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Archive for June, 2009

Casting a Vote

Parkhurst_image

Soquel, Calif.

Soquel Firehouse
4747 Soquel Drive

A plaque at this location honors the memory of Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst (1812-1879), a passing woman. As a young girl, Charlotte escaped from an orphanage in the East by donning boys’ clothing and learning how to drive a six-horse team. Heading west, Parkhurst made a living as a stagecoach driver (see the painting above, from the Soquel post office), beginning in the early years of the California gold rush. On November 3, 1868, Parkhurst reputedly marched into this firehouse, the local polling place, and cast a vote in the presidential election, fifty years before women were granted suffrage. The plaque notes that Parkhurst “shot and killed at least one bandit.” Like so many other passing women, Parkhurst’s birth sex was discovered only after death. Parkhurst is buried in Watsonville.

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ahart

Portland, Ore.

Dr. J. Allen Gilbert office
610 SW Alder Street, 7th floor

In 1918, a young woman named Alberta Lucille Hart, who had graduated from Albany Colleg (now Lewis & Clark University) the University of Oregon Medical College, consulted a psychiatrist named Dr. J. Allen Gilbert in this office building about the possibility of surgery to become a man. She had already been presenting as a man and had pursued several affairs with women during her university career.

In 1920, Dr. Gilbert wrote a report of his treatment of “H” in a monograph in the Journal of Nervous and Medical Disease. After consultation with Gilbert, Hart underwent a hysterectomy, cut her hair, and began to live exclusively as a man. Amazingly, Gilbert concluded that “if society but leave her alone, she will find her niche in the world and leave it better for her bravery.”

Hart (1890-1962) was a pioneering transgender person, who not only assumed male garb and took on a male identity but legally married a woman “of decided physical attractions,” according to Gilbert. “Women of normal sex life,” wrote the psychiatrist, “felt themselves attracted to her because of her aggressive male characteristics.” Dr. Alan Hart became a leading physician in the field of tuberculosis detection, and practiced in Oregon, Idaho, and Connecticut. In addition, he also wrote three novels, the best known of which is Dr. Mallory (1935), set on the Oregon coast.

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219sdurhamdisp

Baltimore, Md.

Billie Holiday home
219 South Durham Street

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) had a rough childhood. As a young girl named Eleanora Fagan, she cut school so often she was sent to live at the House of the Good Shepherd, a home for “colored girls” run by the Little Sisters of the Poor (Claverton Road and Franklin Street). There, she may have had her first lesbian experiences.

Returned to her mother after a year, the two took up residence at this address, one of dozens they occupied over the years. The house is still standing, but the original brick façade was covered over with Permastone in the 1950s. It was in this house, in 1926, that Eleanora was raped by a neighbor and subsequently sent back to Good Shepherd. But she was a handful, and the sisters refused to keep her for long.

At only 11 years old, Eleanora earned money cleaning for a whorehouse madam. The madam let her listen to the records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, who had a combined influence on her singing style. Eleanora began singing at various storefront churches, but her first professional gig was at Buddy Love’s, a club located at Orleans and Wayside.

As a young teenager, Eleanora moved to New York with her mother, and pursued a singing career, transforming herself into Billie Holiday. After years of touring with Count Basie, she was offered her first steady job at Café Society in 1938, earning $75 a week. From that, she went on to be featured soloist at clubs all over the country, acquiring the nickname “Lady Day.” Her distinctive voice, which she used like a musical instrument, transformed jazz singing. “I don’t think I’m singing,” she once said of her style. “I feel like I’m playing a horn.”

Holiday had many affairs with both men and women, but was known as a “les” among many of her peers in the music industry. One of her female lovers reported that “Billie even got the name Mister Holiday, because she was seldom seen with fellas.” Holiday once told a colleague, “Sure, I’ve been to bed with women… but I was always the man.”

Sadly, by the 1940s Holiday was addicted to heroin and alcohol, and she was arrested on drug charges several times. Many club owners would no longer take the risk of hiring her because she was often high during performances. Her career went progressively downhill, and she finally died in 1959 of liver cirrhosis and other complications of substance abuse.

A commemorative statue of Holiday stands in Baltimore at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Mabel_Dodge_Luhan_House_Taos_New_Mexico_46760

Taos, N.M.

Mabel Dodge Luhan home
240 Morada Lane

Born to a wealthy family, Mabel Ganson (1879-1962) made a name for herself in early 20th-century New York as Mabel Dodge, a patron of the arts and the host of a weekly salon at her apartment. She married four times and enjoyed numerous heterosexual affairs, but her autobiography, Intimate Memories (1932), also chronicles her early passions for women.

Dodge first saw New Mexico on a trip in 1916. She fell in love with the area, moving there in the 1920s and marrying Tony Luhan, a Pueblo Indian. They settled in this adobe home in Taos, which at that time was a dusty village with few white inhabitants. She helped promote an artists’ colony in the town, introducing artists and writers such as Georgia O’Keeffe and D.H. Lawrence to the area. The Luhans’ home is now an inn and conference center.

