Category: 1900s

DECEMBER 29: Elsa Gidlow (1898-1986)

One of the most
famous lesbian poets of all time, Elsa Gidlow, was born on this day in 1898.
Her 1923 collection titled A Grey Thread was the first instance of openly
lesbian love poetry to be published in North America.

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Elsa Gidlow photographed in 1925 at age 27 (x).

Elsa Gidlow
was born on December 29, 1898 in Hull, Yorkshire, England. When she was only
6-years-old, the Gidlow family emigrated to Canada and settled down in Tétreaultville,
Quebec. When she was 15, they would move once again to Montreal. Elsa’s very
first contact with the literary world occurred when a friend of her father’s
hired her to work as an assistant editor to his magazine Factory Facts.

In 1917, she began seeking out fellow gay and lesbian writers to collaborate with. Along
with the journalist Roswell George Mills, she eventually published Les Mouches
Fantastiques
, which was the first magazine to be published in North America that
openly discussed LGBT issues. Elsa being relatively unknown at the time, the
magazine only came into the mainstream when the famous author H.P. Lovecraft
publicly attacked its contents. Despite the backlash, Elsa would eventually publish 13 books of lesbian love poetry throughout her career. 

An original copy of Elsa’s 1923 collection of poetry, On a Grey Thread, is preserved in the collection of San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society (x).

Elsa’s partner
was a woman named Isabel Grenfell Quallo. The two originally lived in San
Francisco together before moving to Mount Tamalpais, California and starting a ranch
they called Druid Heights. The ranch became a meeting grounds for many famous
artists and activists throughout the years and Elsa is known to have
entertained the likes of Neil Young, Margo St. James, Alan Ginsberg, Maya
Angelou, and many more. In 1977, she was featured in the PBS documentary Word Is Out: Stores
of Some of Our Lives
, which chronicled the stories of LGBT people living in America. In
1986, Elsa made history once again when her autobiography, Elsa, I Come with My
Songs
, was published and became the very first lesbian autobiography to not be
written under pseudonym.

In the last
years of her life, Elsa suffered a series of strokes. She refused to seek
medical care and died at home in Druid Heights on June 8, 1986. According to her
will, her ashes were mixed with rice and buried underneath an apple tree. The
Gidlow Estate posthumously donated Elsa’s personal papers to the San Francisco
GLBT Historical Society in 1991.

-LC

DECEMBER 27: Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)

The famed actress and fashion icon, Marlene Dietrich, was born on this day in 1901.
Remembered as the woman who made the tuxedo gender neutral, she also had several
relationships with women throughout her life.

Marlene Dietrich dressed in her classic tuxedo and top hat, cigarette in hand (x).

Marie Magdalene
“Marlene” Dietrich was born on December 27, 1901 in a district of
Berlin, Germany called Schöneberg. Her mother was from a prestigious German
family and was heir to a jewelry and clock-making firm while her father served
as a local police lieutenant. As a child she attended Auguste-Viktoria Girls’
School. It was during her school days when her friends began calling her
“Lena.” She soon combined that nickname with her first name, Marie, and began
going by Marlene. After graduating from the Victoria-Luise-Schule, she began
seeking a career in show business.

Her earliest
gig was as a chorus girl with the touring vaudeville troupe, Guido Thielscher’s
Girl-Kabarett. After working in the theater circuit for a while, she made her
film debut with a small role in 1923’s The Little Napoleon. Her big break came
in 1930 when she starred in The Blue Angel; her role as the seductive cabaret
singer Lola Lola struck something within American audiences. Her signature song
from the film, “Falling in Love Again,” also became a hit. Marlene would go on
to make over 45 films in her career and become known as one of the most famous
femme fatales in cinema history.

One of Marlene’s
most famous scenes occurred in the 1930 film Morocco. One again cast as a
cabaret singer, she performs an entire song dressed in a man’s white tuxedo and kisses a woman in the audience. The scene was scandalous at the time, but also indicative of Marlene’s personal breaking of traditional gender roles;
she was known to dress in men’s suits in her daily life and was also one of the first women to be
enrolled at Sabri Mahir’s boxing studio in Berlin. 

Photographs of Marlene that were taken by the woman she had one of her longest love affairs with, Mercedes de Acosta (x).

