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After a hiatus of more than three years – and a computer crash that eliminated most of my research notes – I’d like to continue where I left off, exploring the first community that Elsa Gidlow illuminates for us.

Last time we looked at the women in her circle, the small community she created around herself and around Roswell George Mills of LGB people and sympathetic heterosexuals. I’d like now to turn to the men.

Lucien Lacouture and Henri Lamy

At some point in the 1910s, Gidlow ran into Mills and coming out of a priest’s home on Dorchester Street. The priest was one of Mills’ lovers. As he was leaving, two friends of Mills’ – Henri Lacouture and Henri Lamy were coming to visit the priest, whom Gidlow never names. According to Mills:

…these two young men, and others were welcomed visitors. The priests offered themselves as lovers, treated the young men royally, serving the gifts brought in by their devout parishioners. They, of course, were sworn to poverty and had no money of their own to buy such luxuries.

Mills also related how on a police raid, the officers had found the priests with some very young lovers all dressed as women. This fascinated Gidlow, who wondered why. Mills answered, “Did you ever stop to consider that priests, monks, the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy, spend their life in drag?”

It had been through the church that Lacouture had discovered he was gay. He had been a seminary student, and quite devout. He had always believed he was going to become a priest. But he became tormented when he fell in love with another seminary student, a boy named Jean, who was in Gidlow’s words, “filling his mind and heart to the exclusion of meditation on God and the saints” and who “appeared more beautiful (heresy!) than any saint with his intense eyes and merry mouth.”

Lacouture went, tortured by his feelings, to confession. He cried, confessed it all, and waited for his punishment. He expected excommunication, or at least to be excluded from his vocation in the priesthood. Instead, the priest – a Father Francis – told him to meet him at the parish house, for what would be Lacouture’s first sexual experience.

He left his career in the church after that.

Lacouture became very much a part of Mills’ circle, and a friend of Gidlow’s. According to Gidlow, after he gave up on the religious life, Lacouture became (appropriately given his name) a fashion designer. He had a plan to live in New York for two years to learn his art, and then return to Montreal. After his return, said Gidlow, he designed clothes for wealthy women.

A dictionary of Quebec fashion flushes out a few details, mentioning “The little we know about this designer permits us to know that he was noteworthy in the Montreal of the 1920s and 1930s.” Lacouture was born in 1895. When Gidlow was in New York, he was making regular trips there to purchase fabrics he couldn’t get in Montreal.

And Gidlow was very right that he was a designer to the rich. His clients included Saidye Bronfman, the matriarch of the Bronfman liquor empire and one of the wealthiest families in Canada.

He died astonishingly young in 1934 of a brain tumour. He was not yet forty. His apprentice, a woman named Hernance Ferland was taken up by Marie-Paule Nolin, founder of what would become Canada’s greatest fashion house of the 1950s and 1960s. Ferland’s talents – and the clients of Lacouture’s she brought with her – help make Nolin’s empire what it was.

Lacouture stayed with Henri Lamy whenever Lacouture was in New York. Lamy was also an expatriate Montreal. He and Lacouture had been lovers, and remained close friends throughout their lives.

Lamy was not as close to Gidlow, and left fewer records to trace. Gidlow said he had gone to New York to get training as a singer. According to Gidlow, “Teachers had promised him that his rich tenor voice could qualify him for grand opera if he would overcome his laziness and work.” He moved onto West 44th Street, where his apartment became the kind of base of operations for expatriate Montrealers.

He does not appear to have ever made it. I’ve never found his name in connection with the opera. When Gidlow made return trips to Montreal to visit friends and family, he was there again.

Harcourt Farmer

Harcourt Farmer was a stage actor and a writer. Gidlow does not appear to have been fan of either his work or him personally. She was jealous by her own admission, and she “hated him” for his sexual relationship with Estelle Cox, with whom Gidlow herself was in love. Her description of him – the only one we have – should be taken in that context:

Harcourt had a dark, slightly sullen, dissipated face, the plastic face of an actor, handsome at times, and a thin, nervous body he handled gracefully. The few times I had been alone with him he had appeared lonely and had not hesitated to let me know he would have liked to make love with me. My lack of interest and response let our relationship settle into a pleasantly casual friendship.

Farmer was interested in both men and women. While he an Gidlow were often rivals for the same woman, he also had for a lover a young war veteran named Charles McDonnell – who we’ll return to in a moment. His philosophy on love seemed to have been – as Gidlow quotes him – “A lover in bed is worth two in the offing.”

Farmer is one of the few of Gidlow’s circle I have been able to find in primary sources. His school of elocution – undoubtedly how he made a living as a struggling actor – was on McGill College Street.

His writing show up from time to time as well. He wrote frequently for journals on culture in and outside Canada. He produced one piece for The Canadian Bookman (April 1919), asking if Canada would ever develop its own theatre tradition. He was doubtful it would. In June of 1920 he penned an article predicting the death of jazz in Musical America. “But every fad has its day,” he wrote, “and ‘Jazz music’ is no exception to the rule.”

(One wonders what he might have made of the Montreal Jazz Festival. The world’s largest jazz fesitval, now nearly a hundred after he’d predicted its end, is centred a few blocks from Roswell George Mills home!)

As an actor, he does not seem to have ever made the transition to film. He performed Shakespeare at Stevenson Hall in 1919, to a mixed review in The Gazette. After 1920, he fell entirely off the radar. Entirely. He does not appear in the phone book, he writes no articles, and does not perform onstage. Elsa never mentions him again, and I’ve found no frther mention of him anywhere.

About his love life, Elsa is rarely specific, and details mostly his relationships with women, particularly with Estelle. She does mention that he’d been the lover of a Charles MacDonnell, a soldier in the war.

Charles MacDonnell

Most of the gay and bisexual men who met at Roswell Mills’ home in Montreal seem to have made a life for themselves, in spite of the challenges facing LGB individuals in the 1910s and 1920s. Charles MacDonnell was the one true tragedy.

That tragedy was in great part due to the war. MacDonnell had been deeply traumatized by his experiences on the front line. He did not find anyone particularly sympathetic. He was lovers with Harcourt Farmer for a time, but though he was “young, good looking, passionate, [and] loved and wrote poetry,” Farmer dumped him saying “I can’t keep coddling him…He’s always in the bloody dumps reciting Housman [a gay poet who wrote very often about death], talking about corpses.”

MacDonnell followed Gidlow and Mills to New York. He tried to get some of his poetry published by the magazine Gidlow worked for, but she rejected it – too “sentimental [and] derivative of Housman.” He became involved with Roswell George Mills, but Mills couldn’t handle his constant talk of the horrors of war.

