by Andy Baker
In 1993, I was living in New York City and one day I was in the mood for a view of the city from an observation deck. At the time there were, of course, the observation decks of the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center, but I decided I would like to see the city from the observation deck of the Chrysler Building. I lived a few blocks away and I could see it from my window.
It was two o’clock in the afternoon when I walked up to the security guard and asked how I could get to the deck. He told me that it was closed.
I looked at my watch and said, “When did it close?”
“1945,” he said.
Similarly, if you were to walk past Café ‘t Mandje on the Zeedijk for the past twenty-five years, you might think that it was not yet open for the day or that the proprietor was just taking a break and would be back in a bit. However, ‘t Mandje has been closed since 1982. It sat fully intact with only the occasional visitor able to peek in.
When it opened, Café ‘t Mandje was the first bar in Amsterdam where people could be openly gay. Some people mark it as Amsterdam’s, or the world’s, first gay bar, but by all accounts, it was frequented by pimps, drug addicts, and general drunks as well as gay men and lesbians. The owner, a motorcycle riding lesbian named Bet van Beeren, bought it from her uncle and began running it as her own in 1927.
Bet was referred to as the “Queen of Zeedijk” and enjoyed her celebrity. She was known all over Amsterdam as well as across the Netherlands. She was entertaining and welcoming and enjoyed using the bar as her stage. There was a tradition that people would leave something behind when they visited the bar: a ribbon, a pin, or in some cases, a necktie. She would cut them off of men, many times with a butcher knife. The ties would then be hung around the bar.
In the Amsterdam Historic Museum, there is a recreation of the bar as it was in its heyday. There are neckties and boots hanging from the ceiling. There are figurines and mementoes on the glass shelves behind the bar. There are postcards and pictures on the walls. The walls are a big, cluttered mess that really gives the room a lived-in feeling. All of the memorabilia in the bar is from a certain time in Amsterdam and harken back to days long gone. Visitors can sit in the small room and watch a video of Bet’s younger sister, Greet, talk about the bar as it was in Greet’s childhood, as it was in its heyday and how it happened that Greet eventually took over the bar. The whole thing is subtitled and Greet’s enthusiasm about the bar and its importance and history is evident even to the non-Dutch speaker.
The way Greet tells it, Bet was not a total “butch.” There’s a fair amount written about this Amsterdam icon. Because she liked to roar down the street on a motorcycle and because she had a lot of girlfriends and treated them like a man in her position might treat women, she was perceived and remembered by many as very butch. However, Greet emphasizes the softer, more feminine side of Bet. She was caring, loving and very much loved by everyone.
After the death of their father, Greet began working in the bar and Bet took a less public role, never stepping from behind the bar, according to Greet. In 1967, Bet died and was laid out on the billiard table in the bar for three days so that people could pay their respects. Greet took over the bar and ran it for fourteen years. “Seven good years, seven lean years,” Greet says in the video. After that, it became too much of a hassle and Greet closed the bar, keeping it intact. She said that she was willing to sell it to the right person. She respected Bet and wanted to keep the jovial atmosphere that Bet had created and the people had come to expect from a visit to ‘t Mandje.
Recently, there has been some activity at ‘t Mandje. Greet’s niece bought the bar and they have gutted it and replaced everything. The reopening was an appropriate reemergence of the bar as Bet loved Queen’s Day and the bar officially opened the day before, on 29 April, under the same name.
Bet van Beeren is a legendary figure on the Zeedijk. Café ‘t Mandje has been a monument to her larger-than-life personality for many years. It’s fitting that they’re sprucing up the place and making it available for visitors again. Hopefully, it will have the same open-to-everyone atmosphere and carry on the spirit of Bet, but with fewer pimps.