It’s Officially Poodle Beach!
The definitive—or not—words on Rehoboth’s gay beach
Poodle Beach is the previously unofficial, but now historically official, name for Rehoboth’s beachfront from Queen and Prospect streets to the south end of the boardwalk. It’s where the boys are, and none too few gals as well.
Every year, or occasionally every other year, there are words here in Letters about why that stretch is called Poodle Beach. Rehoboth residents and regulars don’t mind reading about it seasonally, and newcomers get the real, or partially real, scoop about why that sandy oasis is called Poodle Beach.
Sort of. Because frankly, nobody really knows.
Historians have long tapped Carpenter Beach, just over the dunes and heading towards Dewey, as Rehoboth’s first gay beach.
That sandy stretch was the home of Louisa Dupont Carpenter, an aviatrix and—though married to a man—known to enjoy the lesbian lifestyle. One of her closest friends was Hollywood legend Tallulah Bankhead, who often visited Louisa there, along with many homosexual male friends, during the 1930s and 40s. Louisa’s gal pal was torch singer Libby Holman, who, when accused of shooting her husband, tobacco heir Zachery Smith Reynolds, was bailed from jail by Louisa. Libby and Louisa took refuge from the scandal (the charges were eventually dropped) and came to live here in the mansion on Carpenter Beach. (It’s a great story, look it up!).
So Carpenter Beach became a known gathering spot for gay visitors and continued that way through the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s. Hundreds of older gay men would sun and socialize there, playing chess, backgammon, and volleyball a comfortable distance away from the vacationing straight couples and families on the official Rehoboth beach.
Gay people faced the awful threat of exposure, firings, and even prison back then, so staying to themselves at Carpenter Beach made sense.
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—with shades drawn and discretion a must.
The tradition 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 an eastern shore airport.
Why, then, don’t we still plant our rainbow flags there?
In the late 70s or early 80s, even with the threat of being outed, old-timers recall two men who may or may not have been “cousins,” who got fed up dragging their beach chairs and coolers all that way past the boardwalk. And they longed to be closer to boardwalk refreshments as well.
One day, they brazenly spread their blankets on the sand near Queen Street, and invited 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.
For a few years after that, a group of old-timers still frequented Carpenter Beach, with their chess and backgammon games, but eventually the shift to Queen Street became permanent, and Poodle Beach was born.
But, wait! Why did this “new” area become known as Poodle Beach? Perhaps, it was a hurled slur, or maybe those “cousins” had poodles. Some recall that they did indeed have fluffy white (or were they black?) standard poodles with them. The truth is, the naming of the beach remains a mystery.
Its location does not. As Rich Barnett recalled in 2018, “Memorial Day weekend is nothing but raucous on Poodle. It’s like being in a Cadmus painting with all the fellas cruising and showing off their winter workouts…. And yes, it’s perfectly fine to stare.”
Diversity in ages, styles, ethnicities, and genders echo 2021 in wonderful ways.
And into the new millennium, Poodle Beach became more and more famous, crowded, home to legendary Drag Volleyball, and iconic to Rehoboth Beach. So iconic, in fact, that resident Frank Cooper, along with his friends, had been trying to find a way to commemorate the history of Poodle Beach.
Cooper petitioned the state of Delaware for a historical marker to acknowledge Poodle Beach as a historic refuge for LGBTQ people to have fun and relaxation, away from discrimination and harassment, for over 70 years.
The Delaware Public Archives Historical Marker Program approved the marker, one of over 600 in the state, in December 2020. Wording on the sign and placement of the marker are still in the works.
The name and its relation to poodles may remain a mystery but its popularity surely is not. And as of now, Poodle Beach is here, it’s queer, and it’s recognized as historic. ▼
Fay Jacobs is the author of five published books and is touring with her one-woman sit-down comedy show, Aging Gracelessly.