Dr. George Henry's Report

Edna Thomas Seated

Edna Thomas by Carl Van Vechten, June 18 1932, Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University 

A "report of a study of 100 socially well-adjusted men and women whose preferred form of libidinous gratification is homosexual," was presented by Dr. Henry of the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic New York City.

Dr. Henry says that the homosexuals who

submitted themselves for examination came voluntarily after being acquainted by a field worker with the nature of the study. They have offered themselves because of their interest in a scientific investigation of a human relationship which they believe is unjustly frowned upon by society. Most of them belong to the professional class. . . .[1]

The individuals studied apparently agreed to detailed physical and mental examinations by Dr. Henry in the hope that their participation would contribute to psychiatrists' attempts to ameliorate the social intolerance of homosexuals.

Each of the four case histories related by Dr. Henry (two males, two females) contained extreme forms of childhood and familial trauma, of sometimes dubious connection with the individual studied. For example, the sister of one male homosexual had married an impotent man whose "chief interest was in pictures of beheaded women," and who had committed suicide "in a particularly gruesome manner."[2]

Each of Dr. Henry's reports suggested that the individual's homosexuality had been determined by early trauma; later homosexual interests were linked causally with early disturbances. (It was not suggested that the childhood traumas of heterosexuals had caused their heterosexuality.)

Despite Dr. Henry's claim that his subjects were "well adjusted," he concluded that “Well-adjusted overt homosexuals are rare," and that homosexuality was a condition best "prevented."

Edna Thomas in Dress

Edna Thomas by Bassano Ltd, whole-plate glass negative, 10 January 1927, National Portrait Gallery, London.

One of Dr. Henry's four histories was that of a Black lesbian, one of the earliest of the few reports of such lives found in U. S. medical journals. Despite Dr. Henry's racist and heterosexist biases, apparent in his wording, his history of "Mary Jones" portrays a woman who surmounted many familial and social hurdles to make an affectional and erotic relationship with another woman.

Dr. Henry summed up this subject's story as "Case IV. Disillusioned in Marriage. Finds a Substitute in Homosexual Liaison"

Mary Jones is a successful Negro actress who is now nearly 50 years old (born, then, about 1887). She is well adjusted to her actual situation in life and has no regrets for having established homosexual relationships. She is at ease in any social group. Her soft, deep voice, friendly attitude along with an evident personal security has caused her to be sought after by both white and colored people.

Mary has little in her early life which she can look back upon with pleasure. She was an illegitimate child, the daughter of a 12-year-old colored nursemaid and of a white man in whose home her mother was employed. . . . Mary's skin was of such a light color that she was conspicuous in a colored neighborhood where other children called her a half-white bastard.

. . . Mary's step-father . . . used to beat up the mother and this relationship added much to Mary's unhappiness as a child. Her mother really seemed more like a sister and as a matter of fact in early childhood Mary had been led to believe that her grandmother was her mother. 

Mary's early training, especially her moral training, came from her grandmother. "I've always been lectured about virtue. If I were not good my grandmother said she would come back and haunt me." As a result of this training she remained a virgin until after her marriage. . . . "When I was six I saw mother in bed with men. I remember mother putting rouge on her cheeks. I cried and cried because I thought only bad women did that."

... The grandmother died when Mary was 13 and she was then turned over to a maternal aunt, Louise. . . . "She was very stingy. She used to make me feel that I ate too much. She was very critical of me. She always prophesied that I was going to be a bad girl."

Edna Thomas Portrait

Edna Thomas by Bassano Ltd, whole-plate glass negative, 8 December 1926, National Portrait Gallery, London.

 

Three years later Mary was married to the spoiled son of a wealthy self-made negro. She was not especially in love with him but she and her Family felt that she should not neglect this opportunity for advancing her social position. The marriage proved to be a failure. Her husband never worked, drank to excess, gambled and frittered away whatever income they had. She was entirely dependent upon her father-in-law for support. She tried to be a good wife to her husband and to influence him to give up his dissipated mode of living but her efforts were of no avail. Two pregnancies were terminated by abortion because she felt she could not afford to have children.

Five years after marriage Mary had become thoroughly disillusioned but "I put up with him until after mother's death." The mother developed general paresis [paralysis] and Mary tried to take care of her. Even after she had to be taken to a state hospital Mary made daily visits. Her husband's dissipation gradually increased and shortly after her mother died he developed tuberculosis. She returned to him to nurse him until his death. 

At 28 Mary was a widow and employed as a demonstrator. The manager of the firm was a dour, taciturn and indifferent man. She had never encountered an individual of this sort and she was fascinated by his indifference. She took the initiative in their courtship and marriage. They have been married for more than 20 years now and she has never succeeded in getting him to offer any expression of affection for her. "He would lose some of his manliness if he made such an admission." For many years after marriage she believed he was faithful to her but he was in the habit of staying out all night without explanation and she learned that he was interested in other women. This made her very unhappy. Although no contraceptive measures were used she did not become pregnant by her second husband. "I regret having no children. It's the one great unhappiness, particularly as I feel I would have made a very good mother."

