First here is the chart of Actresses and their relationship from this time.
Born: January 31, 1902 Died: December 12, 1968
What she did: Actress
Tallulah with her father, Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead, in his office in Washington, D.C. (1937)
Bankhead as Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes (1939)
Tallulah was born on January 31 st , 1902 in Huntsville Alabama on her parent’s second wedding anniversary. Her father was from a political family and active in the Democratic Party and became the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.
Three weeks after Tallulah was born, her mother died from sepsis. This apparently ran in the family because Tallulah’s mother’s mother also died after giving birth. On her death bed, Tallulah’s mother told her sister-in-law to take care of Tallulah’s older sister but that Tallulah would always be able to take care of herself.
Tallulah was baptized next to her mother’s coffin.
Devastated by the loss, Tallulah’s father was largely unable to care for his children. They were primarilyraised by their paternal grandmother.
Tallulah was considered a homely child and overweight. Because of this, she was overshadowed by her traditionally attractive sister.
In an effort to get attention, Tallulah got creative. She learned to sing,
cartwheel, dance, recite literature, do imitations, and perform. When that didn’t work, she threw epic tantrums and held her breath until her face turned blue. To combat these tantrums, her grandmother would throw a bucket of water on her.
As a child, Tallulah was sickly and had chronic bronchitis which resulted in a husky voice.
Later, Tallulah would say her first performance was for the Wright brothers when her Aunt hosted them at a party. Tallulah imitated her kindergarten teacher and won a prize, awarded to her by the Wright brothers.
As Tallulah and her sister got older, they were becoming harder for their grandmother to handle. So, in 1912, when Tallulah was 10, she and her sister were enrolled in a covenant school. Tallulah began to mature into a beautiful southern belle and while her sister married at 16 Tallulah decided to pursue an acting career.
When a magazine called Picture Play ran a beauty contest that would award winners a trip to New York and a part in a movie, Tallulah submitted her photo.
However, she forgot tosubmit her name and address with it. When the magazine announced the winners, they included Tallulah’s picture with the tagline, “Who is she?”
Tallulah only found out she was a winner when she saw this in the magazine.
Winning the contest turned out to be a non-starter. She went to New York, had a minor part in the movie Who Loved Him Best and was paid $75 for the work.
However, she did fall in love with New York and decided to stay. She moved into the Algonquin Hotel which was the it spot for the artsy elite and found a home as a member of the Algonquin Round Table.
When Tallulah moved to New York, her father warned her to stay away from alcohol and men. She later remarked, “He didn’t say anything about women and cocaine.”
While partying with the Algonquin Round Table, Tallulah didn’t drink, but she indulged in cocaine, and pot. She would say that “cocaine isn’t habit-forming and I know because I’ve been taking it for years.”
At parties, Tallulah would introduce herself saying, “I’m a lesbian, what do you do?”
It was this and her general quippyness that gained her the reputation as one of the great wits of Manhattan.
Tallulah had roles in a variety of silent movies and on the stage, including being in Footloose.
Despite being praised for her acting, nothing she was cast in really took off. After 5 years in New York, Tallulah decided to broaden her horizons and moved to London in 1922. When she left for London on the SS Majestic, a crowd of fans gathered on the pier to see her off.
Tallulah found success in London, appearing in a ton of plays and performing in They Knew What They Wanted, a show which won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize.
She gained a reputation for spinning straw into gold when it came to the plays she was in. She wrote of one instance where she saved a show from disaster on opening night. “In the second act, I came on carrying a monkey. On opening night, the monkey went berserk. He snatched my black wig from my head, leaped from my arms and scampered down to the footlights. There he paused, peered out at the audience, then waved my wig over his head. The audience had been
giggling at the absurd plot even before this simian had at me. Now it became hysterical. What did Tallulah do in this crisis? I turned a cartwheel! The audience roared. After the monkey business, I was afraid they might boo me. Instead I received an ovation.”
Enjoying her success, she bought a Bentley and would drive around London.
Unfortunately, she was terrible with directions and would call a cab to find her when she got lost and have the driver lead her home while she followed in her Bentley.
After 9 years in London, Tallulah decided to take on Hollywood.
While in Hollywood, Tallulah hosted ‘boundary free’ parties. Probably to spice things up because she thought making movies was boring as hell. She once asked producer Irving Thalberg, “How do you get laid in this dreadful place?” Irving replied, “I’m sure you’ll have no problem. Ask anyone.”
Tallulah must have taken his advice because she was a very sexually liberated lady. She had relationships with many notable women including Greta Garbo, Billie Holiday, Alla Nazimova, Hattie McDaniel, and more. Tallulah also had romantic relationships with men and was married to actor John Emery from 1937 to 1941.
After their divorce, she told a reporter, “You can definitely quote me as saying there will be no plans for a remarriage.”
When it came to talking about her sexuality, Tallulah was very open. She never used the word bisexual.
In 1931, Tallulah starred in a movie called Devil and the Deep in which she received top billing over Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and Charles Laughton, which was kind of a big deal. However, Tallulah was looking for more than the $50,000 she was paid. She would say “Dahling, the main reason I accepted the part was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper!”
Unfortunately, Tallulah contracted a VD she claimed was from George Raft and had to have an emergency hysterectomy.
She almost died during the 5 hour surgery and weighed only 70lbs by the time she left the hospital. Before being discharged, she told her doctor, “Don’t think this has taught me a lesson.”
After recovering, Tallulah returned to Broadway. Then, a little movie called Gone with the Wind popped on the scene and Tallulah was one of the first choices for the leading role of Scarlett O’Hara. However, they felt that Tallulah at 36 was too old to play the role of 16-year-old Scarlett.
Tallulah was, however, offered the role of a sex worker in
the film, which she politely turned down.
Instead, Tallulah performed in the play The Little Foxes as the lead character, Regina.
Her performance won her Variety’s award for Best Actress of the Year and was featured on the cover of Life magazine. Tallulah described it as “the best role I ever had in the theater.”
