February 21, 2024

In writing about the secrets of Golden Age superstars, he struggles not to sound like a sensationalist gossip rag. They were real people, with very real and intimate relationships, and in researching this article, it was impossible to avoid the endless posthumous posthumous dismissal of famous people as gay or bisexual in books and articles. There is much speculation and misinformation about these entanglements. This makes sense, of course, in an era when living your truth would be a career-ending scandal, and with the expectations already piled on women at the time, being Sapphic was a losing game. However, that didn’t mean people weren’t playing.


What is “The Sewing Circle”?

stage fright marlene dietrich jane wyman dressing maid

Sewing Circle is more of a euphemism than an actual club. he uses Alla Nazimova and later Marlene Dietrich it referred to a group of women who did not patch clothes, but who have sapphic experiences in the industry. Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankheadand even Joan Crawford they are usually educated as part of the clique, as it were Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. Who was involved is not important, plunging into the world of rumors and speculation, perhaps Marilyn Monroe he had an affair with Crawford or Garbo and maybe Marlene Dietrich had an affair before she came to the US. If you want to go into great detail there are books you can refer to, such as Diana McLellan’s Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood.

Although other books on this topic have been heavily criticized for what I mentioned in the first paragraph, and while I want to avoid that fate and keep this essay concise, I will avoid specifics and instead explore the glitz, glamor, and Old Hollywood values ​​beneath the glitz. the puritans

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Being Queer in Golden Age Hollywood

Greta Garbo in 'Queen Christina'
Image via MGM

People in the LGBTQIA+ community have existed long before there was a community, many historians have linked many figures from the past who never married but had very close friends of the same sex, they were just friends. boys being boys. This “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude is the undercurrent of all queer history, the idea of ​​being closeted, that some aspect of one’s being must be kept under lock and key. This was exemplified in Hollywood until recently, queer actors were told to stay in the closet so as not to lose their audience. Of course, XX. At the turn of the 20th century, the era of the Hays Code from 1934 to 1968, where strict and conservative guidelines were imposed on all films released by studios. One of those guidelines was not portraying homosexuality very sympathetically, and it was even more dangerous to be queer in Hollywood, where losing fans was the least of their worries.

As such, it was, at best, an open secret, relegated to the tabloids and the sinister illusions of autobiographies, “exciting secrets” as Garbo once said. This included these private networks, such as sewing circles, where actors supposedly gathered at each other’s homes to confide in each other and to stay away from the prying eyes of the public. This trust was necessary at a time when society made it very clear about what they perceived as any form of deviance. This is seen in many early representations of the LGBTQ community, even when those who dress in the opposite sex’s clothing are coded as unstable and evil, for example. psycho or the killer. Since it would take an entire thesis to discuss the film history of the LGBTQ community in general, the writer recommends documentaries like this one. Celluloid Wardrobeand Disclosure: Trans Lives on screen. While homophobia along with racism and sexism was a hallmark of 20th century society, each aspect of the queer experience was represented differently.

Sappho on the Silver Screen

Everything for the day before

Lesbian relationships in Hollywood’s golden age were nowhere near as fun or exciting as the actresses portraying them in reality. The toxic mix of sexism and homophobia in society, and the Hays Code that encourages the condemnation of lesbian relationships in film, made these portrayals incredibly sparse, and when they do appear in subtext, incredibly unflattering.

Expecting women to be coquettish and friendly with each other created a mixture of obsession and sabotage. Everything for the day before‘s Eve Harrington, one of the most iconic villains of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Although not in the original Daphne du Maurier the novel, Mrs. Danvers from the film Rebekah he is shown to have a romantic obsession with the eponymous character for the rest of the film. Margo Channing, Calamity Jane, Tess Harding, no matter how independent and confident a woman is in that independence, especially if that independence is read as masculine, they will inevitably end up settling down and finding a husband. Let alone having a relationship with another woman, a woman without a man was seen as a stage or obstacle to overcome, the former was seen as something dark and dangerous, something that will doom you. The Bury Your Gays mob started here, and all these decades later, we’re still fighting to get rid of it.

It is important to remember the strange and closed women of the Josten Circle

Joan Crawford sitting next to Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce

The LGBTQ community was given the short end of the stick in both the Hollywood system and fiction, and constant expectations and norms were imposed on thinking, especially for women who were constantly expected to exude only youth and femininity. To reject those requests when they cannot fulfill them, The Sewing Circle should be remembered. Beyond the idle gossip of who was watching, beyond the speculation of when and where she was and how people knew, there was a group of women who were legends in their own right.

Dietrich and Hepburn’s iconic suit-wearing roles made them style icons, Garbo’s impeccable performance as the gender-defying Queen Christina of Sweden, and Crawford was one of Hollywood’s most influential actresses. Strong, dynamic, era-defining women, their lives were far from heterosexual or conservative. In fact, it was that exotic androgyny that transformed them from actors to icons, both of the queer community and of film history. Both were convinced that, despite concerns then and now about queer actors, the conventional romance is driven by anything but conventional.

Despite society’s latent homophobia inside and outside the film industry, queer artists made many contributions both on and off screen. They were always there, living their truth in privacy, with lavender weddings, where legal partnerships were made to avoid homophobic stigma, queer creatives gathered in sewing circles in confidence, shaping culture despite those who worked against them.

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