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.
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 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.