Friday, 28 February 2014

Marlene - cipher, allegory, fantasy, queer

To call Marlene 'lesbian' would not be quite accurate. To call her bisexual would also not tell the whole story. Perhaps 'queer' describes her best or simply, as one commentator said, 'unstraight'.

She made love to those she was attracted to at any particular time in her life, their gender was immaterial. This is extraordinary, given that most of her career was built on being the ultimate fetish object for straight men. The film critic Kenneth Tynan defined this bisexual appeal when he said "she has sex without gender."
"Dietrich was a legendary movie star, but she was much, much more than that - she was a cipher, an allegory, someone who could fulfil any fantasy or fit any construction. But most of all she was entirely her own woman whose amazingly full life was an example that all of us can take inspiration from."
Thus Terry Sanderson (president of the National Secular Society and lifelong Marlene obsessive) described his idol, a tribute to whose life he lavishly presented for us last night at the twee Conway Hall as part of the celebrations for Camden and Islington LGBT History Month 2014.

Mr Sanderson took us on a journey all the way from Miss Dietrich's early Berlin life, her transformation from podgy teenager into the glittering god-like creature beloved of photographers, queens and audiences the world over, her determination to decry the devastation the Nazis had wrought upon her homeland and its people (mainly by working her proverbial arse off, entertaining the Allied troops), and her love-hate relationship with Hollywood - and its leading ladies and men.

Juicy titbits emerged, such as the fact she once shared a wealthy lover with Garbo (Mercedes de Acosta), her views on religion were singularly scathing (“I lost my faith during the war and can't believe they are all 'up there', flying around or sitting at tables, all those I've lost,” she said), and her fabled last screen appearance opposite David Bowie in (the universally panned) Just A Gigolo was actually filmed hundreds of miles away from her co-star as she refused to leave Paris for the studio in Berlin where the film was being made; they had to build a re-creation just for her, opposite her apartment.

But it was her sexual allure and defiant self-determination that most explains her enduring legendary status, and it remains a favourite topic of gossip even today.

According to her daughter Maria's tell-all biography/expose, "Marlene used sex as a kind of weapon in her affairs with men - she didn't actually care much for "it". It was a way of controlling and manipulating them. With women it was different. Marlene actually enjoyed the sex, and the relationships were much more satisfying for her."

The late Maximilian Schell (who made an academy award-nominated documentary about Marlene in 1984) said of her: "She was a typical Berlin woman who could handle king and beggar with equal adroitness, and she was totally open about her homosexual relationships. I had the impression that Marlene did not converse with the people she met but rather wanted to provoke them. There was a spirit of confrontation in the air wherever she was."

Among the rarer bits of footage Terry Sanderson unearthed for our delight was this clip of her successful audition for The Blue Angel - as Mr Sanderson said, "I wouldn't have liked to be that piano player!":

To conclude his cornucopia of uber-camp clips of Dietrich at her most alluring (an exotic dancer in in Kismet; "that lesbian kiss" from Morocco; the smouldering vamp in Shanghai Express and Desire) and most surprising (arriving in a gorilla suit in Blonde Venus; brawling and boozing in Destry Rides Again), Mr Sanderson provided us with a real treat - Marlene's Stockholm concert in 1960, when she was absolutely at the top of her cabaret success, in full.

And here it is. Enjoy!

Read Terry Sanderson's full article on Marlene in the Huffington Post.

Marlene Dietrich website

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Bon Viveur or Lady Docker?

From her obituary by Paul Levy in The Independent:
Fanny Cradock was a preposterous character, the foodie you loved to loathe. With her monocled husband Johnny, both of them dressed for going to a ball, rather than working in a kitchen, the pair delighted and astonished television audiences in hundreds of early cookery programmes, starting in 1955. In Kitchen Magic they put on airs as they demonstrated souffles and eclairs. It was not a parody, however, but Fanny and Johnny's genuine idea of how our social betters wined and dined.