Gidlow quotes MacDonnell:

You haven’t seen them. Ten million corpses. Ten million of them! They were young like us. They ate. They drank. They were even merry. I loved them. I made love with one of them. There in the trenches where he became a corpse.

The military was uninterested in helping him, and no one in his circle of friends was equipped to. It was before post-traumatic stress disorder even had a name. Mills dropped him, and MacDonnell committed suicide soon after.

I’ve tried to add to MacDonnell’s story, but the name is too common whose English-speaking parts were largely founded by Scots. There was a Charles MacDonnell in the Canadian regiment of Saskatchewan Dragoons who went over with the first wave of troops in 1914, but it’s impossible to say for certain if it was him, and Gidlow does not provide enough background for us to know if he was from Saskatchewan or not. I’ve found C. MacDonnells elsewhere as well, with no clues to narrow it down.

Phyllis Gidlow

Gidlow devotes even less time to exploring the situation of her sibling, Phyllis. Phyllis Gidlow, she tells us was “mad,” and she documents Phyllis’s slow deterioration over the years. Her sibling refused to eat, and was “raving in tongues,” before the family decided to institutionalize her. Conditions were poor in the institution, Gidlow writes, and Phyllis died.

Gidlow adds one curious detail in her description of Phyllis: “She insisted on wearing boys’ clothes and said she was a boy.”

Gidlow gives us very little to go on. Given her dismissiveness toward other trans people – she was downright mocking when describing trans folk she met in Germany at Magnus Hirschfeld’s institute – it’s safe to assume she’s giving us a very skewed picture of Phyllis Gidlow. And given what we know of the ways in which a transphobic culture causes or worsens psychological problems for trans people, it’s not unreasonable at all to suggest a whole alternative narrative.

What is Phyllis Gidlow was actually trans? And her psychological problems stemmed from being in a culture – and a family – whose most bohemian members had no compassion whatsoever for her situation?

It’s only a theory, and given what little Gidlow gives us to go on, simply speculation. But if Gidlow’s sibling is trans, he would be the first trans person in Canada we can put a name to.

Sadly, I’ve been able to find nothing about Phyllis Gidlow, except a date of death (May 6, 1930). Gidlow mentions that Phyllis was committed to the Protestant Verdun Insane Asylum, which is now the Douglas Hospital in Verdun. Their brother Eric was also there. If those records are kept anywhere, I would not be able to access them.

Gidlow’s Circle

Else Gidlow’s circle – the one that coalesced around her and Roswell Mills – gives us something that rarely see in any country, and which is even more lacking in the Canadian context: an intimate portrait of the LGBT community before the liberation movement. It’s the first such view we have. Every other glimpse of that community has been through the eyes of authorities – through the police, and medical authorities, journalists, and official records.

The rare times there’s been a hint of the voice of the people themselves, it’s been muffled and vague: a bit of poetry, or a line of testimony in someone else’s record. With Gidlow, we finally see how LGBT people of the time lived, loved, and saw themselves.

Of course, there had to be countless other stories, lost to us – there were communities in all the larger cities, and circles of friends who knew each other in other places. Also, there was the war that had so destroyed Charles MacDonnell, and defined the end of one era and the beginning of another for Western history generally. It had no small impact on the course of LGB history in the course of the 20th century, and in a strange way forged LGB communities of its own.

It’s to the War to End All Wars that we turn next.

Sources: My primary source, as for the last few entries, has been Elsa: I Come With My Songs by Elsa Gidlow. There was very little to flush it out with, though over my years of hiatus I researched everything from old phone books to dictionaries, to biographical materials.

For Lucien Lacouture’s life, I only had Dicomode: dictionnaire de la mode au Québec de 1900 à nos jours by Gérald Baril available to flesh out what Gidlow tells us. I searched several works on Quebec Opera for Lamy, and found nothing.

Harcourt Farmer does turn up from time to time. The phone book provides the address of his “school for elocution,” over the course of several years. Most of the pieces I’ve cited in the text above, while the mixed review in The Gazette comes from the May 28, 1919 issue. His unusual name should make him easy to trace, but he vanishes rather suddenly in the 1920s, with no clue from Gidlow where he might have gone. Given how eager he was to take centre-stage and how happy he was to have a public forum for his opinions, his disappearance is rather odd.

Charles MacDonnell is, unfortunately, un-researchable. His first and last name are so common in Canada that I’ve found dozens dating to that time, and no way of being sure if I have the correct one. The few records of veterans I was able to dig up did not provide me with any clues either – C. MacDonnells were not rare in the Canadian military in World War I.

Phyllis Gidlow’s records, if any exist, will be sealed at the Douglas Hospital. As far as I know, there’s no way for a member of the public to access them, so the story of Elsa Gidlow’s sibling will have to remain incomplete. It’s unclear whether the doctors of the time would have understood what it meant to be trans, and it’s entirely possible they’d have come to the same conclusions Elsa Gidlow did. Gender identity at a concept in psychology had only been studied by those doctors on the cutting edge of psychology, such as those whose research interested Magnus Hirschfeld. It was only later the year that Phyllis Gidlow died that the first publicized sex-reassignment surgery was performed, and the reality of trans people brought to wider public attention. Thus, the truth of Phyllis Gidlow’s indentity is likely lost to us.

I’ve been on hiatus for years, with little time and no energy for the research involved. I’m looking to get back into it.

For tonight, I just wanted to mention that today is the 43rd anniversary of the final rubber stamp on the Omnibus Bill that made me not automatically illegal for having a relationship in my country.

Tomorrow, we in the LGBT communities will be inundated with Stonewall retrospectives as we always are on June 28th, and Canadians will talk about Stonewall as the start of the movement. But our movement up here was alive, well, and had achieved its first major victory. It got royal assent the night before Stonewall – something in the air, clearly.

No disrespect to Americans who have every reason to celebrate tomorrow, but it isn’t right to forget our own history, and discard the memory of the work of tireless activists up here who made it happen.

As I mentioned previously, Gidlow’s is the first portrait by an insider of the lesbian gay community in Canada. Because of this, I’d like to take the time to present in some detail the individuals she who had been part of that community – to put a more human face on what might otherwise be an abstraction.

We’ll begin with the women Gidlow met who were part of the bohemian subculture who had gathered around her friend Roswell George Mills.

The Women at Mills’ Parties

When Gidlow found “her people” in Mills’ small social circle, she was somewhat disappointed. There were only two among the frequent guests at Mills’ home – Marguerite Desmarais and Estelle Cox. Neither was exactly available.

But love must not be explained. One loves. That’s all.
— Marguerite Desmarais

Marguerite Desmarais was a pianist, described by Gidlow as a woman “of great charm.” Mills described her as “the most female creature I have ever met.” Gidlow depicted her similarly: “entirely Woman – strong, with the power of water, yet in no way dependent.” Desmarais arrived at Mills’ for a party one night on the arm of a music teacher named Adelard Brunet, and quickly worked her way into Gidlow’s life.

