Radical Lesbian Foremothers

Longtime friends Angela Romagnoli and Lynn Stern were two of the foremothers of the Radical Lesbian movement. I sat down with them last November to record their story. Angie had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments. She died July 5, 2017. Angie leaves her wife of 39 years, Megan Adams, and their son Reese Adams-Romagnoli.

All three of us—Angie, Lynn and I—were born in the year 1949 and we all started college in 1967. We were all the oldest sibling in our families. We were all involved in radical politics in college and came out as lesbians. I was at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. They met at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Their stories resonate with me even though U of M is far from the wheat fields of eastern Washington State. We were making the same revolution.

Angela and Lynn first met when Angie encountered Lynn sitting on her bed weeping with homesickness in their college dormitory. It was the fall of 1967 and both were 17. Lynn was very close to her family in Chicago, and especially her mother. It was the first time she had lived away from home. They were roommates the next year in another dorm and they became lovers in 1970. They broke up in in 1978, but their friendship has lasted ever since.

Both of these women—all three of us—came from liberal families and the historical moment radicalized us.

The oldest of six siblings, Angie grew up in a union household. Her family moved to Dearborn, Michigan, just outside Detroit, when she was in high school. Dearborn was a white town, but they had lived in a mixed-race town before that. They watched as the city of Detroit fell apart, as jobs left the area and red lining took its toll on black citizens. Angie went to a progressive high school where she developed a class analysis.

Lynn was the oldest of three siblings. Her family were liberals and secular Jews.

In 1967 the U.S. government was escalating the war in Vietnam. The student anti-war movement gained steam. Lynn and Angie went to a bunch of meetings, looking around campus for a group to join.

“We saw who was just talking and who was doing. We didn’t want to hear guys just jacking off,” said Angie. “We picked SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) because they were doing sit-ins and actions, talking to classes.”

They went to marches, broke windows. “I was a baseball player and had a great arm,” said Angie. One time Angie’s mother picked up Lynn’s jacket and the pockets were full of rocks. “You would put your lead pipe in the pocket of your pea coat.”

They wore combat boots, overalls. “We could strut our stuff. No bras,” remembered Angie. “You needed boots in Ann Arbor.”

One night they broke into the ROTC building on campus, trashed it and didn’t get caught. But the SDS had been infiltrated by cops and many demonstrators did get arrested, including their friend Nais (a mutual friend who now lives in San Francisco), also a student there.

“One time a phalanx of police scattered our march, arresting people. I was pulling the cops off people’s backs, but they didn’t arrest me,” remembered Angie.

By 1970, the women in SDS were pissed off, questioning the leadership and meeting dynamics. Feminists like Gayle Rubin came to SDS to talk and the women listened.

Although their recollections of how it happened differ, best friends Lynn and Angie became lovers in 1970. “We were happy. It was great,” effused Lynn.

“We were fed up with SDS,” said Angie. “That summer they said read Mao’s Combat Liberalism. That Cultural Revolution shit was offensive to me. I’m from the working class. I said the revolution is not coming around the corner. I wasn’t under an illusion.”

“We were still living in an SDS house in the summer of 1970, but we knew about the Radical Lesbians in New York and Berkeley,” said Lynn. Two of the New York women visited them and suggested they start their own radical lesbian collective.

We were isolated. We called up the two other lesbians we knew in town and we put an ad in the Michigan Daily. We got a meeting room on campus. Altogether ten people showed up. Gayle Rubin held up a book at the end of the meeting and said everyone should read this. It was The Story of O. (they both laugh) “We didn’t get it, didn’t even question her.”

So they had an organization, Ann Arbor Radicalesbians. “We hopped right from SDS to radical lesbians with no feminist group in between. Two hundred different women came to those meetings. “Judy Dlugacz (who later founded Olivia Records and Olivia Travel), was one of the first. ‘I’m writing a paper on lesbians,’ she said. Then she came back with a little curly-headed girlfriend,” laughed Angie.

“We organized the first lesbian softball team in the women’s league,” said Angie. “Martial arts was an extension of feminism.”

