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.