Mills encouraged Gidlow to go after her, though Gidlow was more focused on a woman named Estelle Cox. She didn’t even see Desmarais as a romantic possibility, believing her to be heterosexual. So no one was more surprised than she was when Desmarais made the first move.

They spent a weekend at a cabin in the Laurentian mountains – arranged by Mills – and Gidlow was often at the mansion Desmarais shared with an elderly mother in a state of advanced dementia. Her home was a shrine to great painters and great composers. It made quite an impression on Gidlow – “every object in the room,” she said, “seemed a projection of her – sharp, shining, alive.” Caring for her mother put a great strain on Desmarais – she devoted herself to art and beauty as a means of preventing her life’s difficulties from, as she put it, “corroding her heart.”

Desmarais was happy to be with Gidlow, though she was primarily focused on men. The possibility of a relationship with a woman did not seem to occur to her. Gidlow once said to her, “But you will not cease to love men. I could no more keep you for my own than hold an armful of moonlight.” To this, Desmarais said, “We cannot hold moonlight because it does not need to be held. We have it now. Isn’t that enough?”

For Gidlow it wasn’t enough, though. Soon Desmarais began to see an older man, but still wanted to be with her. She asked if the boyfriend wouldn’t have a problem with that. Desmarais said that he knew, and, “He finds it amusing.” He didn’t take their relationship seriously enough to feel threatened. Gidlow wondered if all she was for Desmarais was an amusement. She never went back to Desmarais’s home.

Gidlow had lost her heart anyway to a woman named Estelle Cox – almost love at first sight, cemented when Cox gave her a surprise kiss in Mills’ bedroom the night they met. She “felt stabbed” when she discovered Cox was married. Cox’s husband was a lithographer – likely Edwin Cox, whose engraving work was quite famous in book circles in Montreal.

It was not a happy marriage. According to Gidlow’s account, he was sexually demanding of her, and very jealous though he had a mistress of his own. She writes that Cox hated him, but didn’t feel that she could separate from him because she didn’t want to leave her 13-year-old daughter in his care. She called their home “The Morgue.”

Cox and Gidlow kissed a few more times, but Cox was afraid to go further. Gidlow wondered whether she was just terrified of her husband, or not really interested in women. She decided it was the latter when she walked in Cox and another friend, Harcourt Farmer. Yet Cox continued to flirt with her.

With Desmarais, she had the physical, but no possibility of love. With Cox, she only had platonic desire. Neither option pleased her. Her situation was made worse by the knowledge that there had been other lesbians in Mills’ circle, and she’d missed them – they had all left the city.

The first of these had been Muriel Symington. Symington had been born in Canada. She moved to New York in her late twenties or early thirties and took care of her mother and little sister in a house in Greenwich Village. Gidlow described her first impression of her as “a tall, slim, fair woman of thirty or so wearing a tailored tweed suit, silk blouse, and low-heeled oxfords of well-polished leather.”

Symington’s life focused on art, poetry, and music. She had wanted to be a violinist, but had had to give up that dream in order to support her family. She wrote copy for an advertising agency instead. At home she preferred to speak French – she reserved English only for practical things. She was fiercely proud of her Irish heritage, and so she had learnt Gaelic also.

Symington became Gidlow’s first girlfriend soon after they met in New York. Gidlow described their time together, saying that with her, “The most ordinary details of life were haloed. Food tasted divine. I was not merely eating, but savouring nuances of complementary or contrasting flavours.”

They met at Symington’s house. They were able to keep their relationship secret from Symington’s mother – lesbianism was so far out of her experience that the two women could spend hours alone in their room without raising suspicion.

Symington was much more conservative in her politics than Gidlow was. When Gidlow went to work for a left-wing magazine, Symington worried she’d be at risk from anti-communist sentiment. Their relationship came to an end when Gidlow moved in with Mills. They’d had to tell the landlord the unlikely lie that they were married. That made Symington – whose last girlfriend had left her for a respectable life of marriage – very uncomfortable.

Symington vanished for decades. She is likely the same Muriel Symington who emerges in the 1950s as a minor player in a Red Scare drama. Her close friend Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was arrested for violating the Smith Act, the anti-communist act. Symington wrote letters in Flynn’s defence, and tried to get fellow communist Helen Keller to send Flynn a letter of support. By this point, Symington’s politics seemed to have become much more radical. She argued for equal rights for black Americans, and wrote left-wing, anti-Catholic satires for the early underground political newspaper, The Realist.

There is no way of knowing how she experienced this political conversion, if indeed they are the same peron. But Elizabeth Gurley Flynn lived years with Marie Equi, a lesbian, and is generally believed to have been lesbian herself. They were part of that community. And Symington told Helen Keller that she and Flynn were close. She’d even helped prepare Flynn’s autobiography for print.

Tommy

Vincit qui patitur – They conquer, who endure
— inscription on Tomy’s wedding ring to Elsa

Gidlow’s next girlfriend was more conventional. Violet Winifred Leslie Henry-Anderson – known to her friends as “Tommy” – did have a small measure of fame herself, but that was entirely in the world of amateur sports.

Henry-Anderson was born in Scotland, 1884. She was one of the early women golfers. She had been involved in golfing in her native country before she’d come to Canada.

Women’s professional golf was relatively new in the 1910s. It had existed here since the founding of the Canadian Ladies’ Golf Union at Montreal in 1893. Men resisted it, and men’s golfing organisations tried repeatedly to get the women’s associations under their control.

Not surprisingly, more than a few traditionalists were quick to complain that women golfers weren’t very feminine. Journalists described them as “muscle molls” – “moll” being a slang term for a prostitute or a gangster’s girlfriend. Polite Edwardian and Georgian society women saw such women as unfeminine and degenerate.

Some even accused these women of being secretly intersexed, a possibility inevitably portrayed as being deceitful and unfair to the women who weren’t. In 1935, Czechoslovakian Olympic athlete Zdenek Koubkov announced that he was intersexed, and now identified as male – in spite of having competed as a woman. He had surgery so that his outer reality better reflected his inner one.

This shocked one Canadian journalist named Alexandrine Gibb. Gibb was among the first to call for sex testing in sports. Worse, she raised the spectre of intersexed and trans folk competing in women’s sports. She portrayed intersexuality and gender variance as a kind of cheating, arguing such people could take advantage of some unfair superiority over the Canadian “dainty girl runners.”