The phrase “sewing circle,”
used to describe the underground gang of lesbian and bisexual women in old
Hollywood, is said to have been coined by Marlene herself. Although she was
married to Rudolf Sieber, she had multiple affairs with both men and women.
Some of her most notable lovers included Mercedes de Acosta, Claudette Colbert, Edith Piaf, and many more. She would pass away, aged 90, on May 6, 1992.

-LC

DECEMBER 24: Stormé DeLarverie (1920-2014)

The lesbian
legend Stormé DeLarverie was born on this day in 1920. Stormé went down
in history on the night of June 28, 1969 when her scuffle with the NYPD incited
the Stonewall Riots.

Stormé DeLarverie photographed in the last years of her life (x).

Stormé DeLarverie was born December 24, 1920 in New
Orleans, Louisiana. She would later recall suffering much bullying due to the fact that her father was white and her mother was
black. She would also recall first realizing that she was a lesbian at age 18, As a teenager she rode horses with the Ringling Brothers Circus, during which she met her partner of over 25 years, a
dancer named Diana.

After falling
from her horse and suffering an injury, Stormé’s circus career came to an end. She
would then tour with The Jewel Box Revue – North America’s very first racially
integrated drag – as the troupe’s MC and only drag king performer until 1969.
Halfway through that fateful year, she found herself living in New York City
and frequenting the Stonewall Inn. The story goes that after the NYPD initiated
a surprise raid of the Inn and began attempting to arrest many of the
occupants, Stormé began
fighting back and screamed at the onlookers while being handcuffed, “Why don’t you guys do something?”
One first-hand witness would say that “it was at that moment that the scene
became explosive.”

Stormé posing as her drag king persona which she assumed for over 20 years (x).

Following the
Stonewall Riots and the Gay Rights Movement they helped birth, Stormé became
known as a hero in the NYC lesbian scene. She would work for several years as a
bouncer for multiple lesbian bars as well as a leading officer of
the Stonewall Veterans’ Association. Stormé also volunteered as a street patrol
worker, which gave her the reputation of being the “guardian of lesbians in the
Village.” After her partner Diana passed away in 1970, Stormé carried around a
photograph of Diana with her at all times. She herself would pass away on May 24,
2014 after suffering a heart attack in her sleep. Her obituary read: 

Tall,
androgynous and armed — she held a state gun permit — Ms. DeLarverie roamed
lower Seventh and Eighth Avenues and points between into her 80s, patrolling
the sidewalks and checking in at lesbian bars. She was on the lookout for what
she called “ugliness”: any form of intolerance, bullying or abuse of her “baby
girls.” … “She literally walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay
superhero. … She was not to be messed with by any stretch of the imagination.

-LC

DECEMBER 23: Christa Winsloe (1888-1944)

The
German novelist and artist, Christa Winsloe, was born on this day in
1888. She is most well-known for having penned the play Gestern und heute,
which was eventually adapted into the iconic lesbian film Mädchen in Uniform.

An undated photograph of a young Christa Winsloe (x).

Christa Winsloe
was born on December 23, 1888 in Darmstadt, Germany. Her mother died when she
was just an infant and she was put in the care of distant family. However,
there was little love there and Christa was sent off to a notoriously strict
boarding school – Kairserin-Augusta-Stift in Potsdam – as soon as she was of
age. She was married off to a rich Hungarian writer named Ludwig Hatvany as soon
as she left the school.

During the
first years of her marriage, Christa wrote her very first novel. Das Mädchen Manuela (“The Child
Manuela”) was based on her years spent at Kaiserin-Augusta-Stift and her
desire to see the piece published caused strain on her young marriage; Ludwig,
a popular writer in his own right, wished for Christa to simply be his wife, not the independent artist she saw herself as. The marriage eventually ended in divorce
and in 1933 Das Mädchen Manuela would finally be published. Christa’s magnum
opus would be the play Gestern und heute
(“Yesterday and Today”). It first premiered on the stage in Leipzig
in 1930 and would be renamed to Children in Uniform when it was performed in
London in 1932. The play’s success resulted in an iconic film adaptation that
we have covered multiple times on the blog.

Christa’s first
lover was an American newspaper journalist named Dorothy Thompson. The two met in the years leading up to World War II when Dorothy was
reporting from Berlin, the same city where Christa had found a home in the Weimar era
lesbian subculture. Their relationship eventually fell apart when the Nazis
rose to power and Christa was forced to flee to France. There, she joined the
French Resistance and found a new lover in fellow freedom fighter Simone
Genet. The two women would die together on June 10, 1944 when they were gunned
down by four Frenchmen in the country town of Cluny after the men falsely
believed them to be Nazi spies.

