The Life and Times of Sophie
Thirty-three years ago a kid named Larry Graham, just out of high school, came to Chicago from Columbus, Ohio, and stayed at the YMCA. His company had sent him to be a secretary in their new office opening in the Loop. He had already won national fame for being the North American Typing Champion. “They gave us the speech of Nikita Khrushchev, when he pounded his shoe on the table at the U.N. and threatened he would bury us. They put electric wires to the back of my head and an electric eye scanned the copy. One mistake and you were disqualified. I won, typing 177 words a minute. No mistakes!”
Near the Y at night he discovered a few gay hot spots. Gramma Chris, the Haig’s star bartender, gave him a full education.
“I was dumb then. You had to be 19 to get into bars and be able to drink liquor. I used my real Ohio’s IDs, which showed I was 17. When I officially turned 19, one owner joshed me at the door. ‘Now, kid, you’re legal. Those IDs are good.'”
Being gay has never been a problem in Larry’s life. It’s something he has always been, always enjoyed, and always been comfortable with. “Look, I was born in a town called Nellie, Ohio. And my father called me ‘Butch.’ That’s my story. Even today at birthday parties I like to wear a T-shirt my friends gave me that says, ‘Butch from Nellie, Ohio.'”
Larry Graham, all these years, has been a secretary and office manager. He has to be at that job at 6 a.m. Also at 19 he started his career as Sophie the bartender at the Haig, a place that housed all his loves and delights. According to old bar guide codes, the Haig was Nf/NLdGd: “Males establishment, females welcome. Neighborhood Lounge. Dancing (later disco). Go-Go Boys. 4 a.m. closing.”
“I miss the fun of the old days. Our bars have become expensive and too respectable. I still try to keep an atmosphere of party and trash. Still engage each customer as a person. Talk with them, play darts with them, make them feel a part of the bar….
“It’s different today. Bars have become more sophisticated. Running them takes real management skill. And then there’s AIDS. In one week, I gave five eulogies. So many of the guys I worked with are gone. Only a handful of us 30-year bartenders are left.”
Windy City Times (1992)