When Bette Davis played the role of Regina in the film version, she modeled her performance after Tallulah’s.
In 1944, Tallulah started in her most successful film; Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Her role in this won herthe New York Film Critics Circle award. When she accepted the award, she said, “Dahlings, I was wonderful!”
Tallulah was also politically active. She heavily campaigned for Harry Truman’s 1948 reelection and is credited with significantly helping him get elected. She was even invited to sit with Truman during his inauguration.
Also in 1948, the Kinsey Reports were released. These were two reports on human sexuality; one devoted to male sexuality and the other to female sexuality. The Kinsey reports were pretty controversial as they expressed the idea of the sexual spectrum and of the female orgasm.
Tallulah remarked on the Kinsey Reports, saying, “I found no surprises in the Kinsey report. The good doctor’s clinical notes were old hat to me. I’ve had many momentary love affairs. A lot of these impromptu romances have been climaxed in a fashion not generally condoned. I go into them impulsively. I scorn any notion of their permanence. I forget the fever associated with them when a new interest presents itself.”
Tallulah’s sexuality, and relationships with both men and women won her a place in the Hays Committee’s “Doom Book,” which was a list of 150 actors who were seen as immoral or unsuitable for the public.
Tallulah knew what was up because she called the code’s namesake Will H. Hays, “a little prick.” Tallulah was listed at the top of the Doom Book under the heading “Verbal Moral Turpitude.”
Though she was living an intense lifestyle which consisted of heavy drinking, sleeping pills, sexy finger quotes ‘scandalous’ relationships, and 150 cigarettes per day, Tallulah continued performing through the 50s and 60s. She was in movies, plays, on television, and the radio.
One of her later notable performances was as Blance DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. She was tight with Tennessee Williams. However, her performances were originally too campy and Tennessee Williams said she was “the worst I have seen.”
Tallulah revised her performance and Tennessee Williams said, “I’m not ashamed to say that I shed tears almost all the way through and that
when the play was finished I rushed up to her and fell to my knees at her feet.
The human drama, the paly of a woman’s great valor and an artist’s truth, her own, far superseded, and even eclipsed, to my eye, the performance of my own play.” So basically, she rocked it so hard that even the playwright was
like, ‘I could never even imagine this majesty from my own fucking play.’
On December 12 th , 1968, Tallulah died of double pneumonia which was complicated by a combination of emphysema, malnutrition, and the flu.
Allegedly, her last words were a request for codeine and bourbon.
Tallulah was buried in Saint Paul’s Churchyard near Chestertown, Maryland.
The Issac Schiffman Building where Tallulah was born is not a historic landmark and there is a marker erected to commemorate the site of her birth.
Tallulah has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Tallulah wasn’t just a phenomenal actress, but her openness with sexuality and relationships with women was revolutionary for the time. Tallulah lived her life out loud and apologized for nothing. She crafted herself into a legend and said, “I don’t give a fuck what people say about me, so long as they say something.”
Mercedes de Acosta
Born: March 1, 1892 or 1893 Died: May 9, 1968
What she did: American poet, playwright, novelist, and “the greatest starfucker ever.”
Photographed on March 8, 1935
Mercedes and Greta walking in their pants
Mercedes Hede de Acosta, 1919 or 1920
Arnold Genthe (1869–1942)/LOC agc.7a08459
She was born in New York City on March 1, 1892 or 1893.Her father, Ricardo de Acosta, was born in Spain and later emigrated to Cuba, then to the United States. Her mother, Micaela Hernández de Alba y de Alba, was also Spanish and reportedly a descendant of the Spanish Dukes of Alba.
Mercedes attended elementary school at the Covenant of the Blessed Sacrement on West 79th Street in Manhattan where Dorothy Parker was a classmate.
Mercedes, along with her parents and siblings, lived in New York City on fashionable Forty-seventh Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, where their neighbors included such personalities as former President Theodore Roosevelt, and the William Vanderbilts.
Mercedes’s parents often took part in the genteel, social activities of the neighborhood.
Mercedes was involved in numerous lesbian relationships with Broadway’s and Hollywood’s elite and she did not attempt to hide her sexuality; her uncloseted existence was very rare and daring in her generation.
She was notorious for walking the streets of New York in mannish pants, pointed shoes trimmed with buckles, tricorn hat, and cape. Her chalk white face, deep-set eyes, thin red lips, and jet black hair slicked back with brilliantine prompted Tallulah Bankhead to call her Countess Dracula.
In 1916 she began an affair with actress Alla Nazimova.
In 1917, Mercedes established a long-time relationship with the famous dancer Isadora Duncan.
In spite of her desire for other women, in 1920 she contemplated marriage to Abram Poole, a wealthy portrait painter, whose family was in the Social Register. But when he proposed, she balked. “I couldn’t make up my mind,” she wrote. “As a matter of fact I was in a strange turmoil about world affairs, my own writing, suffrage, sex, and my inner spiritual development.”
Mercedes did eventually marry Abram in 1920.They divorced in 1935. Undoubtedly contributing to her turmoil was meeting the young, attractive, and ambitious actress Eva Le Gallienne just three days before Mercedes’s marriage. Soon after her honeymoon, she began a five-year romantic relationship with the actress.
While Le Gallienne toured around the country in 1922 in the play Liliom, she mailed to Mercedes 3 or 4 letters daily. Mercedes wrote two plays for Le Gallienne, Sandro Botticelli and Jehanne de Arc. After the financial failures of both plays they ended their relationship.
In the 1920s, she was a figure in both the city’s “high society” and its drag clubs and speakeasies. “These were years guided by the spirit of the New,” she wrote of this period; “We were on fire with fire, with a passion to create and a daring to achieve.”
An early feminist, Mercedes advocated, along with her friend and lover the dancer Isadora Duncan, the elimination of uncomfortable and restricting fashions for women; while other women were lacing themselves into corsets, Mercedes was often seen wearing trousers.
