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BOOKS New 'Fairy Town' book examines Chicago's pre-WWII gay life
by Liz Baudler
2018-06-18

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Some might think gay history begins in New York with Stonewall, but not Jim Elledge. In his new book, The Boys of Fairy Town, historian Elledge documents gay male life in Chicago from Edgewater to the Black clubs of Bronzeville, and from the Civil War to just before WWII, including the 1920s "pansy craze," during which gay men became icons nationwide.

Most of Elledge's people-driven history stars local celebrities, such as crossdressing former nightclub singer, bigamist and acquitted murder defendant Frances Carrick. Famous for her drag skills, she successfully married both a man and a woman, and when a judge prohibited her husband from testifying against Carrick in court, it was technically very early legal recognition for same-sex marriage.

Occasionally, a more notable name pops into the record. Bisexual sexologist Alfred Kinsey ( who was married with kids ) learned firsthand how to conduct a double life from his gay Chicago research subjects. Poet Carl Sandburg got propositioned but remained straight, and artist Henry Darger escaped an institution—where his father sent him at age 12 for youthful masturbation—by walking 160 miles back to Chicago, where he'd later create a future eccentric body of work. Even Horatio Alger, he of the rags-to-riches novels that have influenced U.S. ideals since their publication, shows up: It turns out Alger was gay, and all those novels about rich men taking penniless young boys under their wings ... suddenly have quite a different context.

Elledge chatted with Windy City Times about his research process and some of the surprising nuggets of information he found in microfilm at the Chicago Public Library.

Windy City Times: What got you focused on this kind of history in Chicago?

Jim Elledge: I was doing research on Henry Darger, and I kept running into these little snippets about other people, other situations in gay history in Chicago about the same time, if not a little bit earlier than Darger. I sort of kept track of those, because I thought that maybe I would find enough information to write a book about gay history in the early years.

After I got done with the Darger book, I started looking at those notes and decided that I probably had enough to write a book; I would need to do more research, but I certainly had a good start on one, so I went ahead and did it. I realized right away that I wanted to do a book that was more people-focused than date-focused. I didn't want to write a book like Chauncey's Gay New York— which I adore, I think it's a wonderful book, but I didn't want to write that kind of historical book.

WCT: Was Chicago an unusual gay haven?

JE: I think it was like other big cities. The waves of [gay] invisibility and visibility, that happened in Chicago. Some of the things of the early gay men did, like wear red ties...the same thing was going on in Boston and New York. By that time people were traveling around, and even though it took longer than it does today to get information from one city to another, the information still followed people around.

WCT: What was your research like?

JE: The problem was, and this is true of gay life in general in any city, is that nobody wrote about it. Most people didn't know it existed, and those who did were either a part of it, or a part of the legal system, or psychiatrists ( which they used to call "alientists" ). To find out anything about what was going on, you'd have to go to the newspapers. But the respectable ones like the Tribune, didn't publish that much. If there was a situation in which somebody gained notoriety for something he had done, then there might be a small article in the Tribune, but most of the newspaper articles were found in what I think of as gossip rags. And there are no indexes for these, unlike the Tribune or other, better-known, better-written newspapers.

So I had to find a date, if possible, and then go through issue after issue after issue in Chicago Public Library on microfilm. Trying to find articles about gay men was very difficult, because they didn't use the terminology we would use today. So I would look for sex pervert, all those kinds of terms. I had to relearn how to think about the whole situation, and think of it in terms of what journalists at the time—the kinds of labels that were available to them—"sodomite," for example.

It was difficult, but it was also fun. I really do enjoy doing research. You get to have all kinds of moments when you suddenly realize something that nobody else had ever really realized for 50, 60—maybe 100 years.

WCT: What was your most surprising research find?

JE: There were so many. Eugen Sandow, the bodybuilder, lived openly with another man, and at the time people were suspicious, but because he was a he-man, very butch in appearance, he got away with it. And that sort of opened my eyes to all kinds of other possibilities. As long as the veneer did not crack, a lot of these men could live with other men, or go out with other men, and never have to be concerned about whatever people said, simply because they thought gay men were very woman-like—which was at the time how I thought they identified gay men: effeminacy. And if you weren't that way, and especially if you lifted weights and created this body that was very classical in musculature, as Sandow did, then he could get away with all kinds of stuff, including posing basically nude backstage for all of those people.

