In Retrospect: Legends of Mercedes
Even though lesbian celebrity is a recent phenomenon, it is quite easy to assert that there have been celebrities in the past who were lesbian, or perhaps bisexual, without encountering too much opposition. Since the early years of the lesbian and gay liberation movement, the lesbian/gay press has made repeated efforts to establish the enduring presence of lesbians in Western culture. To this end, publications devoted considerable space to profiles of such famous lesbians as Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein, and Djuna Barnes, who achieved wide recognition earlier in the century. Of course, members of the movement researched even more remote epochs in the quest for ancestral lesbians. In this spirit, the first issue of the Furies included a lengthy article on Queen Christina, the seventeenth-century Swedish monarch, an odd choice given the antielitist stance of the radical lesbian publishing collective (H. Harris 1972). More interesting yet is their choice to illustrate the article with photographs of Greta Garbo playing Christina in the 1933 Hollywood biopic but without mentioning Garbo’s underground reputation as a lesbian. Either the author and editors were unaware of this, or they decided not to contradict denials of homosexuality by the famously reclusive movie star, who was still alive. In 1972, when the article appeared, her disavowal was enough to make any attribution suspect. Today the kind of ambiguity Garbo engaged in would be chalked up to prevarication, however forgiving of this we may be. Celebrities from earlier eras are not evaluated according to our present-day standards, since we are aware that they lived and worked at a time when coming out was either not an option or “lesbian” accepted as a valid social identity.