The limousine bumped and shook over the cobblestone on its way past Wanamaker’s department store. We turned off Broadway onto Eighth Street.
“Max, you know we could have just walked. It’s not far.”
“Maxwell P. Harlington does not—”
“Walk when he can take a limousine and look like a complete donkey. I know.”
“That wasn’t exactly how I would have put it, but you have the spirit of the thing.”
I opened the window trying to catch a breeze. I didn’t feel comfortable driving in a limousine like a grand lady. Last week after work, I walked up this street to the Whitney Museum ’cause I don’t know much about art and I wanted to educate myself. Sam’s Deli was across the street so I got myself a cheap salami and cheese sandwich. It seemed to me that in a neighborhood where you could get a cheap salami sandwich, you didn’t need to arrive in a limousine.
Timothy, our limousine driver, pulled the car over to the curb in front of an awning that said Tom Kat Klub. He opened the door for us. Timothy was a muscular man in a black jacket with a cap on his head. He bowed, “Good evening, Mr. Harlington. Evening, miss.”
Max yanked the long coat off me and threw it in the backseat. Timothy drove off leaving me standing on 8th Street where everyone could see me in pants. Max held the door of the Klub open, and I slipped inside looking straight ahead so I wouldn’t see people pointing at me. I followed close behind Max trying to keep my legs pressed tight together, but I kept knocking myself over.
This place was even smaller than the other club and not as bright. It was just as noisy, though. I hurried to sit down, relieved that sitting meant no one could see the bottom half of me. The ceiling fans whirred, pushing around the heat.
Max said this place was called a supper club and proceeded to order us two bologna sandwiches to go with our Manhattans. I learned much later that supper clubs had to serve food ’cause New York law required places serving liquor to also provide food even if it wasn’t anything more than a crummy bologna sandwich.
Soon the mistress of ceremonies came out on the tiny round stage. She was the tallest lady I’d ever seen with big wide shoulders and big hands she flapped around like fans. She had blonde hair that was piled higher on her head than Miss Virginia Sales, and she wore a dress that twinkled. She winked at people in the audience and moved her hips like Mae West. I leaned over to Max, “I’ve never heard of a lady announcer before.”
Max grumbled, “That’s a man.”
“I hate that. Men parading around like women. Undignified.”
“That lady is a man? Wow!” I sat back in my chair. What an amazing place this New York City was.
The man dressed like a woman, the mistress—no, master of ceremonies—sang some Broadway show tunes that I knew from the radio. Then he told some smutty stories. Max looked all around the room like he was nervous about something.
We had to sit through a comic, a juggler, and a man singing love songs while sweat rolled down his nose. Finally, the mistress/master announced Juliana. There was polite applause in between talking and silverware dropping as Juliana floated onto the stage looking untouched by the eighty-eight degree heat. She wore a silky royal blue dress that fell to her midcalf. Before leaving the stage, the master of ceremonies said something about his phony breasts compared to Juliana’s real ones only he used a different word for them that I didn’t like to use back then. I didn’t like that man dressed as a woman saying that to her, but the audience thought it was hysterical. Juliana blew him a kiss as he lifted the hem of his dress to exit.
She leaned against a pole that was in the center of the stage, and the piano in the back played the introduction. She sang into the microphone starting off slow, then the tempo picked up and she moved away from the pole and danced while singing. She danced close to the edge of the stage and I gasped afraid she’d fall off, but she didn’t. Max looked proud of his protégé.
She finished the song with a flourish. I applauded so hard I thought my hands would fall off. Max didn’t clap; he just stared at her. “Such a beautiful woman,” I heard him whisper, but he wasn’t talking to me.
Juliana leaned against the piano and began “Ten Cents a Dance.” Max slapped his hand against the table. “I told her never to sing that song.”
“Why not? I think it sounds good.”
“You would. Can you picture that woman actually working for ten cents a dance, having men slobbering all over her?”
I had to admit he had a point, but I didn’t want to admit it. “It’s just a song.”
“Just a song?” He shook his head. “Don’t talk to me.” He grumbled through the whole song.
When she finished, he crossed his arms over his chest, scowling, his mustache wiggling on his upper lip. “Come on, Max, clap for her. She was good.”
