From Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers
White "Slumming" in Harlem
While a lesbian identity was impossible for many women to assume during the '20s, sex with other women was the great adventure, and literature and biography suggest that many women did not hesitate to partake of it. Of course some of the women who had sex with other women did indeed accept a lesbian identity and committed themselves to a new lesbian lifestyle. By 1922, as Gertrude Stein's "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" indicates, such women were already calling themselves "gay," as homosexual men were. But whether they identified as "gay" or "just exploring," those who wanted to experience the public manifestations of lesbianism looked for recently emerged enclaves in America. The era saw the emergence of little areas of sophistication or places where a laissez-faire "morality" was encouraged, such as Harlem and Greenwich Village, which seemed to provide an arena in which like-minded cohorts could pretend, at least, that the 1920s was a decade of true sexual rebellion and freedom.
Harlem had a particular appeal for whites who wanted to indulge in rebel sexuality. Perhaps there was a certain racism in their willingness to think of Harlem as a free-for-all party, or as Colliers Magazine said in the 1920s, "a synonym for naughtiness." White fascination with Harlem seems to have smacked of a "sexual colonialism," in which many whites used Harlem as a commodity, a stimulant to sexuality. And as in many colonized countries, Harlem itself, needing to encourage tourism for economic reasons, seemed to welcome the party atmosphere. Whites went not only to cabarets such as the Cotton Club, which presented all-black entertainment to all-white audiences, but also to speakeasies -- the Drool Inn, the Clam House, the Hot Feet -- that were located in dark basements, behind locked doors with peepholes. Whites snickered and leered in places that specialized in double entendre songs. They peeked into or participated in sex circuses and marijuana parlors. And they went to Harlem to experience homosexuality as the epitome of the forbidden: they watched transvestite floorshows; they rubbed shoulders with homosexuals; they were gay themselves in mixed bars that catered to black and white, heterosexual and homosexual. Made braver by bootlegged liquor, jazz, and what they saw as the primitive excitement of Africa, they acted out their enchantment with the primal and the erotic. They were fascinated with putative black naturalness and exoticism, and they romantically felt that those they regarded as the "lower class" had something to teach them about sexual expression that their middle-class milieu had kept from them. They believed Harlem gave them permission -- or they simply took permission there -- to explore what was forbidden in the white world. They could do in Harlem what they dared not do anywhere else.
But it was not simply that whites took callous advantage of Harlem. To those who already defined themselves as homosexual, Harlem seemed a refuge, for which they were grateful. With an emerging homosexual consciousness, they began, probably for the first time in America, to see themselves as a minority that was not unlike racial minorities. They compared their social discomfort as homosexuals in the world at large with the discomfort of black people in the white world. Some sensed, as one character says in a novel about the period, Strange Brother, a bond between themselves and blacks because both groups flourished under heavy odds, and they believed that blacks also acknowledged that bond: "In Harlem I found courage and joy and tolerance. I can be myself there... They know all about me and I don't have to lie."
In fact, however, blacks were generally as ambivalent about homosexuality as whites, but there were clubs in Harlem that did indeed welcome homosexuals, if only as one more exotic drawing card to lure tourists. Urban blacks in the 1920s did not all simply accept homosexuality as a "fact of life," as gay whites liked to think they did, but Harlem's reliance on tourism created at least the illusion of welcome.
