Category: 1950s

NOVEMBER 7: Edythe Eyde (1921-2015)

Edythe Eyde, better
known as her pen name Lisa Ben, was born on this day in 1921. She was a
literary editor, publisher, and musician who created the very first known
lesbian publication in America – Vice Versa – which was printed and distributed
in the 1940s.

“Edythe Eyde looking glamorous in an undated photo. Courtesy of ONE Archives at the USC Libraries.” Listen to Edythe’s interview with the Making Gay History podcast! 

Edythe was born on November 7,
1921 in San Francisco, California. She was an only child and grew up on an
apricot farm in the rural town of Frement Township, California. Her love of
music began as a young child when she entered violin lessons, which she would
take for 8 years. Although she would not become aware of the word lesbian until
well into her adulthood, Edythe had her first relationship with another girl
when she was in high school. Heartbroken after her girlfriend broke off the relationship,
Edythe attempted to open up to her mother, but her mother reacted poorly to the news that Edythe had been in love with another girl. The event
effectively ruined any personal connection Edythe had previously had with her
parents.

Edythe Eyde, c. 1950s. Lisa Ben Papers. ONE Archives at the USC Libraries (x).

After three years of saving up
money and two years of taking secretarial courses at her parents’ insistence,
Edythe finally left the nest and moved to Palo Alto. She would not stay in Palo
Alto for long and eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1945. Finally in a city
with an active gay and lesbian community, Edyth first learned the word lesbian and began identifying as so in 1946. She discovered that there were
several other lesbians living in her apartment complex and she had soon found
herself a close-knit group of friends. While working as a secretary at RKO Studios,
Edythe’s boss told her that it was important for her to look busy at all times.
In need of something to keep her fingers busy, Edythe began typing Vice Versa.

A friend photographs Edythe after visiting an ice cream struck in 1950 (x).

A fun passion project for Edythe,
she initially just distributed Vice Versa
around to her close friends, but she soon began mailing copies to her
long-distance friends and even passing them out to the patrons of the lesbian club, If Club. She personally wrote and published nine issues of Vice Versa from 1947
to 1948. She eventually lost her secretary job at RKO when the company went under and was forced to take on a new
job that left her with no free time to continue creating Vice Versa. When the lesbian
magazine The Ladder began in the 1950s, Edythe was a frequent contributor under
the name Lisa Ben, an anagram of the word lesbian. Copies of Vice Versa can
still be read today at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives.

Edythe smiling with her guitar in 1964 (x).

Dubbed by the Daughters of Bilitis
as “the first gay folk singer,” Edythe enjoyed a successful music career in
lesbian circles throughout her life. Her music was also featured on
several documentary films. She was honored in 1972 by ONE Archives as one of
the “fathers of the homophile movement,” was featured in the 1984 documentary
Before Stonewall
, and was also inducted into the National Lesbian and Gay
Journalists Association’s hall of fame in 2010. Edyth passed away on December
22, 2015 at the age of 94.

-LC

OCTOBER 19: Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

The famous American poet and
playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay passed away on this day in 1950. Only the
third woman to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, she is believed to
have been an early bisexual icon for her affairs with both men and
women.

Edna St. Vincent Millay in Mamaroneck, NY, 1914, by Arnold Genthe (x).

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born
on February 22, 1892 in Rockland, Maine. Her family was of modest means, her
father being a schoolteacher and her mother a nurse. Her middle name St.
Vincent was derived from the hospital in New York City, where her uncle’s life
had been miraculously saved not long before her birth. Edna would later write
of her childhood and say that she and her family lived “between the mountains
and the sea where baskets of apples and drying herbs on the porch mingled their
scents with those of the neighboring pine woods.” After her parents divorced,
Edna’s mother traveled around Maine with she and her sisters never staying in
one place too long. Despite her unconventional education,
Edna was eventually awarded a scholarship to Vassar College.

