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A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem.

 

 

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A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age  Harlem.

Eric Garber

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a homosexual subculture, uniquely  Afro-American  in substance, began to take shape in New York’s Harlem. Throughout the so- called Harlem  Renaissance period, roughly 1920 to 1935, black lesbians and gay men were  meeting each  other. street corners, socializing in cabarets and rent parties, and worshiping in  church on  Sundays, creating a language, a social structure, and a complex network of  institutions. Some  were discreet about their sexual identities; others openly expressed their  personal feelings. The  community they built attracted white homosexuals as well as black, creating  friendships  between people of disparate ethnic and economic backgrounds and building  alliances for  progressive social change. But the prosperity of the 1920s was short-lived, and  the Harlem gay  subculture quickly declined following the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the  repeal of  Prohibition, soon becoming only a shadow of its earlier self. Nevertheless, the  traditions and  institutions created by Harlem lesbians and gay men during the Jazz Age  continue to this day.

The key historical factor in the development of the lesbian and gay  subculture in Harlem  was the massive migration of thousands of Afro-Americans to northern urban  areas after the turn  of the century. Since the beginning of American slavery, the vast majority of  blacks had lived in  rural southern states. American participation in World War I led to an increase in  northern  industrial production and brought an end to immigration, which resulted in  thousands of  openings in northern factories becoming available to blacks. Within two  decades, large  communities of black Americans had developed in most northern urban areas.  So significant  was this shift in population that it is now referred to as the “Great Migration.”  Black communities  developed in Chicago, Detroit, and Buffalo, but the largest and most spectacular  was Harlem,  which became the mecca for Afro-Americans from all over the world. Nowhere  else could you  find a geographic area so large, so concentrated, really a city within a city,  populated entirely by  blacks. There were black schoolteachers, black entrepreneurs, black police  officers, and even  black millionaires. A spirit was in the air-of hope, progress, and possibilities- which proved  particularly alluring to the young and unmarried. Harlem’s streets soon filled with  their music,  their voices, and their laughter.

They called themselves “New Negroes,” Harlem was their capital, and  they manifested a  new militancy and pride. Black servicemen had been treated with a degree of  respect and given  a taste of near-equality while in Europe during the World War; their experiences  influenced their  expectations when they returned home. Participation in the war effort had given  the entire black  community a sense of involvement in the American process and led them to  demand their place  in the mainstream of American life. Marcus Garvey, the charismatic West Indian  orator, had  thousands of followers in his enormous black nationalist “Back to Africa”  movement. W. E. B.  DuBois and his National Association for the Advancement of Colored People  (NAACP), with its  radical integrationist position, generally appealed to a more educated, middle- class following,  as did Charles W. Johnson’s National Urban League, but were just as militant in  their call for  racial justice. A variety of individuals and organizations generated Afro-American  pride and  solidarity.

The New Negro movement created a new kind of art. Harlem, as the New  Negro Capital,  became a worldwide center for Afro-American jazz, literature, and the fine arts.  Many black  musicians, artists, writers, and entertainers were drawn to the vibrant black  uptown  neighborhood. Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway,  Bessie Smith,  and Ethel Waters played in Harlem nightclubs. Langston Hughes, Zora Hurston,  and Countee  Cullen published in the local newspapers. Art galleries displayed the work of  Aaron Douglas and  Richmond Barthé. These creative talents incorporated the emerging black urban  social con  sciousness into their art. The resulting explosion of self-consciously  AfroAmerican creativity,  now known as the “Harlem Renaissance,” had a profound impact on the  subsequent  development of American arts.

The social and sexual attitudes of Harlem’s new immigrants were best  reflected in the  blues, a distinctly Afro-American folk music that had developed in rural southern  black  communities following the Civil War. Structurally simple, yet open to countless  subtleties, the  blues were immensely popular within American black communities throughout  the 1920s. They  told of loneliness, homesickness, and poverty, of love and good luck, and they  provided a  window into the difficult, often brutal. world of the New Negro immigrant.

