Gladys Bentley, more than a liberated singer


Gladys Bentley
Date: 
Mon, 1907-08-12

*Gladys Bentley was born on this date in 1907. She was an African American singer and entertainer.

She was the oldest of 4 children born to a Trinidad born mother, Mary Mote (Bentley) and an American born father, George L. Bentley. She left home at 16 and ended up in Harlem New York, the capital of "The New Negro." For Bentley, her lesbianism and the large Homosexual population in the 1920s made her need to strike out on her own all the more urgent. In Harlem this great creative outpouring was also a celebration of optimism about the future of Black America.

Audiences of the prohibition era were always craving something new. There was a "fashion of the Negro”, accompanied by a curiosity for "Pansy Acts" and "Hot Mama" lesbian or bisexual singers. Bentley carved out a place for herself around this curiosity. She would transform popular tunes of the day with bawdy mischievous playful lyrics. Dressed in signature tux and top hat, she openly and riotously flirted with women in the audience. Her popularity and salary climbed, as she was frequently mentioned in many of the entertainment columns of the day and characters based on her appeared in novels.

In 1928, she began a twenty-year recording career, 8 for OKeh records followed by a side with the Washboard Serenaders on the Victor label. In the 1930s the repeal of Prohibition quickly eroded the prominence of Harlem bistros. Also, the Great Depression ended much of the "anything goes" spirit of tolerance that had spread through the 1920s. In 1937, Bentley moved to Los Angeles to live with her mother. Many lesbian women came to see her shows at "Joquins' El Rancho" in L. A. and "Monas" in San Francisco, although sometimes she had legal trouble for performing in her signature male attire. In 1945 she recorded "Thrill Me Till I get My Fill," "Find Out What He Likes", and "Notoriety Papa".

The McCarthy "witch hunts” of the 1950’s were particularly vicious towards homosexuals; the lives of many homosexuals were ruined. Out of desperate fear for her own survival (with an ageing mother to support) Bentley started wearing dresses, and cleaning up her act. In 1952 she married a man named Charles Roberts, a cook and 16 years younger; the two eventually divorced. Bentley still performed, usually at the Rose Room in Hollywood. She recorded a single on the Flame label and appeared twice on Groucho Marx’s’ television show. At this stage, of her life, Bentley became an active and (truly) devoted member of "The Temple of Love in Christ, Inc".

She was about to become an ordained minister in the church when she died of a flu epidemic in 1960 at the age of 52.

Reference:
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York
ISBN 0-926019-61-9

To Become a Musician or Singer

Person / name: 

Bentley, Gladys