Spotlighting the “Mythical Lesbians” of AUNTIE MAME

auntie mame rosalind russell dvd coverSometimes a detail that appears in the frame of a film instantly seizes our attention and momentarily crowds everything else out–a situation I encountered during a recent rewatch of the 1958 film adaptation of Auntie Mame.

In the film’s second scene the young Patrick is introduced to his Aunt; she has misremembered her nephew’s date of arrival and he and his prim caretaker subsequently stumble into one of the lavish fêtes she regularly hosts at her extravagant Manhattan penthouse. Dumbstruck, the pair ogle the scene before them, and the film carefully showcases the wide range of eccentric individuals Auntie Mame associates with at the height of the hedonistic Roaring Twenties: a pianist playing ragtime while on his back, elderly Russian expatriates, raucous flappers, any number of “colorful” Asian and/or Middle Eastern figures in “traditional” garb–basically anyone conservative American audiences of the 1950s would likely find outré and/or politically suspect. As Mame careens through her rooms introducing her young nephew to anyone she encounters, she pauses momentarily to listen to the philosophical musings of one Acacius Page who is holding forth… to an indifferent room.

auntie mame lesbian party guests 3

But honestly I’m a bit hazy about the whole interaction because I was immediately distracted by the two other figures literally perched on the edge of the widescreen Technicolor frame: two older women, clearly coded as bulldaggers. I was equally mesmerized by their unimpressed glaring–they contemptuously amused by Acacius’s demagoguing–as by their chic fedoras, tailored pinstripes, and wide masculine lapels.

auntie mame lesbian party guests 5auntie mame lesbian party guests 6

Going back to take these screen captures, I also noticed that the pair exchange an eye roll and even a knowing wink when Acacius declares that the uniform at the children’s school he founded is to “wear nothing.”

auntie mame lesbian party guests wink 1

The appearance of these women–who never utter a line–reminded me of the fantastical and outlandish opening chapter of The Young and Evil, where the second line which reads:

“There before him stood a fairy prince and one of those mythological creatures known as Lesbians.”

There’s lots to unpack here–which I do in my thesis!–one of which is the tongue-in-cheek presentation of lesbian women who indeed have been historically treated as “mythological creatures” (consider the widely circulated legend that lesbianism was never illegal in Britain because Queen Victoria refused to believe such a thing existed). This isn’t a far cry from how they are presented in Auntie Mame, kooky “types” just as strange and “exotic” as a brownface maharajah with a monkey perched on his shoulder, intended to make the audience pop their eyes in wonder.

And yet, problematic representation aside, I have to admit I was still glad to see them there at all.

I also later realized I hadn’t registered that the same women appear earlier in the scene, foregrounded for several seconds during Patrick’s first glimpse of the party. Only this time they are smiling and sharing a laugh with another guest–a woman who presents as more femme, but on closer inspection sports neckwear that evokes a man’s string tie.

lesbian party guests Auntie Mame 1

Slowing down the pace to capture images, it also became clear a small interpersonal drama seems to take place between the three, which include a disapproving grimace and indifferent drag on a cigarette…

lesbian party guests Auntie Mame 2And for the briefest of moments, these queer ladies seem more than mere “types” and seem to possess a life of their own.


Auntie Mame. Dir. Morton DaCosta. By Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Perf. Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne, Fred Clark, Roger Smith, and Peggy Cass. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1958. DVD.

Ford, Charles Henri, and Parker Tyler. The Young and Evil. 1933 New York: Masquerade, 1996. Print.


