Posted in category "Arts & Letters"

Charlotte Mew’s Fearful Longings

Posted by Censor Librorum on Jan 16, 2022 | Categories: Arts & Letters, Faith, History, Lesbians & Gays, Sex

“Charlotte Mew: Madness and Sapphic Desire,” by Rebecca Batley introduced me to this slightly mad, brilliant, and reclusive poet. Almost immediately she reminded of some closeted Catholic lesbians that I have met. These women longed for love and sex but were fearful of acting on their desire. They were afraid of losing their respectability; and the tension between their religious faith and sexual need filled them with dread and a sense of loss. No wonder they were a little unhinged. Deeply closeted women often don’t read signs well, and can fixate on women who aren’t interested in them. This results in a predictable rejection. 

Charlotte “Lotti” Mary Mew was born on November 15, 1869, in London, England. Several of Mew’s siblings suffered from mental illness and were committed to mental institutions. This scared Charlotte and her remaining sister Anne, so much that they made a pact never to marry. In 1898, their father died without leaving any money for the family. This forced the Mews to rent out part of their home, and Charlotte took a job.

As a schoolgirl, Charlotte fell in love with her headmistress, Lucy Harrison. Harrison herself fell in love with a teacher named Amy Greener, and they moved away. Mew had two other serious crushes: the writer Ella D’Arcy in 1898 and popular novelist and suffragette May Sinclair nine years later. Her loves were unrequited. There is no information on whether Charlotte’s physical longings were ever consummated with anyone, but her poem, There Shall Be No Night There describes a tender fantasy:

“Then through my blood the coming mystery
Of night steals to my heart and turns my feet
Toward that chamber in the lamp-lit street,
Where waits the pillow of thy breast and thee.
‘There shall be no night there’—no curtained pane
To shroud love’s speechlessness and loose thy hair
For kisses swift and sweet as falling rain.

What interested me the most about Charlotte Mew was the tension between her religious belief and her lesbian desire. Tensions and strains between our physical and spiritual selves have ripped apart, wounded, or maimed many lesbians. Charlotte Mew was no exception. Does God love me for who I am and what I am? Many lesbians have concluded that the answer is “No,” and leave religion to end their isolation and painful loneliness. Mew stuck with religion but suffered. She believed, but she also carefully coded her desires and doubts in her poetry:

“I think my body was my soul,
And when we are made thus
Who shall control
Our hands, our eyes, the wandering passion of our feet,
Who shall teach us
To thrust the world out of our heart: to say, till perhaps in death,
When the race is run,
And is forced from us with our last breath
“Thy will be done”?

“Madeleine in Church” by Charlotte Mew (1916)

In 1926, her sister, Anne, was diagnosed with cancer. Charlotte took care of her until she died in 1927. After her sister’s death, she became deeply depressed and entered a nursing home. She committed suicide by drinking Lysol, a disinfectant. Charlotte Mew died on March 24, 1928, at the age of fifty-eight. 

Charlotte Mew is buried with her sister Anne in Hampstead Cemetery, West Hampstead, London. The epitaph reads, “Cast Down the Seed of Weeping and Attend.” The phrase is from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Vol. II (Purgatorio), Canto XXXI (31). Dante meets his ladylove, Beatrice, and recalls his love for her. She admonishes him.

“Cast down the seed of weeping and attend;
So shalt thou hear, how in an opposite way
My buried flesh should have directed thee.”

“Never to thee presented art or nature
Pleasure so great as the fair limbs wherein
I was enclosed, which scattered are in earth.”

The dismal reproach to follow a “higher good” instead of human love followed poor Charlotte Mew to her grave.

I wish instead to provide her and her work and art a happier ending, inspired by Psalm 126:6 –

“Those who go forth weeping,
Carrying sacks of seed
Will return with cries of joy,
Carrying their bundled sheaves.”

Almost 100 years after Charlotte Mew’s death, there are lesbians of faith who are married, enjoying the physical delights of a loving relationship, and looking forward together to the promise of salvation and eternal life.

The Farmer’s Wife, a poem by Charlotte Mew read by Tom O’Bedlam

 

 

 

 

Andy Warhol’s Catholic Influences

Posted by Censor Librorum on Jan 5, 2022 | Categories: Arts & Letters, Celebrities, Faith, History, Lesbians & Gays, Scandals, Sex

Andy Warhol is an influential and celebrated 20th century artist and pop icon. He was gay and was raised Catholic. His faith and sexuality influenced his art. As an adult, he did attend church from time to time, especially after he was shot and almost killed in 1968 by Valerie Solanas, a writer and radical feminist.

Andy Warhol with Bibles

“Revelation” an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum from November 19, 2021 to June 19, 2022, features Warhol artworks that are infused with both strains, often harmoniously and deeply revealing. The show was developed by the Andy Warhol Museum’s chief curator, Jose Carlos Diaz and curated at the Brooklyn Museum by Carmen Hermo.

Some of the show’s highlights include Warhol’s two gigantic versions of “The Last Supper” in pink and yellow; and a fusion of the face of Christ, an advertising tagline, and a shirtless young man; and a shot-up, scarred Warhol reminiscent of Christ’s wounds or a martyred St. Sebastian.

Much of Catholic dogma, art and religious expression is focused on the body. The sacrament of the Eucharist—eating and drinking Christ’s body—can have sexual overtones. Human figures in Catholic art history are often beautiful men, some in sexually suggestive poses. These influences went into Warhol’s formation as an artist and as a man, and he combined them with the pop arts trends of the day. Catholicism has inspired generations of homosexual artists through its sensual and sexually charged imagery.

 

 

The Mob Behind Dog Day Afternoon

Posted by Censor Librorum on Dec 26, 2021 | Categories: Arts & Letters, Celebrities, History, Humor, Lesbians & Gays, Scandals, Sex

John Wojtowicz

“I’m a Catholic and I don’t want to hurt anybody. Understand!” yelled Sonny Wortzik, the bank robber played by Al Pacino in the memorable 1975 movie, Dog Day Afternoon.  Pacino’s character was based on John Mojtowicz, 27, who along with 18-year-old Salvatore Naturile, and Robert Westenberg, attempted to rob a Chase Manhattan branch in Gravesend, Brooklyn on August 22, 1972.  Westenberg fled when he saw a police car. All three men were gay.  The night before the robbery they all had sex together at the Golden Nugget Motel.

In the movie, the main reason for the heist was to get money to pay for a male-to-female sex change operation for John Wojtowicz’s wife. That may have been part of Wojtowicz’s stated reason, but was it the whole truth? According to Liz Eden (born Ernest Aron), Wojtowicz’s transgender wife, Wojtowicz owed the Gambino family money.  Some of that money went to pay for their December 1971 wedding, where they were married by a Roman Catholic priest. Liz Eden wore a wedding gown; John Wojtowicz his Army uniform and medals from the Vietnam war.

According to the FBI, Wojtowicz met Naturile a month prior to the robbery at a gay bar called Danny’s, located on Seventh Avenue South in the Village. Naturile agreed to participate to get money to rescue his two sisters from foster care. The guns used in the robbery supposedly came from Mike Umbers, 37, a Gambino family associate who ran a club, bar and bookstore in the West Village.  Umbers fronted several gay bars, callboy rings and pornography operations for the Genovese and Gambino organized crime families.  Wojtowicz was friendly with Umbers, much to the chagrin of his fellow Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) members. Wojtowicz was known as “Littlejohn Basso” (Basso was his mother’s maiden name) at GAA.

Sal Naturile

On August 26, 1972, this article about Wojtowicz’s Brooklyn heist appeared in the New York Times:

“An acquaintance of John Wojtowicz—who has been charged with robbing a Chase Manhattan branch in Brooklyn last Tuesday and holding nine persons hostage—reportedly told the Federal Bureau of Investigation yesterday that an underworld figure supplied the guns used by Wojtowicz and two accomplices in the holdup.” “The acquaintance, Gary Badger, was questioned by F.B.I. agents yesterday afternoon, but the bureau would not comment. A friend of Mr. Badger, however, said that he told the agents that five men, including Wojtowicz, began planning the robbery last April, but that two of the men later bowed out. Wojtowicz was pressed to carry out the robbery by the underworld figure, who owns Greenwich Village bars and is involved in pornography, Mr. Badger reportedly told the agents. Mr. Wojtowicz owed the gangster money, he said.”  Arthur Bell, a respected Village Voice columnist and investigative reporter, interviewed Badger, who showed up at a GAA meeting to make a plea for money to help bury his friend, Sal Naturile.

