Source, Story: History
: Teaching U.S. History in the Archives

“Gay Paree”: The Public Lives of Gordon Heath and Lee Payant, 1949-1976

Gordon Heath

Gordon Heath (1918–1991) was a prolific African American actor, director, and musician. Heath became widely known for his role in the 1945 “race place” Deep Are the Roots. The London production of Deep Are the Roots marked the beginning of Heath's life as an expatriate. He moved to Paris in the late 1940s, and, in 1949 became co-owner of the nightclub, l'Abbaye. Heath and his partner Lee Payant performed French and American folk songs, spirituals, and jazz standard at the club seven nights a week for more than twenty years.

L'Abbaye became a beloved institution for American tourists and expatriates alike. Heath and Payant regularly received gushing letters from foreigners who had come to the l'Abbaye while on vacation, and students who visited the club while studying abroad. The club and its likable proprietors were featured in publications ranging from National Geographic and Ebony to American guide books and tourist magazines.

This selection of documents from Heath's papers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst charts the pair's ascendency in the Paris nightclub scene through fan mail, press clippings, and guide book citations. A selection of photographs document the club's interior and patrons, and give a glimpse of Heath and Payant's life in Paris outside the doors of l'Abbaye.

In her introduction to Heath's memoir, Deep Are the Roots, Doris Abramson writes of Payant and Heath: “the two had met in America in 1947 and were to become devoted companions and business associates for the next thirty years.” Although Heath's papers contain copious personal correspondence, and include the men's love letters, this selection of documents focuses on their public personae. Letters from fans and published references to “gay Paree” raise, but do not answer, the question: to what degree was Heath and Payant's romantic relationship an open secret?

Finding aid for the Gordon Heath Papers

Lesson plan (pdf)

“Writing a fan letter is something I have never before done”: Selections from l'Abbaye Correspondence

Undated letter from a Tufts University student fondly recalling his evenings at l'Abbaye. undated digital object
A 1955 letter from a Swedish couple who visited l'Abbaye recounts the impression Heath and Payant made on a young friend, Alexander. 1955 Oct. 7 digital object
A housewife from Texas wrote to Heath and Payant in 1956, requesting an autographed cocktail napkin for her daughter's scrapbook. 1956 Aug. 26 digital object
An American tourist writes to Heath and Payant, recounting how he “sold” the phonograph repairman on their album. 1956 Sept. 20 digital object
An Englishman who spent eighteen months in Paris congratulates Heath for his performance in the BBC version of Othello. undated digital object
In 1958, a fan from Chicago, Illinois recalls his evenings at l'Abbaye seven years earlier. 1958 Apr. 19 digital object
Later that year, the fan from Chicago writes again. 1958 Aug. 23 digital object
A young student from New York invites Heath to visit her high school drama club in 1960. 1960 Sep. 12 digital object
In 1960, an embarrassed fan writes from Washington, D.C. 1960 Nov. 28 digital object
A Jamaican couple write to Payant and Heath recommending Jamaican folk songs to expand their repertoire. undated digital object
In a 1964 letter, a student from Kansas recalls her time at l'Abbaye with study abroad classmates. 1964 Aug. 15 digital object

“There's a lovely paragraph about you and Gordon”: L'Abbaye in Print

An undated letter to Payant describes a proposed book on study abroad. The manuscript cites L'Abbaye as a “nite club where American girls can go unescorted.” undated digital object
A 1950 booklet published by the European Edition of the New York Herald Tribune identifies the club as “Gordon Heath's Bar” and notes its “loyal following among the French people.” 1950 digital object
This 1951 article from an unidentified publication features a large photograph of Heath and Payant at l'Abbaye, and highlights the tensions between expatriates and American tourists. 1951 digital object
L'Abbaye was also featured in a 1952 issue of National Geographic for an article on the 2000th anniversary of Paris. Correspondence and cables from the magazine's photographers document the research process for the article. 1952 Mar.-Apr. digital object
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Ebony profiled Heath and l'Abbaye in 1952. 1952 Dec. digital object
By 1958, l'Abbaye was enough of an institution to merit a stop on tours of Paris organized by travel agencies. digital object
In 1958, on the tenth anniversary of the club's opening, this article appeared in an unidentified newspaper. Note the characterization of Payant and Lee as “friends” in the headline. 1958 digital object
L'Abbaye appeared in the New York Times International Edition in 1967. Note Heath's reference to second-generation patrons at l'Abbaye. 1967 Jan. 14 digital object
L'Abbaye was mentioned in guide books including Frommer's, Fielding's, and Aboard and Abroad. A draft note to “Mr. Fielding” suggests Heath was not always pleased with the guides' depictions of his club. 1959-1974 digital object
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L'Abbaye in Photographs

Heath plays for a full house in 1949. 1949 digital object
Heath and Payant at l'Abbaye, March 1950. 1950 Mar. digital object
Heath and Payant sing by candlelight in an undated photograph. digital object
Exterior of l'Abbaye, September 1959. 1959 Sept. digital object
Undated photograph of drinks list at l'Abbaye. undated digital object
Heath and Lee in the window of their apartment in Paris, February 1957. 1957 Feb. digital object
An undated shot of Heath and Payant at their apartment in Paris. undated digital object
An undated photograph of a “typical music-work session at home with Lee” undated digital object
Heath and Payant singing at l'Abbaye, August 1974. 1974 Aug. digital object