Top 10 Most Sexually Prolific Lesbians and Bisexuals Of Old Hollywood

If you think celesbian gossip these days is crazy, you should’ve been alive like 100 years ago because DAMN these ladies were BUSY. Well, I mean, we’re pretty sure they were busy — it’s hard to know for certain in most of these cases, ’cause even if one woman claimed it happened, it’s likely the other swore it didn’t. But that hasn’t stopped historians from writing books like The Sewing Circle: Female Stars Who Loved Other Women, The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood, Hollywood Lesbians, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars. Using those books and the internet, I made you this chart, and compiled the list beneath it. This chart is focused on actresses of the early 20th century — everybody on this chart is connected, somehow, to a member of “The Sewing Circle.”

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Again, a lot of this information could be false, but it is also possibly true! As hard as it was to find information about the actresses on this list, however, information about the sexual relationships between Black stars was even harder to nail down. I’m working on that, though, for a follow-up post that’ll center on the big names of the Harlem Renaissance.

Without any further ado, here are the ten most prominent ladykillers of early Hollywood and Broadway!


10. Dorothy Arzner

Dorothy_Arzner-2

Alleged relationships & lovers: Joan Crawford, Ona Munson, Alla Nazimova, Billie Burke, Marion Morgan

The only female director in Hollywood at the time, Arzner defied expectations on multiple levels. She directed over 20 films in 24 years, taught Francis Ford Coppola and was the first female member of the Director’s Guild Association. She also spent many years with her partner Marion Morgan, after rumored relations with many other actresses IN THE BIZ.


9. Barbara Stanwyck
honey-kennedy-barbara-stanwyck-breakfast-for-two

Alleged relationships & lovers: Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Helen Ferguson, Tallulah Bankhead

Barbara Stanwyck pinged hard for her lesbian fans, even in movies where she had to pretend to be in love with a dude. A gay actor named Clifton Webb, who played her husband in Titanic, called Stanwyck “my favorite American lesbian.” “Stanwyck’s screen characters defined themselves on their own terms,” writes Axel Madsen in The Sewing Circle: Female Stars Who Loved Other Women. “Stanwyck was emotionally honest, and the way she related to men was different.” She was deeply closeted, burying her secret underneath her well-defined and daunting career ambitions and a really shitty but relatively brief marriage to a gay vaudeville star that inspired the film A Star is Born. She ultimately spent thirty years with her publicist Helen Ferguson.


8. Joan CrawfordJoan Crawford, 1920s (4)

Alleged romances/affairs: Alice Delamar, Barbara Stanwyck, Martha Raye, Dorothy Arzner, Claudette Colbert

Crawford, who’d started her career as a stage dancer, was stoked to be cast in a film with Greta Garbo, even though they didn’t have any scenes together. When they met, Garbo took Crawford’s face in her hands and said, “What a pity; our first picture together and we don’t work with each other. I’m sorry. You have a marvelous face.” Crawford said of this encounter, “if there was ever a time in my life when I might have been a lesbian, that was it.” BUT WAS IT REALLY, JOAN? Her lovers — and she had many, male and female — called her “Billie.” MGM paid $100 grand in 1935 to suppress the release of a pornographic lesbian film Crawford had appeared in at the age of 19. Unlike a lot of the other women on this list though there isn’t a lot of concrete solid evidence about her affairs.


7. Eva La Gallienne

alice

Alleged relationships & lovers: Josephine Hutchinson, Tallulah Bankhead, Alla Nazimona, Laurette Taylor, Beatrice Lillie, Mercedes De Acosta, Alice Delamar

Although Eva didn’t actively attempt to hide her sexuality, she wasn’t exactly proud of it either. At the height of her fame, she began a relationship with Alla Nazimova. After their breakup she began dating Mercedes de Acosta, with whom she traveled to Europe, often showing up in the salon of famed openly lesbian socialite Natalie Barney. Her relationship with actress Josephine Hutchinson, who was married at the time, ended up being a huge scandal in the press, inspiring Eva to tell a friend, “If you have any thoughts about being a lesbian, don’t do it. Your life will be nothing but tragedy.” She then became involved with director Margaret Webster, with whom she co-founded the American Repertory Theater.


