A block of Seventh Avenue in Harlem, between 131st and 132nd Street will be the new home to an eight-story, 115-apartment building. But to make way for the new, one must get rid of the old, including the iconic Ubangi Club.
The Ubangi Club was housed, along with Connie’s Inn, in the former Lafayette Theater and an abutting structure where the new apartment complex will soon stand. Once known as the Harlem Club and the Harlem Tavern, when the speakeasy re-opened as the Ubangi Club in 1934, Gladys Bentley, a butch lesbian jazz singer backed up by a chorus of gay men, became the headliner.
In his 1945 autobiography, The Big Sea, Langston Hughes wrote that Bentley was “an amazing exhibition of musical energy – a large, dark masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard — a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.”
Bentley’s debut performance at the Lafayette left a queer taste in the mouth of the New York Age‘s theater critic, who was “actually quite put off by the production’s cross-gender representations and the allusions to ‘perverse’ sexuality,” according to James F. Wilson, executive director of the CUNY Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies and author of Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies:
A large and ungainly woman (if I may say so), who cuts her hair and dresses in tuxedos and calls herself Gladys Bentley, albeit that her troupe of six refer to her as a “gorgeous man”…and she refers to her six boys as “fellows” and then apologizes to them for so doing. As a matter of fact if these boys were put into dresses they would be indistinguishable from the chorines. I, personally, could not enjoy their part of the show as I had a burning desire to rush out and get an ambulance backed up against the stage door to take them all to Bellevue for the alienists to work on.
“Gladys Bentley’s lesbianism, tuxedo and wicked double-entendre rewrites of popular tunes were definitely part of the draw, along with her backup chorus line of flamboyant black gay men,” George Chauncey, the chairman of Yale’s history department, told The New York Times. “It had a more egalitarian and welcoming flavor, in both racial and sexual terms, than the segregated Cotton Club ever did.”
At the height of her career, Bentley openly flaunted her lesbianism, even reportedly marrying her white lesbian lover in a much publicized ceremony. She was frequently harassed for wearing men’s clothes, however, and would later recant her homosexuality to continue making a living during the ultra-conservative McCarthy Era. She died of influenza in 1960.
Half a century later, the home of her jazz age triumphs will fall to the march of modernity. Though a fifth of the new apartments will be dedicated to low-income families, The Times reports that preservationists are still dismayed at losing yet another historical treasure. Wilson laments that he used to point to the old Lafayette and the Ubangi, and tell students, “If only these walls could talk.”
“Sadly,” he said, “I guess we’ll never have the chance to hear what they’d have to say.”