-LC

DECEMBER 22: Ma Rainey (1886-1939)

The legendary performer and the
woman once dubbed the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey, passed away on this day
in 1939. There were incessant rumors about Ma Rainey’s lesbianism during her
lifetime and in 1925 she was arrested for participating in an orgy with
multiple women.

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One of the only known photographs of Gertrude Pridgett a.k.a Ma Rainey, circa 1914 (x).

Ma Rainey was born Gertrude
Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. She was the second of five
children born to Thomas and Ella Pridgett. Her
career as an entertainer began at the young age of 12 when she began performing
in black minstrel shows with her church, the First African Baptist Church of
Columbus. After marrying a fellow performer named Will Rainey in 1904,
she was given her legendary name of Ma Rainey. The duo started out with the
Rabbit’s Foot Company of “Black Face Song and Dance Comedians” before striking
out on their own as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.

It was while performing in New
Orleans in the winter of 1914 when Ma Rainey was first introduced to some of
the biggest names in black showbiz of the day: Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet,
Pops Foster, and her eventual lover, Bessie Smith. In 1923, Ma Rainey would be
discovered by J. Mayo Williams, who was a producer for Paramount Records. She
was signed to Paramount in December of that year and would go on to record over
100 songs in the next five years. Some of her hits include “Bo-Weevil Blues,” “Bad
Luck Blues,” and “Moonshine Blues.”

Many of the Ma Rainey’s lyrics
include hints of her lesbianism. In “Prove It on Me,” she sings

“They said I do
it, ain’t nobody caught me.
Sure got to prove it on me.
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.
They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men…”

In 1925, Ma
Rainey and several of the women who were in her chorus were arrested at Ma
Rainey’s own home for purportedly participating in an orgy. It was Bessie
Smith, fellow blues singer, lesbian, and America’s highest paid black performer
of the era, who bailed Ma Rainey out of jail that night. Ma Rainey’s
guitarist, Sam Chatom, would later say that Bessie and she were most likely
lovers: “I believe she was courting Bessie…if Bessie’d be around,
if she’d get to talking to another man, she’d run up. She didn’t want no man
talking with her.”

As live vaudeville
acts became less and less popular with the American public and were replaced by radio in the 1930s,
Ma Rainey’s career also went into decline. In 1928, she recorded a final 20
songs before her contract was terminated by Paramount. In 1935, she returned
home to Georgia and became a successful theater owner. Until her death on
December 22, 1939, she operated three popular Georgia theaters – the Lyric, the
Airdome, and the Liberty Theater.

-LC

DECEMBER 20: Elsie de Wolfe (1859-1950)

The famous socialite and interior
decorator, Elsie de Wolfe, was born on this day in 1859. Elsie
is most well-known for her 1913 book The
House in Good Taste
; In a review of the book’s enormous influence, The New Yorker would eventually write that ”interior design as a profession was invented by Elsie de
Wolfe.”

An older Elsie de Wolfe photographed amongst the extravagance of her Paris apartment (x).

Ella Anderson de Wolfe was born on
December 20, 1859 in New York City. Her father was a Canadian-born doctor who
provided a comfortable life for his family, but in a look back at her
childhood, Elsie would say that she went through life as “a rebel in
an ugly world.” When she was young, Elsie began a career as an actress. She
appeared in a few plays and one act comedies but enjoyed no real success. It
was while travelling with the Empire Stock Company and assisting in the art of
staging plays that she found herself interested in interior design.

The passion for design and
aesthetics was already there, but it took pulling some string to get Elsie de
Wolfe’s name on the map. Once Elsie began foraying into the uncharted territory
of interior design as a career, it was her partner Elisabeth Marbury who
secured her such prestigious clients as Amy Vanderbilt, Henry Clay Frick, and
the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Although Elsie was simply known as an actress
of mediocre fame in the 1890s, Elisabeth was a wildly successful literary agent who
had managed the likes of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. The two had first
met at a party and soon entered into a Boston Marriage; it was her partnership
with Elisabeth and the design of their multiple New York Homes that truly made
Elsie’s reputation.

