Category: 1920s

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 6: Henriëtte Bosmans (1895-1952)

The Dutch musician and composer Henriëtte Bosmans was born on this day in 1895. The prestigious Henriëtte Bosmans Prize is given every year to aspiring Dutch composers in her name. 

Henriëtte Bosmans photographed by Jacob Merkelbach in 1917 (x). 

Henriëtte Bosmans was born on December 6, 1895 in Amsterdam. Both of her parents were prominent and wealthy musicians. Her father,  Henri Bosmans, was the principal cellist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra and her mother, Sara Benedicts, was a piano teacher at the Amsterdam Conservatory. Her father tragically died when she was only 6 months old and her mother never remarried. 

Henriëtte was musically trained by her mother throughout her childhood and was assisting her with piano lessons by the time she was 17. By the 1920s,

Henriëtte

had made a career independent of that from her parents and was performing regularly at the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. She also traveled extensively throughout Europe with the likes of iconic musicians such as Monteux, Mengelberg and Ansermet.

During her lifetime, Henriëtte had relationships with both men and women. Between 1920 and 1927, she had a relationship with Frieda Belinfante who was a prominent figure in the Dutch lesbian subculture and a popular cellist and composer. Frieda even premiered Henriëtte’s composition, Second Cello Concerto, for the first time in 1923; by the time Frieda made a legacy for herself as a leader in the Dutch resistance against Nazi rule in World War II, she and Henriëtte had long parted ways. 

Henriëtte would go on to be briefly engaged to a violinist named Francis Koene, but her longest lasting relationship was with a woman named Noémie Pérugia. During the last years of her life, Henriëtte’s work mostly consisted of covertly written song dedicated to Noémie. Henriëtte would eventually pass away on July 2, 1952. 

-LC

NOVEMBER 24: Margaret C. Anderson (1886-1973)

Writer, publisher, and overall icon
of the literary world, Margaret C. Anderson, was born on this day in 1886. She is
most well-known for founding the literary and arts magazine The Little Review.

Margaret C. Anderson photographed by Man Ray (x).

Margaret Caroline Anderson was
born on November 24, 1886 in Indianapolis, Indiana. She was the oldest of three
daughters born to Arthur and Jessie Anderson and raised in a middle-class
family. After graduating from high school in 1903, Margaret went to Western College
for Women in Oxford, Ohio; however, she dropped out at the end of her freshman
year and moved back home to pursue a career as a pianist. Finding little luck
in the music world of Indianapolis, she then moved to Chicago in 1908 and found
her niche in writing.

She arrived in Chicago right in
time for the city’s impending literary renaissance that would take off in the
1910s. In March of 1914, Margaret founded The Little Review. The very first issue
featured articles on Nietzsche, psychoanalysis, the concept of feminism, and
described itself as “an organ of two interests: art and good talk about
art.” The Little Review eventually became a part of the foundation of Chicago’s
art world. When Margaret met her partner Jane Heap in 1914, Jane became the new
co-president of The Little Review and the magazine’s content became even more
radicalized.

A copy of The Little Review featuring Ulysses by James Joyce. The title of the magazine reads “The Little Review: A Magazine of the Arts – Making No Compromise with the Public Taste (x).

Throughout the 1920s, The Little
Review
 published such literary juggernauts as William Butler Yeats, Ernest
Hemingway, Emma Goldman, and Gertrude Stein. Its most published writer was Baroness
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
. Beginning in 1918, The Little Review became one of the very first American publishers
to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses via serialization, resulting in a scandalous
obscenity trial against the magazine which resulted in both Margaret and Jane having to pay a heavy fine. Partly in response to the obscenity trial,
Margaret and Jane would spend the second half of the 1920s living in Paris. It
was in Paris – at Hotel St. Germain-Des-Pres, 36 rue Bonaparte – where the very
last issue of The Little Review was edited.

In 1942, Margaret’s relationship
with Jane was broken off. The two would remain friends until their deaths and
Margaret eventually found a new lover in Dorothy Caruso, who was the widow of
the famous singer Enrico Caruso. They lived together in the U.S. until Dorothy’s
death in 1955, after which Margaret would move back to Le Cannet in
southeastern France. Margaret herself would pass away of emphysema on October 19, 1973.