Homosexuality was clearly part of this world. “There’s two things got me  puzzled, there’s  two things I don’t understand,” moaned blues great Bessie Smith, “that’s a  mannish-acting  woman and a lisping, swishing, womanish-acting man.” In “Sissy Blues,” Ma  Rainey  complained of her husband’s infidelity with a homosexual named “Miss Kate.”  Lucille Bogan, in  her “B.D. Women Blues,” warned that “B.D. [bulldagger] women sure is rough;  they drink up  many a whiskey and they sure can strut their stuff.” The “sissies” and “bull  daggers” mentioned  in the blues were ridiculed for their cross-gender behavior, but neither shunned  nor hated. “Boy  in the Boat” for example, recorded in 1930 by George Hanna, counseled “When  you see two  women walking hand in hand, just shake your head and try to understand.” In  fact, the  casualness toward sexuality, so common in the blues, sometimes extended to  homosexual  behavior. In “Sissy Man Blues,” a traditional tune recorded by nurnerous male  blues singers  over the years, the singer demanded “if you can’t bring me a woman, bring me a  sissy man.”  George Hanna’s “Freakish Blues,” recorded in 1931, is even more explicit about  potential  sexual fludity. The blues reflected a culture that accepted sexuality, including  homosexual  behavior and identities, as a natural part of life.

Despite the relatively tolerant attitude shown toward homosexuality by  Afro-American  culture, black lesbians and gay men still had a difficult time. Like other black  migrants, they  soon learned that racism crossed the Mason-Dixon line. Economic problems,  unemployment,  and segregation plagued black communities across the North. High rents and  housing  shortages made privacy a luxury for Harlem’s newcomers. Moreover black  homosexuals, like  their white counterparts, were continually under attack from the police and  judicial systems. In  1920, young lesbian Mabel Hampton, recently arrived in Harlem from Winston- Salem, North  Carolina, was arrested on trumped-up prostitution charges and spent two years  in Bedford Hills  Reformatory.  Augustus Granville Dill, distinguished business editor of the  NAACP’s Crisis and  personal protégé of DuBois, had his political career destroyed when he was  arrested for  soliciting sex in a public restroom.  Black gay people were also under attack from  the  developing psychiatric institutions; Jonathan Katz cites a tragic case in which a  young black gay  man was incarcerated for most of the 1920s at the Worcester (Massachusetts)  State Hospital.  But in spite of racial oppression, economic hardship, and homophobic  persecution, black  lesbians and gay men were able to build a thriving community of their own within  existing Afro- American institutions and traditions.

Private parties were the best place for Harlem lesbians and gay men to  socialize,  providing safety and privacy. “We used to go to parties every other night…. The  girls all had the  parties,” remembered Mabel Hampton. Harlem parties were extremely varied;  the most common  kind was the “rent party.” Like the blues, rent parties had been brought north in  the Great  Migration. Few of Harlem’s new residents had much money, and sometimes rent  was hard to  come by. To raise funds, they sometimes threw enormous parties, inviting the  public and  charging admission. There would be dancing and jazz, and bootleg liquor for  sale in the kitchen.  It is about just such a party that Bessie Smith sang her famous “Gimme a Pigfoot  and a Bottle of  Beer.” On any given Saturday night there were scores of these parties  throughout Harlem, often  with those in attendance not knowing their hosts. The dancing and merriment  would continue  until dawn, and by morning the landlord could be paid. Lesbians and gay men  were active  participants in rent parties. The New York Age, one of Harlem’s newspapers,  complained in  1926:

One of these rent parties a few weeks ago was the scene of a tragic  crime in which one  jealous woman cut the throat of another, because the two were rivals for the  affections of a third  woman. The whole situation was on a par with the recent Broadway play [about  lesbianism,  The Captive], imported from Paris, although the underworld tragedy took  place in this  locality. In the meantime, the combination of bad gin, jealous women, a carving  knife, and a rent  party is dangerous to the health of all concerned.

