Tuesday, May 13

Sapphic Traffic

What in the hell was going on in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s that produced so many big lesbian stars?  Are you aware of that?  Maybe it was something in the water or the intoxicating scent of the ever-present orange blossoms or even fresh Los Angeles air. 

Oh sure, there are a lot more out lesbians in movies today but how many have the clout and the importance of those huge women stars of yesteryear?  Of course most of those women were not out.  Unlike many today, most were not only married to men... at least once, sometimes more, and often those husbands were also gay.

At the very start of movies, those in the industry were fairly outrageous in their public behavior, gays and straights.  Those folks pushed it until Hollywood came up with a code of behavior, both on and off the job.  By the time the big studios were at the top of their games, there was a strict morals clause in actors' contracts.  So it now became important to hide... if they wanted that career.  In some cases coworkers might know the truth.  Sometimes just an actress's household employees would know.  Sometimes the lover was the employee.  Some might have same-sex liaisons only with people who were friends in the same predicament.  Some were so hidden in the closet that no one knew.  Some were not outed until they passed away.

But whatever the case, the sapphic traffic in 1930's and 1940's Hollywood was mind-boggling.  This was not only the Golden Age of Hollywood, it was the Golden Age of Sappho Hollywood.  I mean these were THE huge women stars of the day.  Didn't any straight woman want to ascend to the top?  Gee, Bette Davis must have been very lonely.

So come on, let's inveigle our way into 1930s and 40s traffic and see who we see.

Marlene Dietrich never lacked for a date on Saturday night because she slept with them all... women and men.  I liked her style.  She was, at least in the crowd we're discussing here, one of the most out, the most open, the least concerned with what others thought.  I suspect her sex with men was for fun and frivolity and there were issues of her wanting to conquer them but her heart was devoted to women. 

She had an open marriage at a young age to a man she lived with for just five years and never divorced.  Why bother?  It served a purpose to remain married to him.  She is one of the few mentioned here who had a child.  She was, they say, given to sleeping with her male costars, famously with Jimmy Stewart (I can't imagine) and John Wayne (she called him a bum lay).  But whether men or women, she preferred affairs to sharing the medicine cabinet or a mortgage.  Her affairs could last a few months, maybe over a long weekend or a quickie in her dressing room.  She seemed to put a sexual spin on most everything she ever did or said and seemed to always get by with it. 

I have always wondered how Dietrich got away with her openness.  Some have guessed, I think accurately, that she was such a seductress... at all levels.  Adding to that a foreign allure, Americans were fascinated by her without finding her to really be one of us.  She didn't threaten us and always entertained.  There was a theatricality about her that made it look as if she were always acting, always having fun.  

Greta Garbo was before my time.  She stopped making movies before I was born.  I have seen mere minutes of some of her films and only one in its entirety... Camille... and by the end I was looking for a rafter, a chair and some rope.  I never connected to the grand manner in which she performed.  I never connected to her supposed beauty either.  What I did get was that she was a lesbian and a butch one at that.  In real life she spoke of herself in the third person masculine.  As she attended a rare party, someone would ask her, so how are you, Greta? and she would respond in that deep, husky voice, he is fine.  Well, okey dokey. 

Garbo and Dietrich did enjoy separate affairs with some of the same women and it was inevitable that they would find themselves pushed into a relationship.  You'd be so good for one another, lesbian writers Salka Viertel or Mercedes de Acosta would coo.  It has been said that their week-long go at it fizzled because it was apparent to both that each wanted to be the man.  Garbo, of course, was also far more closeted than Dietrich.  She turned her back on Hollywood the moment she arrived.  She never signed autographs, never participated in publicity, never answered fan mail and attended almost no Hollywood functions.  As she disdained any sort of public scrutiny and was likely a bit uncomfortable in her own skin, she would leave acting quite early and hole up in her Manhattan digs. Her famous I vant to be alone was more like I want to be left alone.  I could only guess her lesbianism had everything to do with that.  She, like most of the others, was born too soon. 

Tallulah Bankhead was more a stage actress than a movie star, although she was beyond wonderful in Hitchcock's 1944 Lifeboat.   She was a blueblood from the south; her father was Speaker of the House of Representatives.  She was a renowned sex maniac and a devotee of anonymous or near-anonymous encounters.  She was apparently beyond wonderful in the sack as well, although sharing the leadership role was not something at which she excelled. 

But when Talluluah let that hair down!