-LC

NOVEMBER 10: Marion Morgan (1881-1971)

Famed screenwriter and
choreographer, Marion Morgan, passed away on this day in 1971. She is most
well-known for being the longtime partner of the out lesbian director Dorothy
Arzner.

An undated portrait of Marion Morgan (x).

Marion Cahill was born on January
4, 1881 in Paterson, New Jersey. Little is known about her early years aside
from the fact that her father was an attorney and she was raised in an upper-middle-class household. In 1900, Marion married a man named Matthew A. Morgan and
became Marion Morgan. The two had ason named Roderick before separating in
1905. In 1910, Marion left New Jersey to have a fresh start with her son in Long
Island, California. She was able to find a job as a P.E. teacher at Manual Arts
High School in Los Angeles, which eventually evolved into a position as a
choreographer for the Orpheum Circuit, a popular chain of Vaudeville theaters, and then a studio of her own.

Marion first discovered her
passion for choreography when she was offered the position as a dance
instructor for a summer program at the University of California, Berkeley. From
there, she was hired by the Orpheum Circuit as a full-time choreographer and spearheaded
a troupe of 25 dancers. Marion traveled back and forth between Los Angeles and
New York City with her troupe performing interpretive dance routines that were
often based on Egyptian or classical Greek and Roman themes. She cultivated a reputation
for being very strict with her dancers; she required all of her dancers to be vegetarian
and would often require them to study classic literature so that they could
understand the source material for their routines.

Marion (right) photographed with her partner Dorothy Arzner in 1927 (x).

Marion first met Dorothy Arzner in
1921 on the set for the film Man-Woman-Marriage,
which the Marion Morgan dancers were featured in. Dorothy was one of the few
powerful women directors in Hollywood and she and Marion worked together often
on such films as Fashions for Women, Get Your Man, and Manhattan Cocktail. Her breakout film was 1929′s The Wild Party. Their business relationship eventually
blossomed into a romance and they became known around Hollywood as dedicated
partners. In her later years, Marion became involved in other areas of the
theater; she graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 1934 and wrote several
short stories and screenplays throughout her lifetime.

In the 1950s, Marion and Dorothy
retired and moved to Palm Springs and lived there together until Marion’s death
on November 10, 1971. Today, all of her dance archives are preserved at the
Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing
Arts.

-LC

NOVEMBER 3: Lucie Delarue-Mardrus (1874-1945)

The French journalist, poet, and
novelist, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, was born on this day in 1874.

Lucie Delarue-Mardus photographed by Paul Nadar in 1914 (x). 

Lucie was born on November 3, 1874
in Honfleur, Normandy. She was the youngest of six children born to
the middle-class Delarue-Mardus family. Her father was a successful lawyer,
which allowed for her and her siblings to be well educated in literature and
music. In 1880, the family moved to Paris; the city’s rich artistic community
allowed a young Lucie to decide that writing and art was to be her life’s
ambition.

Throughout her life, Lucie wrote
over 70 books. She is most well-known for her poem “My Native Land,” which is a
love letter to her homeland of Normandy, and her 1930 novel The Angel and the Perverts. Despite
being married to the wealthy translator J.C. Mardrus, Lucie made no secret of
the fact that she was a lesbian. The most prominent lover of her life was Natalie
Clifford Barney
, who is featured prominently in The Angel and the Perverts as
well as a series of love poem written by Lucie in 1902 and 1903. She was
eventually able to divorce her husband, leading to one admirer of hers to say, “She
is adorable. She sculpts, mounts to horse, loves a woman, then another, and yet
another. She was able to free herself from her husband and has never embarked
on a second marriage or the conquest of another man.”

In 1936, she became the very first
recipient of the Renée Vivien prize for women poets. By the time of her death
on April 26, 1945, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus had secured a legacy as one of the
pioneers of lesbian French literature.

-LC

OCTOBER 31: Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972)

Happy Halloween! Sadly, we don’t have a spooky story for you today but we do have the story of a lesbian icon who was also a Halloween baby. Natalie Clifford Barney, born on this day in 1876, was an American expatriate in Paris who was famous for her writings and for running the popular Barney literary salon.

Natalie Clifford Barney photographed by Frances Benjamin Johnston some time between 1890 and 1910 (x).

