Thursday, 7 February 2013

Queer Vintage – Gladys Bentley – a “sporting life”

Well, I’m not sure how this is going to go, because I’m not good at writing blog series and what with the hairdos series from hell I’m currently embroiled in I think I might be biting off more than I can chew.  Still, following  I was thinking it might be fun to indulge myself (and you of course) with a few posts on queer history. 

I was going to write this piece up into one long article but, given the sheer volume of material and the average “concentration span”  I have decided to split it into deliciously camp bitesize chunks, and oh boy, is the subject of today’s post a chunk I’d like to have bitten. 

Glady Bentley – the original bulldagger of blues – was born in 1907 in Philadelphia but, having discovered a taste for masculine dress and the power of performing early on, she moved to New York before she hit the age of twenty and began working the Harlem lesbian bars, most notably The Clam House – a popular gay speakeasy. 

Bentley invariably performed in drag, taking full advantage of the freedom of this underground scene to express her masculinity rather than having to hide.  In as a wild time, clubs were populated with lovers of what was known as the “sporting life”– rife with sex, drugs and liquor.  Usually favouring a white tuxedo and top hat the 300lb Gladys cut quite the dash as she played on her noted masculinity with deep growling vocals.  Her performances were renowned for their bawdy humour with Bentley adept at making class commentary, mocking racial boundaries and flirting with the ladies of the audience all at the same time.  Her act was so shocking that the clubs she performed in were raided, on more than one occasion, on the grounds of obscenity.  Sounds like a fun scene to me and it certainly drew in a large and dissolute crowd.

Gladys even claimed to have married her white lover, much to the delight of gossip columnists!

Sadly the Great Depression devastated the theatre scene and pushed her back to her family, now in California, in 1937.  However, her irrepressible personality led her back to the stage and it was not long before she made a name for herself there , making a few theatre appearances before the authorities caught on and banned her from appearing on stage in trousers.  Refusing to give in Bentley carried on performing but only on the gay scene.

Sadly, (at least for me) Gladys renounced her lesbianism in an interview with Ebony in 1952 entitled “I am a woman again” where she states that her former tendencies were “a deviation.”  She claimed to have found God, married a man and have finally found her femininity through a course of hormone treatment.  These claims appear somewhat spurious however, when we consider the times – this was the height of McCarthyism, the world was a much less tolerant place for a black, lesbian in the early 50s than it had been in the 20s and 30s.  Furthermore her “husband” later vehemently denied any marriage had taken place.

Whatever the real story, you can't deny Bentley had a great voice - there isn't a lot out there for me to link to, sadly as none of her bawdier songs were recorded.  Record companies were understandably reticent.  Still, have a listen to the attached and see what you think.  

I hope to continue the blues vein over the next few weeks with some info on Lucille Bogan, Mabel Hampton and Bessie Smith.  I've said it, now I have to do it...

inexpertly rehashed from:


  1. Great post! I have never heard of her : ) And congrats to your country being more forward thinking than the US on marriage!! Hooray!

  2. What's a linen reception? Does anyone know?

  3. Thanks for writing about her! This is fascinating!

  4. Oh my gosh, I LOVE the ideal of a queer vintage series and this was a most interesting, a truly fascinating read. Thank you!

  5. I love her! Black, lesbian AND a fattie? AND had a white lover, at a time when hetero interracial couples were illegal? Fantastic!

  6. I assume the operation refers to the hormone treatment, or something more extreme...?

  7. What a great read. I LOVE the gems of society that weren't afraid to break the rules (literally-- for a long time there were even rules about how man articles of the opposite sex's clothing one could wear). Another awesome idea for a blog series, yes!

  8. What a great idea for a blog series! I enjoyed reading the story above it was very well written, thanks Lisa!!!

  9. Wonderful post! I have seen her image from time to time but never known her story. What a great voice! x

  10. This post, and your previous one (Cary Grant and his "roommate", yes please) are faaaaantastic. Although that '50s interview gave me a serious case of the sads. "I am a woman again" = Why is this happening. I look forward to reading more in this series! Please keep them coming! (As well as the hair tutorials, of course!)

    <3 sara

    P.S. It's pretty man-centric, which is fine, but have you ever checked out It's basically just a man's personal collection of antique store finds... and it's phenomenal. And he has lady posts sometimes too. Worth perusing, for sure.

  11. This is a brilliant post! Do you happen to know Neil McKenna's recently published chronicle of the incredibly scandalous lives of "Fanny & Stella – The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England"...?