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 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.
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.
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.
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.