(1907 - 1960)
Gladys Bentley was born on
August 12, 1907. She was the eldest of 4 children born to a
Trinidad born mother, Mary Mote (Bentley) and an American
born father, George L. Bentley. Gladys left home at 16 years
old. Like many African Americans of her generation she ended
up in New York City's Harlem, the capital of "The New Negro
". For Gladys, her lesbianism made her need to strike out on
her own all the more urgent. As she would recall many years
later in an Ebony Magazine Article, "It seems I was born
different. At least, I always thought so....From the
time I can remember anything, even as I was toddling, I
never wanted a man to touch me...Soon I began to feel more
comfortable in boys clothes than in dresses".
Bentley left Pennsylvania at 16 to be part of
the Harlem Renaissance and come out as a bulldagger. She began
singing at rent parties and buffet flats and moved on to
speakeasies and nightclubs. later she would headline the popular
speakeasy the Clam House as well as the Ubangi Club.
She wowed audiences with her powerful voice
and obscene parodies of blues standards and show tunes and was
famous for her glamorous girlfriends. Very open about her
sexuality, Bentley also performed at lesbian bars and once told
a gossip columnist she had married a white woman while in
Atlantic City, New Jersey.
In the 1920s a large part of the elegant town
houses and apartment buildings in both Harlem and downtown in
Greenwich Village had been converted into cheap rooming flats.
In both neighborhoods, artists and intellectuals flocked to this
cheap housing in beautiful surroundings. In both neighborhoods,
amongst all this creative talent, there was a large Homosexual
population. In Harlem this great creative outpouring was also a
celebration of optimism about the future of Black America. This
era would later be known as The "Harlem Renaissance". The list
of gay men, lesbians or bisexuals amongst the "Harlem
Renaissance" is more or less a guide to many of the most
talented people of the era. Langston Hughs, Countee Cullen,
Ethel Waters, and Moms Mabely just to name a few. Audiences
of the prohibition era were always craving something new.
There was a "Vogue of the Negro" , accompanied by a curiosity
for "Pansy Acts" and "Hot Mama" lebian or bisexual singers.
for Mona's Club 440 in 1942, with the explicit use of the word
"gay" featured prominently. The word "gay" during the 1940s
also denoted "happy," and to the casual reader even the
reference to "butch," meaning masculine in gay argot, might
have escaped attention.
However, the discerning, sophisticated, 1942 reader would
quickly understand that Mona's Club 440 catered to an almost
exclusively woman audience during World War II.
Gladys Bentley carved out a place for herself
amidst this curiosity, playing at rent parties and the legendary
speakeasies of "Jungle Alley" at 133 between Lenox and Seventh
Avenue. She would transform popular tunes of the day with
raunchy naughty playful lyrics. Dressed in signature tux and top
hat , she openly and riotously flirted with women in the
audience. Her popularity and salary was ever increasing , as she
was frequently mentioned in many of the entertainment columns of
Characters based on her appeared in novels (Carl Van Vechtens'
"Parties", Clement Woods "Deep River", Blair Niles "Strange
Brother"). Starting in 1928 ( at age 21) she began a recording
career that spanned 2 decades. 8 recordings for the OKeh
recording company were followed by a side with the Washboard
Serenader's on the Victor label. Although on her recordings she
did not dare have lesbian lyrics , she certainly played up this
image in the clubs and in public.
Lois Sobel, a popular columnist of the era, recalled Bentleys
announcement of her marriage ceremony with her white female
lover in New Jersey. Bentley briefly parlayed her fortunes into
a Park Avenue apartment, servants, beautiful car etc. etc. In
the 1930s the repeal of Prohibition quickly eroded the
prominence of Harlem bistros. Furthermore, the Great Depression
seems to have ended much of the "anything goes" spirit of
tolerance that had pervaded in the 1920s'. Despite this,
initially Bentley was able to hold on by cultivating her
homosexual following. In the early 1930's she was the featured
entertainer at Harlem's' Ubangi Club, supported by a chorus of
men in drag. But by 1937 the glory days of Jungle Alley were
very much a thing of the past. Bentley (now aged 30) moved to
Los Angeles to live with her mother in a small California
bungalow. She was able to maintain some success , particularly
during World War 2 when many homosexual bars proliferated on the
west coast (capitalizing on the influx of gay men and lesbians
from the military) Once again, Bentley carved out a niche for
herself in this subculture and environment. Many lesbian women
came to see her shows at "Joquins' El Rancho" in Los Angeles and
"Monas" in San Francisco, although on occasion she did have
legal trouble for performing in her signature male attire.
In 1945 she recorded 5 discs for the Excelsior label (still not
daring to use lesbian lyrics in recordings) including "Thrill
Me Till I get My Fill," "Find Out What He Likes", and
"Notoriety Papa". However in the 1950s the limited tolerance
that had been eroding since the Great Depression, finally
collapsed disastrously. The McCarthy "witch hunts" were
particularly vicious towards homosexuals.
In light of recent revelations about J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohen
and possibly McCarthy himself this movement was all the more
hypocritical. Although gay and lesbian organizations like The
Daughters Of Bilitis and The Mattachine Society were formed at
this time, the lives of many homosexuals were ruined. Bentley,
who for so long had been one of THE most open as regards her
homosexuality, was of course a sitting duck for persecution. Out
of desperate fear for her own survival (particularly with an
aging mother to support) Gladys Bentley started wearing dresses,
and sanitizing her act. In 1950, Bentley wrote a
desperate, largely fabricated article for Ebony entitled
"I am Woman Again" in which she claimed to have cured her
lesbianism via female hormone treatments and was finally at
peace after a "hell as terrible as dope addiction".
claimed to have married a newspaper columnist named J. T. Gibson
(a man who soon after publicly denied that the two had ever
wed). In 1952 she does seem to have married a man named Charles
Roberts. He was a cook and 16 years younger than Bentley, who
lied on the marriage certificate, stating her age as 36 rather
than 45. The two eventually divorced. Bentley did manage to
still perform, usually at the Rose Room in Hollywood.
She recorded a single on the Flame label and appeared twice on
Groucho Marx's' television show. At this stage, Bentley became
an active and (truly) devoted member of "The Temple of Love in
Christ, Inc.". She was about to become an ordained minister in
the church when she died of a flu epidemic in 1960 at the age of
52. These desperate attempts to survive do not diminish her
Gladys Bentley "Worried Blues"
How Much Can I Stand?
Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2
Gladys Bentley &
"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 lyrics to popular contemporary melodies.
Langston Hughes called her 'an amazing exhibition of musical