Archive for February, 2009


Chicago, Ill.

800 South Halsted Street

In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, intimate companions since their college days, founded one of the most famous social experiments in this country’s history, Hull-House. It was their intention, Addams wrote later, “to rent a house in a part of the city where many primitive and actual needs are found, in which young women…might learn of life from life itself….”

The house they located was built in 1856 for Charles Hull, a prominent Chicagoan. Addams described the building as “a fine old house…, surrounded on three sides by a broad piazza which was supported by wooden pillars of exceptionally pure Corinthian design and proportion.” It stood, she noted with amusement, “between an undertaking establishment and a saloon.” Though the house was being used for offices and storerooms for a neighboring factory, Addams and Starr were able to rent the second floor and a downstairs drawing room, and the following year, they obtained the lease on the entire building. They furnished it with “a few bits of family mahogany” and items from their travels abroad and officially took up residency in September, 1889.

In an era when foreigners were feared and xenophobia was rampant, Addams, Starr, and the women who came to work with them offered immigrants (mainly Italian) education, medical care, guidance, and day care facilities. Expanding to thirteen buildings over the years, Hull-House became a model for settlement houses across the country. It was also a training ground for numerous reformers, including Julia Lathrop and Florence Kelley.

Addams’ biographers have generally ignored her personal life, assuming that she didn’t have one because she wasn’t attached to a man. Yet, though her intimacy with Ellen Starr had waned by the early 1890s, Addams shared a 40-year relationship with Mary Rozet Smith, who was one of the many idealistic young women from wealthy backgrounds who came to work at Hull-House. Smith routinely accompanied Addams on her lecture tours, and Addams was always sure to wire ahead to the hotel where they were staying for a room with a big double bed.

Although Hull-House as a social-service organization is still in existence, the original building at Polk and Halsted is now a museum, under the auspices of the University of Illinois-Chicago.


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Found Image



For a change of pace, I thought I’d include this found image that I bought for $1.50 at the 26th Street flea market in New York, probably about 10 years ago. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I’m as fascinated with found images as I am with historic sites; friends of mine have given such photos to me as presents, and they line the mantle in our dining room. In fact, I wrote my first novel, Out of Time, about found images of women together.

What struck my imagination about this photo from the early 20th century was the casual, butch pose of the woman on the left, with her arm around the other, and the cryptic, almost tantalizing note at the bottom: “Alberta & me.” Who was Alberta? Who was “me”? Where are they? Who took the picture? I’d love to hear my readers’ thoughts.

One thing I’d bet money on is that Alberta was a dyke.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.

Andy Warhol grave
St. John the Baptist Cemetery
Route 88 and
Connor Road

Pop artist and avant-garde filmmaker Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh; he grew up in the East End neighborhood of Oakland (3252 Dawson Street), attending Schenley High School. A devout Byzantine Catholic, he is buried in his family’s plot in this church cemetery. At his grave site, mourners have been known to leave flowers in Campbell‘s soup cans, to honor the memory of one of his most famous artworks.

Claimed as a queer artist, Warhol was in fact enigmatic about his personal life and seems to have been primarily asexual. Graduated from Pittsburgh‘s Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1949, Warhol moved to New York and achieved fame first as a commercial artist. His silkscreens of Campbell‘s soup cans and of Marilyn Monroe in the early 1960s launched his pop art career. Later, he directed such underground films as My Hustler (1965) and Chelsea Girls (1966). Others films, such as Trash, Flesh, and Women in Revolt, were made by director Paul Morrissey and produced by Warhol at his studio, a Manhattan loft called “The Factory,” and gave prominence to such drag queens as Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling.

In 1968, Warhol’s life was almost cut short when Valerie Solanis, a violent lesbian who authored the “SCUM Manifesto” (Society for Cutting Up Men), shot him. Following his recovery, Warhol became more reclusive and abandoned directing, having already experienced significantly more than the “15 minutes of fame” he said everyone would one day enjoy. He died unexpectedly following a routine gall bladder operation, on Feb. 22, 1987, 20 years ago this week. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky Street, opened in Pittsburgh in 1994.

