On Friday, February 24, bridge 210 was officially named after Bet van Beeren during a ceremony in Amsterdam. The bridge crosses the Oudezijds Achterburgwal between the Korte Stormsteeg and the Korte Niezel, around the corner from bar ’t Mandje on the Zeedijk. The festive inauguration took place on February 24, as that day ’t Mandje celebrated its ninetieth anniversary.
In 1927 the then twenty-five-year old Bet van Beeren took over the bar from her uncle Toon. At the time, the bar was known as Amstelstroom. Beth initially named her café “In ’t Mandje” because her mother was bringing her food in a basket every day.
Elisabeth Maria (Bet) van Beeren was born in the Amsterdam Jordaan district on February 12, 1902 as the third child and first daughter of a large Amsterdam family. “Bet’s life story is spectacular. There are stories about her experiences during the Second World War, in hiding, with concealed weapons, cat meat served as pork in the pea soup, and Bet trumping German officers.
She battled with booze, sex and religion, with the excitement and dangers of the streets and bars of the Red Light District,” wrote Gert Hekma in an article in the theme issue “Vies en rose” of the “Tijdschrift voor biografie” (autumn 2015). He added: “She successfully ran ’t Mandje and helped a lot of customers with getting a lighter wallet by writing up the bill ‘with a fork.’” This “writing with a fork” was common in bars at the time, especially when they were housed in a rugged setting that was defying the law, as Amsterdam’s Red Light District then was. Hekma however does add that Bet van Beeren “was generous when people seemed in need.”
That Bet van Beeren was a diamond in the rough with a heart of gold is perhaps highlighted even more by the fact that she turned her pub into a safe haven for gays and lesbians in the 1950s and 1960s, where to some extent they could be themselves. Commercial motives undoubtedly played a role, but certainly were not the only reasons, as a pub where same-sex desires were somewhat openly indulged was operating on the fringe of the law. Kissing was forbidden in ’t Mandje, but on Queen’s Day, men were allowed to dance with men and women with women.
Over the years, Bet van Beeren turned ’t Mandje into a true gay safe haven. In those days gays and lesbians who were somewhat open about their preference were not yet trying to come across as “normal.” On the contrary. Lesbians were often true “dikes” and homosexuals true “faggots,” or, as Gert Hekma writes “gay men were feminine, or at least not very masculine and were attracted to real, ‘straight’ men, usually young and working class: sailors, soldiers, construction workers, or the errand boys who were populating the Red Light District.
They called those partners ‘tule,’ pretty boys who would engage in gay and straight sex without hassle. These boys and men were not adverse to a gay opportunity, as straight opportunities were scarce.” Bet van Beeren - “mother of all tough chicks,” according to Hans van der Beek of Dutch newspaper Het Parool - fits this image perfectly. She dressed the way she wanted. She often wore a leather jacket with pants, or a suit. She drank Dutch gin, smoked cigars, and drove around the city on her motorcycle, sometimes accompanied by a woman. Van Beeren did not care less what other people thought about her or her preference for women.
Bet van Beeren died on July 16, 1967 of liver failure, sixty-five years old. She was placed upon the pool table in her pub and was buried on July 20, 1967 at the Nieuwe Oosterbegraafplaats in Amsterdam. Her younger sister Greet continued the bar for another fifteen years. Because of the increasing heroin trade on the Zeedijk, ’t Mandje had to close in 1982. The bar with its striking interior was preserved untouched for seventeen years.
During the Gay Games in 1998 the pub opened for a week, and on April 29, 2008 it was reopened. After undergoing a major renovation, ’t Mandje was decorated the same way as in its glory days. It is a lasting monument to the years that gay and lesbians were living in a world of shadows and could not be open about their orientation, as well as to the sturdy dyke who offered them a safe haven.
After Niek Engelschman, the founder of the COC under the pseudonym Bob Angelo, was honored with a bridge that was named after him, now the pioneer Bet van Beeren also has a well-deserved place in the street scene of Amsterdam. A place she incidentally had already earned half a century ago in Dutch literature because of the poem “Een nieuw Paaslied” in Gerard Reve’s collection “Nader tot U” (1966):
Al neuriënd en in het geheim profeterend vervolgde ik mijn weg. / Toen zag ik Bet van Beeren, aan een wit tafeltje / tegenover haar cafee gezeten, pogend met mes en vork / een makreel te openen om deze in de zon te eten. / Ik dacht kijk. Wat is in de natuur toch alles mooi gemaakt.
(Humming and secretly prophesying, I continued my way. / Then I saw Bet van Beeren, at a white table / sitting opposite of her pub, trying with knife and fork / to open a mackerel to eat it in the sun. / I thought look. What’s everything beautifully created in nature.)