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Madame John Dodt's Legacy #5

by Jon Newlin, NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana

And plus encore, we must per force postpone our seeking mirth and beauty and music light and gay amidst the amber spotlights and gas lamps of Basin and Perdido Streets. Besides, Old Lady Shannon is only up to 1912 in her reminiscences of The District, as Storyville was known, and as the old tanker-truck has a near photographic recall of life as a crib girl, well, in the interests of history, we need to know all, ev’y bit of it.

In the meantime, it occurs to us that we have, with the exception of a few borrowed remarks about Annie Christmas, who possibly didn’t exist anyway, just like so many local personalities living and dead, completely ignored Half of the Human Race, as I heard them called one evening during a furious discussion of women’s suffrage, a worthy and noble cause that I absurdly assumed had long been consigned to History’s Out Box.

Yes, I mean Women, and I remember the evening I first heard that dread expression, which ranks with FDR’s "One-Third of a Nation," because my toney Francophile friends were going on about how shitty things were for women in the US. It turns out that you might as well argue with a meter-maid as with this particular set of college degree’d dames: They refused to believe, though it is a matter of the most readily available historical record, that France-the Seat of Reason, n’oubliez pas didn’t give women the vote until ... 1947. Enlightened, n’est-ce pas? But we’re getting away from things. I thought I’d do a column about Notable Local and Historical Sapphics, Bulldaggers, Women Lovin Women, Lesbians, Dykes, whatever you might want to call them in the heat or the frost of the moment. While I am sure that lesbians lurked beneath every hoop skirt in the Old South, we’ve not been vouchsafed any names or dates or places; and who can say what some of those Filles de Casquette might have had in their boxes along with their ostensible trousseaux and a few jugs of Calvados? Unlike my esteemed colleague in the Yellow Shorts, I don’t feel any necessity for one to have first person anecdotal evidence of someone’s sexuality or photographic or videographic proof, we’re all grown-ups here, we can use deductive reasoning, right?

If we had to judge Queer History on the basis of those who came out publicly, we might have enough to fill a large-type volume approximately the size of the Lake Catherine telephone directory. Anyway, like any well-adjusted queer of a certain age and educational level, I have a certain number of lesbian heroines-and not Gertrude Stein or Colette or Tallulah or Marlene Dietrich or Elizabeth Bishop or Bea Lillie or Ethel Waters, or any of them, much as I love them.

No, as long as I’m going to sleep with their pictures under my pillow, I prefer them a bit more exotic or esoteric, like the Belgian novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, one of the most unsentimental individuals you can ever encounter on the printed page, or the male-impostor adventuress "Colonel" Barker who married several women in England in the nineteen-twenties and looked a bit like a more masculine version of former City Councilman Brod Bagert (two wonderful details about the Colonel that I feel I must share: His/her solicitor had the glorious name of Freke Palmer, say it aloud, and when the "Colonel" finally died in 1960 he had been living on the Suffolk Coast and a neighbor remarked, "He was very ill toward the end, but he never let the village know his secret."

These details from Andrew Barrow’s indispensable historians of the frailties and follies of the transgendered seem not to have discovered the Colonel). My great lesbian heroine is Lady Hester Stanhope, a Georgian period’ lady traveler’ who grew up as a poor relation in the misogynistic household of the Younger William Pitt and set off for the Middle East, where ladies simply didn’t go in those days, with a woman companion and a brace of pistols and a couple of pack mules and saw and did and said things never before seen or done or said by any Occidental male or female up to that time.

Shipwrecks, bandits, fights over desert water holes, camping it up in beat-up palaces in the Lebanon, you name it-Lord Byron must have been frightfully jealous of her, since he wrote to his friend John Cam Hobhouse after one run-in with Hester at a salon in Athens, "I have seen too little of the lady to form any decisive opinion, but I have discovered nothing different to other she-things, except a great disregard of received notions in her conversation as well as conduct. I don’t know if this will recommend her to our sex, but I am sure it won’t to her own." The catty bitch!

But locally, it’s a different matter. How indeed does one deduce dykery from historical figures? (For years, since I was a little tiny thing and enjoyed her so much at the movies every Saturday, at least until sound came in, I heard that the great Lillian Gish was a sweet old dyke, but very quiet and retired and private; when the American Film Institute tendered her an award and the festivities were televised, there she was at her table, surrounded by every woman performer you’d ever heard lesbian rumors about, draped all over the beautiful Miss Gish like tippets. So there.)

When I read in my copy of Amelito Giovanni Cicognani’s indispensable 1945 report on the proceedings of the Sacred Congregation of Rites Sanctity In America, in which the lives and chances for canonization or beatification of certain Americans are spelled out, that Mother Mary Magdalen Bentivoglio, the Foundress of the Poor Clares in the United States, had her troubles in her New Orleans community: "Soon thereafter opposition arose within the Community against her and her sister. Accusations were made against their religious observance, their sobriety and even against their purity.