Over the next decade she was involved with several famous actresses and dancers including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ona Munson, and Russian ballerina Tamara Platonovna Karsavina. Additional unsubstantiated rumors include affairs with Pola Negri, Eleonora Duse, Katherine Cornell, and Alice B. Toklas.
An ardent liberal, Mercedes was committed to several political causes. Concerned about the Spanish Civil War, which began in 1936, for example, she supported the Republican government that opposed the Nationalist faction.A tireless advocate for women’s rights, she wrote in her memoir, “I believed…in every form of independence for women and I was…an enrolled worker for women’s suffrage.”
She also became a vegetarian and, out of respect for animals, refused to wear furs.
In 1931, soon after she moved to Hollywood, she met Greta Garbo. For the next 12 years, they had an unpredictable relationship. At times Garbo would shower Mercedes with flowers and gifts. Mercedes became so enamored that she pasted photos of Garbo into her Bible. They vacationed together, sunbathed in the nude, and lived together for a time in 1932.
She even convinced Garbo to visit her tailor and get a pair also, the two caused a great commotion on Hollywood Boulevard. “GARBO IN PANTS!” the headlines exclaimed. “Considering what walks down Hollywood Boulevard now,” Mercedes wrote in 1960, “it seems strange that Greta and I should have caused such a sensation.”
According to Acosta’s longtime friend Ram Gopal, “Once Mercedes met Garbo, all she did was dream of Garbo.” But Garbo was afraid of having her life exposed.
As their relationship developed, it became erratic and volatile with Garbo always in control. The two were very close sporadically and then apart for lengthy periods when Garbo, annoyed by Mercedes’ obsessive behavior, coupled with her own neuroses, ignored her.
In any case, they remained friends for thirty years during which time Garbo wrote Mercedes 181 letters, cards, and telegrams. About their friendship, Cecil Beaton, who was close to both women, recorded in his 1958 memoir, “Mercedes is [Garbo’s] very best friend and for 30 years has stood by her, willing to devote her life to her”.
At times Garbo would shower Mercedes with flowers and gifts. Mercedes became so enamored that she pasted photos of Garbo into her Bible. They vacationed together, sunbathed in the nude, and even lived together for a time in 1932. Garbo occasionally asked Mercedes to do some shopping for her and even enlisted her aid in finding places to live, both in Hollywood and in New York.
At one point, when Garbo was being particularly aloof, Mercedes engaged in a love affair with another screen goddess: Marlene Dietrich.
Though Dietrich was married, it did not prevent her from showering Mercedes daily with bouquets of roses and carnations.
When Dietrich was setting off for Europe, she wrote, “It will be hard to leave Hollywood now that I know you.” She mailed Mercedes dozens of letters and telegrams, always signing off with love and kisses and saying, “I kiss your beautiful hands and your heart.”
Mercedes wrote a poem for Marlene that read:
For Marlene, Your face is lit by moonlight breaking through your skin soft, pale, radiant. No suntan for you glow. For you are the essence of the stars and the moon and the mystery of the night.
After Cecil Beaton accompanied her to the theater one night in 1930, he wrote in his diary that he sensed people looking at him and questioning why he associated with “that furious lesbian.” She often boasted of her sexual prowess, saying “I can get any woman from any man.”
There was perhaps justification for Alice B. Toklas’s observation, “Say what you will about Mercedes de Acosta, she’s had the most important women of the twentieth century.”
Even though these women included Isadora Duncan, Eva Le Gallienne, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich, she is usually portrayed as something of a perverse psychopath.
Mercedes published three volumes of poetry in the early 1920s, had several plays staged, and wrote various film treatments, but none of these brought her the success she sought.
In the early 1930s Mercedes developed an interest in Hinduism and was encouraged to seek out Indian mystic Meher Baba when he arrived in Hollywood.
For several years she was captivated by his philosophy and methods and he often gave her advice about ways to address her problems.
Later, she studied the philosophy of Hindu sage Ramana Maharishi who introduced her to yoga, meditation, and other spiritual practices she hoped would help ease her suffering.
In 1938, she met Hindu dancer Ram Gopal in Hollywood. They immediately established a rapport and became close lifelong friends. Later that year they traveled to India to meet Maharishi.
Mercedes immigrated to Paris, where she lived during the 1950s. By 1960, Mercedes had returned to New York, destitute and in poor health.
After a life surrounded by fame, glamour, and wealth, Mercedes spent her last years in loneliness and poverty. She suffered a variety of illnesses later in life, requiring several painful surgeries, and was forced to sell her diamonds to pay her medical bills.
In 1960, when Mercedes was seriously ill with a brain tumor and in need of money, she published her memoir, Here Lies the Heart. While the book is often considered the great lesbian “kiss-and-tell” memoir, Mercedes was careful to avoid directly specifying the sexual nature of her relationships.
But its implied homosexuality resulted in the severance of several friendships with women who felt she had betrayed their sexuality.
Garbo ended their friendship at this time, she her on the sidewalks of New York and refused to see Mercedes even when she was on her death bed.
Eva Le Gallienne in particular was furious, denouncing Mercedes as a liar and stating that she invented the stories for fame. This characterization is inaccurate since many of her affairs and relationships with women, including that with Le Gallienne, are confirmed in personal correspondence. When a friend found a gold wedding band in Eva’s attic some ten years after Mercedes had died and asked what it was, Eva snatched it away, threw it down a well outside her home, and grumbled, “It was from Mercedes.” If Le Gallienne was in a room and heard Mercedes name mentioned, she would storm out of the room in disgust. Le Gallienne told everyone that she thought the book should have been called “Here the Heart Lies and Lies and Lies.” Le Gallienne never forgave Mercedes.
An exception to this was Marlene Dietrich, who continued to correspond with her and loved the book.
According to critic Patricia White, “If she craved being seen, MdA was more careful about what she said than she is given credit for. She wrote a name-dropping memoir, but for something attacked for exaggeration, it barely alludes to homosexuality”.