At another Harlem rent party, satirically depicted in Wallace Thurman’s 1932  Harlem  Renaissance novel Infants of the Spring, a flamboyantly bisexual Harlem  artist proudly  displayed his new protégé, a handsome, bootblack, to the “fanciful aggregation  of Greenwich  Village uranians” he had invited.

Gay men could always be found at the literary gatherings of Alexander  Gumby. Gumby,  who had arrived in Harlem near the turn of the century, immediately became  entranced with the  theatrical set and decided to open a salon to attract them. He worked as a postal  clerk and  acquired a patron, eventually renting a large studio on Fifth Avenue between  131st and 132nd  streets. Known as Gumby’s Bookstore because of the hundreds of books that  lined the walls,  the salon drew many theatrica and artistic luminaries. White author Samuel  Steward remembers  being taken to Gumby’s one evening by a lesbian friend and enjoying a delightful  evening of  “reefer,” bathtub gin, a game of truth, and homosexual exploits.

Certainly the most opulent parties in Harlem were thrown by the heiress  A’Lelia Walker.  Walker was a striking, tall, dark-skinned wondan who was rarely seen without  her riding crop  and her imposing, jeweled turban. She was the only daughter of Madame C. J.  Walker, a former  washerwoman who had made millions marketing her own hair-straightening  process. When she  died, Madame Walker left virtually her entire fortune to A’Lelia. Whereas  Madame Walker had  been civic-minded, donating thousands of dollars to charity, A’Lelia used most of  her inheritance  to throw lavish parties in her palatial Hudson River estate, Villa Lewaro. and at  her Manhattan  dwelling on 136th Street. Because A’Lelia adored the company of lesbians and  gay men, her  parties had a distinctly gay ambience. Elegant homosexuals such as Edward  Perry, Edna  Thomas. Harold Jackman, and Caska Bonds were her closest friends. So were  scores of white  celebrities. Novelist Marjorie Worthington would later remember:

We went several times that winter to Madame Allelia [sic] Walker’s Thursday “at-homes” on a beautiful street in Harlem known as,Sugar Hill….”  [Madame Walker’s]  lavishly furnished house was a gathering place not only for artists and authors  and theatrical  stars of her own race, but for celebrities from all over the world. Drinks and food  were served,  and there was always music, generously performed enthusiastically  received.

Everyone from chorus girls to artists to socialites to visiting royalty would  come at least  once to enjoy her hospitality.

Another Afro-American institution that tolerated, and frequenty encouraged,  homosexual  patronage was the “buffet flat.” “Buffet flats were after-hours spots that were  usually in  someone’s apartment,” explained celebrated entertainer Bricktop, “the type of  place where gin  was poured out of milk pitchers.”

Essentially private apartments where rooms  could be rented  by the night, buffet flats had sprung up during the late 1800s to provide  overnight  accommodations to black travelers refused service in white-owned hotels. By the  1920s, buffet  flats developed a wilder reputation. Some were raucous establishments where  illegal activities  such as drinking, gambling, and prostitution were available. Others offered a  variety of sexual  pleasures cafeteriastyle. A Detroit buffet flat of the latter sort, which Ruby Smith  remembered  visiting with her aunt, Bessie Smith, catered to all variety of sexual tastes. It was  “an open  house, everything goes on in that house”:

They had a ****** there that was so great that people used to come there  just to watch  him make love to another man. He was that great. He’d give a tongue bath and  everything. By  the time he got to the front of that guy he was shaking like a leaf. People used to  pay good just  to go in there and see him do his act…. That same house had a woman that  used to . . . take a  cigarette, light it, and puff it with her pussy.  A real educated pussy.

In Harlem, Hazel Valentine ran a similar sex circus on 140th Street.  Called  “The Daisy  Chain” or the “101 Ranch,” it catered to all varieties of sexual tastes, and  featured entertainers  such as “Sewing Machine Bertha” and an enormous transvestite named  “Clarenz.” The Daisy  Chain became so notorious that both Fats Waller and Count Basie composed  tunes  commemorating it.