Edna Thomas in Black Dress

Edna Thomas by Bassano whole-plate glass negative, 21 December 1926. National Portrait Gallery, London

Soon after Mary remarried she took part in amateur theatricals. Her musical talents were soon recognized and her promotion was rapid. Her husband was jealous of her professional success but in recent years he has been dependent upon her for support.

Her prominence in theatrical work probably made her more attractive to women. She says, however, that all her life women had made advances to her but she would not consent "because it all seemed unnatural and abnormal." Finally at the age of 41 (about 1928), while dancing with a woman, "something very terrific happened to me—a very electric thing. It made me know I was homosexual." Since then she has had several alliances with both white and colored women and for the past five years she has been living with a white woman. This woman is "one of the finest women I have ever known. She has come to be very, very dear to me—not just for sex alone —it's a very great love." Mary has no regrets for having yielded to homosexual temptations. "This last relationship affords a tenderness I have never known." Nevertheless she believes she would have remained a conventional married woman if her second husband had not neglected her. "If marriage had been satisfactory I would never have had homosexual relations."[3]

Identifying "Mary Jones" as Edna Thomas
The case history of "Mary Jones" first appeared in Dr. George W. Henry, "Psychogenic Factors in Overt Homosexuality," American Journal of Psychiatry, January 1937, vol. 93, no. 4, pp. 889-908, from which the present version was excerpted. A longer version of this history was included in George W. Henry, Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns, 2 volumes (New York: Hoeber, 1941), 2: 563-70. In the last publication the pseudonym "Mary Jones" was changed to "Pearl M." and instead of being identified as an actress, she was listed as a singer.

Henry L. Minton's book Departing from Deviance: A History of Homosexual Rights and Emancipatory Science in America (2001) in a backnote first identifies "Mary Jones" as Edna Thomas, "an African American actress who was prominent in Harlem homosexual circles." He adds that the case history of Thomas's lesbian partner was also included in Dr. Henry's book Sex Variants, vol. 2:672-81, as Pamela D."[4]

A summary of Edna Thomas' life is contained in a book by George Hutchinson, In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line (2006), based on the case histories published by Dr. Henry, and other sources.[5] Hutchinson's backnote source citations are deleted in the following excerpt:

Born to a single mother in Virginia in 1886, Thomas had limited knowledge of her family. Her mother had been a twelve-year-old nursemaid in Virginia when she'd been raped by a white employer while she was caring for his three-year-old girl. A year after Edna's birth, her mother moved with her to Philadelphia, and became established in a "respectable negro section" of the city, where a grandmother mainly cared for the little girl. According to Edna, she was cruelly abused by playmates for being illegitimate and for having blue eyes, golden hair, and nearly "white" skin. Until the age of eleven, "They all called me a half-white bastard," she told an interviewer in 1935 or 1936.

The mother finally married at the age of twenty-five, but according to Thom was was always promiscuous, taking up with both white and "colored" men, until she died at the age of thirty-eight. Her grandmother had also had two children, including Edna's mother, by white men early in life, and her (later) black husband was in jail during Edna's youth for murdering a black coachman. As if her bastard origins were not bad enough, the neighborhood children abused her for being the granddaughter of a murderer. Thomas had grown up in abject poverty on the border of "respectable" black society, alienated from any nourishing community or extended family. But she had somehow managed to develop a remarkable poise and seeming security that made her alluring to both whites and blacks as she grew to womanhood. After two years of high school, she married into a "higher" status at age sixteen and subsequently went through two abortions, feeling that she could not aford children. After ten years, her first huasband, who came from a "respectable" black family, died of alchoholism following their divorce.

Through the influence of her grandmother and father-in-law, Edna had developed "a strong feeling for the beterment of the negroes." As she matured, she "frequented high society, both white and colored. I never felt any social discrimination."

Thomas had as much experience [in the theater] as almost any active black female actors of the time. She had begun her career with solo recitables and concerts as the "Lady from Louisiana," singing "Creole" songs, spirituals, and popular local color songs like "Suwanee River." With the advent of the Negro Renaissance, however, she had begun acting. She joined the original Ethiopian Art Theatre in Chicago under Raymond O'Neill, which moved to New York in the early Twenties and raised awareness of the possibilities of "Negro drama." In addition to years of work with the Alhambra Players and the Lafayette Players, she played Bess in Porgy and Bess and Ruby Lee in Lulu Belle, plus lead roles in O'Neill's The Dreamy Kid" (1925), Hall Johnson's Run, Little Children (1933) and Stevedore (1934). She had also worked with Dorothy Peterson's Harlem Experimental Theatre in the late 1920s. She even had a budding film career, singing off-camera for Greta Garbo's character in Romance and playing Aeba in the 1926 film version of The Green Pastures.

