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Archive for January, 2009

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Lee, Mass.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
Ted Shawn Theater
Route 20 (about eight miles east of Lee)

In 1915, modern dance pioneers Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis founded the Denishawn School of Dancing and the Denishawn Dance Company in Los Angeles, whose most illustrious student was Martha Graham. In her autobiography, Graham wrote that Shawn was prone to auditioning men for Denishawn by requiring that they send nude photos of themselves. Shawn and St. Denis (who was 14 years older than Shawn) were legally husband and wife for 50 years, though each enjoyed outside affairs. In 1927, they unfortunately fell in love with the same man, Fred Beckman, whom they made their “personal representative.” Having the same taste in men caused an irreparable split in their marriage, and four years later, they began living separately and closed Denishawn.

Shawn (1891-1972) bought a colonial-era farm at this location in the Berkshires after his marriage collapsed. He called the site Jacob’s Pillow after a big, sloping rock near the main house. In 1933, he founded an all-male troupe called the “Men Dancers,” designed to showcase men’s contributions to the field of modern dance. Shawn and his young male dancers lived on the property in a rustic setting without heat or running water. (Shawn had a private shower and toilet, but the other dancers used an outhouse papered with covers from the New Yorker.) At lunch time, Shawn would read aloud to the dancers, who were all nude, on the terrace from books on art, physics, and history.

The Men Dancers gave their first performance at Jacob’s Pillow in the summer of 1933. It was held in the barn/studio and attended by 50 people who paid 75 cents each. After that, the company held dance performances yearly, though they were then called “teas” and not a festival. Shawn’s company lasted until 1940, when he disbanded it and gave each member either a cash settlement or a parcel of land at Jacob’s Pillow. The rest of the land he sold the following year to a group who founded the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, which continues today as one of the world’s pre-eminent performance festivals. In 1942, the festival converted the old barn into the Ted Shawn Theater, which retains the rustic charm of the early days of Shawn’s endeavor while being the first theater designed specifically for dance.

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Butte, Mont.

Mary MacLane home (private)
419 North Excelsior Avenue

In 1902, the little town of Butte became a household word with the publication of The Story of Mary MacLane. The diary of MacLane (1881-1929), a 20-year-old originally from Canada, revealed her shockingly passionate thoughts and desires. The diary was an instant hit even by today’s standards, selling 80,000 copies in its first month alone.

What made MacLane’s diary such a hot ticket? In it, she wrote of her passion for the “anemone lady,” the only person in the world of any importance to her. The “lady” was in fact MacLane’s English teacher at Butte High school (southwest corner of Idaho and Park Streets), Fannie Corbin, and MacLane proclaimed that she loved Corbin “with a peculiar and vivid intensity, and with all the sincerity and passion that is in me.” MacLane wondered why she could not have been born a man, so that she could love Corbin in the way she wished. “Do you think a man,” wrote MacLane, “is the only creature with whom one may fall in love?”

When the book was published, MacLane was living at this address, a bay-fronted duplex building. (Fannie Corbin lived at 117 North Montana Street.) MacLane left Butte after her meteoric rise to celebrity and spent the rest of her days living a bohemian life in Chicago. Despite her early literary success, she died poor and obscure in a small hotel room. “I don’t know whether I am good and sweet…or evil and untoward,” MacLane wrote in her diary. “And I don’t care.” Talk about lesbian pride!

“…I am someway the Lesbian woman….all women have a touch of the Lesbian: an assertion all good non-analytic creatures refute with horror, but quite true: there is always the poignant intensive personal taste, the flair of inner-sex, in the tenderest friendships of women.”

–Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane (1902)

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Sharon Hill, Pa.

Bessie Smith grave
Mt. Lawn Cemetery
84th Street and Hook Road

Blues great Bessie Smith (1895-1937) was born into poverty in Tennessee and was discovered singing on street corners at a tender age by Ma Rainey. Though Smith later married a man, she enjoyed numerous sexual relationships with lesbians and bisexual women on the touring circuit, one of whom, Boula Lee, was the wife of her musical director. It has also been suggested that Ma Rainey was her first lover. Smith’s lesbian affairs were a frequent source of tension with her husband, Jack Gee, from whom she eventually separated.