Arthur Bell knew Wojtowicz through GAA meetings and dances.  He interviewed Wojtowicz and published an article about the robbery in the August 31, 1972 edition of the Village Voice, “Littlejohn and The Mob, Saga of a Heist.” Wojtowicz described how he met a middle-aged Chase Manhattan bank executive at Danny’s.  The executive told him how he could rob the branch of $150,000 to $200,000.  The money in the bank’s safe was picked up early; so instead of the big payday only $29,000 was on hand.

Bell also knew Mike Umbers, and interviewed him in 1971, a year before the robbery.  The article, “Mike Umbers: Christopher’s Emperor,” described his start in the sex business; first as a pimp for high-class call girls and brothels, and then catering to gay men.  Umbers had his run-ins with police and other crime families. According to the article, “Corruption, Before and After Stonewall,” Mike Umber’s Christopher’s End club was trashed by police.  It was possible that police destroyed the interior with hammers and axes because Umbers wasn’t paying them off; or,  the attack was ordered by Al Moss, also known as Abe Moss, who ran some gay bars for the Gallo crime family in the West Village.

Mike Umbers (second from right) in front of Christopher’s End

I was interested to read that Al Moss had a nephew named “Red” who paid the police $2,000 a month to protect The Barn, an after-hours club on Hudson Street.  “Red” may be a reference to Red Mahoney, a long-time associate of Ed Murphy, who had his own checkered past as a gay blackmailer and gay activist. Mahoney worked with Murphy when he was alive and took over running the Christopher Street Festival after Ed died in 1989.  Mahoney ran the Festival until 1992, when he became ill and stepped down.  Mahony was a short, grumpy guy with dark red hair. He didn’t have Ed Murphy’s gregarious nature or command the same respect.

The vast web of connections between the mob (Genovese, Gambino, Gallo crime families), their associates (Murphy, Mahoney, NYPD), front men (Umbers), expendables (Wojtowicz, gay hustlers) and gay clubs and bars before and after Stonewall continues to amaze me.  The connections were essential to their multi-million dollar businesses of bars, clubs, pornography, prostitution and blackmail.

Was the middle-aged Chase Manhattan executive who tipped off Umbers and Wojtowicz being blackmailed?

 

 

 

 

 

The First Catholic Lesbian Book: Hungerheart -The Story of a Soul

Posted by Censor Librorum on Dec 12, 2021 | Categories: Arts & Letters, Celebrities, Faith, History, Lesbians & Gays, Sex

Hungerheart is a lesbian novel written by British author Christabel Marshall under her adopted male name, Christopher St. John. The book was published in 1915 in London by Methuen & Co. The novel is a first-person account of Joanna, “John” Montolivet that follows her search for love and passion. At one point she lives with Sally, a young actress, and they are “happy as a newly married pair, perhaps happier…” Sally decides to marry a man, and Joanna/John finds solace in the arms and bodies of stormy and dramatic women. Eventually she heads for quieter shores, and coverts to Catholicism. Her “friendship” with a young nun fulfills her heart’s hunger. “There are things that can be lived, but not chronicled, and our friendship is one of them,” Joanna/John describes. “Who in the world could understand our moments of union? Who in the cloister either? But they are understood in heaven…Thy love for me is wonderful, passing the love of men.”

Hungerheart never achieved the fame of another book written a decade later by another Catholic lesbian—Radclyffe Hall’s, The Well of Loneliness. Only a few copies of Hungerheart survive in research libraries. For some odd reason, it was not tagged with a homosexual or degenerate label but cataloged as a work about “Catholic spirituality.”

Christabel Marshall

The author’s book embodied her voracious love life. Christine Gertrude Marshall a.k.a. Christopher Marie St. John (1871-1960) was an English suffragette, a playwright and writer. After college, Marshall served as secretary to Lady Randolph Churchill and actress Dame Ellen Terry. Marshall became romantically involved with Dame Ellen’s daughter, Edith (Edy) Craig (1869-1947). The two women began living together in 1899. Marshall attempted suicide when Craig accepted a marriage proposal from composer Martin Shaw in 1903. Edith Craig was an actress, director, producer and costume designer.

In 1912 Christabel Marshall converted to Catholicism and took the name, St. John out of affinity with St. John the Baptist. Her friend, Claire Atwood, converted around the same time. Atwood gave Una Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall, another Catholic couple and close friends, a relic of the true cross acquired by her ancestors from a pope. Una put it with candles and flowers in a shrine in her bedroom.

In 1916, artist Claire (Tony) Atwood (1866-1962) moved in with Craig and Marshall. Their menage a trois lasted until Craig’s death in 1947. Una Troubridge used to call them, “Edy and the boys.” They often wore men’s attire to match their male names. “Miss Craig,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her diary, “is a rosy, ruddy ‘personage’ in white waistcoat, with black bow & gold chain loosely knotted.” Marshall wrote rhat the three women “achieved independence within their intimate relationships…working respectively in theatre, art, and literature, and drew creative inspiration and support from one another.”

Edith Craig

In 1932, when she was sixty-one, Marshall fell madly in love with Vita Sackville-West, a member of the Bloomsbury Group and a successful poet and writer. Their affair continued for several years and caused huge fights between Marshall and Craig. Atwood unsuccessfully tried to serve as a peacemaker.

In 1935, under her male name, Christopher St. John, Marshall wrote a biography of a distinguished physician, Dr. Christine Murrell, the first female member of the British Medical Association’s Central Council. Titled, “Christine Murrell, M.D., Her Life and Work,” St. John/Marshall wrote the dedication to both of Murrell’s lovers: Honor Bone, M. D. and Marie Lawson, a printer, editor, and tax resister. Like St. John/Marshall, Murrell had a threesome household.

Christabel Marshall/Christopher St. John died in 1960. She is buried next to Claire Atwood at St. John the Baptist’s Church, Small Hythe, England. This is the church where Dame Ellen Terry worshipped and where her funeral Mass was held in 1928. Edith Craig’s ashes were supposed to be buried there as well, but by the time of Marshall’s and Atwood’s deaths, they had been lost. A memorial was placed in the cemetery instead.

Why did so many Anglican clerics, creatives and/or socially prominent gays and lesbians convert to Catholicism in the Victorian and Edwardian eras? The Catholic Church has always been opposed to homosexual sex; but it also has been tolerant of gay sex among its members, including priests, the hierarchy and religious, as long as they were discreet and parroted official teaching in public. At that time, being Catholic was a little naughty, not socially acceptable, and showed a streak of rebellion and independence. Creatives were drawn to the sensuousness, the pageantry, and the mysteries in Catholicism. Catholicism emphasizes the body—the body of Christ in our mouth, the bodies of saints who give themselves up to pain and ecstasy, the homoerotic images found everywhere there are Catholic artists and cathedrals. For women, Catholicism offers many role models of women who lived full and fulfilling lives—without men.

Christopher St. John’s Shrine

 

 

The Catholic, Fruit-Flavored Liberace!

Posted by Censor Librorum on Oct 7, 2021 | Categories: Arts & Letters, Celebrities, Faith, History, Lesbians & Gays, Scandals, Sex

In 1959, the flamboyant entertainer, Liberace, sued the Daily Mirror, a British paper, for insinuating that he was a homosexual. Daily Mirror columnist, William Connor, writing under the pen name, Cassandra, described Liberace as “…the summit of sex – the pinnacle of masculine, feminine and neuter. Everything that he, she, and it can ever want…a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.”  In court, Liberace denied being a homosexual (“I’m against the practice because it offends convention and it offends society”) and sued for libel.  He won and was awarded £ 8,000. Liberace skipped off and coined his famous saying, “I cried all the way to the bank.”

