Tag Archives: Pride Month

The surprisingly ubiquitous lesbians of 1918: A Pride Month salute

When I started my reading-in-1918 project, one of the first things that struck me was that just about every woman I came across was, or appeared to be, a lesbian. Of course, this being 1918, they weren’t waving rainbow flags or announcing their nuptials in the New York Times. Still, they were everywhere. Here are the stories of some of the women I’ve run into along the way.

Marie Corelli

Portrait of Marie Corelli, artist and date unknown

Corelli, who was Britain’s best-selling novelist in her heyday (which was waning by 1918), didn’t self-identify as gay. A number of writers, though, have claimed her for Team Lesbian, pointing to the eroticized depictions of women in her writing, which strikes me as pretty flimsy evidence, and, more convincingly, to her decades-long cohabitation with her companion, Bertha Vyver. Their initials were carved, intertwined, on their mantlepiece alongside the words “amor vincit,” and they exchanged rings.*

If Corelli was in fact a lesbian, she’s an awfully sorry example—as I’ve noted, she advocated forced sterilization and was the source for the homophobic “Cult of the Clitoris” article I wrote about in my last post. Also, she was a pretty bad writer. But, as I’ve also noted, it can’t have been easy to be Corelli, who was the illegitimate daughter of Charles McKay, author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and a household servant. Growing up with both your parentage and your sexuality treated as sources of shame would be enough to warp any mind.

Maria Thompson Daviess

Portrait of Maria Thompson Daviess by Ella Sophonisba Hergesheimer, date unknown

Daviess, the author of the Bridget Jones-like 1912 bestseller The Melting of Molly, is a more inspiring, though also ambiguous, example. She’s not famous enough today to have sparked much speculation about her sexuality, but just take a look at her writing. The Melting of Molly, which is narrated by 25-year-old widow Molly, is full of passages like this:

With [Molly’s aunt] came a long, tall, lovely vision of a woman in the most wonderful close clingy dress and hat that you wanted to eat on sight. I hated her instantly with the most intense adoration that made me want to lie down at her feet.

And this:

Miss Chester [the aforementioned tall, lovely vision] and I exchanged little laughs and scraps of conversation in between time and I fell deeper and deeper in love with her.

And especially this:

First I went to see Madam Courtier for corsets. I had heard about her and I knew it meant a fortune. But that didn’t matter! She came in and looked at me for about five minutes without saying a word and then she ran her hands down and down over me until I could feel the flesh just crawling off of me. It was delicious!

I’d really, really like to know what 1918 readers made of this. More on Daviess later.

Margaret Anderson

Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, date unknown

All this digging into people’s private lives was making me feel kind of creepy, so it was a relief to turn to Margaret Anderson, the editor of the ground-breaking modernist journal The Little Review, which published the first chapter of Ulysses in March 1918. She and Jean Heap, her partner in work as well as life, lived openly as a couple. Heap wore men’s clothing and sported a short haircut. “I am no man’s wife, no man’s delightful mistress, and I will never, never, never, be a mother,” Anderson wrote proudly.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather and Edith Lewis, 1926

Cather, the author of O Pioneers! and My Antonia, was fiercely private about her personal life, but she and editor Edith Lewis lived together for decades. The only letter from Cather to Lewis that is known to have survived—Cather burned most of them—begins, “My Darling.”

Amy Lowell

Amy Lowell (Bachrach, ca. 1916)

Poet Amy Lowell (the much younger sister of Abbott Lawrence Lowell, the academically progressive but homophobic Harvard president I wrote about here) didn’t self-identify as a lesbian, but that seems like a mere technicality if you read her work. Here’s “Madonna of the Evening Flowers,” which was published in the North American Review in February 1918 and appeared in the 1919 collection Pictures of the Floating World.

North American Review, February 1918

The subject of this and Lowell’s other love poems is Ada Dwyer Russell. The two lived together from 1914 until Lowell’s death in 1925. (Cohabiting relationships like this, sexual or not, were known—appropriately, in this case—as “Boston marriages.”) Russell’s father, by the way, deserves a place in the PFLAG hall of fame—he was kicked out of the Mormon church in 1913 for arguing that sex between people of the same sex was not a sin.

Maud Allan

Maud Allan

And, of course, there’s dancer Maud Allan, the performer in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, who, as I wrote in my last post, sued British MP Noel Pemberton-Billing for supposedly accusing her, in an article headlined “The Cult of the Clitoris,” of engaging in unspeakable vice. Allan lived for three decades with Verna Aldrich, her secretary and partner.