6. Greta Garbo

greta-garbo

Alleged relationships & lovers: Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes de Acosta, Salka Viertel, Louise Brooks, Billie Holiday, Lilyan Tashman, Tallulah Bankhead

Garbo dated men but unlike other Sewing Circle members, never married one. Rather than lie to the press about her private life, she established a reputation as mysterious and aloof. Like Kristen Stewart! At the age of 19, while working on an obscure German film — before moving to America and becoming a star — she was seduced by 23-year-old Marlene Dietrich, described by Hollywood historian Diana McLellan as a “bohemian young mama with a notorious and compulsive appetite for the sexual seduction of other beautiful women, particularly backstage.” Garbo, on the other hand, was “simple” and “sensitive,” and ended up so hurt by Dietrich that she denied knowing her for the rest of her life. You know how it is. Then Garbo moved to Hollywood, where she continued an intimate relationship with actress-writer Salka Viertel and was introduced by Viertel to Mercedes de Acosta.


5. Katharine HepburnKatharine-

Alleged relationships/lovers: Elissa Landi, Irene Mayer Selznick, Phyllis Wilbourn, Laura Harding (heiress to the American Express fortune), Jane Loring (film editor), Judy Hollywood, Billie Burke

As a kid, Katharine shaved her head and went by “Jimmy,” and as a grown-up super-famous actress, was known for her boyish attire and bohemian attitude. Her agent’s third wife referred to Hepburn as “that dykey bitch.” Her first relationship was allegedly with her college friend Laura Harding.


4. Alla Nazimova

tumblr_n001pjaTg91qm2bmho1_1280Alleged relationships/lovers: Jean Acker, Natacha Rambova, Eva Le Gallienne, Mercedes De Acosta, Dolly Wilde, Bridget Bate Tichenor, Glesca Marshall, Grace Darmond, Dorothy Arzne

Stage actress Alla Nazimova cointed the term “The Sewing Circle,” referring to her group of lesbian, bisexual, or bi-curious Hollywood ladies. She held “outlandish parties” at her Sunset Boulevard estate, the legendary queer hangout known as The Garden of Allah, which was converted into a hotel in 1926. Alla was unusually open about her relationships with women and was instrumental in launching the careers of Sewing Circle members Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova. Alla lived with her partner Glesca Marshall from 1929 until her death in 1945.


3. Marlene Dietrich

marleneAlleged lovers/relationships: Edith Piaf, Greta Garbo, Mercedes de Acosta, Claire Waldoff, Tallulah Bankead, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck

Marlene Dietrich was a glamorous Hollywood extrovert of whom film critic Kenneth Tynan wrote, “She has sex but no positive gender. Her masculinity appeals to women and her sexuality to men.” Dietrich was a big fan of gay Berlin in the 1920s, and after moving to the states and becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest female stars, had a lot of affairs with men and women. She even went above and beyond by having affairs with men who’d had affairs with women she’d also had affairs with.


2. Tallulah Bankhead14142026-standard

Alleged lovers/relationships: Greta Garbo, Hope Williams, Beatrice Lille, Patsy Kelly, Katherine Cornell, Billie Holiday, Libby Holman, Hattie McDaniel, Eva La Gallienne, Barbara Stanwyck, Mercedes De Acosta.

