She came of age in New York City in the 1920s
Did My Mother Have an Affair With a Woman? Chapter 4
After I discovered love letters to from a woman to my mother in an old scrapbook from the 1930s, I endeavored to find out as much as I could about my mother’s admirer, Eddie. Who was she and what was her story?
Over a couple of years my brother Don and I uncovered some answers. A big breakthrough came when we discovered her last name in a letter stuffed in another scrapbook. Once we had that we looked her up in census records where we learned more details. She was Edna Lauterbach, born in 1900. She lived in Brooklyn with her family including two sisters. She worked in advertising and she was active in the Business and Professional Women’s group within the YWCA. She had encountered my mother, Florence Wick, at conferences in Chicago and Columbus in 1937 and 38 where they roomed together.
The letters convinced me that Eddie was at least a self-acknowledged lesbian who had a serious crush on my mother. There is so much more I want to know about her. Did she remain a closeted lesbian all her life? Was she part of a lesbian subculture? No doubt the environs of New York City afforded more possibilities than those of smaller towns. We know that, as in Berlin, gay culture flourished in the 1920s in New York City, the epicenter of the “Pansy Craze” and the accompanying “Sapphic Craze.” Eddie came of age at a time when gay and lesbian characters were featured in pulp novels, stage plays, radio songs and (before the Hays Code) in movies. Born at the cusp of the 20th century, she would have been just the right age to experience this flowering of gay culture in New York.
Did she frequent the lesbian and gay gathering places in Manhattan during the 20s and 30s? We know Eddie worked in advertising, though the census doesn’t tell us which firm she worked for. But we can assume she traveled daily from her home in Brooklyn to her work in Manhattan. My mother, Flo, was a small town gal from Yakima, Washington. But I imagine Eddie, who grew up in New York, to be far more citified and sophisticated. Maybe she taught my mom some things.
Did she know Eve Adams, the notorious lesbian café owner who was arrested in 1926, jailed, and later deported, and sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered? Eve Adams is a Jewish radical lesbian foremother, but I had never heard of her until I read her biography by the gay historian Jonathan Ned Katz. The New York Times recently included her obit in its Overlooked No More obituary section and she was profiled in the New Yorker.
Eve Adams (a taken name alluding to Adam and Eve) was friends with anarchists Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and Ben Reitman. In New York she mingled with the likes of Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Adams came to the US in 1912 and spent four years hitchhiking around the country before settling in New York. I learned from Katz’s book that one of the places she visited was my hometown of Yakima. What drew her there at the height of the nativist backlash in 1922? I’m still trying to find out.
In 1925 Eve Adams published the first American book with lesbian in the title, Lesbian Love. In that year she opened a café in Greenwich Village called Eve’s Hangout, which became a destination for New York’s bohemian contingent.
Did Eddie visit Eve’s Hangout? I bet she knew about the place. She may have been afraid to visit, especially after Eve was arrested in 1926 by an undercover policewoman for “disorderly conduct,” a charge that referred to her alleged sexual advances and for having written an “obscene” book. But if I had been in New York in 1925 you can bet I would have checked out Eve’s Hangout.
Gay culture flourished in the Roaring Twenties in New York. Then in the 30s with the Great Depression and the end of Prohibition, a backlash began and gay culture went underground. By the time Flo and Eddie met in Chicago in 1937 you were taking a chance going into a gay gathering place, if you could even find one. I speculate that Eddie’s two sisters may also have been lesbians. The 1940 census finds them all still single in their 30s and still living in the family apartment on 88th Street in Brooklyn. I bet Eddie and her sisters had fun together in New York. Flo traveled to New York to visit Eddie in 1941 and, whether or not she met the family, I know she met one of the sisters, Gertrude. The three women saw a Broadway play together, the antifascist play by Lillian Hellman, Watch on the Rhine.
Was Eddie involved in the blooming lesbian feminist culture in the 1970s? She would have been 70 in 1970, but there were plenty of older women who joined the feminist movement, including my mother. Did Eddie continue to be active in the YWCA? The YW may not have harbored anarchists, but my mother and Eddie did rub shoulders with a progressive element who wanted to change the world. J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI went after activists in the YW, calling them communists, but the attacks never stuck, maybe because of the Christian in the name or because they were allied with wives of industrialists. Researching the YW for this series, I am impressed with all the organization accomplished, and the stance it took against racism, even in its early years. It is a fascinating history, yet to be compiled into a book. I believe my mother’s progressive anti-racist politics were formed in the YW, and my own world view benefitted from activism in the organization.
The YW was at the forefront of the most critical social movements including women’s empowerment and civil rights. The activism of Flo and Eddie set the stage for my generation’s second wave of feminism and our gay rights movement.
I thought I had reached the end of my Eddie research and speculation. But now my brother has unearthed a batch of photos of our mother and her YW pals. We’ve been able to place them at the conferences in Chicago and Columbus. So in a final chapter of this story I’ll ask readers to weigh in on the possibilities.
To be continued.