It was at Vassar where her affairs
with other women began, most notably with the English actress Edith Wynne
Matthison, who was over twice Edna’s age. After graduating in 1917, she moved
to New York City and lived in the bohemian neighborhood of Greenwich Village where she built a life for herself that she would later describe as having been “very, very
poor and very, very merry.” Although poetry was her main aim, Edna began seeing
much success as a playwright; she had lucrative careers with both the
Provincetown Players and the Theater Guild. Many of her plays and poems are now
legendary for their lesbian subtext, such as “The Lamp and the Bell,” Aria da Capo, and “Renascence.” She
would earn her spot in the history textbooks in 1923 after winning the Pulitzer
Prize for Poetry for her piece "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” becoming
just the third woman to ever be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

One of Edna’s greatest loves was
the talented sculptor and famous lesbian expat Thelma Wood, who she met after
moving to Paris in January of 1921. Her relationships with men included a 26-year
long marriage to lawyer and war correspondent Eugen Jan Boissevain, as well as
a lengthy affair with the poet George Dillon. During World War I, Edna was a
staunch pacifist and contributed to the active anti-war campaign in her literary
circle; however, she changed her position with the dawn of World War II and
supported the Allied Forces. She made literary history once again in 1943 when
she became the second woman to every be awarded the Frost Award.

Edna photographed laughing with her friends in Paris, including her lover Thelma Wood (x).

Following an accident where she
fell down the stairs in her home, Edna suffered a heart attack and passed away
on October 19, 1950 at the age of 58. She was buried next to her husband Eugen,
who had passed away only a year earlier. Her estate and bisexual legacy was
eventually restored and brought to prominence in the literary canon thanks to the
work of her sister Norma, biographer Nancy Millford, and fellow Pulitzer Prize
winning poet and wlw Mary Oliver.

-LC

OCTOBER 3: The Ladder begins publication (1956)

On this day in 1956, the lesbian magazine The Ladder began
publication. The Ladder was the very
first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the United States and it
didn’t cease publication until 1972.

The cover of The Ladder, Vol. 5, No. 2 as it was published and distributed in November of 1960 (x). 

Created as an extension of the
lesbian organization The Daughter of Bilitis (DoB), the first issue of The
Ladder
was edited and distributed by DoB co-founder Phyllis Lyon on October 3,
1965. Originally, all contributors to the magazine wrote and edited under
pseudonyms for their own safety, but Phyllis herself eventually dropped her pseudonym
of “Ann Ferguson” to encourage other lesbians to come out of hiding and join the movement. The early
issues of The Ladder averaged 20 pages, were hand stapled, and included poetry,
short stories, lesbian book recommendations, and the minutes from the latest DoB
meetings. 175 copies of the first issue were printed and the members of DoB
mailed them out around the country to every lesbian friend and acquaintance they
thought might be interested in the material.

An advertisement for The Ladder that was run by the Eastern Mattachine Magazine in November of 1965 (x).

A year later, word of mouth about
the magazine had spread so voraciously that there were over 400 names on the
mailing list. Before long, The Ladder would be available in newsstands in major
cities across America. After Phyllis Lyon and her partner Del Martin stepped
down as editors in 1970, famous LGBT rights activist Barbara Gittings took up
the mantel and gave the magazine a more political edge. After 1970, the official
title printed on the front cover of all issues was The Ladder: A Lesbian Review – a political move in and of itself. The
magazine began printing photos after a
woman from Indonesia sent in a photo of herself along with a caption explaining her love of the magazine and
how isolated she felt in 1964. The Ladder
published its last issue in September of 1972 after much controversy within the DoB organization and all issues were archived in a nine-volume compilation in 1975.

-LC

AUGUST 25: Bernice Bing (1936-1998)

The iconic artist and lesbian activist Bernice Bing passed
away at the age of 62 on this day in 1998. Having made a name for herself on
the San Francisco Bay Area art scene, Bernice became known for her “calligraphy-inspired
abstractions” as well as for bringing a much-needed Chinese-American voice into
LGBT activism.

A young Bernice Bing is photographed sitting in her art studio in her hometown of San Francisco, California (x).

Affectionately called Bingo by her friends, Bernice was born
in 1936 in San Francisco, California’s Chinatown District. Her father was an
immigrant from Southern China, but her mother had been born in America. After
her mother’s death when Bernice was only 6-years-old, she and her sister were
shifted around to different white foster homes in the city, only being exposed
to their Chinese heritage briefly when they were allowed to live with their
grandmother in Oakland from time to time. A poor student, Bernice developed a
passion for drawing and the arts in high school. She would eventually attend California
College of Arts and Crafts where she was introduced to Zen Buddhism and Chinese
philosophers by a Japanese-born professor, Hasegawa, who would remain
influential to her throughout her career.

Bernice Bing, Blue Mountain No.4 1965 (x).

