Category: old hollywood

DECEMBER 26: Queen Christina is released (1933…

Based on the
real life lesbian queen of Sweden and starring lesbian starlet Greta Garbo, the
film Queen Christina was first released on this day in 1933.

Despite the
actual documented history of Queen Christina’s life, the story of the Queen
film follows the queen as she falls in love with a fictional male
Spanish envoy. Stressed out by the demands of the throne and the continued insistence
that she marry her cousin, Karl Gustav, this fictionalized version of Christina
disguises herself in men’s clothing and sneaks out of her castle to enjoy life
as an everyday commoner. When an unexpected snow storm leaves her stranded at
an inn, she is forced to share a bed with an occupant of the inn, a diplomat
sent from Spain named Antonio. Christina eventually reveals herself to be a
woman and the two fall in love.

Despite the
erasure of Christina’s lesbianism, the 1933 film became a touchstone for
lesbian culture for its depiction of a masculine woman protagonist and the
iconic scene where Christina shares a “friendly kiss” with her lady in waiting
and real life lover, Ebba Sparre. The film The Girl King that was released in 2015 recently restored the lesbian aspects of Queen Christina’s true story.


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

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


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.


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 


SEPTEMBER 18: Greta Garbo (1905-1990)

One of the most iconic actresses
of the 20th century, Greta Garbo, was born on this day in 1905.
Despite her image in the American imagination as the eternally heterosexual
romantic lead and starlet, Greta lived a lonely, closeted life.

Greta Garbo first traveled to the United States at the age of 19 and not two years later she would be one of the most well-known actresses in the country (x).

Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was born
in the slum of Södermalm in Stockholm, Sweden on September 18, 1905. She was
the third and the youngest child born to a working class family – her mother
worked at a jam factory and her father was a janitor. Poverty haunted her
childhood and she is remembered as having been a shy, daydreaming child who was
interested in theater and performance from an early age; a former classmate remembered
a 10-year-old Greta declaring that she wanted to be an actress when she grew up
“because it’s posh.” After leaving school at the age of 13, she began working
as a cleaner girl in a barber shop, but eventually took a job at the PUB
Department Story. It was there where Greta was picked out for her beauty and
chosen to model women’s hats. Modeling gigs turned into commercial gigs, which
eventually lead her to starring in short films.

In 1922, the director Erik Arthur
Petschler spotted one of Greta’s commercials and invited her to star in his
small comedy film Peter the Tramp.
Seeing a real future in acting, she studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s
Acting School for two years before getting shipped off to America on the request of
MGM Vice President Louis B. Mayer. After the studio forced her to straighten
her teeth, lose 30 pounds, and lean English, Greta became a superstar and
starred in over 20 silent films. In 1929, she became one of the few stars who
was able to make the jump over to “talkies” with the film Anna Christie. Over the next decade, she would star in hits such as
Grand Hotel, Camille, and Anna Karenina
and would receive three Oscar nominations.

Video footage of Greta arriving at Gothenburg Harbor in 1935 overplayed with words from one of her loves, Mercedes de Acosta

Closely associated with the line
from Grand Hotel, “I want to be alone; I just want to be alone,” Greta hated
publicity and was a recluse later in life. Many historians have theorized that Greta’s social
anxiety and depression were results of her lesbianism and the pressure placed
on her to hide that part of her life from the world. Actresses Lilyan Tashman,
Mercedes de Acosta, and Louise Brooks have all admitted to having sexual
relationships with Greta, but if she had an ultimate love it had to have been
Mimi Pollack. Mimi was a Swedish actress who Greta met during her time at
the Royal Dramatic Theater and the two maintained a close correspondence for
the rest of their lives. The romantic tone of their letters is undeniable;
Greta writes:

 “’The letter from you has aroused a storm of longing within me,” “’I
dream of seeing you and discovering whether you still care as much about your
old bachelor. I love you, little Mimosa,” “’We cannot help our nature, as God
has created it. But I have always thought you and I belonged together.” 