When she died in 1968 she was penniless and living in a tiny, two-room apartment in New York City. She is buried at Trinity Cemetery in New York City.
Mercedes has usually been described disparagingly, dismissed as a “notorious lesbian” who was a dishonest nuisance to her lovers and who consistently “stalked” Garbo.
Garbo’s biographers, for example, assess their relationship from Garbo’s perspective in which Garbo is fundamentally blameless in their difficult relationship, a perpetual victim of Mercedes’s alleged irksome behavior. But Robert A. Schanke, Mercedes’s recent biographer, attempts, on the basis of extensive research, to provide an accurate picture of her.
She was, Schanke acknowledges, flawed and imperfect, a complex woman who impaired several of her relationships and failed to achieve her professional and romantic aspirations. But he reveals her to have been an exceptionally lively, intelligent, and dynamic person who had many devoted friends.
She was, he argues, a brave lesbian of her times and a person of integrity who remained kind and loyal to most everyone with whom she crossed paths. He suggests that the many denigrating portrayals of her may derive from the deep homophobia of her generation.
Nevertheless, Karen Swenson, a Garbo biographer, and Schanke identified and corrected significant errors in Mercede’s account. While the memoir was initially unsuccessful, it was rediscovered in the late 1960s and widely read in the underground gay community. In spite of its inaccuracies, it is now recognized as an important contribution to gay and lesbian history.
Her poetic work consists mainly of three books published during her life: Moods (prose poems) (1919), Archways of Life (1921), and Streets and Shadows (1922).
Composer Joseph Hallman memorialized Mercedes in the song cycle “Raving Beauty” for flute, harp, cello, and soprano.
Gladys Bentley’s powerful voice, fiery energy on the piano and bold lyrics made her a star of New York City nightclubs. (NMAAHC)
2. Gladys Bentley by unidentified photographer, ca. 1940 (NMAAHC)
Courtesy of Wikimedia
Bentley looking over a scrapbook of her career, circa 1952
Born: August 12, 1907 Died: January 18, 1960
What she did: Harlem Renaissance Entertainer
Gladys was born in Pennsylvania. Her father George was American and her mother, Mary, was Trinidadian. Unfortunately, hers was not a happy childhood.
The eldest of 4 children in a low-income family, Gladys struggled. It didn’t help that Gladys’ mother wished she had been a boy.
Gladys wrote later in her life, “When they told my mother she had given birth to a girl, she refused to touch me. She wouldn’t even nurse me and my grandmother had to raise me for 6 months on a bottle before they could persuade my mother to take care of her own baby.”
This rejection made Gladys resentful towards her brothers and she hated the idea of a man touching her.
From a young age, Gladys didn’t conform to gender norms of the day. She wore boys’ clothes, had a crush on a female elementary teacher, and didn’t behave in a ‘lady-like’ manner.
She wrote, “It seems I was born different. At least, I always thought I was.”
Disturbed by their daughter’s lack of dress-wearing, Gladys’ parents took her to doctors because y’know, this was clearly a medical issue. Gladys was later diagnosed with “extreme social maladjustment.”
This toxic home life drove Gladys to run away to Harlem when she was 16 years old in 1923.
Gladys had a natural talent as a pianist and blues singer. She quickly found work as a performer, especially in speakeasies which were popular during prohibition.
She started out recording 8 tracks of music for $400.
Then she heard that a local gay bar, Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, was looking for a male pianist. Already perfectly comfortable wearing suites, Gladys began playing there dressed as a man under the stage name Barbara “Bobbie” Minton. She started out at $35 a week and went up to $125 due to her success.
Her act became so popular that the bar was renamed “Barbara’s Exclusive Club” after her stage name.
Gladys then began performing at the Ubangi Club on Park Avenue where she created her own musical revue with a chorus of 8 male dancers all in drag. She started making enough money she was able to afford a $300/month apartment on Park Ave along with servants and a nice car.
Gladys’ signature look was a white tuxedo and white top hat. Her acts included overt sexuality and her deep voice appealed to audiences across the sexual and racial spectrum.
In her songs, she would call out misogyny and sing about sexual relationships, including her own with women.
By 1933, Gladys was headlining at prominent nightclubs and theaters including the Apollo.
Her skill didn’t go unnoticed. Langston Hughes wrote of Gladys:
“For 2 or 3 amazing years, Miss Bentley sat and played piano all night long with scarcely a break between the notes, sliding from one song to another, with a powerful and continuous underbeat of jungle rhythm. Miss 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.”
In 1932, Gladys publicly married a white woman during a civil ceremony in New Jersey. We don’t know who the woman was or much about their marriage.
When Gladys tried to take her show to Broadway in 1933, the owners of the Clam House club she had been playing at sued her, saying that their club had been built around Gladys’ music and that they had a 5-year contract with Gladys’ and her performances.
This led to a Supreme Court battle as Gladys tried to take more control over her career. Despite the suite, Gladys moved her act to Broadway. Unfortunately, her raunchy performances caused people to complain and the police began locking the doors of places she performed.
This forced her to move back to Harlem where she performed at the Ubangi Club for 3 more years before it closed in 1937.
The decline of prohibition was great for everyone, but it resulted in the decline of Harlem speakeasies which hurt Gladys’ career.
She moved to southern California where she played at gay nightclubs and was billed as “America’s Greatest Sepia Piano Player” and the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs.”
What hurt her more than the end of prohibition was the government’s increasing criminalization of LGBTQ+ people. Due to federal laws, Gladys had to carry a special permit to be allowed to perform in her signature suites.
Then in the 1950s U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy came on the scene.
McCarthy was an infamous fear monger who was super popular
during the Cold War era when everyone was waiting for Russia to Nuke the United States.
McCarthyism, the practice of accusing people of treason, being a communist, or whatever else you felt like, was named after him.