“We made a publication called the Purple Star. I wrote an article called The Personal is Political,” said Angie. “That was before the butch-femme diatribe. Our roommate confronted me and Lynn and said you are nothing but a butch-femme couple. I got mad and wrote an article. Lesbians and especially separatists were talking out of two sides of their mouths. On the one hand they overvalued everything that was butch. On the other hand we don’t want have anything to do with butch-femme heterosexual norms.”

Lynn said, “I cried when they called me a femme. I didn’t want to be in a straight relationship. It also made me feel less powerful. (to Angie) You got to be more powerful. I couldn’t play sports. I always knew I was cute and smart but wasn’t very outspoken. I felt I wasn’t successful.”

Angie defines butch as someone who had a high male identification as a child. “I don’t think anyone has all of one ID. Butch is a complex psychological construct. I definitely felt that applied to me. I was a super tomboy. There are a few in every elementary school. I got in trouble about what clothes to wear. Mom gave me Betsy Wetsy doll. I gave it to my sister. My friend who was catholic said she had a dream the virgin came to me and we will get turned into boys. I thought great!”

Lynn teased, “I remember the skirt she wore when we were working as waitresses in the union.”

Angie: “I had to wear a skirt to work so I just wore the same one every day.”

Angie: “We (Radicalesbians) went to other places like Bowling Green and gave talks to 500 people.”

Lynn: “You really have power, influence. We just talked about feeling like ourselves. We told them about how it came about.”

Asked about coming out as a lesbian, Lynn said, “It took a lot to come out to my parents. I couldn’t figure out how to tell my family. We were estranged. My mom said we were laughing at her.”

Angie: “I was really uncomfortable. I came out to them about 1973. We were totally dedicated to coming out here, there and everywhere.” Angie’s mom was always supportive. She never wanted to be left out of anything. Her mom was only 21 when she was born. “She liked to talk to everyone.”

Angie and Lynn lived together for nearly a decade, in various collective houses, always poor. One time four people slept in one room. “We weren’t monogamous. We had a lot of experimentation. I never really did respect nonmonogamy. It wasn’t for me. Group sex and…so stupid,” said Angie.

Then, in 1978 they broke up. It was traumatic.

Angie: “I was really lost.”

Lynn: “I thought it would be like my parents. They stuck by each other. To learn that it wasn’t forever, not what we thought.”

Angie: “We were so young, so inexperienced. We became merged. I felt like you resisted my having more separate things, separating more.”

Lynn stayed in Ann Arbor. Angie got together with Megan, her partner of 39 years. She moved to San Francisco in 1979, becoming a therapist and founding the first therapy group for survivors of sexual assault.

They never stopped being friends.

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How the Lesbians Invaded

We had been powerless tenants, evicted with no recourse, and then we became agents of displacement. There was no in between.

My collective household of four lesbians had found a place on Castro Street, one of those original Victorians with high ceilings and elaborate wood trim, an abandoned coal fireplace and a parlor whose big sliding doors opened to double the size of the room. It was rumored that the apartment had come up for rent because the previous tenants had been busted for selling weed and were all in jail. We embellished the story to claim that the famous Brownie Mary had lived there. She may not have lived there, but she had certainly been there in spirit. It was the seventies; the Castro was becoming a gay men’s mecca. During our time there a housepainter engaged to paint our building ran a brothel turning tricks in the building’s storage room. He painted that building for months.

We fondly remember political gabfests at shared dinners, Seders in which we sang all the way through, inventive costumes at Halloween parties (in the year of Anita Bryant I came as a lesbian recruiter). For a time our costume du jour at home was simply a vest, a way to show off a billowing bush and legs as thickly furred as animal pelts (we were hairy and proud!). We danced and sang along to Stevie Wonder and Lavender Jane Loves Women. There was much laughing and also much crying. Passionate love affairs abounded. Creating a new culture calls for invention. We tried out nonmonogamy, polyamory. We felt we were on the cutting edge of a cultural transformation.

