We Are Fam-il-eee
Families have been around for eons. Did dinosaurs form families? I don’t know. But many species which came after them did and still do. The definition of what constitutes a family has changed over the millennia but human beings—and for that matter many species of animals—seem to be hard-wired to form relationships of one sort or another. In other words, to live as a family.
For the LGBTQ community, family can mean love and security. For too many of us, though, family can also mean rejection and pain. Until the triumph of marriage equality, our families of choice were not even accorded the legal status our married straight friends, relatives, and neighbors enjoyed.
But our LGBTQ culture is romantic to the core, right? We’ve been bonding for centuries, sometimes hiding deep out of sight, sometimes hiding in plain sight, and sometimes not bothering to hide at all.
In researching couples who lived as family in periods prior to our own, I came across numerous enduring same-sex relationships. Two, though, interested me in particular for the times and cultures in which they lived: two couples, one fictional, one real, from opposite ends of the earth, from cultures which could not have been more different, and separated by more than two thousand years.
Okay, let’s go back to early Zhou period China, roughly the 1100s BCE, and the story of the romance between Wang Zhongxian and Pan Zhang. And quite a romance it was, worthy of a Lifetime channel Happily Ever After night on the couch with popcorn and a box of tissues. According to legend, Pan Zhang was a noted writer, admired not only for his beautiful writings but for his beautiful looks. Student Wang Zhongxian wanted to study with Zhang, and travelled to meet him.
According to historian Rictor Norton, the tale of Wang Zhongxian and Pan Zhang dates back to about 1122 BCE. Passed down through centuries of oral tradition, their story was formally set in writing during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) in the lyrical collection, the Taiping Guanjii. Bret Hinsch, of the history faculty of Taiwain’s Fo Guang University, quotes liberally from the Song chronicles in his study of gay relationships in historic China, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: “They fell in love at first sight, and were as affectionate as husband and wife, sharing the same coverlet and pillow with unbounded intimacies for one another. Afterwards, they died together and everyone mourned them. When they were buried together at Lofu Mountain in the peak of a tree with long branches, leafy twigs suddenly grew. All of these embraced one another! At the time, people considered this a miracle. It was called the Shared Pillow Tree.”
Ahhh…the Shared Pillow Tree. Pass the popcorn and tissues.
A world away and millennia later, two American women defied hidebound Victorian definitions of family and a woman’s place.
Elsie de Wolfe and Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury were a modernizing couple in the modernizing New York at the turn of the twentieth century. At a time when women were confined to the home, or if they must earn a living, they were often domestics, shopgirls, seamstresses, sweatshop drudges, prostitutes, or if they were lucky, talented, or beautiful, the stage. Elsie and Bessie smashed those barriers. They were a true power couple.
They met in 1887, when Elsie worked as an actress and Bessie, already bucking tradition and succeeding at it, was a well-established talent agent and theater producer. In 1892, the two moved in together to a stately house at the corner of Manhattan’s East 17th Street and Irving Place. Elsie’s acting career was not a raging success but her talent for decorating and design became evident.
She redecorated the 17th Street residence from top to bottom, tearing out the dark, heavy interiors and tossing out the fussy Victorian furniture. She replaced it all with white walls, delicate furniture upholstered in pale colors or prints of simplified design. Light and air flooded what had been suffocating and shadowy.
And it became all the rage. Elsie’s and Bessie’s friends from the worlds of art, theater, literature, and politics raved about the de Wolfe-Marbury home. Elsie’s career as an interior designer was launched. She became the most successful interior designer in the country, in demand in Europe as well. In 1913, she published the wildly popular The House in Good Taste, which became the bible of modern decorating for everyone from barely-scraping-by newlyweds to affluent matrons with money to burn.
Meantime, Bessie’s career as agent and producer was scaling the heights of the American and European cultural worlds. As an agent, she represented such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and the popular dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle. As a theatrical producer, she staged musicals by Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, and partnered with influential New York producers Charles Frohman and the Shubert Brothers.
Elsie and Bessie were riding high, their home a magnet for New York’s Who’s Who.
In 1926, Elsie shocked their friends…by marrying a man! In a union generally accepted by all—including the reporters who covered the wedding—as a marriage of convenience for both bride and groom, Elsie married Sir Charles Mendl, a British diplomat and sometime actor. The marriage bestowed the title Lady Mendl on Elsie, which she used for the rest of her life. Husband and wife never lived together. Elsie and Bessie shared domestic bliss—first at the 17th Street house, later at 13 Sutton Place—until Bessie’s death in 1933.
Okay everyone, all together now: WE ARE FAM-IL-EEE….
Ann Aptaker’s series featuring dapper lesbian art thief and smuggler Cantor Gold has won Lambda Literary and Goldie Awards. In addition to writing crime fiction, Ann is an adjunct Professor of art and art history at New York Institute of Technology.