The Lesbian or Bisexual Heiress: 22 Women Who Had It Made, In Theory

Last week we were crash-coursing the life of YouTube star Gigi Gorgeous, who’d just come out and who I’d never heard of despite her apparent widespread celebrity. I was impressed and maybe a little confused to see her and her girlfriend cavorting at high fashion shows, on yachts, and traversing the world in a private jet — until I realized that her girlfriend is Nats Getty. Obviously there are a lot of rich people in the world and many of those rich people are lesbians — you know, power lesbians and all that — but when you think about women with inherited wealth, the image tends to be pretty homogeneous: straight, cis, white, conservative, private. Or you imagine Paris Hilton, I guess, or Patty Hearst.

So I set out to find every lesbian or bisexual heiress I could find. And my results are below. Props to Elisa Rolle, author of Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time, which you can buy in print or for Kindle (I did!) or get it free with Kindle Unlimited — her work was an incredible resource for a lot of this list. She’s also got a treasure trove of history and book reviews at her livejournal.


Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744)

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Queen Anne of Great Britain named Sarah her “Lady of the Bedchamber.” After all, as Anne’s girlfriend, Sarah had unrivaled access and influence. After many years of bliss, Sarah got an attitude, Anne met somebody new, and Sarah and her husband were dismissed from the court. She went on to inherit the Marlborough trust and become one of the richest women in Europe.


Ann Walker (1803-1854)

The wealthy Halifax heiress Ann Walker met fellow estate-owner Anne Lister — of The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister — in 1832. Lister was 43 and felt her playgirl days were over and it was time to find a wife. Her neighbor, 29-year-old Ann Walker, who’d inherited a massive estate from her family (both her parents and brother were deceased, leaving Walker very rich and very depressed), had long fascinated Miss Lister. In 1834, they married — it wasn’t legally recognized, but they had paperwork that entitled them to pieces of each other’s estates. The two fought frequently but had not yet managed to break up when Lister died in 1840, while they were traveling in Russia.


Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac (1865 – 1943)

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Sure, the heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune married a Prince, but on their wedding night, she climbed on an armoire and threatened to kill him if he approached her. (Their union was annulled in 1892). She married gay amateur composer Prince Edmond de Polignac in in 1893. They had a strong artistic and respectful friendship although the relationship was never sexual or romantic. She pursued lesbian relationships throughout the marriage and afterwards, including affairs with painter Romaine Brooks, composer Ethel Smyth, pianist Renata Borgatti and socialite/novelist Violet Trefusis. She was living with British gardening and landscape expert Alvide Chaplin in London when she died.


Natalie Clifford Barney (1876 – 1972)

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Where does one begin with the story of Natalie Clifford Barney, really? I guess you start in Dayton, Ohio, where Barney was born to the son of a wealthy railway car manufacturer and a French/Dutch/German mother. Or New York, where she met Oscar Wilde and he inspired her to purse her art. Or France, where she went to boarding school and eventually lived full time, hosting the Paris literary salon that became the stuff of lesbian and historical legend. Her salon was The Place To Be Seen for noted writers, artists and political progressives of the era. Barney knew she was a lesbian at the age of 12 and refused to remain closeted, openly propositioning women she desired and publishing lesbian love poems in her own name. She eventually started a “Women’s Academy” to promote writing by women (a response to  the mens-only French Acadamy), and pursued non-monogamous relationships with a bevy of noted females including courtesan Liane de Pougy, poet Renee Vivien, painter Romaine Brooks and dancer Armen Ohanian. Salon visitors included T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Alice B. Toklas, Mary McCarthy, Jean Cocteau, Djuna Barnes, Radclyffe Hall, Rainer Maria Rilke, Peggy Guggenheim and Isadora Duncan.


