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Archive for October, 2009

Bewitched

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Salem, Mass.

The entire town of Salem is included here, because its name is indelibly linked with witchcraft. Salem’s persecution and execution of innocent citizens in the late 1690s – most of whom were, in one way or another, “misfits,” and several of whom were unmarried women – is notorious. The word “witch hunt” is now synonymous with any institutionalized scapegoating of individuals or groups, such as of Communists and homosexuals during the McCarthy era.

Today, Salem capitalizes on its gruesome past with several campy museums, among them the Salem Witch Museum, the Witch Dungeon (which features a re-enactment of a witch trial), the Salem Wax Museum, the Witch History Museum, and the Witch House (shown in an old postcard above – it was a judge’s home, where witch “examinations” took place). Salem is also home to the famous “House of the Seven Gables,” built in 1668, which is the oldest wooden structure in New England, and the inspiration for Hawthorne’s novel.

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Wheatland

Lancaster, Pa.

James Buchanan home
Wheatland
1120 Marietta Avenue

James Buchanan (1791-1868), the 15th president of the United States, was also this country’s only confirmed bachelor chief executive. His sexual orientation has frequently been questioned, primarily because of his intimate friendship with William Rufus King, whom he met in 1834 when both were U.S. senators and with whom he shared a flat in Washington. According to historian Jonathan Ned Katz, their relationship was the source of many biting comments in the nation’s capital. King was perhaps more “queen” than “king,” and was referred to by Washington insiders as “Miss Nancy,” “she,” and “Aunt Fancy.”

Buchanan bought this estate in 1848, when he was James Polk’s secretary of state. He had greater political ambitions, and Wheatland, a 17-room federal-style mansion, seemed to him more “presidential” than his Washington digs. Running for president in 1852, Buchanan lost the Democratic nomination to Franklin Pierce, and party bosses selected Senator King as the vice-presidential candidate in a bid for Buchanan’s support (and the votes he could deliver). Pierce and King won, but King died of tuberculosis after only a few weeks in office.

Buchanan became his party’s compromise candidate in the 1856 presidential election, and Wheatland served as his campaign headquarters. Unlike today, when candidates traverse the country in search of votes, Buchanan stayed at Wheatland, receiving visitors who could help his bid for election. This proved a good P.R. move, since newspapers across the country carried accounts of Buchanan’s beautiful estate and of the many dignitaries who passed through Wheatland.

Buchanan served only one uneventful term as chief executive. After his retirement, he returned to Wheatland, which is today run by the National Park Service. Buchanan is buried nearby at the Woodward Hill Cemetery.

 

I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a- wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

–James Buchanan, 1844,
when William Rufus King was on a trip to France

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Ladies’ Man

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Los Angeles, Calif.

Cary Grant/Randolph Scott home
2177 West Live Oak Drive (private)

Though he married women five times, movie star Cary Grant (1904-1986) enjoyed several gay relationships during his early career in New York and Hollywood. His most famous same-sex romance was with fellow actor Randolph Scott (1898-1987), the rugged star of numerous westerns. Grant and Scott met at Paramount Studios in 1932 and were immediately attracted to each other. Soon after, they moved in together, sharing this house near Griffith Park. The move was disguised by studio P.R. agents as a way for two young actors to “cut costs” and share expenses, even though both made ample salaries and could afford their own homes. Even after Grant’s marriage to Virginia Cherrill, the two men continued co-habiting; Cherrill simply moved into the house with them.

Between liaisons with other men and women, Grant and Scott’s relationship persisted, well known to their colleagues in the industry. (If for some reason you’ve never seen it, don’t miss the two as co-stars in the outrageous My Favorite Wife.) In the late 1930s, Grant and Scott occupied a Santa Monica beach house at 1019 Ocean Front (now 1039). In fan magazines, they were¬† photographed together in domestic bliss, wearing aprons and cavorting poolside or on the patio. According to Grant’s biographer, they believed their public flamboyance would raise them above suspicion of homosexuality. They must have been right, because Grant enjoyed a screen career as a suave ladies’ man for the next three decades.

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Queer Chicago

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Chicago, Ill.