Tallulah Bankhead, best known as a stage actress but also prolific in radio, film and television, was crass, hilarious, and unapologetic about her sexuality, an outgoing alcoholic and drug addict who “sought sex of every variety constantly, hungrily, and without reservation.” Actress Hope Williams, at 19, initiated 16-year-old Tallulah into the world of lesbian sex and she took to it pretty damn quickly. It’s difficult to find any lesbian or bisexual woman of the era who is not rumored to have had a thing with Tallulah. She married actor John Emery for four years and then never married again again. She didn’t find The Kinsey Report remotely surprising, declaring, “I’ve had many momentary love affairs. A lot of these impromptu romances have been climaxed in a fashion not generally condoned. I go into them impulsively. I scorn any notion of their permanence. I forget the fever associated with them when a new interest presents itself.” She was considered “unsuitable for the public” by the Hays Committee on account of her “Verbal Moral Turpitude.”


1. Mercedes de AcostaMercedes_de_Acosta

Alleged lovers/relationships: Greta Garbo, Alla Nazimova, Katharine Cornell, Isadora Duncan, Eva Le Gallienne, Marlene Dietrich, Ona Munson, Eleonora Duse, Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead, Salka Viertel, Eva Hermann

Play and screenwriter Mercedes de Acosta was the Shane of her era, bedding pretty much every lady-loving-lady in the West Hollywood region. Prior to becoming a bisexual seducer of the stars, she was a little girl who thought she was a little boy. Her Mom used to call her “Rafael.” Alice B. Toklas said of de Acosta, “Say what you will about Mercedes, she’s had the most important women of the twentieth century.” She had lengthy love affairs with actress Eva Le Gallienne, Alla Nazimova and Isadora Duncan. Her most legendary relationship, though, was with Greta Garbo. She married a heterosexual man in 1920 but insisted the wedding remain private and was notably frowning when carried over the threshold that evening.


Here’s a glossary with information about some of the other women on The Chart:

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Riese

Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3152 articles for us.

94 Comments

    • Stunned, I’m a pillar of salt looking back at women I never knew.
      Billie Burke (are you a good witch or a bad witch) is my all time favorite. So feminine & that beautiful girly lady voice.
      I’m speechless & thats a shocker.

    • Why? Very few of the ladies mentioned actually admitted that they were lesbian.

      It isn’t as though they came out as lesbian.

      I’m just saying. Don’t bludgeon me anyone…PLEASE!

  1. I know there’s a lot of really cool information here. But truthfully, my very first thought was:

    “Well, this puts Shaw’s enjoyment of the Beatrice Lillie sandwich from Park’s Deli in a WHOLE different light!”

  2. Fantastic Riese! Now imagine if someone (you know you want to) could actually cast, write, direct and produce this chart as a new series called…

  3. If I’d know where to put it, I’d print, frame and hang this chart on a wall.

      • I think Chloe would like to nominate you for a Peggy Peabody Award for this one, Riese.

        We all know that she’d pop up on that chart somewhere, sometime.

    • THANK YOU EVERYBODY
      I’D LIKE TO THANK MY FRIEND HAVILAND FOR TELLING ME ABOUT MERCEDES DE ACOSTA IN 2006
      WITHOUT HER WE WOULD NOT BE HERE ON THIS FINE DAY
      AND ALSO PIKTOCHART FOR MAKING IT EASY FOR ME TO MAKE INFOGRAPHICS EVEN THOUGH INDESIGN DOESN’T MAKE SENSE TO ME

  4. There’s a Katherine Hepburn/On Golden Pond joke and innuendo here somewhere.
    And I’m gonna find it.

  5. I am such a bad lesbian for not knowing some of these women were lesbians! But I have seen the light! This is my kind of herstory lesson! Thank you Riese.

  6. I wish that that my parents had made more clearly LGBT supportive statements to me as a kid, but now I realize that my mom’s default reference to Katharine Hepburn whenever she needed an example of a Beautiful Tough Boss Lady were those statements…

  7. Read somewhere that Ava Gardner and Lana Turner were thing at some point even making Frank Sinatra go all crazy calling them “goddamned lesbians”.

