Deeper Cut: Elsa Gidlow & Les Mouches Fantastiques

I had to admit that although I might appear boyish, there was nothing masculine about me. I never had wanted to be male, only to be free to do things men could do. Now I know there have been not a few women who dared the male masquerade to achieve the freedom they were denied, many succeeding lifelong, but they must have been more convincing. Yet I would not be defeated. I devised a bat and cast my net into nearer waters to bring to me what I might not yet go in search of.

Elsa Gidlow, ELSA: I COME WITH MY SONGS (1986), 68

Elsie Alice Gidlow was born in England in 1898, one of what would be seven children that her mother bore before 40. The family emigrated to Canada in 1904 and settled in Montreal. She was forced to leave school at 14 to help care for her siblings, and by 15 the intelligent and literature-minded Elsie had entered the workforce. In her autobiography, she would label this chapter of her life “The Outsider.” She sought independence, from her family, from her dreary day job doing shipping advices, from the church that demanded she give her life over to marriage and babies—and freedom to write poetry and to find love. Gidlow already knew she was a lesbian as a teenager, she just didn’t have anyone to explore those feelings with.

A couple years later, Elsie A. Gidlow became involved with amateur journalism:

In the late autumn of 1917, a letter appeared in the people’s column of The Montreal Daily Star. It inquired if any organization of writers and artists existed in the city which a person might join. There was no reply, but a little more than a week later a second letter appeared responding to the first. It stated that a group of writers was being formede and suggested that the inquirer and any others interested should “communicate with the undersigned” at the address given.

Both letters were written by this lonely young woman groping toward her kind, the first under a pseudonym. Over the course of a week, I received nearly a dozen replies from individuals of both sexes asking for information about the proposed group. I invited them all to a meeting at my parents’ on an evening when Father would be away, telling Mother what I was doing.

Elsa Gidlow, ELSA: I COME WITH MY SONGS (1986), 68

Given that Gidlow’s autobiography was published about 70 years after the events in question, she may be forgiven for forgetting a few of the finer details. The letters in question actually appeared in 1916, and by 1917 she was already Second Vice-President of the United Amateur Press Association of America:

The amateur journalism movement had begun in the 19th century; individuals who wished to write and print formed clubs and groups to publish their own small magazines, not for sale but simply to share among themselves, for love of the written word. It was largely focused in the United States, but was international in scope, and relatively egalitarian with men and women both often occupying the highest positions in both local clubs and national-level organizations. Two such organization existed in 1916: the National Amateur Press Association was the largest, oldest, and most heterogenous in membership, while the United Amateur Press Association was smaller, younger, and more dedicated to artistic and intellectual literary work.

Unfortunately, in 1912 a contested election split the United Amateur Press Association into two separate organizations. According to “The Literary Decadence of E.G.” (American Amateur Jul 1920, quoted in The Fossils #329, 5), Gidlow joined amateur journalism c.1914 or 1915, and the group she joined was centered around Seattle, while the other was centered around the East Coast; among the foremost members of the East Coast faction at the time was H. P. Lovecraft, who had joined this faction in April 1914. For ease of reference the Seattle/Gidlow organization will be referred to as the United Amateur Press Association of America (UAPAA), and East Coast/Lovecraft faction the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA). For the 1915-1916 term Lovecraft was elected First Vice-President of the UAPA; he was elected President of the UAPA in 1917. His counterpart in the UAPAA would be none other than Elsie Alice Gidlow.

For all that they helmed rival factions of the United, Lovecraft and Gidlow were opposites rather than rivals: the two Uniteds had developed into similar but different groups, and many amateur journalists were members of multiple organizations. Both were very intelligent, with limited formal education but compensated for that by being autodidacts and voracious readers, with large vocabularies and strong skills in poetry and prose. Of the two, Lovecraft was either the more efficient administrator or the luckier in having good help and funding: his faction of the United produced the official organ of the group, The United Amateur, reliably during his tenure. Gidlow lacked an Official Editor during her term, and the UAPAA lacked an OE during 1918 as well, which makes “official” activities of the UAPAA difficult to trace during this period.