After graduating, she became heavily involved in the circle
of Beat writers and artists who lived and worked in the Bay Area such as Joan
Brown, Wally Hedrick, and Fred Martin. In 1961, she was given a one-woman show
at San Francisco’s Batman Gallery titled “Paintings & Drawings by Bernice
Bing,” which received wide critical acclaim. In addition to her painting, Bernice
was also present in existentialism circles, political activism, and arts
administration. She created an art workshop in collaboration with a Chinatown
gang called the Baby Wah Chings in response to the deadly shootings of the
Golden Dragon Massacre in 1977 and became the first executive director of the
South of Market Cultural Center (SOMArts) in 1980.

Watch the trailer for The Worlds of Bernice Bing, directed by

Madeleine Lim!

Bernice sadly passed away from cancer on August 25, 1998.
Before her death, she became the first Asian-American artist to receive a
Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Women’s Caucus for Art and was
also recognized by the Asian Heritage Council in 1990. The documentary The Worlds of Bernice Bing celebrating
her life and legacy premiered at the Queer Women of Color Film Festival in
2013.

-LC

AUGUST 16: Reaching for the Moon is released (2013)

Based on the book Rare
and Commonplace Flowers
(Flores Raras e Banalíssimas) by Carmem Lucia de
Oliveira, the biopic Reaching for the
Moon
(Flores Raras) was first released in its home country of Brazil on
this day in 2013.

Set in the city of Petrópolis and spanning throughout the
1950s and 1960s, the film tells the real life love story of American poet
Elizabeth Bishop (who we wished a happy birthday back in February!) and a
Brazilian architect named Lota de Macedo Soares. The story starts off with Elizabeth Bishop, a once great
poet in a creative slump, arriving in Brazil in 1951. Played by Miranda Otto, she
is hoping that a retreat into nature will not only revive her writing ability
but will also save her from an increasing dependence on alcohol. Surprising to anyone but the audience, it’s actually a friend of a friend named Lota, played by Glória Pires, who
truly pulls Elizabeth back into the world of the living. 

image

Instead of the
intended stay of three weeks, Elizabeth ends up staying, loving, and living
with Lota for 15 years. The film itself is sprawling and extends beyond the
easy label of “lesbian romance movie;” from dealing with the trappings of
literary stardom, to internalized homophobia, to both women’s experience of the
1964 Brazilian military coup, by the end of the movie the audience
has truly witnessed the scope of Elizabeth and Lota’s 16 year long relationship and has seen their lives and identities been woven together. With the infamously dismal and amateur-ish
reputation of most lesbian films, the beautiful cinematography, score, and
tight writing of Reaching for the Moon
is something to be cherished.

-LC

AUGUST 9: Tove Jansson (1914-2001)

Whether you’ve come across The Moomins through Tumblr or the book series was a staple of your childhood, you have lesbian legend,
novelist, and illustrator Tove Jansson – who was born on this day in 1914! – to
thank for the whimsy of that unforgettable fairy tale world.

The profile photo for the official Twitter account in honor of Tove Jansson’s work (@ToveJansson1914) shows the author and illustrator herself in a bountiful flower crown (x). 

Tove Marika Jansson was born on August 9, 1914 in Helsinki,
Finland. Her family was a part of the Swedish-speaking minority of Finland and
had a history of producing artistic minds; her father was a sculptor and her
mother was a graphic designer and illustrator. Tove wrote and illustrated her
first picture book, Sara and Pelle and
the Water Sprite’s Octopuses
(Sara
och Pelle och näckens bläckfiskar
), when
she was only 14-years-old, and unlike most people’s childhood creations, it didn’t
dawdle in a forgotten box in her family’s attic, but was actually published
later on in 1933! After graduating high school she attended the University
College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm and would also go on to earn
degrees from the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts and L’École des Beaux-Arts in
Paris.

Tove Jansson and her partner

Tuulikki Pietilä were together for over 40 years and stayed together until Tove’s death. After meeting Tuulikki for the first time, Tove wrote, “I love you both enchanted and very calm at the same time, and I don’t fear anything that might await us…

I have finally come home to that one person whom I want to be with” (x).

From the 1930s to 1952, Tove worked as a political cartoonist
for the Swedish-language magazine Garm
and became known for her comical portrayals of the happenings of World War II,
but she eventually left the magazine when her Moomins series took off. The first Moomins book, The Moomins and
the Great Flood
, was published in 1947. Tove later said that her inspiration
for the white, round-bellied family of trolls came from a childhood story her
uncle used to tell her of a “Moomintroll” who lived in the kitchen
pantry and stopped children from stealing food. Several recurring characters in
the Moomins series are also famously inspired by people in Tove’s real life;
the character of Too-Ticky was based on her life partner Tuulikki Pietilä (you
can read more about the story of Too-Ticky and Tuulikki here!) and the characters
Moominpappa and Moominmamma are adaptations of Tove’s own parents.

