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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Gladys  Bentley

Gladys Bentley 1907to –1960

American blues singer and pianist, and one of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance. She was born in Philadelphia, and described herself as a difficult child who wanted to wear boys clothes to school, and had a crush on her female teacher. At 16, she left for New York City, and soon landed a deal to record eight tracks. Her big career break was when she became the main performer at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, a popular gay speakeasy in Harlem. Bentley, performing under the name “Bobbie” Minton, impressed with her rough alto voice, her vocal impersonations of a trumpet, and her raunchy renditions of popular songs. She was also known for being openly lesbian, performing in a man’s tuxedo, and flirting with women in the audience. She even claimed to have married a white woman in Atlantic City. She enjoyed a great deal of success and popularity, earning praise from Langston Hughes and Tallulah Bankhead, hosting her own radio segment, and touring the country. She later moved her act downtown to the Ubangi Club, where she was accompanied by chorus boys in drag. When Prohibition was repealed and speakeasies began to decline, she moved to California, where she was marketed as “America’s Greatest Sepia Piano Player” and the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs.” She never recaptured her former success, but managed to maintain a consistent musical career. In 1952, she wrote a deeply personal article for Ebony magazine, in which she described an unhappy childhood, her alienation from society, and her experience with lesbian subculture. She also discussed how she was “cured” by a combination of meeting the right man and taking female hormones, her happy (though short-lived) marriage to a man, the fact that she was now wearing dresses, and her wish to help those who were still “trapped.” One of her final appearances, and her only filmed performance, was on Groucho Marx’s game show, You Bet Your Life.

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