THE RELEVANT QUEER: Gladys Bentley, Blues Singer and Harlem Renaissance Entertainer

Gladys Bentley, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine.2
Gladys Bentley, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine

“Others, seeking to avoid the censure of society, hide behind respectable fronts, haunted always by the fear of exposure and ostracism.”

TRQ: Gladys Bentley, Born Aug. 12, 1907

Blues singer and Harlem Renaissance entertainer Gladys Bentley, known as a gender outlaw with a provocatively masculine fashion sense and a talent for risqué stage performances, was born on August 12, 1907. While Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck and Cesar Romero were among her fans, Bentley’s open lesbianism made her a target of the Black Church and the repressive, paranoid politics of 1950s McCarthyism. Today, Bentley is a fashion icon whose gender performances are important to gender studies and LGBTQ+ history. 

Bentley was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the firstborn and her parents, George and Mary, had wanted a boy. According to Bentley, her grandmother took care of her for the first 6 months because her disappointed mother refused. 

Her childhood was unhappy. In 1952, Bentley explained in Ebony magazine, “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.” 

Looking back, Bentley considered herself a tomboy who defied gender norms, making her something of a “problem child.” Physically, she was larger than children her age, and she preferred wearing boys’ clothes. She also remembered having a crush on a female teacher, which alarmed her parents enough to have her seen by doctors. 

When she was 16, Bentley ran away from her parents’ home. She fled to New York City and started working as a singer for rent parties in Harlem. She improvised raunchy lyrics to popular melodies she played on the piano. 

“If we cannot find happiness in our personal lives, we sometimes are able to attain it in the professional world, or the world of art and letters, to win a measure of recognition for our ability and talents even though the world frowns on our way of life.”  — Gladys Bentley 

As Bentley’s career grew, she performed in speakeasies like the Mad House and Harry Hansbery’s Clam House and earned $35 per week. As her reputation as a piano player and singer spread and she attracted more affluent audiences, Bentley earned $100 per week. 

She charmed her audiences with risqué musical performances in which she played the role of “bull dagger”, who openly flirted with women. Performing at the Ubangi Club and the Cotton Club in a white tuxedo and top hat, Bentley lived an upscale life on Park Avenue penthouse with servants. She also went on an American tour, with stops in Chicago and Hollywood. 

In describing one of Bentley’s performances, writer Langston Hughes wrote, “For two or three 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.” 

Gossip columns featured Bentley, who fed them a plentiful dose of shock and scandal — even if she had to invent it. Once she told a columnist that she had married a white woman. 

In 1928, she signed a record contract with Okeh Records and released several albums featuring strong vocal performances while avoiding lesbian references or suggestive lyrics. While nightlife suffered after the 1929 stock market crash and the repeal of Prohibition Bentley continued performing. She inspired characters in Carl Van Vechten’s Parties (1930) and Clement Wood’s Deep River (1934). 

“Others, seeking to avoid the censure of society, hide behind respectable fronts, haunted always by the fear of exposure and ostracism. Society shuns us. The unscrupulous exploit us.” — Gladys Bentley 

In 1937, Bentley moved to Los Angeles where she had to carry a permit to wear men’s clothing, and was harassed, nonetheless. By the 1950s, the cultural climate had changed, and Bentley tried to save her career by performing a cleaner act and wearing dresses. 

A turning point came in 1952, when Bentley published the autobiographical “I am a Woman Again” in Ebony. She claimed she had undergone a medical treatment to cure her lesbianism, and that she married a man in a civil ceremony. While her supposed husband denied being married, and scholars have argued that the article is filled with falsehoods about her childhood and medical history, Bentley’s effort to save her career was somewhat successful. 

While the best days of Bentley’s career were behind her, the press praised her conformity, and she was no longer a target of attacks by the Black Church. In 1958, she appeared on You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx. 

Two years later, shortly after becoming an ordained minister, Bentley died of pneumonia on January 18, 1960. She was 52. In 2019, The New York Times honored Bentley by republishing her obituary as part of the Overlooked No More series. 

Gladys Bentley poses with what appears to be a poster of herself, circa 1952. Photo Unknown, JD Doyle Archives
Gladys Bentley poses with what appears to be a poster of herself, circa 1952. Photo Unknown, JD Doyle Archives
Gladys Bentley embracing Louis Armstrong, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine
Gladys Bentley embracing Louis Armstrong, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine
Gladys Bentley types manuscript relating true story of her life, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine
Gladys Bentley types manuscript relating true story of her life, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine
Gladys Bentley chatting with Billy Eckstine in Los Angeles club, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine
Gladys Bentley chatting with Billy Eckstine in Los Angeles club, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine
Gladys Bentley, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine.5
Gladys Bentley, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine
Gladys Bentley with one-armed, one-legged Crip Heard singing novelty tunes, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine.2
Gladys Bentley with one-armed, one-legged Crip Heard singing novelty tunes, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine
Gladys Bentley, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine
Gladys Bentley, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine
Gladys Bentley, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine.2
Gladys Bentley, circa 1952. Photo Ebony Magazine

About the Authors

Troy Wise is currently a PhD student at UAL Central St Martins and teaches fashion and graphic design at London College of Contemporary Arts. His background is in marketing and is founder and co-editor of Image Amplified. He lives in, and is continually fascinated by, the city of London.

Rick Guzman earned his most recent MA at UAL Central St Martins in Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries. He currently holds two MA’s and an MBA in the New Media, Journalism and International Business fields. Co-editor at Image Amplified since its start, he lives in London, is fascinated by history and is motivated by continuing to learn and explore. 

Sources:

African American Archive

GLBTQ Archive

HuffPost

Smithsonian Mag

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