Archive for June, 2009


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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Brookline, Mass.

Amy Lowell home
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 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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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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San Antonio, Texas

Hertzberg Circus Museum (closed)
210 West Market Street

Harry Hertzberg (1884-1940) was a prominent local lawyer and state senator, who was also gay, according to recent research. Hertzberg and his longtime partner, Tom Scaperlanda, were circus fans who began collecting Big Top memorabilia in the ’20s and amassed one of the largest collections of that type in the country, totaling more than 42,000 items on circus history from 1893 to the 1930s. Among the items collected were a miniature model of a three-ring circus, posters, photographs, sheet music, costumes, literature, and specialty items, such as an 1843 carriage built for Tom Thumb (above), and memorabilia from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows.

The two men left their collection to the City of San Antonio, and, beginning in 1968, many items were on permanent exhibit at this location, a former public library. Unfortunately, in 2001, the museum closed due to the deteriorating condition of the building. Two years later, the city reached an agreement with the Witte Museum to take in the circus collection. The book and document archives are still in the San Antonio Public Library system and are available on an appointment-only basis to researchers (210-207-2500).

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