The TRUTH About Gladys Bentley
August 12, 1907 - January 18, 1960
Publisher's Note: Some journalists have often tried to write into
the history of folks what they want or need to be there. Near the end of
life Gladys gave her life to Christ, denounced homosexuality as a
acceptable lifestyle and answered her call to the ministry. Although
died prior to being ordained as a minister in her church, her life's
of spiritual change continues to inspire many.
To suggest that her decision was influenced by anything other than
call of God on her life is pure speculation. A woman who was strong
to be 'out'-rageous in the thirties, Bentley would certainly have
courage to continue, after her career was over, to live any way she
The truth is that Bentley got tired of resisting God's call. She
that eternity is closer than we believe. -Charlene E. Cothran
Gladys Bentley was born on August 12, 1907 in Philadelphia, PA. She
was the eldest of 4 children born to a Trinidad born mother, Mary
(Bentley) and an American born father, George L. Bentley.
Bentley was a muscular and masculine girl; by the time she reached
adolescence, she knew that her attraction to women made her
different from many of the people around her. As a result, she
harsh treatment from family, classmates, teachers, and even doctors
claimed they could "cure" her. She left home when she was sixteen.
Bentley moved to Harlem, where she found an underground social
that included gambling, drug use, drag shows, and other behavior
illicit by the broader culture. In this so-called "sporting life,"
found the freedom to be an openly lesbian woman without risk of
abuse. She was not afraid to flaunt her lesbianism by flirting with
her audiences and talking openly about her sexual escapades.
She began performing at rent parties and in some of Harlem's
clubs and became a popular blues singer among Harlem's fringe
The Big Sea, Langston Hughes described her dynamic style during this
"Miss Bentley sat, and played a big piano all night long, literally
all night, without stopping singing songs like 'The St. James
from ten in the evening until dawn, with scarcely a break between
sliding from one song to another, with a powerful continuous
Dressed in signature tux and top hat , Bentley openly and riotously
flirted with women in the audience. Her salary increased
desirable, white patrons, including Carl Van Vechten, started to
to her shows. She began to play the Cotton Club and other more
Harlem venues. These less "sporting" audiences didn't prevent
singing obscene songs and from creating her own salacious versions
popular tunes. Her style remained vibrant and rowdy. In Parties, Van
Vechten modeled a blues performer on Bentley; "when she pounds the
dawn comes up like thunder," he wrote, "say, she rocks the box, and
it, you can bet, and jumps it through hoops." 2
Characters based on her appeared in novels (Carl Van Vechtens'
"Parties", Clement Woods "Deep River" and Blair Niles "Strange
Brother").Starting in1928 ( at age 21) she began a recording career that
decades. Eight recordings for the OKeh recording company were
followed by a
side with the Washboard Serenader's on the Victor label. Although on
recordings she did not dare have lesbian lyrics, she certainly
this image in the clubs and in public.
Lois Sobel, a popular columnist of the era, recalled Bentleys
announcement of her marriage ceremony with her white female lover in
Jersey. Bentley briefly parleyed her fortunes into a Park Avenue
servants, beautiful cars, etc. In the 1930s the repeal of
quickly eroded the prominence of Harlem bistros. Furthermore, the
Depression seems to have ended much of the "anything goes" spirit of
tolerance that had pervaded in the 1920s'. In spite of this, Bentley
able to hold on by cultivating her homosexual following. In the
1930's she was the featured entertainer at Harlem's' Ubangi Club,
by a chorus of men in drag. But by 1937 the glory days of Jungle
very much a thing of the past.
Bentley (now aged 30) moved to Los Angeles to live with her mother
small California bungalow. She was able to maintain some success,
particularly during World War II when many homosexual bars
the west coast (capitalizing on the influx of gay men and lesbians
military). Once again, Bentley carved out a niche for herself in
subculture and environment. Many lesbian women came to see her shows
Joquins' El Rancho in Los Angeles and Monas in San Francisco,
occasion she did have legal trouble for performing in her signature
In 1945 she recorded 5 discs for the Excelsior label (still not
to use lesbian lyrics in recordings) including "Thrill Me Till I get
Fill," "Find Out What He Likes", and "Notoriety Papa". However in
limited tolerance that had been eroding since the Great
Depression finally collapsed disastrously. The McCarthy "witch
particularly vicious towards homosexuals.
In 1950, Bentley wrote an article for Ebony entitled "I am Woman
in which she repudiated her former life, claiming to have "lived in
personal hell" of unhappiness and loneliness. She also claimed to
cured her lesbianism via female hormone treatments and was finally
after a "hell as terrible as dope addiction".
She claimed to have married a newspaper columnist named J. T. Gibson
man who soon after publicly denied that the two had ever wed). In
married a man named Charles Roberts. He was a cook and 16 years
Bentley, who lied on the marriage certificate, stating her age as 36
than 45. The two eventually divorced.
Bentley did manage to still perform, usually at the Rose Room in
Hollywood. She recorded a single on the Flame label and appeared
Groucho Marx's' television show.
At this stage, Bentley became an active and truly devoted member of
Temple of Love in Christ, Inc. She was about to become an ordained
in the church when she died of a flu epidemic in 1960 at the age of
1 Langston Hughes The Big Sea NY: Knopf, 1940
2 Van Vechten Parties: Scenes FromContemporary
New York Life NY: Knopf, 1930