“How would you know? You’ve got stardust in your pants.”
We had to sit through a few more acts, but I don’t remember what they were. None of them were like Juliana. A couple times the fortune-teller stopped by our table wanting to tell our fortunes, but Max shooed her away.
When the lights came up, Max got out his wallet to pay the bill. Timothy, the limousine driver, rushed up to the table. “Mr. Harlington, Mr. Harlington, there’s an emergency. Come right away.”
“Can’t it wait, Slag, uh, Timothy? I’m right in the middle of—”
“It’s urgent, sir.”
“Oh, well, in that case. Al, get in that line over there? That’s the line to Juliana’s dressing room.”
“But you said you’d introduce me.”
“I would. But there’s an emergency. Hurry. You don’t want to miss her.” He threw some bills on the table and ran out with Timothy.
I sat there thinking I should forget it and go home. Still, I did go to the trouble of buying the slacks and wearing them in public.
I stood behind a man and a woman who chatted cheerfully, talking about how wonderful she’d been and predicting she’d soon be a star.
Another couple turned to talk with them. “Wasn’t that impersonator funny?” the woman in a hat with a feather bobbing up and down said. “I just love fairies.”
“You don’t see many anymore,” a man in a business suit and a big belly said. “Used to be there were lots of clubs where you could see the pansies and bull daggers, but not so much anymore. Used to make a man glad to go home and make love to his wife.”
“George. We’re in public,” the woman who I supposed was his wife said, hiding her face with her gloved hand.
George laughed. “You know what I mean.” He nodded at the other man, who chewed on a cigar.
“I surely do know,” the man said, with a slight Southern accent. “Those fairies made a man glad he was normal.”
Juliana opened her door. She was all pink and white in her dressing gown, her lipstick, red, and when she spoke her voice was like a velvet ribbon floating on a breeze.
“To Vivian. Is that correct?” I heard her say as she scribbled on someone’s program.
“Tom?” she asked the man standing next in line. “Well, aren’t you a dear, Tom.” Tom walked off happily caressing his program.
As she handed back a signed program “To Barbara,” the male impersonator came running up to her. He didn’t have his wig on so it was easier to see he was a man, but he was still wearing the dress and high heels. It was scary seeing him look like a man and a woman at the same time.
“Juliana, darling,” he said, “I simply must speak to you.” He took out a handkerchief to wipe tears from his eyes. “I don’t know what to do. Oh, that man. Can you spare me a teensy weensy?”
Juliana smiled. “Of course, dear. Go in.” She turned to those of us on line. “Sorry. No more tonight.”
A woman walking past me said to her friend “Can you believe that? Wearing trousers in public.”
I quickly pulled my legs together. In my hurry, I’d forgotten what I was wearing.
Her friend in a hat with floppy flowers agreed. “Like a farmer. What is the younger generation coming to?”
I felt my face getting hot. Before Juliana disappeared with the master of ceremonies, she pointed. “You.”
“Me?” I asked.
“Wait. Will you?”
I had hoped to get this blog entry up soon after the one entitled, “What So Gay About the Novel, Juliana,” but other things intervened. One of the biggest and most exciting things to occur is that we are now going to be performing JULIANA, the novel, at The Duplex Cabaret Theater, a couple of doors down from The Stonewall. It’s a great space and I hope those of you in the neighborhood will all join us on March 31 @ 7pm. More about this will be coming in our newsletter that you’ll receive soon.
This is the Real Beginning
Last month we talked a little about how far out an out-group gays and Lesbians were in the 1940s. Before we continue our exploration of 1940s attitude toward gays, I think it is important to clarify some of the language that was used back then around this topic.
The Term Lesbian:
Although the word ‘gay’ was in use by gays in the 1940s and hidden from the outer world, (as mentioned in last week’s article) the word Lesbian was not generally used by gays. The word “Lesbian” was considered a street word and derogatory, used by the outer world and intended to be insulting. “Lesbian” did not become a positive term until the 1970’s when gay women claimed the word for themselves and re-claimed its original meaning in relation to Sappho, the Greek Female poet, who lived on the Island of Lesbos.