Born in Dayton, Ohio on October 31, 1876, Natalie Clifford Barney was of French, German, and Jewish descent. Her father had inherited the family’s railway car manufacturing plant which provided her a wealthy and privileged upbringing. When she was 10-years-old, the family moved to Washington D.C. where Natalie made a name for herself as one of the most rebellious girls of the high society sect. She constantly made newspaper headlines for her “unladylike” adventures and for riding her horse astride rather than sidesaddle. In 1893, Natalie met Eva Palmer-Sikelianos while vacationing at Bel Harbor, Maine with her family. The two eventually became lovers and made the big move to Paris together, living at 4, rue Chalgrin for a number of years.

Natalie, known for her eccentric personality and penchant for non-monogamy, photographed nude by an unnamed French photographer (x).

Natalie would later recount that she had first realized she was a lesbian when she was 12-years-old and became determined to “live openly, without hiding anything.” Her writing career and Parisian reputation became centered on her trysts with women and her unapologetic love for her lesbian identity; Natalie became the talk of the town when she published the tell-all book Idylle Saphique about her affair with the famous dancer Liane de Pougy, and from there the rest is history. She ran her literary salon for over 60 years and became friends with (and sometimes the lover of) some of the most impactful women artists and writers of her day. She had prominent relationships with Renée Vivien, Dolly Wilde, Romaine Brooks, Élisabeth de Gramont, and many more. The most well-known of Natalie’s published writings include poetry and plays such as Some Portrait-Sonnets of Women, Five Short Greek Dialogues, and Acts and Interludes as well as the novels Scatterings, Thoughts of an Amazon, and The One Who is Legion, or A.D.’s After-Life. 

Natalie with Romaine Brookes. Out of all her relationships throughout the years, her relationship with Romaine lasted the longest (x).

The salon was put on hiatus during World War II, during which Natalie and her partner at the time, Romaine Brooks, fled to Italy. She returned to her home in Paris after the war ended and continued her salon for a new generation. In her later years, Natalie wrote two volumes of memoirs about her time with the Lost Generation and became friends with figures such as an elderly Alice B. Toklas, Truman Capote, and Marguerite Yourcenar. Natalie eventually suffered heart failure and passed away on February 2, 1972. She is buried next to her last love, Romaine Brooks, at Passy Cemetery in Paris, Île-de-France, France.

-LC

OCTOBER 23: Lilyan Tashman (1896-1934)

Film icon Lilyan Tashman was born
on this day in 1896. The bisexual American actress who rocked Vaudeville,
Broadway, and the silver screen throughout her lifetime is most well-known
today for her roles in Millie, Girls About Town, and So This is Paris.

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Publicity photo of Lilyan Tashman from Stars of the Photoplay (x).

Lilyan Tashman was born to a
working-class Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York on October 23, 1896. She was
the tenth and youngest child to be born to her immigrant mother and father, who
had been born in Germany and Poland respectively. She attended Girl’s High
School and worked as a fashion and figure drawing model throughout her teen
years to help support the family. Her modeling career eventually blossomed into
a Vaudeville career and by 1914 she was a part of a successful travelling
troupe. Performing became cemented as Lilyan’s career when she was picked up to
join the Ziegfeld Follies in 1916.

Her stint with the Ziegfeld
Follies, although only lasting two years, allowed Lilyan to get a supporting
role in the hit musical The Gold Diggers.
She made her film debut in 1921 with the small film Experience, but after her attempt at leaping from the stage to the
silver screen wasn’t going the way she planned, Lilyan moved across the county
to California. Finally in Hollywood, her career took off; she appeared in five
films in just the course of one year and eventually signed a contract with
Paramount Pictures. Starring in over 66 films during her career, she became
known to audiences for her roles as the “other woman” or the seductive “villainess.”

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Today, many consider Lilyan to
have been a bisexual figure. Her first husband was a colleague from her
Vaudeville days named Al Lee. The two were married in 1914, but soon divorced
in 1921. Her second husband was longtime friend and fellow actor Edmund Lowe.
The two lived together in their lavish Beverly Hills mansion called Lilowe,
threw extravagant parties, and were touted by the media as being Hollywood’s
new darling “it” couple; however, Edmund was a gay man and many believe their
marriage to have been one of convenience. Lilyan herself was rumored to have
had several trysts with women and even an intense relationship with Greta
Garbo
, which left Lilyan heartbroken after Greta called it off. There is even a legend that Lilyan was almost charged with assault (for the SECOND time) after she
caught the actress Constance Bennett in a compromising position with her
girlfriend at the time.

