Sunday, June 04, 2006

Thinkin' 'bout Bessie

More from my list of bad girl traits:

*Bad girls like young people, and young people like them
*Bad girls have fun as often as possible
*Bad girls inspire people with their passionate nature

You might think that bad girls all like to get drunk, but no. Some, including Ninon de Lenclos and Mae West, shunned alcohol and didn’t like to be around drinkers. Bessie Smith, on the other hand, was a boozehound. She was also America’s Queen of the Blues in the 1920s and the highest-paid black woman of her time because people loved to hear her sing.

She spent a lot of time on the road and bought a railroad car to move her show--musicians, dancers, instruments, costumes--from one town to the next. But sometimes Bessie grew tired of being the boss and would disappear on long benders, and on those days she would arrive late or not at all for shows. She wasn't always in the mood to sing on stage. It was more fun to go out boozing with friends and sing for their entertainment when she felt like it, when some thought crossed her mind and she had the words of a song to fit the mood. Then she could sing for fun, take a few sips of corn liquor or hits off a reefer, lapse into a pleasant state of oblivion, and wait for inspiration to strike again.

The image of Bessie getting drunk and singing for the fun of it appeals to me. She’s my idea of a true artist, wild and free. No one could stop that voice from coming out. When I write, I struggle to have as much fun as I think Bessie had when she was singing.

Sex fit into Bessie's fun, of course. She had an open mind, and she liked to see what was out there. Nobody used the term “bisexual,” but everyone knew Bessie liked girls as much as boys. She liked them young, and she liked to watch what other people did. This taste brought her to the buffet flats of Detroit, where thrill-seeking onlookers and active participants could indulge in sex acts and erotic shows.

The flats were usually run out of private houses by women. Betsy immortalised one of them in a song:

There’s a lady in our neighborhood who runs a buffet flat
And when she gives a party, she knows just where she’s at.
She give a dance last Friday night that was to last ‘til one,
But when the time was almost up, the fun had just begun.

At the buffet flats, chains of people wandered up and down the staircases, peeking into rooms where gay men romped and women did obscene things with cigarettes and Coca-Cola bottles. “It was nothing but faggots and bulldykers, a real open house,” said Ruby Walker, Bessie’s niece (I’m quoting from Chris Albertson, Bessie’s biographer). “Everything went on in that house – tongue baths, you name it. They called them buffet flats because buffet means everything, everything that was in life.”

Funny to think how that was going on almost a century ago. I wasn't much of a student of history before I started to research my bad girls. With the arrogance of the living, I thought my generation invented everything outrageous. Orgasms didn't exist before my time, for example.


Kirsten Major said...

I love Bessie, and I love that Bessie liked women. Sad as it seems, most of the "bad girls" of history did not like, or could not afford, the friendship of other women. To me, modern day bad girls have a lot of female friends and aren't tied to being a charmer. Michelle Rodriguez is a bad girl who scares the living crap out of me.

It's also interesting that bad girls seem to be by defiition, unattached. Loners even as they court men and salons. Arch friendships based on cleverness.

When I think about the conditions that created the bad girls of yore--that women could not own property, have jobs, inherit anything--the injustice makes me speechless. These are things that still exist in many parts of the world, and I'm not excited about the fate of women who use their sexuality to get by. Doesn't seem like a victory.

Sexuality is easy, and sex with men is very easy. I was reading about an psych experiment where an attractive person of the opposite sex approached total strangers and said "I find you attractive and would like to have sex with you tonight." None of the women consented; 75% of the men approached did.

Most of all, I wish bad girls could be recast as firebrands--Mae West sort of was, but then of course bad girls are essentially alone, which is what we expect of promiscuity. No revolution there.

Joyce Hanson said...

Also in the days of yore, a divorced woman was damaged goods, no matter how horrible her marriage/husband was. I don't know that sexuality is easy--I've often asked myself what sexuality is, exactly. And the whole notion of "sexy" confuses me--I think I've become blinded to "sexy" because our overmediated society is saturated with images of what it supposedly looks like. Anyway, Skip, thanks for talking about the disturbing side of bad girls' sexuality. Yes, at the end of the day, they preferred to be alone. Mae West hated to sleep with her lovers because she needed to stretch her arms and legs full out in a star pattern when she slept.

Leela said...

Much as I adore ya, Skip, and all you stand for, I don't agree that bad girls were merely promiscuous. I think that's an unfair reading of the entire premise. And anyway, what's wrong with being promiscuous? I've never understood why we're still fighting over whether it's OK for women to use their sexuality; there is a prim Victorian strain to some feminism that leaves me cold, and strikes me as simply another tool of oppression.

Don't forget that many women who were defined as "bad" in their time were women who were not conforming to the very rigid standards and limited choices of their time and place. What if you weren't the right class, color, temperament, sexual persuasion? What if you wanted something more than marriage, or servitude (which was what marriage was so often anyway), or spinsterism as a nun or a schoolteacher? What if you were who you are now, but in 18th century England or for that matter, Saudi Arabia or rural India right now?

Do you consider Josephine Baker a bad girl? She refused to be a domestic in absurdly racist America in the early 20th century. She wanted fame, time in the spotlight, the freedom to be the larger-than-life diva she was. She was born extremely poor in St. Louis, victimized early on by terrible prejudice, and went on to become "the highest-paid chorus girl in America" and then one of the most-photographed women of the 1920's. She was known for taking her pet leopard (or was it a cheetah?) on walks through Paris. She was a decorated war hero, and her lovers were legion (and said to be of both genders). And even at the height of her fame, she *still* wasn't allowed into the Stork Club, because she was black. Bad? Or simply modern? All she wanted, I am sure, was the freedom to be herself, but that freedom had to be fought for very hard at one time, by her and by countless others. And in most of the rest of the world, women are still fighting.

As for sexuality, it may seem easy to us now. We're 21st century urban Americans with college educations, access to birth control, and since we live in New York, safe and legal abortions. We don't work in sweatshops or live crowded eight to a room in tenements, we weren't forced into arranged marriages, we are free to make choices. But sexuality, a natural part of our lives and souls, has been an extremely difficult matter for most of history, and still is for many on this planet - men too. Men are just people like us. They're also vulnerable and have struggles and problems. As long as people insist on engaging in the thought experiment that is fanaticism - fanaticism of any type, religious or ideological or something else - people will be forced to struggle with something that ought to be easy (not to mention private!).

Margaret Sanger, the woman largely responsible for our access to safe and effective birth control: "bad girl". My mom, your mom, anyone who used condoms or the pill before marriage in the 60's or had an abortion before 1973: bad girls. Bessie Smith, who is reputed to have once singlehandedly stood down a phalanx of KKK outside the tent where she was performing: bad girl. Actresses and dancers in this and other countries, who were and often still are considered prostitutes whether they are or not, those who wished not to marry, those who wished to have careers, those who preferred women over men: bad girls.

We're all bad girls on this bus. Please don't misread my intention - I mean no disrespect - but I think it's important to examine all of the beliefs brought up here.

bethy said...

Did I ever tell you that Bessie Smith was my favorite of the 'great women paper dolls' book I had as a young girl? I planned to grow up and be just like her. Funny how things change...

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