Mimi’s son was born, Greta even wrote that she was “incredibly proud to be a

Greta’s relationship with Mimi
would not become known to the mainstream public until 2005 with the publication of the
Swedish book Djävla Älskade Unge by Tin Andersen Axell. At the time of Greta’s
death on April 14, 1990, it would be over ten years before the
public who claimed to adore her would know a sliver of who the actress truly


SEPTEMBER 13: Claudette Colbert (1903-1996)

The French actress turned American femme fatale, Claudette
Colbert, was born on this day in 1903. The possibly bisexual performer had a
successful acting career that lasted over two decades.

Two of Claudette’s most scandalous roles were in The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934) where she appeared topless and semi-nude, respectively (x).

Émilie “Lily” Claudette Chauchoin was born on
September 13, 1903 in Saint-Mandé, France. In an ironic twist of fate, she was
nicknamed Lily by her family after the New Jersery-born actress Lillie Langtry
and the family would later migrate to New Jersey themselves. Claudette attended Washington Irving High School and
became heavily involved in their theater program, but still set out for Art
Students League of New York after high school with her sights set on becoming a
fashion designer. It wasn’t until she scored a small role in the Broadway play The Wild Westcotts in 1923 that
Claudette started to seriously pursue acting.

With her sights now set on acting as a career goal, Lily
Chauchoin became Claudette Colbert; Claudette from her middle name and Colbert
from her maternal grandmother’s maiden name. She started out with a five-year
contract with Broadway producer Al Woods, but eventually made the transition
over into films in 1929 with The Hole in
the Wall
. She found her niche and became a household name in 1932 when
Cecil B. DeMille cast her as the femme fatale in his historical epic The Sign of the Cross. To Claudette’s dismay,
she would then become known as one of the leading femme fatales in Hollywood
and for her overly sexual roles. By 1933, she had starred in over 20 films and
was ranked as the 13th  biggest box office star in America. A year later, she would win the Academy Award for Best Actress for It Happened One Night.

Claudette and one of her supposed lovers, Marlene Dietrich, on the slide during Carole Lombard’s party at Venice Pier Amusement Park, June 1935 (x).

Claudette was married twice; first to a man named Norman
Foster who was a director and her Broadway costar, but after they divorced she
wed a UCLA surgeon named Joel Pressman. Despite both her marriages being seemingly legitimate and loving, rumors of Claudette’s affairs with other actresses such
as Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich followed her for her entire career. Most
notably, Claudette had a very public intimate relationship with the out lesbian
artist Verna Hull in the 1950s. Although Claudette denied the rumors that she
was bisexual or a lesbian, she and Verna rented a home together in New York City
and even had neighboring vacation homes in Barbados. The relationship ended abruptly
and on bad terms in the early 1960s after the death of Claudette’s husband.
When Claudette passed away on July 30, 1996, she left her entire estate to
another woman named Helen O’Hagan, who she instructed in her will to be treated
“as her spouse.”  


JULY 29: Clara Bow (1905-1965)

America’s first “It Girl,” Clara Bow, was born on this day
in 1905. The possibly bisexual actress was one of the world’s first silent film
stars and, in her heyday, received over 45,000 fan letters a month!

It was Clara’s appearance in the 1927 film It that led to the creation of the title “It Girl” for which she is so famously remembered (x).

Clara Gordon Bow was born in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn on
July 29, 1905 in the thick of a summer heat wave that almost led to the death
of both newborn Clara and her mother Sarah. The Bows were a poor family who lived
in a working class English-Irish community; Clara’s father was frequently
out of work and her mother suffered from mental illness – diagnosed as “psychosis
due to epilepsy” at the time. Clara recalled her home life as being “miserable”
and found solace in athletics at school and by going to the cinema. By the age
of 16, she was already dreaming about becoming an actress. Her dream became a
reality in January of 1922 when a 17-year-old Clara entered and won Brewster
Magazine’s annual “Fame and Fortune Contest.”

After winning the “Fame and Fortune Contest,” Clara was cast
in her very first – albeit small – motion picture, Beyond the Rainbow. She wouldn’t strike it big until 1923 when she
was cast in her very first big Hollywood production, Maytime. It was with films like Maytime
and later Black Oxen that Clara came
to personify the popular archetype of “the flapper girl.” She later struggled
to tone down her Brooklyn accent with the rise of “talkies,” but was able to
land the hurdle with films such as The Saturday
Night Kid
and Dangerous Curves.
Having dominated theater screens and gossip magazines alike during two
different film eras, Clara cemented her status as queen of Hollywood.

Clara Bow is photographed sitting on the lap of out lesbian director Dorothy Arzner, who eased American audiences into hearing Clara’s thick Brooklyn accent for the first time in her first ever sound film, The Wild Party (x).  

Clara eventually married a fellow actor named Rex Bell,
retired from acting, and settled down at a Nevada ranch with her husband and
two sons. However, before she left Hollywood for the simply life, Clara was known
as a free-wheeling party girl who danced naked on tables and enjoyed sex with both men and
women. It was also rumored that Clara had a fling with director Dorothy Arzner,
who directed Clara in the famously lesbian-themed The Wild Party (which you can read more about here). Would Clara have identified
with the contemporary label bisexual? – the world may never know. After having
lived out both the glamorous acting career and happy home life she had always
dreamed about, Clara passed away on September 27, 1965 at the age of 60.


JULY 28: Jill Esmond (1908-1990)

Having passed away on this day in 1990, Jill Esmond is
mostly remembered as the first wife of the legendary Laurence Olivier, but the
lesbian actress also enjoyed a thriving career of her own and led a deeply
closeted life.


A publicity shot published in Picture Play Magazine in June 1932 shows Jill gracefully leaning her head on the back of a chair (x).

Jill Esmond Moore was born in London on January 26, 1908. Her
parents were both actors who constantly toured with theater troupes while Jill
was away at boarding schools. However, she eventually dropped out and made her
own stage debut in a production of Peter
in 1922. After studying for a time at the Royal
Academy of Dramatic Arts, Jill got her big break on London’s West End with the
play Outward Bound. In 1928, Jill
would meet Laurence Olivier as her cast mate in the production of Bird in the Hand and he would become her husband
on July 25, 1930.


Jill Esmond and Laurence Olivier pose with their wedding party in 1930 (x). 

Although Jill migrated to America and enjoyed
a successful career for many years starring in films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s
The Skin Game and Thirteen Women, it was her connection to
her more famous husband that would eventually make the name Jill Esmond go
down in history. Legend has it that both Jill and Laurence regretted their
marriage just weeks after the ceremony, but it wasn’t until the couple’s dual performance in
the Broadway hit The Green Bay Tree that really saw the beginning of the end of their marriage. 

The play featured multiple gay
characters and a former lover of Jill’s, Phyllis Konstam, would later say, “Night
after night they were speaking lines and creating characters that mirrored
their own private lives. She preferred women to men. He was, at the very least,
bisexual. They must have known that the marriage could never last.” Despite putting on a happy face for the public, Jill and Laurence’s marriage was deeply unhappy and riddled with extramarital affairs. With the
birth of her son Tarquin in 1936 and her inevitable divorce from Laurence in
1940, Jill’s acting career became sporadic. She had begun to turn down roles
that her husband disapproved of, which were many, and by the time they had
separated it was too late to reclaim her former stardom.

Jill’s very last acting role was as Eleanor of Aquitaine in
the 1955 television series The Adventures
of Robin Hood
. Despite the barrage of bad press and celebrity gossip that
followed her divorce and Laurence’s subsequent Hollywood affairs, Jill remained
on good terms with her ex-husband for the rest of his life and was in
attendance at his 1989 funeral. She would pass away herself just a year later
on July 28, 1990 at her home in Wandsworth, London.