During this time, people were being accused of having communist sympathies or being traitors to the United States.
It didn’t take much to become accused of something. Being a black lesbian who wore suites made Gladys a target.
Gladys suddenly began wearing dresses and married a man whom she only knew for 5 months.
She claimed she had been ‘cured’ of her lesbianism by taking female hormones and undergoing an operation.
They divorced later and the dude later denied he and Gladys were ever married.
On January 8th , 1960 at the age of 52, Gladys died unexpectedly from Pneumonia in her Los Angeles home.
Just before her death, she had been ordained as a minister, but never got her official paperwork.
Gladys was challenging societal norms of gender, sexuality, and entertainment from day 1. Her masculine attire and public relationships with women in a time when being ‘out’ was dangerous and unaccepted.
Gladys never attempted to ‘pass’ as a man but displayed an energy of ‘black female masculinity’ that challenged her audience’s views on race and sexuality.
Fencing Lesson. Artwork by Charlotte
La Maupin, L’Heroine
Cover page of the French magazine “Le Matin” (Morning), 1910s
“Mademoiselle Maupin de l’Opera”. Anonymous print, ca. 1700.
From the resource History Masquerade
Julie d’Aubigny aka La Maupin
Born: 1670 Died: 1708
What she did: Sword-slinging opera singer, and larger-than-life bisexual celebrity of 17th-century France.
Julie d’Aubigny was born in France around 1673. She was the only child to a secretary to King Louis XIV’s Master of Horse, Count d’Armagnac, one of France’s great nobles.
After first living in the riding school at the Tuileries Palace in Paris (where she learned to ride and take care of horses), she then moved with the court to the opulent Palace of Versailles in 1682.
While her father worked in King Louis XIV’s luxurious court, Julie d’Aubigny grew up in less-glamorous quarters, namely, the Great Stables.
Julie excelled at fencing from a very early age and her father chose to educate his only child alongside the young boys. It was while training alongside the court pages that her love for dressing up as a boy first began.
In 1687, the Count d’Armagnac took her for his mistress when she was barely fourteen years old.
He then had her married to Sieur de Maupin of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and she became Madame de Maupin (or simply “La Maupin” per French custom).
Soon after the wedding, her husband received an administrative position in the south of France, but the Count kept her in Paris.
She soon ran away to Marseille with her fencing instructor, Séranne.
While travelling and performing in these impromptu shows, La Maupin dressed in male clothing but did not conceal her sex. She was already so skilled with the sword at this point in her life that audiences sometimes would not believe that she was actually a woman.
When one drunken onlooker proclaimed loudly that she was actually a man, she tore off her shirt, providing him ample evidence to the contrary.
On arrival in Marseille, she joined the opera company run by Pierre Gaultier, singing under her maiden name.
Eventually, she grew bored of Sérannes and became involved with a young woman a local merchant’s daughter.
The merchant, desperate to separate the two, sent his daughter to a convent
La Maupin followed, entering the convent as a postulant.
In order to run away with her new love, she stole the body of a recently dead nun, placed it in the bed of her lover, and set the room on fire to cover their escape.
Their affair lasted for three months before the young woman returned to her family. La Maupin was charged in absentia—as a male—with kidnapping, body snatching, arson, and failing to appear before the tribunal. The sentence was death by fire.
La Maupin left for Paris and again earned her living by singing.
In Villeperdue, still wearing men’s clothing, she was insulted by a young nobleman. They fought a duel and she drove her blade through his shoulder.
The next day, she asked about his health and found out he was Louis-Joseph d’Albert Luynes, son of the Duke of Luynes. Later, one of his companions came to offer d’Albert’s apologies.
She went to his room and subsequently they became lovers and, later, lifelong friends.
After Count d’Albert recovered and had to return to his military unit, La Maupin continued to Rouen.
There she met Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard, another singer, and began a new affair with him. Together they returned to Paris and on their first day there, while Julie was visiting her old lover d’Armagnac to convince him to arrange a pardon for her little indiscretion in Provence, Thévenard auditioned for the Opéra, and was hired immediately.
His condition was that Julie also be allowed to audition and the Opéra reluctantly agreed, so by the age of 17 she found herself a member of one of the world’s greatest musical companies.
She debuted as Pallas Athena in Cadmus et Hermione by Jean-Baptiste Lully the same year.
She performed regularly with the Opéra, first singing as a soprano, and later in her more natural contralto range.
The Marquis de Dangeau wrote in his journal of a performance by La Maupin given at Trianon of Destouches’ Omphale in 1701 that hers was “the most beautiful voice in the world”.
Due to Mademoiselle de Maupin’s beautiful voice, her acting skill, and her androgynous attire, she became quite popular with the audience, although her relationship with her fellow actors and actresses was sometimes tempestuous.
She famously beat the singer Louis Gaulard Dumesny after he pestered the women members of the troupe She responded by ambushing him, pushing a sword in his face, and demanding a duel. When he refused (on the grounds that he was a wimp), she beat him with a cane, stealing his snuffbox and watch. The next day, she caught him complaining that he had been assaulted by a gang of thieves. She called him a liar and a coward, threw his watch and snuffbox at him.
She also fell in love with Fanchon Moreau, another singer who was the mistress of the Grand Dauphin, and tried to commit suicide when she was rejected.
Her Paris career was interrupted around 1695 when she kissed a young woman at a society ball and was challenged to duels by three different noblemen. She beat them all but fell afoul of the king’s law that forbade duels in Paris. This entertained Louis XIV so much that he pardoned her from any punishment. and even though the king had pardoned her (musing that the law governed men, but didn’t say anything about women). She fled to Brussels to wait for calmer times.
There, she was briefly the mistress of Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria. Their relationship did not last too long. Apparently the Elector was a bit nonplussed when she stabbed herself onstage with an actual dagger.
From there she went to Madrid. She found herself working as a maid to a Countess Marino, whom she resented so much that one night before a grand ball she dressed the Countess’s hair with radishes so that everyone but the Countess could see them.
