As so often happens, I had no idea I would be writing a Gay History (HerStory?) story—and the funny thing is, it’s all Groucho Marx’s fault.
For those not aware, Groucho starred in what is now an ancient television game show, “You Bet Your Life”. The basic concept was that the guest would come on and demonstrate a talent, do a little comedic banter with Groucho, and then answer questions for money.
There is a newly released DVD set of episodes from the show, and I was watching the very first episode of the set...and along comes this woman who introduces herself as Gladys Bentley. After a few words, she sits down at the portable piano that was provided, and much to my amazement she proceeds to pound out some of the most amazing boogie-woogie it has ever been my pleasure to watch.
Naturally, a Google search ensued...and that’s when it got interesting.
Gladys Bentley: Harlem's Most Famous Drag King
You see, Gladys Bentley, in 1920s and 1930s Harlem, was the most famous Drag King of her time (yes, Virginia, there are Drag Kings, just as there are Drag Queens)...and all of a sudden, it was time to write a “couple days after Pride Month” story.
The history of early 20th Century Harlem is associated with two notable trends: black migration caused by the gradual desegregation of the neighborhood and the introduction of Prohibition and the speakeasy culture.
“...a costume ball can be a very tame thing, but when all the exquisitely gowned women on the floor are men and a number of the smartest men are women, ah then, we have something over which to thrill and grow round-eyed.”
--“Lady Nicotine”, Geraldyn Dismond Major, describing the “Faggot’s Ball” in her “Between Puffs” column for “The Inter-State Tattler”, February 1929
For those unaware, 1920s Harlem was the home of an active gay community, and it was apparently the perfect place for a black woman who once wrote that “even as I was toddling, I never wanted a man to touch me....”. By the end of the decade she had worked herself up from playing rent parties to stardom on “Jungle Alley”: appearing at The Cotton Club and eventually becoming the “headliner-in-residence” at the predominantly lesbian The Clam House (the entendre being entirely intentional).
It is reported that there was a surprising amount of integration on Jungle Alley—of multiple kinds—which helped Gladys Bentley soon became the darling of the white, black, gay, and straight social sets. (Langston Hughes even modeled a character in the play “Little Ham” after her.) Her ability to write and perform some of the bawdiest lyrics ever while “working the room”—especially the ladies--kept The Clam House packed...and it set her up for an even bigger gig to come.
Connie’s Inn, another famous speakeasy, had closed, and in its place was the Ubangi Club. To “kick things up a notch”, as it were, the new management not only hired Bentley, but provided for her an entire chorus line of “pansies”; the combination of the effeminate male chorus line and the female butch headliner forming a sort of gender-bending fugue that that came together in elaborate stage shows produced by the likes of Leonard Harper.
Eventually she moved over to the Mad House, performing under the stage name of Barbara “Bobbie” Minton...which, before long, caused the club to change its own “stage” name to Barbara’s Exclusive Club in her honor.
She recorded music as well, first in the late 1920s, for OKEH records; some of that music can be heard today by visiting just the right websites.
Bentley Ties The Knot(s)
Eventually...Miss Bentley became a Mrs....more than once.
“A friend, visiting her, pointed inquiringly at two pictures on Miss Bentley’s dresser...
“Who are they?” the visitor inquired innocently.
“Oh” Miss Bentley replied “That’s my husband (pointing to the male) and that’s my wife.”
--From “The Third Sex” By Albert Duckett, in “The Chicago Defender”, March 2, 1957
Bentley’s first marriage—to a white woman, in Atlantic City—was reportedly covered in the society pages of the New York papers. Bentley also reports that there were two marriages to men, in later years, both ending in divorce—a topic to which we will return later.
All of this came to an end as the Depression deepened, and in 1937, less than five years after she had moved into a Park Avenue apartment she moved out to Los Angeles to live with her mother.
World War II revived the gay scene on the West Coast, and Bentley was able to find work at bars such as the San Bernardino Club and Joaquin’s El Rancho in Los Angeles and Mona’s Club 440 in San Francisco (“Where Girls Will Be Boys!”), along with other artists such as Miss Jimmy Reynard and Miss Beverly Shaw.
(Fun Fact: Some sort of club has occupied the same location as the old Mona’s right up to this very day, and if you find yourself in San Francisco you can visit Apartment 24, the current occupant of the spot (the website tells us to “think of classic age rock star David Bowie's over the top apartment in the 1960s....”).)
Bentley's Gender Bending Presentation
In 1945 World War II came to an end...and not long after that, so did the “gender-bending” phase of Gladys Bentley’s life.
“I thought that nought is worth a thought,
And I’m a fool for thinking.”
--From ”The Chant of the Brazen Head”, Winthrop Mackworth Praed
Before we proceed further, a few words about the public ”presentation” of homosexuality.
