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Journal Of The History Of Sexuality
“Stakes new claims upon the history of queer Los Angeles, mapping broad potentialities onto a small locale.”
HIGH ON A HILLSIDE OVERLOOKING Los Angeles' Silver Lake Reservoir stands the Villa Capistrano, the former home of film and vaudeville sensation Julian Eltinge. Built in the late 1910s with a typically Angeleno combination of Spanish, Moorish, and Italian elements, Eltinge's villa once commanded the surrounding area like a baron's manor. At the time, the neighborhood bore the poetic name of Edendale, and it bustled with the comings and goings of the early film industry. The topography undulated with little hills and valleys, and its roads twisted and bent, following the curve of the reservoir or the slope of an incline. At some points the streets billowed out into vistas, offering brilliant views across the plains of Los Angeles and out to the Pacific Ocean. At other points, where the hills were too steep, the streets simply stopped, replaced by stairwells that continued their climb.
Few homes sat near the gardens of Eltinge's villa. The tower and terraces and the estate's high perch on the hill spoke loudly of wealth and security, and they exuded a sense of unprecedented celebrity at a moment when movie stars were first coming into existence. According to one local chronicler, Eltinge "was one of the first actors to establish a palatial home in Los Angeles," and the press was captivated by itsconstruction, tracking even the building materials that were being used. One film buff claimed that around the house there "gathered the scent of scandal," but even that was an exotic and alluring scent: local realtors promoted their developments by their proximity to the villa, and in the 1920s you could purchase a postcard with a picture of Eltinge's manor to impress the folks back home.
Today, though, Eltinge's villa hardly dominates the landscape. It sits crowded in with homes beside and beneath it on the hill. The neighborhood it overlooks, now called Silver Lake and Echo Park, beats with the seemingly new pulse of a vibrant creative multicultural scene. There is a steady line for bands playing on Santa Monica Boulevard. The Silver Lake Film Festival, launched in 2000, attracts larger and larger audiences with its music, video, and film presentations. The gay bars on Sunset-like the Mexican restaurants and dance halls down the way-fill regularly with men and women out on the town. And the houses and apartments are teeming, it seems, with screenwriters, painters, architects, and performers struggling to craft and create. In such a context, Eltinge's home-let alone his life-seems insignificant, unrelated to the hip bohemia that surrounds it: just another time-worn house on a hill.
Much the same could be said on the opposite side of the country, in the heart of New York City's new 42nd Street, where Eltinge's presence remains as another forgotten shadow. There on the corner of 8th Avenue, the AMC movie chain operates a twenty-five-screen multiplex out of a beautiful vaudeville theater that Eltinge built in 1912 with two business partners. In fact, in 1997, AMC lifted and moved the Eltinge Theater 168 feet so that its broad terra-cotta façade, triumphal arch window, and domed auditorium could serve as the lobby for their new multiscreen extravaganza. Now as moviegoers ascend the escalator to their screen of choice, they ride beneath three portraits of Eltinge painted onto what was once the proscenium arch of his stage. But Eltinge floats there unnamed and little noticed.
That Eltinge lingers, standing watch over Los Angeles' contemporary bohemia-and hovering in the heart of New York's theater district-makes a certain sense. In the world of vaudeville, Eltinge was as successful as they come. According to some estimates, his weekly income in 1912 exceeded even that of President Taft. Indeed, the theater that was moved down the block had been financed in large part by the income he generated during his four-year run starring in The Fascinating Widow, a show written specifically for him. And Eltinge's success was hardly only local. His vaudeville shows toured the country and the world, garnering him fame and fans. He was invited both to perform for the king of England and to star in several early Hollywood films. Eltinge's success certainly warrants his standing guard at the center of the nation's cultural and performance centers.
Nevertheless, Eltinge is not a vaudeville or film star who is well remembered at the start of the twenty-first century: neither his home nor his theater is celebrated as a vestige of his life. Unlike figures such as Al Jolson, Fatty Arbuckle, and Louise Brooks-whose stage stardom and brief film careers burned them into the national consciousness-Eltinge's name and career have been lost to popular memory. And they were not lost by accident. Eltinge's career is not remembered sixty years after his death because Eltinge was a particular kind of performer-a kind that made him a star in the 1910s but whose mode of performance was scorned by mid-century and largely forgotten at century's end: Eltinge was a spectacular female impersonator. A tremendously talented performer, he brought laughter to his audiences by portraying young men in straits so dire that they could be solved only by his disguising himself as a woman, and once in that guise, he astonished them with the beauty, style, and glamour he revealed. He was hardly the only female impersonator pounding the boards at the turn of the century: such performers were a much-enjoyed staple of the vaudeville world. But he was at the top of their class: the best paid, the best known, and the best regarded, even by those who normally had little patience for such performers. And the three figures floating in the 42nd Street theater are portraits of Eltinge at work, at the height of the career that was to be forgotten, Eltinge in costume as three beautiful women. Those figures open a window onto a lost world.