Black novels of the 1920s show how thin that illusion really was. Claude McKay, a black writer who was himself bisexual, depicts Harlem's ambivalence about homosexuality in his novel Home to Harlem (1928). Raymond, an intellectual black waiter, is eloquent in his romantic characterization of lesbianism. He tells Jake, a kitchen porter, that he is reading a book by Alphonse Daudet, Sapho:
But it is Jake who seems to speak for the Harlem masses when he realizes that "lesbian" is "what we calls bulldyker in Harlem," and he declares, "Them's all ugly womens." Raymond continues with his liberal defense in correcting him, "Not all. And that's a damned ugly name." But he realistically recognizes "Harlem is too savage about some things." McKay illustrates more of Harlem's ridicule, good-natured as it may sometimes have been, when he presents in this novel a nightclub called The Congo that does cater to homosexuals along with heterosexuals, but the "wonderful drag blues" to which everyone dances suggests that the heterosexuals responded to the homosexuals around them with gentle contempt: "And there is two things in Harlem I don't understan'/ It is a bulldyking woman and a faggoty man./ Oh, baby, how are you?/ Oh, baby, what are you?"
Other novels by black writers also make it clear that while lesbians in Harlem of the 1920s went unmolested, they were seldom approved of. In Wallace Thurman's 1929 novel The Blacker the Berry, lesbian characters are a part of everyday Harlem, but there is always a hint of discomfort when they appear. Alva, a black bisexual who is scoundrel, runs around with a creole lesbian, which emphasizes his unsavory character. Emma Lou, the heroine, goes hunting for a room to rent and encounters the absurd Miss Carrington, who places her hand on Emma Lou's knee, promising, "Don't worry anymore, dearie, I'll take care of you from now on," and tells her, "There are lots of nice girls living here. We call this the 'Old Maid's Home.' We have parties among ourselves and just have a grand time. Talk about fun! I know you'd be happy here." Emma Lou is frightened off by what seems to her a bizarre sexuality, although obviously there is a whole boardinghouse full of lesbians who are allowed to live in Harlem undisturbed. But the tone in which this phenomenon is presented, by a black writer who was himself gay, makes it clear that Harlem sees these women as "queers."
Yet most white writers who dealt with gay Harlem of the 1920s preferred the illusion of an "anything goes" atmosphere in which no one blinks an eye or expresses disapproval. In Blair Niles' Strange Brother when a white woman begs "to see the other Harlem" she is taken to the Lobster Pot, which vibrates with variety, both in color and sexual orientation. At the Lobster Pot,
No one makes wisecracks or exhibits disdain at such a sight. The most prominent lesbian figure in Strange Brother is Sybil, the black piano player at the Lobster Pot, perhaps modeled on Gladys Bentley, a lesbian transvestite Harlem entertainer. Sybil is a totally happy soul. She "filled the room with her vast vitality" and performed "as though to live was so gorgeous an experience that one must dance and sing in thanksgiving." She lives with another woman, her "wife," whom she married in a lesbian wedding, Sybil in tuxedo, the other woman in bridal veil and orange blossoms. A white character says, "They're happy and nobody they know thinks any the less of them." But as black novelists suggested, such uncomplicated acceptance was less than certain.
In reality as well as in fiction, whites were reluctant to see Harlem's ambivalence toward homosexuality. Instead, they saw that Harlem appeared "wide open" sexually and, typical of many who enjoy the fruits of colonialism, they did not analyze why or even question Harlem's limits. They "slummed" in Harlem as though they were taking a trip into their id. The white women who went to Harlem to "be lesbian" were sometimes only "trying it on," taking advantage of what they assumed was the free spirit of the 1920s in Harlem to explore a variety of sexual possibilities. Some of these women considered themselves bisexual. More often they simply considered themselves adventurous, since there was not yet a pressing need to declare, even to one's self, one's "sexual orientation." They were frequently married or looking for a husband but saw that as no obstacle to their right to explore, either with the black women or with other white women they might meet in Harlem. In John Dos Passos' The Big Money, a novel about America after World War I, Dick Savage is implored by Patricia Doolittle (puns intended), one of the Junior League women in his group of wealthy friends, "Do take me some place low... I'm the new woman... I want to see life." They end up in a black, homosexual basement bar in Harlem, where Patricia dances with a "brown boy" in a tight suit who calls himself "Gloria Swanson." When Dick insists on taking Patricia home so that he can carry on without her as a witness, she screams at him, "You spoil everything... You'll never go through with anything," piqued because she too had intended something further with her female partner. He later returns to the bar alone and takes "Gloria" and another young man, "Florence," home with him. It is night time Harlem that unleashes inhibitions in these repressed whites. They permit themselves to live out fantasy in a world that is not quite real to them. They no longer have to "behave" as they do in white society which "matters."
