1925-27: Lesbianism in the life of Bessie Smith

Chris Albertson

I know women that don't like men The way they do is a crying sin. It's dirty but good, oh, yes, it's dirty but good There ain't much difference, it's just dirty but good. "It's Dirty But Good," Peter Tamony (1930)

A section in Chris Albertson's recent biography of Bessie Smith (1972) discusses the "wide range" of the famous Black blues singer's "sexual tastes." The narrative centers around Smith's violent conflict with her husband Jack Gee over the women in Smith's love life. Albertson's account provides a rare glimpse into the hectic affairs and husband-trouble of a Black, female, woman-loving blues singer in the mid-1920s.

For his biography of Bessie Smith, Albertson tape-recorded interviews with, among others, Ruby Walker, Smith's niece by marriage, who spent many years with her aunt as a performer in her shows and later as a close companion. Albertson's account of Bessie Smith's Lesbianism is evidently based on Ruby Walker's recollections. Albertson's biography is written with regard for accuracy of historical detail, and, in reference to conversations he quotes, Albertson says, "AII dialogue . . . is taken verbatim from firsthand recollections; it may not give the actual words spoken, but I believe it captures the essence of what was said."

The Black blues songs quoted above indicate that Lesbianism was not an unmentionable subject on those Columbia recordings designed for sale to Black people and called "race records." The touring company organized by Bessie Smith included Boula Lee, a chorister with a sexual interest in other women. Male impersonator Gladys Fergusson is mentioned as an intimate of Bessie Smith's, and another famous blues singer, Bessie Smith's early teacher, Ma Rainey, is cited as a woman-loving woman. Porter Grainger, the Black composer of one of Bessie Smith's musicals, is mentioned as homosexual.

Chris Albertson writes

Bessie tried to keep Jack from discovering several aspects of her private life, such as the wide range of her sexual tastes. Fortunately Jack could not read; otherwise he might have seen a short item in a black gossip paper called the Interstate Tatler. Its publisher, Floyd Snelson, made other people's business his business.... His item on Bessie appeared in the paper's "Town Tattle" column on February :7, 1925, under the by-line "I. Telonyou":

Gladys, if you don't keep away from B., G. is going to do a little convincing that he is her husband. Aren't you capable of finding some unexplored land "all alone."

Fortunately for Snelson, Bessie, who was said to be chummy with male impersonator Gladys Ferguson at that time, neither saw nor heard about the item.

It is not known at what stage in her life Bessie began to embrace her own sex. Some have assumed that Ma Rainey, who was similarly inclined, initiated her, but this theory is supported by no more evidence than the improbable story of Bessie's "kidnapping." But by late 1926, when Lillian Simpson entered her life, Bessie's sexual relationships included women. Like many young girls, Lillian, who had been a schoolmate of Ruby's, romanticized show business life. At sixteen her head was filled with hazy pictures of life on the road; her heart was set on becoming, at the least, a chorine. Ruby's tales of her touring experience impressed Lillian and she persuaded Ruby to teach her a few dance steps. Ruby then arranged an impromptu audition before Bessie in the Gee living room on I32nd Street. The last thing the show needed was another chorus girl, but Lillian's mother had once been Bessie's wardrobe mistress, so Bessie finally gave in, and even started teaching the young girl some additional steps.

And so Bessie headed south with Ruby and Lillian, joining her Harlem Frolics company in Ozark, Alabama, on the first of November....

. . . Just before the troupe got ready to pull out of Ozark, a chorus girl told Bessie that while she was in New York, Jack had "messed around" with another chorus girl.

Without taking time to check out the story, Bessie jumped the girl, beat her up, and threw her off the railroad car, which was still parked on a dead track.... Then she stormed through the railroad car looking for Jack....

Bessie didn't find Jack on the car . . . but she found his gun, and when she came out of their stateroom, Jack was standing over the sobbing girl, trying to find out what had happened.

A shot rang out. Bessie stood on the rear platform of the car, gun in hand.

"You no good two-timing bastard," she shouted, waving the gun in the air. "I couldn't even go to New York and record without you fuckin' around with these damn chorus bitches. Well, I'm gonna make you remember me today."