To the day of his death from AIDS in 1987, Liberace denied he was gay. He belonged to the generation of show business homosexuals (Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Anthony Perkins, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, Agnes Moorehead..) who believed that their personal lives were private, and certainly not political.  Liberace’s Catholic upbringing may have had a hand in shaping his attitudes, but so did social mores of post-World War II America. Actors and entertainers’ contracts included morals clauses. If they were exposed as homosexuals, their careers were over and they were economically ruined.  “I don’t think entertainers should publicly air their sexual or political tastes,” said Liberace. “What they do in the privacy of their home or bed is nobody’s business.”

He encapsulates the institutional Catholic philosophy of homosexuality for both clergy and laity:  flirt, enjoy romance, have sex with tricks and lovers, but always deny your homosexuality and condemn it in others.  Above all, say nothing political. This practice was most recently on display with the outing and resignation of Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, the general secretary of the U.S. Conference for Catholic Bishops in July 2021. Burrill was exposed through his cellphone data which indicated that he had repeatedly used his Grindr app to find men and had visited gay bars and bathhouses. 

Wladziu Valentino Liberace (May 16, 1919-February 4, 1987) was the highest paid entertainer in the world at the height of his fame in the 1950s-1970s. Born in Wisconsin to parents of Italian and Polish origin, “Mr. Showmanship” was known for his excesses on the stage and off. After watching a movie about Frederic Chopin in 1945, Liberace made the candelabra his symbol, always on his piano during a performance. But he was best known for his elaborate, sensational costumes. There was a “King Neptune” costume; a red, white, and blue hot pants outfit; one of his favorites called the “lasagna” costume, which featured a cape that fanned out when he spun around. Two of the most “over the top” capes were designed by Liberace’s dear friend and furrier, Anna Nateece. One was white fox fur with a train 12 feet wide and 16 feet long. The second was made from 500 mink skins and weighed over 150 pounds. They were both trimmed with rhinestones.

His homes exhibited the same excess. Mirrored walls, a marble quarry’s worth of floors, colonnades and fixtures, a casino with a slot machine jackpot of three candelabras, a canopied bed with an ermine spread. On the bedroom ceiling was a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel with Liberace’s face among the cherubs. Liberace loved dogs and had about 20 of them between his Las Vegas and Palm Springs houses. They must have had a hard time skidding and slipping on the shiny marble floors.

Liberace was camp before the word came into wide-spread use. When the word first appeared in the early 20th century, it denoted “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical, effeminate or homosexual behavior.” In the 1966 Batman television series with Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward is the Boy Wonder—the campiest show ever–Liberace played a dual role as a concert pianist, Chandell, and his gangster-like twin, Harry, who was extorting Chandell into a life of crime as “Fingers” in the episodes “The Devil’s Fingers” and “The Dead Ringers.” According to Joel Eisner’s The Official Batman Batbook,” they were the highest rated of all the show’s episodes. The show had huge homosexual overtones as well. Burt Ward speculated in his book, My Life in Tights, that Batman and Robin could have been lovers. What drew fans to Liberace was not only his flamboyant and outrageous costumes and act, but his warm, gracious, polite, and down-to-earth way of speaking to fans and his audience from the stage or television. “I talked to my viewers as if they were my friends, my next-door neighbors,” he said.

Liberace gave a hint to one of his connections to Catholicism when he once remarked on religion: “There will always be the need for people to worship,” he said, “whether it’s religion, an entertainer or a movie star. I’ve always felt close to religion because it’s a form of show business.”  The late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, Mother Angelica and even Bishop Robert Baron of Word on Fire could appreciate that statement. But when it comes to costumes, Liberace undoubtedly would feel closest to Cardinal Raymond Burke with his 20-foot train of watered silk, scarlet gloves, and jeweled red hats.

In November 1963, Liberace almost died from kidney failure during a performance in Monroeville, a town right outside of Pittsburgh, PA. The day before he had been cleaning his costumes in an unventilated room with a toxic cleaning solvent. The deadly fumes nearly killed him. He collapsed onstage and was rushed to St. Francis Hospital. Liberace was hooked up to a new device – a dialysis machine – and given a 20% chance of surviving. His doctors told him to get his affairs in order. “I took it very philosophically,” Liberace said. “I had led a good life, made a lot of people happy, and I had no regrets.” He described one experience during his hospital stay in his autobiography, The Wonderful Private World of Liberace that was a turning point in his recovery: “A very young and lovely nun wearing a white habit came to see me late one night, when I was very near death. She said that she was going to pray to Saint Anthony for me, and that he would make me well. The very next day, I began to get well. I described the nun to Mother Superior at the hospital and asked who she was. The Mother Superior said, ‘There are no nuns in the hospital who wear white habits.’” Dialysis took off after it saved Liberace’s life, and St. Francis Hospital gained a new, life-long patron. Liberace raised money for the hospital, financed a new intensive-care ward, and made sure that the sisters had tickets whenever he performed in Pittsburgh. 

Soon after his Monroeville hospital stay Liberace was snared by sexual blackmailers. “The Chickens and the Bulls” extortion scheme is forgotten now, but it was a scandal in the mid-1960s. In a New York Times article published on March 3, 1966 – “Nationwide Ring Preying on Prominent Deviates,” a celebrity believed to be Liberace is described. “A TV celebrity, a twinkling star who has millions of female fans all over the world, refused to take the witness stand. However, he did tell investigators that he had paid blackmailers more than $20,000. “I can afford to lose the money,” he said, adding: “I hope they die of cancer.”

That incident didn’t slow Liberace down. He had affairs, tricks, and romances, taking in live-in lovers, usually blond, blue-eyed young men with strong physiques. One of his lovers, Scott Thorson, said Liberace’s first sexual encounter was with a Green Bay Packer football player. Thorson is also the source for a story of an affair between Liberace and Rock Hudson.

4/17/79
Liberace show at the Las Vegas Hilton

Scott Thorson, 62, met Liberace in 1976 when he was 17. When he was 18, Liberace hired him to act as his personal friend and companion.  He also incorporated Thorson into his Las Vegas performances. Thorson would don a chauffeur’s uniform covered in rhinestones and drive Liberace on stage in a Rolls Royce. The five-year relationship ended in 1982, when Liberace had members of his retinue forcibly eject Thorson from his Los Angeles penthouse. Thorson admitted that at least part of the reason for the breakup was his drug addiction.

But Scott Thorson wasn’t finished with Liberace. Shortly after he was dismissed/dumped, Thorson filed a $113 million dollar lawsuit against Liberace, the first same-sex palimony suit in U.S. history. Liberace continued to deny that he was a homosexual and insisted that Thorson was never his lover. The case was settled out of court in 1986, with Thorson receiving $75,000 in cash, three cars and three pet dogs. Thorson sniped that Liberace was a “boring guy” in real life, and mostly preferred to spend his leisure time cooking, decorating, and playing with his dogs.

In August 1985, Liberace was secretly diagnosed as HIV positive. Cary James Wyman, his alleged lover of seven years, was also HIV positive and died in 1987 at the age of 33. Another alleged lover, Chris Adler, came forward after Liberace’s death and claimed that Liberace had infected him with HIV. Adler died in 1990 at age 30. Besides his long-term manager, Seymour Heller, private physician, Dr. Ronald Daniels, and a few family members and close friends, Liberace kept his HIV positive status a secret until the day he died and did not seek any medical treatment for it.  Urged by a former boyfriend to admit that he was sick, he refused, saying “I don’t want to be remembered as an old queen who died of AIDS.”

Liberace died on February 4, 1987 at The Cloisters, his home in Palm Springs, California. He was 67 years old. His death was initially attributed to anemia from a watermelon diet, and emphysema and heart disease from chain smoking. However, the Riverside County coroner performed an autopsy and while emphysema and coronary artery disease were present, the real cause was pneumonia due to complications from AIDS. Liberace received the Last Rites a few days before he died. “He had the rosary wrapped around his right hand. There was no jewelry. The rosary beads were his jewelry,” said his publicist, Jamie James.