She was married to the B-actor John Emery for a short time and perhaps she was bisexual because she slept with both sexes, but  men were but a snack for her while women were the main course.  She had a longtime affair with character actress Patsy Kelly and shorter ones with Garbo and Dietrich, Hattie McDaniel (yes, Mammy of Gone With the Wind fame) and Nazimova.  Who?  Keep reading.

Alla Nazimova was a force in Hollywood... mostly from the silent era until she passed away in the mid-40s.  Like Bankhead, she was more a theater actress.  In Tinseltown she did do some acting but was better known as a screenwriter and a producer.    You've heard of the casting couch?  As a producer, the couch was hers and she was known to hold auditions with many a young starlet.  She was famously involved with both of Rudolph Valentino's lesbian wives.  She lived rather openly with woman lover for the last 16 years of her life.

She was most famous for owning the Garden of Allah (which had formerly been her own Sunset Blvd. mansion, location of much notoriety in its heyday) earlier in her career.  It was a place that she had converted into a number of bungalows where the Hollywood elite or foreign showbiz types could come to hide out and unwind.

She also coined the term the sewing circle which was code for lesbians' discreet gatherings.  In her day, in the hierarchy of Hollywood lesbians, she was the king.

Barbara Stanwyck's Titanic costar, Clifton Webb, called her my favorite American lesbian.  Right on, Cliffie, mine too.  Some fans undoubtedly bought that she was straight because of her decade-long marriage to Hollywood dreamboat, Robert Taylor, himself causing the occasional Hollywood whisper, but that's just as Stanwyck preferred it.  Despite her tough babe demeanor on film, she was a softie in many ways off screen and was certainly not one to wave flags or draw attention to herself.  Her romantic encounters were with friends, those who worked for her, those with whom she had a bond and trusted.  For public Hollywood functions, she would be on the arm of a gay man, often producer Ross Hunter or actor Cesar Romero. 

Stanwyck and Webb

I have commented often enough on Stanwyck in numerous postings, but this is a good spot to revisit one item.  With all her avoidance of the lesbian spotlight, it was a surprise that late in her career she played a lesbian brothel owner in Walk on the Wild Side.  It was only 1962.  We still hadn't evolved that much as a society and I thought she was pretty brave.

For all the moxey Katharine Hepburn was fond of exhibiting, she was a deeply-closeted lesbian, not at all as honest and forthcoming as she would have us believe.  Have us believe?  She practically rammed the nonsense down our throats.  She not only enjoyed the sleight of hand, she surely got off on pretending, off screen as well as on.  And she was good at it.  She always danced around being gay.  She flouted pants-wearing when no one else did it, publicly disdained marriage (although like most of her sapphic sisters, she was in an odd one), said she should have been a man... and come on now, she golfed.  She had at various times two longtime live-in secretary-traveling-companions-letter-openers-stamp-lickers that she was admittedly quite fond of, but not that admittedly.

She gave us magnificent performances, four of which netted her an Oscar... to this day the winningest actor in the Oscar pantheon.  But her greatest performance was in her relationship with Spencer Tracy.  By some accounts it was a counterfeit one, one designed to pull the wool over the gullible public's eyes.  They certainly loved one another but it was never more than chaste.  Some have suggested that Tracy was gay as well, and although my gaydar never went off with him, if he weren't gay, what was in it for him to be in a relationship with a gay woman?  She was a helper by nature and she needed a cover.  He was an alcoholic.  Some say he was running away from feeling responsible for his son's deafness.  I say nonsense.

Her earlier relationship with Howard Hughes was also a publicist's snow job.  Not only was he, at minimum, bisexual, but she was not his physical type at all.  Her closest relationship was with her gay brother who committed suicide as a teen and Hepburn found him.  Some say she was never quite the same afterwards.  After he died, she wanted to be him.  She would for years give November as her birth month when, in fact, it was her brother's.  A most interesting woman.

There, of course, was one of the great love stories of the day... Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier.  Not quite as fictional as Tracy and Hepburn's, nor am I disputing that the Lord and Lady loved one another, but the unsanitized version is that she liked girls almost as much as he liked boys.

The complex and conflicted Jean Arthur, though married for years to a straight man, was whispered about because she never played the Hollywood game with respect to publicity and openness.  She was rather reclusive but had many close female relationships and in her later years preferred to dress totally as a man.  She must have had a devil of a time in 1948 when she costarred with Dietrich in Foreign Affair, costarring bisexual actor John Lund.  Talk about lesbians at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Could Arthur have resisted the advances of Dietrich had the latter made any on their faraway German locations?  It has been said Dietrich did not care for Arthur; perhaps that came about after she was rebuffed. 