Eleanora Randolph Sears (1881 – 1968)

Eleanor Sears with Isabel Pell

Eleanora Sears with Isabel Pell

By the mid-1700s, Sears’ great-great-grandfather was, apparently, the richest man in New England. She grew up playing tennis, riding horses, racing cars and boats and flying airplanes — she even became a national tennis champion and the first women’s squash champion. Although she enjoyed dressing up and being seen with escort Mike Vanderbilt, she had no interest in marriage. She did, however, really enjoy the company of other females, particularly within the Old Hollywood Sapphic Scene. In addition to befriending Eleanor Roosevelt and Gertrude Stein, she was noted friends and/or lovers with people like Isabell Pell, Mercedes de Acosta, Isadora Duncan, Alla Nazimova, Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich. In her ’50s she was targeted for seduction by Marie Gendron, a much younger woman who encouraged her girlfriend to spend lavishly and isolated her from the rest of her family, eventually acquiring power of attorney.


Alice Antoinette Delamar (1895-1983)

This Colorado mine heiress funded her girlfriend Eva Le Gallienne‘s Civic Repertory Theater, which ended up being a monumentally important element of the U.S. repertory theatre movement. She inherited a $10 million trust in 1918 at the age of 23, was a patron of the arts, threw lavish parties, traveled the world and maintained homes on Park Avenue, Paris, West Palm Beach and in Weston, Connecticut. She refused to marry.


Marion Barbara ‘Joe’ Carstairs (1900-1993)

by International News Photos, vintage print, December 1932 via schoolfield country house

The daughter of a Standard Oil Trust heiress, Joe was a noted “eccentric” who married a male childhood friend (French aristocrat Count Jacques de Pret) in order to gain access to her trust fund without her mother’s permission. After her mother’s death, the marriage was annulled, citing “non-consummation.” Joe was an accomplished speed boat racer known for her tattoos, her butch presentation and her affairs with women including Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankead, Marlene Dietrich and Oliver Wilde’s niece, Dorothy Wilde. She truly lived the dream, however, when, shortly after working with the Red Cross as an ambulance driver in World War I, she founded the “X Garage,” “a car-hire and chauffeuring service featuring a women-only staff of drives and mechanics.”


Betty Parsons (1900 – 1982)

Betty Parsons, 1963. Photo Alexander Liberman. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. © J. Paul Getty Trust.

Betty Parsons, 1963. Photo Alexander Liberman. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. © J. Paul Getty Trust.

The “rebellious, self assured offspring of an old new York family” decided at the age of 13 that she wanted to be an artist and set out to become one. She married a wealthy suitor, Schuyler Livingston Parsons, in 1920; like Betty, Parsons was gay, and unlike Betty, he was also a gambler and an alcoholic. After the divorce, she was disinherited by her family, and lived in Paris with British art student Adge Baker. Obviously she became pals with Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney and later infiltrated the Old Hollywood Sapphic scene. Eventually she spent her life with writer/critic/art collector Rosalind Constable, who she met at the age of 39. In 1977 she did an interview for an issue of Heresies devoted to lesbian art and artists but the interview was never published because “the 77-year-old dealer, who had been open about her sexuality in her youth, now guarded her privacy.”


Henrietta Bingham (1901 – 1968)

Born into a wealthy southern family that had made its fortune in publishing, Bingham hit the ground running at Smith College by instigating an affair with one of her professors, Mina Kirstein Curtiss. She went on to pursue an active social life as a muse to the Bloomsbury Group in 1920s London. She dated both men and women, including tennis champion Helen Hull Jacobs, actor/producer John Houseman and artist Dora Carrington. She died in 1968, the result of her body losing its ability to manage her daily cocktail of amphetamines, sedatives and alcohol.


Laura Harding (1902- 1994 )

Laura Harding (Katherine Hepburn is sitting behind her)

Laura Harding (Katherine Hepburn is sitting behind her)

Katherine Hepburn told a friend that Laura Harding saved her life — they were friends for over 60 years, lived together, and were, by most accounts, deeply in love. Hepburn was fascinated by Harding’s highbrow world of luxury luggage, exclusive clubs, charity balls and summers in Santa Barbara. Harding’s great-grandfather, Jay Cooke, was a banker known as ‘the financier of the Civil War,’ and his daughter married the founder of the Smith-Barney brokerage firm. Her father was the firm’s senior partner. According to Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, Laura Harding “wanted to be a boy because her father didn’t have time for girls.” Laura refused to marry, but also rejected the label “lesbian,” associating it with girls like Louisa Carpenter, who wore men’s clothing and were open in their pursuit of female lovers, which she considered déclassé.