Within hours of his death, his body was taken from his home directly to Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles. He was buried on February 7th and is entombed with his mother and brother, George. The marble façade has the very enigmatic epitaph: “Sheltered Love.”  A memorial service for Liberace had been held the day before at Our Lady of Solitude Church in Palm Springs. Two stars were present – a neighbor, actress Charlene Tilton from the television series, Dallas, and Kirk Douglas. There was a second memorial service at St. Anne’s Church in Las Vegas on February 12th, with Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Robert Goulet, Rip Taylor and Sonny King in attendance.  In contrast to his glittery public life, Liberace’s burial was private, and his memorial services were quiet and low key. 

I agree with Liberace that not everyone is called—or should—make their private life public. Like most gays and lesbians of his era, he lied about or denied his homosexuality.  That is an unadmirable trait, but understandable in the context of his time, his entertainment career and his faith.  Except for a despised handful, there were no gay rights supporters, no “out” showbusiness people, religious, public figures, or academics until deaths from AIDS began in the 1980s and the gay and lesbian rights movement began to pick up momentum. His longtime publicist, Jamie James, once said, “He had this image, but he was no sissy. You have to be a pretty strong, brave person to wear what he wore and act like he did during those days. You had to have guts, believe me.”

Reading:

Liberace Cooks! – A Cookbook by Liberace. 1970

Liberace: An Autobiography by Liberace. 1973

The Wonderful Private World of Liberace by Liberace. 1986

Behind the Candelabra:  My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson. 1988.

Liberace: The True Story by Bob Thomas. 1988

Liberace: An American Boy by Darden Asbury Pyron.  2000

Rocking the Closet: How Little Richard, Johnnie Ray, Liberace and Johnny Mathis Queered Pop Music by Vincent L. Stephens.  2019

 

 

 

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Ed Murphy: Gay Blackmailer and Activist – Chapter 4 – Secret Lives: J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn

Posted by Censor Librorum on Jun 17, 2021 | Categories: Accountability, Arts & Letters, History, Humor, Lesbians & Gays, Politics, Scandals, Sex

Ed Murphy told me: “J. Edgar Hoover is one of my sisters.”

In 1983, I was shocked to hear Ed insinuate that the late FBI director was gay and liked to dress in women’s clothes. Even among very gossipy gay men, I never heard a breath of rumor that the late FBI director liked guys and was also a transvestite. Similarly, in the 1980s at Dignity/NY, I learned that the ruthless society lawyer, Roy Cohn, had contracted AIDS, not cancer of the liver as he claimed. Ed may have known about Hoover from firsthand stories he heard, and likely had pictures to prove it. I’m not clear if Ed Murphy’s claims are from the time of the “Chickens and the Bulls” blackmail period, or, whether the Mafia had compromising photos of Hoover and his associate director and companion, Clyde Tollson, from years before.

Clyde Tollson and J. Edgar Hoover on vacation

In his explosive 1993 book, “Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover,” author Anthony Summers claimed Hoover denied the existence of the Mafia and never pursued them because the Mafia had blackmail material on him. One of the photos was said to show Hoover blowing Clyde Tollson. The knowledge of Hoover’s homosexual activities may have kept gangsters like Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello safe from FBI scrutiny.

Author David Carter wrote in his 2004 book, “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution,” that when FBI agents joined the “Chickens and the Bulls” case, they found a photograph of J. Edgar Hoover “posing amiably” with one of the ringleaders and discovered information that Clyde Tollson was being blackmailed by the extortion ring. Both the photograph and documents disappeared after the FBI joined the investigation. David Carter thought Ed Murphy was the man posing with Hoover. Journalist and author Burton Hersh said that it was Sherman Kaminsky. It may be that Ed Murphy’s decades of work in Mafia-run gay bars, and his involvement in male prostitution and blackmail gave him access to knowledge and photos, which not only kept him safe from the Feds, but out of jail in the “Chickens and the Bulls” case.

Elwood Hammock, one of the chief extorters in the “Chickens and the Bulls” case also said that J. Edgar Hoover was homosexual as detailed in a memo dated May 19, 1966, from Special Agent in Charge (SAC) in Charlotte, N.C. to Director, FBI. The memo describes a taped telephone interview with an unnamed woman the evening of May 18, 1966. It was conducted by FBI agent Charles S. Miller of Durham, N.C.

“(BLANK) stated that on or about 4-10-66 (BLANK) ELWOOD HAMMOCK (BLANK) New York City. She recalled that ELWOOD was intoxicated at the time, and he was discussing various personalities in whom he and his confederates were interested. During the course of this conversation, he stated to her that J. EDGAR HOOVER was a homosexual. He stated also that he, ELWOOD HAMMOCK, and (BLANK) who she later learned was (BLANK) allegedly had telescopic movies or photos of a blond, blue-eyed young man who resided in either Georgetown or Bethesda, Maryland. It was not clear to (BLANK), but she gathered that this young man was guarded by two Doberman pinscher dogs, and she gathered by inference that this young man was an alleged friend of MR. HOOVER. She stated she was shocked when ELWOOD made such a fantastic allegation, and she informed him that it was utterly impossible and untrue. She stated that (BLANK) was an inveterate liar, and she placed no substance in his statement. She stated she admired the Director greatly, recognized what he had done for the country, and as she thought about the matter more, she decided to repeat ELWOOD’S conversation to a Detective (BLANK) of the New York District Attorney’s staff with whom she had been working.”

The person who had the most damaging information about J. Edgar Hoover was Susan Kaufman Rosenstiel, the 4th wife of liquor magnate Lewis S. Rosenstiel, chairman of Schenley Industries, Inc. Rosenstiel, a bisexual, was a former bootlegger who was a close associate of mobsters Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello. He was good friends with power broker attorney, Roy Cohn, and J. Edgar Hoover. He endowed the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation with $1 million in 1965. Lewis Rosenstiel’s lifelong involvement with mobsters came to light only in 1970, when the New York State Legislative Committee on Crime determined that he was part of a consortium to smuggle liquor during Prohibition.

Lewis and Susan Rosenstiel had an ugly, contentious divorce before Lewis Rosenstiel moved on to Wife #5. Rosenstiel spent almost half a million dollars trying to concoct evidence to use against his wife in divorce proceedings. He may have turned to his friend, J. Edgar Hoover, for help. At least, this is what Susan Kaufman thought, believing that the FBI director helped stack the cards against her in divorce court. In retaliation, she told anyone who would listen that Hoover was a cross-dresser and homosexual.

Meyer Lansky & Lewis Rosenstiel

During their divorce, Rosenstiel’s 4th wife, Susan Kaufman, alleged that Rosenstiel hosted orgies at the Plaza hotel where he supplied “boy prostitutes” for certain guests. Kaufman would later make the same claims under oath for the New York State Joint Legislative Committee on Crime in the early 1970s. Most of Kaufman’s testimony to the Committee was behind closed doors and remains sealed. Her claims are shocking, but both the Crime Committee Chairman, John Hughes, and his Chief Counsel, Edward McLaughlin, found them credible. McLaughlin remembered her as an excellent witness:  “I thought she was absolutely truthful. The woman’s power of recall was phenomenal. Everything she said was checked and double-checked, and everything that was checkable turned out to be true.”

Roy Cohn on vacation

Larry Summer’s book, Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover,” describes one night in 1958 where Susa  n Rosenstiel witnessed a sex scene with her husband, Roy Cohn, J. Edgar Hoover and two teenage boys in a suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Hoover was in drag, “wearing a fluffy black dress…lace stockings and high heels, and a black curly wig. He had makeup on, and false eyelashes. Roy introduced him as “Mary” …It was obvious he wasn’t a woman; you could see where he shaved.” They had some drinks, and the teenage prostitutes arrived. They went into the bedroom and “Mary” undressed, taking off his dress and pants and leaving on a garter belt. He lay on the bed, “and the boys work on him with their hands. One of them wore rubber gloves…Then Rosenstiel got into the act with the boys. I thought, “You disgusting old man.” Hoover and Cohn were watching, enjoying it.”