Oddly, in all this obsession over gender and sports, lesbianism was not on the radar – that came later. A historian of women’s sports in Canada named Margaret Ann Hall suggests that it started to emerge in the 1930s:

Not once, during this period, have I found a single reference connecting athleticism and lesbianism. Susan Cahn argues that the stereotype of the lesbian athlete did not emerge ‘full blown’ until after World War II, although certainly by the 1930s, ‘female athletic mannishness began to connote heterosexual failure,’ usually couched in terms of unattractiveness to men, but also suggesting the possible absence of heterosexual interest.

The stereotype might have developed later, but as Henry-Anderson explained to Gidlow the reality had been established long before the straight world had noticed. She was well enmeshed in that world. She had come from an affluent family in Edinburgh, and had had the leisure time to devote to sports. She had even been a runner-up in a round of women’s amateur golf championships in Britain.

Then her father abandoned the family and took his fortune with him, and she and her siblings were suddenly thrown out into the world to earn their livings alone. The family broke up and settled in different cities. Henry-Anderson and two of her brothers decided to try Canada, though her money wouldn’t take her any further than Montreal. She likely lived with a brother, an E.R.A Henry-Anderson, who sold movie film, cameras, and projectors for a company called Pathescope. She could knit, and made and sold knitted ties that were then popular with upper-class men. The knitting put her through secretarial school.

She soon found a job much more suited to her education, working as a legal secretary. Gidlow tells us how “In our day she would have become a lawyer” but “At the beginning of the century, such a step was unheard of.”

Henry-Anderson had been a part of lesbian circles in Edinburgh from a very early age. Gidlow writes that she and her first girlfriend had been lovers “as girls.” And she provided Gidlow (and us) with a small window onto the Scottish lesbian community at the dawn of the 20th century:

Tommy was able to tell me more than I had ever suspected of women’s passionate, romantic involvement with one another. In Edinburgh upper classes and among her golfing associates, there were many such liaisons, she said.

‘Did they make love?’

‘Of course – those who did not get married, and even those who did for economic or family reasons. An heir was needed. Or they did not like being “old maids.” Once married, they were freer anyway. The men went off to posts in India, Africa, or the Colonies.’

It was not just Scotland. She found British Columbia to be similarly open:

Tommy had not had trouble as a lesbian, even in western Canada. Friends in Vancouver all knew that she and Mona were together and had lived so for years. The couple did not conceal their affection or commitment. If Tommy arrived alone at a gathering or sports event, Sir George Bury, an executive on the Canadian Pacific Railway, would unfailingly ask in railroad language, ‘Where’s the second section?’ Everyone would laugh. It was all done in a friendly, jocular way like one referring to the member of a married couple.

However, a story appeared in the Vancouver newspaper about an individual presumed to be a man, but who was found to be a woman working at a man’s job, with a ‘wife.’ Discovery had come when she had a heart attack and died in the hospital. Vancouver was scandalized and indignant. Tommy remarked, ‘If she hadn’t died I suppose she could have been put in prison. According to the news report, many people knew she was a woman masquerading as a man, but as long as there was no publicity they didn’t care.

Henry-Anderson eventually found her way to Roswell George Mills’ circle, and met a young actress named Mona Shelley. They became lovers. Shortly before Gidlow found Mills, Henry-Anderson and Shelley picked up and moved to Vancouver. Gidlow regretted having missed them. “They were a legend by then,” she writes, “lingering in my thoughts wistfully as the only living lesbians anyone I knew had known.”

In Vancouver, Henry-Anderson resumed her golfing career. In 1922, she took second place in the Pacific Northwest amateur championships, losing to a former English champion named Vera Hutchings who now lived in Winnipeg.

Shelley still wanted to be an actress, though, and in the 1920s she couldn’t imagine making a career in Vancouver. She decamped for New York, where Mills and Gidlow had already set down roots. Henry-Anderson followed her

It soon became clear that the couple was about to break up. Shelley had fallen in love with a teacher whom Gidlow only refers to as “Miss Jonas.” Jonas was apparently in love with Shelley, but uncomfortable with the idea of sex. For that, Shelley stayed with Henry-Anderson. Henry-Anderson was willing to share her girlfriend’s body with another woman – their relationship was open that way – but not her heart. The divorce was inevitable.

After that, Henry-Anderson and Gidlow became close. Then one day, she slipped a ring onto Gidlow’s finger, and said, “Marry me for tonight.” They became lovers, and wives in every way but legally. For thirteen years they were only apart when Gidlow visited family, and during her tour of Europe. They travelled together, moved together to San Francisco, and stayed with each other until, as Gidlow puts it, “death did us part.”

Gidlow’s Tommy died in a San Francisco hospital in 1935, of lung cancer. She had been a lifelong smoker in an age when the dangers were only just beginning to be studied, and smoking had become a symbol of independence and rebellion for women. It is likely that she died without ever knowing the seriousness of her condition. It was not common for doctors to inform patients then that they were dying – it was believed that the shock could kill the patient instantly. Gidlow knew, but was sworn to secrecy.

She was at her wife’s bedside every evening after work until her death. She described the loss as “like an amputation of a part of myself.”

As for Mona Shelley, my best efforts so far have turned up virtually nothing beyond Gidlow’s brief description:

She was a cuddly, puppy-like young thing, maybe a few years older than me, outgoing and physically energetic. Except for her good voice, I could not see her as an actress. She was convinced there were parts she could take and was haunting managers, producers, and casting agents. Roswell and Mona went to plays together, and she was frequently at the studio.

Shelley falls out of Gidlow’s story after she and Henry-Anderson break up. I’ve been looking for evidence that she made it onto the New York stage. So far there are hints that she had parts in some minor productions, but I have no firm proof as of yet. It’s also unlikely she made a break into film.

It is of course possible that she used a pseudonym or that Mona Shelley was a pseudonym – the practice of actors taking one was very common at that time. If so, the rest of Shelley’s story might be lost to us for good.

In my next instalment, I’m going to continue with this series of profiles the people in Gidlow’s and Mills’ social circle in Montreal, moving on to the gay and bi men who were part of that community in the 1910s.

