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5 queer artists from the 1920s you should know about

In honor of Pride Month, here is an abbreviated list of five badass queer people who were prolific in the 1920s and beyond. They were groundbreaking and brilliant, and all of them surrounded by queer friends and lovers and communities.

History is a marvelous warren of changing social mores. When we talk about queer rights let's never forget that queer people have always been out and about and making art, damn the consequences.

1. Bessie Smith (1895 - 1937)

Bessie Smith was an absolute blues legend, Notorious Bisexual and noted Person Who Didn't Give A Shit what people thought of her. Of her singing, a reviewer said "That wasn't a voice [...], it was a flamethrower licking out across the room."

Langston Hughes said that Smith's songs expressed sadness "not softened with tears but hardened with laughter; the absurd, incongruous laughter of a sadness without even a god to appeal to."

Basically, her voice was so powerful that it compelled people to write equally powerful sentences.

Despite her success, she didn't have a terribly happy life. She grew up poor and sang on the street for money. Even then her talent was noted, and by 1923 she recorded her first single. It sold 2 million copies in six months and catapulted Smith to legendary status.

Smith dealt with horrendous racist bullshit throughout her career. Notably she stood up for her darker-skinned chorus girls when a manger wanted them replaced with lighter dancers. At the peak of her fame she transported her whole company in a private railway car so that they wouldn't have to risk looking for lodging in the south, which was often a dangerous and difficult prospect for black performers, who were welcomed onstage and abused off it.

 Smith in the 1920s

Smith in the 1920s

She was a contemporary of many other incredible black women singers like Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Gladys Bentley and Ethel Waters — all of whom were also queer.

One story from her niece says she bailed Ma Rainey out of jail after Rainey was arrested for cavorting with naked women, which is frankly A REALLY GREAT STORY.

She was unfortunately saddled with a shitty, abusive husband, who she ditched multiple times throughout her life. She had affairs with a few of her chorus girls, and basically enjoyed a good horny party — she was friends with the proprietress of a Detroit buffet flat, who had a place for Smith whenever she rolled into town.


2. Richard Bruce Nugent (1906 - 1987)

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Nugent was a writer and painter, and part of the social group that frequented Gumby's Bookstore in Harlem. The owner, Alexander Gumby, was a gay black man and historian, and the bookstore was patronized by the most brilliant minds of the Harlem Renaissance — people like Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston.

In the '20s his art and writing explored sexuality, race, and gender, and the ways they intersected. His poem "Shadow" was supposedly pulled out of a trash can by Langston Hughes (would that we all could say the same about our writing that we hate...), and has been interpreted as an allusion to race, or an allusion to sexuality, but let's be real it's probably all of of the above.

Nugent was also a dancer and an actor because sometimes people are really good at everything!!! That's just how it is!!


3. - 4. Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap (1886 - 1973, 1883 - 1964)

 Margaret Anderson photographed by Man Ray, of course.

Margaret Anderson photographed by Man Ray, of course.

Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap are one of my favorite historical couples. From All-Night Party:

By day, Margaret and Jane swam and rode horses like seasoned wranglers, [...]. By night they worked on the Little Review by the glow of a kerosene lamp. Jane drew cartoons and Margaret played the piano on a Steinway she'd secured from a shop in San Francisco at no cost. They ate fudge for breakfast and lolled about until noon. They talked endlessly, incessantly. Their talk began at lunch and climaxed at tea. By dinner they were "staggering with it." By five the next morning they were "unconscious but still talking," said Margaret. "This was what I had been waiting for all my life"

Their whole lives are unbelievable like that.

Margaret Anderson puts shame to the idea that historical women were ever obedient. She described herself as a "perfectly nice but revolting girl," moved alone to Chicago as a young adult, spent money so recklessly that her family cut her off, and used her extremely powerful personality to fund a revolutionary literary magazine: the Little Review.

She spent summers living in a tent city that she built on the shores of Lake Michigan. She and Jane Heap moved to California and then New York, and they entertained ... literally everyone. She was uncompromising in her views on art, and avant garde as hell.

 Jane Heap looking dapper as hell.

Jane Heap looking dapper as hell.

Jane was handsome, dressed in suits, and had a dangerous wit. Her columns in the Review were published only under her initials, "jh."

In 1921 both women were charged with obscenity for publishing James Joyce's Ulysses as a serial in the Review (among many other poems and stories that were considered obscene — Ulysses was just one of many that got people wound up).

Heap took over publication of the magazine in 1924, and the women separated, though they stayed in touch throughout their lives. The Little Review closed in 1929.

Heap spent the rest of her life in London, where she became the lover of Elspeth Champcommunal, the first editor of Vogue Britain. Basically she was a boss, and everyone wanted a piece of her.


5. Ivor Novello (1893 - 1951)

Ivor Novello was a composer and actor and extremely hot person. He was an incredibly popular entertainer: there's a songwriting and composing award named for him, and his funeral procession was attended by thousands.

It seems like Novello knew just about everybody. His list of friends is a Who's Who of influential queer men of the era: Siegfriend Sassoon, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton, Tom Driberg, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham... need I go on.

The great thing about Ivor Novello is that it's more likely than not that he boned down with all of them. I love me a slutty, beloved historical figure.

Novello was a big silent film star in the '20s, but in later life he was far more well-known for his music. Of casting him, director Adrian Brunel said, "the problem was to find someone as beautiful as Ivor to play opposite him."

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In 1916 he met Bobbie Andrews, who would be his primary partner until Novello's death. He remained a massive flirt throughout his life, and had relationships with many men. As noted in Sassoon's biography, Novello "collected lovers as he gathered lilacs." ("We'll Gather Lilacs" is, of course, one of his popular songs.)

Here's an absurd anecdote about him wearing a kilt:

 He fancied himself in a kilt.

He fancied himself in a kilt.

When he was co-starring opposite Gladys Cooper in Bonnie Prince Charlie (1923), he liked his kilt so much, he wouldn't take it off, even when he wasn't shooting. Cooper warned him that the locals resented his appropriation of their national costume. Several hundred hostile Scots followed him throughout shooting on the isle of Arran. "But I wouldn't have cared if there had been thousands," he later told the News of the World. "I fancied myself in my kilt!"

 

Happy pride, y'all. :)