Elsa Gidlow

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Elsa Gidlow
Elsa Gidlow 1974 by Lynda Koolish.jpg
Elsa Gidlow in 1974
Born Elfie Gidlow
(1898-12-29)29 December 1898
Hull, Yorkshire, England
Died 8 June 1986(1986-06-08) (aged 87)
Mill Valley, California, United States
Occupation Poet, author, editor, journalist, political activist, philosopher
Citizenship American
Education Self-educated[1]:104
Period 1917–1986
Genre Love poetry, essays, autobiography
Subject Love, beauty, politics, protest, mysticism, nature
Literary movement Lesbian literature
Feminist literature
Notable works On A Grey Thread (1923)
Elsa, I Come with My Songs (1986)
Partner Isabel Grenfell Quallo (1945–1964)
"Tommy" Violet Henry-Anderson (1924–1935†)
Muriel Symington (1922)
Relatives Thea (sister)

Elfie Gidlow (29 December 1898 – 8 June 1986) was a British-born, Canadian-American poet, freelance journalist, and philosopher. She is best known for writing On A Grey Thread (1923), possibly the first volume of openly lesbian love poetry published in North America.[2] In the 1950s, Gidlow helped found Druid Heights, a bohemian community in Marin County, California.[3] She was the author of thirteen books and appeared as herself in the documentary film, Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977).[4][5] Completed just before her death, her book Elsa, I Come with My Songs (1986), became the first published lesbian autobiography.[6]

Life and work[edit]

Elsa Gidlow was born Elfie Gidlow on 29 December 1898 in Hull, Yorkshire, England.[7] Sometime around 1904, the Gidlow family emigrated to Tétreaultville, Quebec, Canada. At the age of fifteen, Elsa and her family moved to Montreal. She was first employed by a contact of her father's in Montreal, a factory doctor, as assistant editor to Factory Facts, an in-house magazine.[8] In 1917, she began seeking out fellow writers and meeting with them, particularly in the field of amateur journalism, which was popular at the time. With collaborator Roswell George Mills, Gidlow published Les Mouches Fantastiques, one of the first gay magazines in Canada. H. P. Lovecraft, a fellow amateur journalist, attacked their work, leading Gidlow to defend it and attack back in return; the dispute created a minor controversy but brought Gidlow and Mills public, albeit negative attention.[9]

She moved to New York in 1920 at the age of 21. There she was employed by Frank Harris of Pearson's, a magazine supportive of poets and unsympathetic to the war and England.[10] It was at this time she met Kenneth Rexroth, later known as the "father" of the San Francisco Renaissance. Later, in 1926, she moved to San Francisco, and continued to live, write and love in the San Francisco Bay Area for the rest of her life. In the 1940s, she lived in Fairfax, California, where in 1944 she became a home owner, active in local politics.[11] Due to her membership in political and writers' groups allegedly affiliated with communists, she was suspected of being "Un-American" and was subsequently investigated, subpoenaed and forced to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947. HUAC's final report accused her of being affiliated with communist front organizations.[12] However, as a philosophical anarchist Gidlow was ideologically opposed to communism, and she denied the accusation.[11] Patricia Holt of the San Francisco Chronicle writes:

It amused Gidlow that such "radical" ideas set her up for a witch hunt in Fairfax, where she had moved in her 40s. [Their] charges that Gidlow was a "red," as Stanton Delaplane reported in The Chronicle, were "Washed Pink at Fairfax Hearings." But Gidlow, who lived with a woman of African descent and often made dinner for the Chans from San Francisco, was later accused of "living with a colored woman and frequently entertaining Chinese people . . . This was damning evidence that I could not be a loyal American."[4]

Perhaps seeking solitude, she left her first home, Madrona, and the garden she had so lovingly tended for ten years there and, in 1954, purchased a ranch with Roger Somers and his family above Muir Woods on the southwest flank of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, California.[13] Gidlow named her portion of the mountain ranch, which included the original farmhouse, "Druid Heights", a nod to her friend, Irish poet Ella Young.[14] Gidlow and her partner Isabel Grenfell Quallo lived together for a short time at Druid Heights but family commitments called Isabel away. Also living there at one time or another were notable residents including her close friend Alan Watts, the poet Gary Snyder, furniture maker Edward Stiles and free wheeling bohemian Roger Somers. Along with Watts and his soon to be wife Mary Jane Yates, Elsa planned and then co-founded the Society for Comparative Philosophy here in 1962. This society financed many of the improvements to the property and brought many of the important visitors for whom Druid Heights is now known. Upon the death of Watts in 1973 the Society carried on, but Elsa admitted that without Alan there was a "hopelessness ." A feminist group attempted to hijack the Society in the early eighties but their efforts were thwarted by their own exclusively lesbian focus, a focus which Elsa herself never endorsed.