Jack started toward her. "Put that gun down, Bessie." Another shot sent him racing down the track. Bessie jumped off the platform and went after him, emptying the gun. "I've never seen Jack run so fast," recalls Ruby. "Everybody was scared to death that Bessie would kill him this time, but I think she missed him on purpose." A couple of hours later the troupe left Ozark without Jack.

Bessie had been on good behavior for several months, and now she was ready for some fun. Jack's departure after the alleged indiscretion provided both the opportunity and the excuse.

The troupe spent Christmas of 1926 on the road somewhere in Tennessee, where Bessie threw a small party for her gang. She went out and got eggs, milk, and liquor for eggnog, but after the girls had beaten the eggs and added sugar and liquor, Bessie had second thoughts about the milk-it seemed a shame to dilute that good corn liquor any further. The resulting concoction left no one sober.

As the party showed signs of ending, Bessie approached Ruby, cocked her head in Lillian's direction, and said, "I like that gal." Ruby assumed that she was referring to Lillian's dance routine, which had improved in the past month. "I'm glad you like her-she's doing good, ain't she?"

"No, I don't mean that," said her aunt. "I'll tell her myself, 'cause you don't know nothin', child." Whereupon she walked over to Lillian, whispered something to her, and led her out of the room.

Ruby and Lillian shared a room, but when Ruby awoke the next day she saw that Lillian had not slept in her bed. No one in the troupe was shocked when Lillian and Bessie began sleeping together regularly. The one thing the members of the Harlem Frolics company were worried about was Jack's sudden, inevitable return.

Lillian herself seemed to adjust to her relationship with Bessie as quickly as she had adjusted to the other unorthodox aspects of her newly chosen profession. The day after her initiation, she confessed to Ruby what was going on, suggesting that Ruby didn't know what she was missing, and that she "try it" with Boula Lee, a chorus girl who was also the wife of the show's musical director, Bill Woods. Boula had made subtle passes at Ruby, but Bessie had warned her niece that she'd be sent home if she fooled around with any of the girls in the show.

Several days later, Bessie was on stage at the Frolic Theatre in Bessemer, Alabama, singing; the chorus was ready to go on. Ruby, first in line, stood in the wings not far from where Bessie was performing. Ruby had developed a boil under her left arm, and was holding her painful left arm in the air. Concentrating on her cue, she did not notice Dinah Scott [a male, comedian, and stage manager] sneaking up behind her. He grabbed her under the arms and Ruby let out a scream.

Bessie kept on singing, but she jerked her head in Ruby's direction and frowned: she never tolerated any noise from backstage during a performance. Helen, another chorine, ran forward with a tissue and put her arms around Ruby while she gently daubed at what was left of the boil.

Boula, looking on from the other side of the stage, misunderstood Helen's intentions. Shortly after the curtain came down, she stomped over to Ruby and asked her to step outside. "You ain't gonna mess around with them other bitches," she said, then lunged forward and scratched Ruby's face. Ruby fought back, and the two were deeply entangled when Bessie made a sudden appearance.

"I know Jack's gonna blame me for this," said Bessie, separating the two and knocking Boula clear across the small alley.

Jack was due to join the show that night, and when he showed up, Bessie was ready for him. Several members of the troupe were sitting in her room when Jack entered and looked around. "What y'all doin'up here drinkin'?"

"Nobody been drinkin' any liquor, rigger," said Bessie. "You're not in the police force, you're in show business, so don't come in here pushin' on people all the damn time."

During this exchange Ruby had been standing with her back to Jack. When Jack asked her to turn around, she explained-as her aunt had instructed her-that her face was scratched because she and some of the girls had fought over costumes. Bessie was adding a few details when Bill Woods, who had been standing quietly in the corner, blurted out, "It was one of them bulldykers who's after Ruby."

"What do you mean oneof them?" Bessie shouted. "It was your wife!"

Jack grabbed Boula, carried her into the hall, threw her down the stairs, and ordered Woods to send her home. While Jack was out of the room, Bessie noticed the fear in Lillian's face. Turning to Ruby, she said, "Whatever you do, you better not tell on me and Lillian."