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The original collective: me, Pam, Ruth S and Ruth M about 1978

When the gay male couple from New York, or maybe LA, bought the three-unit building in 1978 they immediately evicted us. We had no recourse; rent control was still a few years off. We found a smaller apartment on 29th Street just off Mission in the neighborhood we now call La Lengua. Our landlords were butchers, brothers who ran a shop on Mission right next to what later became Cole Hardware. Weirdly, the buildings on 29th Street and Mission Street were connected. Our apartment always smelled like dead meat, like something had died in the walls.

We liked the spot—right behind the Safeway parking lot and across the street from the Tiffany gas station. Pauline’s Pizza was just across Mission and Mexican restaurants like Mi Casa proliferated. I bought my work clothes at Lightstone’s; the post office was right next door. The building’s ground floor held a printer’s shop and the second floor was just a big meeting room that was rented by Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality (Union WAGE) which allowed other organizations like Tradeswomen, Gays for Nicaragua, Lesbians Against Police Violence and the Briggs Initiative opposition to meet there.

My collective of four politically active dykes—me, two Ruths and a Pam—was happy. We cooked and ate together and invited interesting people to share dinner. Jews and militant atheists ruled. I learned about Jewish culture. The Christmas tree was relegated to a bedroom. It was bliss, except that with visiting lovers and pets (one a gigantic great Dane) and parents and friends the place was just too small. Finally we decided that we either had to pool our money and buy a bigger place or split up the collective. Ruth M decided to pull up stakes and live with her lover and so my lover Nancy became part of our collective.

37 29th st
37 29th Street about 1978

We were earnest idealists; we were gay activists; we had just lived through the horrors of the Moscone Milk murders and Jonestown and the election of Reagan. We were committed to live ethically and, even in the midst of what felt like political chaos, we fervently believed we could change the world, ending US imperialism, racism, police violence, and discrimination against women and gays. We were part of a collective movement that emphasized cooperation and consensus decision-making, a radical departure from capitalist organization that resulted only in winners and losers.

We listed our requirements for the new house. Ruth had to have a garden. I desperately needed a garage to store my electrical contracting tools and supplies. We had to be close to public transportation. We didn’t want a fixer upper; no one had time for that and I was the only skilled tradeswoman. We were committed to collective living and we also fantasized about eventually dispensing with private property. What if we could donate the place to a land trust so that our dream of a lesbian nation could live on into future generations?

We negotiated a contract. What would happen if one of us died or ended up in jail or for some reason couldn’t make her payment? How would we sell and buy shares in the building? What if we needed to make repairs or improvements? We listed all contingencies. We were good at processing—we were lesbians!

We imagined a larger single-family house, one with four real bedrooms, but then when we found the three-unit place on the south side of Bernal Hill our imaginations blossomed. We would no longer have to share one bathroom and one kitchen, but we could still cook and eat together whenever we wanted. Instead of negotiating for time to call each of our telephone trees on our shared phone, each could have her own phone.

The listing price was $135,000, an incomprehensible amount. A hundred thousand then felt like like a billion now—you couldn’t get your head around it. Still, we dug deep and came up with the down payment, only because Pam was able to borrow money from her family. Then we wrote up a new contract to repay Pam by the month. We got pretty good at writing contracts.

As soon as we took possession in 1980, our place in the property hierarchy changed. We became agents of displacement. All three of the units were occupied. Each of us had to evict tenants before we could move in and none of us could afford to pay both rent and mortgage for long. Oh the contradictions! I talked with the couple in “my” unit, offering to help them find a new place. Our exchanges were friendly and civil, and they soon found new housing. But Ruth couldn’t even get the tenant in “her” unit to open his door, though she could hear him spewing expletives from the other side. She resorted to lawyers and eviction notices.

We weren’t the first lesbians to move to Bernal Heights. Political activist Pat Norman and her large family lived up the block. A lesbian couple had settled just around the corner on Andover. But there were four of us, and with friends and lovers coming and going we were hard to ignore. People in the neighborhood noticed. Homophobia took the form of nasty notes left on car windshields, DYKES graffiti on the building. Two neighbors who grew up on the block, guys about my age, made it clear they understood what we represented—a lesbian invasion. Years later, when our relationship had grown friendlier, one of them confided, “We were watching you.”

