There can be no doubt that Gladys Bentley was one of the more daring and dazzling figures of the Harlem Renaissance. A large woman who often dressed in a tuxedo or man’s suit and tie when she performed, Gladys Bentley played piano and sang raucous, energetic, and loud blues songs in many of Harlem’s best clubs. Her singular character and style made her a legend among blues aficionados.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Bentley was a muscular and masculine girl; by the time she reached adolescence, she knew that her attraction to women made her irreconcilably different from many of the people around her. As a result, she suffered harsh treatment from family, classmates, teachers, and even doctors who claimed they could “cure” her. She left home when she was sixteen.
Bentley moved to Harlem, where she found an underground social culture that included gambling, drug use, drag shows, and other behavior deemed illicit by the broader culture. In this so-called “sporting life,” Bentley found the freedom to be an openly lesbian woman without risk of ridicule or abuse. She was not afraid to flaunt her lesbianism by flirting with women in her audiences and talking openly about her sexual escapades. Bentley even married a female lover in a very public ceremony.
She began performing at rent parties and in some of Harlem’s marginal clubs and became a popular blues singer among Harlem’s fringe community. In The Big Sea, Langston Hughes described her dynamic style during this period:
I Miss Bentley sat, and played a big piano all night long, literally all night, without stopping—singing songs like ‘The St. James Infirmary’ from ten in the evening until dawn, with scarcely a break between the notes, sliding from one song to another, with a powerful continuous underbeat of jungle rhythm.”1
Bentley’s salary increased considerably when desirable, white patrons, including Carl Van Vechten, started to come uptown to her shows. She began to play the Cotton Club and other more mainstream Harlem venues. These less “sporting” audiences didn’t prevent Bentley from singing obscene songs and from creating her own salacious versions of popular tunes. Her style remained vibrant and rowdy. In Parties, Van Vechten modeled a blues performer on Bentley; “when she pounds the piano the dawn comes up like thunder,” he wrote, “say, she rocks the box, and tosses it, you can bet, and jumps it through hoops.”2