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Guide to the Elsa Gidlow Papers, 1898-1986 (bulk dates 1920-1986)
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content
  • Related Collections
  • Materials Removed from the Collection

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Elsa Gidlow Papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1898-1986 (bulk dates 1920-1986)
    Accession number: 1991-16
    Creator: Gidlow, Elsa
    Extent: 13 linear feet in 16 boxes
    Repository: The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.
    San Francisco, California.
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information


    The Elsa Gidlow Papers (#1991-16) were donated to GLHS in 1991.


    Collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright to unpublished manuscript materials is not held by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

    Audio-Visual Materials

    The Papers contain numerous photographs and audio-tapes.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Elsa Gidlow Papers, 1991-16, The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.


    Shortly after Elsa Gidlow's death Phyllis Matyi, Elsa's friend, attorney and executrix of the Gidlow estate, issued a press release presenting a biographical summary of Elsa's life. The text of that release is printed below.
    Poet-philosopher Elsa Gidlow died peacefully in her mountain home retreat, "Druid Heights," near Muir Woods, Mill Valley, California on June 8, 1986.
    Born in Yorkshire, England in 1898, six-year-old Elsa Gidlow immigrated with her family of nine to the French Canadian village of Tetreauville. She was mainly self- educated, being allowed what she called, "the untutored space to be."
    Gidlow's editor, Celeste West of Booklegger Press, says "We always joked that Elsa was born avant garde: North American's first published writer of a lesbian poetry volume (1923); radical feminist of the "first wave;" protest-poet attacked by McCarthyites; member of San Francisco's bohemian, psychedelic, then New Age and women's spirituality circles. Elsa fought life-long against class privilege, organized religion, and sexism, while fighting for all varieties of love and beauty."
    Gidlow led the precarious career of a freelance journalist. She created a rich vein of protest and love poetry, while supporting her family and others. She also created, in the fifties, one of the renown garden-retreats of the coast redwoods. Gidlow insisted her life was her art: "We consider the artist a special sort of person. It is more likely that each of us is a special sort of artist."
    Gidlow left Montreal for New York in 1920, where she became poetry editor for Frank Harris' progressive, much censored Pearson's Magazine. She sailed to San Francisco in 1926 with her long-time companion Violet Henry-Anderson. In San Francisco, she became friends with Ansel Adams, Robinson Jeffers, Kenneth Rexroth, Lou Harrison, Ella Young, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon, Margo St. James, Clarkson Crane, Clyde Evans, and zen philosopher Alan Watts, who dedicated his autobiography to her.
    In 1962, Gidlow co-founded, with Alan and Jano Watts, the Society of Comparative Philosophy, one of the first organizations to bring eastern wisdom to the west. Of Elsa Gidlow's thirteen books, five are in print, including her recently released autobiography, ELSA: I Come With My Songs (Booklegger Press), and her luminous love poetry, Sapphic Songs: Eighteen To Eighty (Booklegger Press). The ELSA autobiography has been called "A magnificent portrait of the artist as an old woman, of the esprit libre," who wrote, "Let none speak sadly of October, / I, Elsa, from the peak of years, / Say this: I have loved all seasons."
    Elsa Gidlow is survived by her sister Thea Gidlow in Santa Rosa. Memorial donations may be made to "The Druid Height Trust for Women Artists,".....
    On a personal note, Elsa Gidlow at the age of eighteen met her first lover, Marguerite Desmarais, at a party given by a mutual friend, Roswell Mills, in Montreal. On that same occasion Elsa also encountered a married woman, Louise Estelle Cox, with whom she quickly fell in love. Elsa's infatuation with Estelle soon came to an abrupt end when she rightfully suspected Estelle was having an affair with another mutual friend, Harcourt Farmer, and possibly other men. However, both women over time became very good friends and corresponded with each other for nearly thirty-three years after Elsa's departure from Canada.
    In 1924 while living in New York City, Elsa met and informally married an older woman, Violet Henry-Anderson, who was known to friends as "Tommy." Their relationship lasted for thirteen years until Tommy's death. Their life together was interrupted on one occasion for a year while Elsa fulfilled a lifelong dream. In September 1928 she sailed for Europe to live, travel and meet other artists and writers, including Radclyffe Hall, who was residing in Paris at the time.
    Around 1945, Elsa was introduced indirectly to Isabel Grenfell Quallo at the insistence of Roswell Mills. Everthing was done by mail at first. Elsa was in California and Isabel and Roswell lived in New York City. The friendship and love relationship of these two women began with an extended period of correspondence before they finally met in San Francisco. Eventually Isabel came to live permanently at Madrona, the name Elsa gave to the residence she owned in Fairfax, California. In 1954 they moved to Elsa's new Mill Valley property, named Druid Heights, which she purchased with Roger and Mary Somers. After ten years Isabel had to return to live in New York, due to personal family problems.
    In her autobiography Elsa describes many intriguing encontures with other women over the years. In one of the final chapters, entitled "Young Moon in the Old Moon's Arms", Elsa, then in her seventies, poignantly describes her May-December relationship with Gretchen Muller, who was in her twenties. They lived together for about two years. Looking back Elsa states, "Some of my later love poems grew out of this friendship."
    An initial reading of Elsa Gidlow's autobiography, ELSA: I Come With My Songs (1986), will certainly bring her Papers into focus. Copies of this book can be found in many libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as this collection.