Terms for People in the Outer World
Gays called non-gays: Jams, Straights (since 1941) and Normals (Prior to 1940s and probably into the forties. See Gore Vidal’s The City and The Pillar, 1948)
Medical Terms In Use During the Time
Medical men who were trying to be objective about the “disease” of homosexuality used the following terms:
Invert (used for both men and women)
Third Sex (used for both men and women)
Tribadist (used for women)
The Positive Terms Women Used for Themselves
Gay girl (most popular)
Sapphist (used somewhat)
Homophile (used more often for men, but also applied to women)
A little background history: The early 1940s in Greenwich Village has been a very difficult time to research because nothing outstanding really happened. Most people tend to think of the 1940s Greenwich Village as an artsy time, but here’s a quote from the New York City Market Analysis, done in 1943:
“Greenwich Village is not a neighborhood of artists and writers, although many of them still live in its old brick and brownstone houses.”
Greenwich Village earned its reputation as an enclave for artists and writers in the 1920s and 30’s and it would become so again in the mid 1950’s. Early 1940s Greenwich Village, however, was mostly a working class neighborhood where a great many people lived in rooming houses and “overflowing tenement houses.” At the same time it had the most “expensive types of modern hotels and apartment houses,” that were “located near the park and along Fifth Avenue.”
Artists actually did live in Greenwich Village at that time, but they were unknown. For instance, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando used to meet for breakfast at the Life Cafeteria, which catered to gay boys and girls. Jackson Pollack was struggling to find his own style in his apartment at 46 East 8th Street.
Another problem with doing this research has been that the early 1940s is sandwiched between two more exciting time periods: the 1930s and the 1950s so researchers just lump the 194o’s in with the ’30s or 50s without noting that the 1940s was a very different time.
Late 1920s-1930s Greenwich Village:
Slumming. In the late nineteenth century a new “fashionable” activity became popular among white upper middle and upper class ladies and gentlemen called “slumming.
These slummers would come into the neighborhoods of immigrants and African Americans for the purpose of observing “some of the lowest beer saloons in the city, dingy and dirty, frequented by the vilest characters of both sexes.”
Some even went so far as to walk right into the homes of these Italians, Chinese, Jews, African Americans and others to “observe.” Can you imagine being in your bed at night and you turn over to find a group of strangers, dispassionately discussing you as if you were some form of lower species?
By the turn of the century the slummers stopped actually going into these people’s homes but they continued to visit their neighborhoods to observe the “low life” there with an aura of racial and class superiority.
By the late 1920s, early 1930s slumming expanded to the observing of “bull daggers and faggots,” in speakeasy clubs. Greenwich Village was a prime spot to do this.
During Prohibition in the speakeasies gay men, in flamboyant dresses, and gay girls in tuxedos would entertain heterosexual audiences or “the jams” by singing and dancing.
Upper middle class and upper class men and women would go into these
clubs to be entertained by the homosexuals. They felt very sophisticated and superior being entertained by these “unnatural, freaks of nature.” Men could now feel exceptionally virile when compared to the pansies and this was supposed to impress their girl friends and wives.
To flaunt their male superiority the men would often bring a girl friend into a club knowing that the bulldagger would frighten the girl by flirting with her. Often his girl gave the expected reaction of fear and disgust. But sometimes the girl would surprise her beau by flirting back with the tuxedo’d gal and genuinely enjoying herself. Sometimes the two women would dance. It was now the gentlemen’s turn to be upset.
These clubs did not only provide new adventures for women, the men, too found opportunities to flirt and dance with the female impersonators without having their “normality” challenged.
My next entry, coming soon, will be about the Live Sex Shows, Society’s Concern over the Proliferation of Pseudo Lesbians & New Laws and Police Raids.
Chauncey, G. (1994). Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World: 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books.
Heap, C. (2000). The Pansy and Lesbian Craze in White and Black. In Slumming: Sexual and racial encounters in American Night Life, 1885-1940 (pp. 231 – 276). Chicago: The University O Chicago Press.
New York City Market Analysis (1943) New York: The Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Porter, D. (2006). Brando Unzipped. New York: Blood Moon Productions.
Solomon, D. (2001). Still Struggling: 1939-41. In Jackson Pollack. (pp. 93-106) New York: Cooper Square Press.