She performed for the court at Versailles, appeared once again in most major Opéra productions, and introduced the Italian idea of the contralto voice to France.
She and Thévenard remained best of friends until her retirement, although they also had some infamous spats, and one evening on stage she bit his ear so hard he bled.
In 1703 she fell in love with Madame la Marquise de Florensac, the “most beautiful woman in France” so beautiful that she too had had to flee to Brussels for several years because the Dauphin was obsessed with her.
The two women lived, according to one account, in perfect harmony for two years, until de Florensac died of a fever when Julie was 31.
She retired from the opera in 1705 and took refuge in a convent, probably in Provence, where she is believed to have died in 1707 at the age of 33. She has no known grave.
She was technically married throughout all of that. Don’t worry if you forgot about it, sounds like she did too.
Sorry for the late blog! Things have been a bit crazy lately! I know i missed The Dinner Party last week 2 but that will be up tomorrow no worries!
photos by Val Shaff
Sylvia Rivera in 1970.Kay Tobin / Courtesy of New York Public Library
Rivera, in the “gay camp” at the Christopher Street Piers c. 2000
Born: July 2nd, 1951 Died: February 19, 2002
What she did: Self-identified drag queen who fought tirelessly for transgender rights, as well as for the rights of gender-nonconforming people.
Sylvia was born as Ray Rivera,on July 2nd, 1951 in the Bronx, New York and lived most of her life in or near New York city; she was of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent.
She was abandoned by her birth father José Rivera early in life and became an orphan after her mother committed suicide when Sylvia was 3.
Sylvia was then adopted and raised by her Venezuelan grandmother, who voiced her disapproval not only of Rivera’s mixed background that made her skin darker than she preferred , but also of her behavior, which was deemed too effeminate for a boy.
Sylvia began to wear makeup in fourth grade.
Sylvia was bullied at home and at school, she shaved her eyebrows and wore makeup to school beginning in fourth grade, and was mocked and called faggot by classmates in sixth grade leading her to abandon formal education.
At 10 years old she left home and began life as a sex worker, hustling near Times Square. On the streets, specifically 42nd Street in New York, she found an eclectic tribe of sex workers, street queens (as poor trans youth, some of whom performed sex work and/or were homeless, then identified themselves), drag queens, and members of the gay community.
She gave herself the name “Sylvia Rivera” in a ceremony attended by some fifty of her friends and peers.
Rivera and her peers were regularly beaten up by cops, johns, or even each other. Rivera would eventually serve 90 days on Riker’s Island, sent to a cellblock kept for perpetrators of “gay crimes”.
Sylvia’s activism began during the Civil Rights Movement and continued through the movement against the Vietnam war and second-wave feminist movements.
Rivera didn’t care about labels and definitions, throughout her life she referred to herself as a ‘half sister,’ a ‘drag queen,’ or a ‘transvestite.’
Her attitude on her fluid identity further strengthened her position as a radical activist in the mainstream gay movement.
One day, as Sylvia was hustling on 42nd, she spotted an older black queen — Marsha P. Johnson — who she was immediately drawn to.
Marsha ended up inviting Sylvia out for a spaghetti dinner, and took her under her wing, teaching her how to apply her makeup and the rules of the street.
The pair remained friends for the rest of their lives, and participated in many of the most significant early gay liberation struggles.
She said she was a regular patron of the Stonewall Inn and was present On June 28th, 1969, when the Stonewall Inn was raided, Sylvia was 17.
At the time of the incident, Rivera was there with her close friend and fellow activist Marsha P. Johnson.
This became the StoneWall Riots, when gay men, lesbians, bisexual people, drag queens, street people and trans people rose up against what started as a routine raid by the police.
The incident resulted in five days of rioting, patrons of the bar, the greater gay community, homeless youth, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans protested…and won.
The protests contained: hurled barricades, broken windows, firebombs, cries of “occupy—take over, take over,” ”Fag power,” and “Liberate the bar!”
Rivera stated that she had told her comrades as the riots began, “I’m not missing a minute of this.” “It’s the revolution!” She emphasized this fact in other interviews. “We were the frontliners. We didn’t take no shit from nobody […] We had nothing to lose.”
Sylvia Rivera would always be quick to redress those who thought she threw the first Molotov cocktail at the historic Stonewall riot on June 28, 1969. “I have been given the credit for throwing the first Molotov cocktail by many historians, but I always like to correct it,” she said in 2001. “I threw the second one. I did not throw the first one!”
Regardless of the degree of her participation in the frenzy that took place at the Stonewall Inn that night, Sylvia laid low for a few months afterward for unknown reasons.
When her friend, Marsha P. Johnson, told her about meetings of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), she jumped at the chance to become involved in the activity emerging in the aftermath of Stonewall.
Despite Sylvia’s enthusiasm to be involved in these newly formed activists groups, such as the GLF and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) that would split from the GLF, from the beginning her identities as a street worker, drag queen, poor, and a Latina were troubling to the largely white, middle-class activist groups
She challenged the way the predominantly white gay and lesbian community approached activism from a middle class perspective.
Rivera wanted their activism to be more progressive, to include in their fight the rights of transgender individuals, including people of color, the homeless, and the incarcerated.
Her experiences made her more focused on advocacy for those who, in her view, mainstream society and the assimilationist sectors of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities were leaving behind.
She fought for herself but most importantly for the rights of people of color and low-income LGBT people.
As someone who suffered from systematic poverty and racism, Rivera used her voice for unity, sharing her stories, pain, and struggles to show her community they are not alone.
She amplified the voices of the most vulnerable members of the gay community: drag queens, homeless youth, gay inmates in prison and jail, and transgender people.
In 1970, Rivera and Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and later a home called STAR House. STAR offered services and advocacy for homeless queer youth, and fought for the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in New York. SONDA prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit, and the exercise of civil rights.