Marlene Dietrich & Jean Arthur

When Claudette Colbert was asked if she were a lesbian, she would always say no, but most did in those days.  Not everyone was Dietrich or Bankhead.  Colbert was married twice.  She never lived with her first husband of five years while her second marriage lasted over 30.  Dietrich claimed to have had an affair with Colbert and for years CC was in the constant company of lesbian artist, Verna Hull.  She left the bulk of her estate to a female friend with whom she was very close for the last 30 years of her life.

Warner Bros star Alexis Smith was a lesbian although married for almost 50 childless years to Craig (Peter Gunn) Stevens. Of course, again, I wonder what was in it for him, although they surely worked it all out nicely for a partnership to last that long.  (Making my way through sapphic traffic, my gaydar is always on and it used to go off for two of Smith's frequent costars, Ann Sheridan and Jane Wyman. I could be wrong but one learns to trust one's gaydar... after all.)  In 1975 Smith followed in the footsteps of another of her costars, Stanwyck, and played a lesbian in Once Is Not Enough.  Smith went one better by having rather hot physical scenes with costar Melina Mercouri. 

Alexis Smith (l), Melina Mercouri

Songbird Mary Martin and actress Janet Gaynor were both married to gay men and were lovers on and off for many years.  Joan Crawford did like her men and admitted that she slept her way to the top but she still managed the occasional fling with a woman.  For most of her career gay rumors dogged beautiful Hedy Lamarr.  Though she's almost out of our time frame of the 30s and 40s, comedienne Judy Holliday was well-known for liking the girls. 

Character actresses could afford to be lesbians much more than leading actresses who were expected to smooch and hug handsome male actors and make us believe it.  Australian-born Judith Anderson is a great example.  Never the prettiest belle at the ball, she possessed an authority that was downright... er, um... manly.  Whoever could have played Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca more chillingly than Dame Judith?  She married twice but declared that neither was a jolly experience.   I would guess not.  Not everyone can be Alexis Smith and Craig Stevens.

Martha Ivers' most interesting cast

I have always wondered what the set must have been like on 1946's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.  Along with male stars Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas (his first film), there was Anderson and Barbara Stanwyck and... and... Lizabeth Scott.  Is she gay as well?  If she is, she has never come out.  But she never did the Hollywood dating scene, she never married and she was once the subject of an explosive Confidential Magazine article about those kinds of girls.  She sued the magazine and lost.  If she is gay and if she was out at all to coworkers, that set must have been something to behold.

Another set to behold even more wonder was 1945's Since You Went Away.  It was the story of a family of women back home while their husband/father is off to war.  The great character  actress and lesbian, Agnes Moorehead, costarred with Hattie McDaniel, Nazimova and Colbert.  I wonder how leads Shirley Temple and Jennifer Jones navigated around that set.

Marjorie Main of Ma and Pa Kettle fame?  Lesbian.  Adorable, grandmotherly Spring Byington?  Lesbian.  Josephine (North by Northwest) Hutchinson?  Lesbian.  Ona Munson (Belle Watling of Gone With the Wind fame)?  Lesbian.  There were rumors about Charlotte Greenwood (Aunt Eller of Oklahoma) and Jane Darwell (Ma Joad of The Grapes of Wrath).  Will it never end?

Well, it just has..

Jan Sterling (not a lesbian)


  1. Well! that was a whloe lot more Lebanese than I expected? Marjorie Main? OMG...


  3. LOL. You don't say. Your comment would have been more compelling had you been more specific.

  4. l do not say you are wrong about these actresses, but essentially you display the blithe disregard for actual proof, and instead embrace "gaydar" and the prattlings of Dame Rumour, that so many of my fellow gay men, especially those
    of us who adore Old Hollywood,take as gospel. The gossip about Vivien Leigh --and, though not a name dropper, my friend and client, the late Ms Coral Browne, Leigh's friend assured me of this --was nothing more than gossip,just as rhe canard about her former husband Lord Olivier and Danny Kaye was dismissed by those who knew both men, including Gore Vidal, as sheer nonsense.

  5. Y'know, I don't know anyone who has ever read more showbiz biographies than I have and I have read countless times that these women are gay. Plus I grew up in Southern California, worked at Universal, was an entertainment reporter and these things were just known. Not one of them told me they were gay and probably not one told you they weren't. There will always be deniers. I get it. And who knows what agendas Browne and Vidal might have had. Their comments don't provide the proof you ask for. Regardless, I thank you for writing. Spirited conversations are among my favorites.

  6. Not only are they ALL lesbians but most are shape shifting reptilian aliens as well :/