On January IO, 1927, Bessie's show began a week's engagement at the Booker Washington Theatre in St. Louis. Jack had left the troupe again, and Bessie and Lillian continued their affair. On their first day in St. Louis, Bessie entered the room shared by Ruby and Lillian. She walked up behind Lillian, leaned forward, and kissed her.

Embarrassed, Lillian looked at Ruby and jerked away. "Don't play around with me like that," she said.

Bessie grabbed her around the waist. "Is that how you feel?"

"Yes!" Lillian said. "That's exactly how I feel."

"The hell with you, bitch," said Bessie. "I got twelve women on this show and I can have one every night if I want it. Don't you feel so important, and don't you say another word to me while you're on this show, or I'll send you home bag and baggage."

For three days and nights Bessie ignored Lillian totally. On the fourth night Lillian did not show up at the theatre. The show went on without her, but as soon as the curtain fell Bessie started to worry. "She's just tryin' to pout," she told Ruby. Just then, Maud burst into the room. "I had left the theatre and gone into the hotel," she recalls. "When I passed Lillian's room, I saw an envelope sticking out from under the door. The door was locked, so I pulled the envelope out, opened it and saw that it was a suicide note. That's when I ran back to the theatre to get Bessie."

Without taking time to read the note, Bessie, with Ruby and Maud at her heels, ran next door to the hotel. When they reached Lillian's door, they smelled gas. Bessie tried to force the door, panicked, rushed downstairs, and got the proprietor. When he let them in, they found Lillian Iying across the bed, unconscious. The proprietor had to break the windowpanes: Lillian had nailed the window shut. She was taken in an ambulance to the nearest hospital.

Bessie didn't sleep that night. The next morning she went to the hospital and got Lillian out. The episode apparently put an end to Lillian's inhibitions. "From that day on," says Ruby, "she didn't care where or when Bessie kissed her-she got real bold."

Bessie and company played the Roosevelt Theatre in Cincinnati during the week of January 17, and opened at the Grand in Chicago the following Monday....

During their stay in Chicago Lillian first tried to leave the show. She had lost her inhibitions but not her fear; Jack, she knew, would find out about her and Bessie sooner or later, and she wanted to get out while the getting was good. Bessie persuaded her to stay.

But when they opened at the Koppin Theatre in Detroit on February 5, Lillian decided to leave once and for all. This time Bessie expressed no anger, made no pleas.

The affair with Lillian had kept Bessie relatively sober, but on the night following Lillian's departure, she cut loose. Detroit was a fine town for that. On previous trips, Bessie had befriended a woman who ran a buffet flat. Buffet flats- sometimes referred to as good-time flats-were small, privately owned establishments featuring all sorts of illegal activities: gambling and erotic shows, as well as sex acts of every conceivable kind. These buffet flats were usually owned by women, who ran them with admirable efficiency, catering to the occasional thrillseeker as well as to regular clients whose personal tastes they knew intimately....

Each time Bessie appeared at the Koppin, her proprietress friend would send one or two cars to the stage door to transport Bessie and her party-usually a coterie of girls who knew how to kocp their mouths shut-to the notorious establishment. The night after Lillian left, Bessie took five girls, including Ruby, with her. As they walked out the stage door she delivered a familiar threat: "If any of you tell Jack about this, you'll never work in my shows again."

The house was packed with all kinds of people. Laughing pleasure-seekers, drinks in hand, formed human chains as they wandered up and down the linoleumcovered staircase, stopping in the various rooms along the way to take a peek at the shows. "It was nothing but faggots and bulldykers, a real open house. Everything went on in that house-tongue baths, you name it. They called them buffet flats because buffet means everything, everything that was in the life. Bessie was well known in that place."

Bessie's pleasure-seeking that night was limited to watching and drinking. That was usually the extent of her activity in such places, for she could ill afford to have word get back to Jack.

Although the flat's most popular attraction that season seemed to be a young man who made expert love to another man, Bessie was most intrigued by an obese lady who performed an amazing trick with a lighted cigarette, then repeated it in the old-fashioned way with a Coca-Cola bottle....

After two hours or so, she gathered her girls together and took them back to Kate's theatrical boardinghouse, where the troupe was staying....