Thesis Update: Notes from the Archive

This blog is long overdue for an update—and a #jessewritesathesis update in particular. In brief: I’m chipping away at it! Progress doesn’t accumulate nearly as quickly as I’d like, of course, but I now have several docs that hold quite a bit of writing. Still learning to avert—or rather, manage—the crippling inner editor who insists that every sentence or phrase be “perfect” before moving to the next, but things are slowly improving.

ransom center exteriorThe most important development which specifically warrants an update post, however, is that after many years of hoping and scheming I was finally able to do some actual archival research for this thesis. Two weeks ago I spent three days at the University of Austin’s Harry Ransom Center sifting through their extensive holdings on both Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, and it just couldn’t have been a better experience. I was constantly impressed with how the Ransom Center and their staff were able to balance a (rightful) sense of protection over the remarkable material in their possession and an obvious commitment to access. As someone currently suspended somewhere between the categories of scholar and student, it was heartening to see that alongside the scholars were what seemed to be a constant stream of undergraduate students accessing and perusing material.

[That said, even though the Center is extremely generous in allowing users to take as many photos of the material as they want, one must sign a strict confidentiality agreement that forbids sharing it without written permission. So unfortunately I can’t provide any images to accompany the things I mention below. Just an FYI—I’m not being stingy!]

What did I find? Well, that three days was hardly enough to even pretend that I’d managed to scratch the surface in regards to what’s available for discovery in both of these archives. It’s been very heartening to see both Ford and Tyler receiving increasing scholarly interest over the last year or so—something itself I should do a write-up one of these days—which leads me to assume that eyes are starting to get on this material (indeed, I was told someone had been working with the Ford material the week before I arrived), but it was also IMMEDIATELY clear that this is a “story”—indeed, multiple stories—that needs, is even demanding, to be told. Though I was forced to do a lot of scanning/speed-reading, Ford’s prolific correspondence (of which this is only a partial holding; there also seems to be much held at Yale’s Beinecke Library, to say nothing of holdings in archives of his countless correspondents) offers so much first-person documentation of modernism, American expatriatism, the pre-Stonewall queer experience, and early twentieth century American/European culture in general—in addition offering perspectives that have been generally kept to the peripheries of historical accounts of these eras and communities.

djuna barnes letter

Image of a typical Djuna Barnes letter found online [NOT from the Ransom Center collection]

Perhaps the single most personally satisfying experience was the several hours spent poring over the collection of Djuna Barnes’s letters, most written between 1933 and 1936. Some were typed, but the majority were handwritten—itself a thrill (though it took a little while to acclimate to her distinctive handwriting!). I was able to answer some questions I had regarding Barnes’s involvement with the manuscript and initial publication of The Young and Evil, as well as Ford’s contact with Nightwood. I was also able to get quite a bit of insight into Barnes and Ford’s brief but intense romantic partnership, a chapter not widely known, probably because it complicates the most common narratives regarding both figures (and Barnes’s life and career in particular). A long term goal is to carve out of my thesis a publishable article on this specific topic.

Other highlights: several draft fragments from The Young and Evil that provide insight into Ford and Tyler’s collaborative process, as well as facsimile copies of Ford’s correspondence with Gertrude Stein which helped illuminate her involvement with the text.

And finally, more information which only led to more mystery: one of the central enigmas that has emerged during my research is the figure of Kathleen Tankersley Young, a poet and critic initially associated with the Harlem Renaissance and appeared in a number of the “little magazines” of the period. As well as taking on a kind of mentorship role and co-editor credit for Ford’s literary magazine Blues, she is important to The Young and Evil, not only as the novel’s dedicatee but appearing as the text’s only major female character. From her poetry I had started to suspect that she is actually a more crucial influence on Ford and Tyler than even Barnes and Stein; reading through her letters has only confirmed this.

Yet despite all these fascinating connections (and others—she went on to found a minor but admired publication company before a tragic and mysterious early death) Young currently remains more or less invisible—indeed, the several mentions of her currently out there (mostly in studies and compilations of women connected to the Harlem Renaissance) can only mention that practically nothing is known about her. Indeed, I’ve yet to come across a photograph of her. I was cautiously hoping an image of some kind would emerge somewhere in Ford’s material, but that ended up not being the case (at least in what I was able to go through)—though I sense that a dramatic pencil sketch of a female face on one of her letters might be a portrait of her. I’m  now more curious than ever about this fascinating, unknown figure; if anybody reading this happens to have ANY information on Young, please get in touch with me! (My info is in the “About” section.)

