Partner Isabel Grenfell Quallo
447 W 22nd St, New York, NY 10011, Stati Uniti
Madrona, 20 Scenic Rd, Fairfax, CA 94930, USA
Druid Heights, Camino del Canyon, Muir Woods, Mill Valley, CA 94965, USA
Elsie Gidlow (29 December 1898 – 8 June 1986) was a British-born, Canadian-American poet, freelance journalist, and philosopher. She is best known for writing On A Grey Thread (1923), possibly the first volume of openly lesbian love poetry published in North America. In the 1950s, Gidlow helped found Druid Heights, a bohemian community in Marin County, California. She was the author of thirteen books and appeared as herself in the documentary film, Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977). Completed just before her death, her autobiography, Elsa, I Come with My Songs (1986), recounts her life story.
Elsa Gidlow was born Elfie Gidlow on 29 December 1898 in Hull, Yorkshire, England. Sometime around 1904, the Gidlow family emigrated to Tétreaultville, Quebec, Canada. At the age of fifteen, Gidlow and her family moved to Montreal. She was first employed by a contact of her father's in Montreal, a factory doctor, as assistant editor to Factory Facts, an in-house magazine.
In 1917, she began seeking out fellow writers and meeting with them, particularly in the field of amateur journalism, which was popular at the time. With collaborator Roswell George Mills, Gidlow published Les Mouches Fantastiques, the first magazine in North America where gay and lesbian issues were discussed, and the lifestyle celebrated. H. P. Lovecraft, a fellow amateur journalist, attacked their work, leading Gidlow to defend it and attack back in return; the dispute created a minor controversy but brought Gidlow and Mills public, albeit negative attention.
Gidlow moved to New York in 1920 at the age of 21. There she was employed by Frank Harris of Pearson's, a magazine supportive of poets and unsympathetic to the war and England. It was at this time she met Kenneth Rexroth, later known as the "father" of the San Francisco Renaissance. Later, in 1926, she moved to San Francisco. With the exception of nearly a year spent in Europe, mostly in Paris, in 1928, she continued living in the San Francisco Bay Area for the rest of her life.
447 W 22nd St
Margaret Chung, the first American-born woman physician of Chinese descent, famous as “Mother Chung” to thousands of American servicemen during the Second World War, formed romantic attachments with at least two women in the 1930s and 1940s. She met Elsa Gidlow, an openly lesbian poet, in the late 1920s when Gidlow and her lover, Tommy, became Chung's patients. Chung at this time dressed in male clothing and used the name Mike. Gidlow described her attraction to this “striking woman in her late thirties, smartly dressed in a dark tailored suit with felt hat and flat-heeled shoes.” Gidlow, in an open relationship with Tommy, courted Chung, who seemed to reciprocate her feelings but was unwilling to go any further. Gidlow's journal describes “a spontaneous kiss on the mouth” from Chung and Chung's positive response to Gidlow's insistent question, “Do you love me?” Yet Chung was cautious. After performing surgery on Gidlow, Chung told her in the recovery room, “You gave me hell this morning for operating on you; and then you asked me if I loved you. There were people around too,” suggesting that her reticence came from fear of being labeled deviant. And in fact Bessie Jeong, another Chinese American physician trained in the 1930s, put it bluntly: Chung “was a homo, a lesbian.” Chung broke from Gidlow after this incident and shortly afterward announced her engagement to a man she never married. Gidlow agonized: “Heavens! how I want to see her . . . . Sometimes I could strangle her for the way she torments me: but there is no use thinking of her . . . . but I would give a year—two years of my life to hold her in my arms for half an hour.”