Sources: By far my main source was Elsa Gidlow’s autobiography, Elsa: I Come With My Songs. I was able to find Edwin Cox’s name in Lowell’s Directory of Montreal, which also supplied me with details of Henry-Anderson’s brother. Although I cannot be certain he was her brother, his unusual name appears at the same moment she and her brothers arrive in Canada. I believe that she lived with him because she herself does not have an entry in this rather exhaustive directory, and women living alone were listed under their own names. Her golf tournament in BC is mentioned in Golf Illustrated, the July 1922 issue. I am almost certain that Muriel Symington the communist is the same as Elsa Gidlow’s Muriel Symington. It seems unlikely that that there were two women of that age, by that name, in lesbian circles in New York at that time. On the other hand, there seems to have been at least a half-dozen Mona Shelleys, which was my one main barrier to researching her. I read a fair bit on the history of golf for this article, but the only useful source was The Girl and the Game by Margaret Ann Hall. An excellent study of the subject, and highly recommended. Symington’s satires can be found in The Realist, available online – for example her “Conference in the Hereafter” is in the April 1959 edition of that underground paper. Her letter to Helen Keller is also widely reproduced online. Henry-Anderson’s close friend Sir George Bury is a famous figure in his own right, in part for his life on the railroad, and for his much-read, first-person account of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Mount Bury on the northern tip of Vancouver Island is named for him

At the eye of the hurricane, love and music become the only verities.
— Roswell George Mills, in 1917

There had been glimpses into the gay and lesbian community before Elsa Gidlow. A letter between Alexander Wood and George Herchmer Markland suggests they knew about each other. A La Presse article from 1885 detailed a cruising zone right behind Montreal’s city hall. A social club for gay men in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu was targeted by a secret police sting operation.

It is not until Elsa Gidlow’s memoirs, though, that we get a look into that community through the eyes of one of its members. Gidlow gives us our first rich account of one gay circle in Montreal in the 1910s.

In this article and the next we’ll be turning to that community and exploring it in depth. And we’re beginning with Roswell George Mills, Gidlow closest friend in Montreal and the man who introduced her to the community she’d been searching for.

Roswell George Mills (1896-1966)

Roswell George Mills was a man few people forgot. Gidlow described him as an “astonishing, elegant being … a beautiful willowy blond.” Gidlow and Mills met at the first meeting of her poetry club:

I thought Roswell was the most ambiguously beautiful being I knew, with his metallic blond hair and pale, perfect features, his languid, intelligent eyes, and soft, slim body. He was almost a hothouse beauty, a living flower that appeared artificial.

Mills was so obviously gay that – even in an age less likely to think in such terms – people seemed instantly aware of it. A man in a lieutenant’s uniform who’d joined the poetry club was repulsed when Mills first entered the room. The soldier said, “God made him for a man so let him pass as such.” The lieutenant was apparently too bothered by Mills’ appearance to show up at the club’s second meeting.

Mills wrote for The Montreal Star. He worked on the financial page, and he wrote a column on the women’s page of The Star under a female pseudonym – most likely “Jessie Roberts,” which was the byline of “What Girls May Do.” This column offered women in business advice on working in male-dominated fields, and on how to find and keep a job. It also made frequent references to businesswomen who sound suspiciously like Elsa Gidlow herself, and another woman in Mills’ circle named Violet “Tommy” Henry-Anderson.

Mills also wrote reviewed opera and theatre for The Star. He somehow found time to give piano lessons – he wrote his own music for the piano – and contribute stories to magazines. He authored a short piece of theatre – very orientalist – that depicted a pair of lesbian lovers eloping in China. This was dedicated to Gidlow.

At about 21, he was exceptionally well-read, particularly of those authors most likely to make straight society nervous: Oscar Wilde (imprisoned for “gross indecency”), Paul Verlaine (lover of Arthur Rimbaud), Charles Baudelaire (who wrote openly of lesbians). He was also well-supplied by a doctor friend with books that detailed the latest scientific opinions on homosexuality.

He went to work “scrubbed and in tweeds,” but otherwise walked around in public in full fairy fashion – “delicately made up and elegantly dressed, wearing exotic jewellery and as colourful clothes as he dared.” At home he wore “a bronze green robe of heavy silk.” He lived with his mother, Mabel, and designed her dresses. They shared cosmetics, and a mutual hatred of his alcoholic father.

He was quite open about his attraction to men – astonishing a half-century before legalization. His “personal crusade” was to make people “understand that it was beautiful, not evil, to love others of one’s own sex and make love with them.” Unlike so many other gay men of the period who’ve told their stories, Mills seemed to suffer neither guilt nor regret – except that his total lack of interest in women precluded having children. “We’re going to be lonely when we’re old,” he once told Gidlow.

Ken Faig Jr, an American historian of amateur journalism, gives us the most detailed account of Mills’ background in a journal called The Fossil. Mills’ family was American, originally out of Connecticut. They had very deep roots in that country. His father’s family had been part of the first Dutch colonies in North America.

After the war had ended, Mills and Gidlow decided to put out a short magazine called Coal From Hades, which was soon changed to Les Mouches Fantastiques. This was a combination bohemian poetry collection, anti-war manifesto, and Canada’s first gay magazine. Copies were sent to friends, and to members of the amateur journalist’s association which Gidlow had briefly led. They published it on a friend’s mimeograph machine from Mills’ home at 27 McGill College Avenue.

Only four copies are known to have survived – and only one remains in Canada, a March 1920 issue at the Archives gaies du Québec. Mills had three poems in that issue, one free verse and two prose. Mills was quite open about his sexuality in Les Mouches – in the free-verse work he (somewhat torturedly) asks, “shall my gift [of love] be good when one I love/These days finds it not good in sight of him?” He was also quite open about his dislike of the traditional, Calvinist conception of a judging God that was used to justify homophobia – Mills (a theosophist) was not a fan of traditional Christianity, as a prose work in Les Mouches Fantastiques called “God Amuses Himself” makes abundantly clear:

In a vast shadowy place pierced by sharp stabs of sunlight an old man sits. His face droops low over his withered hands, and the long end of his dusky garment winds interminably through space. It trails across a world, and on it gleam innumerable eyes, as stars. And as He sits, wrapped in silence, His ministers whose names are Pleasure and Pain and Love and Suffering and Despair, catch in a huge net myriad birds and lay them fluttering before Him. And He, with His slender fingers, that seem like claws, so long have the nails grown, slowly, feather by feather, plucks the struggling things and strews the feathers about Him riotously. When they are nude and dumb with agony, He flings them along the length of His garment, to become a star perhaps. I have been told that they become stars.

Les Mouches Fantastiques made them minor celebrities in amateur journalism circles, though much of the response was negative. But Mills made one fan – an American Episcopal priest named Graeme Davis. Davis took leave from his duties South Dakota and made the trip by train to Montreal just to meet Mills. They became lovers, briefly.

Leaving Canada

In the 1920, it was unimaginable that Canada would one day be more socially progressive than the United States. The country was divided between puritanical Protestantism and conservative Catholicism. Even the left in this country was deeply Christian, and very moral in matters of sex. The United States wasn’t France, but the metropolis of New York offered a kind of freedom that Montreal didn’t possess.