Such fiction appears to have accurately reflected real life, in which wealthy whites were fascinated with "seeing life" and playing at it in various Harlem night spots that were open to displays of unconventional sexuality. Libby Holman, the celebrated singer of the '20s, who was married to a man, nevertheless came to Harlem, where she could not only act as a lesbian but even be outrageously gay. With one of her lovers, Louisa Carpenter du Pont Jenney, heiress to a great number of the du Pont millions, she visited Harlem almost nightly during one period, both dressed in identical men's dark suits and bowler hats such as they probably could not have worn with impunity in most other areas of the United States. There they were joined by other women celebrities and high-livers, most of them also married to men but out for a good time with other bisexual females: Beatrice Lillie, Tallulah Bankhead, Jeanne Eagles (who was Sadie Thompson in the first version of Rain), Marilyn Miller (the quintessential Ziegfield girl), and Lucille Le Sueur (who later became Joan Crawford). Sometimes they went to the Lafayette to listen to another bisexual woman singer, Bessie Smith, or they visited Helen Valentine, the famous entrepreneur of 140th Street who staged sex circuses that featured homosexual as well as heterosexual acts.
They encouraged some Harlem entertainers even to flaunt lesbianism, to make it a spectacle and an attraction to those who expected the outre from Harlem. Gladys Bentley, a three-hundred-pound "male impersonator" who sometimes played under the name Bobby Minton, appeared in men's suits not only onstage at the popular Clam House and the night spot she later opened, Barbara's Exclusive Club, but also on the streets of Harlem. It was said that her appearance "drew celebrities like flies." Dressed in a tuxedo, she announced her homosexuality by marrying a woman in a New Jersey civil ceremony, like her fictional counterpart Sybil in Strange Brother. Her blatant transvestism and homosexual behavior were part of her risqué appeal. She was the epitome of the stereotype of the lesbian that the public came to Harlem to gawk at. Gladys was in reality bisexual, but in her exceptional case it was more profitable to hide that aspect of her life from the public, which was fascinated with her outrageous image.
That whites permitted themselves to act in Harlem as they probably would not elsewhere was obviously not without opportunism and a racist conviction that nothing really counted in the fantasy world of tourist Harlem. Perhaps their behavior can be attributed to a feeling that their skin color served as armor here, making them impervious to any manner of attack or insult. But what they saw as the greater vitality of black people, "their more basic and healthier eroticism," permitted these white women to reach into those areas of their psyches (whose existence the Freudians had recently charted like a newly discovered planet) in order to discover and express desires they might have suppressed elsewhere. Many of them must have been grateful for the permission Harlem appeared to give them.
Black Lesbians in Harlem
A black lesbian subculture could be established fairly early in Harlem for several reasons. One root of that subculture might have been the demiworld. Black women who had been to jail learned there not only about lesbian sexuality but also about "mama" and "papa" sexual roles that had developed in institutionalized situations in America by the beginning of this century. They sometimes established similar "butch/femme" arrangements once they were released from the institution, and perhaps they helped to bring such patterns into the fledgling subculture and to give it a clear, identifiable image.
But it was also easy for black lesbians to form a subculture in Harlem relatively early because although many Harlemites treated homosexuality with some ridicule, there was nevertheless more tolerance there than elsewhere for what the world of Babbit would have seen as outcasts and oddities, since blacks in general felt themselves to be outside the pale in white America. While homosexual men were sometimes being run out of small white towns, as Sherwood Anderson suggest in his post-World War I collection of stories Winesburg, Ohio ("Hands"), in Harlem tolerance extended to such a degree that black lesbians in butch/femme couples married each other in large wedding ceremonies, replete with bridesmaids and attendants. Real marriage licenses were obtained by masculinizing a first name or having a gay male surrogate apply for a license for the lesbian couple. Those licenses were actually placed on file in the New York City Marriage Bureau. The marriages were often common knowledge among Harlem heterosexuals.