I did not set out to find Julian Eltinge. Instead, I stumbled across him while on a search for another man. That man, Harry Hay, had, like Eltinge, immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1910s and also became involved in the world of performance. But from there his life spun in an entirely different direction. Indeed, in 1950 Hay helped to found the Mattachine Society, the first long-lasting American homosexual rights organization. He was a key figure in shaping the social and political movement around sexual identity and was emblematic, fundamentally, of the birth of identity politics. As I began this project, I was curious about exploring the history of Hay and Mattachine as a way to understand the formation of late-twentieth-century American identity politics. Yet just as I set out to find Hay, I discovered Eltinge.
Hay and Eltinge lived in the same neighborhood in Los Angeles. Ten years ago, I interviewed a longtime resident of that neighborhood, hoping he would tell me something about Hay and gay politics in the 1950s; instead he told me about Eltinge, who had built his palatial home just down the street. He pulled out an old newspaper clipping. It showed Eltinge in full stunning attire, and I was intrigued. What do you mean that a female impersonator was an international star, let alone a movie star, one hundred years ago? How could such a fact have been so well buried? The man hinted at rumors that Eltinge had sexual relationships with other men. Well, was he, in fact, homosexually active? And why did he come to live in this neighborhood? Was the neighborhood some sort of homosexual retreat? And was there some connection between Eltinge and Hay and his Mattachine organization? Those questions, tying the identity politics of the later twentieth century to the sexual and cultural world of the early century, began to race around in my head and ultimately gave birth to this book.
Julian Eltinge and Harry Hay did not know each other. Eltinge became a star before Hay was born, and Hay reached his greatest influence after Eltinge had died. Yet Eltinge and Hay had a fair amount in common. These two tall white men loved to perform: one strode the boards of vaudeville stages around the globe; the other played small theaters in Los Angeles but performed even more dramatically as a public speaker, educator, and activist. One man married, the other did not, but both pursued sexual relationships with other men. And both men lived for several years in the hilly Los Angeles neighborhood once known as Edendale. In fact, both of their homes sat on the same hill rising along the eastern bank of Silver Lake Reservoir. Eltinge's home was built on the southern crest of the hill and faced west, across the lake; Hay's sat farther north, at the peak of the hill but with a more eastern orientation, toward the city's downtown. If you left the home of the first man and forged a path up and across the ridge of the hill, within minutes you would arrive at the second's home, facing out across a very different urban valley.
Perhaps you could throw a stone across the face of that ridge today; their homes were just that physically close. But in historical terms, the distance between the cultural world of 1918 that brought Eltinge to Edendale and the world of Hay when he moved into the neighborhood in 1942-let alone when he left in the 1950s-was enormous. The story at the heart of this book is the story of that cultural distance between them and how it was crossed. It is the story of how Eltinge's world was undone and remade into a world that we might recognize-of how a place like Edendale became a place like Silver Lake.
Of course, the ways that Los Angeles in the 1910s differed from the 1950s are myriad. But the path across that Edendale ridge which lies at the heart of this book is the changing way in which people understood themselves-indeed, understood what their "selves" were. At one end of that path was a world of Victorian values where exterior character, public behavior, and performance were the very measures of selfhood. At the other end lay a profound emphasis on an interior realm of personality, essence, and identity. Indeed, the very possibility of identity politics, which so marked late-twentieth-century United States political life, lay in the transformation that intervened.
Americans today think a fair amount about identity, and they do so in ways that are the results of multiple historical trajectories. On the one hand, contemporary Americans typically live some portion of their lives searching for themselves, taking to heart that countercultural imperative and believing that there is a "self" for them to "find." That interior self, we believe, stands as the irreducible core of our uniqueness: it is our essence, our persona, the very particular expression of our psychic DNA. According to philosopher Charles Taylor, Americans have embraced the imperative that "there is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else's life.... [T]his notion gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life; I miss what being human is for me." This ethic of unique self-fulfillment has yielded a "search for authenticity" that, according to historian Doug Rossinow, has become a "pervasive yearning in the United States." As Jeffrey Weeks explained in the 1990s, we now "need a sense of the essential self to provide a grounding for our actions, to ward off existential fear and anxiety and to provide a springboard for action."