In a mocked-up studio kitchen, Fanny, with a pinny over her evening gown, kept up a constant flow of chatter, quite often disparaging Johnny's knowledge of food, while she busied her hands in the flour-jar. Johnny (in his dinner-jacket), whose knowledge of wine originally began and ended with Barsac, showed he had learnt a little something about wine, but accepted his wife's chastisement on matters culinary. Rationing had just ended and viewers adored the performance.

Fanny always claimed that she was born to the bon viveur classes. The vulgar title the Cradocks used for their cookery and restaurant columns in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, "Bon Viveur", is a mid-19th- century expression for one who lives a life of luxury, and was chosen over the protests of the women's editor of the Telegraph, who pointed out that the correct expression was bon vivant, "gourmand". Fanny's common touch paid off: in a later dispute with the Telegraph, she cited the earlier argument, and they ceded copyright in the title to her. Though she was contemporary with Elizabeth David, she had litle in common with the high priestess of post-war food; rather, Fanny Cradock was the Lady Docker of food...

...I cherish a 1959 volume called Wining and Dining in France with Bon Viveur, which contains the Cradocks' extraordinary advice on how to choose a restaurant. It begins, "Avoid establishments hemmed in by a fringe of mouth-organ motor-cars from the U.S.A." and continues, "Pay absolutely no attention whatever to motoring organisation symbols of recommendation... Never expect to eat and drink really well where there is a sign out `diner-dansant'! Eat first, dance afterwards and get the best out of both."

The Cradocks' secret was the snobbery and pretension of the times. In the post-war era they made their hungry, servantless readers and viewers feel they still belonged to an elite. They chided their readers to "stop fussing about those confounded lavatories. Use the pedals or the privies without complaint. Some of France's most primitive establishments provide some of France's most memorable meals."

As for the food itself: "It is ridiculously simple to make a good souffle. It is monstrously hard to roast a gigot of lamb to perfection, to cook a proper piece of calf's liver (which no English butcher has yet learned how to cut)... it is impossible to find a real potato salad in the British Isles (except in a few private houses of course)."

This is what the Cradocks' audience wanted to hear - that and the abuse Fanny heaped upon the heads of everyone from her fellow television presenters to Margaret Thatcher (she "wears cheap shoes and clothes"). It was a far cry from the foodie revolution of the 1980s.

"Carping about the way cabbage is cooked in Britain is like shooting a sitting bird with a gun that isn't licensed, on a Sunday out of season."

"There's only one convenience in convenience food: profit for the manufacturers. It's a load of muck."

"The enormous increase in Italian restaurants since the war has given pasta a head start, and although a considerable incursion has been brought about by the pizza, I do not think this will be permanently ensconced."

"When it comes to cooking, the best friends of a working woman with a family are a three-tiered steamer and a casserole."

"We approached our new microwave oven with the trepidation of two people returning to a reactor station after a leak."

"To adults the language of 'disco' participants is as esoteric as that of two scientists swapping gen on germ warfare."

"If people really want to be conned into paying out two and three hundred pounds for a restaurant dinner party, then prices will continue escalating until there is one monumental explosion."

Fanny Cradock (born Phyllis Nan Sortain Pechey, 26th February 1909 – 27th December 1994)

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Tomb of the Hairdressers

As Petrie Museum curator Debbie Challis says in her excellent blog about LGBT History Month:
"Often an object or figure from the past is ‘queered’ by the perspective of people looking at it as much as by the, often fragmentary, evidence around it / them."
This may indeed be the case, but, as John J. Johnson of the Petrie Museum presented in his talk for the Camden and Islington LGBT History Month event Defining Desire: labels and sex in ancient and modern worlds at the Institute of Archaeology that we attended on Thursday, there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that a pair of Ancient Egyptian royal servants may well be the first recorded gay couple in history...

One of the largest and most beautiful tombs in the entire necropolis at Saqqara, popularly known as the "Tomb of the Hairdressers", was discovered by archaeologists in 1964 and initially presented a puzzle to scholars.