In 1925, while visiting Santa Fe, Willa Cather received an invitation to call on the Luhans. Taken with the beauty of the region and determined to write a novel set there, Cather accepted the offer, and she and her partner, Edith Lewis, spent two weeks with the Luhans. They stayed in the “Pink House,” which had been decorated with a drawing of a phoenix by its previous resident, D.H. Lawrence. Tony Luhan graciously acted as tour guidem driving Cather and Lewis throughout the countryside and showing them sites that would later be incorporated into Cather’s New Mexico novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop.

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garden

Brookline, Mass.

Amy Lowell home
“Sevenels”
70 Heath Street

Poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925) was born in Brookline to a wealthy and prominent New England family. Her father, Augustus, was, among many other things, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here at the Lowell’s 10-acre estate, young Amy – who was born late in her parents’ lives and was much younger than her siblings – had a lonely childhood, roaming beautiful gardens landscaped by her father (see photo). She lived in the elegant mansion all her life, redecorating many of the rooms according to her own taste after the death of her parents. For example, she combined the front and back parlors to create a magnificent library with built-in bookshelves and imported carved paneling. There in a plush leather chair with matching hassock she would spend hours reading and thinking.

Lowell has been painted by critics as a homely, obese, cigar-smoking spinster who never knew passion. But in fact, she met the love of her life, Ada Dwyer Russell, in 1912, and the two were constant companions for a dozen years. It took Lowell two years to convince Russell (whom she called her “very intimate friend”) to come and live with her at Sevenels, which Russell finally did in 1914. Forsaking her own career as an actress, Russell concentrated instead on Lowell’s – she read the proofs for all of Lowell’s books and listened to all of her compositions in the evenings, serving as both audience and critic. Lowell often stated that she wanted to put a sign over the door at Sevenels that would read: “Lowell & Russell, Makers of Fine Poems.” Russell was not only Lowell’s critic, she was also the inspiration for much of her poetry. Lowell was always careful, though, to make her love-themed poems gender-neutral. Only those who knew both the women suspected the identity of Lowell’s “muse.”

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columbus_ga_ma_raineys_house

Columbus, Ga.

Ma Rainey home
805 Fifth Avenue

Gertrude Pridgett / Ma Rainey (1886-1939) was born in Columbus to parents who were minstrel performers, and she began her own singing career at the tender age of 14 at the local Springer Opera House. She went on the road in 1902, and two years later married Will Rainey (nicknamed “Pa”), who led a touring company called the Rabbit Foot Minstrels (billed as “The World’s Most Famous Colored Show”).

Although her marriage didn’t last long, Rainey herself enjoyed a 30-year career, and through her live performances and recordings became a nationally recognized blues singer nicknamed “Mother of the Blues.” In 1935, she retired to this house, which she had built for her mother; she is buried in the town’s Porterdale Cemetery. Once endangered and almost demolished by the city, Rainey’s house was saved through an arduous fundraising process. It has been lovingly restored, and is now open to the public.

Besides her own prodigious talents, Ma Rainey also gave the world Bessie Smith, whom she discovered as a young girl on the streets of Chattanooga, and with whom she may have been lovers. Throughout her life, Rainey pursued affairs with women, and in the 1920s was arrested for holding a lesbian orgy in her apartment. Among her gutsy queer blues numbers was “Prove It On Me Blues,” in which she openly defended cross-dressing and lesbianism. An advertisement for the recording showed a woman in full male drag escorting two very feminine flappers. Rainey also wrote about her husband’s sexual relationship with a “queen” named Miss Kate, in a song called “Sissy Blues.”

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must have been women ’cause I don’t like no men.
They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me,
They sure got to prove it on me.

–from “Prove It On Me Blues” by Ma Rainey

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williams

Nantucket Island, Mass.

Tennessee Williams retreat
31 Pine Street

In the summer of 1946, playwright Tennessee Williams and his lover at the time, Panch Rodriguez y Gonzalez, were renting a “wind-battered, gray two-storied house” at this address on the island of Nantucket. (It’s still there – see it at Google Maps.) Williams had been ailing on and off all year and was having difficulty with the play he was trying to write, which was then called Chart of Anatomy.

Earlier that year, Williams had read Carson McCullers’ novel The Member of the Wedding, and wrote her a fan letter. A mutual friend arranged for McCullers to visit Williams on Nantucket for a weekend. The two writers had an immediate rapport, and the “weekend” quickly turned into half the summer. Together they swam, rode bicycles, and enjoyed candlelit dinners. Stationed at opposite ends of the cottage’s long dining room table, Williams worked on his play’s first draft, while McCullers began transforming The Member of the Wedding into a play.

At the end of his new friend’s visit, Williams presented McCullers with a jade ring that had belonged to his beloved sister, Rose, who like McCullers had suffered from depression and ill health. And when completed, Williams’ play – with the revised title Summer and Smoke – was dedicated to McCullers.

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