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A Passing Woman


Lebanon, Ore.

Ray Leonard grave
Lebanon Pioneer Cemetery
200 Dodge Street

Buried in this cemetery are the remains of Ray Leonard (1849-1921), an Oregon pioneer who was, in fact, a passing woman. Born “Rae,” Leonard was a cobbler who emigrated to Oregon with her father in 1889, and who, with his apparent approval, began wearing men’s clothing and passing as his son “Ray.” When the elder Leonard died in 1894, Ray took over his local boot and shoemaking business. According to residents of Lebanon, Ray “dressed in overalls, and was thought by most who knew her, including the census taker, to be a man.”

In 1911, Ray’s “secret” was discovered by a frontier doctor, Mary Canaga Rowlands, when Ray was committed to an asylum under Dr. Rowlands’ care. On Ray’s medical chart the doctor noted that the patient experienced “hallucinations and illusions of…hearing people trying to get into [the] room.” The medical records also listed him as a “widower” but gave no information about his wife.

Dr. Rowlands died in 1966, and her autobiography was published in 1995 by her grand-nephew. In it, she revealed how Ray Leonard’s birth gender was detected. “It is customary to strip each patient entering the hospital,” she wrote, “and give them a bath before they are given quarters. The hospital immediately discovered that Ray Leonard…was a woman. After her secret was out, Ray made a rapid recovery and came back to Lebanon to live the rest of her life.”

According to the doctor’s account, “the authorities made her [sic] wear dresses, but she confided to her friends that she wore pants below her dress because her legs got cold.” Ray clearly identified as male, asking the doctor, who continued to treat him when he was ill, “Look at me… do you think I have one feminine feature?” Finally, he died in 1921 – and his newspaper obituary referred to him as a woman.

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Camden, Maine

Edna St. Vincent Millay memorial
Whitehall Inn

52 High Street

A local girl born at 200 Broadway in Rockland, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) used to work at this tourists’ inn during the busy summer season. In 1912, “Vincent,” as she preferred to be called, did her first public reading here for guests and employees at the inn’s end-of-summer party. The first lines of the poem she read, “Renascence,” described the view of the Maine countryside from nearby Mount Battie, which Vincent loved to climb. “All I could see from where I stood,” the poem began, “was three long mountains and a wood.”

Fortuitously, a professor who was vacationing at Whitehall Inn was so impressed by Vincent’s poem that he arranged to have one of his wealthy friends pay for the girl to study at Vassar College, from which she graduated in 1917 and where she wrote her play The Lamp and the Bell, the most overtly lesbian of all her works.

The “Millay Room” of the Whitehall Inn (shown above), which still operates as a bed and breakfast, contains a display of Millay’s books, a manuscript, and a facsimile of the original draft of “Renascence,” which was published in 1912. The exhibit also holds a scrapbook of articles about the poet and photographs of her at various ages. Just north of Camden, on top of the inspirational Mount Battie, an 800-foot tower bears a plaque honoring Millay. Though Millay lived most of her adult life in New York City and upstate New York, Maine remained a second home to her. (She and her husband, Eugen Boissevain, once owned a home in Camden at 31 Chestnut Street.)

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daisy.jpg olddaisy.jpg
Memphis, Tenn.

Daisy Theater
329 Beale Street
Beale Street Historic District

Before emancipation, Memphis was already home to many freedmen, and after the Civil War, the area around Beale Street became predominantly black. By the late 19th century, Beale Street was the acknowledged capital of African-American Memphis and of the mid-South, also achieving a reputation as a raw, exciting center of music and entertainment. Blues composer W.C. Handy lived on the street and immortalized it in 1912 in his “Beale Street Blues.” His talent drew such great performers as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter (bisexuals all), who during the 1920s regularly played in the clubs and performances spaces lining the street, such as the Daisy Theater; the theater was restored in the 1980s (it’s pictured above pre- and post-renovation) and is now the Beale Street Blues Museum. In addition, Beale Street is today a national historic district with markers pointing out its significant historic sites.