Were the two men whose tomb this was - depicted nose to nose in a close embrace - relatives or close friends? The scholarly literature often refers to them as twins or brothers, and the site has also become known as the "Tomb of the Brothers".
According to Egyptologist Greg Reeder there was more going on. He noted that images of the two men are strikingly similar to those of male-female married couples on other tombs of the era.

Niankhkhnum had a wife, who is depicted sitting behind him in a banquet scene in the tomb, but her image was almost totally erased during ancient times for unknown reasons, he said. In other scenes, Khnumhotep occupies the place normally associated with wives.

And in some hieroglyphs, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep's names are strung together in a word play that could mean "joined in life and joined in death" [Niankhkhnum means "joined to life" and Khnumhotep means "joined to the blessed state of the dead"].

Mr. Reeder's conclusion: "Same-sex desire existed just behind the ideal façade constructed by the ancients."

[Read the rest of the article from the Dallas Morning News.]
Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum had the title of "Overseers of the Manicurists of the Palace of the King" during the Fifth Dynasty reign of Pharaoh Niuserre (c 2400BC), and are listed as "royal confidants" in their joint tomb.

Read more about the most ancient gay beauticians of the lot at

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

Camden and Islington LGBT History Month 2014

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Victorian Bumticklers

So you think the Victorians were prudes? Not a bit of it, as expert on Victorian sexuality Fern Riddell outlined in her absorbing talk at the Camden and Islington LGBT History Month event Defining Desire: labels and sex in ancient and modern worlds - a "pop-up" evening at the Institute of Archaeology hosted by John J. Johnston of the fabulous Petrie Museum, that we went to last Thursday.

For the eminent Victorian era was indeed a time when such surprising texts as these were published...

Doctor Teller’s pocket companion, or marriage guide : being a popular treatise on the anatomy and physiology of the genital organs, in both sexes, with their uses and abuses (1855)
"Every part of the human economy has its particular use. The productive organs have theirs, but it is not only for the propagation of the species: They assist in resolving animal passions,; they are the secret incentive to sexual love, and the bond of union between the sexes; they give appetite which, like hunger, must be appeased or nature revolts, and the harmony of society falls before the unrestrained fury of maniacal solitude."
As Miss Riddell said: "Basically what we’ve learned so far is that the Victorians thought we all needed to have sex well, and often, or the world would end."

Charles Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy; or, the Private Companion of Young Married People (1832).
...the first popular manual on birth control and the first book on the subject by a physician. While earlier books had advocated birth control and even hinted at various methods, Knowlton was the first to describe in detail all the known methods and to discuss their pros and cons in practical and medical terms. He advocated douching with cold water or with various solutions of alum or vinegar, which was “sure, cheap, convenient, and harmless,” ...For putting these ideas into print, Knowlton was prosecuted for obscenity three times between 1832 and 1834, once drawing a three-month jail term in Cambridge, Massachusetts... As remarkable as this book is for its content and for its impact on society, its material form is even more remarkable. It is tiny, 3 by 2½ inches, a format up to that time used mainly for miniature abridgements of the Bible.
[From the Library Company blog.]

Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 2: Sexual Inversion (1897) by Havelock Ellis.
"I had not at first proposed to devote a whole volume to sexual inversion. It may even be that I was inclined to slur it over as an unpleasant subject, and one that it was not wise to enlarge on. But I found in time that several persons for whom I felt respect and admiration were the congenital subjects of this abnormality. At the same time I realized that in England, more than in any other country, the law and public opinion combine to place a heavy penal burden and a severe social stigma on the manifestations of an instinct which to those persons who possess it frequently appears natural and normal. It was clear, therefore, that the matter was in special need of elucidation and discussion... We are concerned with individuals who live in freedom, some of them suffering intensely from their abnormal organization, but otherwise ordinary members of society." Topics discussed include: "Homosexuality Among Animals, Among the Lower Human Races, The Albanians, The Greeks, The Eskimos, The Tribes of the Northwest United States, Homosexuality Among Soldiers in Europe, Indifference Frequently Manifested by European Lower Classes, Sexual Inversion at Rome, Homosexuality in Prisons, Among Men of Exceptional Intellect and Moral Leaders, Muret, Michelangelo, Winkelmann, Homosexuality in English History. Walt Whitman, Verlaine, Burton's Climatic Theory of Homosexuality, The Racial Factor and The Prevalence of Homosexuality Today."

