by Andrew Ding
One would be forgiven for believing that we had the 60’s to thank for the sexual revolution that led to such iconic venues like Studio 54, Party Monster, or even Stonewall. However, one of the queerest eras in New York City's history was the Roaring '20s and early '30s, when ‘pansy balls’ were all the craze, cross-dressing performers were fabulous and famous, and the sparkling isle of Manhattan was already a major gay travel destination. You would also be forgiven for thinking that such fun and frolicking were only to be found in the various downtown neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village, certainly the most Bohemian neighborhood where one would go to see ‘long haired men’ and ‘short haired woman’. However, the parties and balls found there would pale in comparison to the fabulous drag ball held on 155th St in Harlem's Rockland Palace.
280 West 155th St
Organized by a black fraternal organization, the Hamilton Lodge No. 710 of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, the Hamilton Lodge Ball was known simply as the Faggots' Ball by the 1920s and attracted up to 8,000 dancers and spectators at the height of its popularity. As the great African-American poet Langston Hughes recalled, "During the height of the New Negro era and the tourist invasion of Harlem, it was fashionable for the intelligentsia and the social leaders of both Harlem and the downtown area to occupy boxes at this ball and look down from above at the queerly assorted throng on the dancing floor." The spectators ranged from leading lights of black society and the Harlem Renaissance such as the singers Nora Holt and Taylor Gordon, the writers Wallace Thurman and Bruce Nugent, and the heiress socialite A'Lelia Walker, to downtown celebrities and perennial gay favorites Tallulah Bankhead, Beatrice Lillie, and Clifton Webb, to such pillars of old New York respectability as the Astors and Vanderbilts.
As the circuit parties of their day, the drag balls provide a startling glimpse of the national scope of gay life in the 1920s. Men traveled from across the country to attend the Hamilton Lodge Ball and other cities' signature balls, and partisans trumpeted the virtues of the New York ball over its rivals in Chicago, New Orleans, and Berlin. Those who couldn't attend the balls were treated to detailed accounts of them in the black press and Broadway gossip sheets. Tell the next person who claims gay life was always shrouded in secrecy before Stonewall about a front-page banner headline in a 1932 Broadway tabloid. FAG BALLS EXPOSED, it screamed; 6,000 CROWD HUGE HALL AS QUEER MEN AND WOMEN DANCE.
The popularity of the balls in Harlem also puts to rest the old belief that black society is somehow inherently more homophobic than white. In the 1920s Harlem's glamorous clubs and nonstop nightlife made it known as the Paris of New York. Clubs welcoming lesbians and gay men stood next to the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom, and other major venues in the neighborhood's bustling entertainment district, which stretched from 130th to 138th streets between Fifth and Seventh avenues.
Queer entertainers, especially male and female impersonators, were the main draws at some of the most popular clubs. None were more popular, or notorious, than Gladys Bentley, a 250-pound lesbian renowned for her white tuxedos, white girlfriends, and salacious adaptations of popular ballads and show tunes. She got her start performing at private parties and cellar clubs but eventually worked her way into the big time, getting long gigs at Hansberry's Clam House and the Ubangi Club, both on the jumpin' nightclub strip of West 133rd Street known as "Jungle Alley."
Both clubs attracted an interracial mix of writers and entertainers, including many lesbians and gay men, who adored her "bulldagger" looks and her inspired reworkings of popular tunes. At the Ubangi she was backed by a "pansy chorus line" of female impersonators. For those interested in more discreet double entendre lyrics, there was the Hot Cha Club on 132nd Street, presided over by the elegant host Jimmie Daniels (who later became the lover of renowned architect Philip Johnson).
Harlem, Greenwich Village, and Times Square (which attracted legions of gay chorus boys, actors, designers, and other theater workers) were host to the city's three most significant gay residential enclaves in the 1920s. Each neighborhood was also home to numerous restaurants, cafeterias, cafés, and speakeasies where gay customers predominated.