Despite her vitality and
scrappiness, Lilyan tragically contracted abdominal cancer at the young age of
36. She would film five more films during the last years of her life, Frankie and Johnny being the last time
America would ever see her on film. After entering Doctor’s Hospital on March 21,
1934, Lilyan passed away from cancer at the age of 37. Her funeral at the New
York City synagogue Temple Emanu-El saw over 10,000 mourners, fans, and fellow
Hollywood elite in attendance.

-LC

OCTOBER 7: Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943)

Radclyffe Hall, the English author
of the legendary lesbian novel The Well
of Loneliness
, passed away on this day in 1943. One of the first of its
kind, The Well of Loneliness changed
literary history and catapulted the name Radclyffe Hall into lesbian foremother
status.

Radclyffe Hall’s butch presentation was captured in this iconic photograph taken in 1926 (x). 

Marguerite Radclyffe Hall was born
on August 12, 1880 at her family home of “Sunny Lawn” in Bournemouth, Hampshire. Her father, Radclyffe Radclyffe-Hall, was a wealthy man
and a notorious womanizer, causing her mother to divorce him in 1883. Her eventual
stepfather was the famous music professor Albert Visetti. Despite her abundance
of parental figures, Radclyffe’s childhood was one spent in neglect; after her parent’s divorce, she rarely saw her father and her stepfather Albert repeatedly made
sexual advances towards her, beginning at a young age and sparking jealousy in her own mother. In her teen years, she began to call herself a “congenital invert,” the early sexologist
Havelock Ellis’s term for gay men and lesbians. 

‘A Book That Must Be Suppressed’. The Sunday Express editorial on Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, 1928 © The National Archives, DPP 1/88 (x).

At the age of 21, Radclyffe moved
in with a 51-year-old singer named Mabel Veronica Batten, who was
her very first partner. Radclyffe’s inheritance from her grandfather kept the
two of them afloat until Mabel’s death in 1916 and then Radclyffe was left on
her own once again. It was Mabel who gave the butch Radclyffe the nickname of
“John,” which she preferred to be called by her friends for the rest of her
life. Not long after, she began a relationship with the famous sculptor Una
Elena Troubridge
, who would become her life partner. The money from her inheritance allowed Radclyffe to live a
comfortable life, but she decided to take up writing in 1923. Her first two
novels, The Forge and The Unlit Lamp were both published a
year later in 1924. The Well of Loneliness was published in 1928 and is her
only novel that deals directly with lesbian identity; the novel deals specifically with the
life of a butch lesbian character named Stephanie Gordon who, like
Radclyffe, calls herself an “invert.” The novel was subject to a scandalous
obscenity trial in the U.K. that eventually declared all copies be destroyed, but it won out in the American courts and so The Well of Loneliness was able to be
sold in the States.

Radclyffe and her partner Una Elena Troubridge photographed in 1927 (x). 

After 1928, she would go on to
write and publish eight novels in total. Radclyffe lived with her partner Una
until her death and even welcomed a third woman, a young Russian nurse named Eugenie
Souline, into their relationship in 1934. Despite being gender nonconforming and a
lesbian, Radclyffe held harsh conservative views all her life and made fascist and anti-Semitic claims throughout the 1930s. After fleeing to Italy at the
outbreak of World War II, Radclyffe developed cancer and passed away on October
7, 1943. In her will, all finances and copyrights to her work were left to Una
Troubridge.

-LC

OCTOBER 6: Janet Gaynor (1906-1984)

The famous actress and one of America’s first “sweethearts,” Janet Gaynor, was born on this day in 1906! She is most well-known for being the very first winner
of the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1929.

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Walt Disney specifically asked his animators to model the titular princess of Snow White after Janet Gaynor (x). 