JULY 16: Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990)

American screen legend Barbara Stanwyck was
born on this day in 1907. The lesbian starlet spent many years of her life as
the highest paid woman in the U.S. and as an icon for the LGBT community. 

In her heyday, Barbara Stanwyck was famous for her film noirs, and in her later years, she rose to prominence once again for her western films (x).

Barbara was born as Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907
in Brooklyn, New York. She was the fifth child born to working-class
parents and would experience a traumatic childhood after the death of her
mother and the mysterious disappearance of her father – two weeks after Barbara’s
mother died from complications from a miscarriage, her father took a job digging
the Panama Canal and was never seen again. Barbara’s older sister Mildred did
her best to raise her younger siblings, but Barbara and her brother Byron were
eventually placed into foster care. Barbara ran away from the foster care system at the age of 14 and joined her sister Mildred
working as a showgirl. 

Her big break came to Barbara just two years later; when she was 16-years-old, she auditioned for and was given a part with
the Ziegfeld Follies, one of New York’s premier theater groups of the 1910s and
1920s. Later in life, Barbara would say, “I just wanted to survive and
eat and have a nice coat,” but it was with the Ziegfeld Follies that she
made a name for herself choreographing dance numbers at the Texas Guinan gay
and lesbian speakeasy and where she met the famous director Willard Mack. Willard cast
Barbara in his play The Noose, which
was a breakout success and eventually found its way onto Broadway. It was also
Willard who gave her the idea to change her name from Rudy Stevens to Barbara
Stanwyck – Barbara for the name of her character in The Noose, and Stanwyck
was stolen from another actress who was in the production. And just like that,
the Barbara Stanwyck we know today was born.

Between her starring roles in films such as Breakfast for Two (1937) and A Message to Garcia (1936), Barbara earned a reputation as a more masculine leading lady compared to many of her contemporaries (x)(x). 

The 1927 silent film Broadway
was Barbara’s very first film role; although she played a minor
role, she would go on to star in over 40 films and 4 television series throughout
her career! Some of her most iconic films include Double IndemnityThe
Lady Eve
, and Night Nurse,
and she was awarded two Emmys, a Golden Globe, and three different Lifetime
Achievement Awards before her death. One role that secured Barbara’s legacy in
film history was that of the very first out lesbian to be shown in American
cinema – Jo Courtney in Walk on the Wild Side. Despite the film’s portrayal
of Jo Courtney being far from progressive, the film did earn Barbara a huge
lesbian following and piqued the media to her own not-so-secret lesbian past.

Although Barbara
was married twice, the rumors of the day said that they were both “lavender
marriages” – a term coined in the theater community to mean a gay man and
lesbian who married each other to avoid media speculation into their sexuality.
When a journalist named Boze Hadleigh famously asked Barbara about these
speculations y in 1962, she reportedly kicked him
out of her house. There are stories about Barbara sleeping with almost every other
popular actress in her day; from Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Tallulah Bankhead. However, in Barbara’s later years, her
serious partner was her live-in publicist Helen Ferguson, whose “friendship”
with Barbara lasted almost 30 years.

Barbara and her longtime “gal pal” and publicist, Helen Ferguson (x).

Barbara Stanwyck
died at the age 80 on January 20, 1990 due to congestive heart failure.
According to her will, no funeral service was given and instead her ashes were
scattered over Lone Pine, California, her favorite destination which she had
come across while filming several of her western films. In the book
Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Popular Culture by Luca Prono, Barbara’s legacy
and importance to the LGBT community is summed up with: “Stanwyck acquired the
status of icon within lesbian communities…Stanwyck was a woman…whose screen
persona challenged respectability because of the strong and independent women
she embodied in the 1940s.”