The bishop, believing the charges, put the convent under interdict and urged that the two be secretly recalled to Rome. [Hmm. Where there’s smoke ... and what could these calumnies against the purity of two sisters in a cloistered order have been, I wonder? And why was all of this done in dead secret?] Authorities in Rome, having other information [His Excellency Cicognani doesn’t let this particular cat out of its bag.], directed that the bishop remove the interdict and conduct a judicial investigation.

The principal accuser fled, instead of appearing before the tribunal; later it developed that she was insane. [I love that peculiar little sentence.] The Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith, having examined the proceedings of this tribunal, pronounced Magdalen and her sister innocent."

Well, they’ve been often wrong before; or perhaps I’m just making all this up and projecting warped fantasies onto the trials and trivals and torments of saintly old Sicilian nuns.

There’s a handsome house in 1100 block of Bourbon Street, in somewhat tumbledown shape, which has a plaque on its front identifying it as the home of the noted photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952). Since I tend to like my lesbians the way I like my fried chicken, crusty and highly seasoned, Johnston is a perfect choice for out First Famous Local Lesbian. She only lived in the house for the last dozen years of her life, by which time age and booze had slowed her down considerably.

Her biographers, Pete Daniel and Raymond Smock, who seem rather excessively gallant and discreet as we’ll see presently, tell us, "She loved to roam the French Quarter and sit in bars and talk. Once, when someone recognized her as a famous photographer, she agreed, ‘Yes, I’m the greatest woman photographer in the world."’ She wasn’t by a long shot, but at least she was sure of herself.

In the photobiography assembled by Messrs. Daniel and Smock, Johnston they always refer to her as Miss Frances Benjamin Johnston, rather like Miss Peggy Lee, has one unchanging feature: the grim, masterful set of her jaw and her unsmiling mouth. Although there are in existence some pictures of Johnston camping about with her bohemian chums like the grandly gay F. Holland Day (famous for his naked Nubians and his Seven Last Words of Christ with himself as the Light of the World) and one delicate looking young man named Mills Thompson photographed by Johnston in drag and in blackface, though not together, the most extraordinary picture made of this woman is a self-portrait of herself as the Archetypal Butch Rebel, circa 1896.

In this photograph, often reproduced, and it is one of her better works, Johnston sits in profile before a large brickwork mantel crowded with pictures, dried flowers, a straw hat. There’s a fire in the fireplace, a piece of porcelain hanging from a sconce, it’s frightfully recherch'e. Johnston has a little cap on her head, her legs are crossed, with petticoat and stockings and button shoes exposed, she’s got a cigarette in her right hand and a stein of brew in her left and does she look way fierce, girl!

One suspects that this is the Real Johnston, the one adventurous enough to photograph Mammoth Cave and Yellowstone Park without any ladylike amenities, the Johnston who drove about Virginia and Louisiana photographing poor country Negroes (in an admittedly somewhat prettified manner), and the Johnston whose doctor made her switch late in life from bourbon to cherry bounce.

Among other things, Johnston also did famous pictures of southern architecture, such all-black educational institutions as the Hampton Institute and Tuskegee, made portraits of such fin-du-si'cle personalities as Joel Chandler Harris (the author of Uncle Remus and a pathologically shy old duffer), Susan B. Anthony, the Theodore Roosevelts and the McKinleys, Andrew Carnegie, the elegant actress Jane Cowl, John Phillip Sousa, John Hay, Jacob Riis, and Admiral Dewey.

While she was photographing Dewey, the hero of Manila, aboard the Olympia, she also made some pictures of the sailors at their leisure-dancing diffidently together on deck, admiring one another’s tattoos, relaxing in their bunks, and squiring around a ravishing young brunette described only as "one of Johnston’s traveling companions." Hmm ... the pictures of the sailors might be used to illustrate such nautical naughties as Cocteau’s Le Livre Blanc or Genet’s querelle.

But aside from making quasi pornographic to me, at any rate, pictures of turn of the century sailors disporting themselves, and the fact that she had a few queer friends, and that astonishingly butch self-portrait, what on earth could make us think that Frances Benjamin Johnston was a dyke? The authors of the biography are no help whatsoever, but we gather that there’s a bit of surreptition going on. For instance, she ran her first photographic studio with "a friend, Mattie Edwards Hewitt." Or "Johnston never married, but devoted her life to photography." Any love affairs she may have had are not revealed in her correspondence .... Johnston really lived two lives during the 1890s.

She was a properly conventional Victorian woman who had entry to the White House and the circles of official Washington. But, on the other hand, her friends and associates were artists, poets, playwrights, and actors whose lifestyles often mocked the Victorian conventions that Johnston publicly upheld. [Hmm.] She apparently moved with ease between these two worlds. To the eyes of some of her contemporaries, the very fact that she was a woman in a male dominated profession marked her as an unconventional person."

Or, "Despite the fact that the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress has some 17,000 items of her correspondence, these documents reveal far less of her than might be expected .... her private life remains hidden behind a veil of Victorian manners."

Frances Benjamin Johnston wove this veil herself; she must have had her reasons, and no doubt they seemed to her fine ones. But read again the quotes above and tell me, I know what they’re saying; you know what they’re saying; so why the hell don’t they say it?

See you in Storyville next month.

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