The Moomins
eventually became an international sensation and the most identifiable marker of
Tove’s cultural legacy! Throughout her lifetime, the characters were featured
in books, comic strips, short stories, and even stage productions that Tove
herself participated in. The series is the most widely-translated works of
Finnish literature and includes a Moomins theme park and museum. In 1966, Tove
won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her work in children’s literature with the Moomins. She would eventually pass away on June 27, 2001 at the age of 86. Footage of her
creative journey, life, and travels with Tuulikki was eventually compiled into
the 2010 documentary titled Moominland Tales:
The Life of Tove Jansson
.

-LC

JULY 4: Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952)

Bisexual actress Gertrude Lawrence was born on this day in
1898 and is remembered for having ascended her impoverished,
Cockey-accented roots to become a legend in both Broadway and London’s West End.

Although famously claimed by the Brits, Gertrude’s true surname of Klasen was given to her by her Danish birth father. She later adopted the name Lawrence from her father’s stage name of Arthur Lawrence (x). 

Gertrude Alice Dagmar Klasen was born on July 4, 1898 in
Newington, London. Her parents’ show business careers kept the family in
poverty, which was exacerbated when her father’s alcoholism caused them to
separate. Gertrude’s mother eventually remarried and it was on an outing with
her stepfather when Gertrude got her first taste of the spotlight; while
attending a concert in Bognor, young Gertrude was invited on stage to sing a
song and was given a prize for her participation. The experience planted in Gertrude
a love of performing that would stick with her for the rest of her life. In
1908, Gertrude joined the chorus of a Christmas pantomime at the Brixton
Theater and began taking dance lessons with Italia Conti. At the age of 16, she
left home and joined the Bohemian world of the theater in earnest when she
moved into the Theatrical Girls’ Club in Soho.

She worked and toured steadily with various theater troupes,
but it was her multiple relationships with powerful men such as Captain Philip
Astley, who was a member of the Household Cavalry, and the wall street banker
Bert Taylor that really cemented Gertrude’s position in British high society.
In 1923, she performed the lead role in the musical London Calling! and became an overnight sensation in her own right.
Throughout the years, Gertrude would also perform in other iconic musicals such
as Oh, Kay!, Treasure Girl, Private Lives,
and of course, The King & I for which she won a Tony Award in 1951.

Gertrude performs a scene from The King & I with her co-star and lover

Yul Brynner, 1951 (x). 

In her day, Gertrude was known as one of theater’s most
voracious “man eaters.” She was married twice – first to a director named Francis
Gordon-Howley in 1917, with whom she had her only child, and then later to a
theater owner named Richard Aldrich. However, one of Gertrude’s lesser-known
affairs was with the famous playwright and novelist Daphne du Maurier. The two
first met in 1948 when Gertrude played the lead in one of Daphne’s plays titled
September Tide, and both Gertrude’s
second husband and official biographer agree that the two had an instant and
unmatched connection. Daphne’s nicknames for Gertrude included “dear Gert” –
which she used in their letters to each other – and “Cinder” in reference to
the rags-to-riches story of Cinderella. The relationship was maintained through
frequent letters and infrequent visits from 1948 to Gertrude’s death;
reportedly, it was Daphne’s location in London that caused Gertrude to always
return home from her excursion trips to New York, and in her later years, Daphne
joked with friends about Gertrude’s sexual prowess.

Daphne (left) and Gertrude (right) are photographed on a public outing together. Although to the public the two were simply good friends, their romantic relationship was later shown in the 2007 film Daphne (x). 

As she grew older, Gertrude began a career in film and television.
Her most famous roles included Amanda in the movie adaptation of The Glass Menagerie and a televised
production of the play The Great
Catherine
. She eventually took a teaching position at Columbia University
where she taught courses such as “The Study of Roles and Scenes.” On 16 August
1952, she fainted backstage during a production of The King & I and it was discovered that she had liver cancer.
Gertrude passed away on September 6, 1952 at the age of 54. Over 6,000 people
crowed the streets of New York City for her funeral and today she is remembered as one of the greatest theater legends to ever live.  

-LC