Sensational lesbian chanteuse of the Jazz Age.
Aug. 12 , 1907.
Philadelphia , P.A.
" Gladys bentley :The Bulldagger Who Sang The Blues!"
Gladys Bentley was born on August 12, 1907. She was the eldest of 4 children born to a Trinidad born mother , Mary Mote(Bentley) and an American born father , George L. Bentley. Gladys left home at 16 years old. Like many African Americans of her generation she ended up in New York Citys' Harlem , the capital of "The New Negro ". For Gladys , her lesbianism made her need to strike out on her own all the more urgent. As she would recall many years later in an Ebony Magazine Article , "It seems I was born different. At least,I always thought so....From the time I can remember anything ,even as I was toddling , I never wanted a man to touch me...Soon I began to feel more comfortable in boys clothes than in dresses".
In the 1920s a large part of the elegant town houses and apartment buildings in both Harlem and downtown in Greenwhich Village had been converted into cheap rooming flats. In both neighborhoods , artists and intellectualls flocked to this cheap housing in beutifull surroundings. In both neighborhoods , amongst all this creative talent , there was a large Homosexual population. In Harlem this great creative outpouring was also a celebration of optimism about the future of Black America. This era would later be known as The "Harlem Rennaissance".The list of gay men ,lesbians or bisexuals amongst the "Harlem Renaissance" is more or less a guide to many of the most talented people of the era. Langston Hughs , Countee Cullen , Wallace thurman , Bessie Smith , Ethel Waters , and Moms Mabely just to name a few.
Audiences of the prohibition era were always craving something new. There was a "Vogue of the Negro" , accompanied by a curiosity for "Pansy Acts" and "Hot Mama" lebian or bisexual singers. Gladys Bentley carved out a place for herself amidst this curiosty , playing at rent parties and the legendary speakeasies of "Jungle Alley" at 133 between Lenox and Seventh Avenue. She would transform popular tunes of the day with raunchy naughty playfull lyrics. Dressed in signature tux and top hat , she openly and riotously flirted with women in the audience. Her popularity and salary was ever increasing , as she was fequently mentioned in many of the entertainment columns of the day. Characters based on her appered in novels (( Carl Van Vechtens' "Parties" , Clement Woods "Deep River", Blair Niles "Strange Brother").
Starting in 1928 ( at age 21) she began a recording career that spanned 2 decades. 8 recordings for the OKeh recording company were followed by a side with the Washboard Serenaders on the Victor label. Although on her recordings she did not dare have lesbian lyrics , she certainly played up this image in the clubs and in public.
Lois Sobel ,a popular columnist of the era , recalled Bentleys anouncement of her marriage ceremony with her white female lover in New Jersey. Bentley briefly parlayed her fortunes into a Park Avenue apartment , servants , beutiful car etc etc.
In the 1930s the repeal of Prohibition quickly eroded the prominance of Harlem bistros. Furthermore , the Great Depression seems to have ended much of the "anything goes" spirit of tolerance that had pervaded in the 1920s'. Despite this , initialy Bentley was able to hold on by cultivating her homosexual following. In the early 1930's she was the featured entertainer at Harlems' Ubangi Club , supported by a chorus of men in drag. But by 1937 the glory days of Jungle Alley were very much a thing of the past. Bentley (now aged 30) moved to Los Angeles to live with her mother in a small California bungalow. She was able to maintain some sucess , partcularly during World War 2 when many homosexual bars proliferated on the west coast (capitilizing on the influx of gay men and lesbians from the military)Once again , Bentley carved out a niche for herself in this subculture and environement. Many lesbian women came to see her shows at "Joquins' El Rancho" in Los Angeles and "Monas" in SanFrancisco , although on ocassion she did have legal trouble for performing in her signature male attire. In 1945 she recorded 5 discs for the Excelsior label (still not dareing to use lesbian lyrics in recordings) including "Thrill Me Till I get My Fill," "Find Out What He Likes", and "Notoriety Papa".
However in the 1950s the limited tolerance that had been eroding since the Great Depression , finaly collapsed diastorously. The McCarthy "witch hunts" were particularly vicious towards homosexuals. In light of recent revelations about J.Edgar Hoover , Roy Cohen and possibly McCarthy himself this movement was all the more hypocritical. Although gay and lebian organisations like The Daughters Of Bilitis and The Mattachine Society were formed at this time , the lives of many homosexuals were ruined. Bentley , who for so long had been one of THE most open as regards her homosexuality , was of course a sitting duck for persecution. Out of desperate fear for her own survival( particularly with an ageing mother to support) Gladys Bentley started wearing dresses , and sanitizing her act. In 1950 , Bentley wrote a desperate , largely fabricated article for Ebony entitled "I am Woman Again" in which she claimed to have cured her lesbianism via female hormone treatments and was finally at peace after a "hell as terrible as dope addiction". She claimed to have married a newspaper columnist named J.T. Gibson ( a man who soon after publicly denied that the two had ever wed).In 1952 she does seem to have married a man named Charles Roberts. He was a cook and 16 years younger than Bentley , who lied on the marriage certificate , stating her age as 36 rather than 45.The two eventualy divorced. Bentley did manage to still perorm , usualy at the Rose Room in Hollywood. She recorded a single on the Flame label and appeared twice on Groucho Marxs' television show. At this stage , Bentley became an active and (truly) devoted member of "The Temple of Love in Christ , Inc". She was about to become an ordained minister in the church when she died of a flu epidemic in 1960 at the age of 52. These desperate attempts to survive do not diminish her previous acomplishments. For many years ,on a daily basis , she took risks that would not be common untill the Stonewall era.
In the last two decades , Rosetta Records ( a small feminist label at 115 west 16th street (suite 267) NYC NY 10011) has re-issued some of Bentleys songs as part of of various "Women in Jazz" compilations.
ALSO , You can hear a new re-release of a Bentley tune on the "Club Verboten" 4 disc set. Its a wonderful collection of queer favorites from the era of La Bentley and beyond. Check out their website (includes sound clips of La Bentley and others from the CD set)at:
Gladys Bentley's Links
My Snazzy List of Links
My Broadway Site.: Bway history.
Urban Sophisticates: Devoted to the Jazz Ages cultivation of an elegant homosexual esthetic!
"Gene Mailin And The Pansy Craze.": devoted to the vogue for "Pansy Acts" that swept Broadways speakeasys in the early 1930's.
Less Than Six Degrees Of Mercedes De Acosta:: Devoted to the great hollwood script writer / social comentator.
Links about Nazimova the great actress.: Americas first method actress .
Frameline: Excellent site devoted to Gay/ Lesbian film etc etc.
Planet Out: Comprehensive gay/les. news , entertainment, webcast radio shows and more!
Popcorn Q: Planet Outs fabulous film site with viewable trailers and clips!
In The Life: Website for the popular Gay/les. tv-news magazine.
Q worldwide: Gay/Les site of the Village Voice
If You Have Information To Share....
If you have any info. clippings film clips etc etc that you wish to share please contact me at: