Singing the Gender-Bending Blues


A quick note. This episode contains mature themes that may not be suitable for all listeners. This aside for a podcast from Smithsonian with support from PRI. I'm Helene, Sean. Girl called a good thing on you. Five that deep voice, accompanied by a trumpet like Scott is the sound of Gladys Bentley. Cars raven up thing that UK I thought I thought I thought she was a mainstay of nightclubs in early twentieth century Harlem and her performances featured songs with pretty typical blues. Good man now. Money women to keep in may. Now Gladys Bentley was a singer performance. Entertainer who defied traditional gender roles in not acting in expected ways. This is doin Dylan Reese, she's curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian's national museum of African American history. And culture one section of the museum explores the blues in the nineteen twenties and thirties and Gladys Bentley is part of that story, even though her name doesn't have the same recognition as some of her peers, but that's changing today. Bentley is getting a second look from a new generation of listeners, and it's because she's being revisited as a kind of trailblazer. She pushed gender conventions for black women. Gladys Bentley was a proud gender bender at a time when states had laws against cross dressing her. Signature look was a white tux top hat and slicked back hair. She sang raunchy songs, and she was an outlet Byan long before the sexual revolution. And the gay rights movement. Given what she could tell anyone. Mr. to let go. I can imagine the discomfort that some people might have felt with that. Like how dirty can a woman be on stage. But she pushed the boundary of public taste in a way that it would much more suitable for a man to do. Over this longtime TV as an African American woman in the twenties and thirties, especially before the civil rights era. Bentley would have been acutely aware of the risks. She was taking, but she's still followed her own beat and both thrilled and scandalized audiences with songs like the one. You're hearing. Gladys is in grads anymore. Anymore? This time on cider will meet Gladys Bentley a woman ahead of her time who navigated America's quickly changing values. She played with society's expectations in a way that helped her survive and thrive in the public eye for decades. Keenum going easy. Ram jam and please don't manipulated like a stevedore on the river. How would you like even more side door access? Join our Email list for bonus content from our episodes directly from Tony you'll even get to hear from the Smithsonian school. We'll network of experts conducting critical research making astonishing discoveries and designing all inspiring exhibitions. It's like having a VIP badge to our podcast perfect for curious passionate people like you. Visit S I dot EDU slash side door to sign up today. That's S I dot EDU slash side door. Lettuce is Harlem was a very exciting place. Some of the best musicians in the history of American music were playing their this is Jim Wilson. He's a professor of English and Vietor at City University of New York and has written about queer performers during the Harlem renaissance Wilson said that Gladys Bentley arrived in Harlem around nineteen twenty five and artistic hub that became home to luminaries like Langston Hughes and sexually fluid African American singers like Ethel waters and Bessie Smith. One historian said that Harlem was quote, surely as gay as it was black. It was also a place for people to let loose of their Bush wa attitudes. So this is following the very uptight Victorian era and Harlem was a place that people could actually. Experiment sexually and socially Highland. Drew crowds of all sorts, including white audiences during the prohibition era speakeasies and underground parties gave people covert access to alcohol, and they also became a sort of protective cocoon for queer performers. Like Bentley felt they could do things there that they couldn't do other places in New York such as midtown in the Times Square area. Those would have been very carefully policed. So that performances like Gladys Bentley's would not have been tolerated. The Harlem renaissance also overlapped with the great depression amid this creative explosion people still struggled the people who lived in Haarlem, the African Americans who worked very long hours for not much pay had a very different experience. So Langston Hughes famously wrote that if there was a. Renaissance the people who lived in Haarlem were not aware of it. They were going to bed before the nightclubs even got started. Even if the Harlem renaissance didn't impact everyone's lives doin, Delaine Reese says it had a lasting impact on American culture. The Harlem renaissance is really a critical point in the history and evolution of African Americans in the twentieth century. It was a movement forward for African American culture, and the creativity that came out of that period. It's really shaped music theater dance literature in a way that really has shaped who we are today. It was in this world that Bentley began to build her career before she started playing nightclubs she played it more private and modest settings from what I do know. She started performing in what we're called rent parties rent parties are exactly what they sound like people in Harlem covered rents by charging admission for private parties with alcohol and live performers rent. Parties were placed for musicians to try out. Material Bentley recorded classic blue songs in her early days. But also use the party is to curate her signature sound she quickly made a name for herself as somebody who saying rippled songs. She would take popular songs of the day. And just. Just put the filthiest lyrics possible. She took two songs on sweet Alice, blue gown and George Brown and combined them, and it became a song about a okay, Jim. This is a family show. Let's just say it was pretty sexually explicit stuff. Those raunchy lyrics weren't the only thing that made Bentley stand out she had adapter style. Like a Harlem renaissance man, we know that she mainly wore men's clothing, she said in her autobiographical piece that is a child she felt much more comfortable wearing boy's clothes than she did girls. Clothes and as she grew older she tended to wear suits, not long after she arrived in Harlem, Bentley got her shot at becoming a nightclub performer. Here's what she wrote in one article read by voice, actor a meta friend. He told me that the mad house on one thirty third street needed a pianist right away their pianist gone to your. With blackbirds. But they wanna boy, my friend said there's no better time for them to start using a girl I replied at the madhouse the boss was reluctant to give me a chance. I finally convinced him my hands fairly flew over the keys when I finished my first, number the burst of applause was to biffing. The crowd loved her music and her style for the customers of the club. One of the unique things about my act was the way address I won't macula full white dress shirts with stiff collars, small bow ties and shirts. Oxford's short eaten jackets in haircut straight back as the crowds grew bigger. So did the venues by nineteen twenty nine Bentley went from underground success to Harlem famous she performed at the clam house, and I Kana gay Speakeasy and later the Lafayette theatre one of Harlem's most famous venues as her star rose Bentley became a darling of the Harlem arts community, Langston Hughes praised her as a performer saying she was quote, an amazing exhibition of musical energy a large dark masculine lady whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers, pounded the keyboard? Then use advertise Bentley as a male impersonator, and she became known for flirting with women in the audience as she performed a newspaper called the afro American said this of her act miss Bentley who many mistake for man delivers her prize number nothing. Now perplexes like the sexes. Because when you see them switch. You can't tell which is which the media was shocked by her. But couldn't look away. She would have done well on Twitter. They would write about the fact that she was a scandalous lesbian. Gladys Bentley had told the gossip columnist that she had just gotten married and the gossip columnist asked. Well, who's the man, and she scoffed and said man, it's a woman up until recently same sex marriage was unheard of for a lot of people. But in the nineteen thirties that was the story. Bentley. Put out there for her fans, and critics it didn't really matter. Whether it was true or not it was the identity. Bentley was sharing with the public. She had claimed that she had married. A woman a white woman in a New Jersey civil ceremony. I have not been able to find any evidence of that union or of the civil ceremony one of the frustrating and actually joyous things about Gladys Bentley was she was constantly inventing herself. So oftentimes when she mentioned something about her personal life. You had to take it with a grain of salt and not necessarily take it for truth that Lee was a known exaggerating. But here's what we know for sure. Some people were truly offended by her performances, but her audience kept growing and her Bank account did to in ebony magazine. Bentley said she performed in Manhattan clubs at the peak of her fame the elaborate, mid Manhattan club where I peered had a seventy five foot, silver and onyx bog and mirrors everywhere. I was an immediate success. Soon. I was living on Park Avenue in three hundred dollars a month apartment. I had servants in a beautiful car, by the way, a three hundred dollar a month. Apartment would cost over five thousand dollars today in nineteen thirty four when Bentley had taken her act to kings, Taras venue in midtown Manhattan. She wasn't performing solo. She was supported by a chorus of eight men who were quote liberally painted and described as having effeminate voices and gestures one observer even wrote this about her performance the chief and filthiest offering of the evening, however is a personal tour of the tables. Buy miss Bentley. At each table. She stops to sing one or more verses of a seemingly endless song in which every word known to Bulger profanity is used after one such performance the police padlocked kings, Taras presumably because of a quote masculine. Garbed smut singing entertainer. Although she kept playing other venues and both Harlem in Manhattan, the mid nineteen thirties marked shift for Bentley's act. It was a much more toned down act from what I understand people's tastes began to change around this time to by the mid to late nineteen thirties. The Harlem vogue has really started to diminish Bentley's act. Also had I think. There was a whiff of Ben there done that. And it people weren't as titillated by her act as much as they had been in an industry that demands that performers adapt or perish. Bentley adapted coming up as America got more conservative will find out. How Bentley shocked people yet again, but not how you'd expect. What's an only Gaito? How do you preserve talk? Let's culture did big bird really almost go into space. If you have a question that you'd like answered by the Smithsonian. Now's your time to be heard. No, actually, your voice may end up on the show. All you have to do is leave a voicemail at the side door hotline, which is two two six three three four one two. I'll say it again that's two zero two six three three four one two gives your first name where you're calling from. And what you want to know more about who knows? It may even be our next door episode. We're back and we're looking at the life of performer. Gladys Bentley she made a name for herself during the Harlem renaissance, but didn't get mainstream famous the way people like Langston Hughes or Josephine Baker did this is in part because Bentley's provocative performances kept her out of the mainstream press of her day. But now she's having a bit of a moment. Bentley was a large African American woman dressed in men's clothing loved women and perform songs that would make most people blush. Like, actually, there are some Bentley lyrics. I couldn't read out loud in her story meetings. We just passed the book around and everyone kind of said, oh, I see. Anyway, as her story resurfaces. It's also inspiring a very specific community of performers dragons. Kendra Kula built a community for drag kings in Washington DC. I swung by her apartment. She doesn't do drag as much as she once did. But from time to time she still steps on stage and becomes drag king, Ken Vegas. In the most basic terms drag caning is a female borne person putting on traditional masculine male attire drag kings, performed traditionally masculine roles onstage. I knew that in order to become Ken Vegas who has a very eighties five. There would have to be a closet somewhere in Koenders apartment filled with costumes. It's a closet retired came close. Oh, wow. This looks like being in a costume shop. I have to say, but I wasn't prepared for this. Oh my goodness. Okay. I see boxes and boxes yet are labeled and hats are like some top pets. Oh, that's the leather cat right there. If I like a kid in a candy shop, it's because the costume collection is extensive the closet. There are trench coats, leather pants and a police baton. I got this police shirt made by put the patches on and then the daddy badge. And you know, it says security officer, and these like sa- basically dressed it up to be a New York police Cup. Kendra performances are less frequent now because she's shifted her energy to the drag history project an online resource documenting women who wore masculine attire throughout history. One of them is Gladys Bentley who Kendra calls a male impersonator because that's the term people used for Bentley in her day. First of all, it's very important. If you're going to be a drag performer to know your history, we are not the first to do drag or male impersonation is far as Gladys Bentley's characters concerned. I mean, she was queer artists of color in the Harlem renaissance who definitely made an impact and made a name for herself for Kulikova, Bentley's leg. As a performer is one that's pretty relatable when I was reading her a bit area. I was like, yeah. That reminded me of myself back in the day when I would when I was kind of in my heyday of drag especially Bentley's flirtatious performances, and which she would interact with women in the audience. I felt kind of like a parallel just that testing. What is attractive? What is you know, sexual interaction between audience member and performance? And I was like, yeah. Gladys was doing it back in the day. I mean, she was in Wyoming, the ladies, and I'm sure Mary a lot of guys very uncomfortable. Just like wait just that unabashed sexual confidence and ability to connect to our audience. By the late nineteen thirties. Gladys Bentley's career had passed its peak Harlem renaissance historian Jim Wilson says that around this time Bentley moved to California there. She performed an upscale supper clubs in bars. But after that move we lose track of Bentley for a bit. We know that she was still recording and performing songs in the nineteen forties. But she had less press coverage then in the nineteen fifties. Gladys made a comeback. But it was tricky at the time America was eager to emerge from the shadow of World War Two and embrace a white picket fence fantasy with traditional gender roles. Entertainers became targets of suspicion as politicians like Joseph McCarthy argued that communism and homosexuality were threats to the country. Long-gone was the permissive Speakeasy culture of the roaring twenties in this leave it to be era Bentley's acted not hold the same appeal. And this major cultural shift is why this part of her story is a bit mysterious. There are a lot of details that are hard to square with her time in New York. Here's Jim Wilson. Again, when she goes west, she finds