Elsie with her partner of over 40 years, Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury, in 1923 (x).

In 1926, Elsie was married to a
diplomat by the name of Sir Charles Mendl and became the Lady Mendl. However,
the marriage was only formed out of convenience for both parties and Elsie
remained true to Elisabeth until her death. For the rest of their lives, the women moved through high society as the artsy lesbian power couple of New York
City. One friend even described them as “"the willowy De Wolfe and the
masculine Marbury… cutting a wide path through Manhattan society.” Elsie
would be named the best-dressed woman in the world by Paris magazines in 1935
and be immortalized in the lyrics of multiple Cole Porter songs before her
death on July 12, 1950 at the age of 90. Elisabeth has preceded her, passing
away in 1933.

-LC

DECEMBER 18: Joe Carstairs (1900-1993)

The famous lesbian athlete and
British socialite, Joe Carstairs, passed away on this day in 1993. Joe, as she
was nicknamed, was most well-known for her success as a power boat racer.

Along with being “the fastest woman on water,” Joe was also dubbed “the boss of the Bahamas” after buying her own island in the 1940s (x).

Marion Barbara Carstairs was born in
1900 in Mayfair, London, England. Her mother was an wealthy heiress from
America who had married Captain Albert Carstairs, a respected officer in the Scottish
army. Joe’s parents divorced soon after her birth and her mother, an alcoholic
and drug addict, would remarry multiple times throughout her childhood. The
relationship between Joe and her mother was complicated and became even more so
when it was revealed that Joe was not allowed to access her inheritance until her mother died or unless she married.

This lead to Joe marrying her
childhood best friend, a French aristocrat named Count Jacques de Pret, on
January 7, 1918. The marriage was simply one of convenience that allowed Joe to
access her inheritance and to lead a life socially and financially
independent from her mother. After her mother finally passed away, the married was
immediately annulled on grounds of non-consummation and Joe also returned to
using her maiden name of Carstairs. For the rest of her life, she lived as an
out and proud lesbian. She dressed in men’s clothing, sported several arm tattoos, and romanced women such as Dolly Wilde, Greta Garbo,
Tallulah Bankhead, and Marlene Dietrich.

Joe photographed smoking on her treasured speedboat (x).

During World War I, she worked for
the American Red Cross driving ambulances in France. She quickly developed a
passion for cars and started the X Garage – a chauffeuring service that
employed a women-only staff. In 1925, Joe inherited a second fortune from her
maternal Grandmother and purchased her very first boat; this lead to her
discovering an even greater passion – speed racing. She soon established
herself as “the fasted woman on water” and took home the Duke of York trophy
for powerboat speed racing.

In her later years, Joe retired
from racing and purchased an entire island in the Bahamas, called Whale Cay, where
she entertained her rich and famous friends. Both Marlene Dietrich and the
Duchess of Windsor were frequent visitors to Joe’s party island. Joe would pass
away in Naples, Florida on December 18, 1993 at the age of 93.

-LC

DECEMBER 15: Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

The American poet and political
activist, Muriel Rukeyser, was born on this day in 1913. She is most
well-remembered for injecting workers’ rights and Jewish-American identity into
the poetic zeitgeist of the early 20th century.

Muriel is highly regarded as one of the foremothers of modern women’s literature. Anne Sexton has called her “Muriel, mother of us all,” and Adrienne Rich has dubbed her “our twentieth-century Coleridge, our Neruda, and more” (x).

Muriel Rukeyser was born on
December 15, 1913 in New York City. She came from an upper-middle class Jewish
family. Her wealthy parents, Lawrence and Myra Rukeyser, allowing her to attend
the prestigious private school, Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx. As an adult, she later attended Vassar College and Columbia University. Despite growing up
privileged, Muriel developed an intense passion for workers’ rights and the
progressive movement from a young age.

Her literary career did not take
off until 1935 with the publication of her first poetry collection, Theory of Flight, but Muriel had been
writing ever since she was a young girl. In her 20s, she worked as a journalist
and became involved in the world of progressive politics that dominated the
headlines of the early 20th century. She famously worked for the
International Labor Defense when she was only 21 and wrote for progressive publications
such as The Daily Worker, Decision, and Life and Letters Today. After being awarded the Yale Younger Poets
Award in 1935, she had officially made the shift over from journalist to poet. By
the end of her career, Muriel had released over 20 collections of poetry and
fiction.  

