I first want to say that I have enjoyed this little series immensely thus far! I'll be sad to see it go... Just curious, where did you get your inspiration for this cartoon and/or the characters Doris and Mary-Anne?
Thanks so much! In another post I wrote about how the series, and Doris, was inspired by my love of comedic monologues and old timey schtick. But now that the final episode is out in the world, I can talk a little more about Mary-Anne’s real life inspiration.
As I was doing research for the series, I kept coming across all these interesting tidbits about the Harlem Renaissance. Stories about singers like Bessie Smith and Gladys Bentley, who were fairly open about being lesbians and would headline gay speakeasies like Harry Hansberry’s Clam House. An amazing name for a lesbian club, btw.
I just thought it was all just so fascinating and inspiring. It’s tough to be black and a woman and queer in 2015, but these women were flaunting their stuff in the 1920s! Very bold and brave. So I thought it would be great if Mary-Anne could represent a person from that scene, and be a testament to that scene even existing.
Gladys Bentley (feat. Eddie Lang) - Wild Geese Blues
QUEER WOMEN OF COLOR IN JAZZ:
“Bentley was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of American George L. Bentley and his wife, a Trinidadian, Mary Mote. She appeared at Harry Hansberry’s "Clam House” on 133rd Street, one of New York City’s most notorious gay speakeasies, in the 1920s, and headlined in the early thirties at Harlem’s Ubangi Club, where she was backed up by a chorus line of drag queens. She dressed in men’s clothes (including a signature tuxedo and top hat), played piano, and sang her own raunchy lyrics to popular tunes of the day in a deep, growling voice while flirting outrageously with women in the audience.
On the decline of the Harlem speakeasies with the repeal of Prohibition, she relocated to southern California, where she was billed as “America’s Greatest Sepia Piano Player”, and the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs”. She was frequently harassed for wearing men’s clothing. She claimed that she had married a white woman in Atlantic City.“
Famous blues singer and drag king, Gladys Bentley, was born on this day in
1907! Gladys reached the height of her fame singing, dancing, and playing the
piano at a New York City club called Harry Hansberry’s Clam House during the
Gladys Bentley sports her famous white tuxedo and top hat, which assisted in her revolutionary depiction of “black female masculinity” (x).
Gladys Alberta Bentley was born on August 12, 1907 in
Philadelphia and was her parents’ oldest child out of 4. Later on in
life, she would write about how sorrowful her childhood had been growing up in
a poor household and often feeling unwanted. In an article Gladys once wrote
for Ebony Magazine, she says, “When
they told my mother she had given birth to a girl, she refused to touch me. She
wouldn’t even nurse me and my grandmother had to raise me for 6 months on a
bottle before they could persuade my mother to take care of her own baby.”
At the age of 16, Gladys left her unhappy home and found work
in New York City as a performer. Her singing prowess wowed a Broadway agent as
soon as she hit the city and she immediately received $400 for a recording of 8
tracks. Her drag king/male impersonator career began later on when she saw
that the popular gay speakeasy, Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, was in search of
a new male piano player. Gladys answered the call and began performing every
night in full men’s suits, bow ties, and top hats. Her act became so popular
that when the club changed management it was renamed Barbara’s Exclusive Club
after Gladys’s own stage name – Barbara “Bobbie” Minton. In addition to her New
York gig, she also enjoyed an extensive touring career, performing her comical,
innuendo-filled songs in cities such as Chicago, L.A., and Cleveland.
The subtitle for Gladys’s 1952 Ebony article reads, “Fabulous entertainer tells how she found happiness in love after medical treatment to correct her strange affliction” (x).
Unfortunately, Gladys story does not end on an uplifting
note. Despite having been an icon for the black LGBT community for decades, the rise of cultural conservatism in the 1950s led to Gladys claiming that
she had been “cured” of her lesbianism. Her Ebony article was even titled “I Am
a Woman Again,” which told her story of finding “true womanhood” by marrying a
man. Although she admits that she was “married to a white woman” a one point,
she also writes that after leaving showbiz, she became heavily involved with
the church and began taking hormones in hopes of being “cured.” According to
Gladys, the medication worked and she ended up having two brief marriages to
men. She eventually passed away on January 18, 1960 at the age of 52.
Gladys Bentley: blues singer, lyricist, pianist and all around bad ass who began performing in Harlem in the late 1920s. With her white tuxedos, bawdy lyrics and musical talent, Bentley’s fascinating and complex life—and persona—brought her fame and notoriety. Bentley claimed that one of her primary reasons for singing her gender-bending tunes was to “help people who are trapped in a modern-day well of loneliness.” She dressed as she pleased and performed in Harlem cabarets, connecting with her audience in deep, meaningful ways.
