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Mon, 08.12.1907

Gladys Bentley, Singer born

Gladys Bentley

*Gladys Bentley was born on this date in 1907. She was a Black lesbian and bisexual singer and entertainer.

She was the oldest of 4 children born to a Trinidad-born mother, Mary Mote (Bentley), and a Black father, George L. Bentley, born in America.  She left home at 16 and ended up in New York, the capital of "The New Negro" and the Harlem Renaissance.  For Bentley, her sexuality 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 often 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 a 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 the 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 lesbians 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 1950s were particularly vicious towards homosexuals; the lives of many in the LGBT community were ruined. Bentley started wearing dresses and changing her act out of desperate fear for her survival (with an aging mother to support her). 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. Bentley became an active and devoted member of "The Temple of Love in Christ, Inc " at this stage of her life."

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

To Become a Musician or Singer



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

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