In the 1940s, she lived in Fairfax, California, where in 1944 she became a home owner, active in local politics. Due to her membership in political and writers' groups allegedly affiliated with communists, she was suspected of being "Un-American" and was subsequently investigated, subpoenaed and forced to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947. HUAC's final report accused her of being affiliated with communist front organizations. However, as a philosophical anarchist Gidlow was ideologically opposed to communism, and she denied the accusation. Patricia Holt of the San Francisco Chronicle writes:
It amused Gidlow that such "radical" ideas set her up for a witch hunt in Fairfax, where she had moved in her 40s. [Their] charges that Gidlow was a "red," as Stanton Delaplane reported in The Chronicle, were "Washed Pink at Fairfax Hearings." But Gidlow, who lived with a woman of African descent and often made dinner for the Chans from San Francisco, was later accused of "living with a colored woman and frequently entertaining Chinese people... This was damning evidence that I could not be a loyal American."
Perhaps seeking solitude, Gidlow left her first home, Madrona, and the garden she had so lovingly tended for ten years there and, in 1954, purchased a ranch which she subsequently shared with Roger Somers and his family above Muir Woods on the southwest flank of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, California. Gidlow named her portion of the mountain ranch, which included the original farmhouse, "Druid Heights", a nod to her friend, Irish poet Ella Young. Gidlow and her partner Isabel Grenfell Quallo (1896-1985) lived together for a short time at Druid Heights, but family commitments called Isabel away. Also living there at one time or another were notable residents including her close friend Alan Watts, the poet Gary Snyder, furniture maker Edward Stiles and freewheeling bohemian Roger Somers.
Along with Watts and his soon to be wife Mary Jane Yates, Gidlow planned and then co-founded the Society for Comparative Philosophy there in 1962. This society financed many of the improvements to the property and brought many of the important visitors for whom Druid Heights is now known. Upon the death of Watts in 1973, the society carried on, but Gidlow admitted that without Watts there was a "hopelessness ." A feminist group attempted to hijack the society in the early eighties but their efforts were thwarted by their own exclusively lesbian focus, a focus which Gidlow herself never endorsed.
Gidlow socialized with many famous artists, radical thinkers, mystics, and political activists at Druid Heights, including, Dizzy Gillespie, Neil Young, Tom Robbins, Margo St. James, Allen Ginsberg, James Broughton, Baba Ram Dass, Lama Goinda, Robert Shapiro, Maude Oakes, Robert Duncan, Clarkson Crane, Sara Bard Fields, Kenneth Rexroth, Edward Stiles, Roger Somers, Catharine MacKinnon and Maya Angelou. Gidlow helped plan the funeral for her friend Alan Watts, when he died there. The monks from nearby Green Gulch Monastery often came to visit and participated in a ceremony there upon Alan's death which included an Anglican Mass; they then buried half Alan's ashes near his library at the Heights, and brought the second half to Green Gulch Monastery in the nearby valley.
Gidlow's autobiography, Elsa, I Come with My Songs: The Autobiography of Elsa Gidlow, published in 1986, gives a personal and detailed account of seeking, finding and creating a life with other lesbians at a time when little was recorded on the topic; Notably, it is the first lesbian autobiography written where the author does not use a pseudonym. Gidlow also openly discussed her lifetime experience as a lesbian in the critically acclaimed 1977 documentary feature Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, which was released theatrically and which was broadcast on many PBS stations around the United States starting in 1978.
Towards the last years of her life, Gidlow experienced several strokes. She chose not to seek medical care in a hospital and died at home in Druid Heights at the age of 87. Gidlow was cremated and her ashes were mixed with rice and buried beneath an apple tree in Druid Heights. Parts of Druid Heights have subsequently fallen into ruin, but Gidlow's home remained intact as recently as 2012.
Gidlow's estate donated her extensive personal papers to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco in 1991. The collection consists of 16 boxes (13 linear feet) of correspondence, journals, literary manuscripts, legal records, photographs and other materials documenting Gidlow's life, work and relationships. The papers are organized into nine series: Correspondence, Subject Files, Manuscripts, Published Works, Journals and Yearbooks, Audio-Visual and Photographs, Ephemera, Oversize Materials, and Original Documents. The collection is fully processed and available to researchers.
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