The Social and Cultural Elite and the Hidden “Gay” Society
As the 20th Century approached and started, more records can be found about relationships which, seen through today’s constructs, were gay and lesbian. These relationships were still discreet and conducted in private, but some sense of community was developing, with gatherings in private homes and other social/recreational activities.
There are notable prominent Richmond figures whose documented history point to them being gay or lesbian. The entire physical landscape of parts of Richmond might look very different without two of these men, Lewis Ginter and John Pope. Lewis Ginter (1824 – 1897) was Richmond’s premier magnate with business dealings in tobacco and silk; he had a well documented relationship with John Pope (1856 – 1896). Ginter and Pope owned much of the area that is now the “Northside” of Richmond and built several homes there that set the architectural tone of the neighborhood. In addition, they bought property in Henrico County, just north of the city line which eventually became Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. Although some will argue that their relationship was more paternal, since Ginter actually adopted Pope, the relationship between Ginter and Pope was the primary relationship in their life and neither man married nor was recorded as enjoying the intimate company of women. From Lewis Ginter’s obituary in The Times, October 3, 1897: “His manner toward women was tender, considerate, at times gallant, though he never pointedly sought their company.” According to John Pope’s obituary in The Richmond Times Dispatch, on April 9, 1896: “Mr. Pope lived quietly with Mr. Ginter, for whom he possessed the most ardent affection” and that the “two were almost always together."
In this case, being gay or lesbian, seems to have “run in the family;” Ginter’s neice Grace Arents (1848 – 1926) had a female companion, Mary Garland Smith (d. 1968). Arents and Garland lived in the house that Arents inherited from Lewis Ginter (The Ginter House) at 910 Franklin Street in Richmond and the two moved to the Bloemendaal House on the Ginter estate which eventually became the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. When Arents established the Ginter Foundation, Smith was given the right to live out her life in the house and continued to do so for over 40 years after Arent’s death.
Bob Swisher noted in the article “Letters, Diaries provide view of the 1920’s and 1930’s” in the September 1988 edition of Our Own Community Press: “It appears at least a small number of gays and lesbians in Richmond in the 1920’s and 1930’s enjoyed a fairly comfortable gay social life at a time when the vast majority of gays and lesbian lived deeply-closeted lives… Richmond’s private home-centered gay social scene… was probably known only to a small number of gay and lesbian Richmonders and only to a tiny number of straights.” Some of the people who were a part of this mostly hidden society and part of the thriving arts and cultural scene were writers, artists and social reformers including: Adele Clark, Willoughby Ions, Lucy Randolph Mason, Ellen Glasgow, Carl Van Vechten, James Branch Cabell and Hunter Stagg. Swisher noted: “At a time when the rest of the South was considered a cultural backwater, Richmond was on a circuit of the international avante-gard."
The women who we today can look back and identify as lesbian were mostly culturally elite, having their own money, making them less dependent on men and less tied to the strictures of society. Many of them also were involved in the suffragette movement and in social justice issues. Willoughby Ions and Adele Clark were members of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia and also worked to improve women’s rights’, child labor legislation and the arts in Richmond. Clark and Ions also lived for years as companions in Clark’s modest home in Richmond.
One prominent Richmonder Ellen Glasgow (1873 – 1945), was known in part for her social action. She marched with suffragettes in England and became a member of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. Her home became one of the meeting places for the Equal Suffrage League. She also made her mark on the literary world earning the Pulitzer Prize in 1942 for In This Our Life and was part of an elite literary circle that included James Branch Cabell and Mary Dallas Street. Ellen Glasgow never married, but had many primary close relationships with women. Anne Virginia Bennett was a devoted companion for 30 years.
Lucy Randolph Mason (1882 – 1959) grew up in Richmond and used her wealth and heritage to work for social change. Mason was a member of the Equal Suffrage League, advocating for the vote for both white and black women and believed that unions were a powerful tool to help improve the lives of women, specifically the working conditions. Her testimony before Congress was important in passing the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. She worked for the YWCA including a stint as the director from 1923 – 1932. She also served as the president of the League of Women Voters for a while. Like many women who advocated for progressive causes during that period, her closest relationships were with other women; her primary relationship was with Katherine Gerwick of Ohio (1882 – 1927).
Hunter Stagg, sophisticated, wild and an alcoholic, personified the spirit of the roaring Twenties and was he was one of Richmond leading gay hosts. He was the co-editor of the literary magazine The Reviewer; the editors of The Reviewer were able to persuade some of the best writers of the time including Carl Van Vechten and Gertrude Stein. This gave them, and Richmond, an acquaintance with some of the avante-gard artists from New York and Paris. A noted occasion was when Hunter Stagg hosted a party for Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) in his home when Hughes visited Richmond to speak at Virginia Union University in November 1926. Stagg wrote a friend: “If Thursday evening in my library can by any stretch of the imagination be called a party, it should go down in history as the first purely social affair given by a white for a Negro in the Ancient and Honorable Commonwealth of Virginia."
Another author and editor for The Reviewer, Mary Dallas Street inherited a large house and money from her parents and able to live independently. She was one of the first women in Richmond to drive a car and droeve a “pale blue Packard convertible with pale-blue upholstery and wore a suit and Inverness cape made-to-order from Edinburgh to match the car.” The love of her life was Gertrude Maxion Lewis, a much loved teacher at Miss Jennie’s School (which would later become St. Catherine’s).
Although there is only anecdotal evidence of African American lesbian and gay Richmonders during the early 1900s, the African American community, specifically the Jackson Ward neighborhood, was thriving in the early twentieth century. As a center for both black commerce and entertainment, Jackson Ward was also called the "Harlem of the South". Venues there, such as the historic Hippodrome, were frequented by the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and James Brown. A thriving, arts and cultural center, Jackson Ward would have also been the center of lesbian and gay culture for African American Richmond. One of the major benefactors of several African American artists and writers was Carl Van Vechten who had strong ties with Hunter Stagg and the Richmond Community as previously mentioned. Ironically, Richmonders who wanted to see the African American musical artists or hear a prominent writer like Langston Hughes speak would have had to go north to New York or Chicago because the venue right around the corner in Richmond would have been segregated. Indeed the occasion of Hunter Stagg hosting Langston Hughes was probably quite unusual.
This glimpse of the elite society in Richmond in the early 1900’s indicates that there was indeed a thriving but hidden gay and lesbian culture that was developing. Although these men and women were not activists, there social gatherings formed the base that continued to develop in Richmond in the mid-1900’s, after the Second World War. The list here is not exhaustive, but gives a picture of a group of men and women who were the intellectually, culturally and socially elite strata of society. The mid 1950s saw the continuing growth of a sense of identity and the social and political climate set the stage for Stonewall and beyond.
- Marschak and Lorch<Beth Marschak and Alex Lorch, Lesbian and Gay Richmond, Charleston SC: Acadia Publishers, 2008. p.12
- Obituaries as quoted in http://lifeonplanetbill.blogspot/2010/03/sunday-stroll-through-gay-old-90s.html/
- Marschak and Lorch
- Bob Swisher “Letters, Diaries provide view of the 1920’s and 1930’s” Our Own Community Press, September 1988
- Marschak and Lorch. p.14 – 16
- Marschak and Lorch. p.19
- Marschak and Lorch. p.18
- Marschak and Lorch. p.23
- Marschak and Lorch. p.24