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.
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