She was banned from New York’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center, after she destroyed a desk in the lobby, enraged because she felt the center did not address the needs of transgender homeless youths who slept in front of it.
Rivera had supported the passing of the Gay Rights Bill in New York, which would bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, because it had originally included support for the transgender community.
But by the time the Gay Rights Bill passed in New York in 1986, 17 years after Stonewall, language denouncing gender discrimination had been removed. “They have a little backroom deal without inviting Miss Sylvia and some of the other trans activists…The deal was, ‘You take them out, we’ll pass the bill,’” she said in 2001.
She felt the community she and her trans siblings had fought for all these years at Stonewall and beyond, been arrested for and beaten for, had sold them up the river. When she discovered this, Sylvia’s response was: “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.”
She also stopped working with the GLF and GAA and the gay rights movement in general after three or four years because the organizations began to both publicly denounce and ignore her.
She would return some 20 years later for the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, asked to participate by the pride parade’s organizing body. “The movement had put me on the shelf, but they took me down and dusted me off,” she said in 1995. “Still, it was beautiful. I walked down 58th Street and the young ones were calling from the sidewalk, ‘Sylvia, Sylvia, thank you, we know what you did.’ After that I went back on the shelf. It would be wonderful if the movement took care of its own.”
At the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in New York City, Rivera, representing STAR, gave a brief speech from the main stage in which she called out the heterosexual males who were preying on vulnerable members of the community.
Rivera espoused what could be seen as a third gender perspective, saying that LGBT prisoners seeking help “do not write women. They do not write men. They write to STAR.”
At the same event, she got onstage amidst boos from the crowd. “I had to fight my way up on that stage…people that I called my comrades in the movement literally beat the shit out of me,” Rivera would say later. speech amid boos and shouts and starts her “Y’all Better Quiet Down,” speech, stating, “You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!” “You all tell me, go and hide my tail between my legs. I will no longer put up with this shit. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment. For gay liberation, and you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all? Think about that!”
After the rally, Rivera broke down, disbanded STAR, and left activism for two decades. Sadly, she still continued to struggle with homelessness and drug addiction.
Her impact was not in vain, and her lifelong activism ensured that the “T” was placed in the LGBTQ rights movement.
In May 1995, Rivera tried to commit suicide by walking into the Hudson River.
Save an extensive interview to gay journalist Randy Wicker in which she discussed her suicide attempts, Johnson’s life and death, and her advocacy for poor and working-class gays made homeless by the AIDS crisis.
In the last five years of her life, Rivera renewed her political activity, giving many speeches about the Stonewall Uprising and the necessity for transgender people, including drag queens and butch dykes, to fight for their legacy at the forefront of the LGBT movement.
She traveled to Italy for the Millennium March in 2000, where she was acclaimed as the “mother of all gay people”.
In early 2001, after a service at the Metropolitan Community Church of New York referring to the Star of Bethlehem announcing the birth of Jesus, she decided to resurrect STAR as an active political organization (now changing “Transvestite” to the more recently coined term “Transgender,” which at that time was understood to include all gender-nonconforming people).
STAR fought for the New York City Transgender Rights Bill and for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act. STAR also sponsored street pressures for justice for Amanda Milan, a transgender woman murdered in 2000.
Rivera attacked Human Rights Campaign and Empire State Pride Agenda as organizations that were standing in the way of transgender rights. On her deathbed she met with Matt Foreman and Joe Grabarz of ESPA to negotiate transgender inclusion in its political structure and agenda.
Rivera died during the dawn hours of February 19, 2002 at St. Vincent’s Hospital, of complications from liver cancer.
Activist Riki Wilchins noted, “In many ways, Sylvia was the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement, a term that was not even coined until two decades after Stonewall”.
Metropolitan Community Church of New York, New York’s queer youth shelter is called Sylvia’s Place in her honor.
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is dedicated “to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence”.
In 2005, the corner of Christopher and Hudson streets was renamed “Sylvia Rivera Way” in her honor. This intersection is in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood in New York City where Rivera started organizing, and is only two blocks from the Stonewall Inn.
In 2015 a portrait of Sylvia Rivera was added to the National Portrait Gallery.
In 2016 Sylvia Rivera was inducted into the Legacy Walk.
“I left home at age 10 in 1961. I hustled on 42nd Street. The early 60s was not a good time for drag queens, effeminate boys or boys that wore makeup like we did. Back then we were beat up by the police, by everybody. I didn’t really come out as a drag queen until the late 60s. when drag queens were arrested, what degradation there was. I remember the first time I got arrested, I wasn’t even in full drag. I was walking down the street and the cops just snatched me.
People now want to call me a lesbian because I’m with Julia, and I say, “No. I’m just me. I’m not a lesbian.” I’m tired of being labeled. I don’t even like the label transgender. I’m tired of living with labels. I just want to be who I am. I am Sylvia Rivera. Ray Rivera left home at the age of 10 to become Sylvia. And that’s who I am.”
Marsha P. Johnson
Johnson hands out flyers at NYU in the 1970s
“Ladies and Gentlemen” Marsha Johnson | Andy Warhol
Marsha P. Johnson
Born: August 24, 1945 Died: July 6, 1992
What she did: Transgender Woman and LGBTQ Activist
Marsha was born August 24, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was one of 7 children born to her working class parents, Malcolm and Alberta.
As a child, Marsha attended an African Methodist Episcopal Church and was a devout Christian throughout her life.
By the time she was 5, Marsha began wearing dresses. She was teased and harassed by neighborhood boys, causing her to dress as a boy again.
Marsha was also sexually assaulted as a young child by a 13-year-old boy.
Once Marsha graduated from high school in 1963, she got the fuck out. With nothing but $15 and a bag of clothes, Marsha eventually found her way to Greenwich Village, New York, where she worked waiting tables.
Even though in 1950, New York downgraded sodomy from a felony to a misdemeanor, rampant criminalization of LGBTQ people was common. They weren’t allowed to dance in public, bars were banned from serving them, and cross-dressing was illegal.
