When thousands of guys, and plenty of women, congregate on Poodle Beach this Memorial Day weekend in Rehoboth, they may want to know the story behind that patch of sand.
The site is at the far south end of the boardwalk, starting, appropriately enough, around Queen Street.
But this iconic gay beach wasn’t the first place in the area where gay visitors gathered. Historians point to Carpenter Beach, across a small dune and up towards Dewey Beach, as the first gay beach in the Rehoboth area.
That sandy stretch sat in front of the former home of Louisa du Pont Carpenter, an aviatrix and a very independent gal. Although Carpenter was married to a local businessman, she was rumored to enjoy the lesbian lifestyle.
One of her closest friends was Broadway and Hollywood legend Tallulah Bankhead, who often visited her and spent time, during the 1930s and ’40s with many of their male friends at the oceanfront Carpenter home.
Gay visitors continued to gather on that site through the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s as hundreds of older men would sun and socialize on what came to be called Carpenter Beach. They played chess, backgammon and volleyball, a comfortable distance away from the vacationing straight couples and families on Rehoboth Beach.
According to reports from those who were there, it was a very sophisticated gay scene and the tradition went on for years. As there were no gay bars in Rehoboth in those days (and even if there were, it was against the law to walk with a drink in your hand, so nobody could socialize), gay visitors spent time on Carpenter Beach followed by private house parties.
Through the years, Rehoboth came to be called The Nation’s Summer Capital, serving as a weekend getaway for Washington, D.C., legislators and government workers. A contingent of gay men and women weekended in Rehoboth as well.
With the hideous threat of exposure that often led to gay people being fired from their jobs and even being jailed, these vacationing closeted gays stayed to themselves on Carpenter Beach or at friends’ homes — throwing elegant dinner parties with shades drawn and discretion a must. During the work week, this crowd would make plans for parties and lodging, gathering in relative safety for weekends in Rehoboth.
The traditions continued almost unchanged through the 1960s and early ’70s. Louisa du Pont Carpenter was still around at her beach home much of the time, but died in the early ’70s after she crashed her single-engine plane trying to land at a local airport.
So that is the story behind Carpenter Beach. Why, then, when hoards of LGBT people descend on Rehoboth this Memorial Day weekend, won’t they be planting their rainbow flags on the sand in front of the old Carpenter mansion?
Local old-timers tell the story of two gay cousins back in 1982 who got fed up dragging their beach chairs and coolers the extra way past the end of the Rehoboth boardwalk to sit on Carpenter Beach.
One day, they simply spread their blankets on the sand just past the boardwalk and invited their friends to join them. Soon, this growing collection of gays took a stand on the sand, holding their ground as the Rehoboth family crowd moved slightly north to accommodate them. Soon, most of the people who had been walking to Carpenter Beach stopped short to sun themselves on this new, more convenient stretch of sand.
For a few years after that, a group of old-timers still frequented Carpenter Beach, with their chess and backgammon games still going strong. But eventually the shift to Queen Street became permanent, and Poodle Beach was born.
But wait! Why is it called Poodle Beach? Nobody really knows.
Whatever the truth, Poodle Beach is an iconic place in Rehoboth, waiting to host thousands of visitors this Memorial Day weekend for sun and sand along with Rehoboth’s equally iconic nightlife.
And while the LGBT crowd is joyously, openly out and about these days at the beach, history acknowledges that the community got its start along the shore thanks to Louisa du Pont Carpenter and her gay pals on the beach between her home and the Atlantic Ocean. n