Gladys Bentley (1907-1960) was a jazz singer and pianist who became a Lesbian icon. Full-figured and dressed in a tuxedo and top hat, she performed with her piano, improvising obscene lyrics to well-known songs and imitating a trumpet with her voice.
Bentley’s life story and career do not fit the heteronormal story line usually applied to jazz, and has thus been revised and sometimes omitted from the official history of jazz and blues. To understand Bentley requires revisiting not only of jazz history, but also of the standard academic view of the Harlem Renaissance. It also requires acknowledgement of how specific any history of LGBTQ life must be, since many LGBTQ people live as both Straight and Gay at different times in their lives. In her 53 years, Bentley was an outcast in her hometown, a star in New York City who incorporated her orientation into her act, struggling performer dealing with a less renowned career in California, and finally a Straight woman adopting traditional female dress and role behaviors.
Gladys Bentley was born in Philadelphia to an American father and Trinidadian mother. Aware of her sexual orientation from an early age, Bentley never felt that she fit in with other children. She was overweight and exhibited tomboyish behavior, including a preference for boys’ clothing. She fled to New York City when she was 16 years old.
In New York, Bentley not only found her place within a more tolerant culture, but also discovered the traits that made her an outcast in Philadelphia were assets. Exploiting her natural tendencies made her one of the most popular performers in the city. Bentley began her musical career at the bottom of the social scale, playing at rent parties (private parties at which admission was charged to help raise money to pay the rent) and buffet flats (houses or storefronts which offered a variety of illegal entertainment, from gambling and sex shows to prostitution).
Clubs in the Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem catered to Gay patrons and to Straight people who wanted to observe Gay life. Bentley’s distinctive appearance and performance style facilitated her rapid rise. Soon she was performing in speakeasies (establishments that served liquor during Prohibition) and nightclubs, including the famous Cotton Club. Bentley was a starring act at the Gay speakeasy Harry Hansberry’s Clam House in NYC and Mona’s (a Lesbian club in San Francisco). She also reportedly appeared at the Ubangi Club in Harlem in her customary male drag, backed up by a chorus of men in female drag.
Bentley was well known among European American New Yorkers as well as African Americans during this period. She was frequently mentioned in contemporary newspaper accounts (one of her nicknames was “The Brown Bomber”), and several novels of the time incorporate characters based on her, including Carl Van Vechten’s Parties (1930) and Strange Brother by Blair Niles (1931).
The Harlem Renaissance
In the years before and after World War I, African Americans migrated from the Jim Crow (racially segregated) South to the industrial cities of the North, drawn by better employment and education opportunities as well as a less oppressive social and legal system. This exodus produced an artistic era in New York City, where the years 1920-1935 became known as The Harlem Renaissance. Leading lights of this movement include Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Alice Dunbar Nelson, and Claude McKay.
Many of the greatest writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance were homosexual or polyamorous. Harlem in those years was remarkably tolerant towards people of differing sexualities. The drag balls (grand drag spectacles and dance parties) were famous and covered in the press, many clubs catered to Gay clientele, and Straight people came to gawk and partake of this freedom, just as White people came to experience a taste of Black culture.
Harlem in the 1920s gave Gladys Bentley a context in which she did not find it necessary to hide her identity as a Lesbian or her proclivity for cross-dressing, and in fact exploited these things as part of her public persona. Not only did she wear male clothing on stage and flirt with women in the audience during her act, she also regularly appeared in public with her girlfriends, and once claimed to have married a White woman in Atlantic City.
Prohibition, Depression, and Turning Straight
The entertainment business in Harlem declined after the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 put the speakeasies out of business. In 1937, she decided to move to Los Angeles. She was able to continue performing in Gay clubs, and business was bolstered by the influx of servicemen and women before and during World War II. However, Bentley’s extreme public persona made her a target for anti-homosexual purges of the 1950s. In self-defense, she began wearing female clothing, married a man, and claimed, in an article published in Ebony magazine, that she had been cured of her lesbianism through treatment with female hormones. Bentley died of influenza in 1960.
Groucho Marx and You Bet Your Life
In 1950, Bentley appeared on the television show You Bet Your Life hosted by Groucho Marx (click here to see the video). Initially, Marx did not recognize her, then he said, “You’re the Gladys Bentley,” possibly not making the connection at first because she was dressed in feminine clothing. Bentley joked with Marx with subtly sexual humor, and then performed “Them There Eyes” at the piano as Marx and an African guest danced along. In that same appearance, Bentley claimed she was writing an autobiography called If This Be Sin. That autobiography either was not written or has disappeared.
Garber, Eric. “A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem,” pp. 318-331 in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past.
Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus and George Chauncey. New York: New American Library, 1989.
Schwarz, A.B. Christa. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University, 2003.
Club Verboten. DCC Compact Classics, 1997.
Maggie Jones & Gladys Bentley: Completed Recorded Works in Chronological Order. Vol. 2. Document Records, 1995.
Mean Mothers: Independent Women’s Blues vol. 1. Rose Quartz, 1995.