What Gidlow did produce was Les Mouches Fantastiques.

Inspired by a group in New York who published their own newspapers and magazines and were known as the Amateur Press Association, I spoke to Roswell about doing the same. “We are not exactly amateurs,” he said, “I’m paid for my work on The Star and am considered a pro. You have been paid for your stuff in the Bookman and other rags. Why not? We could bring out a mimeographed paper for the fun of it.” […] We formed a group, myself named president, and planned a publication. Roswell and I were the co-editors. Someone knew of a mimeograph machine we must use that produced somewhat smudgy looking, glaring purple type.

My recollection is that much of the matter was also purple. We were by intention iconoclastic, mocking hypocrisies and smugness. Our first few issues were named Coal from Hades. Later, at Roswell’s instigation, we changed the name to Les Mouches Fantastiques (The Fantastic Flies). About half the material was written by Roswell and me. Besides our poetry, he contributed translations from Verlaine, articles on “the intermediate sex,” and one-act plays sympathetically presenting love between young men. My poetry was obviously addressed to women. My editorials satirized what I saw as society’s stupidities and injustices and the wrongness of the war. The hundred or so copies went locally to our friends and the amateur journalists (“AJ’ers”) in various parts of the U.S.

Elsa Gidlow, ELSA: I COME WITH MY SONGS (1986), 82-83

Roswell George Mills was a Candian poet, journalist, and outspoken homosexual; he quickly became Gidlow’s friend and partner in Les Mouches Fantastiques, and through their bohemian, convention-defying journal they came into contact with other LGBTQ+ folks in the amateur journalism movement—including F. Graeme Davis, an Episcopal priest who also happened to be Offical Editor of the National Amateur Press Association during the 1917-1918 term and NAPA president during the 1918-1919 term. Gidlow claimed that Davis was homosexual, and carried on a brief but intense affair with Mills in Montreal; Davis certainly was full of praise for Les Mouches Fantastiques, Gidlow, and Mills…and it was through his efforts that Lovecraft, Gidlow, and Mills joined the NAPA, while simultaneously being members of their respective United factions.

Despite Gidlow’s recollection that “we formed a group,” the reality must have been more complex than that. She had obviously been a member of the UAPAA for some years before she became President, and she submitted work for other amateur journals which were duly published. Tracing her amateur journalism career is difficult: given both the low print run, the non-U.S. source, and the nature of amateur journalist publications, it is understandable that very few copies of Les Mouches Fantastiques survive in university collections or archives to this day. Other amateur journals are likewise rare, and the contents poorly indexed.

Yet we know that she did make a name for herself in amateur circles, and that her work was read, because Lovecraft commented on it:

The esthetic Elsa Gidlow’s outburst could undoubtedly be a great deal worse, as free verse is reckoned. Of the “two lovers that woo her unceasingly”, I advise her to choose oblivion That is the best way for all vers-libristes. Her colleague, Rossy George, tangles himself all up in some words & phrases, in which a trace of metre is observable. His spasms, however, are less definite in thought (if, indeed, there be any definiteness in imagistical chaos!) & less meritorious altogether.

H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 5 May 1918, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 111

Lovecraft here refers to Gidlow’s poem “The Two Lovers” and Mills’ poem “Once,” which appeared in W. Paul Cook’s amateur journal The Vagrant #7 (Jun 1918). The comments are less directed at the content of the work than the form; Lovecraft was then a noted “metrical mechanic” and an opponent of “free verse” who thought poetry ought to rhyme. Nor was Lovecraft the only one who took exception to Gidlow’s poetry; his close friend Alfred Galpin conceived and wrote a parody, which was published in Lovecraft’s amateur journal The Conservative vol. 4, no. 1 (Jul 1918):

Two Lovers

I have two lovers who woo me unceasingly:
One is very beautiful;
His countenance is as the face of a god, and radiates a light that is intoxicating;
Through his transparent skin I can see the warm blood leaping in his veins;
The even beat of his pulse is as the restless tide of a thousand oceans;
But he is very fickle.
I know that he would love me well, but only for a little while.
Yes, he is very fickle.
He is as a little yellow bee that draws the warm honey from flowers, then passes on his way;
He is as a seducer that robs young maidens of their sweetnesses, and then mocks at them;
He is as a radiant morning sun-cloud that swallows the little lingering pale stars;
Yes, he is very beautiful and desirable, but he is very cruel.