It’s 1941, and Alice “Al” Huffman and her three childhood friends come from the potato fields of Long Island to make it on the Broadway stage. Al quickly learns that she has no talent. She meets Juliana, the glamorous, perpetually-on-the-brink-of stardom nightclub singer whose voice sounds to her like “warm milk slipping down the whole of my body.”
Juliana, a sexual risk-taker with a secret, easily reels in a mesmerized Al who has never felt a love like this before. Al is determined to hang onto Juliana no matter what she has to sacrifice. The only obstacle is that Juliana is more a woman of her times than Al could ever have expected.
Through Juliana, Al enters a secret world that includes men who wear frilly bathrobes and grass skirts and women who smoke cigars and wear pants with the zippers in the front. Cameo appearances are made by Liberace, Tallulah Bankheard and other 1940s celebrities.
I wrote my first novel when I was fourteen and I continued to write long fiction throughout high school and college. Then I stopped writing all together for too long a time. These were the dark years. When I returned to writing I wrote a play. I continued on as a playwright for many years. As a playwright I won a number of awards such as an Edward Albee Fellowship, First Place in Celebration Theater’s Best New LGBT Play Contest and First Place in Pride Screen and Stage’s Women’s Contest. One of my plays was a finalist for the National Lambda Literary Award. Recently my play, The Forgetting Curve, was optioned by Theatricum Mundi and had its world premiere at The Boston Arts Center in September, 2014.
I have also published short fiction and non-fiction in literary journals such as PRAIRIE SCHOONER, PENTIMENTO and THE OUTRIDER REVIEW.
Why I Chose to Write Juliana
About four years ago I felt compelled to write a novel about the hidden lives of gays and lesbians in the 1940s. With the onset of the extremely new freedoms I had found that young gays and straights were completely unaware of what gays in the past had sacrificed so that these changes could take place. They did not know that there was a time you could be arrested for merely entering a gay bar or that you could be committed to a mental institution indefinitely for the crime/disease of homosexuality. I felt that not knowing about the rights that gays and lesbians had been denied in our country for decades was as serious as not knowing about the impact of the Jim Crow Laws for African Americans. Just as there are African Americans living today who were seriously harmed by that system and other discriminatory practices there are many gays and Lesbians alive now who were damaged by what went on back then.
It’s important to note, however, that this is not a sad, angst-ridden book. It is filled with humor and lightness because no matter which decade we talk about it has always been fun to be gay.
Why the 1940s
The 1940s was a time when gays were just beginning to have a sense of their identity as ‘homosexuals.’ This was the first decade in which jams also more clearly held a distinct sense of being heterosexual, something different and better than homosexual. These definitions first began to take shape in the 1930s, but by the 1940s these categories were more firmly established.
The 1940s also foreshadows the beginning of the worst decades for hatred and discrimination toward gays: the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Characters Real or Fictional
My characters are fictional, but real people make cameo appearances throughout the book. For instance, Angela Lansbury and Lauren Bacall, who were volunteers at the Stage Door Canteen before they were famous have, bit parts in my novel. Liberace is shown briefly in a nightclub where he actually worked early in his career. He played the piano, wore a traditional tuxedo, and was known as Walter.
What kind of research was involved in the writing of this novel?
Researching early 1940s in Greenwich Village was the most difficult research I’ve ever done because nothing happened. People often think of this time in the Village as an artsy time, but here’s a quote from the New York City Market Analysis, done in 1943: “Greenwich Village is not a neighborhood of artists and writers, although many of them still live in its old brick and brownstone houses.”
Greenwich Village earned its reputation as an enclave for artists and writers in the 1920s and 30’s and it would become so again in the mid 1950’s. Early 1940s Greenwich Village, however, was mostly a working class neighborhood where a great many people lived in rooming houses and “overflowing tenement houses.”
Artists actually did live in Greenwich Village at that time, but they were unknown. James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando often met for breakfast at the Life Cafeteria, which catered to gay boys and girls. Jackson Pollack struggled to find his own style in his rundown apartment at 46 East 8th Street.
Research specific to gays in the 1940s was much easier because of the many wonderful LGBT historians who have devoted themselves to gathering our stories.