As much as we wanted to live collectively, the house on Richland restricted collectivity. Having separate apartments led to fewer shared meals, less knowledge of each other’s daily lives. I retreated into the dreaded merged lesbian couple relationship. After a few years the original members began to sell their shares and move out while others bought in. At the cusp of the 80s our world changed. That frantic hopeful creative collective time was ending.

But we are still here. Since the birth of our dyke-owned dream, we have aided the lesbian colonizing of San Francisco and particularly Bernal Heights. With each refinancing (too numerous to count) and buyout, our property underwrote the purchase of new female-owned houses. When we started, four single women buying property together was rare and suspect by financiers. Tenants-in-common was not a typical way to hold property. Since then it’s been adopted by the real estate industry as a way to make buying of increasingly expensive property possible for groups of unrelated individuals.

We were agents of change, the leading edge of a new wave of homeowners in the Mission and Bernal Heights. But change is not new to our neighborhood. As one of the authors of a small history of Bernal Heights, I researched its historic demographics. Irish squatters displaced the Mexican land grant Californios. European immigrants made homeless by the 1906 earthquake and fire moved earthquake shacks here and built new homes. Southern Italians colonized the north side of the hill. Germans, Swedes and Italians built churches here for ethnic congregations. Mexicans and blacks found a neighborhood free of racist covenants and restrictions, although Bernal was not outside redlining boundaries. During the economic downturn starting in 2008, big banks (locally based Wells Fargo gained our enduring hatred) evicted scores of homeowners, most of them people of color. Now houses on this block are selling for millions and the techies are moving in.

The life we built is changing. Pat Norman retired, sold her house and moved to Hawaii. My long-time friend on Andover, the first lesbian I met in the neighborhood, just sold her house and moved to Oakland. And now I’m selling the apartment where I’ve lived for 37 years in order to colonize a neighborhood in Santa Rosa. Our particular experiment may be ending, but the neighborhood is still full of dykes.

In Bernal Heights, lesbians found an affordable generally accepting environment. At one time I heard that the neighborhood was home to more woman-owned property than any neighborhood in the country or in the world. Who knows; that may still be true.

I Find Eddie’s Last Name and More

Chapter Three

I had given up finding out any more about my mother’s admirer, Edna L. Then, looking through a box of family photos and letters that my brother Don had taken with him to Vancouver BC, I found another scrapbook made by my mother. This was mostly high school-era, 1920s-1930 (Flo had graduated in the class of 1929½). But Flo had tucked mementos from other decades into it. Among the high school graduation notices I was delighted to find another note from Eddie (as she sometimes signed her name) in her now familiar diminutive handwriting. It was an invitation to a party during the Columbus YWCA conference. It said:

In the Wick and Lauterbach den

On Wednesday night at half past ten

We hope you’ll join us for a spree

To give us one more Council memory

Then there is one of Eddie’s cute stick figure drawings—two skirted figures with F and E written underneath. At the bottom it says, “Just to be sure that my roommate will be here to act as co-hostess with me.” While they were roommates Eddie could never keep Flo at home it seems. It was written on the Neil House stationery and dated April 27, 1938.floeddie

I had found Eddie’s last name—Lauterbach—the one thing I’d been searching for in the scrapbooks, the one thing I needed in order to find out more about the woman with a crush on my mother! I was so happy I danced around the house singing her name.

Googling her name got me to the Edna A. Lauterbach scholarship fund for the education of nurses. She was a nurse who championed home care. Then I started making up stories. I imagined Edna was an important historical figure, an organizer. Perhaps she had been a speaker at the conference. I imagined she traveled around the country on speaking tours seducing women in every town. I wondered whether Eddie had had lots of lovers, or no lovers at all. Was she the archetype of the lonely lesbian who never found her mate? Was it hard to seduce women in the 1930s?

