overview

Poet Elsa Gidlow, though largely associated with the San Francisco Bay Area, likely wrote her groundbreaking book of poetry On a Grey Thread while living at this Manhattan address in the early 1920s.

Featuring openly lesbian poems, the book is believed to be the first of its kind to be published in North America.

Header Photo
Building with cornice to left of tree. Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.

History

In 1920, English-born poet Elsa Gidlow (1898-1986) moved from Canada to New York City, where she lived for six years. She first wrote for Pearson’s Magazine, a progressive publication that covered literature, politics, and the arts in the first quarter of the 20th century. Its office was located at 57 Fifth Avenue, which (though altered) still stands in Greenwich Village.

While today Gidlow is largely associated with the San Francisco Bay Area, she lived in an apartment in this converted Chelsea rowhouse on West 22nd Street in the early 1920s where she likely wrote her groundbreaking book of openly lesbian poetry On a Grey Thread (1923). The book, which she dedicated to her first lesbian love, is considered by literary historians to be the first of its kind to be published in North America.

Gidlow lived openly as a lesbian, though she later recalled in her autobiography, Elsa, I Come with My Songs (1986), that meeting other lesbians was difficult in the pre-gay liberation era. Still, in 1924, she met and fell in love with Violet Winifred Leslie Henry-Anderson, who went by the nickname Tommy.

Being a lesbian, for me as for Tommy, was happy. … We were profoundly sure of our right to be as we were, to love and live in our chosen way, we were happy in it.

Elsa Gidlow, 1986

The couple left the city in 1926 for the Bay Area, where Gidlow would eventually found Druid Heights, an artistic community in Muir Woods. At one point, Gidlow dated Margaret Jessie Chung, the first American-born Chinese woman to become a physician.

Building Information

  • Architect or Builder: Unknown
  • Year Built: 1858 (later altered)

Sources

  1. Arlene Lev Istar, “Gidlow, Elsa (1898-1986),” GLBTQ Archive, bit.ly/2e6ikY6.

  2. Elsa Gidlow, Elsa, I Come with My Songs: The Autobiography of Elsa Gidlow (San Francisco: Booklegger Press, 1986). [source of pull quote]

  3. New York City Directory, 1925.

  4. Shayne E. Watson suggested this site to the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project based on her research of Elsa Gidlow (see: “Citywide Historic Context Statement for LGBTQ History in San Francisco,” prepared by Donna J. Graves and Shayne E. Watson for the City and County of San Francisco, October 2015, bit.ly/2fIAGii).

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