Saturday, June 2, 2018

My Grandmother's Gay Artist Friends

Santa Fe, New Mexico, July 2004

My Grandma Davis was an ultra-devout fundamentalist Christian who always carried her worn study Bible, corresponded with a dozen missionaries, and got angry at the "hippies and radicals" she saw on tv.  Yet she seemed remarkably nonchalant about my junior high boyfriend Dan, and when we broke up, she found a new boy for me to "go around with."

When she died, during my sophomore year in high school, we had to sort through her  possessions.  I found an old trunk in the attic with surprising evidence that she had encountered gay people before.  It contained:

1. Jazz records: Hoagy Carmichael, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke.

2. Some paintings: a young woman with long red hair, wearing a blue evening gown and pearls; a still life; an old-fashioned cottage with a huge back yard covered with flowers, labeled "Devon."  When was Grandma Davis in Devon?

3. Some photographs of men, hugging, holding each other. One in a swimsuit, with a smooth, hard chest, standing on a beach, his arm around a taller, blond guy in a U.S. navy uniform (top photo).

Another of two very muscular, shirtless guys, one in white chinos, the other in overalls, apparently holding hands. (I asked for and got to keep them both.)

Dad could explain the music: "When your Grandma was younger, she was big into jazz.  Always going to concerts."

And the paintings:  "Right after high school, must have been in 1921, she went down to Indianapolis to art school.  Then, for some reason, she suddenly dropped out and went back home to Rome City.  That summer, 1923, she got saved at a Nazarene camp meeting, and married your Grandpa. "

I wondered what compelled a young woman to abandon her studies, her art, and her friends, shut them all away in a trunk in the attic for 52 years?

Did it have something to do with the hugging men?

Dad didn't know who they were.

A couple of years later, when I was in college, her younger brother Harry came to Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt Nora's house.  He was only ten when Grandma went to Indianapolis, but he remembered that their parents disapproved:

"This was during Prohibition, and Gracie and her friends went wild, with hooch and jitterbugging -- two things Nazarenes hate most.  It makes sense that she would want to hide away memories of her old, sinful life after she converted."

"But...who were the hugging men?"  I showed him the pictures.

"This one looks like a fellow she knew from art school, Carl something or other.  She brought him up to Rome City a couple of times. The others are probably his friends.  Oscar, maybe. I remember one time they all went skinnydipping up at Indiana Dunes, and got arrested, and Pop told her not to associate with such 'vulgarians' again, but of course she didn't listen."

Vulgarians?  Code for "gay"?  I looked in a directory of Indiana artists, but didn't find any Carl or Oscar from Indianapolis who was the right age.

Wood Woolsey
Then in 2004, I was visiting Larry in New Mexico, and I stumbled upon the name of regional artist Wood Woolsey (1899-1970).  He lived in Indianapolis from 1921 to 1927, and he studied at the John Herron Art Institute at the same time as Gracie.

He had a younger brother, Carl, also an artist, who lived with him.  My grand-uncle must have mixed the names up.

Wood Woolsey never married.  Could he have been gay?

Grandma Davis at the start of her life, skinnydipping with some gay guys!

Did finding out cause her skittish retreat into fundamentalist Christianity?

Or did she have only warm memories of her gay friends?  There's also evidence that she may have married a gay man.  And that fifty years later, when her 13-year old grandson began talking about boys he liked, she understood, on some level, and advised "You should find a nice Christian boy."  And when he broke up, she found him another boy to "go around with."


  1. Vulgarians doesn't mean gay. It means the uncivilized. As in a certain short-fingered vulgarian.

    1. I think it was used as code for gay in the 1920s. Or else Bulgarians.



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