    Scope and Content

    The content of this collection (13 linear feet) documents Elsa Gidlow's personal life, public activity and literary accomplishments from 1920 until her death in 1986. The Papers are divided into nine series:
    Title: Correspondence,
    Title: Subject Files,
    Title: Manuscripts,
    Title: Published Works,
    Title: Journals and Yearbooks,
    Title: Audio-Visual and Photographs,
    Title: Ephemera,
    Title: Oversize Materials,
    Title: Original Documents.
    The Correspondence series contains a wide variety of letters from family, friends, lovers, literary agents, professional associates, women's organizations and admirers. The letters are arranged alphabetically by the name of the addresser.
    For easier access to the Correspondence series, a complete alphabetical listing of addressers, including cross references when necessary, is in Appendix A of this finding aid. A researcher looking for a letter from H. L. Mencken, for example, will be referred to The American Mercury. Not included in this special listing are the letters found in the last two folders, Unidentified Addressers, of this series. In the Appendix the researcher will find many cross references to Maxim Lieber, who was Elsa's literary agent. Almost all the correspondence in the series is incoming except for two folders of letters Elsa wrote Violet Henry-Anderson while traveling.
    As a special note, the Correspondence series contains a number of charming letters written to Elsa from Clarkson Crane, the author of The Western Shore (1925), which Carey McWilliams, who championed the book's republication in 1985, called "one of the three or four most important works of fiction based on the Calfornia scene." There is extensive and endearing correspondence between Violent Henry-Anderson mostly covering the period Elsa was in Europe. Violet was affectionately known as "Panther" by Elsa. There is also extensive correspondence from Isabel Grenfell Quallo - Elsa's other long-term relationship. The letters document their growing passion for each other before Isabel moved to California. The bulk of the letters are from 1945 through 1950 with no letters from 1951 through 1969 and only a smattering from 1970 through 1984.
    The Roswell Mills correspondence contains the August 8, 1946 letter where Roswell introduces and describes Isabel to Elsa for the first time and proposes they correspond with each other. Roswell was one of Elsa's most long lasting friends, having met in Canada. He introduced Elsa not only to Isabel but also "Tommy." Most of his correspondence centers on his travails in life. There is no correspondence for the years 1932 through 1946.
    In the Subject File series a good portion of the materials focus on Elsa Gidlow's Druid Heights property, The Society for Comparative Philosophy, and finally "red-baiting" in Marin County, California, in the 1940's.
    In 1970 Elsa Gidlow transferred Druid Heights by grant deed to The Society for Comparative Philosophy, reserving a life estate in the property to herself. Years later this real estate, or parts thereof, was at the center of two court actions. In an effort to acquire privately owned properties to be added to the Muir Woods National Monument, the United States Department of the Interior, in 1976, filed condemnation proceedings on a substantial portion of Druid Heights [see Druid Heights: United States of America v. 1.18 Acres ..... ], which resulted in a cash settlement of $82,500. Again in 1975, the lawyer, academic and anti-pornography activist Catherine MacKinnon brought suit against The Society for Comparative Philosophy, including Elsa Gidlow, when they attempted to terminate MacKinnon's rental of the Druid Heights circular structure known as the "Moon Temple." That case [see Druid Heights: Catherine A. MacKinnon v. The Society for Comparative Philosophy, et al. ] ended in a court ordered arbitration settlement.
    The Society for Comparative Philosophy was initially formed (in 1962) to assist Alan Watts in his research, writings and lectures on the interchange of Asian and Western philosophies. The special interests of the Society are described in it's monthly bulletins [see [The] Society for Comparative Philosophy - Bulletins, flyers and promotional materials, 1960's-70's].
    The Manuscript series contains twenty unpublished novels, unedited and edited versions of Elsa's autobiography, dozens of short stories, reams of poetry, a few dramatic works, articles, editorials, essays, memoirs, reviews and satire. Please see the folder list (starting on page 11) for a complete list of Elsa's unpublished manuscripts.
    A rare copy of Elsa's early volume of lesbian poetry, On A Grey Thread (1923), can be found in the Published Works series. In this series three consecutive folders contain much of her prose, poetry and letters appearing in various publications, dating from 1919 to 1984.
    Elsa's personal journals, written mostly between 1928 and 1945, are located in the Journal And Yearbook series. The most complete yearly journal was for 1928, followed by a much less complete coverage for 1929. From 1930 to 1945 the journal entries were not written consistently on a daily, or even weekly, basis. After 1945 to 1985, only sketchy and sporadic entries appear here and there over the years in her appointment/yearbooks.
    The Audio-Visual and Photograph series contain several recordings of Elsa's poetry reading and discussion engagements as well as personal interviews with her. These are complimented by the Photographs showcasing many excellent images of Elsa, plus numerous pictures of her family, friends, Druid Heights and pets. Please note in the Oversized Materials Series there is a large color photograph of the residents of Druid Heights in the 1970's, published with a related article printed in the March 21, 1971 issue of California Living Magazine.
    Of note in the Ephemera series is a handmade african bead necklace, business cards, and some examples of the Pacific Coast Journal of Nursing, which Elsa edited. Because of the poor quality and condition of the paper, many of the documents had to be removed from the main body of the collection and replaced with photocopies. The removed documents can now be located in the Original Documents series.

    Subjects and Indexing Terms


    Related Collections

    Title: Clarkson Crane Papers
    Identifier/Call Number: 97-46
    Title: Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin Papers
    Identifier/Call Number: 93-13
    (Especially files of the Daughters of Bilitis of which Gidlow was a member.)
    Title: Len Evans Papers
    Identifier/Call Number: 93-8
    (Especially files on McCarthyism which Gidlow was also a victim of.)
    Relevant materials may also be found in the GLHS Oral History Project Collections.

    Materials Removed from the Collection

    Photographs and Audio-tapes are located in the Photogrpah and A-V rooms at GLHS.
    Oversized materials located in GLHS oversized materials from various collections box.