SECRET LIVES

How the American Sappho Published the First Book of Lesbian Love Poetry

Elsa Gidlow helped invent the stereotype of the mellow, mindful, bed-hopping, pagan-worshiping, self-indulgent, perpetually seeking Northern Californian.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Elsa Gidlow, who published America’s first book of lesbian love poetry and the first openly lesbian autobiography, helped invent the stereotype of the mellow, mindful, bed-hopping, pagan-worshiping, self-indulgent, perpetually seeking Northern Californian.

If intersectionality describes how different oppressions mimic one another, Elsa Gidlow’s life as a “poet-warrior” demonstrates what we could call sproutability: how different liberations blossom together. Born in England in 1898, Gidlow was a free spirit. She approached everything openly, expansively, from relationships to gardening, from writing to politics.

Raised in the Montreal suburbs in poverty and family misery, Gidlow turned her escapist reveries into poetry. She declared her independence early: from her family, traditional gender roles, heterosexuality, conventional politics, and French Catholic Quebec’s square spirituality.

Such fierce autonomy produced restlessness: The British philosopher and Sausalito Zen guru, Alan Watts, would say, “Superficially, she suggested that she was a very respectable and demure maiden lady, but someone had put raven’s blood in her mother’s milk.” “If there was a problem connected with my being a lesbian,” she remarked decades later, “even after I became aware of it, it was the loneliness, the fact that I didn’t know anybody else like me.”

By 1920, she was seeking community in New York City, while working for Pearson’s magazine. It, like her, was British-born and socialist-leaning. Three years later, she produced a 69-paged book, On a Grey Thread, the first collection of lesbian love poems published in the United States.

Gidlow settled in 1926 in San Francisco. The city’s remoteness freed people from convention, while its port delivered waves of wanderers. Moreover, the mid-19th-century Gold Rush and the 20th century World Wars, attracted disproportionate numbers of men who rejected conventional sexual constraints. During World War I, the Navy’s “blue discharge” released those outed as homosexuals into port cities, especially San Francisco. By 1933, the first gay bars which would become the secret cells of the gay sexual revolution had already emerged. As a pioneering lesbian, Gidlow eventually joined the Daughters of Bilitis, a gay liberation group which first masqueraded as a social club.

Interested in urban design and landscaping, Gidlow landed on the local Fairfax Planning Commission. In July, 1947, the Commission dismissed her for being “un-American.” Subsequently, a formal investigation defined many organizations she belonged to as Communist fronts, including the Communist Western Writers Congress and the Schneiderman-Darcy Defense Committee, fighting the deportation of two California Communist Party officials. The 1948 report of the Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, assuming that “No person in his good sense would knowingly rush to the defense of the enemies of his country,” concluded that “A person would have necessarily been a moron if he did not know that Schneiderman and Darcy were Communists.”

Still, Gidlow believed she had been targeted for “living with a colored woman and frequently entertaining Chinese people.” Her lover, Isabel Grenfell Quallo was of African descent and they often hosted their friends the Chans. “This was damning evidence that I could not be a loyal American”—even in Northern California. Such targeting anticipated today’s white nationalists, who distort true Americanism by advocating white purity and ideological conformity.

“I am not a Communist, nor have I ever been a Communist. I detest Communists,” Gidlow snipped. She was too anarchistic to be a Communist. Thus ended her political career.

Shortly thereafter, she purchased five acres in Marin County that had been a chicken ranch. Honoring her friend the Irish folklorist Ella Young who often dressed like a robed Celtic Druid, and another lesbian writer, Emily Bronte of Wuthering Heights, Gidlow christened this neglected property below the Muir Woods National Monument, Druid Heights.

Until Gidlow’s death in 1986, Druid Heights would flourish as a living lifestyle laboratory. It attracted the Beat poets of the San Francisco Renaissance in the 1950s. It became the country retreat of Haight-Ashbury hippies in the ’60s. And it welcomed lesbians and other cultural alchemists deep into the ’80s. Musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Neil Young hung out there, with writers like Tom Robbins, artists like Ansel Adams, academics like Alan Watts and Catharine MacKinnon. Elsa Gidlow finally had what she needed: natural beauty, intense but revolving-door camaraderie, and what she mischievously called “an unintentional community” and alternate reality: in short, her true home.

Eastern philosophies fascinated Gidlow, especially Taoism’s “fluidity” and authenticity. What is probably her most famous line captured these impulses. In “For the Goddess Too Well Known,” validating her sexual identity, she wrote (PDF): “I have brought her, laughing, / To my quietly dreaming garden / For what will be done there / I ask no man pardon.

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“I’ve said yes to such a thing as a lesbian personality and I believe this is what I have and was born with,” Gidlow explained. “Having said that,” she added, “let’s take it for granted and go on from there to live our lives.”

Synthesizing East and West in lush Marin County produced a feminist paganism. In her Druid Heights counter-cultural sanctuary, Gidlow integrated the garden and the soul, rooting both in the soil—yet sprouting forth. Gidlow popularized a ritual that began at a low point in her life, at the low point of the year: a winter solstice shortly after her life partner of 13 years died of cancer. Lighting a fire, she meditated about “all the women through the ages who had kindled and tended sacred and domestic fires.” Suddenly, this floating, often alienated, existential soul in deep mourning felt “a joyous sense of connectedness.” She saved a piece of the Madrone wood-burned-into-charcoal in foil, tied with a red ribbon. That “seed” ignited a fire a year later, starting an annual ritual of “solstice fires.”

Casting the women’s movement in a fundamentalist, folkloric, organic mode, California feminists adopted this ritual. They often read Gidlow’s “Chains of Fires” while lighting their own. “I know myself linked by chains of fire,” she writes. “To every woman who has kept a hearth…. See in the shifting flame my mother/ And grandmothers out over the world.” Celebrating these eternal resonances, the poem ends: “At Winter solstice, kindling new fire/ With sparks of the old/ From black coals of the old,/ Seeing them glow again,/ Shuddering with the mystery,/ We know the terror of rebirth.”

Gidlow’s book titles reflected the range of her mind and the joy in her soul: Wild Song Singing (1950), Letters from Limbo (1956), Moods of Eros (1971), Makings for Meditation (1973), Ask No Man Pardon: The Philosophical Significance of Being Lesbian (1975), Sapphic Songs, Eighteen to Eighty (1982).

Yet, there was always a frisson, always disturbance in her orbit. “You say I am mysterious,” she once replied publicly to her friend Alan Watts. “Let me explain myself. In a land of oranges/ I am faithful to apples.”

Elsa Gidlow was lucky enough to find fertile California soil where an apple-lover like her could blossom. So much self-determination and reinvention, however, can be exhausting. Her poem “Constancy” about “my too quenchless drouth” asks: “You’re jealous if I kiss this girl and that,/ You think I should be constant to one mouth?” One wonders, amid her constant declarations of independence if, she didn’t occasionally muse about a calmer life in that land of oranges—just as conventional orange-lovers sometimes crave liberated apples.

FOR FURTHER READING

Amy L. Stone and Jaime Cantrell, Out of the Closet, Into the Archives: Researching Sexual Histories, 2015.

Andrew Harvey, The Essential Gay Mystics, 1998.

Elsa Gidlow, I Come With My Songs: The Autobiography of Elsa Gidlow, 1986.

Elsa Gidlow, Sapphic Songs, 1982.