If what she described happened, it would be easy to imagine that Meyer Lansky and others in organized crime had blackmail photos of Hoover in a dress or getting serviced. Susan Rosenstiel quoted her husband as saying, “because of Lansky and those people, we can always get Hoover to help us.” Hoover was a blackmailer himself. “He was the biggest fuckin’ extortionist in the country,”

Ed Murphy told Arthur Bell in a 1978 interview.  “He had presidents by the balls. He had a record on everybody and his brother.”Not everybody believed Susan Kaufman’s stories. Robert M. Morgenthau, the U.S. Attorney in New York, found her claims baseless. So did famous attorney William Hundley, at that time working in the U.S. Justice Department. “Susie Rosenstiel had a total axe to grind,” Hundley said. “Somebody who worked for me talked to her. It was made up out of whole cloth. She hated Hoover for some alleged wrong he had done. Plus the story was beyond belief.”

The story does sound fantastical. How could the head of the FBI–and a notorious blackmailer himself–get himself into a position where he was held hostage? Perhaps it was a trade-off. Hoover had his secrets protected and access to male prostitutes. In return, organized crime didn’t need to worry about the FBI nosing too deeply into their operations.

Coming Tomorrow:  Chapter 5:  Stonewall Shakedowns

 

Ed Murphy: Gay Blackmailer and Activist – Chapter 1: Meeting Ed Murphy

Posted by Censor Librorum on Jun 14, 2021 | Categories: Accountability, Arts & Letters, Celebrities, History, Lesbians & Gays, Politics, Scandals, Sex

Chapter 1 – Meeting Ed Murphy

The story of Ed Murphy is fascinating, the way scandal, secrets, and evil are fascinating. It is a story with all the best ingredients—lust, betrayal, corruption, powerful men, redemption, and most of all—irony.

Ed Murphy, 1978

Ed “Skull” Murphy, a gay man who preyed on other gay men, was a secret informer for the FBI. He was protected by the FBI in return for the information he provided on Mafia operations and corruption in New York. He was also rumored to have photos of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and other prominent government, business and entertainment figures having sex with male prostitutes. Ed Murphy ran prostitution rings of teenage boys and worked as a bouncer in gay bars. He was the doorman at the Stonewall bar the night of the famous raid on June 28, 1969. At that time, he did not identify himself as a gay man. He “came out” a decade later, at the end of the 1970s, when he said that he wanted to quit working for Mafia associates and stop informing for the police and FBI.

Ed reinvented himself as one of the heroes of the Stonewall raid. He continued to work in gay bars.  He cultivated a tremendous visibility as the head of the Christopher Street Festival Committee, which organized the vendor booths/party/rally at the end of the annual Gay Pride Parade serving hundreds of thousands of people. Ed Murphy rode in a vintage Cadillac convertible near the head of the parade reserved for those who had been at Stonewall the night of the raid and riots on June 28, 1969.  This date is now generally accepted as the beginning of the modern gay and lesbian rights movement.

I met Ed Murphy in the early 1980s when he was working in some bar in the Village, either Stonewall or One Potato, Two Potato. Ed was built like a brick house, stocky and solid, with a body that must have been all muscle in his youth. I was organizing the first group of Conference for Catholic Lesbians (CCL) marchers in New York’s Gay Pride Day parade.  We also wanted to have a booth at the Christopher Street Festival in the Village for marchers to hang out after the parade. A booth on Christopher Street would also give us a great opportunity to hand out literature and meet and connect with other lesbians who had been raised Catholic. When I met him, Ed Murphy, or “Mr. Murphy” as I used to call him, was a leader in Heritage of Pride, the organization that ran the parade, festival, and dance in New York City. As such, he was the person to talk to about getting space.  Ed always gave CCL table space right in front of St. Veronica’s Church.

“My sister is a nun,” he said to me.  “Make sure you take good care of these girls,” he told the guy responsible for assigning spaces.

Our prime location paved the way for many women to find CCL.  Ed Murphy always came by our table to make sure that we were fine, and everything was OK.  That was my key impression of him: we were small and not influential on the gay scene, but Ed Murphy took care of us. That was also the impression of my friend and CCL co-worker, Barbara M. when she took over organizing the Pride Day booth.

“I remember the last time I had seen him; I was down on Christopher Street and found someone else setting up a booth in our space. I found out that Ed was sitting in a nearby bar, and I went in and found him without any trouble. He seemed to have a lot of adoring fans around him.  I told him the story, and he sent out a couple of guys to straighten things out…I thought that they realized Ed was the authority, which prompted them to move, but they may have been afraid of him for all I know…I’d met Ed only three or four times and had short, congenial conversations with him.  He was also middle aged by the time I met him. I found him very pleasant. I remember my last conversation with him was his concern that too many of the young fellas were still going bareback, and this was at the height of the AIDS crisis.  He said much of the same sort of things I would say today: these kids think they’re immortal; you can’t make them see the seriousness of it because they don’t think it will happen to them. I was never sure if his calling me “Sister” had to do with the fact that I look like a nun or ex-nun…” said Barbara M.

When I met Ed Murphy, I was in my early 30s and he was about the same age as my father.  They shared a similar upbringing and formation – the Great Depression and World War II. As boys they were poor, fast with their fists, and nonchalant about thievery.  They grew up with no money – they stole to enjoy things their families could never buy. As men they could be gallant or menacing; fiercely protective or brutal.  Ed referred to the police by the same name that my father did, “The Bulls.”  Big guys with nightsticks that had no hesitancy about using them.

Ed spoke one night to a small group of lesbian and gay Catholics where we met on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.  I was very moved to hear the story of his life and description of gay life in New York pre-Stonewall. Ed served time in jail. He stabbed another inmate in self-defense. Ed also made a point to say that he was proud that he didn’t rat people out to “the Bulls.” I had tears in my eyes at the end of his talk.  He went through a lot of hell to help bring us to a place where we could live and love more freely.  My last memory of him that night was seeing him standing under a streetlight saying goodbye.  He looked like an old ex-fighter, scarred, and beaten up, but never a quitter.

Karen Doherty, 1986

Imagine my shock when, 15 years later, I opened my Wall Street Journal to read an article by William McGowan, “Before Stonewall” which described a vicious extortion ring which targeted prominent and affluent closeted gay men.  The gang was finally exposed and put out of business in 1966, but it ran for several years and netted over two million dollars. One of the major figures in this case was Edward “Mother” Murphy, a “ruthless West Side tough” who worked with a dozen other criminals in New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and a few other cities to blackmail men who picked up a male prostitute for sex during an out-town trip or when their family was away. “The Chickens and the Bulls,” as the case was known to the New York Police Department and District Attorney’s office, centered on “fairy shaking” or exposing men for their “homosexual proclivities” unless they paid well for it to be kept quiet. Over 1,000 men were victimized by the ring, including the head of the American Medical Association, two Army generals, a Navy admiral, several Hollywood celebrities, college professors and trustees and businessmen.

I relayed my discovery to my friend, Barbara M., who also met Ed Murphy, to hear her reaction.  She said,

“To be frank, I’m having a tough time connecting the Ed Murphy I met with the “West Side tough” that he’s described as, or someone who would blackmail fellow gays,” she wrote. “This was in ’65. Ed Murphy was head of security in the Hilton Hotel, and when cornered he cooperated, which is probably why he got the light sentence. Although I think the basic person remains even as the body ages, men mellow. My theory is that the decreased testosterone is a good thing for some of them. Ed may have mellowed a lot and had a metanoia. He struck me as opinioned and forthright, but he didn’t act like a hoodlum. Nonetheless, he might have been. I was just a mere acquaintance; you knew him better.  Can you picture that he was involved in this stuff? Maybe prison changed him. His sentence was rather light, and he didn’t serve the entire five years.  Maybe he was an informant.”

