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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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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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Beaumont, Texas

Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum and Visitors Center
1477 N. Martin Luther King Parkway (at I-10)

Beaumont was home to the young Mildred “Babe” Didrikson (1911-1956), one of the greatest athletes of all time. The Didriksons moved here when Babe was a child, after a flood destroyed their Port Arthur home. As one biographer put it, the Didrikson home (at 850 Doucette Avenue) was in an area “full of rednecks and roughnecks, hard-knuckled families living in washboard poverty.” The busy, noisy street had an oil refinery at one end and a trolley line running down the middle. Around the neighborhood, Babe wore boys’ pants, overalls, and athletic undershirts. Her boyish manner made her a social outcast at school, but she later advised that “a girl that wants to become an athlete and do some winning should…start by being a tomboy.”

And she was indeed an athlete who did “some winning.” From 1930 to 1932, Babe held the American, Olympic, or world records in five different track and field events. After her stunning gold-medal victories at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932, one newspaper headline declared, “Babe Breaks Records Easier Than Dishes.” When she returned from her Olympic triumph, Babe’s father built an apartment for her and her sister on the second floor of the Doucette Avenue house, consisting of two small rooms, a hallway, and a bathroom. Her sister called the bathroom “Babe’s Hollywood bathroom…the most beautiful bathroom in Beaumont,” complete with a bright green tub like one that she had seen and admired in Los Angeles.

Babe went on to excel in numerous sports, including softball, bowling, javelin throwing, boxing, billiards, tennis, and diving. But her greatest distinction by far was as a golfer. In 1935, she came under the protective wing of Bertha Bowen, a powerhouse in Texas golf, who not only helped her game but transformed her looks and physical demeanor as well. Babe – whose “masculine” appearance and competence in male sports had given rise to the suspicion that she was a lesbian – went from cross-dressing to cultivating a traditionally feminine look, including skirts, waved hair, rouge, red nails; she even acquired a husband, the wrestler George Zaharias, in 1938. During her short career, the “ultimate Amazon” won 82 professional and amateur golf tournaments; was named Associated Press’s Woman of the Year six times; and was a founding member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA).

The museum documents Babe’s life and achievements, housing many of her athletic trophies. Don’t be surprised when you don’t find any reference to her bisexuality, or that her intimate companion, the young golfer Betty Dodd, is treated as solely a friend. Babe, Betty, and George all lived together in Florida from 1950 until Babe’s death from colon cancer in 1956. Of Babe’s husband, Betty later said, “We always had a lot more fun when he wasn’t around.”

Babe is buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, 5220 Pine Street, in Beaumont. The state of Texas maintains a historical marker at her gravesite.

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San Francisco, Calif.

Black Cat Cafe
710 Montgomery Street

Like many early gay bars, the famous Black Cat didn’t start out that way. Just a few blocks from the center of North Beach, the Black Cat was first distinguished as a bohemian hang-out (it billed itself as Bohemia of the Barbary Coast) and provided the backdrop for part of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Following World War II, when gay men and lesbians swarmed San Francisco after service in the Pacific, the Black Cat assumed a “gayer” personality. The poet Allen Ginsburg, who knew it in the ’50s, described it as an enormous bar with a honky-tonk piano that “everyone” went to: “All the gay screaming queens would come, the heterosexual gray flannel suit types, longshoremen. All the poets went there.”

At a time when homophile organizations like the Mattachine Society were largely conciliatory to the police and to city officials, the Black Cat was noteworthy as a site of resistance. Its owner, Sol Stoumen, refused to pay off the police for protection against harassment, and his bar was routinely raided and fined from the 1940s through the early 1960s. During the 1950s, the Black Cat’s flamboyant drag performer, Jose Sarria, sang campy parodies of torch songs, giving them political twists, and finished each set by leading the bar’s patrons in his rendition of “God Save Us Nelly Queens,” even when members of the vice squad were present. His brand of activist theater made him extremely popular among gays, and in 1961 Sarria decided to campaign for city supervisor, knowing that he had no chance of winning. Though he received only a few thousand votes, Sarria said later that his intention had been to show his peers that a gay man had the right to run, whether he won or lost.

The Black Cat was closed in 1963. Said the attorney for the club, “That place is like an institution. This is like closing the cable cars or the Golden Gate Bridge.” There is now an upscale tapas and wine bar called Bocadillos on the site.

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Harlem, N.Y.

267 House
267 West 136th Street

Zora Neale Hurston once wryly dubbed the rooming house that queer writers Wallace Thurman, Bruce Nugent, and Langston Hughes all called home “Niggerati Manor.” The tenement building (also known as “267 House”) was owned by Iolanthe Sydney, a black philanthropist who offered rooms rent-free to artists in order to support their work. Nugent – a painter as well as a writer – reportedly painted brightly colored phalluses on the interior walls.

It was at this address that Thurman, Nugent, Hurston, Hughes, and others started the experimental literary journal Fire!! in the summer of 1926. Each of its seven founders pledged 50 dollars to the effort, but, according to Hughes’s memoirs, only three ever paid up. Since Thurman was the only one with a steady job, his checks paid for the printing bill for the first and only issue.

The journal had a high price tag for the day – one dollar. Hughes later remembered that Fire!! never seemed to make money because Bruce Nugent – who was unemployed at the time – distributed it to booksellers on foot, using the little bit of cash he got from its sale to buy food. (Nugent’s “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” the first published piece with a homosexual theme by an African-American, was one of the notable pieces included in Fire!!) Ironically, several hundred copies of the journal, which were being stored in the printer’s basement, were burned in an actual fire. It took Thurman four years to pay off the printing bills.

Within two years, the inhabitants of 267 House had all moved elsewhere; but Thurman’s 1932 novel, Infants of the Spring, still provides a glimpse into life at artists’ residence.

“… they walked in silence … Alex turned in his doorway … no need for words … they had always known each other . . .”

–from Richard Bruce Nugent, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” 1926

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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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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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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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