Edwina Mountbatten (1901 – 1960)

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My friends, let me tell you that Ivar was not the first queer Mountbatten. Edwina Cynthia Annette Ashley was an English heiress, socialite and relief-worker, and she married Lord Louis Mounbatten… and then spent all her time going on “daring adventures” and “traveling in rough and often dangerous parts of the world” with her sister-in-law and very best gal pal, Nadeja Mikhailovna Mountbatten.


Margaret West (1903-1963)

When “old guard South Texas” oil heiress and vaudeville performer Margaret West passed in 1963, her estate went to her dearly beloved roommate, flamboyant silent film star Pola Negri. Negri dated and married men for publicity purposes and her alleged paramours include Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, and ADOLF HITLER. I think she liked Margaret more than Hitler.


Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt  (1904-1965)

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Anderson Cooper’s grandmother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, was accused of being a lesbian during the highly publicized custody trial over her daughter (Anderson’s mother), Gloria Vanderbilt (who recently confessed to her son that she’d had a lesbian affair as a teenager), following her husband’s death. It’s never been revealed with certainty whether or not Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt did indeed have an affair with Nadejda Mikhailovna Mountbatten, Marchioness of Milford Haven, but the mere suggestion of it — along with other accusations of mental instability — was enough to cause her to lose custody of her child to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.


Louisa Carpenter (1907-1976)

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Dupont Heiress Louisa D’Andelot Carpenter bailed her girlfriend, stage actress and torch singer Libby Holman, out of jail after Libby shot and killed her husband. The two raised Libby’s son together and went on to adopt a child in a relationship that was largely accepted by their peers. Rumor has it that Carpenter was also involved, at various times, with actresses Tallulah Bankhead, Louise Brooks and Greta Garbo.


There’s a big gap here — we leap from someone born in 1907 to someone born in 1948 — and just a few people on the more recent end of that timeline than not. Of course I’m sure a week of research (both online and with actual books) didn’t turn up everybody, but it’s interesting to see who was easy enough to locate that they DID turn up during a week of research.

So, I have some theories. The most obvious one is that everybody born prior to 1907 is dead, meaning their private lives have already become fair game for biographers and historians, unlike those who are still alive and might take issue with that characterization. But it also could just be manners — back in the day, it was impolite to pry, despite what gossip appeared in the press, so people went about their gay lives without being asked to host an HRC gala and, lucky for us, left records. When gay and lesbian identities became politicized in the mid-to-late 20th century and the concept of “living openly” became a thing one was encouraged to do in order to further the civil rights cause, it’s possible lesbian and bisexual heiresses ducked as far out of the spotlight as possible, lest they be pressured to participate in progressive politics or comment on perceived sexual behaviors. (A completely legit desire — nobody should be forced to come out if they’re not actively working against the cause, and private people have the right to live private lives.)

Anyhow, so let us jump forward in time…


Olive F. Watson (b. 1948)

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Olive, a member of the I.B.M. founding family, pulled an interesting legal move in 1991 when she traveled to Maine in order to legally adopt her lesbian partner, Patricia Ann Spado. This was intended to qualify Spado, her partner of many years, as an heir to Watson’s estate despite same-sex marriage not being available at the time. The two broke up the following year, however, which got really tricky in 2004 when Spado stepped forward to claim her piece of Olive’s mother’s estate upon her death. By that point, Olive was living in Miami with her current partner and their two adopted children.


Halina Avery (b. 1969)

Avery Denison heiress and opera singer Halina Avery had a very public divorce proceeding with her partner of 15 years, Molly Caldwell, in 2006. The two had meet in college and although same-sex marriage wasn’t legal, they did “everything but” to cement their union. But after Caldwell kissed another woman in a bar, Avery kicked her out and took legal action to ensure Caldwell was not allowed in their co-op or on her life insurance policy. Caldwell counter-sued for spousal support. It was a whole thing. Halina is now married to Kim Stead and they have a daughter, Halina Anne Avery-Stead. She serves on the board of the Dunfee Foundation, which launched a Gay and Lesbian Fund in 2002.