WCT: This sounds like how Kinsey described Chicago gay society as being split in two, with an openly gay "friends and lovers" network and a more clandestine "married men fooling around group," who often appeared more masculine.

JE: That was another eye-opener for me, too. I had no idea that Kinsey had sex with men at all.

WCT: Newspaper were such a huge source for you. In your view, were newspapers helping influence public opinion on gay life, or merely reflecting it? You focused on both a pre-1900 editorial in which a writer defended a gay man who shot his lover, and an earlier expose of a hook-up spot under Randolph Street bridge.

JE: It was so early in our history, who knows who actually read that editorial. My guess is that it had no effect at all. It was one single person, one single editorial, and then only a line in it, but for us looking back to see that someone who had access to the public media made such a statement is amazing.

The bridge story was from one of the more scandal sheet newspapers, you could tell. There was some salaciousness in terms of the reporting going on, and maybe even some attraction, it's hard to know. What I also found out, which I hadn't understood, was that when writers and journalists wrote about the places they had visited, like the Randolph Street bridge, the gay men who read about them then had a place to go. There were these do-gooders who were trying to clean up all of the vice in the city, or write about all the vice in Chicago, and they'd pinpoint these houses of prostitution or cabarets or saloons. As soon as these books or articles were published, the gay men knew where they could find other gay men; it was in the newspaper. And so it became this kind of two-edged sword, they were trying to do away with "vice" but at the same time they were showing where that vice could be found.

WCT: Henry Gerber, who you have a chapter about, is well-known here—we have the Gerber/Hart library, and he's widely acknowledged for starting one of the first gay publications in the country—but it seems like there's never been much exploration of him before.

JE: In doing my research I never found anything that had as much information as I tried to give. There was no article that combined it all. Mostly when you read about him, you read about his Chicago experience, and that's about it. I found out the rest from bits and pieces that had been published here and there about him, or from letters that he wrote that had been collected and kept at the ONE archive in Los Angeles. But I think that there is a lot more that probably exists out there if anyone would take the time to actually find it.

WCT: In all of your research, who was your favorite subject?

JE: I like Carrick's story a lot. I thought at first that she might be transgender, but she was interviewed a lot in newspapers, and she never ever said anything about wanting to be female. I don't think she was [trans] at all, I think she simply knew what she could get away with. At the time, many gay men dressed in drag, simply to show other men that they were gay and that they were willing to play the woman's role in sexual situations. And I think that's what she was all about. She also had made a little bit of a name for herself—under a different name of course—on the vaudeville stages. So I think that she was just used to playing that role of stage. It just carried over into her real life.

That must have been a real interesting crowd at her trial. Newspaper report after newspaper report talked about how jam-packed the courthouse room was, and when she was acquitted, they broke out into cheers. So she was quite the well-known star at the time, even though it wasn't for her singing, it was just for being the person she was.

WCT: And the judge basically acknowledged a same-sex marriage—in 1923—almost accidentally in her murder trial.

JE: And by acknowledging it, he made it legal, he just said "you can't talk, because you're married, and married couples cannot speak against one another in a court of law" and so her husband was dismissed. That was another one of those amazing moments that I found, that not only had Frances Carrick married a man legally, then he turned around and married a woman legally, and they lived in the same apartment. It just must have been crazy.

On Wed., June 20, Elledge will be at a book launch at Unabridged Bookstore, 3251 N. Broadway, at 7 p.m. He will appear in conversation with local LGBT historian Owen Keehnen. A Q&A and book signing will follow the event. See https://www.unabridgedbookstore.com/event/book-launch-boys-fairy-town.

Also, on Friday, June 22, Elledge will participate in a reading, followed by a Q&A with June Sawyers. This will take place at City Lit Books, 2523 N. Kedzie Blvd., at 6:30 p.m. Visit https://www.citylitbooks.com/event/author-event-boys-fairy-town-jim-elledge.

For more on the book The Boys of Fairy Town, see www.chicagoreviewpress.com/boys-of-fairy-town—the-products-9781613739358.php .


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