Muriel was briefly married to a
man in 1945 and had a son with another man in 1947, however, in her later years
she began to align herself with lesbian identity and lesbian poets such as
Adrienne Rich. Much of her poetry refers to love between women and is not shy
about calling out the homophobia of the society in which she lived. One of
her most quoted lines is from the poem “Käthe Kollwitz:” “What would happen
if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.”

In the last years of her life,
Muriel was heralded as one of the greatest poets of her generation. She was
awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Shelley Memorial Award, and a Copernicus
Prize all before passing away on February 12, 1980.

-LC

DECEMBER 13: Lucía Sánchez Saornil (1895-1970)

The Spanish poet and anarchist, Lucía Sánchez Saornil, was born on this day in 1895.
She is most well-known for her lesbian themed poetry and for being one of the
founders of the feminist group Mujeres Libres.

An older Lucía photographed some time in the 1940s (x).

Lucía was
born on December 13, 1895 in Valencia, Spain. Her mother passed away not long
after her birth and she was raised by an impoverished single father. Lucía’s experiences
growing up poor would eventually become a defining factor in her political
identity. She began writing poetry at an early age and was able to receive a
scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando. By 1919,
she had been published in premier literary journals such as Los Quijotes,
Tableros, Plural, Manantial and La Gaceta Literaria under a male pen name. By
using a false name, Lucía was able to publish her love poems about women
without fear of being caught by censors and imprisoned.

Despite her literary success, Lucía
still found herself having to work as a telephone operator in order to make a
living. In 1931, she participated in a strike along with the
anarcho-syndicalist labor union, Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT),
against Telefónica. After that inciting incident, she would dedicate her life
to labor activism and fighting for anarchist social revolution. By 1933, she
had been appointed as the Writing Secretary for CNT’s branch in Madrid.

Towards the end of her life, Lucía
began publishing her writing in anarchist-based journals as well as criticizing
the anarchist movement for being so male-centered. Along with Mercedes
Comaposada and Amparo Poch y Gascón, she founded the anarchist feminist organization
Mujeres Libres in 1936. After the break out of the Spanish Civil War, the
organization’s roster grew to 30,000 members. It was while working for Mujeres
Libres
that Lucía met the love of her life, América Barroso.

Due to the defeat of the Second
Republic in the Spanish Civil War, Lucía and América were
forced to relocate to Paris. However, they would return to live in Madrid in
1941 due to the carnage of World War II. The true nature of their relationship
remained a secret, but they lived together for the rest of their lives – América
working as an official at the Argentine consul and Lucía continuing her work as
a anarchist activism and a literary editor. Lucía would pass away on June 2, 1970.  

-LC

DECEMEBER 12: Anita Rée (1885-1933)

The German painter Anita Rée
passed away on this day in 1933. During her lifetime, Anita was a part of Wiemar Era Germany’s avant-garde movement.

“Self-Portrait” by Anita Rée, 1929.

Anita Clara Rée was born on
February 9, 1885 in Hamburg, Germany. Her father was a wealthy Jewish merchant
whose family had lived in Hamburg for centuries trading goods from India.
Despite being Jewish, Anita and her sisters were baptized as Lutheran, which
was common among upper class German Jewish families during this time.

She began studying art seriously
in 1905 when she came under the tutelage of the famous painter Arthur
Siebelist. In 1910, Anita, Franz Nölken, and their fellow painter friends formed
a communal studio in Hamburg, but the union soon broke up due to infighting. Anita would leave to paint Paris in 1912. After returning back to her hometown
of Hamburg to be featured at the Galerie Commeter in 1913, she finally got
her name on the map and became known around the city as a portraitist. In 1926, Anita helped
found an association of women artists known as GEDOK, but it did
not last long due to the rise of the Nazis in Germany beginning in the 1930s. 

Much of Anita’s art was destroyed by the Nazis and antisemitism in Hamburg
eventually lead to her moving to the island of Sylt in 1932. Only a year later, on December 12,
1933, Anita committed suicide in her home. She left a note behind for her
sister, in which she admitted that it was harassment from antisemitic forces
and “disappointments on the personal level” that lead to her depression and
eventual decision to take her own life. Many historians have surmised that the
personal disappointments Anita refers to in her letter is her inability to live
a heterosexual life.

-LC