Such relative tolerance permitted black lesbians to socialize openly in their own communities instead of seeking out alien turf as white lesbians generally felt compelled to do. While heterosexual Harlemites often made fun of lesbians, they were willing to share bars and dance floors with them. There were thus plenty of places where black lesbians could amuse themselves and meet other lesbians in Harlem. The nightclubs that catered to gays and straights together that were described in novels such as Home to Harlem, Strange Brother, The Big Money, and Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven all had counterparts in reality. The Lobster Pot, where Sybil sings and dances in Strange Brother, for instance, was probably the Clam House, where Gladys Bentley entertained for many years. There were numerous other bars and dance places, such as Connie's Inn, the Yeahman, the Garden of Joy, and Rockland Palace, where homosexuals and heterosexuals rubbed shoulders, although, as Van Vechten shows in Nigger Heaven, heterosexuals sometimes quit a club when they perceived that "too many bulldikers" were taking over.
Institutions that had no counterparts in the white world also flourished in gay Harlem of the 1920s. "Buffet flats," apartments where sex circuses were staged, cafeteria style, for a paying clientele, occasionally catered to homosexual audiences. Ruby Walker Smith recalls such establishments where there were "nothing but faggots and bulldaggers... everybody that's in the life... everything goes." According to Smith, people would pay as they came in and then be free to roam around: "They had shows in every room, two women goin' together, a man and a man goin' together... and if you interested they do the same thing to you." While buffet flats appear to have begun as a heterosexual institution, there were enough individuals who were interested in homosexuality to make a gay buffet flat a profitable proposition. Equivalent buffet flats still catered to heterosexuals as well, not only in New York, but in the ghettos of Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington.
While there were black lesbians in 1920s Harlem who committed themselves to "the life" and sometimes lived with other women in butch/femme couples, many who had affairs with other females were married to men, either because they were bisexual, they needed to marry for economic reasons, or front marriages permitted them to continue functioning with less stigma in the very sexually aware and ambivalent black community. Among Harlem women of wealth or fame, bisexuality was not uncommon, though few would have admitted to exclusive homosexuality. Perhaps to Harlem sophisticates, who in this respect do not appear to have been very different from white sophisticates of the 1920s, the former seemed liked adventure while the latter seemed like disease. In any case, there is a good deal of evidence of bisexuality among Harlem entertainers in particular. For instance, blues singer Bessie Smith's lesbian interests were well known among her show business intimates, although she was a married woman and took pains to cultivate that image as well. Many of the women in Bessie's mid-1920s show, Harlem Frolics, were also known to have had relationships with each other.
It was popular knowledge among those in the show business world of Harlem that Bessie was initiated into lesbianism by her old friend and mentor Ma Rainey, another bisexual, whose "indiscreet" lesbian behavior got her into trouble in 1925 when she was arrested for a lesbian orgy at her home involving the women in her chorus. A neighbor called the police because of the noise. Reports say the women scrambled for their clothes and ran out the back door, but Rainey's escape was foiled when she fell down a staircase. She was accused of running an indecent party and thrown in jail, from which Bessie Smith bailed her out the following morning.