Lady Bumtickler's Revels from The Library Illustrative of Social Progress (1872) by John Camden Hotten.
Probably one of the closest C19th ideas to 50 Shades of Grey, this book was published falsely claiming to be from the C18th. It had actually been taken from the collection of one of the Victorian’s greatest pornographers, Henry Spencer Ashbee, and covers the themes of Flagellation with the immortally titled Lady BumTickler’s Revels.
All utterly fascinating stuff, you will agree. Now unlace those corsets, and get at it! (Reading, that is...)

Read more on the wonderful sex lives of the Victorians on Miss Riddell's Vice and Virtue blog.

Camden and Islington LGBT History Month 2014

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Like some cat from Japan

Accepting on behalf of David Bowie the British Male Solo Artist award at this year’s BRIT Awards, Kate Moss wore an original Ziggy Stardust costume which was first unveiled by Bowie on 19th August 1972 at his legendary show at The Rainbow in North London.

The so-called 'rabbit' costume worn by Kate (properly called “Woodland Creatures”) was created by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto.

Kate read out David Bowie’s acceptance speech, as follows:
“Lovely. In Japanese myth, the rabbits on my old costume that Kate’s wearing actually live on the moon, Kate comes from Venus and I'm from Mars. So that's nice!!

I’m completely delighted to have a BRIT for being the best male. But I am, aren't I Kate?

I think it's a great way to end the day.

Thank you very, very much.

Scotland please stay with us.”
Esoteric long-distance ramblings aside, it is that outfit that continues to intrigue, as does its designer...

Born in Yokohama in 1944, Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto was only 27 when he held his first international fashion show in London in 1971. The Japanese division of RCA records made MainMan aware of Yamamoto's work and Bowie purchased the "woodlands animal costume" from Kansai's London boutique - which he wore at the Rainbow concert in August 1972 and which was later remade by Natasha Korniloff. Bowie subsequently viewed a video of a rock-fashion show that Kansai had staged in Japan the previous year and reportedly loved the costumes which were a combination of modern sci-fi and classical Kabuki theatre. Kansai and Bowie met in New York where Kansai gifted Bowie two costumes during the 2nd US Tour.

Kansai was then commissioned to create nine more costumes based on traditional Japanese Noh dramas for Bowie to pick up in Tokyo in April 1973. These were the flamboyant androgynous Ziggy Stardust costumes Bowie wore on the 3rd UK tour in 1973. Kansai has been a driving force in fashion design ever since and is now a major personality in Japan.

An interview with Kansai Yamamoto in The Telegraph

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Be my Guest

CZ Guest, fashion icon and society hostess.

From an article by Natasha Wood at My Luscious Life:
Born Lucy Douglas Cochrane in in Boston, Massachusetts to an investment banker and his wife, her brother started calling her “Sissy” which translated into “CZ” with time.

Although known primarily for being a fashionista and hostess to the rich and famous, she dabbled in acting in her early years, appearing in the famous Ziegfeld Follies, and later became a gardener, writer, horsewoman and designer.

Upon marrying Anglo-American polo player Winston Guest in 1947 at Ernest Hemingway‘s home in Havana, Cuba, she joined a formidable family, descended from the Dukes of Marlborough whose ancestral home is Blenheim Palace...
Her marital family was related both to Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales, but their connections encompassed many more of the great and the good of the 20th century than that. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were the godparents of their children. Truman Capote referred to CZ as one of his “Swans”.

The Guests knew everyone who was anyone, including Cecil Beaton, Sawai Man Singh II of Jaipur, Barbara Hutton, Diana Vreeland, Babe Paley and William S. Paley, Gloria Guinness and Thomas “Loel” Guinness, Diego Rivera, Salvador Dalí, Kenneth Paul Block and Andy Warhol. CZ even frequented Studio 54!