Shortly after Gidlow moved to New York in 1920, Mills left Canada to follow her. They lived together in a group house in Greenwich Village, and then later in a curtained-off apartment. Mills got a job in the financial section of a publication with the exciting name of Oil, Paint, and Drug Reporter. He introduced Gidlow to her first two long-term lovers – both women who had left Canada and come to New York.

Mills fell in love with an Indian immigrant – an engineer named Khagendrenath Ghose. He ended his relationship with Davis, and moved in with Ghose. At that point, he largely vanishes from Gidlow’s story, and so the details we have become somewhat sketchy.

They met again in Paris, in 1928, where Roswell had an apartment with his young Berliner boyfriend, Jurgen. Jurgen was studying architecture in France. Gidlow and Mills ate together often at a restaurant named L’Allonette in the Latin Quarter, where Roswell was living.

In late 1928 or early 1929, Jurgen invited Mills home to meet his parents. Gidlow followed them to Berlin. Four years before the Nazis’ rise to power, Berlin was still something of a paradise for gay men. Homosexuality was illegal there, but the police tolerated the gay cabarets and cafés.

Gidlow described in detail an “invert” café they went to called The Silhouette, full of drag queens and a few women in tuxedoes – as well as gay men who otherwise blended easily in with mainstream German society. An actress friend of Gidlow’s also brought her and Mills to Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexual Research – Hirschfeld had started the world’s first gay-rights organization, and was the most important figure in gay and lesbian rights in the world at that time, as well as being one of the first advocates of trans rights. They had the honour of a tour of the institute.

After that, Mills and Gidlow parted, maybe forever. They kept in touch by letters for decades– an astonishing feat, considering how frequently the two picked up and moved with no certain future address.

At this point, our information on Mills becomes even more fragmentary. Gidlow came back to America just in time for the Stock Market Crash. Mills remained in Europe – whether he was still in Germany when the Nazis came to power or not is not something I’ve yet been able to trace.

He was back in New York in 1943, though, when he had to register for the draft. He was working at The Brooklyn Eagle at the time, a newspaper that Walt Whitman had once been editor of. At the same time, he was taking care of his elderly mother. Most of his letters from the time talk about how difficult his life had become.

In 1961, we find him living in Florida. He died just before his 70th birthday, in Florida in 1966.

Mills’ Legacy

Mills looms large in gay and lesbian history in the country in part simply because he is the first homosexual man whose complete story we have. Nicholas Daussy de Saint-Michel, George Herchmer Markland, Alexander Wood, Samuel Moore and Patrick Kelly, the men at the Champs de Mars cruising zone, the men at the private club in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu – we know about their loves, their sexuality, and their community only through the cold lens of court documents, and the jaundiced lens of sensationalist journalism.

Roswell George Mills is the first gay men whom we see at home – the first we see in love, and in desire. He is the first whose story is told by a sympathetic friend, and the first whose own voice we hear. He is also the first gay man we know of to have publicly claimed his identity in this country.

Undoubtedly there were others like him – he mentioned men before him who’d taught him things. But he is the first whose story is retrievable, and that in itself makes him important. And the publication of Les Mouches Fantastiques makes him effectively the first gay male activist in Canada, just as Elsa Gidlow is the first lesbian one.

It wouldn’t be right to end this profile without some of Mills’ verse poetry. He was first and foremost a poet, after all. Here’s a piece of his more mature poetry – “Roses” – from the 1927 edition of The Vagrant:

I wished to send you flowers,
Symbols of our long dead hours,
Red roses like the breath of song.

I bound the crimson offerings,
Knotted them with silver strings,
Red roses like love dead.

The knots came all unfastened,
Knots I made of silver thread;
Red roses blowing out to sea.

The sea was stained with crimson,
Red petals like our passion,
Red roses meant for you.

From Roswell George Mills we now turn to the other players in Gidlow’s life about whom we know less – “Tommy” Henry-Anderson, Harcourt Farmer, Ivy Gidlow, Marguerite Desmarais, among others.


Sources: By far my best source is Elsa: I Come With My Songs by Elsa Gidlow. There’s no more complete record of Mills life, and indeed it would be unlikely anyone would ever have researched Mills without it. Beyond Elsa, my best source is the July 2006 issue of The Fossil, which details his life from the point of view of the amateur journalists’ association he belonged to, but also provides a lot of background detail Gidlow does not include. The April 2007 edition of The Fossil provided the poem “Roses.” I learned about Mills’ piano lessons and confirmed his address from an ad he put in the Canadian Jewish Chronicle for March 26, 1920. There is a huge body of letters from Mills in Gidlow’s archived collection in California, but I have no way of accessing it. I’ve had to rely on the impressions from other readers. The detail about Walt Whitman is the only fact here from Wikipedia. It took me months to narrow down Mills authorship of “What Girls May Do” under the name “Jessie Roberts,” and it’s still not absolutely certain. Only four columns on The Star’s women’s page had female bylines. The AGQ originally identified Mills as Margaret Currie, who wrote an information and advice column. However, they no longer believe this to be the case – Margaret Currie was the pseudonym of Irene Currie Love, a major figure in the history of women journalists in Canada. Indeed, when Love collected her articles in Margaret Currie: Her Book, she had some scathing words to say about the “artistic temperament” that Mills loved exalted and typified. In a page one could almost see aimed at her co-worker Mills, she called “the artistic temperament” a “disease of the nerves” in need of a cure. Of the other candidates, Margaret Lloyd’s conservative advice to mothers seems unlikely. That leaves Jessie Roberts and May Manton. Manton wrote a syndicated fashion column that was mostly an ad for her patterns. But Manton seems to have been a real person – you can still find her patterns on Google. Jessie Roberts is untraceable because her first and last names were too common for the period to properly distinguish her, but I’ve never encountered one linked to The Montreal Star outside the columns themselves. She doesn’t appear in the histories of women journalists in Canada that I’ve found either. The fact that “she” was often talking to women of Gidlow’s and Henry-Anderson’s descriptions seems to clinch it, along with the fact that it was a business column and Mills was primarily a business reporter. I’ll admit to selecting the poems based on quality – his free verse from Les Mouches Fantastiques was pretty awful. The slight clipping I did include here is so tortured in syntax as to be nearly unreadable. And something from Les Mouches had to be here, so I went with the prose poem. I also used a much later, mature poem for the same reason. They don’t quite fit with the theme of this entry, but Mills was a hit-and-miss poet in his early days, and tends to be “miss” when he’s at his most autobiographical.

I wanted to apologize again for the lateness. The other week, I discovered that four months of research had been four months chasing a red herring – the pseudonym I’d been pursuing turned out not to belong to the person I’d believed it had.

I’m still researching, and I didn’t quite have to start from scratch. I hope to have something in the next few weeks on the first known queer community in Montreal – the circle around Elsa Gidlow.