religion, like Ethel waters, for instance, also found religion later, she even planned to become ordained as a minister, but the part of Bentley's life story, that's really challenging to understand is this in nineteen fifty two. She wrote her life story for ebony magazine. The article is called I am a woman again, here's how it started read by voice actor for many years. I lived in a personal hell like a great number of law souls. I inhabited that have shadow no-man's-land which exists between the boundaries of the two sexes. Bentley wrote that she underwent. Some type of medical treatment intended to awaken her quote woman leanness. This article also says that she finally found love with a man her story was accompanied by photos that showed carefully curated images of nineteen fifties. Femininity couple of the photos show her preparing meals making the bed for her husband wearing address wearing flowers in her hair. There's a picture I believe with a an adoring man looking at her. She wears a matronly White House dress and performs the role of homemaker in the photos, but that Lee still writes unapologetically about her past as a gender bending and provocative entertainer. I have been featured as the star in the swankiest supper clubs in the nation. I have earned the distinction of being the first and in some cases, the only perform of my race to crash the star dressing rooms of the most plush glitter spots, this part of Bentley story is hard to parse because. Maybe she was trying to reinvent herself in a way that was conveniently more palatable in nineteen fifties America, but it's also possible that the article was a deft use of the press for marketing. We can't know what was in Bentley's head and heart at the time because she's not here to tell us, but for drag kings, Kendrick hula the article doesn't take away from Bentley's legacy as a charismatic and risque performer who wore masculine clothing, I mean, we're gender fluid rate. Just because she liked women would women doesn't necessarily mean. She couldn't be with a guy or embrace that lifestyle, especially if it was life threatening. And I'm not necessarily saying everybody has to closet themselves. But I can understand why people do in order to survive in nineteen fifty eight after Bentley supposed- transformation, she appeared on Groucho Marx's game show. You bet your life. It's the only video we have of her. On the show. Bentley wears a modest floor length gown, pearls and flowers in her hair. It's a departure from the sharp tuxedos of her youth. That Bentley still owns the stage vaguely has been thought your name sounded vaguely familiar. You'd like. I could do something I could do them. There is goes we had a lodge ban. What could you do? Maybe somebody else's. That lease look may have changed. But her voice and fiery energy on the piano stayed the same. Kissel. Two years after that performance. Gladys Bentley died of pneumonia. She was fifty two after spending her life on the fringes. She's now celebrated inside the national museum of African American history and culture. They're people like Wandel in Reese, preserve the story of performer who've lived the art and challenge of being true to yourself think she wanted to be saying who she was you know, at at heart. No matter what her self identity was. She was a performer. And she wanted to do what she did best and what was true to her own spirit. You know, did she say yourself as one gender or the other or just a woman who is comfortable in her own skin? Roese bega in. Vice eighty baking in. You've been listening to side or a podcast from the Smithsonian with support from PR X, we'd like to give special thanks to the Smithsonian's national museum of African American history and culture for helping us tell Gladys Bentley story. And we also want to thank our voice actors for this episode DC base drag king pretty Ricky for performing Gladys Bentley Janine Jones were performing as a reporter for the afro American and Lizzy Peabody for being outraged member of Bentley's audience. This week's story was part of the Smithsonian American women's history initiative and the Smithsonian year of music, if you want to learn more about either of these fascinating efforts checkout, the you guessed it side door newsletter. You can subscribe at sl dot EDU slash side door every other week. I'll show up in your inbox with bonus content. News and updates and this week's newsletter. You'll find photos of Gladys Bentley and links to her music cider is made possible by funding from the secretary of the Smithsonian as well as the Smithsonian national board, and thanks to listeners like you. Your generous support helps make all the amazing work you hear about at the Smithsonian possible. Our podcast team is Justin O'neil Jason or fannin Lizzy Peabody dress Saudek, Greg Fisk and lyric hotch extra support comes from John Barth Genevieve SP. Counselor and clarify our show is mixed by tarp Fuda. Our theme song and other episode music are by brake master cylinder. If you want to sponsor our show. Please Email sponsorship at PR x dot org. I'm your host Halima Shaw. Thanks for listening. Leave work what I'm going to double back. No. If I can't get in. No. Come out. Right. On a nude at average. Red bean then right on a nude at every. Get keep working only and the. P X.

Coming up next