The news of her arrest did not hurt Ma Rainey, however. Like Gladys Bentley, she even capitalized on the shock effect that could be produced by hints of her bisexuality. Her recording of "Prove It on Me Blues," a blues monologue by a woman who prefers women, was advertised with a picture of a plump black woman, looking much like Ma Rainey, in a man's hat, tie, and jacket, talking to two entranced feminine flappers. In the distance, observing them, there is a policeman. The copy that accompanies the picture tries to pique the potential buyer's salacious interest by hinting at the possible autobiographical nature of the song: "What's all this? Scandal? Maybe so, but you wouldn't have thought it of Ma Rainey. But look at that cop watching her! What does it all mean?" The record company rightly assumed there were enough buyers in the 1920s who would not only understand the image and the implications but would be intrigued. But Ma Rainey was also sure to let the public know about her interest in young men and even to cultivate the heterosexual image of herself so that it largely undermined the other.
Similarly, Alberta Hunter, another blues singer, married in 1919 to obfuscate the conclusion she knew many people drew that she was a "bulldiker," and she apparently reasoned that although she did not live with her husband, marriage gave her a protective coloration -- not of heterosexuality, which would have been going too far in favor of conservatism, but of bisexuality. She thus felt free to continue her lesbian pursuits without excessive discretion and was known to have been the lover of Lottie Tyler (the niece of black 1920s comedian Bert Williams). She also kept company with other black show business luminaries who were not excessively careful to hide their bisexuality in Harlem, such as Ethel Waters and her lover of many years, Ethel Williams. These women, who did not take great pains to pretend to exclusive heterosexuality, must have believed that in their own sophisticated circles of Harlem, bisexuality was seen as interesting and provocative. Although unalloyed homosexuality may still have connoted in 1920s Harlem the abnormality of "a man trapped in a woman's body," bisexuality seems to have suggested that a woman was super-sexy.
Among some sophisticated Harlem heterosexuals in the '20s the lesbian part of bisexuality was simply not taken very seriously. Even housewives occasionally indulged in lesbian affairs, with the open approval of their husbands. One Harlem resident of the 1920s remembers frequent lesbian parties and dinners thrown by a wealthy married woman with a big house and a lavish garden: "Her husband didn't mind her with the girls," she recalls, "but he said if he ever caught her with a man he'd cut her head off." No less than among white libertines for centuries, some Harlemites believed that real sex was penetration by a penis and love between women was just fooling around.
Liberality toward bisexuality bespoke an urbanity that had special appeal for upper-class Harlemites, no less than for white worldly continentals and rebels against American Babbitry. Perhaps the tone was set for Harlem's upper class by A'Lelia Walker, who inherited a fortune from her former-washerwoman mother, inventor of a hair straightener that made millions. A majestic woman, nearly six feet tall, A'Lelia often went around with riding crop in hand and jeweled turban on her head. Though married several times, she was attended by a circle of handsome women and effete men, and as one of her contemporaries observed, "all the women were crazy about her." Some believed that her various marriages were "fronts" and her husbands were themselves homosexuals, but like many of the sophisticated bisexual Harlemites, she felt it desirable to be married, regardless of what she did in her affectional life.
A'Lelia held salons that were attended by French princesses, Russian grand dukes, men and women on New York's social register, Prohibition czars, Harlem Renaissance writers, and world-renowned intellectuals. But she threw other kinds of parties as well. Mabel Hampton, a Harlem dancer in the 1920s who attended some of Walker's less formal gatherings with a white lesbian friend, remembers them as
A'Lelia Walker probably had much to do with the manifest acceptance of bisexuality among the upper class in Harlem: those who had moral reservations about bisexuality or considered it strange or decadent learned to pretend a sophistication and suppress their disapproval if they desired A'Lelia's goodwill. Although many were undoubtedly no less ambivalent about lesbianism than Jake, the kitchen porter in Home to Harlem, through Walker's example and influence they learned at least to tolerate it.
The complex attitudes with regard to female homosexual relations that were prevalent among sophisticated Harlemites in the 1920s are sometimes reflected in lyrics of the blues. Those songs, which are often satirical or funny, do not deal with bisexuality, perhaps because that affectional preference lent itself less readily to humorous caricatures than did blatant lesbianism. Instead, they sometimes present extreme lesbian stereotypes (especially the mannish lesbian image that the term "bulldiker" connoted), which allowed the listener to recognize the situation without introducing the subtle complications and to laugh at the in-joke. With the usual goal of titillation, the songs also satirically probed masculine uneasiness about the suspicion that women know how to "do it" better to each other than men do. And they frequently admitted to an ambivalent fascination.
