Thursday, January 12, 2006

"Gladys Bentley was a man!" . . .

. . .Frances Williams insisted to me, when the subject of the ostensibly female, cabaret singer-pianist and court jester to the Harlem Renaissance was raised.

I interviewed the late actress-activist Williams, perhaps best-known as "Miss Marie" on the TV series Frank's Place for my 1998 book, Hot from Harlem: Profiles in Classic African-American Entertainment.

If anyone should have known about Bentley, it was Williams. She was there at the time.

"Even when Frances was confronted with Sisters of the Renaissance, a publication containing information to the contrary [the passage on Bentley in 'Harlem' continued] she stuck to her guns: She shot a look that signaled case closed.. ..end of discussion.

Certainly, Bentley gave good cause for Williams to suspect she might be all man: Gladys worked entirely in male drag and sang double-entendre songs and parodies that often as not alluded to and/or celebrated the joys and perils of gay romance. But that was later on; here is Langston Hughes' description, in his The Big Sea, of Bentley in action 'before she got famous, acquired an accompanist, specially written material, and conscious vulgarity':

'Miss Bentley sat, and played a big piano all night long, literally all night without stopping-singing songs like 'The St. James Infirmary': from ten in the evening until dawn, with scarcely a break in between the notes, sliding from one song to another, with a powerful and continuous underbeat of jungle rhythm.' He goes on to describe the ample, ebony, and deeply butch performer as 'a perfect piece of African sculpture.' Novelist Carl Van Vechten was similarly taken with her (or him); in his Parties, he writes of an unnamed character who is clearly Bentley:

'There is a girl up there now you oughta hear. She does her hair so her head looks like a wet seal and when she pounds the piano the dawn comes up like thunder.'

In her Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s, Daphne Duval Harrison
suggests that it wasn't only Frances Williams who felt that this woman
imitating a man might have, in fact, been-shades of Victor Victoria-a man (gay, at that) imitating a lesbian pretending to be man. She describes Bentley as a 'tough-talking, singing piano player who some believed to be a male transvestite and others a lesbian.' In Gay New York, George Chauncey recalls Bentley as: "[An entertainer] who performed in a tuxedo and married her lover in a much discussed ceremony."

If, in fact, Bentley was a lesbian, she recanted her sapphic ways for good in 1952in a magazine article entitled "I Am a Woman Again. She then married a sailor in San Diego and spent the remainder of her years writing her (yet to be published) memoirs. If ever there was a subject who cried out for further research it is Bentley who may have singlehandedly engineered the gender-bendingest hoax ever perpetrated on Cafe Society."

For more on Bentley, go here; to hear her in action.

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