I wrote to the scholarship fund to see if they could provide more biographical information. The marketing director got right back to me saying it was a different person, as the age didn’t match up. This Edna Lauterbach was not even born until after the meeting in Columbus took place. Scratch her and all my associated fantasies.

Then Don and I got on the computer and looked at census records. We found an Edna R. Lauterbach, born in 1900 and died in August 1979 who lived her entire life in Brooklyn, NY, after 1930 in a 43-unit apartment house on 88th Street. I found pictures of the building, built in 1926, online. The apartments now sell in the million-dollar range, so I’m guessing the neighborhood was gentrified long ago. But when the Lauterbach family moved in, this would have been a working class neighborhood. Edna had two sisters, one named Gertrude. This was a deciding clue, as her sister Gertrude had been mentioned in one of the other notes found in Flo’s scrapbooks. Don found records for Edna in the 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 censuses. In all, she was single and living in the family home. By 1940 their father (a truck maker whose parents had emigrated from Germany) had died, but the three sisters were all still unmarried, in their thirties and living at home with their mother. A household of old maids! Perhaps all the sisters were lesbians.

According to the census, Edna worked in advertising. She was there for the Mad Men era, although she would have been 60 years old in 1960. I imagine her as the staid older secretary who runs interference for her philandering boss while correcting his spelling and grammar and making him look good. She may have worked in the industry until she retired, possibly at the same job. Had she remained a closeted lesbian all her life? Was she part of a lesbian subculture and if so, where was it centered? No doubt the environs of New York City afforded more possibilities than those of smaller towns. But I’m imagining big lesbo parties through the decades at the apartment on 88th Street in Brooklyn on the parents’ bowling nights.

It turns out Edna R. Lauterbach wasn’t anybody famous. I couldn’t even find a funeral notice for her, although we did learn that she is buried in the famous Brooklyn Greenwood cemetery with some 560,000 others. She was a workingwoman, a stenographer, who managed to keep a job through the Great Depression. In 1939 she worked in advertising 44 hours per week and 52 weeks in the year. Her income was $2040 that year.

Her parents were ethnically German and my guess is they were not Jewish. The YW is a Christian women’s organization, but it did work with Jewish groups against anti-Semitism and to prod the government to increase numbers of Jewish refugees allowed into the U.S. during the Nazi era. Jewish women did join the YW, but usually as members of the Biz-Pro groups or associated Jewish organizations.

Edna Lauterbach and my mother were two of the thousands of workingwomen who benefited from their membership in the Business and Professional Women’s organizations under the umbrella of the YWCA. One benefit was being able to make friends with other workingwomen from around the country.

Eddie surely had a giant crush on Flo and my heart aches as I read her letters. My mother never revealed that she’d had a sexual relationship with another woman but when I came out to her in the 1970s she did confess that she had known lesbians. And the name Edna Lauterbach is vaguely familiar to me. Did Flo tell me about her? I can’t remember. But it seems as if they kept up the friendship for some years at least. What was the nature of their relationship? They were certainly close friends, and possibly lovers, although I found no conclusive proof.

I have no evidence that they ever saw each other again after 1941 when Flo traveled to New York to visit Eddie. My mother returned to her hometown of Yakima, Washington where (after a stint in Europe with the Red Cross during WWII) she married, raised four kids and lived the rest of her life. Edna L. lived out her life in her family home on 88th Street in Brooklyn.

There is so much more I want to know about my mother’s admirer. Did she frequent the lesbian bars in Manhattan? Was she involved in the blooming lesbian feminist culture in the 1970s? Did she continue to be active in the YWCA? I do know that, even if she and my mother were lovers, the affair would have been long-distance and periodic. And perhaps Eddie’s attentions were not returned at all.

Dearest Eddie, I hope you found love in your lifetime. I hope you found a woman who could love you back.

Looking for My Mother’s Lover

My mother's scrapbook
My mother’s scrapbook

Chapter Two

Among the many questions I wish I could have asked my mother: When did you first have sex? Were you ever attracted to a woman?