Casey Johnson (1977-2010)

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Johnson died tragically in 2009 at the age of 32, about a month after we interviewed her and her then-girlfriend Tila Tequila for this website. The Johnson & Johnson heiress was a noted socialite and passionate partier. Diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at the age of eight, she co-authored a book about managing diabetes with her father and was involved with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. After an intense and dramatic relationship with fellow heiress Courtenay Semel in 2008-2009, Johnson began dating Semel’s ex, Tila Tequila. Her family, frustrated at Johnson’s refusal to pursue mental health treatment (Johnson had been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder), cut her off about a month before she died of diabetic ketoacidosis, a result of not taking her insulin.


Courtenay Semel (b. 1979)

photo by Robin Roemer (cropped by me)

from a photograph by Robin Roemer

The daughter of former Yahoo! chairman and CEO Terry Semel, Courtenay has, in the words of The Frisky, “seen more millionaire cooch than a Beverly Hills gyno.” She appeared in a few movies and did reality television, was famously linked to Lindsay Lohan prior to Lohan’s relationship with Samantha Ronson, followed by a relationship with Casey Johnson and then Tila Tequila. The self-declared “Don Juan of the Lesbian world” was all over the gossip mags for a time, before taking four years out of the spotlight to attend rehab and get a master’s degree. According to her current Twitter bio, these days Semel is doing the following: “Writer. Producer. Startup Founder. LGBT Advocate. M.A Clinical Psychology, (MFTI, CCP) My Mission: Heal the world, one Teen at a time.”


Gigi Chao (b. 1979)

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The daughter of Hong Kong real estate tycoon Cecil Chao found herself thrust in the spotlight in 2012 when her father offered $65 million to any male suitor who’d marry his daughter and then upped the bounty to $80 million in 2014. Gigi had married Sean Eav, her partner of nine years, in France in 2012. Gigi responded to her father’s offer with an open letter to her father in the press, quickly becoming a hypervisible role model to other lesbian and bisexual women. She is the founder of the Faith in Love Foundation.


Christina Wyley (b. late 70s/early 80s)

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Christina’s father, Sam, is the Dallas-based co-founder of Sterling Software and a major Republican donor — although it appears things have taken a turn for him financially in recent years. Christina got some press following her lavish 2013 wedding to Deborah Dyer (stage name: Skin, of Skunk Anansie), which left the couple suing the venue for a series of unexpected bills. The couple has since broken up. These days, Christina is working as an independent sustainability strategist with a focus on food and agriculture and appears to be dating or married to or taking a lot of loving instagram pictures with a man.


Megan Ellison (b. 1986)

"American Hustle" New York Screening

Ellison’s father is Larry Ellison, chairman of the Oracle Corporation. She began her career as a producer after seeing lesbian classic Loving Annabelle and reaching out to its director, Katherine Brooks, about investing in her next movie. Ellison founded Annapurna Pictures in 2011 to invest in “original, daring movies made by prestigious directors and screenwriters.” Noted releases include Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, Spike Jonze’s Her and David O. Russell’s American Hustle. In 2014, she was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by TIME Magazine and became the first woman to be nominated for two Best Picture Oscars in the same year.


Nats Getty (b. 1993)

Nats Getty photographed by Molly Adams for Curve Magazine via DapperQ

Nats Getty photographed by Molly Adams for Curve Magazine via DapperQ

Getty Oil heiress Nats Getty is an LGBT advocate, model and fashion designer and the founder of clothing and lifestyle brand Strike Oil. She inspired this post as it was recently revealed that Getty is dating transgender YouTube celebrity Gigi Gorgeous, who came out as a lesbian on her channel this week.

Riese is a Jewish lesbian and the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," 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. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2606 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. I have one for you born during the “big gap”: Louise Crane (1913-1997). I came across her while reading everything about the poet Elizabeth Bishop, they were together for a while and even bought a house in Key West. Allegedly she had an affair with Billie Holiday.
    There’s a wiki article about her but not much else. If someone’s interested I can see what I can find about her in my EB collection (eg. letteres, biography).