For many Americans, particularly gay men and women, sexuality has been raised up as the epitome of that authentic self. Weeks claimed that in the search for "self-identity" the ultimate goal was "sexual identity"-meaning a consistent pattern of choosing sexual and romantic partners based on their sex. In making such an assertion, Weeks echoed French scholar Michel Foucault, who charged that modernity cast sexuality as "the truth of our being." While that claim may be too broad, it is clear that in our age a sexual identity has become accepted as one of a handful of essential private truths about who we are.
These private truths are treated so naturally in our lives as to seem eternal, as if people have always everywhere gone on searches to find themselves. And yet far from being natural, the very notion of a self or an identity-let alone an interior self that you can find-are the products of a distinct cultural and intellectual history. As Taylor pointed out, only a few centuries ago, "being in touch with ... God, or the Idea of the Good-was considered essential to full being. But now the source we have to connect with is deep within us. This fact is part of the massive subjective turn of modern culture, a new form of inwardness, in which we come to think of ourselves as beings with inner depths." That modern turn toward a valorization of subjectivity developed slowly, over the last two or three centuries, and had far-reaching consequences. It was one of the historical currents that pushed Americans over the course of the twentieth century toward a growing fascination with their inner selves.
At the same time, beyond the personal imperative to find ourselves, individual identity in the United States has also taken on a powerful public and political significance. In the last few decades, Americans have been asked repeatedly to consider the political and social implications of a defined set of personal identities. They have joined organizations to fight for equal pay for women and marched in Washington, D.C., demanding equal rights for gay men and lesbians. They have engaged in debates to argue whether race-based affirmative action violated fundamental American principles or whether a single-sex golf club or military academy had the right to stay that way. Concerns about discrimination based on race, gender, and sexuality have become prevailing themes in American political life.
To some degree, these public battles over identity are a contemporary expression of a long-standing preoccupation within American political history. Americans have been fighting about the meaning and power accorded to group memberships since the nation began. During the debates over the drafting of the Constitution, James Madison wrote compellingly about the need to structure the government in a way that protected minority political factions. One hundred years later, activists and reformers built organizations and strategies to safeguard industrial workers. And in the intervening years, abolition and women's suffrage advocates constructed arguments that served as foundations for the claims about racial and sexual discrimination put forward by the black civil rights and women's liberation movements late in the twentieth century.
Nonetheless, identity politics battles about race, gender, and sexuality in the late twentieth century carried a new emphasis and a new language that distinguished them clearly from their earlier predecessors. As L. A. Kauffman explained, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century social movements were "firmly rooted in the public sphere tradition of emphasizing public institutions as the crucial loci of political contestation." Without neglecting the importance of public institutions, late-twentieth-century identity politics also acted, though, on "the belief that identity itself-its elaboration, expression, or affirmation-is and should be a fundamental focus of political work." Political activists-even among African Americans and women, whose movements' roots rested firmly in an earlier century-now came to prioritize a language that emphasized "self-esteem," "self-fulfillment," and individual "authenticity." "Freedom," as one scholar explained, "lay in being able to decide for oneself what and who one was and what choices were appropriate or fulfilling." Echoing Chief Justice Earl Warren's 1954 opinion in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools created "a feeling of inferiority," these new identity politics underscored the feeling and deep experience of identities; the harm done by demeaning language, images, and politics; the necessity of cultivating positive identities; and the nurturing value of distinct identity-based communities and cultures.
Excerpted from Bohemian Los Angeles by Daniel Hurewitz Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Hurewitz. Excerpted by permission.
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1. “A Most Lascivious Picture of Impatient Desire”
2. Together against the World: Self, Community, and Expression among the Artists of Edendale
3. 1930s Containment: Identity by State Dictate
4. Left of Edendale: The Deep Politics of Communist Community
5. The United Nations in a City: Racial Ideas in Edendale, on the Left, and in Wartime Los Angeles
6. Getting Some Identity: Mattachine and the Politics of Sexual Identity Construction
Conclusion: The Struggle of Identity Politics