Still Here

I just wanted to apologize for the long hiatus. I am still working on the site, but my current project – researching the people in Elsa Gidlow’s circle – has taken much more time than I expected.

I expect to have something up in the next two weeks.

Elsa Gidlow

Elsa Gidlow did not like Canada when she moved with her family here from Hull, England, at the age of six. It was too cold, and even at an early age, she saw it was too Victorian.

We’re lucky she came here, though. Gidlow gives us our first look at Canada’s queer community from an insider’s perspective.

The Goddess of Tétreaultville

Elfie Gidlow was born in 1898, to a poor-but-educated father and a mother whom she adored. While she was still small, her father moved the family to Tétreaultville, a village on the Island of Montreal that’s since been swallowed by the city.

She became very attached to the trees and river there – and claimed to have had a vision of a goddess by the riverside. But she was less sure of the people, or at least their way of life. Roles for women in that very strict Catholic community were limited to wife and mother. Gidlow resolved never to marry a man. She also decided at an early age that she wanted to be a poet, and began sending her work to The Montreal Star.

She didn’t get along with her father. But he had liberal ideas when it came to women’s education and working women, and she was his favourite of his seven children, so he took her under his wing. She came with him on his job teaching first-aid to people working on the railroad, and learnt secretarial and clerical skills – still thought of as men’s work in the 1910s.

She spent six months at business college. Then when she was sixteen, her father helped her get her first job. She did clerical work in the office of Angus Works, which manufactured and serviced parts for the Canadian Pacific Railway. This was 1915, and with so many men fighting the war in Europe, Angus Works was forced to hire more women in spite of its chief clerk’s reluctance.

Around this time, Gidlow developed a crush on a woman named Frances. She had met her at business college. Gidlow didn’t realize it was love until later, though, by which point Frances had a boyfriend.

Things began to fall into place for her a little later, when a co-worker of Gidlow’s named Rebecca Stuart met a “friend” of hers at work. Gidlow picked up that there was something about their gestures and expressions that suggested they were lovers and not friends. She wasn’t the only one who noticed. One of her co-workers called Stuart something that sounded to Gidlow like “mofredite” through his thick Scottish brogue.

A year later, looking through a book of Greek sculpture, Gidlow came across the word “hermaphrodite” – a word that had been used to mean “homosexual” since the Renaissance, and which was then better known than “lesbian.” She realized then that that’s what she was. In her diary soon after, she wrote, “I am going to get a room of my own. I am going to find my kind of people.”

Gidlow didn’t know how to go about the second task, and her job wouldn’t pay a woman enough for the first. Instead, she went about trying to become a poet instead. She created a poetry group, and sent a fake letter to The Montreal Star to drum up interest. It worked, and she attracted a small crowd of would-be poets and people who were simply curious.

In the crowd was an effeminate, beautiful young man whose mere appearance seemed to upset a couple of older men in the crowd. One of them was so repulsed that he left early. The young man was Roswell George Mills, a 19-year-old editorial assistant at The Montreal Star’s financial page. The Star also let him write an advice column for businesswomen under the female pseudonym of “Jessie Roberts.”

Mills introduced Gidlow to another world. He brought her attention to a series of writers whose bookds were a kind of iniation into his circle – Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Charles Baudelaire. They read Plato’s Symposium and Havelock Ellis’s Psychology of Sex and Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex. In short, they all the books available to them that were sympathetic to homosexuals. Mills in turn had been introduced to them by some of the older men in his life – hints of a community or network that some believe had been in Canada since at least the days of Alexander Wood.

Roswell Mills had a “personal crusade.” Gidlow writes:

He wanted people to understand that it was beautiful, not evil, to love others of one’s own sex and to make love with them. Roswell had divined my lesbian temperament, and was happy to proselytize; the veil of self-ignorance began to lift.

It was 1918, and Gidlow was only nineteen. She came from a household where sex was never discussed. All this was revolutionary to her, and she was deeply grateful to Mills. She hated her name Elfie, and he nicknamed her “Sappho,” a name used among her friends all her life. She later began using “Elsie” and then “Elsa” as her professional name, but “Sappho” stuck and friends were still using it at the end of her life.

Mills introduced her to a circle of gay and bisexual people, and to a culture and literature she hadn’t known existed. As happy as she was to find this world, there was one serious problem – there were no lesbians. Mills’ friends had known exactly two lesbians – Violet “Tommy” Henry-Anderson and Mona Shelley – but both had left Montreal years before and settled in Vancouver.

Mills’ circle included a Marguerite Desmarais, who was mostly interested in men but happy to experiment with Gidlow, and an older woman named Estelle Cox. Gidlow fell in love with Cox immediately, but Cox seemed unsure of her feelings for Gidlow. In the end, nothing happened between them.

Les Mouches Fantastiques

Lacking any real romantic possibilities, Gidlow threw her energies into her poetry and journalism. She was active in an association called the United Amateur Press Association of America (UAPAA). This was a major American association that allowed young journalists and poets to publish their works. In spite of its name, a great deal of their work published was as good or better than what was in the newspapers. Amateur journalism functioned as the paper equivalent of the blogosphere in the 1910s, and the UAPAA was one the two biggest players in this business.

The group was divided, though. A schism in 1912 over a disputed election meant that the UAPAA had two presidents, each recognized by half the organization. For the 1917-1918 year, Gidlow was the president for her faction, and may have hosted a UAPAA convention at Montreal. The president of the rival faction was none other than Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who would go on to be one of the world’s most influential horror writers.

Not surprisingly, Lovecraft loathed Gidlow. Details of the power struggle between them are vague. But after Gidlow, Mills, and a few of their friends collaborated on a literary journal, Lovecraft launched a nasty, homophobic attack on Gidlow likely as an extension of their rivalry.

This journal was originally called Coal from Hades, but later renamed Les Mouches Fantastiques (Fantastic Flies). Les Mouches Fantastiques was part literary collection, part bohemian manifesto attacking the middle class.

And a large component of both the poetry and the politics was an argument for the acceptance of homosexuals. In fact, there was so much queer content in it, that could be counted as the country’s first gay journal, five decades before the magazines that usually get that title. In Gidlow’s words:

Besides our poetry, [Mills] contributed translations from Verlaine, articles on ‘the intermediate sex,’ and one-act plays sympathetically presenting love between young men. My poetry was obviously addressed to women.

Les Mouches was never widely available. Its creators mimeographed a hundred copies, and sent it out to friends and organizations like the UAPAA.

