Elaine Romagnoli, Founder of NYC Lesbian Bars, Dies at 79

Elaine Romagnoli, a pioneer in New York's queer bar scene, died in late October. She was 79 years old.
Elaine Romagnoli

Elaine Romagnoli, the founder of the New York lesbian bars Bonnie & Clyde’s, the Cubby Hole, and Crazy Nanny’s, died late last month in Manhattan. She was 79.

While the cause of Romagnoli’s death is still unclear, her nephew confirmed her passing with the New York Times on November 8. Nearly 50 years ago, Romagnoli catapulted her nightlife career with the creation of Bonnie & Clyde, a bustling lesbian bar that was a known hub for Black women in the 1970s. In 2012, the blog Lost Womyn’s Space describes Bonnie & Clyde as “a hangout for politically active lesbians as well as a place where women socialized across racial and class lines.”

“Often women would gather here after meetings at the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse to continue discussions, arguments, or strategy sessions begun earlier in the day,” the post noted.

Years later, Romagnoli launched the Cubby Hole and Crazy Nannys. Romagnoli’s businesses were known to be inclusive of people of all races and genders while also cultivating career opportunities for LGBTQ women in the club scene.

Lisa Cannistraci, the founder of the lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson at 438 Hudson Street in Manhattan’s West Village, was hired on the spot as a bartender at the Cubby Hole on a rainy day in the March of 1985. Then 22 years old, Cannistraci recalls Romagnoli as a “savvy businesswoman” who laid the framework for her 40-plus-year career in LGBTQ nightlife.

“Within a few weeks, I was moved to the busiest shifts. [Romagnoli] really took a liking to me, and she really entrusted me with her space,” Cannistraci told Gay City News in a phone interview. “There would be no Henriettas without the Cubby Hole — it would have never happened… I enjoyed working for her, although a lot of people who worked for her were a little fearful of her. But I didn’t have that; we had a pretty cool relationship. She’s the one that we followed.”

Romagnoli was born in Englewood, New Jersey, on April 22, 1942, and was raised in Palisades Park in Bergen County. Romagnoli is survived by her sister, Nancy Berkowitz, and her brother, David Romagnoli. The New York Times reports that Romagnoli had a “tumultuous family life,” which prompted her to leave the Garden State for New York City in the 1960s.

As a multifaceted entrepreneur, Romagnoli also launched the restaurants Bonnie’s by the Bay in Long Island and Sunset Strip, which served Spanish cuisine in the West Village, according to the New York Times.

Once the Cubby Hole shuttered, Cannistraci bartended at another one of Romagnoli’s popular ventures, Crazy Nanny’s, before starting her own legacy bar Henrietta Hudson. Cannistraci says she will never forget Romagnoli, who she described as a pioneer that gave her — and many others — their first break in the bar scene.

“None of us would be around or have opportunities to do what we do and to have our businesses if it weren’t for Elaine,” she said.

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