Elsa socialized with many famous artists, radical thinkers, mystics, and political activists at Druid Heights, including, Dizzy Gillespie, Neil Young, Tom Robbins, and Margo St. James, Alan Ginsberg, James Broughton, Baba Ram Dass, LLama Gorinda, Robert Shapiro, Maude Oakes, Robert Duncan, Clarkson Crane, Sara Bard Fields, Kenneth Rexroth, Edward Stiles, Roger Somers, Catharine MacKinnon and Maya Angelou.[4] Elsa Gidlow helped plan the funeral for her friend Alan Watts whom died here. The monks from nearby Green Gulch Monastery often came to visit and participated in a ceremony there upon Alan's death; they then buried half Alan's ashes near his library at the Heights, and brought the second half to Green Gulch Monastery in the nearby valley.

Her autobiography, Elsa, I Come with My Songs: The Autobiography of Elsa Gidlow gives a personal and detailed account of her life seeking, finding and creating a life with other lesbians at a time when little was recorded on the topic.


Towards the last years of her life, Gidlow experienced several strokes. She chose not to seek medical care in a hospital and died at home in Druid Heights at the age of 87.[15] Gidlow was cremated and her ashes were mixed with rice and buried beneath an apple tree in Druid Heights.[13]The house in which she lived and the garden which was her life's joy are now in ruins.

Selected works[edit]

  • On A Grey Thread (1923)
  • California Valley with Girls (1932)
  • From Alba Hill (1933)
  • Wild Swan Singing (1954)
  • Letters from Limbo (1956)
  • Moods of Eros (1970)
  • Makings for Meditation: Parapoems Reverent and Irreverent (1973)
  • Wise Man's Gold (1974)
  • Ask No Man Pardon: The Philosophic Significance of Being Lesbian (1975)
  • Sapphic Songs: Seventeen to Seventy (1976)
  • Sapphic Songs: Eighteen to Eighty, the Love Poetry of Elsa Gidlow (1982)
  • Elsa, I Come With My Songs: The Autobiography of Elsa Gidlow (1986)


  1. ^ Rapp, Rayna (Intro.); Gidlow, Elsa (Spring, 1980). "Memoirs". Feminist Studies. 6 (1), 103–127. (subscription required)
  2. ^ Rexroth, Kenneth (1978). "Elsa Gidlow's Sapphic Songs". American Poetry Review. 7 (1), 20. (subscription required)
  3. ^ Oldenburg, Chuck (2012). "Druid Heights". The Mill Valley Historical Society.
  4. ^ a b c Holt, Patricia (22 June 1986). "Search for the Independent Mind". San Francisco Chronicle, 1.
  5. ^ Atwell, Lee (Winter, 1978–1979). "Word Is out and Gay U. S. A." Film Quarterly. University of California Press. 32 (2), 50–57. (subscription required)
  6. ^ West, Celeste (1986). "In Memoriam: Elsa Gidlow". Feminist Studies. 12 (3), 614. (subscription required)
  7. ^ Gidlow 1986, p. 1.
  8. ^ Elsa, I Come with My Songs: The Autobiography of Elsa Gidlow (San Francisco: Druid Heights Press, 1986, p.104-106)
  9. ^ Faig, Ken. (July 2006). "Lavender Ajays of the Red-Scare Period: 1917–1920". The Fossil. 102 (4), 5–17.
  10. ^ Elsa, I Come with My Songs: The Autobiography of Elsa Gidlow (San Francisco: Druid Heights Press, 1986, p. 130.
  11. ^ a b Sapphic Songs: Eighteen to Eighty (1982)
  12. ^ California Legislature (1948). "Fairfax Investigation and Hearing. Fourth Report of the Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, 1948: Communist Front Organizations.
  13. ^ a b Davis, Erik (May 2005). "Druids and Ferries". Arthur. 16.
  14. ^ Killion, Tom; Snyder, Gary (2009). Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History, and Prints. Heyday. ISBN 9781597140973. pp. 104–105.
  15. ^ Associated Press (11 June 1986). "Poet Elsa Gidlow Dies at Age 88 [sic]". Merced Sun-Star.

Further reading[edit]

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