History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Wisconsin - People - Bios

Mabel Meyers Leviash



June 1987
Primary Involvements:

Advocate for housing for the downtrodden

Primary Location:

Milwaukee, WI



At a time when gay men had few friends in the world, Mabel Meyers Leviash was their fiercest supporter and devoted caretaker. Over the span of her lifetime, she ran several hotels and defended the right of gay men to live and play in privacy.

Born in Rockford to Swedish immigrant parents, Mabel found herself divorced with two children after World War I. After working at the Hotel Wisconsin for years, and learning administrative skills reserved for men, she took a cashier job at the new Schroeder Hotel in 1928. In February 1933, she was appointed assistant manager at the Royal Hotel (435 W. Michigan) under Joseph Budar. From 1934-1950, she served as hotel manager.

While maintaining a pristine public reputation as the international president of hotel greeters, and chair of local hotel workers' unions, women's auxiliaries, and other charitable groups, Meyers privately fostered one of the first-known gay and lesbian gathering places in Wisconsin. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Royal Hotel Bar was a hotspot of queer culture, known only through carefully-guarded word of mouth marketing. When the hotel was razed in 1973, elders recalled this being the first and only place in Milwaukee where gay people could gather in public. They also remembered Meyers renting rooms to same-sex couples-- at a time when this wasn't allowed anywhere.

Mabel used her access, privilege, and authority to create safe spaces throughout her entire career. After marrying Fred Leviash, and beating cancer, she accepted a new challenge in December 1950: the million dollar renovation of the landmark Republican House Hotel. She personally directed the modernization and renumbering of all rooms, the creation of four ground floor retail spaces, and the grand opening of George Diamond's destination steakhouse. Unfortunately, the hotel was razed ten years later for a Milwaukee Journal parking lot.

Mabel was named manager of the Antlers Hotel in 1957 and manager of the Blankenstein Hotel System in 1958. This brought her back to the Hotel Wisconsin, where her career began. Although her husband died in 1963, she continued to work well into her 70s and 80s. She was regionally famous for her hostessing skills, and the walls of her home were covered with autographed photos of vaudeville, movie, and theater stars she'd welcomed to Milwaukee over the years.

While at the Antlers and Belmont Hotels, Mabel continued the caretaking tradition she was known for at the Royal. Her tenants weren't just a source of income, they were a source of family, and she treated them very, very well. For elderly gay men and women, this was especially important.

"I was very sick during the Hong Kong Flu," said a contributor, "and I'm pretty sure I would have died if not for Mrs. Leviash. I was a runaway all alone in Milwaukee. I knew no one. I had no money, no doctor. I don't even know how she heard I was sick, but I woke up at 3am with a 104 fever, and there she was, feeding me ice chips. My own mother told me it was God's wrath for my sinful life, but Mrs. Leviash held my hand, fed me, bathed me, and kept me alive."

"She knew why guys came to the Antlers, and she didn't care," said a contributor. "She would put the guys on the top floors so they could play in private. If the cops showed up, she would sweet-talk them into leaving us alone. Her motto was live and let live, judge not unless you be judged. She couldn't believe that gay people had to hide who they were. She was very ahead of her time."

"If someone got arrested, she was the first call for help," said Bunny. "When you moved in, she would give you a business card with her home phone number on it and the words CALL ANYTIME underlined. And she'd come into that police station swinging! You did not mess with her. If she couldn't talk the police out of dropping the charges, she'd pay for the fines, read them the riot act-- and then take the fight to the courtroom. She went head-to-head with (Judge Christ T.) Seraphim more than once. She called him a ‘big fat bully’ more than once. He scared so many people, but I think even he was afraid of Miss Mabel."

Mabel wasn't afraid to put her own life on the line for her chosen family. During a 1978 fire at the Antlers Hotel, 81-year-old Mabel drove from her Bayside home at 3 a.m., covered herself in wet towels, and guided firefighters to the rooms where residents were trapped. Her heroism was featured on all three morning news programs.

She became increasingly concerned about affordable housing, as urban renewal began to decimate the SRO hotels and communities that had long been so close to her heart. Many residents were gay and lesbian tenants who'd been denied housing in other parts of the city. Prior to 1982, housing discrimination was entirely legal-- and common-- throughout Wisconsin.

In 1973, she protested the demolition of the 130-room Royal Hotel for the Blue Cross Blue Shield complex. In 1979, she protested the demolition of the 500-room Antlers Hotel for Grand Avenue's construction. (In a famous letter to the editor, she challenged a Sentinel columnist to call the Antlers an "ashtray hotel" to her face.) In 1981, she protested plans to demolish the Randolph and Belmont Hotels, which would leave only the Hotel Wisconsin for affordable housing downtown. (The 144-room Randolph was torn down in 1985 and has been vacant ever since; the 150-room Belmont survived to 1996.)

"When Milwaukee looked at these old downtown hotels, they were embarrassed," said a contributor. "They saw flophouses that were in the way of progress. Miss Mabel saw good people just trying to make it in a mean world."

One time, a reporter asked her why she rented to homosexuals or prostitutes. She said, I rent to human beings. You should try being one."

Mabel Meyers Leviash died at age 90 in June 1987. She was survived by two daughters, five grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, and an enormous chosen family of residents whose lives she changed forever.

We can only wonder if her survivors know what a hero she was, when the world was short on heroes.


Mrs. Mabel Meyers
(Milw JS, date unknown)

Mabel (center) at Wisconsin Greeters dinner
(Milw JS, Nov. 1938)

Credits: Bio by Michail Takach;
Photos from Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel.
Last updated: January-2024.

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