The Inspiration for SPEAKEASY’S DUCHESS BENTLEY – The Terrific, Trangressive and Tragic Tale of Gladys Bentley – Part 1

Gladys 2a

Gladys Bentley

In the musical Speakeasy – John and Jane’s Adventures in the Wonderland, Jane Allison first meets Duchess Bentley, Harlem nightclub singer and unabashed lesbian, when she finds herself outside a door being angrily knocked upon by Minister Fish, who implores Duchess Bentley to let him in so he may persuade her to amend her wicked ways.  Meanwhile, inside, Duchess is dodging the temper tantrum and flung food and dishes hurled by Jane’s neighbor Roberta White, who is livid to have learned she is not alone in being the recipient of Duchess’ amorous attentions.

pig and pepper 3

Pig and Pepper

The scene parallels the “Pig and Pepper” chapter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’ Adventures in Wonderland, only there Alice comes upon a Fish footman outside the door of the Duchess, who is dodging saucepans and dishes flung by an irate cook.  (The Cheshire Cat makes his first appearance in this chapter too, and on stage this is also where Jane Allison meets Chet Cheshire in person for the first time.)

Minister Fish, in addition to Carroll’s Fish Footman, is also based on Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, a prominent Harlem pastor who in the 1920’s railed against “moral degenerates”, claiming that sexual perversion among women had “grown to one of the most horrible, debasing, alarming and damning vices of present day civilization”.  Roberta White, who is taking the Cook’s place in dish throwing outrage, is based on the White Rabbit, as well as the many flappers and jazzers of the Roaring Twenties who perhaps partook in more than they could handle socially and sexually.  (Chet Cheshire is based in part on Pansy Craze entertainer Gene Malin).

Duchess Bentley takes her Carrollesque cues from Alice ‘s Adventures in Wonderland’s Duchess and Through the Looking Glass’ Humpty Dumpty for the most part.  More importantly the character derives her historical inspiration from notorious, fabulous, and ultimately doomed Harlem nightclub singer Gladys Bentley.

“Get a whiff” of her daring, as channeled through Duchess’ verse and chorus in Speakeasy’s song “Swell”, the second part of which is included here (she shares the song with Julian Carnation and Chet Cheshire):

Swell Part 2 (demo recording)

_DSC2703

Julian Carnation, Chet Cheshire, Duchess Bentley (Tim Connell, Bri Molloy, Camille Atkinson) and Ensemble singing “Swell”

Gladys 4bThe Roaring Twenties was a time, sometimes referred to as the First Sexual Revolution, where old fashioned sexual mores were challenged.  During Prohibition homosexual and bisexual culture flourished within the world of illegal speakeasies and the Harlem Renaissance.  Even so, Gladys Bentley’s openness about her lesbianism was radical, and for a long time made her a very popular singer, first in rent parties and buffet flats, then various Harlem dives and Speakeasies, and finally as a headliner in the Ubangi Club.  She would sing raunchy parodies of popular songs, rewriting love songs to be about browning (anal sex), for example, as well as openly flirting with the women in the audience.  She even bragged to a gossip columnist about marrying a white socialite in a ceremony in Atlantic City.

Gladys 3aAt the height of her fame she lived in a Park Avenue apartment, had servants and a swanky car, and was famous for her string of glamorous girlfriends.  However the repeal of Prohibition put an end to the prominence of the Harlem hang-outs that once employed her.  One price for legalizing alcohol and allowing public establishments to openly serve liquor was the threat of having one’s liquor license revoked if one even unwittingly allowed a homosexual on the premises.  Gladys Bentley quickly found she could not work in New York anymore.  She moved to California and managed to keep performing for a while, but kept getting into trouble with the law for wearing her signature male suits.

By the late 1940’s Gladys Bentley was broke, had no work prospects and faced homophobia grown even more powerfully virulent by anti-communist Cold War fear mongering.  It would lead her to an act of great desperation and tragic self-abnegation.  But I will talk about that in Part 2.

I’ll end this post with the song “Out of Sight”, which is sung during the “Trial of the Tarts” section of Speakeasy, a scene mirroring the Trial scene of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as well as the reactionary forces that took over America during the Great Depression, leading to the end of the careers of many homosexual performers.

Duchess’ description of her childhood in the lyrics is based closely on her Gladys Bentley’s own reminiscences: “From the time I can remember anything, even as I was toddling, I never wanted a man to touch me…Soon I began to feel more comfortable in boys clothes than in dresses”.

Out of Sight (demo recording)

_DSC2883

Duchess Bentley (Camille Atkinson) at the end of “Out of Sight”

DUCHESS:

EVEN TODDLING

I’M AN ODD THING

WON’T WEAR A DRESS

HEADSTRONG, I GUESS

MAMA SQUAWKING

NEIGHBORS GAWKING

AT MY TOMBOY POSE

IN MY BROTHER’S CLOTHES

WHAT’S UP WITH THIS CHILD?

FAR TOO BOLD AND WILD

AND FREE

LORD, THAT CAN’T BE

 —

VARIOUS PEOPLE:

Lord, what is that child wearing!

No. You can’t play with us.

Get down from that tree.

Mark my word. She’s gonna grow up wild.

Oooo! You’re so ugly!

You ain’t no boy.

It’s not right.

You’re not going to church like that. Put on your dress!