…And the rest

These are only a few of the many women I came across who were not married and are not known to have had serious relationships with men. Others include writer Edna Ferber, first woman member of congress Jeannette Rankin, short story writer Elizabeth Jordan, portrait painter Cecilia Beaux, and actress Emily Stevens, who played the single-mother-by-choice in Alan Dale’s controversial play The Madonna of the Future.**

Emily Stevens

As I read about these women’s lives, certain patterns started to emerge. One is the “fell so deeply in love as an adolescent that no man could ever measure up” trope. Stevens’ Wikipedia entry says that she developed a girlhood crush on theatrical producer Harrison Fiske, her cousin’s husband, and “seems to have stayed true to her feelings for [him] as she did not pursue relationships with other men.” Maria Thompson Daviess fell at age 13 for her pervy male camp counselor, with whom, according to her autobiography, she exchanged the

most profound kiss ever bartered between two of the human race…That exchange, my first, also set standards for me and I am dimly afraid that is one of the reasons I write myself spinster today.***

Or something like that! Seven Times Seven is still under copyright, and the snippet Google Books displays begins, infuriatingly, with “most profound kiss.” In any case, Daviess told a friend that this infatuation was not as “glamorous”—which seems to be 1918-speak for “passionate”—as her crush on a woman teacher.

Do you have friends who have gone on to live a life of celibacy because they never got over their high school crush? If so, fine, feel free to buy this.****

Annette Abbott Adams, date unknown

Then there are the marriages of convenience. Groundbreaking California lawyer Annette Abbott Adams got married, according to friends, only because she wanted a “Mrs.” in front of her name, having found that professional doors were more open to married women. She and her husband lived apart for most or all of their marriage but never divorced.

There’s a reason, obviously, why lesbians and women without a (visible) man in their lives are found so often on the 1918 political and cultural scene. For most women, it was a choice of one or the other—marry, or have a career. Lesbians were, of course, more likely to opt against marriage than heterosexual women (although many lesbians, including Ada Dwyer Russell, did marry). But there must have been lots of heterosexual women, as well, who opted for a career over marriage and a family.

Anna Kelton Wiley with her sons, ca. 1920

Judging from the lives of the relatively few married women I’ve come across, career over marriage seems like the sensible choice. Edith Wharton’s husband suffered from crippling depression, and she divorced him after 28 years of marriage. E. Nesbit’s husband kept having children with other women. Artist Elizabeth Gardner endured a 17-year engagement because her lover and mentor William-Adolphe Bouguereau didn’t want to upset his mother by marrying her. Julia Clark Hallam wrote about how deadening the work of a wife and mother was. Suffragist Anna Kelton Wiley married food safety pioneer Harvey Wiley when she was 34 and he was 67. Married Love author Marie Carmichael Stopes’ first marriage was unconsummated. Daddy-Long-Legs author Jean Webster’s marriage was apparently happy, but she had to wait for years for her husband’s divorce from his first wife to come through. Also, her husband was an alcoholic. Webster died in childbirth the year after their marriage.*****

So here’s to the lesbian women of 1918—and to all the women, gay and straight, who were forced by an intolerant society to hide or suppress important parts of who they were.

*There are two schools of thought on how to interpret this type of thing. They can be summarized as, on the one hand, “Duh,” and, on the other hand, “But romanticized, non-sexual relationships between women were a thing.”

**Dale—who was married—made LGBT history himself by writing the first-ever gay-themed novel in English, A Marriage Below Zero, in 1889.

***This reminds me of an anecdote I read decades ago in a memoir by screenwriter Anita Loos, best known today as the author of the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. George Gershwin’s buddies have noticed that he never has a girl, and one day she asks him why. He spins a tragic tale of the one who got away. Loos asks him what happened. “She moved to Detroit,” he says. Loos marvels at the spinelessness of a guy who couldn’t overcome such a minor obstacle. A modern reader might interpret this differently.

****Of course, there could be other reasons for claiming to be off the dating market, like a long affair with a married man.

*****A more fun fact about Jean Webster and her husband: Theodore Roosevelt invited himself along on their honeymoon at their camp in Canada, saying, “We can put up a partition in the cabin.” No word on whether he actually showed.

Unmentionable vice, a secret German book, and a camarilla: The (looniest) trial of the century

 As I was catching up on the 1918 news over breakfast at a Cambridge, Massachusetts B&B during my recent vacation, I came across the following headline in the May 31 New York Times, right below a humongous banner headline about the German offensive:

I was confused.

I read the article, and I was still confused. British MP Noel Pemberton-Billing, apparently, was on trial for defaming dancer Maud Allan, who had appeared in a private dance production based on Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, and the play’s producer, Jack Grien of the Independent Theatre. (Grien was also the drama critic for the Sunday Times, because no one cared about conflict of interest in 1918.) According to prosecutor Travers Humphreys, Pemberton-Billing had made an attack on Allan in his right-wing magazine The Vigilante that was “unworthy of any man to make upon any woman.” Humphreys said that

the coupling of the name of Miss Allan, or any woman, with the heading of the paragraph could only mean one thing—that the lady, either in her private or professional capacity, was associated with something that could not be regarded as otherwise than disreputable.

Studio portrait of Noel Pemberton-Billing, 1916

What heading? What paragraph? The Times isn’t telling. Humphreys goes on to say that, if Allan had failed to challenge this mysterious allegation,

some of those persons whose mental food was garbage might be able to say hereafter, ‘You have this said of you, and you took no steps to stop it, and therefore, there must be something in it.’