As was their custom, especially on a closing night, they all changed into nightgowns and pajamas and paraded from room to room, drinking, eating some of Bessie's cooking, passing along the latest gossip.

On this night they all wound up in Bessie's room on the first floor. Marie, a young girl who did a ballet-tap dance number in the show, was wearing a pair of bright-red pajamas Bessie had bought her, and everybody laughed when she did a few comic steps in them. Bessie laughed loudest. "C'mon, Marie, show your stuff," she shouted.

. . . "We were drinking, clowning, and having ourselves a ball in Bessie's room, and, as usual, I was the first one to pass out-I just couldn't keep up with that crowd," recalls Ruby. Someone carried her to her room, which adjoined Bessie's, and a couple of hours passed before she was awakened by shouts and running footsteps outside her door. She jumped out of bed, dashed to the door, and opened it.

The first thing Ruby saw was Marie tearing down the corridor. Bessie, right on her heels, almost knocked Ruby over as she pushed into her room and locked the door behind her. All hell was breaking loose: Jack had made one of his surprise appearances and caught Marie in a compromising situation with Bessie.

Bessie was terrified as only Jack could make her. "If Jack knocks, you don't know where I'm at," she said to Ruby. They huddled together as Jack's heavy footsteps passed down the corridor. "Come out here, I'm going to kill you tonight, you bitch," he shouted.

There were further threats and pacing until Kate stepped out of her room and pleaded for calm.

"I think I know where she is," they heard Jack say in a softer tone, "but when she comes back, you tell her I'm lookin' for her." His voice trailed off as he stepped down the wooden stairway that led to the street.

Bessie waited a few seconds, then got Ruby to open the door and check the lay of the land. The other members of the troupe were now standing in their doorways or at the top of the staircase, waiting for Bessie to make her next move. She told them to gather whatever they could carry of their belongings, and head for the train depot. They all obliged, quickly and quietly-everybody was scared of Jack, and that night he was angrier than they had ever seen him.

No one took the time to dress. Carrying armloads of clothes and other personal effects, the troupe made its way through the cold February night to Bessie's railroad car. At Bessie's instructions no lights were turned on, and the dark car was hitched to the next outgoing train. Fortunately Jack didn't find them; an hour later the Empress, still in her pajamas, quietly slipped out of Detroit with her entourage.

The following Chapter in Albertson's biography opens:

...There's two things got me puzzled, there's two things I don't understand; That's a Mannish acting woman, and a skipping, twistin' woman-acting man.
"Foolish Man Blues"

Bessie knew, of course, what she was singing about when she recorded those words in 1927. Most urban blacks-whether they indulged or not-accepted homosexuality as a fact of life. Jack probably did, too, but not when it was so close to home. Not that he was totally straitlaced-he did indulge in heterosexual promiscuity. He may have suspected Bessie's sexual interest in women before the incident with Marie, but that appears to have been his first actual confrontation with his wife's bisexuality. Clearly it was more than he was prepared to take.

Their getaway successful, Bessie and her company headed for Columbus, Ohio, where they were scheduled to open at the Pythian Theatre. Fortunately, most of the costumes and all the drops had been put on the train right after the last show in Detroit, but many of the troupe's personal effects had been left behind at Kate's in the hasty exit. "That's how I lost the only fur coat I ever had," Ruby recalls. "I had to leave it at Kate's-Bessie took us out of Detroit almost naked."

Following the first evening performance at the Pythian, some local admirers joined members of Bessie's troupe for a drink in her dressing room.... Any performer who had spent time with a Bessie Smith show was automatically on the alert for a sudden appearance of Jack, but this time he caught them all off guard. No one except Ruby even noticed him until he was halfway into the room....

Jack charged into the crowded dressing room and knocked Bessie to the floor. "I'm not going to do any more to you now," he said, looking down at her, "but wait until the show is done tonight-you ain't a man, but you better be like one because we're gonna have it out." He would be waiting at the hotel, he said, and walked out.

Bessie wasn"t ready to face Jack. "I'm in real trouble now," she told Ruby after clearing her room of performers and guests, "and I ain't about to mess with Jack as mad as he is. Fix my feathers, baby, and let's get this show over with and get out of town."

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