A socialite's life, indeed.

"Be polite, meet everybody, and have a wonderful time."

"I like the classic look. Keep it simple. There's only so much you can wear."

"Style is about surviving, having been through a lot, and making it look easy."

CZ Guest (19th February 1920 - 8th November 2003)

Sunday, 16 February 2014


From the review by Lisa Hix in Collector's Weekly:
When Gertrude “Ma” Rainey - known as “The Mother of Blues” - sang, “It’s true I wear a collar and a tie/ Talk to the gals just like any old man,” in 1928's Prove It on Me, she was flirting with scandal, challenging the listener to catch her in a lesbian affair. It might not seem like a big deal to us now, but back then, pursuing same-sex relations could get you thrown in jail. The good news for women-loving chanteuses like Rainey, Bessie Smith and Gladys Bentley is that blues music in the 1920s was so far under the radar of mainstream America, female blues singers could get away with occasionally expressing their unconventional desires...

...the blues world was the perfect realm for people who were thought of as “sexual deviants” to inhabit, as it thrived far outside the scope of the dominant white American culture in the early 20th century. In Jazz Age speakeasies, dive bars, and private parties, blue singers had the freedom to explore alternative sexuality, and on a rare occasion, they even expressed it in song.

[According to Robert Philipson, director of the documentary:] “In lyrics, they talk about ‘bulldaggers,’ which is they called butch lesbians at that time, or ‘BD women,’ ‘BD’ being short for bulldaggers. There were references to being ‘in the life,’ which was understood to mean same-sex activity.”

In 1930’s The Boy in the Boat, Ma Rainey’s protégé Bessie Smith sang, “When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look ‘em over and try to understand: They’ll go to those parties - have the lights down low - only those parties where women can go.” A married woman who kept a female lover on the road with her, Smith is known to have exploded at a girlfriend, “I got twelve women on this show, and I can have one every night if I want it.”

With short cropped hair and a tuxedo, the lesser-known Gladys Bentley commandeered the crowd at Harlem’s Clam House in the 1920s, singing cabaret, tickling the piano keys, and flirting shamelessly with the women in the audience. The only one of these women to openly exploit her lesbian identity, she was known for taking popular songs and giving them lewd lyrics; and she asked the audience to help her improvise naughty lines.

“Harlem’s 133rd Street was called ‘Jungle Alley,’ because there were so many nightclubs on it,” Philipson says, explaining that Harlem had the only Roaring Twenties jazz clubs and cabarets in the country that drew white “tourists” curious about “race music.” “The Clam House was famous because it had Bentley, reveling in her image as a ‘bulldagger.’ Because of her, it became a place where black lesbians and gay men would go to hang out. White sightseers from downtown would check out her show as well.”
And so we went to the fabulous British Museum (of all places) this afternoon (as part of the Camden & Islington LGBT History Month celebrations) to see a showing of the utterly magnificent T'Ain't Nobody's Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s documentary. Here, for your delectation it is, in its entirety:

Camden & Islington LGBT History Month 2014

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Even though the neighbourhood thinks I'm trashy and no good

"I tease poor Stockard by telling everyone that she is my older sister, but we aren't related at all." - Carol Channing

One of our favourite actresses, the other Miss Channing is seventy years old today.

"Acting is such a bizarre way of life. Unless you’re really passionate about it, you should give it up. Don’t beat yourself up."

"I hate parties. I really don't like public events. I hate dressing up. I am the worst celebrity ever!"

"You get to a certain age, and you start playing a lot of mothers. Maybe if I had children I'd feel differently, but I really hate bumping up against all these guys' memories of their mothers, which, trust me, aren't so hot. Or maybe they watched a lot of The Golden Girls, you know?"

"I embarked on all this because I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to create art. That sounds absolutely ridiculous now, but back then, that was a reasonable thing to want to do with your life."

And, of course, here is our favourite - and possibly her campest - screen moment. All together, now!