During the 1920s, Smith’s popular “race records” – including “Down-Hearted Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer” – won her the title “Empress of the Blues.” Tragically, she was killed in an automobile accident while making a concert tour of the South and was buried in an unmarked grave at this site outside of Philadelphia. In 1970, rock singer Janis Joplin – who cited Smith as a major influence on her own career – helped secure this headstone, along with the daughter of Smith’s former maid. A few months later, Joplin herself died of a drug overdose.

…There’s two things got me puzzled / there’s two things I don’t understand / That’s a Mannish acting woman / and a skipping, twistin’ woman-acting man.

– Bessie Smith, “Foolish Man Blues”

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Hyde Park, N.Y.

Eleanor Roosevelt home
“Val-kill”
Route 9G

Intrepid First Lady, women’s rights activist, and humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was most at home here at her private retreat, Val-kill, named after the stream that ran beside it. Orphaned as a child, Eleanor was raised by a grandmother and educated in England at a girls’ academy. At 20, she married her fifth cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, and for the next dozen years was a “proper” wife to an aspiring politician, living mostly in homes owned by her controlling mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt. But after Eleanor discovered Franklin‘s affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, she offered him a divorce, and they reached the turning point of their marriage. The ambitious Franklin opted for his wife and children – and his political ambitions. Not long after, he contracted polio, which Eleanor nursed him through and which threatened to cut short his career. While he was recovering, Eleanor kept the Roosevelt name alive by making public appearances and speeches and becoming involved in Democratic politics herself. Within the party, she made many good friends, among them the lesbian couple, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman.

In 1924, Franklin offered Eleanor, Nancy, and Marion (“the girls,” as he called them) some wooded land on the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, on a rocky stream called Val-kill, where they could build a house and enjoy the serenity of the place without being at the large, imposing Roosevelt mansion two miles away. By 1925, a stone cottage in the Dutch colonial style (now called “Stone Cottage”) was built on the site, and Nancy laid out the grounds and gardens. Nancy and Marion began living at the cottage full time that year, with Eleanor visiting them on weekends and during the summers. According to historian Blanche Wiesen Cook, Franklin teasingly dubbed the place “The Honeymoon Cottage,” and Eleanor embroidered the linens “E.M.N.,” the women’s three initials.

After a year, the trio (with another Democratic Party friend, Caroline O’Day, a former companion of Lillian Wald) had a second cottage constructed on the grounds for Val-kill Industries, an experimental business designed to provide work for local residents. A furniture factory trained artisans to create high-quality early American reproductions, but it folded ten years later under the financial pressures of the Depression. Nancy and Marion continued to occupy the Stone Cottage until 1947, and Eleanor had the factory remodeled into her own home (now “Val-kill Cottage”), the first and only house that belonged to her. After Franklin‘s death in 1945, Val-kill became Eleanor’s permanent residence. Now operated by the National Park Service and open to the public, Val-kill Cottage is a cozy, unpretentious house filled with comfortable furnishings (most made by Val-kill Industries) and decorated with photographs of Eleanor’s friends and family. You can almost see her in the warm pine-paneled rooms, relishing her independence and freedom from the Roosevelt family.

Eleanor has largely been constructed by history as an unattractive, asexual woman whose main function was to further her husband’s career. But Blanche Cook’s biography shows Eleanor in a different light, revealing her activity within the women’s committee of the Democratic Party, her feminist activism, her circle of lesbian friends, and most importantly, her decade-long intimate relationship with reporter Lorena Hickock, nicknamed Hick. At Val-kill, however, you won’t hear even a hint about Eleanor’s lesbianism in the official Park Service interpretation and film, in which Nancy and Marion are painted as “good friends,” and Hick – one of the major relationships of her life – isn’t mentioned at all.

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Peru, Ind.