Many years later, I am still trying to sort out my feelings about Ed Murphy. I knew him as a notable figure in the New York gay community in the 1980s. He was a kind, protective man to the less visible in the city–street kids, drag queens, and mentally challenged children. Ed was generous and caring to all those that he took under his wing, including my group of Catholic lesbians.  I am appalled by the image of him as a leader and collaborator in a gay extortion ring, bullying sex and money from vulnerable men and teenagers.  Ed Murphy combined prostitution, blackmail and strong-arm tactics into lucrative enterprises that ran for years.

He was also an informer, the worse type of person to anyone of Irish descent.  It took the combination of a battery of Irish Catholic New York City Police detectives, the FBI, New York District Attorney Frank S. Hogan, and a federal prosecutor, Andrew J. Maloney, to finally knock him down.  But it took the Stonewall raid, a beating by NYC police and a prison rape before he finally had enough and came out as a gay man and activist.  That he ended up the Grand Marshall of the New York City Gay Pride Parade 23 years after his conviction for homosexual extortion is a story that boggles the imagination.  Catholicism features stories of saints whose lives were full of depravity and evil but ended up redeemed through acts of virtue and heroism.  Maybe that is Ed Murphy’s story, or maybe it is just the story he told himself and others.

Chapter 2: “Villainous Skull Murphy” will be posted tomorrow.  You can read the whole article Ed_Murphy_Gay_Blackmailer_and_Activitist

 

A Look Back at Coral Browne and The Killing of Sister George

Posted by Censor Librorum on Apr 27, 2021 | Categories: Arts & Letters, Celebrities, Faith, History, Humor, Lesbians & Gays, Scandals, Sex

 

Coral Browne (July 23, 1913-May 29, 1991) was an accomplished stage and screen actress. She was also actor Vincent Price’s third wife. She was a woman who enjoyed a varied and robust sexual life. Browne portrayed no-nonsense BBC-executive, Mercy Croft, in The Killing of Sister George, a film depicting a lesbian love-triangle. She is perfect as a smooth, predatory seductress—a role in which she had plenty of experience.

Coral Browne converted to Catholicism shortly after World War II and remained a devout Catholic throughout her life.  As a gift to her, Vincent Price converted to Catholicism. Her friend, Noel Davis, described the melding of her personality and faith: “I’m a Catholic of a sort, and I was always amused by her Catholicism because she was much more devout than fitted in with her obscenities. She never missed Mass on Sunday.” Existing the Brompton Oratory one Sunday morning, salty-tongued Browne was accosted by a theater friend with the latest gossip.  She stopped him midsentence, exclaiming: “I don’t want to hear such filth, not with me standing here in a state of fucking grace.”

Browne did not get along with Vincent Price’s daughter, Victoria Price, but they both shared an interest in women. “Coral lent a sympathetic ear to my romantic troubles. Both were eager to meet anyone I brought home, though my stepmother rarely missed an opportunity to flirt outrageously with my girlfriends or to comment on their looks and style. One woman, she told me with a very knowing smile, “does it very well.” I took that as some kind of compliment.” Coral also told Victoria Price about a five-year relationship she had with a woman. Its dissolution was, according to Browne, the most heart-breaking moment of her life.

In The Killing of Sister George (1968), BBC executive Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) is sent to chastise Sister George/June Buckridge (Beryl Reid) for a drunken incident involving two nuns. Buckridge is a middle-aged soap opera actress, and Alice “Childie” McNaught (Susannah York), her lover, has a minor fashion industry job, writes poetry and collects dolls. George/June is often verbally and physically abusive to Alice, and her treatment of her becomes worse as her character is scheduled to be eliminated on the popular show.  The movie was given an “X” rating because of a two-minute masturbation scene between Coral Browne (Mercy Croft) and Susannah York (Alice “Childie” McNaught). The scene was panned as cold and unsexy—probably because they had most of their clothes on and didn’t writhe and moan continuously. But in 1968 it was revolutionary to see two mature women–McNaught was in her 30s and Croft was in her 50s–having sex to orgasm in a movie.

The movie was also history-making in that the director used a real lesbian bar for the lesbian club scene.  Between June 9-16, 1968, The Killing of Sister George was shot at the Gateways, a lesbian club that operated in London between 1931 and 1985.  Forty members were used as extras, one of whom lost her job when her employer recognized her in a publicity still. George and Alice go to an event at Gateways to which George jokingly invites Mrs. Croft.  Mrs. Croft arrives to tell June in person that Sister George will die by being hit by a ten-ton lorry, eliminating her from the show.  After June storms out, Mrs. Croft invites Alice to meet with her to further discuss her poetry. Alice has found a new lover/provider and June blew her chance with a woman she once desired and adored.

I wonder how Coral Browne reconciled the sexual and religious aspects of her life. She doesn’t strike me as a hypocrite and didn’t feel obligated to “leave” the Church. Browne died in 1991 without expressing a public opinion or statement; so we’ll never know her thoughts and feelings.  The one aspect we do know is that she appeared to value monogamy while married.  She had Vincent Price give up a male friend to whom he was strongly attached. That hurt Price deeply.  It’s my one mark against Coral Browne.

How do you remain as lesbian and Catholic? My stance—perhaps Coral Browne’s—is to embrace the beautiful and positive in both and dismiss the negativity from secular skeptics and religious gatekeepers. The focus on what is most important – our relationship with God – can be difficult to achieve with all the worldly chatter and distractions; but over time we can sustain it through prayer, quiet time, meditation and the Eucharist.

Click here to see a trailer of The Killing of Sister George.

Click here to see a YouTube video of the Gateways club scene in the film.

 

The Passions of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz

Posted by Censor Librorum on Apr 1, 2021 | Categories: Arts & Letters, Celebrities, Dissent, Faith, History, Lesbians & Gays

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (November 12, 1648 – April 17, 1695), was passionate about educational access, books, learning, equality and women.  She was a 17th century nun, self-taught scholar and acclaimed writer.  She was born in San Miguel Nepantla near Mexico City on November 12, 1648. Her parents were Isabel Ramirez, a Criolla (native-born Spanish) woman, and Captain Pedro Manuel de Asbaje of Spain. They didn’t marry.  Juana lived a comfortable life on the estate of her maternal grandfather. She educated herself in her grandfather’s library. Juana was a high-spirited girl who loved learning and the life of the mind. She was also very beautiful to which her portraits will attest. She was fluent in Spanish, Nahuatl and Latin.

When she was 16 she asked for her parents’ permission to disguise herself as a youth to attend the university, which did not accept women. Her family sent her to court to meet influential people and find a husband. Instead, in 1669, she entered the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns. She choose to become a nun “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom to study.”

As a nun, she was free to study the 4,000 books she collected, mostly from her grandfather’s library. Her cell became a salon for the intellectual elite.  She gained the patronage of the viceroy, Marquis de la Laguna, and the vicereine of New Spain, Countess Maria Luisa de Paredes. They supported and protected her, and had her works published in Spain. The two women became passionate friends.  Whether or not a physical relationship existed isn’t clear, but love and desire definitely existed.  In her poem, “My Lady” Sor Juana Inez describes her emotions: 

I love you with so much passion, neither rudeness nor neglect can explain why I tied my tongue, yet left my heart unchecked.

 The matter for me was simple; love for you was so strong, I could see you in my soul and talk to you all day long.

 How unwisely my ardent love, which your glorious sun inflamed, sought to feed upon your brightness, though the risk of your fire was plain!

 Let my love be ever doomed if guilty in its intent, for loving you is a crime of which I will never repent.”

 Sor Juana’s sermons, which were transcribed and widely circulated, paid unusual attention to gender imagery.  She said that she had been conceived as a male but was changed in utero by God to become female. She delighted in Jesus’ self-reference as a mother hen and spoke of the male and female aspects of God. She believed this mixture of identities also resided in the human soul:

“And all those who seek in me a father,” she wrote, “will find me a father. And those who seek in me a mother, will find in me a mother. And those who seek in me a husband, will find in me a husband. And those who seek in me a bride, will find a bride. And those who seek in me a brother, or a friend, or a neighbor, or a companion, likewise will find in me everything they desire.”

