The Gay Women of Old Hollywood

It seems like every time there’s a new biography about a past Hollywood star or starlet, we get to know a little more about their sexual history and it involves both sexes. The recent discovery that Vivien Leigh had several female lovers adds her to an ever-growing list of talented actresses that were married to men but involved with women in the early days of Hollywood. While we know about several already (Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo) there are several others who we can claim as well. Here’s a small list of actresses with whom we share a kinship.

Spring Byington (1886 – 1971)

Most Famous For: Meet John Doe, Little Women

Romanced: Marjorie "Ma Kettle" Main, Maude Adams

Estelle Winwood (1883 – 1984)

Most Famous For: Quality Street, Camelot

Romanced: Tallulah Bankhead

Ona Munson (1903 – 1955)

Most Famous For: Gone With the Wind, The Hot Heiress

Romanced: Mercedes de Acosta

Joan Crawford (1905 – 1977)

Most Famous For: Mildred Pierce, inspiring Mommie Dearest

Romanced: Martha Raye, director Dorothy Arzner, Marilyn Monroe

Barbara Stanwyck (1907 – 1990)

Most Famous For: Meet John Doe, Walk on the Wild Side (she played a lesbian character)
Romanced: Publicist Helen Ferguson

Judy Holliday (1921 – 1965)

Most Famous For: Born Yesterday (she won the Oscar for Best Actress)

Romanced: Katharine Hepburn and a policewoman

Nancy Kulp (1921 – 1991)

Most Famous For: The Beverly Hillbillies

Romanced: Lily Tomlin

Maria Schneider (1952)

Most Famous For: Last Tango in Paris

Romanced: Heiress Patty Townsend

If you’re interested in finding out more about these women, there are several books that go into more detail. For further reading, check out Queers in History by Keith Stern, Stanwyck by Axel Madsen, Hollywood Lesbians by Boze Hadleigh, Five O’Clock Angel by St. Just, The Gay Book of Days by Martin Greif and The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood by Diana McLellan.

Trish Bendix is a Los Angeles-based writer.