These remarkable black men and women never received obituaries in The New York Times — until now. We’re adding their stories to our project about prominent people whose deaths were not reported by the newspaper.
Since 1851, The New York Times has published thousands of obituaries, capturing the lives and legacies of people who have influenced the world in which we live.
But many important figures were left out.
Overlooked reveals the stories of some of those remarkable people.
We started the series last year by focusing on women like Sylvia Plath, the postwar poet; Emma Gatewood, the hiking grandmother who captivated a nation; and Ana Mendieta, the Cuban artist whose work was bold, raw and sometimes violent. We added to that collection each week.
Now, this special edition of Overlooked highlights a prominent group of black men and women whose lives we did not examine at the time of their deaths.
Many of them were a generation removed from slavery. They often attempted to break the same barriers again and again. Sometimes they made myth out of a painful history, misrepresenting their past to gain a better footing in their future. Some managed to achieve success in their lifetimes, only to die penniless, buried in unmarked graves. But all were pioneers, shaping our world and making paths for future generations.
We hope you’ll spread the word about Overlooked — and tell us who else we missed.
Gladys Alberta Bentley (August 12, 1907 – January 18, 1960) was an American blues singer, pianist and entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance.
Her career skyrocketed when she appeared at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House in New York in the 1920s, as a black, lesbian, cross-dressing performer. She headlined in the early 1930s at Harlem’s Ubangi Club, where she was backed up by a chorus line of drag queens. She dressed in men’s clothes (including a signature tuxedo and top hat), played piano, and sang her own raunchy lyrics to popular tunes of the day in a deep, growling voice while flirting with women in the audience.
On the decline of the Harlem speakeasies with the repeal of Prohibition, she relocated to southern California, where she was billed as “America’s Greatest Sepia Piano Player” and the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs”. She was frequently harassed for wearing men’s clothing. She tried to continue her musical career but did not achieve as much success as she had had in the past. Bentley was openly lesbian early in her career, but during the McCarthy Era she started wearing dresses and married, claiming to have been “cured” by taking female hormones.
Bentley was born in Philadelphia, the daughter of George L. Bentley, an American, and his wife, Mary Mote, a Trinidadian. In Bentley’s Ebony article, she wrote about trouble in the home as she was growing up and the relationship between her and her mother. She was the eldest of four children in a poor family and always felt unwanted or rejected, because her mother desperately wanted her to have been born a boy: “When they told my mother she had given birth to a girl, she refused to touch me. She wouldn’t even nurse me and my grandmother had to raise me for 6 months on a bottle before they could persuade my mother to take care of her own baby.” She believed that growing up feeling rejected shaped her behavior; she never wanted a man to touch her, hated her brothers, wore boys’ clothes, and had a crush on one of her female teachers in elementary school. Sociologists and psychiatrists at the time called her case “extreme social maladjustment” due to her home dynamic.
She moved to New York City from Philadelphia at the age of 16. She impressed a Broadway agent right away, recorded eight tracks, and received a $400 check. Later, she heard that Harry Hansberry’s Clam House on 133rd Street, one of the city’s most notorious gay speakeasies, needed a male pianist. This is when she began performing in men’s attire (“white full dress shirts, stiff collars, small bow ties, oxfords, short Eton jackets, and hair cut straight back”), and here she perfected her act and became popular and successful.
Her salary started at $35 per week plus tips and went to $125 per week, and the club was soon renamed Barbara’s Exclusive Club, after her stage name at the time, Barbara “Bobbie” Minton. She then began performing at the Ubangi Club on Park Avenue, she got an accompanist on piano and was successful enough to own a “$300/month apartment in Park Ave. with servants and a nice car” (although some have said that she was living in the penthouse of one of her lesbian lovers). She toured the country, some destinations being Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Hollywood, where she was well liked by Cesar Romero, Hugh Herbert, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, and other celebrities.
Bentley had great talent as a piano player, singer and entertainer. Her performances were “comical, sweet and risqué” for the era and the audience. She often sang about “sissies” and “bulldaggers” and, through innuendo or more literally, about her female lovers, and she flirted with women in the audience. She mostly played the blues and parodies of popular songs of the time: “mocking ‘high’ class imagery with ‘low’ class humor, she applied aspects of the sexually charged ‘black’ blues to demure, romantic ‘white’ ballads, creating a culture clash between these two music forms”.
