A Woman to Know: Gladys Bentley

It seems I was born different. At least, I always thought so. — Gladys Bentley

It seems I was born different. At least, I always thought so. — Gladys Bentley

(image via National Museum of African American History and Culture)

In 1923, when she was just 16, Gladys ran away from home.

As a child growing up in Philadelphia, she dressed up in her younger brothers’ suits and insisted on talking openly about her crushes on other girls. Her parents, aghast, sought to “cure” her — and so Gladys ran away.

She ran right into the center of the Harlem Renaissance, the refuge for Black artists and the LGBTQ+ community. Gladys lived openly as an out lesbian and began dressing in a complete tuxedo and top hat. She sang at legendary venues like The Clam House, the Ubangi Club, the Cotton Club and even The Apollo. In 1928, fresh off a record deal, she hired eight male drag queens to sing backup for her act. She lived in a fabulous Park Avenue apartment and even celebrated a (not legally binding) wedding with her then-girlfriend.

She toured the country, singing with celebrities and selling out shows. Nightclub marquees called her “America's Greatest Sepia Piano Player” and the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs.” As Langston Hughes later wrote:

Miss Bentley was an amazing exhibition of musical energy — a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard — a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.

In the 1930s, when Prohibition brought an end to the speakeasy scene in Harlem, Gladys moved to California. But she could never quite replicate the success of her earlier career. As McCarthyism swept the nation, venues required special permits so she could perform in her trademark tux and top hat.

In 1952, Gladys sat down for an interview with Ebony Magazine and declared a regimen of “female hormones” had converted her to heterosexuality. “I am woman again,” she told the interviewer. She gave up her tuxes for dresses, married a man and studied to work in the church. When she died in 1952, she was preaching as an ordained minister and living in Los Angeles.

Add to your library list:

​​Read more:

Watch more:

Hear more:

Send your own recommendations for women to know! Reply to this newsletter with your lady and she could be featured in an upcoming edition.