Gladys Bentley was one of the greatest blues singers and entertainers from the Harlem Renaissance. Being a regular at some of the most popular clubs of that era, Gladys was known to be a rule-breaker which ultimately led her to be a trailblazer.
However, it wasn’t just her being a top-notch performer that garnered her attention. She often wore a tuxedo with tails and top hat during her shows, and she also went by the name Barbara ‘Bobbie’ Minton.
Living her life openly as a ‘bulldyke,’ Gladys would take well-known songs and change them to more lewd lyrics for the crowd to sing along with her. A chorus line of drag queens accompanied her on stage as she played the piano, sang, and flirted with women in the audience. Gladys went from making $35 a week plus tips to making $125 a week and having the club renamed after her to Barbara’s Exclusive Club. She later began performing in a popular spot on Park Avenue, where she lived in a penthouse with servants and a driver.
Gladys sang about bulldykes, sissies, and sexual relationships. She attracted everyone from men, women, black and white people, gays and straight people, and even celebrities such as Cary Grant, Langston Hughes, and more to her shows.
As the fast and free-living movement of the Harlem Renaissance took drastic changes, Gladys relocated and continued her risqué stage shows in California. However, living life as a lesbian became harder. She began to get harassed for dressing as a man during her performances. Due to changes in the federal laws, she was required to carry a permit to perform in men’s clothing.
The Lavender Scare shook homosexual living. Those suspected of living a gay lifestyle were interrogated and fired. In addition, employers were allowed to ask questions regarding the sexual activities of their employees. From the late 1940s until the 1960s, federal employers fired or forced employees to resign due to their homosexual relationships.
Gladys started wearing dresses and claimed female hormones helped cure her homosexual ways. During the McCarthy era, named after Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, Gladys got married to a cook, which she later denied. She also studied to become a minister. In prior years, Gladys married a white woman in New Jersey. Her second marriage came years later, but that partner died shortly after their marriage.
Gladys was interviewed and wrote an essay for Ebony Magazine in 1952. The article, I’m A Woman Again, described how when her mother found out Gladys was born a girl instead of the boy she had hoped for, her mother refused to care for her. Instead, her grandmother cared for her for the first six months of Gladys’ life. After that, Gladys felt she was born differently. She preferred her brothers’ suits over dresses. In addition, she had a crush on her female teacher. As a result, she was considered unladylike and ran away to New York at 16 years old.
January 18, 1960, Gladys died at the age of 52 in her Los Angeles home of pneumonia. She is buried next to her mother at Lincoln Memorial Park in Carson, California.
See the amazing video below and let me know what you think of Gladys Bentley!