Have what said? This was getting frustrating.

Portrait of Maud Allan by Alexander Bassano, 1913

Oh, and there was a list. Which the Times does explain. (Well, the British Telegraph does—the Times, as was its habit, quotes large chunks of the Telegraph’s reporting verbatim.) In an earlier article, the Vigilante had reported that

there exists in the cabinet noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the secret service from the reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading debauchery of such a lasciviousness as only German minds could conceive.*

Okay, so there’s an evil German plot to perversify English society. But what does it have to do with Maud Allan et al.? Humphreys explains that the other Vigilante article, the one with the mysterious headline, made

a cryptic suggestion that if Scotland Yard were to seize a list of the members subscribing to the Independent Theatre there was no doubt they would secure the names of several thousands of the first 47,000.

Captain Harold Spencer (date unknown)

No one had actually managed to produce a copy of this book. But a lot of people had seen it. Or said they had. Including the author of the article, former American navy captain Harold Spencer. Spencer was the aide-de-camp to Prince William of Wied**, who he said had shown him the book in Albania. Another witness, Mrs. Villiers Stewart, said that she had seen former Prime Minister Asquith’s name in the book.*** Spencer said he hadn’t, but he had seen Asquith’s wife’s name.

Guess who else Mrs. Villiers Stewart said she saw in the book? Justice Darling, who was presiding over the case! Sensation in the court. But it apparently didn’t occur to him to stop the trial and recuse himself, because, like I said, conflict of interest.

Noel Pemberton-Billing and Eileen Villiers Stewart arriving at court

Spencer testified that the Vigilante had been tipped off about the Salome production by—I bet you didn’t see this coming!—Marie Corelli, the purple-prose novelist who was last seen here espousing forced sterilization in Good Housekeeping and hoarding sugar. (And who, by the way, was almost certainly a lesbian herself.)

Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover-turned-nemesis, also testified for the defense, although I couldn’t for the life of me make out what he had to do with anything, and was later kicked out of the courtroom for heckling.

And there was a camarilla! A word that, despite my superior-adult score on a 1918 vocabulary-based intelligence test, I had to look up. It turns out to mean a secret group of plotting courtiers. This particular camarilla, allegedly, was aimed at getting Asquith back into power and making peace with Germany. (Which was seen as a bad thing–right-thinking people wanted to beat them.)

Margot Asquith, date unknown

The pieces were starting to fall together, but I still wasn’t clear on the unspeakable vice. Oscar Wilde + vice, I figured, had to = something about homosexuality. But what exactly?

As I sipped my tea and reflected on the situation, I had an inspiration. “You know who will be all over this story?” I said to myself. “My fellow 100-years-ago blogger, Whatever it is, I’m Against It.” And I was right! As WIIIAI explains here and here, the crux of the matter is the title of the Vigilante article, which the Times was too delicate to reprint: “The Cult of the Clitoris.” Aha! The insinuation, then, was that Allan was at the heart of a giant pro-German lesbian cabal.****

Now I was up to speed on why the Times was skirting around the headline. Armed with this information, I was able to track down the full text of the Vigilante article:

The Cult of the Clitoris

To be a member of Maud Allan’s private performances in Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome,’ one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9, Duke Street, Adelphi W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of these members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000.

That’s it!

London’s Palace Theater, where Salome was performed, date unknown

Fast forward a few days, to a June 5 piece in the Times. As Humphreys was making his closing arguments, Pemberton-Billings interrupted him to say that he’d never accused Allan of engaging in vice herself, only of pandering to it. He was acquitted.

In the first draft of this post, I wrote that the good guys lost. And it’s true that I’ll root for scandalous lesbian dancers (Allan was in fact a lesbian, which was the only true allegation in the whole trial as far as I can tell) and cutting-edge theater producers over homophobic right-wing politicians and conspiracy-peddling ex-military officers any time. But, even by the standards of British defamation law, which is much stricter than its American equivalent, the penning of the Vigilante story doesn’t seem like a criminal act. It’s just a piece of vague, sloppy insinuation. Not something that people should go to jail for, however despicable they might be.

The real crime here—twenty-three years after Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years in jail for homosexual acts, and eighteen years after he died, impoverished and disgraced, in Paris—is that homophobia was still so deeply rooted in British society that it was fodder for ridiculous conspiracy theories (the book of 47,000, of course, never surfaced), scurrilous newspaper reporting, and farcical trials.

Not a very inspiring way to commemorate Pride Month. But there are positive LGBTQ stories as well. (Mostly L, actually.) I’ll get to them in an upcoming post.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, 1893

* Because everyone knows that Germans and hot-bloodedness are virtually synonymous.

**Arguably the best name in a story full of great ones.

***Mrs. Villiers Stewart was subsequently jailed for bigamy, but that’s another story.

****Because, you know, there’s nothing lesbians like so much as living under right-wing militaristic rule.