Gladys Bentley - Nominee

1907 - 1960

Born in Philadelphia in 1907, Gladys Bentley was taunted as a child for being an overweight tomboy – but in a few years she had the last laugh. In her trademark white tuxedo and top hat, the 300-pound gravelly voiced singer and piano player flaunted her reputation as a “bulldagger” or butch lesbian. A top entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance, she headlined at The Cotton Club and The Clam House where she openly flirted with the women in the audience. She took popular songs of the time – like ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ or ‘Alice Blue Gown’ – and added suggestive lyrics in her raspy alto voice, encouraging the audience to echo the chorus. The gender-busting act was a sensation, making her one of the most beloved icons of the era. In 1928 Bentley began a 20-year recording career which sadly does not include any of her bawdy lyrics or lesbian references. Her “marriage” ceremony to a white woman in New Jersey was widely publicized, expanding the reach of notoriety, but it also quietly set her up for a life that would soon grow harsher. In the 1930s she headlined at The Ubangi Club – with a chorus of drag queens to back her – but the decade of the Great Depression would severely impact Harlem nightlife. In 1937 she moved to LA where she was harassed for wearing men’s clothing, though she managed to eke out a living working mainly in gay clubs over the next decade. The repressive climate of the 1950s made it an especially tough time to be an out butch lesbian in the U.S. Needing to salvage her career, in 1952 Bentley published an essay in Ebony saying she had been “cured” of her lesbianism and was now married to a man – though the effectiveness of her treatment and the validity of the marriage could never be verified; a sad coda to what had been a life lived without compromise. Gladys Bentley – the living embodiment of “Hot Harlem” in the 1920s – died of influenza in 1960. She was 53.

Gladys Bentley Headshot

Demography

Gender Female

Sexual Orientation Lesbian

Gender Identity Cisgender Genderqueer/Non-Binary

Ethnicity African American Black

Faith Construct Protestant

Nations Affiliated United States

Era/Epoch Harlem Renaissance (1919-1929) Jazz Age (1910-1940) Roaring Twenties (1920-1929)

Field(s) of Contribution

Entertainer

Music

Commemorations & Honors

Obituary Featured in New York Times Overlooked Series (2019)

San Francisco Rainbow Honor Walk Honoree (2019)

Resources

Related Images

Gladys Bentley Without Top Hat

Gladys Bentley on You Bet Your Life

Related Videos

Gladys Bentley on You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx in 1958

Gladys Bentley Recording of Worried Blues (Audio Only)

Authorship

Original Biography Author
Owen Keehnen
Biography Edited By
Victor Salvo
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell