Dorothy Wilde

dorothywildeHistory usually remembers ambitious people, who applied themselves to a chosen profession or cause and excelled. That is not exactly the case with Dorothy Ierne Wilde — better known as “Dolly” Wilde.

Dolly was born in London on July 11, 1895 — three months after her uncle Oscar Wilde was arrested for committing homosexual acts. She never met her uncle, but they had a a lot in common. (Not just the whole homosexuality thing, actually. But, you know, that too.) She was the daughter of Willie Wilde and Sophie Lily Lees and had no siblings. Willie died only in March of 1899 — leaving the three year old Dolly to be raised by her mother and her mother’s new husband, the journalist and translator Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.

There’s not much else available about her childhood (except that she liked to eat sugar cubes dipped in her mother’s perfume — ew), but in 1914 she made her way to France in order to drive ambulances for the war effort. While living in Paris during the war, Dolly met Standard Oil heiress Marion “Joe” Carstairs and the two began a hot and heavy relationship. The relationship didn’t last particularly long, but Dolly seemed to have found her calling: having rich friends.

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Photograph by Cecil Beaton

After World War I ended, Dolly became, basically, a full-time socialite. She wasn’t wealthy by any means, although her stepfather left her some money when he died in 1921, and mostly survived off the generosity of her friends. She lived in their guest bedrooms, or in hotel rooms, and even sometimes in apartments that she borrowed. She did all she could to live a wild, glamorous life. She had a great talent for telling stories (apparently a hereditary trait), which made her popular at parties and salons, though she never used this talent to actually pursue a career. during these years she went through a string of lovers including with the silent film actress Alla Nazimova (who starred in the 1922 movie Salomé which was based on Oscar Wilde’s book). She referred to these no-strings-attached daliances as “emergency seductions.” She also caught the ire of F. Scott Fitzgerald by flirting with Zelda Fitzgerald. Although only interested in women, Dolly enjoyed the attention she received from men as well — several men over the years proposed marriage to her, but she refused them all. Other than her promiscuity, Dolly was also an alcoholic, and developed an addiction to heroin.

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Photograph by Cecil Beaton

If any of this sounds like Dolly had tons in common with Oscar Wilde, I’m just going to point out that her nickname was “Oscaria” and she was quoted as saying “I am more like Oscar than Oscar himself.” Which is a seriously bold claim to make about someone you’ve never met. So it’s little surprise that when Oscar Wilde-super fan Natalie Clifford Barney saw her picture, and saw the family resemblance, she invited Dolly to her renowned Friday night literary salons. Dolly fell in love with Natalie, and the two were together from 1927 until Dolly’s death. The two attended numerous parties together, raising Dolly’s profile significantly — particularly in 1930 when they attended a masquerade ball and Dolly, dressed as her uncle Oscar, was described as “looking important and earnest” in The New Yorker‘s “Letter from Paris” column, written by Janet Flanner.

Dolly attempted to get clean of heroin addiction on multiple occasions — to no avail. During one stay in a nursing facility, she developed a new addiction to paraldehyde — a sleeping pill that was, at the time, available without a prescription. In 1939, Dolly was diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided to explore alternative treatments, stubbornly refusing surgery. With hostile German forces approaching Paris in 1940, she fled back to England — where she was still living when she passed away on April 10, 1941. A coroner could not determine the cause of death, she may have died from cancer or she may have died from a drug overdose.

She left very little behind — 200 of letters to friends and lovers, a passage written in Ladies Almanack, and the testimonies of those who knew her published in Natalie Clifford Barney’s In Memory of Dorothy Ierne Wilde: Oscaria ten years after Dolly passed away.

Ma Rainey

MaRaineyIt’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.”

ma-rainey-prove-it-on-meParamount 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, 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.

Willem Arondeus

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Willem Arondeus (1894 – 1943)

Willem Arondeus was an artist-turned-author and — most importantly — a member of the Dutch resistance to Nazi occupation. He was born on August 22, 1894 in Naarden, Netherlands. His parents, Hendrik Cornelis Arondeus and Catharina Wilhelmina de Vries, designed costumes for the theater. Despite being the child of two people in the theatre, and being one of six kids, apparently there was nothing remarkable about his entire childhood. I find that a little hard to believe, but there’s literally nothing written about the first seventeen years of his life. Whatever.

At seventeen years old, Arondeus fought with his parents over his homosexuality, left home, and severed all contact with his family. That part of his story is, unfortunately, all too familiar to too many LGBT+ people even to this day. (It would have been a lot worse, had Denmark not decriminalized homosexuality in 1811. Thanks Napoleon!) He began building a career for himself as an illustrator and painter, and was even hired to paint a mural for the Rotterdamn Town Hall in 1923. However, he never had much success as a painter and was living in abject poverty.

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“Salome” by Willem Arondeus (1916)

(I’m including a picture of his drawing “Salome” which was completed in 1916. I’m not trying to say this explains, maybe, why he didn’t have a lot of success as a painter but like, y’know, form your own opinions. This piece, and other surviving pieces of his, are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

In 1933, Willem met a man named Jan Tijssen, and the two lived together for the next seven years. In 1935 he decided that visual arts might not be for him, and turned to poetry and writing. This turned out to be a good move. In 1938 he published two novels, and in 1939 he published his most famous and, by all accounts, his best work “The Tragedy of the Dream” which is a biography of the artist Matthijs Maris.

And then the Nazis came, and his real work began. When the Nazis came to the Netherlands, they mostly took their time with their policies. There weren’t any immediate deportations, there were no strict curfews. They were trying a subtle approach to keep the Dutch from resisting. This mostly worked. Many of the Dutch were fooled into thinking the Nazis weren’t as bad as everyone was saying. But the Nazis didn’t hesitate when it came to criminalizing homosexuality — and the open and proud LGBT+ populace of the Netherlands was not having any of that. Like many others, Willem Arondeus joined the Dutch resistance almost immediately. (I hesitate to call him a founding member, because no one else seems to be calling him that, but from what I’m reading, he probably missed being a “founding member” by like a day or two.)

Willem’s primary job during the early days of the resistance was to forge fake identity papers for Dutch Jews. Also in his unit were a number of other openly homosexual people, including cellist and conductor Frieda Belinfante. Willem did more than that, however. He also began writing and publishing an illegal magazine encouraging more Dutch to join the resistance. He attempted to call the artistic community of the Netherlands to act against the Nazi regime, criticizing the Nazi’s cultural committee. (He also published another book that had nothing to do with resisting the Nazis. it was called “Figures and Problems of Monumental Painting in the Netherlands”, and he illustrated it himself.) In 1943, Willem’s publication joined forces with a publication run by other Dutch artists, reaching even more people.

By 1943, the Dutch Resistance had a vast underground network hiding Jews from the Nazis. The Nazis, however, were catching on. They began comparing identity papers to those in the Amsterdam Public Records Office. Willem Arondeus would not stand for this. The Dutch Resistance was mostly known for being a peaceful resistance — but this next action would become a symbol for the whole movement. Willem is credited in several places for having the idea.

He determined the only course of action was to blow up the Public Records Office. Joined by his unit, the attack was carefully planned out and executed on March 27. Thousands of files were destroyed. But the success was short-lived — a traitor within the resistance turned the unit in to the Gestapo just a few days later. That traitor’s identity remains unknown to this day. Willem and his cohorts were arrested. Willem took full responsibility for the attack — but the trial was a sham, and twelve people, including Willem, were held responsible and executed on July 1, 1943. The rest of Willem’s unit was forced to flee the country.

Willem’s final words were communicated by his lawyer. “Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards.”

Frieda Belinfante escaped execution. Most of her participation in the resistance was ignored for years — but more galling to her still, Willem’s role in the resistance was erased for decades. Credit for leading the unit was given to a heterosexual man. She insisted “[Arondeus] was the great hero who was most willing to give his life for the cause.”

In 1984, the Dutch government posthumously awarded Willem the Resistance Memorial Cross. On June 19, 1986, the state of Israel recognized Willem as Righteous Among the Nations (an honorific for non-Jews that risked their lives to protect Jews during the Holocaust). Despite this recognition, and his last words, Willem’s sexuality was not recognized until the 1990’s. Frieda Belinfante’s contribution to the resistance was officially recognized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1994. She died one year later, at 90 years old.

Backtracking just for a second, if I may, I just want to touch on those last words. Because, if there was *ever* a theme for this whole site — it’s that. We’ve been here forever, and we have always been brave. If there’s a thread that connects the LGBTQ+ community together more than our gender identities or our sexualities, it’s courage. And, yeah, that’s mostly been out of necessity. It takes bravery to stand in front of a world that hates you and say “so what? I’m me.” But even in times and places where we weren’t hated, we still have that fire — like Osch-Tisch? She was an incredible bad ass, and she wasn’t battling bigotry (at the time, anyways).

Let it be known that LGBTQ+ people are not cowards.

(Adapted from a Facebook post.)