There are worse things I could do:

Stockard Channing (born Susan Antonia Williams Stockard, 13th February 1944)

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Vulgarity is life

The Swinging Miss Mary Quant.

...she's 80, you know?!

"Fashion is not frivolous. It is a part of being alive today."

"The fashionable woman wears clothes. The clothes don't wear her."

“I love vulgarity, good taste is death, vulgarity is life.”

"A woman is as young as her knees."

Mary Quant OBE, FCSD, RDI (born 11th February 1934)

Tuesday, 11 February 2014


Eva Gabor (11th February 1919 – 4th July 1995)

Zsa Zsa Gabor (born 6th February 1917)

Three generations of Gabors gather in the Hotel Sacher to take a portrait in a rare moment of family togetherness, Vienna, Austria, circa 1955. Left to right: (top row) Magda (1919 - 1997), 'Mama' Jolie (1894 - 1997) and Eva Gabor; (bottom row) Zsa Zsa and Papa (Vilmos) Gabor and Francesca Hilton, age 8, Zsa Zsa's daughter by hotel magnate Conrad Hilton. Francesca is the only child to result from the combined 20 marriages of the three Gabor sisters.

From Vanity Fair:
Ask about the Gabor sisters and most people - most people over 40, that is - will conjure a handful of significant facts:
  • They called everyone “dahling” (or, as it is sometimes denoted in efforts to capture their luxuriant Hungarian accents, “dahlink”).
  • They liked diamonds and got married a lot.
  • Zsa Zsa went to jail for slapping a Beverly Hills police officer.
  • Eva was the one on Green Acres.
  • And wasn’t there a third sister whose name was...Zeppo?
Magda. Her name was Magda. She was the trio’s Marvin Bush, or, more aptly, its Kate Jackson - brainy, less flashy, and, some claim, the real beauty.

There is so much more to say. A coffee-table book on the subject, Gaborabilia, by Anthony Turtu and Donald F. Reuter, may even herald a revival. But before we can give the Gabors - daughters of glittering pre-war Budapest - their proper due as pioneering feminists and founding mothers of postmodern American celebrity, it must be acknowledged that, like the origin of life or the nature of evil, they remain in many senses unfathomable. Their birth dates, for instance. The truth may still be locked in some dusty Magyar hall of records - and who has the energy for that?

Zsa Zsa, the last surviving sister, has offered only suspect testimony on the matter. In 1982, “tired unto tears of having her age reported as being anywhere from 49 to 63,” as The New York Times put it, she made a show of releasing a copy of her birth certificate, which had supposedly been smuggled out of what was then Communist Hungary and which gave her birth date as 6th February 1928. But, as Peter H. Brown points out in his 1985 book Such Devoted Sisters: Those Fabulous Gabors, as definitive a text as we are likely to have on the subject: “to accept the ‘1928 theory’ creates laughable circumstances. It would mean that she was married for the first time at about eight and that she was about fourteen when she wed Conrad Hilton,” the 54-year-old hotel-chain founder who became her second husband in 1942. When this was pointed out to her, Zsa Zsa explained, somewhat gallantly (not wanting to implicate anyone in pederasty), “Conrad made me promise to never, never reveal my true age. And I haven’t.”

But who’s counting? As Zsa Zsa herself once wrote, “What woman is ever 50 years old?” That is not an idle question, for age - even more than opposing divorce counsel - was the Gabors’ one genuine enemy, the only predator they truly feared. But their way was not to fret over accumulating years like some commonplace cow of a dieter stepping gingerly onto a scale - at least not in public. No, the Gabor way was to face the music sideways, to celebrate your birthday at the Stork Club posing for photographers between your two sisters, a bowling-ball rack’s worth of décolletage looming pendulously over a cake decorated with candles in the shape of a question mark.

“I used to say that the only way you could tell the true age of a Gabor was by the rings around their gums,” says Cindy Adams, the gossip columnist who has known the family for four decades. “It was all revisionist history. Were they blonde? No. Did they have those noses? No. But you knew it. That was the difference. You weren’t looking for the truth. You knew there was none.”
Faaabulous, dahlink!