There were also buffet flats that particularly welcomed gay men. On  Saturday nights  pianist David Fontaine would regularly throw stylish flat parties for his many gay  friends. Other  noted hosts of gay male revelry were A’Lelia Walker’s friend Caska Bonds,  Eddie Manchester  and the older Harlem couple, Jap and Saul. The most notorious such flat was  run by Clinton  Moore. Moore was an elegant, light-skinned homosexual, described as an  “American version of  the original … Proust’s Jupien.” Moore had a fondness for celebrities, and his  parties allegedly  atracted luminaries like Cole Porter, Cary Grant, and society page columnist  Maury Paul.  Moore’s entertainments were often low-down and dirty. According to Helen  Lawrenson,

Clinton Moore’s . . . boasted a young black entertainer named Joey, vho  played the piano  and sang but whose specialty was to remove his clothes and extinguish a lighted  candle by  sitting on it until it disappeared. I never saw this feat but everyone else seemed  to have and I  was told that he was often hired to perform at soirees of the elite. ‘He sat on  lighted candles at  one of the Vanderbilts’,’ my informant said.

Somewhat more public-and therefore less abandoned-were Harlem’s  speakeasies,  where gays were usually forced to hide their preferences and to blend in with the  heterosexual  patrons. Several Harlem speakeasies though, some little more than dives,  catered specifically  to the “pansy” trade. One such place, an “open” speakeasy since there was no  doorman to keep  the uninvited away, was located on the northwest corner of 126th Street and  Seventh Avenue. It  was a large, dimly lit place where gay men could go to pick up “rough trade.”  Artist Bruce  Nugent, who occasionelly visited the place, remembered it catering to “rough  queers . . . the  kind that fought better than truck drivers and swished better than Mae West.”   Ethel Waters  remembered loaning her gowns to the transvestites who frequented Edmond’s  Cellar, a low-life  saloon at 132nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Lulu Belle’s on Lenox Avenue was  another hangout for  female impersonators, named after the famous Broadway melodrama of 1926  starring Leonore  Ulric. A more sophisticated crowd of black gay men gathered nightly at the Hot  Cha, at 132nd  Street and Seventh Avenue, to listen to Jimmy Daniels sing and Garland Wilson  play piano.

Perhaps the most famous gay-oriented club of the era was Harry  Hansberry’s Clam House, a  narrow, smoky speakeasy on 133rd Street. The Clam House featured Gladys  Bentley, a 250- pound, masculine, darkskinned lesbian, who performed all night long in a white  tuxedo and top  hat.  Bentley, a talented pianist with a magnificent, growling voice, was  celebrated for inventing  obscene Iyrics to popular contemporary melodies. Langston Hughes called her  “an amazing  exhibition of musical energy.” Eslanda Robeson, wife of actor Paul Robeson,  gushed to a friend,  “Gladys Bentley is grand. I’ve heard her three nights, and will never be the  same!”  Schoolteacher Harold Jackman wrote to his friend Countee Cullen, “When  Gladys sings ‘St.  James Infirmary,’ it makes you weep your heart out.”

A glimpse into a speakeasy, based in part on the Clam House. is provided in  Blair Niles’  1931 gay novel Strange Brother. The Lobster Pot is a smoky room in Harlem,  simply furnished  with a couple of tables, a piano, and a kitchen, where white heterosexual  journalist June  Westwood, Strange Brother’s female protagonist, is first introduced to  Manhattan’s gay  subculture. The Lobster Pot features a predominantly gay male clientel and an  openly lesbian  entertainer named Sybil. “What rhythm!”  June comments to her companions.  “And the way  she’s dressed!” Westbrook finds the atmosphere intoxicating, but abruptly ends  her visit when  she steps outside and witnesses the entrapment of an effeminate black gay man  by the police.

