AUGUST 12: Gladys Bentley (1907-1960)


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
Harlem Renaissance.

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.