  2. Just caught this: Casey Johnson (1977-2010) died in 2009? I think you mean she died 2010?

    Really interesting article! Loved every word of it. I need a part where you tell us which one of these ladies are single and looking for someone just like myself?

  3. i am pretty much obsessed with the lives of natalie barney and romaine brooks, the latter of whom was able to paint lesbians in formal portraits to her heart’s content because she didn’t have to sell her art to make money. if anyone happens to be in Washington DC you should go see the rare major exhibition her work that’s on until early October sometime at the Smithsonian American art museum!! i may or may not have made a trip from Australia primarily to see it ahem

    • You should!! The gallery text actually acknowledged that she and most of her sitters were lesbian which was SUPER VALIDATING. And they have Peter: A Young English Girl (a portrait of Gluck, a (probably) non-binary heir(/ess))! Also you’ve probably read/heard of it, but Cassandra Langer’s Romaine Brooks: A Life is a great biography. Apparently Brooks, Barney, and Elisabeth “Lily” de Gramont (another lesbian heiress, BTW) were basically in a committed poly triad relationship (plus they all had other side relationships).

      • yup, it was also super validating to see the Gluck portrait used in a lot of promo materials and street posters! to wit: https://www.instagram.com/p/BG8ClcmFSNV/ a little bit mind-blowing for me.

        and yes that biography is pretty great! provides a more modern approach to the context around their anti-semitic/fascist-sympathising reputations which are either used to demonise them or completely glossed over.

  4. Okay after clicking on Nats Getty’s Instagram, now I wish they had Instagram in the 1800s & 1900s so I could look at every single one of these ladies’ Instagram feeds. Can you imagine?? So much drama. So many parties. So many sappy #wcw posts.

  5. I mean if I found an heiress to love I could follow my dream of teaching a preschool classroom full of two year-olds and actually afford rent, also

    (My needs are simple and few, and yet totally out of my reach)

    (#paypreschoolteachersalivingwage)

    (#totallyofftopic)

  6. You forgot Lexa Kom Trikru. Granted, probably had a barter system but being commander of the 12 clans has to get you all kind of perks. Not many people get to kick mouthy insubordinates of off high rises or declare war, you know

  7. May I suggest three more names for consideration. All three are Irish by birth.

    Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Buttler. Eloped together and became “The Ladies of Llangollan” and if you are ever in the area their house, Plas Newydd (“New House”) is now a museum dedicated to them. Among their friends was the Duke of Wellington. Elizabeth Mavor’s book about them is well worth reading despite her somewhat futile attempt to deny lesbianism. I mean they shared a bed in a huge house!

    Eva Gore-Booth, now this is a favourite. She left her Irish Protestant landed, if unusually humane, family to live with Esther Roper in Moss Side, Manchester.Think leaving the Hamptons to live with your GF in Compton. From there she became an organiser for women’s suffrage among the trade unions in the North West of England. Her sister was a supporter of the IRA who became the first women elected to the UK Parliament. The biography “Eva Gore Booth: an Image of Such Politics” by Sonja Tiernan is well worth your time.

  8. I really liked this post! I’m sorry to be this person, but Natalie Barney was pro-Mussolini and pro-Hitler and wrote a lot of anti-Semitic stuff, so it’s kind of jarring to see her being tossed approvingly into a fun list without any mention of that. I don’t want to change the list, I like it, but maybe next a sentence like, “Also, she was a fan of Mussolini and Hitler, which is too bad.”
    Thanks 🙂

    • yes, very valid point. i think it’s important to acknowledge these things although they also were a part of the context of the time, not to mention that these people were the 1% of their time and likely inclined to be politically conservative. i wrestle a bit with the politics of being interested in complicated, sometimes terrible people.

    • Thanks for the Alice DeLamar shout-out – an interesting woman, a fascinating mysterious backstory and nice to see her getting some print. Check out my blog The Manuscript Hunter…I’m on a quest.

  9. So this list is kinda old, but I thought I’d add Belle W. Baruch, the daughter of a Wall Street guy from the early 1900s who did cool stuff with wildlife conservation on her family’s estate in South Carolina. She was pretty badass and bisexual (possibly lesbian, it’s been a while since I read about her) and I think she’d be perfect for a list like this.

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