    • huh, that’s bizarre! i found that picture labeled as being of mercedes de acosta on like five different sources. the uncropped original:

      anyhow, off to find a new one!

      • I know, I found it strange too when I reversed image searched it, but yes, a friend of mine pointed it out to me and sent me the link. Thanks for this article by the way, it’s incredible!

  8. This is everything I have ever wanted. So who do I have to pay to get a biopic or mini-series made about these lovely women and their affairs?

  9. When will we get a movie about the tumultuous love lives of Old Hollywood starlets (and/or the circle of queer artists & writers in Paris at the same time)? When??

  10. Oh my goodness. I applaud the research that must have gone into this. If someone wanted to do a miniseries I’d KickStart the hell out of that.

  11. Riese, it’s like you peered into my brain for this one and said, “I know the perfect article to write for Blackmar!”

    Seriously, I love this shit. I’ve spent way too many hours doing my own research on this. It’s so interesting to me how, during this era, the actresses were somehow simultaneously more closeted and more open-minded. I mean, you can find quotes from half of these women about how it’s not true and their surviving family members love to deny it, but then you’ll find super romantic love letters that they wrote to their girlfriends, too.

    • *cough*
      You don’t happen to have a link to said Love letters?
      I’m in need of some sap.

    • Right! there’s this weird dynamic where like, they all know that they will literally NEVER have to go public, and it’s not like they worried about being outed by Perez Hilton, so it was like everybody was on board with things happening in secret. whereas in the 80s/90s/00s, people were not all on board and so you risked things being revealed. back then nobody *wanted* to believe that this is what their favorite stars were up to.

  12. Oh, and my favorite Tallulah Bankhead story is that once Joan Crawford showed up to a party for Tallulah and upstaged her by wearing some fancy ass gown and she was dusted in gold glitter. So, Tallulah stormed off, then returned completely naked with gold glitter in her pubic hair and said, “Guess who just went down on me!”

  13. I read The Girls many years ago and have been team Garbo and hated Dietrich ever since.

  14. Yes! This is exactly my kind of thing! I have read so much about Katherine Hepburn, and there isn’t much about her life with women but what there is, is so good. If I was good at attaching pictures, I would link to a picture of her in the movie Sylvia Scarlett. Worth googling! She is in drag most of the movie and there are some gorgeous stills of her from it. I have a poster of her from the movie on my wall and love it so much. (Seconded the desire for a poster of the graphic above to put next to her picture)

  15. That Dietrich smirk is TOO MUCH. This article needed a nsfw tag just for those sex eyes alone.

  16. This is a delightful article, but for the love of fluffy kittens, KathArine Hepburn. K-A-T-H-A-R-I-N-E. Not Katherine.

    (Sorry, she’s just one of the only other people I know of who spells her name this way, aside from me and my great-grandmother, and it drives me up the wall when I see it spelled wrong.)

    (No offense meant to any and all Katherines! You are lovely people.)

    • It is the less common spelling, which autocorrect disagrees with unfortunately! As a huge fan I know I typed it correctly but in my comment above I see now that it autocorrect and I didn’t check enough to see it. I usually triple check her name cause it tries to change her first and even her last name for some reason.

  17. Is that why Greta Garbo is on Holly Golightly’s celebrity sex list in the Breakfast At Tiffany’s book?

  18. Great article! I love love love the Old Hollywood ladies. In college I devoured the Sewing Circle and the Girls.

    Just one correction: I believe the small picture labeled Mercedes D’Acosta in ‘The Women of the Chart’ is actually a photo of actress Maude Adams, the original Peter Pan on Broadway. Who I also love, but who is not Mercedes.

  19. My first thought after reading this is that I wish Karina Longworth would dedicate a series about this topic on her podcast You Must Remember This. It’d be so good!

    • I wish she’d touch on it more in general. I remember listening to the YMRT episode on Frances Farmer and doing some mad googling afterwards because no way was that lady straight. (I was right.)