In the midst of her 1920s stage career, she fell in love with the black talent manager Lloyd Thomas and pursued him until they were married. They were happy for several years . . . until he began seeing younger women while she was away on tour. Although they remained married, lived together, and respected each other, their romantic and sexual relationship ended. Around 1930, however, Olivia Wyndham, recently arrived from England and introduced to black society by A'Lelia Walker, fell violently in love with Edna  and pursued her relentlessly until, in her [Thomas'] own words, she "yielded."

[Quoting from Edna Thomas' case history]

I had avoided her because white women are unfaithful. She was persistent, to the point of annoyance. She finally came to my house and I had the most exciting sex experience of my life. It has gone on for five years because it's so very satisfactory.

Pamela [Olivia Wyndham] is one of the finest women I have every known. She has come to be very, very dear to me, not just for sex alone. It's just a very great love. She is tender and gentle as I have never known any one else to be."

Hutchinson describes Thomas' lover: "Nine years younger than Edna Thomas, Olivia Wyndham had fallen in love with the moment they met, and began living with her in 1930." She practically worshipped Thomas:

"She [Thomas] has a very beautiful nature. Everybody adores her. She radiates goodness and sweeetness." In their sexual relationship, Wyndham always took the initiateve and would not allow Thomas to reciprocate, believing her "too pure."

Hutchinson says that Edna Thomas and the Black actress Fredi Washington founded the Negro Actors Guild in December 1937, to aid Black entertainers and actors. Thomas was one of the vice presidents, along with Ethel Waters, Frank Wilson, Louis Armstrong, Duke Elington, Paul Robeson, and James Weldon Johnson.

Hutchinson concludes that Edna Thomas "was by all odds the most magnetic and extradordinary figure, one of the great personalities of the city -- and of black perormance history -- who in the decades since has been all but forgotten."[6]

Late in life Thomas played a Mexican woman in Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire on the stage (1947) and in the film (1951).

Aged Edna Thomas

Edna Thomas, accessed from Mikki Kendall, Black Mexico, February 26, 2015

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Notes
This excerpt first appeared in Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 526-528. At that time the identity of Mary Jones as Edna Thomas had not been established.

1  Henry, "Psychogenic Factors," 889-901.

2  Henry, 891.

3  Henry, 896-98.

4  Henry, Sex Variants, vol. 2, 672-81, and 281.

5  George Hutchinson,  In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line.  Boston: Belknap Press, June 29, 2006. Account of Edna Thomas' life, 440-445.

6  Hutchinson, 441.

Bibliography
Adams, Michael Henry Adams. "Queers in the Mirror: A Brief History of Old-Fashioned Gay Marriage in New York, Part II." Huffington Post, posted: 5/25/2011. Accessed February 26, 2015 from 
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-henry-adams/queers-in-the-mirror-a-br_b_227473.html

Garber, Eric. "A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem," in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey Jr. (New York: New American Library, 1998), 318-31. (Garber briefly refers to Edna Thomas as one of the homosexuals who attended parties in Harlem, but does not otherwise identify her.)

Davis, Thadious M.  Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman's Life Unveiled. Louisiana State University Press, 1996. (Does not discuss Edna Thomas's lesbian experience.) 

Doyle, J. D. QueerMusicHeritage.com. [Recordings of Edna Thomas singing Black spirituals, etc.] Accessed March 4, 2015 from http://www.queermusicheritage.com/oct2010t.html

Emory University. Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Edna Thomas Papers, 1924-1935.

Henry, George W. "Psychogenic Factors in Overt Homosexuality," American Journal of Psychiatry, January 1937, vol. 93, no. 4, pp. 889-908.

Henry, George W. Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns, 2 volumes (New York: Hoeber, 1941), 2: 563-70. 

Hutchinson, George. In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line.  Boston: Belknap Press, June 29, 2006. Contains the most detailed account of Edna Thomas' life, 440-445.

Internet Movie Database (IMDB): "Edna Thomas," accessed March 1, 2015 from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0858777/

Katz, Jonathan. Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 526-528.

Minton, Henry L. Departing from Deviance: A History of Homosexual Rights and Emancipatory Science in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, first edition December 15, 2001).

National Portrait Gallery (London). Basso Ldt. 12 Photographs of Edna Thomas. Accessed February 26, 2015 from:
http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp51475/edna-thoma

New York Public Library. Edna Thomas Collection [graphic]. Edna Thomas, 1885-1974, collector. Accessed February 26, 2015 from: http://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid/collection/data/753705894

Yale Univesity Library. Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Carl Van Vechten. Photoraphs of Edna Thomas. Accessed February 26, 2015, from:http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Search/Results?lookfor=Edna+Thomas&type=AllFields&submit=Find