Editor’s note: For Black History Month, The Root is spotlighting less famous figures from the African American National Biography, whose stories cast a light on hidden or barely remembered episodes from the African-American past.
Gladys Bentley, a blues singer and lesbian icon, claimed to have been born in the Caribbean. Appearing on the hit 1950s game show You Bet Your Life, she told host Groucho Marx, “I’m from Port of Spain, Trinidad.” Bentley was, in fact, born in Philadelphia in 1907 to an African-American father and a mother who may have been Trinidadian. But falsifying her birthplace was consistent with the sense that Bentley longed to be something she was not.
Bentley had an extremely unhappy childhood, for which she blamed her mother, who had wanted a son. She would later recall being conflicted about her sexual identity from an early age, feeling more comfortable in her brothers’ clothes than her own. A long-term crush on one of her female schoolteachers led her mother, Mary Bentley, to seek help from doctors in an effort to “fix” her daughter. Gladys Bentley’s own solution, from the age of 8, was to write and perform songs and stories, an emotional outlet that would become a career.
During the early 1900s in the United States and, indeed, for the entirety of Bentley’s lifetime, homosexuality was viewed by the health profession as a medical “condition” or abnormality that could be cured. As a result of that stigma, among others, the history of gay and lesbian African Americans is largely a hidden one before the 1920s. Among the more than 2,000 entries of those born before the Civil War in the African American National Biography, for example, only two subjects can be categorized as lesbian: Addie Brown, a working-class servant from Maryland, and her lover, Rebecca Primus, a Reconstruction-era teacher from a prominent black, Connecticut family. Primus’ mother noted that “if either Addie or Rebecca were a gent then they would marry,” while Brown wrote of her desire to call Primus “my husband.”
The silence of gay, lesbian and nonbinary African Americans was broken by the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and early 1930s. Writers Langston Hughes, Richard Nugent, Claude McKay and Countee Cullen; musicians Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey and Ethel Waters; and the dancer Ethel Williams all came to prominence in that era, just as Bentley arrived in Harlem in the mid-1920s. Of these, Nugent and Waters were notable—and notorious—for openly expressing their sexuality, but Harlem provided a welcoming space for the others, as it would for Bentley in her late teens.
She quickly found herself at home as a blues singer and pianist at the heart of the neighborhood’s “sporting life” of gambling, rent parties and relative sexual tolerance. To be sure, even in Harlem, LGBT people still faced violence and police harassment, and many continued to hide their sexuality. But in no other major American city could a “mannish-acting woman” or a “womanish-acting man,” to paraphrase Bessie Smith, enjoy the freedom to dress as they pleased. By the late 1920s, for Bentley that meant a white tuxedo and top hat and tails as the star performer at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, Harlem’s most popular gay speakeasy, located on “Jungle Alley,” 133rd St. It was there, in legendary shows that lasted until dawn, that she first came to the attention of admirers like the white writer and photographer of the Harlem scene, Carl Van Vechten, who based a character in one of his novels on Bentley.
Langston Hughes was mesmerized as she “played a big piano all night long, literally all night, without stopping … 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.”
Bentley’s fame peaked in the late 1920s and early 1930s, boosted by a series of 78s on OKeh Records, and a short-run weekly radio show. Bentley’s gravelly alto voice—and some fine scat singing—is probably best heard on “How Much Can I Stand?” On neither her records nor her radio show was she as raunchy or as open about her sexuality as in her stage persona as an aggressive, masculine “bulldagger.” Lucille Bogan’s “B.D. Woman’s Blues” could have been written about Bentley.
Bentley’s popularity continued through 1931, when she had a public marriage to a white woman in a civil ceremony in New Jersey, and into 1933, when she briefly moved her musical revue downtown from Harlem to Broadway. Complaints about her lewd performances—backed by a chorus of eight effeminate male dancers—resulted in the police locking the club’s doors. Forced back to Harlem, she enjoyed three more years as a headliner at the Ubangi Club, before it closed in 1937.
With Harlem and the blues no longer in vogue, Bentley then moved to live with her mother in Los Angeles and performed at a number of leading gay nightspots—including Mona’s, the nation’s first openly lesbian club, in San Francisco, and Hollywood’s Rose Room and Joaquin’s El Rancho in Los Angeles—in the 1940s. Although World War II and the early Cold War opened up economic and political opportunities for African Americans on the West Coast, the same era saw a growing policing and repression of gay Americans of all colors. Special permits were required to allow Bentley to perform her act in men’s clothing, and later she was forced to perform in women’s clothing. The U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities even investigated Bentley as a subversive because of her same-sex marriage in New Jersey.
Bentley continued to record and perform but never regained her earlier fame, except for her 1950 appearance on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, and a 1952 interview with Ebony magazine, in which she claimed to have “overcome” her “strange affliction” of lesbianism through the ingestion of female hormones. Bentley’s interview reflects on her “strange, heart-twisting existence” as a woman who could not physically or emotionally love men but had found “redemption from [her] sins” in marriage to a black journalist, J.T. Gibson. The Ebony photographs are equally poignant: Bentley fastidiously turning back her husband’s bedcovers, standing over a hot stove, enjoying “the domestic role which she shunned for years.” We can never know if Bentley’s “conversion” was real. We do know that Gibson denied he had ever married Bentley, but that she was married briefly to another man.
Artist Shirlette Ammons has written that Bentley was adept at wearing masks: as a performer, as an African-American woman and as a lesbian. Getting behind that mask, to uncover the “real Gladys Bentley,” is a quixotic task for the biographer. As Scottish poet Robert Burns famously wrote, the key might be to “see ourselves as other see us.” Or, as Ammons says of Bentley, we should also examine “the external gazes that found her guilty in the court of social normalcy after living so many years as a confident, self-asserting, brash and unforgiving ‘bulldagger.’” Gladys Bentley died at age 53 in 1960.
Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center.
Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.