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Handsome Monty


Brooklyn, N.Y.

Montgomery Clift grave
Brooklyn Friends Cemetery
Prospect Park

Born in Omaha, Montgomery Clift (1920-1966) began his career as a stage actor, before becoming a leading film star of the late 1940s and 1950s. He starred in such now-classic movies as A Place in the Sun, Suddenly Last Summer (both with Elizabeth Taylor, who was unrequitedly in love with him), Red River, Judgment at Nuremberg, and From Here to Eternity.

But an automobile accident in 1956 nearly ended his career, and Clift underwent massive reconstructive surgery on his handsome face. In the middle of filming Raintree County, again with Taylor, Clift had to take months off before he was able to resume work on the film. Mentally and physically affected by his ordeal, Clift continued to make movies but more and more mourned his “disfigurement” through alcohol and drug abuse and died at the early age of 45 of a heart attack.

Clift’s homosexuality was well known in Hollywood, though he tried to keep it from becoming public knowledge for fear it would hurt his career. He had the reputation for being a loner, and most of his sexual encounters were one-night-stands with male hustlers. In 1949, he was arrested for trying to pick up a hustler on 42nd Street in Manhattan, but the incident was hushed up by his handlers. In the early ’50s, he seems to have had a quiet romance with the playwright Thornton Wilder, another gay man who prized “discretion” and suffered from internalized homophobia.

Clift’s primary residence was in Manhattan from 1951 until his death, first at 209 East Sixty-first Street (destroyed by fire in 1960), and then at the elegant three-story brownstone down the block at 217, a house with four bedrooms and six baths. After a funeral service at the Friends Meeting House, East 15th Street, he was buried at this Quaker cemetery in Brooklyn, and his grave was planted with crocuses by his friend, actress Nancy Walker.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.

Billy Strayhorn marker
Westinghouse High School
1101 North Murtland Street

Billy Strayhorn home
7212 Tioga Street Rear (demolished)

Born in Ohio, composer Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) lived in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh from his early years until he left for New York as a young adult. In those days, white families lived on the main streets of Homewood, while blacks lived in the alleys behind them (the “Rear” in the Strayhorn address). The Strayhorn home was “a four-room shack,” according to one of Billy’s childhood friends, with two rooms on each floor and a toilet in the basement. The kitchen was the biggest and most significant room in the house. Because of the crowded living conditions and Billy’s father’s alcoholic binges, Billy’s mother often sent her eldest son for long stays with his grandparents in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Billy’s grandmother owned and played a piano, and it was in Hillsborough that Billy first learned to play.

Though he was a musical prodigy, Strayhorn’s family could not afford lessons to further his talent. As an adolescent, Billy found odd jobs selling papers and working as a soda jerk to purchase his first piano, a broken-down upright. “All the money he [Billy] could get hold of,” a friend remembers, “he bought [sheet] music….the house was swamped with music.”

At Westinghouse High School (where there is now a historical marker honoring him), Strayhorn pursued music, becoming first pianist in the Senior Orchestra and playing at local social events and banquets with the school’s Orchestra Club. Though he was often made fun of at school for being a “sissy,” the shy, withdrawn Strayhorn concentrated on his work and his passion for music. After graduation, Strayhorn formed his own interracial jazz trio, The Madhatters, and played local nightspots. But he still had to work days at the drugstore soda fountain and pick up extra money by arranging music.

His big break came in 1938, when a friend of a friend got him an “audience” with Duke Ellington, who was playing with his band at the Stanley Theater in downtown Pittsburgh (now the Benedum Center, a performing arts space). Ellington was impressed by the talented young pianist who could seemingly do everything – write music, lyrics, and arrangements. But he didn’t have an opening in his band. Ellington made Strayhorn a promise of a job if the young musician ever got to New York and gave him exact directions to his home in Harlem. Eager to please Ellington, Strayhorn turned the directions into a song – “Take the A Train” turned out to be his most famous composition and eventually became Ellington’s theme song.