In 1692, Church authorities cracked down on Sr. Juana, not because of gossip or lesbian love poetry, but because she openly challenged societal and ecclesiastical values and norms on women. In her most famous work “Respuesta a Sor Filotea” she defends women’s rights to educational access and opportunity to serve as intellectual authorities. Sor Juana argued that women could educate other women.

Threatened by the Inquisition, Sor Juana was silenced for the final three years of her life.  There are documents showing her agreeing to undergo penance.  One such document is signed, “Yo, la Peor de Todas” (I, the Worst of all Women”).  Her books, scientific and musical instruments were confiscated and sold. Sor Juana died three years later nursing her sister nuns during a cholera epidemic. She was 46. Sor Juana is buried in the site of her former convent, San Jeronimo, at the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana in Mexico City.

Sor Juana lay in oblivion for several hundred years until Phoenix-like she sprang into life.  Two of the sparks were books and research done by writers Octavio Paz of Mexico and Dorothy Schons of the University of Texas. 

The relationship between Sor Juana and Countess Maria Luisa is explored in “Sor Juana’s Second Dream” a book published in 1999 by Dr. Alicia Gaspar de Alba.  She also writes about Sor Juana in “(Un)framing the Bad Woman: Sor Juana, Malinche, Coyolxauqui and Other Rebels with a Cause,” published in 2014.  A series of photos inspired by Sor Juana’s life and passions was created by Alma Lopez in 2019. Gaspar de Alba and Lopez, married to each other since 2008, have also explored lesbian connections with Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Maria Luisa Bemberg, one of Latin America’s foremost female directors, imagines the love between Juana and Maria Luisa in the 1990 film, “I, the Worst of All.” The film was Argentina’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film that year.

How far did the passions of Sor Juana go?  My feeling is that she had an unbridled imagination, a tormented yearning and a chaste life. I’m sure she shared some tender, passionate, embraces with Maria Luisa, but a lack of time, privacy and mutual restraint kept a lid on any other expressions. But what a kiss it must have been!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Catholicism of Radclyffe Hall

Posted by Censor Librorum on Jan 10, 2021 | Categories: Arts & Letters, Celebrities, Faith, History, Lesbians & Gays, Scandals, Sex

“Then Stephen took Angela into her arms and she kissed her full on the lips.”  That sentence has thrilled tens of thousands of lesbian readers, including me, to finally see, feel, imagine their desire in print. When British novelist Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943) published The Well of Loneliness in 1928, it was the first widely read novel to feature lesbian love. A British court judged the book obscene because of the words “and that night they were not divided.” 

It tells the story of Stephen Gordon, a woman given a man’s name by parents that wanted a boy, who is irresistibly drawn to other women. She was born on Christmas Eve and named after the first Christian martyr. As a girl she had a dream: “that in some queer way she was Jesus.”  Seven-year-old Stephen develops a crush on the Gordon’s maid, Collins. When she discovers that Collins has “housemaid’s knee” she prays that the affliction be transferred to her. “I would like to wash Collins in my blood, Lord Jesus—I would very much like to be a Saviour to Collins—I love her, and I want to be hurt like You were.” Stephen is later devastated when she catches Collins sharing a kiss with the footman.

As a young woman Gordon has an affair when a neighbor’s wife.  After a confrontation with her mother about her “unnatural” love, she retreats to her father’s study and discovers a book by German psychiatrist, Krafft-Ebing, on deviant sexuality. After she reads it, she understands what she is—a female “invert,” a lesbian.  She opens a Bible, and seeking a sign, reads Genesis 4:15: “And the Lord set a mark upon Cain…” Radclyffe Hall used the mark of Cain, a sign of crime and exile, throughout the book for the status of “inverts.”

Stephen meets Mary Llewellyn, the love of her life, in France during World War I. The two set out to build a life together, but Stephen believes that Mary’s life is suffering because as a couple they are an object of scorn and contempt. To “save” her, she feigns an affair with another woman to drive Mary into the arms of a man who admires and wants her.  Mary leaves her and marries.  Stephen is devastated and alone.  She has a vision of being thronged by millions of inverts from throughout time, living, dead and unborn. They beg her to speak with God for them. Possessing her, she articulates their collective prayer: “God,” she grasped. “We believe, we have told You we believe…We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!”

Radclyffe Hall was a pioneer in her efforts to reconcile Christianity and homosexuality. Her defense of gay men and lesbians took the form of a religious argument:  if God created inverts, the rest of humanity should accept them.  Declaring homosexuality to be a “part of nature, in harmony with it, rather than against it.”  She posed the question to her attackers: “if it occurs in and is a part of nature, how can it be unnatural?”  She also knew the price that gay and lesbian people pay to remain in the closet and railed against the “conspiracy of silence” saying, “Nothing is so spiritually degrading or so undermining of one’s morale as living a lie.” 

The controversy over The Well of Loneliness was lampooned in The Sink of Solitude, a satirical pamphlet by Beresford Egan, novelist, and illustrator. One drawing shows an immediately recognizable Radclyffe Hall with her trademark Spanish riding hat nailed to a cross.  A near-nude Sappho leaps in front of the martyred “St. Stephen” and Cupid perches on the crossbeam.  While Egan agreed with Hall’s arguments, he spoofed her piety and moralizing.

Radclyffe Hall is like many Catholic lesbians I have met: conventional, judgmental, spiritual, and often promiscuous.

She was born Marguerite Radclyffe on August 12, 1880 at Christchurch, Bournemouth, England.  In later life she was called John by her friends and lovers, and M. Radclyffe Hall or Radclyffe Hall in her books.  Her mother, Marie, was an American and her father, Radclyffe Radclyffe Hall, was English.  Her parents divorced when she was two and Marie remarried a musician, Albert Visetti.  The young girl never liked him. She reached young womanhood without much education or interests except chasing women. Her specialty seems to be the seduction of married women.

In 1907, at 27, unattached and drifting, Hall made a trip to Bad Homburg, Germany, known for its wellness spas and baths. She became smitten with Mabel (Ladye) Batten, a renowned beauty and amateur singer. Batten’s portraits were painted by John Singer Sargent and Edward John Poynter. The 50-year-old married grandmother had ties to aristocratic society and was rumored to have had an affair with King Edward VII. The poet-adventurer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt was an admirer.  Witty, elegant, cultured, beautiful and worldly, Batten was everything Hall desired. They became lovers and stayed together until Batten’s death in 1915. 

Batten was a major influence on Hall, and encouraged her to write poetry.  Hall’s first book of poems, A Sheaf of Verses, published in 1908, reveals her first, tentative references to homosexuality. A second book of poetry including the “Ode to Sapho” was published later that year. Her third volume came out a year later.  When Batten’s husband died in 1910, the two women made a home together.  Hall’s fourth poetry anthology was dedicated to Batten.

Batten was politically conservative, and Hall adopted her positions.  Ladye was also a Catholic convert, and under her encouragement and influence, Radclyffe Hall was received into the Catholic church on February 5, 1912. She was 32. Her baptismal name was Antonia, and she chose Anthony as her patron saint. Hall and Batten worshiped together at London’s fashionable Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, known as the Brompton Oratory.  In 1913, Hall and Batten made a pilgrimage to the Vatican. They went to Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Pius X blessed them in a semi-private audience with other substantial donors. They returned to London with religious-themed triptychs, gilt angels and an alabaster Madonna.

The refined Ladye was both a maternal and wifely figure for Radclyffe Hall.  The once-feminine Hall, who wore skirts all her life and only had her waist length blond hair cut in her 30s, started to cultivate a more masculine appearance, close-cropped hair, tailored jackets and bow-ties.  Batten gave Hall the nickname “John” after noting her resemblance to one of Hall’s male ancestors. She used this name for the rest of her life.  Was Hall butchy, a butch, stone butch, or these days – a transman?  It’s hard to say. She said that she had a man’s soul in her body.

In 1915, 35-year-old Radclyffe Hall met Una Troubridge (1887-1963), a 28-year-old cousin of Mabel Batten, at a tea party in London. They were immediately sexually attracted to one another and began an affair. Their relationship that would last until Hall’s death in 1943. Troubridge was a sculptor and mother of a young daughter. She was married to Vice-Admiral Ernest Troubridge, a career naval officer who was 25 years her senior. Hall’s affair with Troubridge caused an uneasy situation among the three women. 

