The Clam House, 146 W 133rd St, New York, NY 10030
Ubangi Club, 2221 7th Ave, New York, NY 10027
Lincoln Memorial Park, Carson, California 90746, Stati Uniti
Gladys Alberta Bentley (August 12, 1907 – January 18, 1960) was an American blues singer, pianist, and entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance. Numerous African American blues singers, including Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Gladys Bentley, engaged in romantic relationships with other females (Smith and Rainey had relationships with both men and women) and sang songs that were tantalizing in their references to same-sex desire.
Her career skyrocketed when she appeared at Harry Hansberry's Clam House in New York in the 1920s, as a black, lesbian, cross-dressing performer. She headlined in the early 1930s at Harlem's Ubangi Club, where she was backed up by a chorus line of drag queens. She dressed in men's clothes (including a signature tuxedo and top hat), played piano, and sang her own raunchy lyrics to popular tunes of the day in a deep, growling voice while flirting with women in the audience. She attraxted the attention of New York's elite, white and black, including Langston Hughes, who wrote: "Miss Bentley was an amazing exhibition of musical energy - a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard."
On the decline of the Harlem speakeasies with the repeal of Prohibition, she relocated to southern California, where she was billed as "America's Greatest Sepia Piano Player" and the "Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs". She was frequently harassed for wearing men's clothing. She tried to continue her musical career but did not achieve as much success as she had had in the past. Bentley was openly lesbian early in her career, but during the McCarthy Era she started wearing dresses and married, claiming to have been "cured" by taking female hormones.
In 1931, Bentley had a public marriage to a white woman during a civil ceremony in New Jersey whose identity remains unknown. When she relocated to Los Angeles, she married J. T. Gipson, who died in 1952, the same year in which she married Charles Roberts, a cook in Los Angeles; they were married in Santa Barbara, California, went on a honeymoon in Mexico, and had a five-month-long courtship before their divorce. Roberts denied ever marrying her.
Carl Van Vechten. Gladys Bentley, Prentiss Taylor, and Nora Holt, 1932 Feb. 27. Prentiss Taylor papers, 1885-1991. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Gladys Bentley with bandleader Willie Bryant, 1936
A post card promoting Bentley, 1937
Bentley died of pneumonia unexpectedly at her home in Los Angeles on January 8, 1960, aged 52. It was initially believed to be the Asian flu but later turned into "pneumonia." At the time of her death, she had been more involved in the church and had just been ordained as a minister despite never getting her official paperwork.
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