We came of age at very different times. My mother turned 20 in 1933, the nadir of the Great Depression. I was 20 in 1969, the zenith of the Countercultural Revolution.

As close as we were, there were things her generation just didn’t talk about—private things. My generation talked about everything, even things that probably should have been kept private.

Whether or not my mother was ever attracted to a woman, I have found evidence that at least one woman was attracted to her. After I discovered the letters from Edna L., my mother’s ardent admirer, I searched in vain for her last name and any identifying information in Mom’s scrapbooks. They had roomed together in the Neil House Hotel in Columbus, Ohio for the national YWCA convention in April 1938. But “Eddie” (as she often signed her name) suggests in one note that they had met the previous year at a YW conference in Chicago.northwest

“It has been fun to continue our friendship begun in Chicago (or even earlier) and I hope we shall be friends far into the future,” wrote Eddie.

I can’t imagine what Eddie means by “even earlier.” I didn’t think Flo had traveled east from Washington State before the Chicago trip, but I have one piece of evidence that suggests otherwise. She gave me a small painting and wrote on the back, “Bought at Dayton’s in Minneapolis in the 1930s. Sent to daughter Molly in San Francisco 2/82. Flo Martin.” So perhaps there had been previous meetings where they connected that Flo had not recorded in the scrapbooks. Had Flo and Eddie schemed for a year to room together in Columbus? They must have planned ahead at least.tuckin

So, my new obsession: Edna L. Reading her love notes to Flo warmed my heart and I began to identify with Eddie who slyly references “baths” and late-night “tuckin’ in” (her quotes, not mine). From reading her notes, I conclude she wanted to seduce my mother. Did she?

Some things I know about Eddie: She lived in New York. She was participating in the YWCA conference, so she could have been active in a Business and Professional Women’s Club, as was Flo, or in the YW. Chances are that Eddie was older than Flo, who was only 24 when they roomed together in Columbus. One clue I found in Eddie’s letters: they are literate with perfect spelling and punctuation. This suggests that she worked in an office and not a factory.cometoNY

What did she look like? My mother’s scrapbooks from the 1930s are filled with pictures, but as far as I can tell there are none of Eddie or the YW conferences. But who knows? Flo didn’t caption anything in these early scrapbooks. In trying to imagine how Eddie looked, I could not even assume that she was white. Even in 1938, the YW strove to include racial minorities.

Participating in these conferences must have felt to my mother and her comrades like early feminist gatherings did to my generation of feminists. The meetings were focused on making institutional changes to give women and minorities more comprehensive rights. These women were leading a movement for social change, just as we did. The artifacts Flo saved in her scrapbooks show that many of these women built loving friendships with each other. The warmth expressed in their greetings illustrates deep feeling. From receipts she saved, I see they sent flowers to each other as thank yous, a practice I wish in retrospect my generation of feminist activists had adopted.youretops

The Columbus conference was a continual round of meetings. In her love notes Eddie grumbles about not getting to see Flo back at the room until late at night.

“Aren’t we having a good time even though I have to sit up nights and wait for a chance to see you?”

“I certainly am enjoying being with you—even if I don’t have that opportunity ‘cept in the wee hours mostly, after I’ve tucked you in. I’ll be tuckin’ you in any minute now when you get back from your meeting on findings…”

Apparently the meetings went long into the night. Another participant noted, “Here’s to more 2am meetings.”

Flo had saved the banquet book from the YW convention and its inside covers were filled with inscriptions from attendees. Altogether there are 27 signatures. Nicknames were popular and they seem to have nicknamed Flo “Cricket.”

They all signed their full names, except Eddie who signed “Love—Eddie.” It’s an indication that their relationship was special, but disappointing for me because Eddie never signed her last name.

In the banquet book Eddie wrote: “Dearest Florence—You are one grand girl and a swell pal! These interludes of Council and Convention will always be happy memories because you shared them with me. I hope you’ll “bother” me “for years to come” and some day I’m coming to see you in the Northwest! Love—Eddie L.”