Laura Augusta Gainor was born on
October 6, 1906 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She was the youngest in the family
and had an older sister who nicknamed her “Lolly” as a child. Her father worked
as a theatrical painter and began encouraging Janet to sing and dance when she
was just a toddler, which led to her joining school plays as soon as she was
old enough. When her parents divorced in 1914, she, her sister, and her mother
moved to Chicago and then later to San Francisco. She graduated from San
Francisco Polytechnic High School in 1923. Soon after, the family
moved to Los Angeles so that Janet could be closer to the entertainment industry
action and could hopefully succeed in her acting career. Her first role was as
an extra in a small comedy short and she eventually worked her way up to a
supporting role in the 1926 film The
Johnstown Flood
. That same year, her career really took off after she was
named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars alongside Joan Crawford and Mary Astor.

As Janet’s star grew, her image
became that of the sweet, wholesome woman in contrast to many of the famous
movie star “vamps” of the day. Her performance in 7th Heaven earned her the Best Actress award at the first ever
Academy Award Ceremony in 1929. Throughout the 1930s, she was one of the few
actresses who was able to make the leap into sound films with hits such as Daddy Long Legs (1931), A Star is Born (1937), and The Young in Heart (1938). Janet retired
from acting when she was at the top of her game in 1939.

Janet photographed enjoying a day at the pool with her fellow actress friend and close “gal pal,” Margaret Lindsay. Today, it is known that the two were actually romantically involved for a time (x).

Many have speculated about whether
Janet was a lesbian or was bisexual, but there is no denying that she had
relationships with other women. She was married to men three times throughout
her life and had a son named Robin with her second husband, Adrian. In the 2001
book Behind the Screen: How Gays and
Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910-1969
, author William J. Mann asserts that
Janet was a lesbian who entered into “lavender marriages” with gay or bisexual men; it was a well-known “secret” in the theater community that her second husband Adrian Greenberg was a gay man. Janet is known to have had at least two serious relationships with women – fellow actresses Margaret
Lindsay and Mary Martin. Janet and Mary’s relationship was the longest of
the two and they often traveled to a vacation home in the Brazilian town of Goiás
together throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Actor Robert Cumming is famous for
having quipped, “Janet Gaynor’s husband was Adrian, the MGM fashion designer.
But her wife was Mary Martin.”

On September 5, 1982, Janet, her
third husband Paul, her lover Mary, and their friend Ben Washer were hit by a
drunk driver while riding in a taxi cab in San Francisco. Washer was killed,
while Janet and the other passenger sustained serious injuries. Janet would
never fully recover from her injuries and would eventually pass away on  September 14, 1984. She is buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery 

-LC

SEPTEMBER 30: Jeanne Galzy (1883-1977)

The lesbian French
writer Jeanne Galzy was born on this day in 1883. Although her novels and artistic work has largely
been left out of the canon and forgotten, Jeanne was a staple of the French
artistic community in the 1920s and has been dubbed one of the “pioneers
in the writing of lesbian desire and despair.”

Jeanne Baraduc, known by her pen name of Jeanne Galzy, photographed by Henri Martinie (x).

Jeanne was born as Louise Jeanne
Baraduc on September 30, 1883 in Montpellier, France. Her parents were wealthy
poets who were heavily involved in the literary world. Due to their wealth,
Jeanne was able to attend some of the top schools of her time, such as the
École normale supérieure de jeunes filles in Sèvres, and immersed herself in
academia. After passing the notoriously difficult agrégation exam, she went on to
become the first woman to teach at a boys’ school in Montpellier in 1915.

Not long after beginning her
teaching career, Jeanne contracted tuberculosis and was sent to convalesce in Berck.
While on bedrest, she began writing her first novel, Les Allongés, which would win the Prix Femina Literary
Award in 1923. She kept
teaching for a while, but eventually found enough financial stability to make
writing her career. By the end of her life, she had published 5 novels, written
a play, received multiple literary awards, and even served as a member on the Prix
Femina jury. Her most famous novel, L’Initiatrice
aux mains vides
/Burnt Offering was
published in 1929 and tells the story of a clandestine lesbian relationship between
a student and a teacher. In 1930, it won the Prix Brentano Literary Award and
it is commonly believed that the novel was inspired by Jeanne’s own lesbianism
and the sexual experiences she had during her own school days at all girls’
academies.

Jeanne would pass away on May 7,
1977. At the time of her death, she was a celebrated hometown hero and the
pride of Montpellier, but as time has gone on, her contributions to lesbian
literature and culture have faded from history. Today, only one of her novels
has been translated into English and none of her books are still in print.

-LC