To get the flavor of the times and to learn about the more specific elements I read numerous contemporary magazines such as Vogue and Cue; I read novels and memoirs written during that time. I also read books that tried to explain homosexuality to laypeople such as The Problem of Homosexuality and Female Homosexuality, in which we learn that Lesbians are prone toward crimes such as murder.
Creative License with Historical Facts?
Playwrights often bend the facts when they are writing a play based on history. Frequently, you are criticized by fellow playwrights in development groups if you are not willing to do this. Shakespeare’s Richard II is often cited as an example of historical facts being less important than “art.” That may be true, but I feel a responsibility to tell the true history of the LGBT people. It does not need embellishment; the historical facts are dramatic enough. I am not merely telling some story. I am telling the history of a group of people who overcame adversity. I must stick to the facts if I am going to tell this story. The “art” comes from how the individual characters in their unique ways cope with these historical facts.
My background as a playwright has led to a novel with a significant amount of dialogue. The only writers’ feedback group that I had during the writing process was the Oracles, my playwriting group. Since there was a great deal of dialogue in the novel and I had no other way of getting peer feedback I cast the chapters with actors as I would have done with a play I was working on and presented it to my playwriting group for feedback.
The group became so fascinated with the characters and the subtleties of the history that they encouraged me to take my novel to a public venue to be performed like a mini-series, a few chapters each month.
This past December the first installment of JULIANA was presented at the Stonewall Inn in New York City to an enthusiastic audience. We were invited back in January and as of February we will be performing further chapters of the book every first Tuesday of the month, 7pm. Everyone is welcome. Come to the upstairs room.
Juliana is not yet published, but I’m hoping these public readings will lead to that. I often get requests for the book.
I have begun work on Volume 2 of JULIANA (1945-1956). This time period begins one of the most difficult in gay history. Similar to August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle in which he wrote a play for each decade spanning from 1900 to 1990 exploring a different aspect of African American history, I plan to write a series of novels exploring LGBT history using the same characters.
Now I would like to introduce a wonderful historical writer, Eleanor Park Sapia.
Eleanor Parker Sapia, a Puerto Rican-born novelist, was raised in the US, Europe and the colonial city of Ponce, Puerto Rico where she got the idea for her debut novel, A Decent Woman. She has lived in France, Greece, Austria and in Brussels, Belgium, where she spent 13 years. Ellie has degrees from Marymount University in Virginia and Philippi Trust Counseling and Training Center, Blackpool, UK. She makes her home in West Virginia.
Her debut novel, A Decent Woman, will be published with Booktrope in Spring 2015. She is currently writing her second novel, Finding Gracia, inspired by her journey on the medieval pilgrimage walk of El Camino in Spain. She focuses on writing stories that introduce the reader to Latin American and Spanish characters. You can find out more about her work on her blog, https://l.facebook.com/l/VAQHt0Yz5AQELierK8gmkNy45ZR4W5DnQKRoyxa5LM48u9g/https%3A%2F%2Felliesbookz.wordpress.com%2F
After the first reading of the beginning chapters of JULIANA by my magnificent actors on December 2 at The Stonewall Bar I got a few questions that might be summed up as: “Where was the gay?” Patience. It’s coming. This question led me to write a series of blog articles to briefly elucidate the historical background that my characters live in. The following is the first article.
1940s & Homosexuality
1. People coming from the country as the four kids do in the novel don’t really know what “gay” is. (FYI: the word “gay” meaning homosexual was in use in the forties by gay people; it was generally not known to “normals” at that time).In 1941 Huntington, Long Island, where the kids come from, was the country, not the suburbs.
2. Back then homosexuals were an extreme out-group. Much further out than Roman Catholics, immigrants or African Americans. People believed that homosexuals, both men and women, were dangerous in general and especially dangerous to children. The terms homosexual and child molester were often lumped together as synonyms.
3. Nice people did not know any homosexuals or at least they thought they didn’t. And certainly you never expected to find such a thing in yourself. This is not to say that there were no gay people who knew they were gay and were comfortable with this knowledge. These people did exist, especially in the cities. Alice (Al), the novel’s protagonist, will be meeting some of these. But for the most part the folks in forties knew nothing about the reality of homosexuality.