If you read media accounts from the 1930s—and later--that deal with gay issues, one thing that will become quickly apparent is the way the gay lifestyle is presented as an aberrant condition. You will likely also note the admonitions that a gay person must be suffering from internal torment, and unable to live a happy life.
Here are a couple quick examples:
“...Dr. Berger reasons that 99 out of any 100 Lesbians are successful in hiding their strange sex habit...
...Since it is easier for a woman to hide the fact that she is sexually cold than for a man to hide the fact that he cannot satisfactorily perform functions expected of a normal husband...
--From “The Third Sex” by Albert Duckett, in “The Chicago Defender”, March 2, 1957
“...still, in my secret heart I was weeping and wounded because I was traveling the wrong road to real love and true happiness. I could not find them in the cruel, unusual world of my strange private life.”
That second example is from an August 1952 “Ebony” Magazine article written by Gladys Bentley, “I Am A Woman Again”.
In the article Bentley renounces her entire life...and in doing so she paints a portrait of a woman who would have been a whole lot happier if she would have had the freedom to just be herself.
She describes a childhood that was spent mostly alone, parents who tried to “fix” her gender confusion by making her dress in something other than her brothers’ suits...an attraction to her teacher that she did not understand...and what she herself portrays as “extreme social maladjustment”.
Even then there was a feeling that you could cure “Teh Gay”, and as a child Bentley’s mother “began to take me from doctor to doctor...”; an effort to which Bentley herself would eventually return.
"I Hated Sailors at the Time"
Fast forward again to post-1945...and the time she married a sailor.
“Don” was a friend-of-a-friend from San Diego via San Francisco who was told to introduce himself to Ms. Bentley if he should happen to find himself in Los Angeles...which eventually happened.
Despite the fact that “I hated sailors at the time” because of their aggressive nature they began to spend a great deal of time together—so much so that she began to introduce him as her brother.
“One day, I told Don all about my life. I admitted to him that he had me very confused because I couldn’t understand what I was doing letting a normal man pay attention to me.”
In the midst of tremendous anxiety about the future of their relationship (what with Don being the accepting type and all, they had decided to marry), she decided to visit another physician, to whom she announced the news of her impending marriage.
““That’s just what I wanted to hear” the doctor told me. “Now I can tell you what I’ve known for a long time. Your sex organs are infantile. They haven’t progressed past the stage of those of a fourteen-year-old-child.””
The solution? Injections of female hormones, three times weekly.
(There are those, notably Eric Garber, who question this account.)
“The treatment was expensive but it was worth every penny it cost.”
Fast forward to two lines later in the story:
“Even though our marriage did not last...”
Eventually Bentley began to study religion seriously, and she was in the process of becoming an ordained minister at the time of her 1958 appearance on the episode of “You Bet Your Life” that was the genesis for this story in the first place.
(Another Fun Fact: An 11-year-old Candice Bergen appears as a contestant in the second half of that same episode.)
From Groucho Marx to Gladys Bentley
In one way, Gladys Bentley’s story came to an untimely end just two years later, in 1960, when she died from influenza...but in another, more profound way, the story remains unresolved to this day.
It is, after all, still impossible for most same-sex couples to marry—and the Federal Government has yet to acknowledge the legal marriages that have occurred.
And those who do choose to carve out a different gender role for themselves, as well as those who are merely “committing the crime” of being gay are still ostracized by many in the larger society, even to the point that “God Hates Fags” has become the rallying cry for a weird and twisted church.
That said, the story is moving in the right direction...Prop 8 notwithstanding...with several states now granting to same-sex couples the right to marry—and the LBGT community gaining more and more political power all the time (can you say gAyTM?).
The remainder of the Obama Administration promises to be an exercise in...well, we’re not sure: will the Administration live up to the Candidate’s promises—or will the LBGT community find itself feeling the same way vis à vis the Democrats as the “teabag” community (not that one...the other one...) feels about the Republicans: taken for granted while at the same time lacking better options.
So how’s that for a “not Pride Month” story?
History that stretches back more than 40 years before Stonewall...great music...a bawdy personal life...repression, regret, and recriminations...and in the end, an Administration that is having to face up to the demands of those who seek more equal treatment.
And all of that...because of Groucho Marx.
I am competing for a Netroots Nation Scholarship, and I was not selected in either the first or second rounds. There is one more chance...and while I’m not inclined to use the “hard sell”...I guess I will today.
If you like what you’re seeing here, and you’d like to help me make these stories even better, swing by the Democracy for America site (even if you have before...) and express your support.
All of us here thank you for your kind attention, and we now return you to your regular programming (which, in keeping with the “hard sell”, is rated PG, instead of the usual G).