Lilyan Tashman – Vanda

Lilyan Tashman

I had wanted to include Lilyan Tashman in my novel (celebrities make cameo appearances) only she died too soon (1934) for the dates that my characters live. Lilyan Tashman began as a vaudevillian in New York and appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies between 1916 and 1918.  From this, she became a Broadway actress and later a Hollywood film actress who some sources say never quite made it to what would be considered “superstar status.”  Despite this, she made sixty-six films and made an easy transition from silent films to talkies.

A Thumbnail of Lilyan

The idea that Lilyan never reached star status may have more to do with an internet rumor made real through repetition than to fact.  True, she is not a household name today, but are we the deciders of what was important to people in another era?  Mann (2001) reports that The Lilyan Tashman Fan Club of the 1930s was composed of thousands of devoted young women.  Reporters for movie magazines considered her “great copy” because during the depression she gave young women fashion advice. (Imagine a Lesbian giving fashion advice? Oh, our modern-day stereotypes!) “If you have to go without an extra hat, an extra pair of gloves, or even an extra dress, do pay more attention to yourself.  It’s the secret of poise and the very first step in smartness.”  Mann goes on to say, “Tashman played her looks and femininity for all they could get her–“a lipstick” lesbian years before the term was coined.

Lilyan’s Funeral

Maybe Lilyan didn’t reach the top of the Hollywood star list, but she lived a lavish life with her openly gay husband,  Edmund Lowe, and she definitely had her fans.  When she died an early death at age 37 from stomach cancer on March 21, 1934, 10,000 of her fans, mostly women, showed up in a frenzy of adoration (that sounds rather Dionysian)  They tore up the grounds trying to get close to her.  They pushed the famous out of their way. Stars like Fanny Brice, Jack Benny, and Mary Pickford. Eddie Cantor who gave the eulogy said, it was “the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever seen.”  Several women almost fell into the open grave. There were quite a few injuries that day  (Starr, 2006). Lilyan’s husband Edmund said, “People have said it was bad taste, irreverent.  I don’t think so.  Lilyan didn’t think so either.  It was their way of showing they cared.” (Mann, 2001)

LILYAN: Lesbian, Bi or Straight and Does It Really Matter?

The Lesbian camp

Some sources consider Lilyan a Lesbian (Mann, 2001, McClellan, 2000, Wikipedia, 12/22/13). These sources focus on the fact that her second husband was an openly gay man (not easy in those days) and that she had an affair with both Garbo and Joan Crawford.  McClellan says, “To call Lilyan a lesbian is like calling Casanova a flirt. Lilyan was a whole-hearted and highly skilled missionary for the joy of lesbian sex.”  The sources in the lesbian camp tell of Lilyan seducing women in ladies’ rooms.  You would think that this activity would have gotten her into a lot of trouble, but she had quite a few takers.  Lilyan believed that any woman would prefer sex with a woman more than with a man if she just gave it a try and she seemed to have convinced quite a few theatrical grande dames and ingenues who kept the secret.

The Bi-Sexual Camp

The most thorough source on Lilyan that I found on the net was a blog called:  Silence is Platinum.  In this blog,  Lilyan is referred to as bi-sexual.  The main reason given is that Lilyan was married to Edmund Lowe.  But Hollywood gay and lesbian “stars” often married each other.  It gave them a higher status than if they appeared at a party with only a “date.”  According to my reading these marriages were not simply “show marriages.”  These couples often developed deep friendships; they held communal property and each partner was given rights of survivorship.

The author of Silence is Platinum blog admires Lilyan for a number of reasons, but s/he is especially fond of Lilyan because she beat up an actress who she found in her openly gay husband’s dressing room.  The implication being that Lilyan held sexual feelings for Edmund that perhaps went beyond friendship. Lilyan was also known in secret circles to have been this jealous and this volatile about her girlfriends.  Garbo, supposedly, broke up with her because of Lilyan’s jealous tantrums. Mann (2001) puts a different spin on Lilyan beating up the actress in Edmund’s dressing room.  Mann thinks perhaps the woman had come for Lilyan, changed her mind and some type of altercation ensued.  He backs up his hypothesis with some plausible data.  Neither woman appeared for the hearing so the charges were dropped. (Mann, 2001)

The Straight Camp

Curiously enough a short biography of Lilyan that appeared in The Windy City Times,  a gay periodical that comes out of Chicago,  seems to imply that she was straight. This article is the only one I’ve found thus far to talk of Lilyan falling “madly in love with Edmund” (Starr, 2006) without mentioning that Edmund was gay.  This really had me perplexed until I looked a little further. This article was a syndicated column and The Windy City Times must have bought it without reading or thinking about it.

Leaving out a celebrity’s sexual orientation is not uncommon. This has been the norm for straight press and biographies up until recently. This started me thinking.  Does it matter if the sexual orientation is left out of the discussion of a celebrity? Celebrity not only includes the movie star types but what about scientists, authors, artists, and others? Is sexual orientation superfluous to an individual’s societal contribution or intricate? What do you think? I hope you’ll give your opinion in the comment section.

Lilyan is the blonde

References:  MacLennan, D. (2000). The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Mann, W.J. (2001) Behind the screen: How gays and lesbians shaped Hollywood 1910-1969. New York, Penguin Group.
Starr, S. (2006).  Starrlight: Lilyan Tashman, Windy City Times, Chicago.

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Vanda - January 21, 2014

Once again, proving that a good actor can easily play a heterosexual character (or at least a flirt). Until recently though, most actors (including gay ones) didn’t want to play gay characters for fear of being labeled.
Sent to me by Kevin Brofsky, playwright


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