Lovecraft shot back. He described Les Mouches in his own publication The Conservative as “artistic chaos characteristic of the late Oscar Wilde of none too fragrant memory.” Gidlow wrote a review of Lovecraft in return in American Amateur, describing him as “Mr. Lovecraft with his morbid imitations of artists he seems not even able to understand.” Lovecraft answered that “Perhaps Mistress Elsie-Elsa would prefer that the amateurs follow her own example, and perpetuate morbid imitations of morbid artists whom nobody outside the asylum is able to understand.”

(“Morbid” at the time still could mean “degenerate,” and Lovecraft was probably referring to the homosexuality in Les Mouches.)

The whole affair left a bad taste in Elsa’s mouth. She confessed in 1920 to be haunted by “the indignant ghosts” of her time in the UAPAA, and by the “the wraiths of the abused Les Mouches Fantastiques.” She does not even mention her presidency or the UAPAA her autobiography. Still, she continued to contribute to UAPPA journals, and in 1927 published “Phoebus to Narcissus” – a poem deeply infused with male homoeroticism – in a UAPAA magazine called The Vagrant.

Gidlow began to think about leaving Montreal. She considered leaving for New York, where she would have more possibilities to publish as a poet. She also hoped she would be able to meet lesbians there. As strange as it may seem to someone on our side of the same-sex marriage debate, Canada was then seen as hopelessly Victorian, while the United States was imagined as a place of freedom for the marginalized.

Thus in 1920, she packed and left Montreal, returning to Canada only for occasional visits to her family, and to a retreat on Hay Island in Quebec.

Later Life and Legacy

Most short biographies of Gidlow focus on her life after Canada. Some do not even mention her childhood or her accomplishments here. Since the rest of her life is easier to track, I’ll only touch on it in slight detail.

Gidlow spent six years in New York. Mills came to join her there. She found some lesbians there, though not quite the community she was looking for. She met a woman named Muriel, but their relationship didn’t last.

Then Tommy Henry-Anderson came to New York. After she’d broken up with Mona Shelley, Henry-Anderson and Gidlow became a couple, and lived as wives until Henry-Anderson’s death of lung cancer in 1935, at the age of fifty-one. They moved to San Francisco together, and were always together except during Gidlow’s visits to Montreal, and a year she spent in France, Germany, and Britain.

Even in a relationship, Gidlow never stopped looking for “her kind.” She was invited to Germany by Roswell Mills, who was living there with a boyfriend. There, she encountered Magnus Hirschfeld, who in 1897 founded the first organization to advocate for rights for the “third sex” – a category that included homosexuals, trans individuals, and intersexed people. She found Hirschfeld’s views on sexuality to be too coldly rational.

She was equally dissatisfied with meeting Radcliffe Hall, author of the first lesbian novel in English, The Well of Loneliness. Gidlow found Hall to be snobbish and condescending, and too in love with fine jewellery.

After Henry-Anderson’s death, Gidlow bought a parcel of land outside of San Francisco that she called Madrona. She lived there with her partner of the time, Isabel Quallo. The two of them traded up to a larger and more remote piece of land she named Druid Heights.

In 1960s, Druid Heights became a place of pilgrimage for artists, people interested in Taoism and Neo-Paganism, and for young lesbians who now regarded Gidlow as a kind of elder – a role she wasn’t always comfortable with. She lived at Druid Heights until her death in 1986.

She never stopped writing poetry. Editors urged her to write a novel, which would be more profitable. She did, but never enjoyed prose. She made her living mostly through freelance journalism, and some editorial work.

She continued to publish her poetry as well. Her first collection of poetry was On a Grey Thread, which came out in while she was in New York in 1923. She was still publishing at the end of her life – her last volume of poetry came out in 1982, and included recent work.

Gidlow was at the forefront of much what came to be thought of as lesbian culture in the 1970s. She was interested in goddess worship since her vision at the age of six in Tétreaultville, and later developed an interest in Guan Yin or Kannon, the Merciful Goddess of Buddhism and Taoism. This was later supplanted or supplemented by Wicca and Neo-Druidic concepts of the earth as Mother Goddess. She was anti-war as far back as World War I, and interested and supportive of trade unions in the days when “union” was still a dirty word. She was an anarchist, anti-capitalist, and egalitarian.

And Druid Heights was an early experiment in communal living, as well as a point of ferment for artistic and intellectual creativity. It drew feminists as diverse as Catharine MacKinnon and Margo St. James, spiritual leaders from American Taoist Alan Watts to Irish Neo-Druid Ella Young, and musicians from Dizzy Gillespie to Neil Young.

And naturally, it also drew lesbians and gay men. Young women came to find out what it was like to be a lesbian before the age of Gay Liberation. Major figures in the movement for lesbian equality – people like Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon – were in her circle of friends as well. Gidlow no longer needed to wander the world to find “her kind.” She’d created a place where they could come to her.

Gidlow thought of herself before anything else as a poet. So in closing, we’ll leave Gidlow with part of a poem she wrote when she was nineteen, and still was still in Montreal, “To The Unknown Goddess”:

There is pain here, and tears,
Bitter, terrible tears;
But the joys have warm mouths, and madness
Dances downward with the years.

Come to me at the top of the world,
O Mine. The valley is deep.
The valley is overfull of the dying
And those who sleep.

But here Heaven’s winds blow
And the pines sing
one song:
Come to me at the top of the world,
Come soon. I have waited too long.

In my next entry, we’ll be turning to Roswell George Mills, and the community he was at the centre of.

Sources: By far my best source is Elsa Gidlow’s own very detailed autobiography, Elsa Gidlow: I Come With My Songs. I also used her final volume of poetry, Sapphic Songs: Eighteen to Eighty. A few details were drawn from the website of Les Archives gaies du Quebec, which holds what might be the last surviving copy of Les Mouches Fantastiques. I drew a couple of minor details from Wikipedia and Who’s Who in Gay & Lesbian History (eds. Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon). I perhaps consecrated a little too much space to the battle with Lovecraft. However, I’d never seen it mentioned anywhere else – even Gidlow doesn’t include it in her autobiography – and it amused me because in spite of his views, I have a soft spot for Lovecraft’s stories. It’s also intriguing because even during his own lifetime, Lovecraft was often seen as gay – to the point where his friends have had to defend his heterosexuality by trotting out a quote from his ex-wife that during their brief, unhappy marriage, he was “adequately excellent” in bed. Anyone “defending” Lovecraft from “charges” of homosexuality have also used another quote, in which Lovecraft says he knew about homosexuality among the “ancient nations,” but hadn’t realized homosexuality still existed until he was more than thirty. Since he writes with revulsion about homosexuality and Oscar Wilde here at the age of 27, this is clearly not true. The details of her battle with Lovecraft come from the April 2007 issue of The Fossil, a publication devoted to the history of amateur journalism, and from H. P. Lovecraft’s own Collected Essays, Volume 1: Amateur Journalism

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