The Ransom Center actually shared on their Instagram account a snippet from one of letters from Young that I was able to look at, making it (I presume) ok to share here. I’ll also include below a few other images taken outside the restricted Reading Room.

It’s taken the two weeks since to simply organize and upload the notes and images (nearly 250 of them!) that I took over the course of the three days. Now it’s time to dive back into the writing—something I’m taking on again with a renewed sense of excitement and engagement. Wish me luck!

kty letter to chf ransom centerransom center jacques cocteauoscar wilde ransom center windowransom center leon bakst ballet russes costume

Top to bottom:

  1. Letter from Kathleen Tankersley Young to Charles Henri Ford (1928), posted on the Ransom Center Instagram account
  2. The eyes of Jean Cocteau from the interior of Ransom Center
  3. “Apparition” of Oscar Wilde on the exterior of the Ransom Center
  4. Original costume designed by Léon Bakst for Narcisse, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe (1911)



upcoming academic conference presentation

pamla logoThought I would break this period of extended radio silence (*sigh*) to mention that I will be presenting some research from my thesis at this year’s annual PAMLA conference. It will be taking place in Portland, OR, from November 6-8, and I present on a panel during the first session on Saturday morning. If anybody reading this is also attending, please stop by and say hello!

Here’s the info and my presentation abstract. Additional information (including abstracts for the full panel), can be found here.

pamla header

Cruising at the Intersection: The Queer Collaborative Authorship of The Young and Evil
Jesse Ataide, San Francisco State University

“What kind of discoveries are made possible when two gay men confront each other?” Christopher Hennessy asks, “with the acknowledgment of a shared sexual desire lurking there?” This paper considers how queer content in Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s 1933 novel The Young and Evil reflect a strategy of “cooperative discourse” that compels a reconsideration now only of the concept of authorship, but also how friendship, intimacy, and creative cooperation can function between queer men.”

My paper on Samuel M. Steward’s detective fiction was very well received at PAMLA 2013, and so I’m very much looking forward to presenting again this year!

Alfred, Lord Douglas on “The Language of a Sodomite”

JC Leyendecker Cluett Dress shirts 1911

Speak up, good sir…

I recently picked up Michael S. Sherry’s study Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imaginary Conspiracy, and was intrigued by a passing comment that one of the charges that inspired Canadian-born dancer Maud Allan to file a libel suit in 1918 against a British MP was his charge that she spoke “a foreign ‘language generally used by homosexualists'” (9). As  the utilization of coded, “queer” use of language is one of the main focuses of my thesis, I was immediately struck by this comment: while language use has become a major point of research in recent LGBT/queer scholarship, contemporaneous references to the “secret” language used by queer subcultural communities in the first half of the twentieth century are much more rare.

Maud AllanUnfortunately Sherry doesn’t provide the source of the quote, and I have yet to locate it. But reading through Michael Kettle’s Salome’s Last Veil: The Libel Case of the Century for possible clues led me to the trial testimony of Alfred, Lord Douglas. This is, of course, the same “Bosie” Douglas who two decades earlier had gained international notoriety due to his relationship with Oscar Wilde that resulted in the libel trail that destroyed the reputation of the celebrated British author and wit. I won’t go into detail regarding either Douglas or Allan here, but in short, the situation arose after a British MP published an article titled “Cult of the Clitoris” which launched a convoluted claim that Allan’s involvement in putting on two private performances of Wilde’s Salomé indicated that not only was she a lesbian, but in collusion with German conspirators and thus part of a larger effort by homosexuals to undermine the British war effort. Allan sued, and as if to bring the connection to the Wilde trial full circle, Douglas, who had been the original English translator of Wilde’s play Salome, was brought in by the MP’s defense as an expert witness.