 

DUCHESS:

YEARS OF GUFFAWS AND CHIDING

ONCE PUT MY SOUL IN HIDING

BUT I WILL BE THE ME I GOT TO BE

COMPLAIN, CONDEMN OR CENSURE

MY LIFE IS MY ADVENTURE

AND I WILL LIVE IT FOR THE WORLD TO SEE

 —

MORE PEOPLE:

New York Penn Station next and final stop!

Honey, you are too much, even for here.

(wolf whistle) Hey you, whatcha got in those trousers?

Duchess? I’d call you Duke if the name wasn’t already taken.

Dress like a man, you might get slugged like a man.

You got moxy. We’ll start you off weekday nights. See how you hit with the crowd.

 

DUCHESS:

I WON’T BE OUT OF SIGHT NO MORE

WON’T FADE INTO THE NIGHT NO MORE

I’LL BE THERE

I’LL DECLARE

I WON’T BE OUT OF SIGHT FOR YOU

WON’T HIDE MY SHINING LIGHT FROM VIEW

LOOK AND SEE

THE GLORY THAT’S ME

 —

LEAVE THE COUNTRY

HIT THE CITY

I WON’T BE KEPT DOWN

I’LL MAKE IT UPTOWN

LOUD AND BRASSY

LEWD AND SASSY

BIG GAL IN A SUIT

ACTING CRASS AND CUTE

MAKING BLOND GIRLS SWOON

BELTING NAUGHTY TUNES

BY NIGHT

AND BROAD DAYLIGHT

 —

I’LL BE A BIG OLD SIGHT FOR SURE

WILL STEP OUT BOLD AND BRIGHT FOR SURE

I’LL BE FREE

I’LL BE ME

I’LL LET MY SPIRIT FLY TONIGHT

WILL HOLD MY HEAD UP HIGH ALRIGHT

HERE TO SAY

I WON’T GO AWAY

 —

COURT:

WHAT IS THIS AWFUL SIGHT

 —

DUCHESS:

COME SEE

 —

COURT:

WHAT FILLS OUR EYES WITH FRIGHT

 —

DUCHESS:

IT’S ME

ON THE GO

OUT TO SHOW

I AM YOUR DAME TONIGHT

 —

COURT:

DEAR ME

 —

DUCHESS:

YOUR SCANDELOUS DELIGHT

 —

COURT:

SCARY!

 —

DUCHESS:

HERE I AM

I DON’T GIVE A DAMN

 —

COURT:

WHAT’S SHE WEARING

WHAT DARING

WHAT STRANGER IS THIS

 —

DUCHESS:

COME AND SEE NOW

 —

COURT:

HOW REVOLTING

HOW JOLTING

WHAT DANGER TO US

 —

DUCHESS:

THIS IS ME NOW

 —

COURT:

WHAT’S SHE BLARING

DECLARING

WHAT STRANGER IS THIS

 —

DUCHESS:

LET ME BE NOW

 —

COURT:

HOW PERVERTED

INVERTED

WHAT DANGER TO US

 —

DUCHESS:

I AM FREE NOW

 —

COURT:

SHE MUST GET OUT OF SIGHT FOR GOOD

RETREAT INTO THE NIGHT FOR GOOD

HEAVEN KNOWS

SHE MUST GO

SHE’S WALKING OUT OF BOUNDS, MY DEAR

SHE’S OUT ON SHAKY GROUND, I FEAR

MERCY ME

THIS CAN’T BE

WHAT IS LEWD

CAN’T INTRUDE

THE OBSCENE

CAN’T BE SEEN

Duchess is surrounded by the righteous mob.

STOP THE SWAGGER

OF BULLDAGGERS

AND THE EFFETE

OUT LOOSE IN THE STREET

BRING THE CLUB DOWN

SHUT THE CLUBS DOWN

CALL BACK BETTER DAYS

STOP THE PANSY CRAZE

CLEAN THE LURID SREET

LOCK THE INDISCREET

AWAY

DO IT TODAY

 —

YOU SHALL BE OUT OF SIGHT FOR GOOD

BE DRUMMED OUT IN THE NIGHT FOR GOOD

MISFIT, KNOW

YOU MUST GO

YOU SHALL BE OUT OF SIGHT FOR GOOD

BE SHUNNED BY ALL THAT’S RIGHT FOR GOOD

MERCY ME

YOU CAN’T BE

WHAT IS LEWD

CAN’T INTRUDE

THE OBSCENE

CAN’T BE SEEN

 —

DUCHESS:

I WILL BE OUT OF SIGHT

 —

COURT:

FOR GOOD

 —

DUCHESS:

AND FADE INTO THE NIGHT

 —

COURT:

FOR GOOD

 —

DUCHESS:

I’LL DECLINE

I’LL RESIGN

 —

COURT:

SHE SHALL BE OUT OF SIGHT FOR GOOD

BE SHUNNED BY ALL THAT’S RIGHT FOR GOOD

 —

DUCHESS:

NO MORE SHOW

 —

COURT:

THE MISFIT MUST GO

 —

 gladys 8a

About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 30 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
This entry was posted in LGBTQ Alphabet Soup, Notes in the News, The Speakeasy Chronicles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Inspiration for SPEAKEASY’S DUCHESS BENTLEY – The Terrific, Trangressive and Tragic Tale of Gladys Bentley – Part 1

  1. SWS says:

    Fascinating. I think this is a profound song, deep and soulful but I missed so much of it, as it was sung so softly softer than I would think “She” would have sung it, and so much immediately went on around it as to sweep it up and away. You are an exceptional song writer/playwright/composer artist. Might you let me look at the Libretto/Book? I’d love to read it all. Thank you! swstout@aol.com

    Liked by 1 person

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