The Experience of a “normal” who lived during that time period
I met Arlene Friedman Simone on-line through my research for this novel. She has been tremendously helpful in its development since she actually lived through those times. Arlene attended City College from 1948-1952 and while there acted and danced in some of their plays. She had the role of “Miss Turnstiles” in the musical, On the Town. If you’ve seen the recent revival of that play on Broadway then you know how demanding that role is. She also participated in an early sit-down strike at the college, protesting racial and religious injustice in 1949. I mention these details to show that this woman was no country bumpkin, and still she was not aware of “homosexuals” attending her school.
She said, “It wasn’t an open world then. Only later did I realize that Donald Madden, who was a close friend of mine and our best actor was gay. He was my Gaby in On the Town and there was no question for me that he was heterosexual. It never entered my mind that his relationship with Wilson Lehr, the director of our theater group, was extraordinarily close. Donald went on to become a highly respected stage and TV actor. He was acclaimed for doing a great Hamlet. It was either on Broadway or off, but they said it was a very effeminate Hamlet. We were all devastated when he died n 1983 at the age of 49. They claimed his death was from lung cancer, but this was 1983…”
Arlene went on to say that when “Herb Ross, who was the choreographer, brought in a group of dancers to dance the”Turnstiles” ballet with me, they certainly seemed very different from the boys I knew at school. I believe they were also comfortable with themselves, because I remember wondering why they talked so differently, and in my naivety, I thought they were cute and funny.”
I think this memory shows clearly how things were back then and I feel so sad for poor Donald Madden who had to stay in the closet to survive and have a career worthy of his natural gifts. Google him. He did a lot. And this is what my novel is for: to pay homage to those who went on before and created the miraculous changes we see today.
Next week’s blog entry: The Difference Between the 1930s & 1940s: The Pansy & Lesbian Craze.
Come to the next live reading. You’ll begin to see where the gay is.
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If you look at this post card from the 1940s the Washington Square Arch looks pretty much the way it does today. But if you look closer you will see that the cars are driving through the Arch. When I bought this postcard from eBay it drove me a little nuts. Was I seeing right? Were those cars really going through the Arch? I kept staring at it over days and weeks checking my perception. Then I found an old film about New York transportation in the 1930s and 40s and a city bus drove right through the arch! I went back over that bit of film a few times still thinking I’d seen it wrong. After all the film was old with lots of cracking. But, yes, a bus did, indeed, go through the arch. So why didn’t I check this out on the Internet before driving myself crazy?
Well, I tried. But there is nothing really on it. What is reported on is the fight between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in the late forties and early fifties when Moses had a plan to extend Fifth Avenue into the park. These Internet articles are written as though there had been no traffic into the park previously, but Moses wanted to put it there. Actually, Moses wanted to increase the traffic that was already coming into the park and Jane Jacobs wanted to stop him from doing that. Thankfully Jane Jacobs and her committee won and in 1952 all traffic into the park was stopped. But prior to this battle Washington Square Park had cars coming into it through the arch.
While thinking about this entry I frequently walked down to the arch and tried to picture cars going through it, but it was hard. Granted, today there is a metal fence and posts that would prevent any vehicles from coming into the park, but if those were taken away how would they do it? Standing in the freezing in the horrible cold, I tried to picture them fitting through that arch. It must have been an awfully tight squeeze. What do you think?
Guest Post by Shareen Knight
My mother’s hands were shaking. It was a sunny summer afternoon towards the end of WW II when we heard the engine of a small plane as it came across the bay. We ran outside, her with the binoculars and me holding the chart of colored drawings of every kind of plane that existed in the 40s. It was her job to report any enemy aircraft, as there was a fear after Pearl Harbor that the Japanese carriers off the coast would send planes to bomb American cities on the West Coast.
Volunteers were organized to keep watch. Thousands of people, high school kids, retired folk, women whose husbands were still overseas fighting, and little kids like me who were unofficial helpers.