Strayhorn did indeed make it to New York, where he hooked up with Ellington and worked with him for the next 30 years. While Ellington was the public artist, Strayhorn worked behind the scenes as collaborator and arranger. Ellington supported Strayhorn’s career, but he also occasionally took credit for the younger man’s work. Strayhorn consoled himself with drink and died of cancer and alcohol abuse at the age of 51. His song “Lush Life” (1936) sadly defines his own short, intense life.

Strayhorn knew early on that he was gay and was open about his sexual orientation. According to his biographer, he never even danced with a girl. Ellington, who was straight, seems to have been supportive and tolerant of his collaborator’s homosexuality. Strayhorn had a number of significant relationships in his life, most notably in his final years with a graphic designer, a white man named Bill Grove. Grove was the only man Strayhorn ever brought home to meet his family.

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Lawrence, Kan.

Langston Hughes home
732 Alabama Street (demolished)

Langston Hughes statue
Elizabeth Watkins Community Museum
1047 Massachusetts Street

Poet and memoirist Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Joplin, Missouri, but his earliest memories were of living at his grandmother’s house in Lawrence, Kansas, at 732 Alabama Street after his parents’ marriage fell apart. The house is no longer standing, but the one pictured here, which was just next door to his grandmother’s and possibly similar in style, is being renovated.

Hughes was one of Lawrence‘s most celebrated residents, and a bronze statue of him at the age of the age of 13 stands in the local Watkins Community Museum. Hughes spent most of his childhood in his grandmother’s simple, two-bedroom house with a wood shed and outhouse in the back, plus a pump for water. Occasionally, his grandmother rented out a room to make money, and sometimes she let the entire house, moving herself and Langston to the home of friends James and Mary Reed, who lived at 731 New York Street. Later, Langston remembered “the mortgage man…always came worrying my grandmother for the interest due.”

Langston endured a solitary boyhood in a mostly white Lawrence neighborhood; he did not play with many other children and felt his loneliness like “a dull ache.” One of his favorite pastimes was visiting the morgue at the nearby University of Kansas, where he snuck in and watched, fascinated, as students worked on cadavers. Langston attended predominantly white schools and though he rarely studied, he was always near the top of his class.

Langston’s grandmother died in 1915, and he lived briefly with the Reeds. When his mother remarried, he moved with her to Lincoln, Ill., where her new husband had secured work. It was in Lincoln, Langston later said, that he first started writing poems and was chosen class poet in eighth grade, where he was again one of only a few black students. “My classmates,” he recalled, “knowing that a poem had to have rhythm, elected me unanimously – thinking, no doubt, that I had some, being a Negro.”

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New York, N.Y.

Caffe Cino
31 Cornelia Street

From 1958 to 1967, Joe Cino ran a coffeehouse at this address that has gone down in performance history as the place where both gay theater and Off-Off-Broadway were born. The Beat generation cafe was not intended at the beginning as either a theater or a gay hangout, though Cino himself was gay. “My idea,” he said in a Village Voice interview in 1965, “was…to start with a beautiful, intimate, warm, non-commercial, friendly atmosphere where people could come and not feel pressured or harassed. I also thought anything could happen. The one thing I never thought of was fully staged productions of plays.” But that’s exactly what happened. On a dark, narrow street in Greenwich Village, in a room described by one reporter as a “shoebox,” gay playwrights such as William M. Hoffman, Doric Wilson, Robert Patrick, and Lanford Wilson got their start, as did gay-friendly writers Sam Shepard and John Guare.

Sadly, the accidental death of his lover, lighting designer John Torrey, sent Cino into despair and drugs. Cino committed suicide in 1967, and the “magic time,” as William Hoffman called it, came to a close.

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