She sang loud, and her vocal style was deep and booming, sometimes using a growling effect and imitations of a horn. She recorded for the OKeh, Victor, Excelsior, and Flame labels. Her vocal range was wide, as can be heard in her recordings. She mostly sang in a deep, low range, but also reached high notes. Bentley’s performances appealed to black, white, gay, and straight audiences alike, and many celebrities attended her shows. Langston Hughes recorded his reaction to the beginning of Bentley’s career success:
For two or three amazing years, Miss Bentley sat, and played piano all night long … with scarcely a break between the notes, sliding from one song to another, with a powerful and continuous underbeat of jungle rhythm. Miss Bentley was an amazing exhibition of musical energy – a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard – a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.
On the decline of the Harlem speakeasies with the repeal of Prohibition, she relocated to southern California, where she was billed as “America’s Greatest Sepia Piano Player” and the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs”. She tried to continue her musical career but did not achieve as much success as she had had in the past. She was frequently harassed for wearing men’s clothing. She claimed that she had married a white woman in Atlantic City. Bentley was openly lesbian early in her career, but during the McCarthy Era, she started wearing dresses and married (within five months of meeting) Charles Roberts, age 28, a cook, in a civil ceremony in Santa Barbara, California, in 1952. Roberts later denied that they had ever married.
Bentley also studied to be a minister, claiming to have been “cured” by taking female hormones. In an effort to describe her supposed “cure” for homosexuality she wrote an essay, “I Am a Woman Again”, for Ebony magazine in which she stated she had undergone an operation, which “helped change her life again”.
Personal life and death
Bentley said that her first marriage was to a white woman in New York, whose identity remains unknown. When she relocated to Los Angeles, she married J. T. Gipson, who died in 1952, the same year in which she married Charles Roberts, a cook in Los Angeles; they were married in Santa Barbara, California, went on a honeymoon in Mexico, and had a five-month-long courtship before their divorce. Roberts denied ever marrying her.
Bentley died of pneumonia in Los Angeles in 1960, aged 52.
Aside from her musical talent and success, Bentley is a significant and inspiring figure for the LGBT community and for African Americans, and she was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She was revolutionary in her masculinity: “Differing from the traditional male impersonator, or drag king, in the popular theater, Gladys Bentley did not try to ‘pass’ as a man, nor did she playfully try to deceive her audience into believing she was biologically male. Instead, she exerted a ‘black female masculinity’ that troubled the distinctions between black and white and masculine and feminine”.
Fictional characters based on Bentley appeared in Carl Van Vechten's Parties, Clement Woods's Deep River, and Blair Niles's Strange Brother.
“Washboards Get Together” / “Kazoo Moan”, #38127, scatting vocal on A-side only (title often listed as “Washboard Get Together”), with the Washboard Serenaders, recorded March 1930; reissued twice, as Bluebird B-5790 (circa 1934) and B-6633 (circa 1936)
As Gladys Bentley Quintette, 1945
“Boogie'n My Woogie” / “Thrill Me Till I Get My Fill”, #164
“Red Beans & Rice Blues” / “Find Out What He Likes (and How He Likes It)” #165/166
“Big Gorilla Blues” / “Lay It on the Line”, #166/165
“Boogie Woogie Cue” / “Give It Up”, #168
“Notoriety Papa” / “It Went to the Girl Next Door”, #169
“Jingle Jangle Jump”, #321, vocals for Wardell Gray and the Dexter Gordon Quintet, 1952
“July Boogie” / “Gladys Could Play”, #337, as Fatso Bentley, July 4, 1953
“Easter Mardi Gras” / “Before Midnight”, Flame 1001, Cincinnati, early 1950s, label misspells name as Gladys Bently; mentioned in her August 1952 article in Ebony and thus recorded in 1952 or earlier
I just found scans of Gladys Bentley’s “I Am A Woman Again” oh my god wow I still have to like write a big scary paper but wow she is a cool lady wow and a fantastic writer. It reads like a literal dream she is so effing cool and her consciousness of societal standards and expectations of gender is astounding and absolutely credible as theory and oh my goodness it’s so cool to see scans of the actual magazine article and the whole article is absolutely readable as nearly satirical because it literally is so fucking queer and wow. Day made.
Gut Lightnin originally appears on shirlette’s debut solo album, Twilight for Gladys Bentley released by Springstoff Records (Berlin, Germany) December 2013. Download this free remix produced by Mitch Rothrock (The Dynamite Brothers, Shirlette and The Dynamite Brothers) –photo by creative silence
At a very young age, this blue singer knew she was different from other girls. With a preference for wearing masculine clothes and having a crush on her female school teacher, it caught the attention of the other school kids and they began making fun of her for it. Her parents grew worried about her attraction to women and took her to many doctors to get her “fixed”.
As butches we have our own spectrum of “queerness”. We are gender-queers; in butch/femme relationships, in butch/butch relationships or no relationships; butches – as a gender option; butches comfortable being butches; butches comfortable being lesbian; butches comfortable being women, butches being comfortable being men.