Thursday, October 26, 2006

Bi-girls of the 20s

Bisexuals I never met, part two

I'm reading a really interesting book at the moment, Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet. He's writing about the British film industry from its beginnings to the 70s, and it's based on discussions with those very very elderly movie people still alive in the late 1990s/early 2000s, who talked to him about what it was like when they were young.

I started reading it really because I wanted to know about Nerina Shute.
In fact, I had intended to post at length about her, because she sounded so downright fascinating, but I think I've come to the end of what I can know about her - at least, without extensive research elsewhere or reading her entirely unavailable autobiography.
NS was Britain's first female film critic - starting in 1928 at the age of 19. She had a weekly film column as the studio correspondent of the biggest fan magazine. Perhaps leading writer on Heat would be today's equivalent. But she was also a very harsh and influential critic, known for being able to make or break a career. There's lots more about her in the link above - her obituary when she died in 2004.
She was also a fierce, passionate, amazing, bisexual - quite consciously so, none of this: oh it was so different then malarkey. "I'm bisexual, you see," she told Matthew Sweet. "Tell me, what do your generation think about such things?" When she came to London in the mid-1920s, she became part of a group of "ambisextrous social radicals", and proceeded to embark on a lifetime of marriages to men, and dalliances with women, to be rounded off with a long-term relationship with a female ballroom dancer that only ended when the dancer died.
NS's autobiography, Passionate Friendships, was only published in 1992 but the whole of the internet yields not one second-hand copy. A few years ago, I read her book We Mixed Our Drinks, published in 1945 but written about her youth in the 20s, and it seems like she toddled along from one club to another, a hotel here, a bar there, having a simply marvellous time. No mention of the sex though.

Gay's the Word

This book (the bits of it I've read so far) is quite fascinating. The utterly gay composer (of the song Gay's The Word) and film/musical comedy star Ivor Novello (who also appeared as a character in Gosford Park, played by Jeremy Northam) used to have a club in London's Wardour Street called the Fifty-Fifty - a direct allusion to the bisexuality of its clientele. The club also appeared under the name The Half-and-Half in the 1932 film The First Mrs Fraser. I remember seeing that - or perhaps just the relevant clip from it - and being pleasantly shocked by its overt gayness. I mean, men in white tie and tails quite openly dancing together...

My name is Tallulah
Then there was the uber-bad girl Tallulah Bankhead. Actress, dope fiend, drinker, "well-known for being a lesbian and immoral with men", who spent a lot of time in Britain that decade. Her quotes are legendary, for instance: "my father warned me about men and booze but he never said anything about women and cocaine". In fact, she's certainly known more these days for her wit and sexual exploits than anything she did on stage and screen.

Roaring 20s
Of course, many people know that the 1920s were jam-packed with same-sex sexual activity (among the upper-class bohemian set, I mean let's not get over-romantic here. Can I say the words "Bloomsbury Group"?) and lots of those people were also married. I remember reading Evelyn Waugh's diaries where he talks with irritation about sharing a ride home with two women and that he was fed up with them "lesbianising in the back of taxis"!
But there was also what seems to have been a dramatic increase in sexual activity in general among girls of all classes. Young women were allowed a great deal more freedom after the first world war - earning their living, wearing short skirts, cutting their hair, casting off their corsets, abandoning their chaperones. And, if you knew where to go, contraception in the form of the diaphragm. Both men and (particularly) women adopted a fashion and hair style that was, for the time, shockingly androgynous. Noel Coward's song Masculine Women and Feminine Men was about precisely that. And here's an amazing site called Queer Music Before Stonewall that includes it.

Well, that's the British film industry. Female bisexuality of the time in Hollywood sounds much, much more frenetic. If Marlene Dietrich had sex with half as many people as it's made out she did, I can't imagine she'd have had time to make any films whatsoever!