As the plane came closer, we held our ground, and soon the plane came into view flying very low. Oh my god, a red circle on the side could only mean one thing, we had spotted our first Japanese fighter plane. The pilot saw us and we saw him. I stood transfixed, a little afraid, but mostly excited. I wondered if he would shoot us. But, he didn’t shoot, instead he tipped his wing toward us and flew by in an arc, as if to say hello-goodbye, and then he headed back toward the Pacific Ocean.
Shareen Knight is a writer and artist/photographer who lives in the coastal mountains of British Columbia. She is writing a novel that takes place in the 40s and 50s in rural America where she was raised, and is also working on a comedic/drama full-length play about the Inuit people and Global Warming. She claims to live in an igloo, but nobody believes her because the snow has all melted.
During World War 2, in an effort to save precious materials needed for the war, The War Production Board (WPB) was in charge of rationing civilian goods. The first to be rationed was sugar and gasoline. Gradually other items were added like rubber, coffee and meat (somehow poultry didn’t count as meat so it wasn’t rationed). You couldn’t buy a refrigerator or a Bendix washer during the war, but these companies regularly advertised in the popular magazines, reminding customers of all they were giving to the war effort.
The WPB came out with Limitation Order L-85, which dictated how much cloth could be used to make clothing. Although clothing wasn’t rationed in the US (except shoes*) as it was in Great Britain the WPB made regulations on how much cloth could be used to make any one outfit. The sleeves of dresses now had to be 3/4 length, dresses with no collars were favored. Double breasted suits for both men and women became single breasted. There were no more women’s pleated skirts. (Stanton, 2009a) The WPB’s slogan was,”Control without regimentation,” meaning they didn’t want to tell designers how to initiate their regulations, but they did expect them to be followed. After all, this was being done “for the boys.” Everyone was behind it. Muriel Johnstone, a dress designer, advertising her new regulation dresses used the slogan: “Conserving material for victory.” (OldMagazineArticles.com)
In the interest of following the mandate to use less material—or so they claimed—designers started raising women’s skirts from the mid-calf to just below the knee. The amount of clothes women wore during this time became less and less, especially in Hollywood. Watch the films made during the war. First, you’ll see a lot of those collarless dresses along with the shorter lengths. Also, you’ll note how scanty many of the women are dressed, lots of bare legs, bare arms, cleavage. Compare these outfits with the clothing worn in films made before the war and after. It was “all for the boys.” (Stanton, 2009b)
*Each individual was allowed 3 pairs of shoe a year, which doesn’t sound terribly harsh to me. Stage Door volunteers were permitted and extra pair of shoes because their shoes wore out quickly from all that dancing.
I had wanted to include Lilyan Tashman in my novel (celebrities make cameo appearances) only she died too soon (1934) for the dates that my characters live. Lilyan Tashman began as a vaudevillian in New York and appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies between 1916 and 1918. From this she became a Broadway actress and later a Hollywood film actress who some sources say never quite made it to what would be considered “superstar status.” Despite this she made sixty-six films and made an easy transition from silent films to the talkies.
A Thumbnail of Lilyan
The idea that Lilyan never reached star status may have more to do with an internet rumor made real through repetition than to fact. True, she is not a household name today, but are we the deciders of what was important to people in another era? Mann (2001) reports that The Lilyan Tashman Fan Club of the 1930s was composed of thousands of devoted young women. Reporters for movie magazines considered her “great copy” because during the depression she gave young women fashion advice. (Imagine a Lesbian giving fashion advise? Oh, our modern day stereotypes!) “If you have to go without an extra hat, an extra pair of gloves or even an extra dress, do pay more attention to yourself. It’s the secret of poise and the very first step in smartness.” Mann goes on to say, “Tashman played her looks and femininity for all they could get her–“a lipstick” lesbian years before the term was coined.
Maybe Lilyan didn’t reach the top of the Hollywood star list, but she lived a lavish life with her openly gay husband, Edmund Lowe, and she definitely had her fans. When she died an early death at age 37 from stomach cancer on March 21,1934 10,000 of her fans, mostly women, showed up in a frenzy of adoration (that sounds rather Dionysian) They tore up the grounds trying to get close to her. They pushed the famous out of their way. Stars like Fanny Brice, Jack Benny and Mary Pickford. Eddie Cantor who gave the eulogy said, it was “the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever seen.” Several women almost fell into the open grave. There were quite a few injuries that day (Starr, 2006). Lilyan’s husband Edmund said, “People have said it was bad taste, irreverent. I don’t think so. Lilyan didn’t think so either. It was their way of showing they cared.” (Mann, 2001)
LILYAN: Lesbian, Bi or Straight and Does It Really Matter?