Did Eddie ever visit the Northwest? There is nothing in my mother’s scrapbook to suggest that she did. But items she saved show that Flo visited Eddie in New York in 1941. There are menus from the Swiss Village Inn and Struppler’s (next to the Cordova 917 Grand Ave.) I found a cocktail napkin from Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Bar and Cocktail Lounge, “Meeting Place of the World.” She kept a newspaper article citing record heat in NYC, a humid 91 degrees on the hottest Sept. 10 in a decade. There’s also a receipt from Sweden House Inc. (Swedish decorative arts) at Rockefeller Center for $1.53 dated 9/10/41, and a receipt for a single person at the Taft Hotel, 7th Ave at 50th St. NYC, and a menu from the Taft Grill.

The Taft Hotel, a 22-story high-rise built in 1926, was one of New York’s premiere tourist hotels with 2000 rooms right on Times Square at Radio City in Midtown. My mother, a small-town gal from Yakima, Washington, must have been thrilled to stay in such a glamorous big city accommodations. I bet she had a great view from room 1045.

How could my mother afford this trip? Had she been saving pennies for three years while working full time and helping to support her family? I could never afford to stay in hotels as a young working person, nor could my family afford hotels when I was growing up. On vacations we drove to the Cascade Mountains and pitched a tent. When I traveled I always arranged to stay in the homes of friends or comrades. It made me wonder if Eddie had chipped in to pay for the room at the Taft Hotel. Or maybe Eddie sprang for the hotel while Flo paid for the train trip. Perhaps she and Eddie had been corresponding furiously for three years, planning this tryst.

Flo also saved a Christmas gift card in its envelope from Macy’s New York. It is signed “With much love to you, Wickie dear—Edna L.”

There’s another note on a card with a monogramed L with no date: “My best love to a very good pal—Edna L.”

Then there’s a note that reads “Florence dear—Just got tickets for Watch on the Rhine—only chance it seems—Gertrude (my sister) will be joining us—will call you about meeting for dinner & theater tomorrow night. Edie L. (The play, by Lillian Hellman, won the New York Drama Critics prize in 1941).

Did Flo travel to New York just to visit Eddie? I can’t find any evidence of meetings of the YWCA or Biz-Pro in NYC in September 1941. Did she stay in a hotel and not with Eddie because she and Eddie wanted a place to be alone?

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Painting bought in Minneapolis

From the evidence, it looks like Flo travelled to New York by herself. In those days you could take the North Coast Limited on the Northern Pacific Railway all the way from Yakima to Chicago. Then you transferred to the Pennsylvania Railroad for the final leg to New York. Of course, by this time Flo was a veteran train traveler, having already been to Chicago, Columbus and Minneapolis.

As much as I’ve fantasized about my mother’s lesbian affair, I think the evidence is mixed. It wasn’t just that Flo had had lots of boyfriends, or that she married a man. That’s a story many lesbians tell. While I never married a man, I spent a decade experimenting with heterosexual sex before I came out.

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Flo’s inscription on the back of the painting

My mother definitely struggled with homophobia. As liberal as she was politically, Flo had difficulty accepting that my brother and I are gay. He came out first and she felt justifiably burdened by the widely accepted Freudian theory that mothers are responsible for sons’ homosexuality. Then, when I came out a few years later, she at first chalked it up to a phase I was going though. Could that be because she went through a lesbian “phase” herself?

I made up all sorts of sensational stories about Eddie and Flo from the information I found in the scrapbooks. But since Eddie’s last name remained unrecorded, I gave up learning any more about her. Whatever happened between Flo and Eddie, I’m sure my mother had to wrestle with her own internalized homophobia and that of the dominant culture. At that time, in the 1930s, homosexuality was highly stigmatized and even in the big city of New York, lesbians stayed closeted to protect their jobs and reputations, meeting mostly at private house parties.

