June 26, 1907- Gladys Bentley:
“From the time I can remember anything, I never wanted a man to touch me. Soon I began to feel more comfortable in boys’ clothes than in dresses.”
In 1934, King’s Terrace, a Manhattan nightclub, was padlocked by the police after a patron protested the ”dirty songs” performed there. The police report stated that ”a troupe of liberally painted males with effeminate voices and gestures” performed with entertainer Gladys Bentley. She performed in her signature white top hat, tuxedo and tails, singing raunchy songs with double-entendres that titillated and sometimes scandalized her audiences.
Her career started when she appeared at the gay speakeasy Clam House in Harlem in the 1920s, as a black, lesbian, cross-dressing performer. In the early 1930s, she was the headliner at Harlem’s Ubangi Club, where she was backed up by a chorus line of drag queens. She dressed in men’s clothes, played piano, and sang her own raunchy lyrics to popular tunes of the day in a deep, growling voice while flirting with women in the audience.
With the repeal of Prohibition, she relocated to Hollywood, where she was billed as “America’s Greatest Sepia Piano Player” and the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs”.
She was never as famous as the rest of her Harlem Renaissance crowd, because of the risqué humor of her performances which kept her out of more mainstream clubs and her name out of the newspapers and history books. Too bad; she was as a Black woman who was ahead of her time for proudly loving other women, wearing men’s clothing and singing those naughty songs. She was woman who on her own terms navigated the world of showbiz during the Great Depression and Prohibition.
Born in Philadelphia, she moved to Harlem in 1925. She arrived during the height of the Harlem Renaissance and was absorbed into its vibrant artistic and intellectual community.
The Harlem Renaissance was a critical point in the history and evolution of Black citizens in the 20th century. The creativity that came out of the era reshaped music, theater, dance, literature, and intellectual thought.
It is no surprise that Bentley moved to Harlem, she who wrote about feeling attracted to women and being comfortable in men’s attire as a kid. Bentley found acceptance in a community that was also home to sexually-fluid entertainers like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. says that the Harlem Renaissance was ”surely as gay as it was Black”.
Harlem was also a neighborhood that the police mostly ignored during Prohibition. Many white people traveled uptown to enjoy the entertainment and alcohol in Harlem clubs, speakeasies and parties. Harlem was home to African-Americans facing the challenges of the Great Depression, but it also was a destination for pioneer pleasure-seekers who wanted to let go of their bourgeois attitude and experiment both sexually and socially.
Bentley’s career started at parties, where people in Harlem would cover their rent by charging admission to private parties with alcohol and live performances. She would take popular songs of the day and add the filthiest lyrics possible. She took Alice Blue Gown and Sweet Georgia Brown, and cleverly mixed them together into a song about anal sex.
She pushed the boundaries of public taste in a way that no male performer could get away with, especially a black man.
In an article about her life for Ebony magazine, she wrote that soon after arriving in Harlem she auditioned at the Mad House on 133rd Street, that had advertised for a male pianist. Bentley:
”The boss was reluctant to give me a chance. I finally convinced him. My hands fairly flew over the keys. When I had finished my first number, the burst of applause was terrific. For the customers of the club, one of the unique things about my act was the way I dressed. I wore immaculate full white dress shirts with stiff collars, small bow ties, oxfords, short Eton jackets and hair cut straight back.”
Bentley possessed a deep voice and a trumpet-like scat. As a performer, she was advertised by promoters as a ”male impersonator”, and she filled clubs with loud raunchy performances.
Gay poet Langston Hughes wrote that Bentley was:
”…an amazing exhibition of musical energy—a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard—a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.”
As her star rose, Bentley began playing larger Harlem venues, like the Cotton Club. Her act was popular with white New Yorkers outside of Harlem, including writer and photographer Carl van Vechten, who based a blues singer in one of his novels on her, writing: ”when she pounds the piano the dawn comes up like thunder”.
Bentley’s fame came from being both a great singer and a skillful provocateur. Her lyrics were shocking, but the gossip column stories about her were equally shocking. When she told one columnist she was married, he asked: ”…well, who’s the man?” She scoffed and replied: ”Man? It’s a woman! ”
The rumored marriage could have been an early 20th century scandal; Bentley claimed that not only was it a same-sex ceremony, but that the union was between herself and a white woman. Bentley’s unapologetic openness about her gayness was matched by her keen understanding of the power of shock value.
Bentley was constantly re-inventing herself. When she mentioned something about her personal life, it was not necessarily taken for the truth by the press.
By the end of the 1930s, the Harlem Renaissance had lost is allure. The Prohibition Era came to an end, and white pleasure-seekers had other spots in New York City to frequent.
In Los Angeles she continued recording music, touring and performing in upscale supper clubs and bars, but her act was a toned-down version of what it was at the apex of her fame in New York City.
By 1950, Bentley was middle-aged and the 1920s the Harlem Renaissance was a thing of her past.
The 1950s were even more conservative than the early part of the 20th century. Somebody who is identified as lesbian or gay was considered a national menace. It was as bad as being a communist. Bentley abandoned her queerness and attempted to restart her career as a more traditional Black female performer.
In 1952, Bentley wrote a piece for Ebony titled I Am A Woman Again where she describes the life of a glamorous performer who silently struggled with herself:
”For many years, I lived in a personal hell. Like a great number of lost souls, I inhabited that half-shadow no man’s land which exists between the boundaries of the two sexes.”
She wrote that she had undergone medical treatment and claimed to have married twice, although there is no record of that. The article was accompanied by photos of Bentley wearing a housedress and performing household chores: preparing dinner, making the bed for her husband, wearing a dress with flowers in her hair.
The Ebony article was probably just a response to the McCarthy Era and its claims that homosexuality and communism were the greatest threats to the country. No stranger to reinvention, Bentley made deft use of the press. She knew what was popular, what she could get away with, and what people would pay to see.
In February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, captured attention with his anti-communist propaganda that the State Department was brimming with card-carrying members of the Communist party. Just two years prior, in 1948, the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had its most infamous case: the indictment of Alger Hiss. Passing of the McCarran Act of 1950, communists were registered as foreign agents, denied passports, and excluded from employment in the government and in the defense industry. The witch-hunting did not only target real and imagined communists, but it also targeted the country’s LGBTQ citizens. Just being whispered about meant lives would be ruined.
In 1958, Bentley appeared on Groucho Marx‘s game show You Bet Your Life where she said she was from Trinidad. She takes a seat at the piano on the set and performs a song that showed a vocal range and confidence undiminished since her Harlem days.
In January 1960, after a life as a popular Black entertainer and a woman who lived on the fringes of a society that wasn’t ready to accept her, Bentley was taken by an ”Asian Flu”. She had been waiting to be ordained as a minister in the delightfully named “Temple of Love in Christ, Inc.”
But let us remember her for being a gender outlaw. She was defiant in who she was; she was a pioneer of gender as performance. Bentley did not try to ”pass” as a man, and didn’t she try to deceive the audience into believing she was biologically male. Instead, she exerted a black female masculinity that challenged the distinctions between black and white and masculine and feminine.