The Lesbian camp
Some sources consider Lilyan a Lesbian (Mann, 2001, McClellan, 2000, Wikipedia, 12/22/13). These sources focus on the fact that her second husband was an openly gay man (not easy in those days) and that she had an affair with both Garbo and Joan Crawford. McClellan says, “To call Lilyan a lesbian is like calling Casanova a flirt. Lilyan was a whole-hearted and highly skilled missionary for the joy of lesbian sex.” The sources in the lesbian camp tell of Lilyan seducing women in ladies rooms. You would think that this activity would have gotten her into a lot of trouble, but she had quite a few takers. Lilyan believed that any woman would prefer sex with a woman more than with a man if she just gave it a try and she seemed to have convinced quite a few theatrical grande dames and ingenues who kept the secret.
The Bi-Sexual Camp
The most thorough source on Lilyan that I found on the net was a blog called: Silence is Platinum. In this blog, Lilyan is referred to as bi-sexual. The main reason given is that Lilyan was married to Edmund Lowe. But Hollywood gay and lesbian “stars” often married each other. It gave them a higher status than if they appeared at a party with only a “date.” According to my reading these marriages were not simply “show marriages.” These couples often developed deep friendships; they held communal property and each partner was given rights of survivorship.
The author of Silence is Platinum blog admires Lilyan for a number of reasons, but s/he is especially fond of Lilyan because she beat up an actress who she found in her openly gay husband’s dressing room. The implication being that Lilyan held sexual feelings for Edmund that perhaps went beyond friendship. Lilyan was also known in secret circles to have been this jealous and this volatile about her girlfriends. Garbo, supposedly, broke up with her because of Lilyan’s jealous tantrums. Mann (2001) puts a different spin on Lilyan beating up the actress in Edmund’s dressing room. Mann thinks perhaps the woman had come for Lilyan, changed her mind and some type of altercation ensued. He backs up his hypothesis with some plausible data. Neither woman appeared for the hearing so the charges were dropped. (Mann, 2001)
The Straight Camp
Curiously enough a short biography of Lilyan that appeared in The Windy City Times, a gay periodical that comes out of Chicago, seems to imply that she was straight. This article is the only one I’ve found thus far to talk of Lilyan falling “madly in love with Edmund” (Starr, 2006) without mentioning that Edmund was gay. This really had me perplexed until I looked a little further. This article was a syndicated column and The Windy City Times must have bought it without reading or thinking about it.
Leaving out a celebrity’s sexual orientation is not uncommon. This has been the norm for straight press and biographies up until recently. This started me thinking. Does it matter if the sexual orientation is left out of the discussion of a celebrity? Celebrity not only includes the movie star types, but what about scientists, authors, artists and others? Is sexual orientation superfluous to an individual’s societal contribution or intricate? What do you think? I hope you’ll give your opinion in the comment section.
Lilyan is the blonde
References: MacLennan, D. (2000). The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Mann, W.J. (2001) Behind the screen: How gays and lesbians shaped Hollywood 1910-1969. New York, Penguin Group.
Starr, S. (2006). Starrlight: Lilyan Tashman, Windy City Times, Chicago.
“Daddy always warned me about men and alcohol, but he never said a thing about women and cocaine.” “Wise words” from our lovable, didn’t- give- a- damn bi-sexual.
But even “Tallu,” as open and outrageous as she was, had her struggles with the times she lived in. In the thirties when Marlene Dietrich was cut from a film because she insisted on working with director, Josef von Sternberg and no one else, in Blonde Venus, the part was offered to Tallulah Bankhead. Tallulah answered, “I always did want to get into Marlene’s pants.” Marlene Dietrich laughed; the Hays Office did not. Tallu was cut; Marlene Dietrich got her part and her director (McClennan, 2000)
Reference: McClennnan, D. (2000). The Girls. New York: St.Martin’s Press.