In some of these songs the characterization of the lesbian combines images of freakishness with a bravado that is at once laughable and admirable. The lesbian is ridiculed for her illicit and unorthodox sexuality. But she is also an outlaw, which makes her a bit of a culture hero in an oppressed community. In Ma Rainey's "Prove It on Me Blues" the singer seems to invite jeers: she admits to wearing a collar and a tie, to being "crooked," to liking "to watch while the women pass by." But the black audience is forced to identify with her because she and they understand stigmatization. And she is also rescued from being ludicrous because she can toy with the audience. She is the jokester they must, at least grudgingly, admire. She teasingly admits that she means to follow another woman everywhere she goes and that she wants the whole world to know it. But she pretends to dangle ambiguity in front of her listeners:
Her message is finally that she doesn't give a damn what they think and until she is caught in flagrante delicto no one can prove anything about her anyway. But the audience is meant to understand that she does indeed "do it" and to simultaneously laugh at her and cheer her on for her boldness.
Teasing is recurrent in these blues songs, whose purpose seems often to be to worry the male listener just to the point of titillation. In George Hannah's "The Boy in the Boat" the singer provokingly acknowledges the superiority of lesbian sex (cunnilingus) and challenges the audience:
Bessie Jackson's "BD [bulldiker] Women's Blues" is another provocative admonishment to heterosexual males that they are dispensable and if they will not reform women could easily do without them. She tells her male listeners that they can't understand BD women, but in her experience, bulldykers have everything a "nach'l man" has and more. They can lay their jive, they can strut their stuff, they can drink up many whiskeys, they're not too lazy to work and make their dough, and a woman misses nothing by choosing them over a man.
But there is an additional dimension to Jackson's song that can also be found in a few other blues songs about lesbianism. It can be read as a subversive statement of lesbian pride in its listing of lesbian competencies, and a prefiguration of the radical feminism of a much later era in its warning that women can find other women much nicer than cruel and selfish men:
George Hannah's song, too, although it seems to be bent on provoking the male listener to both worry and laughter, contains a secret message to the female listener that lesbianism can be superior to heterosexuality. The remarkable dual message that characterizes some of these blues songs is particularly clear in one lyric that baldly states that while lesbian sex is improper, it is nonetheless terrific:
The song at once urges men to worry and women to "try it." The humor is derived from the double discourse that pretends disapproval but hints at titillation in the face of sexual daring.
The listener to these 1920s blues apparently took whatever he or she wanted out of the songs. To the heterosexual male they were provocative. To the potentially bisexual female they were suggestive and encouraging. To the lesbian they could be affirming. One lesbian blues song, "BD's Dream," has been described by historians of 1920s and '30s music as one of the most frequently heard songs in the rent party repertoire. Of course lesbians sometimes attended rent parties in Harlem (parties where the guests would pay an entrance fee to help the tenant raise money for the rent), but those gatherings were generally predominantly heterosexual, which confirms that the song must have had terrific popularity with all manner of audiences.
It is not surprising that sophisticated heterosexuals, both blacks and the tourists who were intrigued with black life and environs, were taken with such lyrics -- they were characteristic of the era: They flaunt unorthodoxy with a vengeance, but at the same time they exhibit the vestiges of discomfort toward female nonconformity and sexual autonomy that individuals who scoffed at the conventional nevertheless maintained. That discomfort, as much as it is mitigated by laughter in these songs, suggests that even those who chose to reject the mainstream culture or who were cast outside it by virtue of their race could go no further in their own unconventionality than to be ambivalent about sexual love between women.