers should they be outed. Zainey hoped that “Steamboat” would eventually have the resources to become a recognized parading organization during the annual Carnival celebration. He also envisioned that the club would own its own permanent home in New Orleans, much like the Boston Club, founded in the 1850s.
Born in New Orleans in 1908, Zainey, of Lebanese descent, graduated from Warren Easton H.S. and served in the Army during World War II in the Alaskan Defense Command. Zainey had always been interested in theater; along with attorney Alfred Danziger, he organized a children’s theater in the late 1920s and published the Processional, a newspaper giving information about productions in New York and San Francisco. He was the wardrobe & property manager of the New Orleans Opera Association for 43 years, and served as a costumer for Le Petit Théâtre Du Vieux Carré. Zainey died December 4, 2009, at age 101 in a Gainesville, TX, nursing home where he had been evacuated due to Hurricane Katrina.
Since its inception, the sole purpose of the Steamboat Club has been to provide social functions (e.g.. cocktail parties, dances, etc.) for the entertainment of its members and their guests. Understandably, most of the early “Steamboat” meetings and parties were held in members’ homes, giving the club a somewhat mysterious air. It is believed that from these gatherings, the true gay carnival krewes were born, such as the Krewes of Yuga, Petronius, Ganymede, Armeinius and others. We know this to be true as several of the founders of these carnival krewes were members of the Steamboat Club as well.
The Steamboat Club’s original purpose continues to this day. As society changed and being gay became more accepted, however, “Steamboat” has had numerous functions in such public venues as the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, Andrea’s Restaurant and on the Steamboat Natchez among other locales.
The Club’s annual calendar always begins with a Mardi Gras party in someone’s home on a parade route followed by various functions throughout the year such as pool parties, progressive dinners in the French Quarter, etc., always ending with its black tie New Year’s Eve party. The club has grown in number from the original 12 in 1953 to 30 members presently. Over the years, reportedly, such well-known gay New Orleanians as John Casper Dodt, Clay Shaw, Rivet Joseph Hedderel, among many other movers & shakers in the gay community, have been members.
Current Officers are Timothy Goodwin (president), Jim Meadows (vice-president), Jim Roth (secretary), Richard Comford (treasurer). Membership in the Steamboat Club is by invitation only from a member in good standing. After attending several functions of the club, the candidate is voted on by the membership. When elected a member, he is encouraged to participate in the activities of the club, including hosting a meeting or function or assisting a host member.
Since 1953, it has always been an honor to be a member of the “mysterious” Steamboat Club of New Orleans. This article was written by Billy Henry, Immediate Past President of the Steamboat Club of New Orleans.