  20. Aww Isadora Duncan is on the new recommended study list for my students… I wonder what their research will dig up, other than the sad story of her demise which serves as a huge health and safety point for all people. Yikes.

  21. Thx for this! A heads up tho that on your pictorial chart that you have a picture of Greta Garbo on Salka Viertel’s listing. Bless her, but Salka never would’ve been mistaken for Garbo.

    Also most people would better know Billie Burke as “Glenda the good witch” in Wizard of Oz. Yes it’s that much gayer.

  22. It’s sort of weird to see “and they wanted to be boys when they were kids, which made them extra-gay!” presented uncritically here? Gender-nonconformity can be sort of related to having a non-straight orientation, but… yeah. I mean, let’s not forget that back then, our knowledge of gender identity was not great and these people wouldn’t have had very many options.

  23. My inner Hermione is preening because we knew most of these names and faces.

    Ugh I wish I had computer capable of running the Adobe suite.
    Verbal Moral Turpitude needs to get made into warning label to be on buttons, stickers and wall hangings.
    “Unsuitable for the Public” a t-shirt, like 3 kinds of t-shirts at least.

  24. this is fantastic.

    one note however: the photo you included of Joan Crawford doesn’t look much like Joan Crawford…

  25. How did I not know about Isadora Duncan?? Adds a dimension to my childhood obsession with her. This is the news I never realized I needed to hear. I love this whole concept; “uncovering” our history feels so important.

  26. This explains my movie-watching as a teenager. Only Grace Kelly missing from the chart (unless you count the one in my head).

  27. Can’t believe you missed out Marilyn Monroe! She was a conquest of Joan Crawford’s (and said that Joan’s howling like a wolf as she came put her off going back there) and had a relationship with her drama coach Natasha Lytess (saying, ‘I let Natasha. No sex is wrong when there’s love in it’)

  28. from now on when I see these ladies on the silver screen I’ll see more than just actress’s but true ladies. it’s such a shame they had to hide their selves because of the public’s prudish notions. thanks for sharing whet these ladies couldn’t

  29. Ah, they certainly had faces then, didn’t they ladies? But who is this Judy Hollywood? Could that be a reference to Judy Holliday? Or Garland?

  30. This is amazing. I have to go make a list now of all the movies they were in so that I can watch them over and over.

  31. There are quite a few mistakes in this article. The easiest one is that you listed Erich Maria Remarque (author of All Quiet on the Western Front) as one of Dietrich’s lesbian lovers. Remarque was a man despite having the middle name Maria. simple Google search would have cleared that up but it surprised me that a writer for a queer publication would make that kind of assumption. lots of us have unisex names or even names that society considers masculine…

    • Stunned, I’m a pillar of salt looking back at women I never knew.
      Billie Burke (are you a good witch or a bad witch) is my all time favorite. So feminine & that beautiful girly lady voice.
      I’m speechless & thats a shocker.

  32. My Great Aunt was Helen Ferguson – had 2 husbands actor William Russell & Banker Richard Hargreaves . She was fabulous to us as kids visiting LA every year in the 50’s & 60’s ! I have a letter from her which fits too addressed to Billie which I guess may have been to Billie Burke ?

  33. Hi, you include the fabulous book “Hollywood Lesbians” by Boze Hadleigh, the #1 author on GLBT Hollywood and showbiz. That was a 1994 book and is iconic (to use an overused word), but in 2017 or so Boze (rhymes with shows; I attended an author talk) did a wonderful update called “Hollywood Lesbians: From Garbo to Foster.” It also includes a broken-off interview with Ann B. Davis, best known as housekeeper Alice on “The Brady Bunch.” And stuff on other TV lesbians as well as Jodie Foster, whose real name is Alicia but she was nicknamed after her mother’s live-in lover, Josephine Dominguez, aka Jo D. Fabulous stuff!!

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