Cole Porter grave site
Mt. Hope Cemetery

He lived at swell-egant addresses in Manhattan, Beverly Hills, and the Berkshires, but the ultra-sophisticated Cole Porter (1891-1964) chose to be buried in his hometown of Peru, Indiana, with an unassuming marker. Porter was the son of a local druggist, and at age 8 was enrolled at the nearby Marion Conservatory of Music. There the boy first studied violin and piano and performed at recitals dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy in a velvet suit with lace cuffs. Though one of his biographers claims young Porter was “no prodigy,” he played with a vigor and zest that stole the show. At 10, he composed his first song, “Song of the Birds.”

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Washington, D.C.

Lafayette Park
Boundaries:
Pennsylvania Avenue and H Street, NW; Jackson and Madison Places, NW

Across the street from the White House, this public park has long been a cruising place for gay men. As early as 1892, Dr. Irving Rosse, a professor of nervous diseases at Georgetown University, addressed the topic of “the spread of sexual crime” in the park and elsewhere around the capital. “Only of late,” he wrote, “the chief of police tells me that his men have made, under the very shadow of the White House, eighteen arrests in Lafayette Square…in which the culprits were taken away in flagrante delicto. Both black and white were represented among these moral hermaphrodites, but the majority of them were negros.”

Lafayette Park also features statues of several prominent figures of the American Revolution, whom we now claim as gay. There is a statue of Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, who were inseparable in life and whose hands in the statue appear to be lightly touching. The two were colonels in the Continental Army and together served as interpreters for Baron von Steuben, the Revolutionary War hero and lover of men. John Laurens was killed during a battle with the British, and Hamilton later went on to become the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

In 1777, Baron Frederick Wilhelm von Steuben, then a captain in the Prussian Army, faced charges of taking “familiarities” with young men, and, to avoid a public scandal, he accepted a commission with the Continental Army, arriving in the American colonies with a 17-year-old French nobleman whom he called his “secretary.” Von Steuben, who was well-acquainted with the rigorous drills of the Prussian Army, is credited with introducing much-needed discipline into the revolutionary forces and thus aiding immeasurably in the eventual American victory over the British. The baron is honored by a monument in Lafayette Park, at the base of which is this statue of two warriors in an appropriately suggestive position (see above).

“…I went into Lafayette Square and near the Von Steuben statue watched two fellows furtively engaged in mutual masturbation under cover of the dimness….Both were handsome, clean-looking chaps, refined and cultured.”

–Jeb Alexander (a pseudonym), August 1920

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Columbus, Ga.

Smith-McCullers House Museum
1519 Stark Avenue

This modest white frame house was the childhood home of writer Carson McCullers (1917-1967), who was born Lula Carson Smith. (Her actual birthplace was at 423 Thirteenth Street in downtown Columbus.) Carson‘s first fantasy was to be a concert pianist, but a childhood spent reading books and writing and performing skits eventually led to her true vocation. In a 1948 article, “How I Began to Write,” she remembered writing and producing plays in the Stark Avenue house, using the front sitting room as an auditorium and the back sitting room for the stage. The two rooms were separated by walnut pocket doors that functioned as a stage curtain. Carson enlisted her brother and sister as performers, and their proud and supportive mother invited people from the neighborhood to the performances. Carson described their theatrical repertory as “eclectic, running from hashed-over movies to Shakespeare and shows I made up and sometimes wrote down in my nickel Big Chief notebooks.”

Carson was not popular in school – she was withdrawn and cared little about her clothes or appearance – and she was taunted by other girls as being “freakish” or “queer.” She never dated boys until she met Reeves McCullers, a soldier stationed at Fort Benning, in the summer of 1935. Reeves courted Carson at the Starke Avenue house, bringing her mother flowers and candy – and beer and cigarettes for Carson – and they married here two years later. Carson and Reeves had a stormy relationship, rife with drama, that ended finally with Reeves’ suicide. Both were bisexual and at one time were in love with the same man, composer David Diamond.

Carson‘s mother lived in this house until her husband’s death in 1944. Plagued by illness throughout her life, Carson frequently returned to Columbus to recuperate under her mother’s care. Eventually, mother and daughter lived together in Nyack, N.Y., in a house bought with the money from the sale of the Stark Avenue house. The house is now open to the public by appointment (706-327-1911); it also operates as an artists’ retreat, offering residencies to writers and musicians.

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