There remains the possibility that Flo was deeply in denial about her attraction/affair. I have some evidence to support this theory. My mother’s sister, Ruth, also had gay children and, while much more politically conservative, Ruth took a stand when her Presbyterian church excluded gays. She was proud of her gay kids and publicly quit the church in support of them. But she complained to me that she could never get my mother to talk about the issue. She couldn’t understand why Flo, her closest sister, had shut her out, especially with regard to a subject they both shared. I never understood this. I just assumed it had to do with Flo’s avoidance of the personal like so many in her generation, but perhaps my mother feared that her own sexual past would be revealed.

Did Flo have an affair with Eddie? I’ll never know for sure. If she were still alive, I think I could ask her now. When she died in 1983 at the age of 70, I still felt restrained from asking personal questions that I knew she would refuse to answer. Then again, maybe she never would have revealed the truth. She believed some things are best kept private.

My Mother’s Lesbian Affair

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Flo in about 1930

Chapter One

Rummaging through my mom’s scrapbooks from the 1930s I came across a packet of letters, a rare find. My mother saved minutiae from her life: bridge tallies, restaurant menus, cocktail napkins, greeting cards, dance cards, wedding invitations. But she saved almost no personal letters, although I know she wrote and received troves of them.

OpenFriSatSunThe envelopes are all addressed to Miss Florence Wick and marked on the outside: “Via the usual route,” “To be read on Friday,” “To be read on Saturday” and “To be read on Sunday.” Carefully opening the tattered envelopes, I found hand-written notes on stationery from the Neil House Hotel in Columbus, Ohio. They looked to me like love notes—from a woman named Edna L.

 

Florence, darlin’—

Haven’t we had fun with meetings and parties and “baths” and rushin’ ‘round! And what am I going to do without you when you are gone? You will just have to come to New York sometime soon so we can share some other experiences….

Love and a hug—Edna L.

 

What did she mean “baths”? OMGoddess! I had to call my brother Don immediately.

“Flo had an affair with a woman! I have proof!” I blurted. Perhaps I could have approached the delivery of this information differently, building up to the climax with more suspense. My brother’s lack of excitement revealed my failure.

“You’re making up things again.” He could have added, “just like Dad.” Our father was an accomplished teller of tales, amusing but not to be believed.

My wife Holly was equally suspicious. I hadn’t realized I’d built such a reputation for exaggeration. No one believed me. I just had to revel in my discovery alone.

ELtrainI delved further, looking for more information about Edna L. I read the letters over. Edna sometimes signed her name Eddie or Edie, but she never included her last name. I love that she called herself Eddie, a definite lesbian cue. She illustrated the notes with endearing stick figure drawings. From the letters I learned that Eddie and Flo had roomed together at the national YWCA council meeting in Columbus. Eddie had written the notes during their time together and given them to Flo to be opened each day on the train ride home to Washington State. How romantic!

I read through all the accompanying articles and programs about the national YWCA council meetings that Flo had attended in Chicago and Columbus in 1937 and 1938, but I couldn’t find any mention of Eddie. I looked at every picture in the two scrapbooks. Flo had devoted two pages of one scrapbook to pictures of a woman who had died, kind of a shrine. The pictures show Flo and the friend on a camping trip in the mountains. The woman’s death photo, showing her body lying on a coffin-like bed, is in an envelope pasted in the scrapbook, but there is not a single clue as to who she was. I pulled up the photos to see if there was anything written on the reverse side. Nothing.

camping
With the friend who died

The woman in the photos looked rather morose. Could the dead woman be Eddie? Did Eddie kill herself after Flo spurned her advances? Reading the letters, I can see she was clearly smitten, but there’s no indication that Flo felt the same. I let my imagination run wild. My poor mother! She must have felt terrible guilt. No wonder she left no clues about the identity of the dead woman.

She is still a mystery
She is still a mystery

My brother seemed slightly more interested in this new theory and he agreed to help me research the dead woman’s identity. We found one clue in a picture that decisively ties the dead woman to Flo’s hometown Biz-Pro group, and from her letters we know that Eddie was from New York, so I had to abandon my romantic story about Eddie. However, I’m holding onto the suicide theory until we can identify the dead woman. I can totally see how my adorable young mother might have inspired unrequited love.