Decidedly safer were the frequent Harlem costume balls, where both men  and women could  dress as they pleased and dance with whom they wished. Called “spectacles in  color” by poet  La Igston Hughes, they were attended by thousands. Several cities hosted  similar functions, but  the Harlem balls were anticipated with particular excitement. “This dance has  been going on a  long time,” observed Hughes, “and . . . is very famous among the male  masqueraders of the  eastern seaboard, who come from Boston and Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and  Atlantic City to  attend.”  Taylor Gordon, a noted concert singer, wrote in 1929:

The last big ball I attended where these men got the most of the prizes for  acting and  looking more like ladies than the ladies did themselves, was at the Savoy in  Harlem…. The  show that was put on that night for a dollar admission, including the privilege to  dance, would  have made a twenty-five dollar George White’s “Scandals” opening look like a  side show in a  circus.

The largest balls were the annual events held by the Hamilton Lodge at the  regal Rockland  Palace, which could accommodate up to six thousand people. Only slightly  smaller were the  balls given irregularly at the dazzling Savoy Ballroom, with its crystal chandeliers  and elegant  marble staircase. The organizers would obtain a police permit making the ball,  and its  participants, legal for the evening. The highlight of the event was the beauty  contest, in which  the fashionably dressed drags would vie for the title of Queen of the Ball.

Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s classic 1933 gay novel The  Young and Evil  suggests that these balls were just as popular with white gays as with black.  Julian, the white  protagonist, dons a little makeup (just enough to be “considered in costume and  so get in for a  dollar less”), leaves his Greenwich Village apartment, and sets off to a Harlem  ball. Once there  he greets his friends, dances to the jazz music, gets exceedingly drunk, flirts with  the band  leader, and eventually exchanges phone numbers with a handsome stranger.

But drag balls lacked the primary allure of the buffet flat: privacy. These  cross-dressing  celebrations were enormous events and many of those who attended were  spectators, there to  observe rather than participate. It was not unusual to see the cream of Harlem  society, as well  as much of the white avant-garde, in the ballroom’s balconies, straining their  necks to view the  contestants.

The costume balls, parties, speakeasies and buffet flats of Harlem provided  an arena for  homosexual interaction, but not for the development of homosocial networks.  One area where  black lesbians and gay men found particular bonds of friendship was within  Harlem’s  predominantly heterosexual entertainment world. While some entertainers, like  popular  composer Porter Grainger and choir leader Hall Johnson, kept their homosexual  activities  private, others were open with their audiences. Female impersonator Phil Black,  entertainer  Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon, and singer George Hanna used elements of  homosexuality in their  professional acts and were still highly respected within the entertainment  community. Both  Black and Jaxon wore women’s clothing while on stage and Hanna even  recorded his “Freakish  Blues” without fear of censure.

For black lesbians, whose social options were more limited than those of  their male  counterparts, the support offered by the black entertainment world for  nontraditional lifestyles  was especially important. After leaving her family home in North Carolina, Mabel  Hampton  worked with her lover as a dancer in a Coney Island show before landing a  position at Harlem’s  famed Lafayette Theatre. By entering the show business life, Hampton was able  to earn a good  income, limit her social contact with men and move within a predominantly  female social world.  Many bisexual and lesbian black women, including Bessie Smith, Gladys Bently,  Jackie  “Moms” Mabley, Alberta Hunter, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Josephine Baker and  Ethel Waters  found similar advantages in the show business life.

Nearly all these women adopted a heterosexual public persona, most  favoring a “red hot  mama” style, and kept their love affairs with women a secret, but a few  acknowledged their  sexuality openly. Gladys Bentley, of course, was one exception. Another was Ma  Rainey.  Rainey was a short, squat, dark-skinned woman with a deep, earthy voice and a  warm, friendly  smile. She was the first vaudeville entertainer to incorporate the blues into her  performance and  has justifiably become known as the “Mother of the Blues.” Though married, the  flamboyant  entertainer was known to take women as lovers. Her extraordinary song, “Prove  It on Me  Blues,” speaks directly to the issue of lesbianism. In it she admits to her  preference for male  attire and female companionship, yet dares her audience to “prove it” on her.  Rainey’s defense  of her lesbian life was quite remarkable in its day, and has lost little of its  immediacy through  the years.

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