Gladys & Groucho

gladys_bentleyA musical interlude today.

Gladys Bentley was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance and a fixture of New York nightclubs in the 1920s, where she would step out in drag-king finery and flirt outrageously with women in the audience. Even in the somewhat less roaring 30s Bentley remained out and proud, at one stage performing in signature top hat and tails backed by a chorus line of men in drag. You can read more about the fascinating world of queer Harlem in this essay by Lillian Faderman.

Things were a little different in the 1950s. When Bentley appeared on the television game show You Bet Your Life she felt obliged to frock up and tone down the sass. Demure, slightly nervous, she has some pre-song patter with Groucho Marx (yes, that Groucho Marx) during which she makes intriguing mention of an autobiography titled If This Be Sin which sadly never appeared (“Is it about geometry?” asks Marx).

And then Bentley hits the keys (and I mean hits; the woman plays piano like a speed freak plays Whac-A-Mole). Suddenly the uptight decade of Patti Page and patio parties melts away, it’s 1927 again and even Groucho’s dancing. Watch and learn, people, watch and learn:


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