Rose Cleveland

There’s been a great deal of buzz this year about seeing Pete Buttigieg — someone who is part of the LGBTQIA+ community — doing so well in his campaign for the presidency. But what most of us don’t realize (and in fact, I didn’t even know until two weeks ago!) is that we’ve already had a queer person in the White House.

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Okay, no, maybe not the President. But for sure, the First Lady Rose Cleveland. Rose Elizabeth Cleveland was born in Fayetteville, New York on June 14, 1846 to Richard Falley Cleveland and Ann Neal Cleveland. She was the youngest of nine children — counting Stephen Grover Cleveland among her older siblings. They mostly called her “Libby.”

In September of 1853, the family relocated to Holland Patent, New York where their father was appointed pastor of Presbyterian church. He died a month later, after preaching only one sermon. (I hope it was a good one!) Rose, at seven years old, took on the task of taking care of their widowed mother. Grover Cleveland — sixteen years old at the time — decided he was going to support the whole family. (One teenager supporting a family of ten — my how times have changed!)
When she was older, Rose became a student at the Houghton Seminary in Clinton, New York. Afterwards, she became a teacher so she could support herself and her mother. (I guess one teenager couldn’t support a family of ten after all.) Later, she taught at the Collegiate Institute in Lafayette, Indiana and a girls school in Muncy, Pennsylvania.

In the 1880’s, Rose went back to Holland Patent and taught Sunday school so that she would be able to take care of her mother, who’s health was not doing well. In 1882, Ann Cleveland passed away. Rose remained at their homestead for some time after this and continued to teach Sunday school. In one class, she gave a lecture in which she stated:

“We cannot touch humanity at large, except as we touch humanity in the individual. We make the world a better place through our concrete relationships, not through our vague, general good will. We must each find a true partner, someone who understands and appreciates us, someone whose faith in us brings out our best efforts. Our deepest craving is for recognition—to be known by another human being for what we truly are.”

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And if that doesn’t sound like a great beginning to a coming out speech, I don’t know what does. But alas, we’re not there yet. In 1885, the unmarried Grover Cleveland was elected President of the United States — and suddenly, Rose had another family member who needed her help. She took on the role of First Lady, including standing next to Grover during his inauguration. She lived in the White House for two years — and fulfilled the duties of First Lady, although she found them to be frustrating. She was not a woman made for high society — she was fond of intellectual pursuits, and did not care much for fashion. The public’s infatuation with her dresses irked her, as did her inability to go to a public market. There were some perks however — her book of essays entitled George Eliot’s Poetry was a bestseller based almost entirely on her name recognition.

Eventually Grover married Frances Folsom, and Rose was able to leave the White House and actually, finally, do some things for herself! She became president of the Collegiate Institute in Indiana and also contributed to a magazine called Literary Life. In April of 1890, at 44 years old, she entered into a romantic and undeniably sexual relationship (the first of her life, that I can find) with a 33 year old widow named Evangeline Marrs Simpson who she had most likely met in Florida months earlier. However, six years later, against Rose’s urgings, Evangeline married Henry Benjamin Whipple. Although the women kept in touch after this, they were definitely not as…. let’s say intimate as they had been. Rose left for Europe shortly after the wedding, and did not return to the United States for three years.

Mr. Whipple died in 1901 and the pair reignited their relationship. In 1902, they traveled to Italy — and in 1910, they moved there. Evangeline told her caretaker at her home in Minnesota not to move anything. They established a home for themselves in Bagni di Lucca, in a house shared with Nelly Erichsen. Rose and Evangeline contributed a great deal to the community there, including establishing an orphanage. They also worked for the Red Cross during World War I, and helped move refugees displaced by the war to Bagni di Lucca. During the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918, Nelly contracted the illness. Rose took care of her, ultimately contracting the illness herself as a result. They died within days of each other.

After Rose’s death, Evangeline wrote “The light has gone out for me. . . . The loss of this noble and great soul is a blow that I shall not recover from.”

When Evangeline eventually died in 1930, she was buried next to Rose in Bagni di Lucca. It’s been said that, to the two of them, Italy represented the ultimate freedom to be themselves.

The letters Rose sent to her lover remained in Evangeline’s Minnesota home — untouched by the caretaker (who was way more obedient than I would have been) until they were gathered together with other papers and donated to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1969. The implication that there could have been a lesbian relationship was too much for them, so they hid the letters from the public until 1978. Rose’s letters have now been compiled into a book, Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918.

Ma Rainey

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It’s been a really great month for queer music — we’ve got a new album from country’s first openly gay singer Steve Grand; a new album from British synthpop band Years & Years, led by the openly gay Olly Alexander; and Panic! at the Disco’s lead singer Brendon Urie came out as pansexual. With all this new news, I — of course — wanted to check out some old queer music history. It’s no surprise that led me to the incomparable Mother of Blues herself: Ma Rainey.

Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Georgia or possibly in September of 1882 in Alabama (depending on if you believe Gertrude or the U.S. census — researchers seem generally not to believe her). She was the second of five kids (the other four were pretty definitely born in Alabama — and her parents lived in Alabama. I’m just saying.) At 12 or 14 years old, Gertrude performed at a talent show in Columbus, Georgia and then began performing in black minstrel shows. According to Gertrude, she first heard blues music in 1902. The story goes that she heard a performer singing a blues song at another minstrel show — Gertrude was entranced, committed the song to memory that day, and immediately began using it as an encore to her own performances. Of course, she also claimed to have invented the name of the blues genre (she didn’t) so she’s not always the most reliable source of information. Just sayin’.

Two years later she married William “Pa” Rainey — a traveling comedian and vaudeville performer. Some time shortly after that, she and her husband formed a company called the Alabama Fun Makers Company. The troupe was short-lived, and in 1906 they both joined Pat Chappelle’s Rabbit’s Foot Company where they both performed and became quite popular.

In 1912, the Rabbit’s Foot Company was taken over by F.S. Wolcott. The Raineys stuck with the company for two more years before joining Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza — which billed the duo as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues”. The name stuck, and the two were soon using it on their own without being part of a troupe of performers. Soon after that, Gertrude was getting bookings all on her own — using the name Madam Gertrude Rainey, or “Ma”.

When Ma took the stage, she was a sight to behold — adorned in a diamond tiara, a necklace made out of $20 pieces, rings on each finger, wearing a golden gown with gold-capped teeth. She carried a gun and an ostrich plume. Audiences were enthralled. In fact, even though she was in the deep south, her shows were peacefully integrated between black people and white people. She was sometimes hired by wealthy white people to play private parties, but after every single one of these she would go out dancing and socializing at the local black café.

The Raineys spent winter in New Orleans, where they met a large number of blues performers — including Louis Armstrong, Pops Foster, and another queer blues singer Bessie Smith. (A story later came about that Ma had kidnapped Bessie, forced her to join the Rabbit’s Foot Company, and made her sing the blues but even Bessie’s family denied the story.) In 1916, Ma separated from her husband, ending both their working and romantic relationships.

Her star continued to rise, and in 1923 Paramount Records asked her to record songs for them. With Paramount, over the next several years, she released more than 100 singles and sold so many of them that she has been credited with saving the company single-handedly. The recordings were very popular — but, you know how some performers are better live than if you’re just listening to them? Ma Rainey was universally considered one of those — and audiences became even more eager to see her, and even more excited at her shows.

Ma was not as open about her sexuality as some of the women of early blues — Gladys Bentley for instance — however, she wasn’t in the closet either. In 1925, neighbors called the police when one of her parties became too raucous. The officers arrived just as things were beginning to get shall we say intimate with the all-female group. Ma Rainey was arrested for “running an indecent party” but was bailed out by Bessie Smith the next day. This may have been one reason Rainey’s guitarist Sam Chatmon thought the two were romantically linked.

This incident may have been part of the inspiration for “Prove It On Me Blues”, which Rainey recorded in 1928. The lyrics are a fairly explicitly about lesbianism and of breaking gender norms. As far as I can tell, this was the first recorded piece of music to celebrate a queer sexuality.

“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.
It’s true I wear a collar and tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while.”

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Paramount ran an ad for the song — a drawing of Ma Rainey in a three-piece suit (albeit, with a skirt and heels) and a fedora, talking to a group of women with a policeman watching from across the street. The ad said “What’s all this? Scandal? … Don’t fail to get this record from your dealer!”

1928 was Ma Rainey’s last year as a recording artist. Popular music styles were changing, so her contract with Paramount ended. She toured a little bit longer, before settling down back in Columbus, Georgia. It was about this time (1932) that Sterling A. Brown wrote a poem about her called “Ma Rainey”, describing how powerful her performances were. In her later years, she opened a handful of movie theaters — the Lyric, the Airdome, and the Liberty Theatre. On December 22, 1939, she had a heart attack and died but her legacy continues to this day.

Six months after Ma’s death, Memphis Minnie wrote a tribute song called “Ma Rainey”. It was the first such song, but it would not be the last. In 1965, Bob Dylan paired Ma Rainey with Beethoven in his song “Tombstone Blues”. In 1982, August Wilson published a play about her called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In 1983, Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. In 1994, the U.S. Post Office released a commemorative stamp in her honor. Ten years later, her song “See See Rider Blues” (recorded in 1924 — you can hear it below) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and was also added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. In 2015, a film about Bessie Smith was released (Bessie) in which Mo’Nique played Ma Rainey, and one year later the First Annual Ma Rainey International Blues Festival was held in Columbus, Georgia. Last year (2017), in the same city, the Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts opened — named after Ma Rainey and Carson McCullers.

In 1952, Langston Hughes released a poem called “Shadow of the Blues”, in which one character proclaims of Ma Rainey: “To tell the truth, if I stop and listen, I can still hear her!” I think we still hear a bit of Ma every time an artist releases a song about queerness — and if that’s the case, I hope we never stop hearing her.