In May 1916, Batten suffered a cerebral hemorrhage after a quarrel with Hall over Troubridge.  She died ten days later. Guilty and grief-stricken, Hall believed her infidelity had hastened Batten’s end.  She had Batten’s body embalmed and buried her with a silver crucifix blessed by Pope Pius X. Soon after Batten’s death, Hall and Troubridge developed an interest in spiritualism and began attending seances with a medium, Mrs. Gladys Osborne Leonard.  They believed Batten’s spirit gave them advice.

Most of the stories, poems and novels Radclyffe Hall wrote touched on Christian themes, Catholic imagery, lesbian desire or all three.  In 1924, Radclyffe published The Forge, a fictionalized portrait of American lesbian artist Romaine Brooks, and The Unlit Lamp, a novel about a girl who dreams of going to college and setting up a “Boston marriage” with her tutor, Elizabeth.  A Saturday Life (1925) follows the life of a girl who takes up and discards many artistic pursuits with the support of an older woman who is in love with the girl’s mother. Hall’s fourth novel, Adam’s Breed (1926) centered on the spiritual struggles of a young man over excess consumption by modern society. He becomes disgusted with his job as a waiter and even with food itself, gives away his belongings and lives as a hermit in the forest. The story also reflect’s Hall’s concern about the plight of animals. The book won the 1926 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize for best English novel.

In early July 1926 Hall completed the short story, “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself,” which dealt with homosexuality.  Later than month she began writing Stephen, the novel that became The Well of Loneliness (1928). The Master of the House (1932) is an adaptation of the Christ story in a contemporary setting. Christophe Benedict, the main character, is a deeply spiritual and compassionate carpenter who lives in Provence, France. He is born to a carpenter named Jouse and his wife, Marie. Christophe ends up being crucified by Turks in Palestine during World War I. Writing the book was so spiritually intense that Hall developed stigmata on the palms of her hands.

In the 1930s Hall and Troubridge made their home in Rye, a village in East Sussex where many writers lived.  Hall used Rye as the setting for the book, The Sixth Beatitude (1936), her last novel. It is the story of Hannah Bullen, a strong-bodied young woman. Hannah Bullen’s unconventional life (unmarried mother of two children) is beset by poverty and strife within her family. Hall uses the sixth Beatitude to portray Bullen’s purity of heart and mind by sticking with them.  An independently wealthy heiress, Hall gave generously to the local church. Saint Anthony of Padua was constructing a new building when they moved to Rye. Biographer Diana Souhami wrote that Hall “poured money into the church” to bring it to completion and furnish it. “She paid for its roof, pews, outstanding debts, paintings of the Stations of the Cross and a rood screen of Christ the King. A tribute to Ladye was engraved on a brass plaque set into the floor:  “Of your charity, Pray for the soul of Mabel Veronica Batten, In memory of whom this rood was given.” 

What is the attraction of lesbian and gay men to Catholicism? Why did so many late 19th century writers, intellectuals, artists, clergy and bohemians (with gay lovers, tendencies or friends) take the plunge into the faith? Notable converts include Oscar Wilde, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Aubrey Beardsley, lovers Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, Ronald Firbank, Maurice Baring, Eric Gill, Robert Hugh Benson, John Henry Newman, Frederick Rolfe, Marc-Andre Raffalovich, John Gray; and, of course, Mabel Batten, Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge.

Oscar Wilde opined on the attraction of the Roman Catholic Church for outre artistic figures and rebels.  He said that Catholicism was “for saints and sinners,” while…” for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.”  Becoming Catholic was an act that allowed one to become both rebellious and steeped in tradition.   Irish playwright and novelist Emma Donoghue observed: “Being Catholic in England meant becoming slightly foreign, aloof from the establishment; as a church it was associated with the rich and the poor, but definitely not the bourgeoisie.” For much of English society, to become Catholic was to cross society’s lines to a suspect, “other,” even deviant, religion.  But the “otherness” may have been a reason behind its attractiveness.

The sensuousness and eroticism present in Catholic art and ritual have a magnetic appeal to lesbian and gay people.  Beautiful men, barely covered; women with their heads thrown back in orgasmic passion—a feast for the eyes and imagination. We can appreciate symbolic and hidden meanings, the emphasis on the body, particularly the Eucharist, where we take the body of Christ into our mouth; and the mystery inherent in ourselves and in the spiritual world. 

Modern scholars have explored the role of religion in Radclyffe Hall’s work.  Catholic Figures, Queer Narratives (2007) includes the chapter “The Well of Loneliness and the Catholic Rhetoric of Sexual Dissidence” by Richard Dellamora.  He explores Hall’s life and work.  Ed Madden, English professor at the University of South Carolina, examines Hall’s use of Christ’s imagery and symbolism in Reclaiming the Sacred: The Bible in Gay and Lesbian Culture (2003) edited by Raymond-Jean Frontain.

Like a bee sipping nectar from flower to flower, Hall’s desire for women never waned. Her indiscretions as “man of the house” could be overlooked as long as they were brief. Una Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall stayed together as a couple until Hall’s death in London from colon cancer in 1943. The relationship survived Hall’s numerous flirtations and Hall’s last torrid affair with her 28-year-old White Russian nurse, Evguenia Souline (1906?-1958). Souline was hired to help care for Hall during an illness, and their relationship blossomed into much more. Despite the initial protests of Troubridge, the three women lived together in Florence, Italy.  At the outbreak of World War II they left and settled in Devon, England.  “Darling—I wonder if you realize how much I am counting on your coming to England,” Hall wrote to Souline, “how much it means to me—it means all the world, and indeed my body shall be all, all yours, as yours will be all, all mine, beloved. And we two will lie close in each others arms, close, close, always trying to lie even closer, and I will kiss your mouth and your eyes and your breasts—I will kiss your body all over—And you shall kiss me back again many times as you kissed me when we were in Paris. And nothing will matter but just we two, we two longing loves at last come together. I wake up in the night & think of these things & then I can’t sleep for my longing, Soulina.” Una Troubridge cannot have been happy reading that note.  Even so, much of Hall’s correspondence to Evgenia Souline has been preserved. Troubridge burned Souline’s letters to Hall.

Radclyffe Hall died at her flat in Pimlico on October 7, 1943. She bequeathed her entire estate to Troubridge. At her request, she was buried in a vault next to Mabel Batten in Highgate Cemetery in London.  Souline was given a small allowance and disappears from the story. At the time of her death, The Well of Loneliness had been translated into 14 languages and was selling more than 100,000 copies a year.  It has never gone out of print. For decades, it was the only lesbian book generally available. 

Troubridge, now a wealthy woman, moved to Italy and died of cancer in Rome in September 1963, at age 76. Shortly before Troubridge died, a woman asked her how she and Hall reconciled their relationship with their Catholic faith. What did they do about confession? Troubridge answered, “There was nothing to confess.”  Troubridge left written instructions that her coffin be placed in the vault in Highgate Cemetery where Hall and Batten had been buried, but the instructions were discovered too late. She was buried in the English Cemetery in Rome, and on her coffin was inscribed, “Una Vincenzo Troubridge, the friend of Radclyffe Hall.” Years later her tomb was removed and her remains were lost.

The Well of Loneliness has been criticized by lesbians for its stereotypical butch-femme coupling, energetic lesbians who are always masculine looking, and requisite unhappy ending of a love affair or relationship between two women. What is totally ignored is Hall’s Christianity and Catholic faith in her life and writing.  A friend once observed to me that it is easier to be a lesbian in the Catholic Church than a Catholic in the lesbian community.  Like 19th and 20th century biographers who often left out, or slyly alluded to their subject’s homosexual life; too many “herstory” archivists, writers and editors deliberately omit lesbian religious faith and commitment.  This bigotry needs to stop.

“Who are you to deny our right to love” – Radclyffe Hall   The Well of Loneliness