In my ramblings through cyberspace, I discovered a new queer local history film that looks exciting: Quearborn and Perversion: An Early History of Lesbian and Gay Chicago. Filmmaker Ron Pajak says his mission is “to uncover stories from men and women, black and white, about the lesbian and gay life of Chicagoans before any freedoms existed.” The film spans the years 1934-1974, and has a wealth of amazing historic photos and video footage, as well as interviews with lesbian and gay Chicagoans. You can watch a preview at the website – don’t miss it.

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Seattle, Wash.

The Garden of Allah
1213 First Avenue

Seattle’s first gay-owned bar (also one of the first in the country) was located at this downtown address from 1946 to 1956, in the basement of the Victorian-era Arlington hotel. The hotel sat midway between a gambling and red-light district at one end of First Avenue and an upper-class commercial district at the other.

The Garden of Allah, as the club was called (it had also been the name of a famous apartment complex in West Hollywood owned by Alla Nazimova), operated as a gay cabaret. From First Avenue, a guest descended a white marble staircase and slipped a $1 bill through a peephole for admittance. Inside, blue and pink lightbulbs provided a sensual ambience, and palm trees and stars stenciled on the walls gave the place a “Casbah” feeling. Tables were tightly packed in front of a stage, the centerpiece of which was a 1924 Wurlitzer pipe organ that accompanied every cabaret show (see photo, ca. 1948). The owners paid off the police to avoid raids, and an ever-present off-duty cop was stationed in the club to make sure that same-sex couples didn’t touch.

Drag entertainers were the highlight of the cabaret’s shows, and gay men, lesbians, and straight people alike made up the boisterous audiences. On opening night in 1946, the featured attraction was the Jewel Box Revue, the famous drag show that started touring clubs in 1939. Over the years, some of the Garden’s drag entertainers also performed striptease.

With a decline in interest in drag during the repressive 1950s, the Garden of Allah eventually closed. For a while, the space was used to store nuclear-attack rations. Later, it became a biracial rock club called House of Entertainment, where Jimi Hendrix once played. The hotel was razed in 1974. For more about the club, see Don Paulson and Roger Simpson’s excellent book, An Evening at the Garden of Allah: A Gay Cabaret in Seattle.

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LGBT Icons

In case you haven’t seen it yet, the Equality Forum in Philadelphia has put together this video for LGBT History Month (October), which briefly profiles their picks for LGBT icons.

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Dayton Was a Woman

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Dayton, Ohio

Natalie Barney marker
Cooper Park
St. Clair at Third Street

On October 25, 2009, an Ohio Historical Marker honoring lesbian poet Natalie Barney will be dedicated at this site in Dayton, Barney’s city of birth. It will be the first such marker in the state to acknowledge a historical figure’s sexual orientation. The Gay Ohio History Initiative and its partners raised $2,300 to pay for the bronze marker.

Born to a successful businessman and a free-spirited artist, Natalie Barney (1876-1972) was one of the most famous – and wealthiest – lesbians of her day. Both of her parents inherited sizable family estates, and young Natalie was raised in the lap of luxury. When she was 2 years old, the Barneys relocated to Cincinnati, and when she was in her teens, they took up residence in the nation’s capital, where they moved in the top social and diplomatic circles.

Throughout her youth, Natalie often traveled with her mother, the painter Alice Pike Barney, to Europe for extended stays. It was in Paris that Natalie finally decided to settle at age 24, the heir of a substantial fortune of her own.

Barney published numerous poetry collections and plays in French during her lifetime, noted for their openly lesbian content (she had known she was a lesbian since the age of 12), and also penned several memoirs. Her tempestuous affair with poet Renee Vivien and her long-term relationship with painter Romaine Brooks (shown together in the photo above, ca. 1915) have frequently been written about. But it was as the host of a celebrated Friday afternoon literary salon at 20 rue Jacob that she is perhaps best remembered. Barney’s salon was the center of the French avant-garde and of queer expatriate Paris for 50 years, frequented by such literati as Marcel Proust, Colette, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Oscar Wilde, Radclyffe Hall, Janet Flanner, and Andre Gide. Djuna Barnes’ roman a clef, Ladies Almanack (1928), spoofed both the salon and its best-known members.

Lesbian filmmaker Greta Schiller made a documentary in 1995 called Paris Was a Woman, about the thriving lesbian cultural scene in Paris in the ’20s. In it, there is a walkthrough, using period footage, of Barney’s famous salon.

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