lesbian pulp and the lavender universe: February 2012

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Art of Lesbian Pulp

Dime pulp magazines, the predecessors of the pulp paperback

Before pulp paperbacks there were the 10 cents pulp magazines, usually westerns, action and detective mystery stories. As the genre developed so did the art. Publishers and artists gradually started to realize that the bolder use of primary colors- the blues, yellows and reds made the images pop out more and feel more immediate. Instead of a book cover illustrating what had already happened, the bright colors would now engage you as if you were witnessing a scene in the present moment, as if it was taking place right in front of you.

Artist unknown
On the cover of the lesbian pulp book Appointment in Paris, a young American looks directly into the readers' eyes; you sense her fear and possibly a secret. She invites you to enter through the doorway with her to find out what mystery she holds. Her flushed red cheeks and lips make her appear more alive. The lush use of colors against a darker background brings her ever so closer to you. Her secret? Well what's a girl to do if you send her off to Paris for the summer?

The book jacket of Appointment in Paris is a lovely example of Good Girl Art also known as GGA. Good Girl Art is not art about a 'good girl' (far from it). Rather it is a painting of a woman, usually a sexy attractive woman (regardless of the storyline) that is done well. It's ‘girl art’ that is good.

Artwork by Robert McGinnis

The quality of the artwork for these 1950s books varied but several publishers employed tremendous talent. Most of the artists did this work while they were waiting for their big break into the world of fine art, and overall the cover illustrations were not highly valued at the time by the artists or the publishing houses. It is estimated that 90% were destroyed.

Recently, at an impressive exhibit and lecture at New York's Society of Illustrators, Robert Lesser, a pulp art collector confided in the audience that paintings he now owns valued at $30,000 were purchased not so many years ago for as little as $2,500.

Artwork by James Meese

One of the nicest covers I've seen is the hard to find lesbian pulpfiction, ‘The Girls in 3B’ (the title alone is terrific, isn't it?). Its artist James Meese is best known for his pulp fiction paperback cover art and painterly approach especially in the subtleties of skin and facial tones. During the 1950s he created many detective and crime pulp covers for Mickey Spillane and Agatha Christie books.

More by James Meese, note the execution of skin tones;
the subtleties and the translucency.

What's wonderful about these vintage books is the type of cover art that was used compared to today's book market. Miniature paintings that tell a complete story similar to the old movie posters before photography became the norm. If you want to own an original pulp paperback check out my online bookstore www.lavenderpulp.com

Artwork has initials 'SMZ'

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lesbians, Raunchy Lyrics, and Harlem's Golden Jazz Age

Pulp of the Month
"How Dark my Love"
Rea Michaels was one of the few
lesbian pulp fiction authors who wrote about
racial issues and interracial relationships.

New York's "Harlem Renaissance" in the 1920s to mid 30s included the rise of the Jazz Age. Harlem became the worldwide center for African American musicians, jazz singers, artists, intellectuals and writers. During this time a strong gay and lesbian subculture developed. LGBT life was definitely evident in several songs of the day.

In "B.D. (Bull Dagger) Women Blues", Lucille Bogan sings:
B.D. women, they all done learnt their plan

They can lay their jive just like a natural man

B.D. women, B.D. women, you know they sure is rough

They all drink up plenty whiskey and they sure will strut their stuff

Singer Gladys Bentley and friend in front of Apollo poster

One of the most popular lesbian performers was Gladys Bentley, sometimes called “The Brown Bomber”. Belting out songs from behind her piano, Bentley created raunchy lyrics to well known songs and flirted with the females in the audience. In her trademark tux and top hat, Bentley sang at many of Harlem's nightclubs and speakeasys.  Along with Bentley's growing popularity also came financial success.  According to columnists, she eventually married her female lover from New Jersey.

Gladys Bentley was a regular headliner for Harry Hansberry's Clam House, the best known gay and lesbian club in Harlem. At its height, Hollywood stars came by to check out the shows including the famous bisexual actress Tallulah Bankhead. The Clam House was a narrow, smoky speakeasy on 133rd Street's Jungle Alley between Lenox and Seventh Avenue. Blair Niles' 1931 gay novel Strange Brother loosely based on The Clam House features an out lesbian performer named 'Sybil' at 'The Lobster Pot'. (Lobster, Clam, get it?)

Tallulah Bankhead, 4th from right, with the 'girls'
Ma Rainey, legendary blues singer and vaudeville entertainer is also known to have had women lovers. An inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, she performed with many jazz greats including Louie Armstrong. Check out the lyrics to her 1928 blues song that she wrote and performed about her relationships with women.

Prove it on Me Blues

I went out last night, had a great big fight
Everything seemed to go wrong
When I looked up, to my surprise
The gal I was with was gone

Folks say I'm crooked
I don't know where she took it
I want the whole world to know

I went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men
It's true I wear a collar and a tie,
I like to watch the women as they pass by

They say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
They sure gotta prove it on me


During the prohibition, popular places to socialize, find liquor and some entertainment included speakeasys, 'buffet flats', house parties, rent parties and costume balls. Speakeasys were located in dark basements or back rooms behind closed doors and peepholes. Buffet flats were private after-hours spots that were usually in someone's apartment. They originally sprung up during the late 1800s to provide a safe place to stay overnight for black travelers. By the 1920s, Buffet flats gained a much wilder reputation for illegal activities such as drinking, gambling, and prostitution.

Drag Costume Balls were where the boys got to show off and the women escorted them. The Savoy Ballroom was one of the establishments that hosted gala events where the men preened before a grand entrance to the dance floor in exquisite gowns. It was not unusual to see Harlem socialites along with downtown avant-garde whites up in the balconies enjoying the spectacular. The biggest cabarets during the Harlem Renaissance were the Cotton Club, Connie's Inn, and Small's Paradise. The most famous, the Cotton Club on 125th Street still exists today.

Harlem nightlife declined dramatically after the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression and the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Gladys Bentley took her business and her tuxedo to California performing at "Joquins' El Rancho" in Los Angeles and "Monas" in San Francisco, occasionally getting in trouble with the law for wearing her signature male attire.

Below is a 1942 advertisement for Mona's Club 440 where the words "gay" and "butch" signaled to women that Mona's was primarily a lesbian club. Mona's Club at 440 Broadway later became Anne's 440, and featured San Francisco singer Johnny Mathis.

In 1981 Rosetta Records, a small feminist record label in New York created by Rosetta Reitz produced "Mean Mothers/Independent Women's Blues, Vol. 1"  including Gladys Bentley singing "How Much Can I Stand?". Document Records released "Maggie Jones & Gladys Bentley, Complete Recorded Works" in 1995.