When she first arrived in New York, Marsha alternated between using her birth name and going as Black Marsha.
She worked as a sex worker and was arrested frequently, later saying she stopped counting after her 100th arrest.
She was living in a high risk environment, working in seedy hotels and was even shot. She would frequently sleep under tables in the Flower District of Manhattan.
Marsha later changed her name to Marsha P. Johnson, saying the P stood for “pay it no mind.” This was like her catchphrase when people questioned her about her gender. One time, she used the phrase on a judge who thought it was funny and released her.
Marsha also performed as a drag queen. Because she couldn’t afford to purchase clothing and accessories, Marsha got creative. Remember the tables she would sleep under in the Flower District? Those tables were used for sorting flowers and she would decorate her hair with the extras, which became part of her signature look.
Marsha would also dress in flowing robes, shiny dresses, red plastic
high heels, and bright wigs because she was born to stand out.
She performed with a few different drag groups including Hot Peaches and The Angels of Light.
In 1975, Marsha was photographed by Andy Warhol as part of his “Ladies & Gentlemen” Polaroid series.
The Stonewall Inn was the only gay bar in NYC where dancing was allowed.
To protect the Stonewall Inn against Lilly Law, Alice Blue Gown, and Betty Badge (also known as undercover cops), patrons were greeted by a bouncer who inspected them through a peep hole to see if they recognized them or if the patron “looked gay.”
Staff would also stow away extra liquor behind secret panels so they could get back up and running quickly after a raid.
The Stonewall Inn also bribed the cops to tip them off if there was going to be a raid.
When raids did occur, the police would line up patrons and inspect their IDs. Anyone without an ID, dressed in drag, women NOT wearing 3 pieces of feminine clothing, or anyone they fucking felt like, would be arrested.
Female police officers would also take patrons dressed as women to the bathroom and ‘verify their gender.’
At 1:20 a.m. on June 28, 1969 9 police officers approached the Stonewall Inn and shouted “Police! We’re taking the place!”
There were two undercover cops already in the bar, gathering evidence and, when they gave the signal, backup came. People tried to escape but the police had barred the exits.
During the raid, some of the officers began sexually assaulting the women while frisking them. Some people were released by the police, but instead of getting the fuck out, they stood outside and a crowd began to form.
Between 100-150 people gathered and some began taunt the cops by performingor saluting the cops sarcastically.
As the cops began loading people into patrol wagons, there were shouts from the crowd of “Gay power!” and others sang “We Shall Overcome.” Tensions mounted between the police officers and the growing crowd and finally exploded when a woman being arrested tried to escape and was beaten with a baton. Some allege this was Storme DeLarverie, including Storme herself. Storme was a lesbian who frequented the Stonewall Inn and a gay rights activist. She recalls she shouted at the crowd “Why don’t you guys do something?” Finally things boiled over and the police’s attempts to control the crowd only antagonized them more.
The police retreated inside the bar, completely overwhelmed by the crowd. In response, the crowd tried to bust into the bar and set it on fire. The officers managed to escape and the fire was extinguished. The crowd eventually grew into 1,000s and the uprising lasted until July 1 st .
The Stonewall Uprising was not the beginning of the gay rights movement, but was certainly a watershed moment that resulted in mass awareness across the country and encouraged members of the LGBTQ to mobilize. It sparked the birth of the Gay Liberation Front, the first group to publicly advocate for gay rights.
The Stonewall Uprising also gave birth to the first pride parade which was held on the 1 year anniversary.
After the Stonewall Uprising, Marsha teamed up with her friend and fellow uprising participant, Sylvia Rivera. Together, they founded the organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, a group dedicated to helping homeless youth and trans women of color.
Marsha was also a member of the Gay Liberation front and attended the first pride parade.
In 1970 Marsha and fellow Gay Liberation Front members staged a sit in at New York University after the school canceled a dance that was sponsored by gay rights organizations.
Marsha and Sylvia were notable presences at gay rights events. Unfortunately, just as today, there was discrimination within the LGBTQIA community and Marsha and Sylvia felt the impact of that when they were banned from the 1973 pride parade. The gay and lesbian committee putting on the event weren’t going to allow drag queens at the march.
Marsha and Sylvia responded by marching in front of the fucking parade which is the level of defiant and salty I aspire to be. The march produced one of the best known photos of these powerful besties.
When Marsha and Sylvia established the STAR House, a shelter for gay and trans youth, a shelter they paid for with money they made as sex workers, Marsha became known as the “drag mother.” So basically she became the mother figure for these kids who didn’t otherwise have supportive families.
The shelter provided clothes, food, and support to the youths it housed.
Though Marsha was an avid activist, she was still struggling just to live. She suffered her first mental breakdown in 1970 when she walked up and down Christopher Street, the same street the Stonewall Inn was on, naked. She would sometimes lash out and become aggressive. She called this side of her, Malcolm, which was her birth name. When she slipped into this persona, she would act masculine and aggressive.
She struggled her whole life with homelessness, engaging in survival sex, and mental illness.
As a marginalized person, she didn’t receive much help.
In 1992, shortly after the pride parade, Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. While the police originally ruled it as a suicide, her friends insisted that she was not suicidal and noted the fact she had a massive wound in the back of her head. Sylvia was one of the people who argued against the suicide ruling, saying she had Marsha had made a pact to “cross the river Jordan (aka the Hudson River) together.”
Witnesses came forward and reported they had seen Marsha being harassed by thugs and using homophobic slurs with her. There were also reports of a man who bragged at bars that he had killed a drag queen named Marsha.
Despite ALL OF THIS, the police refused to look further into the case because it involved “a gay black man.”
Marsha was cremated and her ashes were spread out over the Hudson River.
In November 2012, activist Maria Lopez got the NYPD to re-open the case as a potential homicide. Marsha is remembered as a vivacious activist who worked so hard and did so much with so little.