Kettle quotes from Douglas’s testimony extensively, and even taken into account Douglas’s post-trial repudiation of Wilde and relatively recent conversion to Catholicism, a lot of it is pretty vile in its blatant hypocrisy (example: Q: “Do you regard [Wilde’s] work as classics… to be cherished by the nation?” A: “I think most of them ought to be destroyed. I do not think he ever wrote a thing in his life that had not an evil intention…” (173)).

Lord Alfred Douglas Bosie 1903

Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas in 1903.

Needless to say, the testimony generally consists of dragging the long-deceased Wilde through the mud once again, and a whole lot of evasive questioning regarding the topic that nobody wanted to actually name. Everyone involved takes on an air of self-righteous indignation, and all takes a turn in a direction specifically relevant to my own interests when Douglas is questioned about Wilde’s use of language. Initially demurring from a question asking if Salome’s declaration of wanting to “touch the body” of Jokanaan was intended to be “physical or spiritual” in nature, when pressed Douglas answers:

Douglas: Physical, if anyone calls it spiritual, it is a pure misuse of the word.
Lawyer: Would you call that language the language of a sodomite? (177)

Kettle notes that Douglas paused on this point, and when pressed again, offers a vague, circuitous response that Wilde was referencing “the language used by people who described [sodomy] as spiritual” before declaring:

Douglas: […] These sort of people always refer to revolting things under pretty names. They try to disguise the horribleness of the action by giving it such names; they say beautiful, classic, and so on. They will not speak of it by the outspoken English name; they disguise it.
Lawyer: Have these people a common patois?
Douglas: Yes, they have a jargon. (177)

Douglas finally concludes with a rather infuriating disavowal: “I have not had anything to do with them for twenty years.” The questioning then resumes along the lines of sussing out larger issues of what constitutes “spiritual love,” etc. Douglas seems to become a bit exasperated at a question asking if Douglas would “call sadism” what Wilde would “called spiritual,” proclaiming:

Douglas: Yes. With those sort of people evil is their good; everything is topsy turvey; physical is spiritual; spiritual is physical, and so on; it is a perversion, an inversion, of everything. Wilde was a man who made evil his good all through his life. That was the gospel he preached. (178, emphasis mine)

young and evil novel first edition ford tylerConsidering that the text I am writing my thesis on is titled The Young and Evil, the statements I underlined above are particularly useful to me in my own research. I have been asked on multiple occasions what the “evil” refers to, especially after asserting that the novel is unique in its basic assertion that queer characters (or individuals) aren’t inherently damned, tortured, or evil, but just people living their lives as they best see fit. The nuances of the novel’s title deserves its own consideration at some point, but I was immediately struck with how Douglas articulates what I believe is exactly the strategy later employed by Ford and Tyler, a “topsy turvey” inversion–indeed, even a “perversion”–of seemingly commonplace terms in a strategy that deconstructionist theorist Barbara Johnson would later still characterize as a type of “chiasmus” where an author (in her case Herman Melville, another proto-queer author) “position[s] an opposition between good and evil only to make each term take on the properties of its opposite” (571-2).

To return to Allan, in the end she met the same sad fate as Wilde: to wide public approval she lost her suit and the MP she sued acquitted of all charges. Much like Wilde, her career was irrevocably ruined by the decision, and her career quickly waned, the perceived threat of that which was not supposed to speak its name claiming yet another victim.

Maude Allan as Salome


Johnson, Barbara. “Melville’s Fist: The Execution of ‘Billy Budd’.”Studies in Romanticism, 18.4 (1979): 567-599. (Proquest Link, subscription required.)

Kettle, Michael. Salome’s Last Veil: The Libel Case of the Century. London: Hart-Davis, 1977. Print.

Sherry, Michael S. Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2007. Print.


J.C. Leyendecker – Cluett Dress Shirt Advertisement (1911) via Collector’s Weekly

Images of Maud Allan as Salome via the mist~gates

Lord Alfred Douglas by George Charles Beresford (1903) via Wikipedia