The other is not fair or lovely:
He has long fingers with nails that are pointed and tipped with purple,
And his hair that flows free is iron grey and very lank;
There are little grooved wrinkles in his brow that make him seem very old;
But his eyes are young.
They are as the eyes of a child that looks upon suffering innocently, not comprehending,
And yet they are so compassionate;
I love his eyes because they are so compassionate.
His soul is very beautiful: It is a pool of light that is depthless; (I should like to bathe in that pool).

I think that he is constant.
He would love me very deeply, and through the forever that is ageless;
Yes, he is very constant.
He would hold me in his restful arms and touch my lips with soft kisses;
He would cover my eyes, that burn hotly, with little green leaves to cool them;
He would breathe sad songs to me so sweetly they would seem happy;
Ah, he is unlovely to look upon, but his soul is very beautiful.

They are Life and Death.

I have two lovers who woo me unceasingly:
Which shall I take?
Two Loves
(After, and with apologies to, Miss Elsie Alice Gidlow in the June Vagrant)

I have two loves, who haunt me unceasingly.
Which shall I choose?

One is ugly to men’s sight, and arouses repulsion in them;
Not so to me; for I know the true heart within.
Yes, he is ugly and repulsive to many—
His robust mien and his plebeian companions dishonour him.
But they are as he:
For his heart is as pure gold, the gold
Scorned in sham by the would-be poetic, but ever true and useful.

He is constant, and I could love him forever;
Yea, with dishnour stamped on his brow by the mob, I yet do love him.
For his heart is as the heart of a thrifty and comely woman sought by all of thought.

He hath a hard skin, and is difficult of acquaintance;
But to him who searcheth beneath, he is a rich mine of delicious treasure.

In my sensuous dreams I behold him, and long for him;
When all the world is heartless and I am weary of it,
Then do I long for him.

The other I would shun; for he is traitorously fair and beauteous:
But he draws me to him inevitably, as the raft through many streams to the ocean.

His soul burneth as the hot torrents that prompt love—
Ever youthful and daring in heart, but changing ere ultimately carefree;
Inspiring hesitant fear at a distance, but enticing and ever victorious.

He is not constant,
Except as he forceth me to everlasting constancy;
For he is exacting.
He draws me to him and I drink of his luscious beauty—
But O the aftermath! The satient afterwhile!

He would destroy me;
He has become a part of my soul, and meaneth my ruin;
And yet I should die without him.

His beauty sparkles, and is given fastidious care. His speech flows swiftly and fluently, and is the language of all who are subject to his sway.
Yea, him I long for passionately, and the other is only a comfort.

I have two loves who woo me unceasingly:
One is bologna and the other Scotch Whiskey:
Which shall I take?
Elsie Alice Gidlow
The Fossil #329, 16
Alfred Galpin (as by “Consul Hasting”)
Letters to Alfred Galpin and Others 402

Lovecraft had initially submitted this parody to W. Paul Cook for The Vagrant, but Cook refused it for unknown reasons. Such games were far from uncommon in amateur journals, and Lovecraft would try his own hand at such poetic mockery, such as “Cindy: Scrub-Lady in a State Street Skyscraper” (1920). Lovecraft was amused:

The general reception of your “Two Loves” is most gratifying to me, both as an endorsement of my own opinion and otherwise. I cannot suggest just the professional magazine for it, but Mo’s suggestion will undoubtedly be satisfactory. […] The Association must not be denied the privilege of seeing it, after having endured the original. Did I tell you that Miss Gidlow is President of the rival “United” Amateur Press Association which split off from ours in 1912? It is a peurile thing, with very easy literary standards. Some idea of its calibre may be gainedby noting the opinion of the majority of its members regarding the weird & wondrous work of the Mills-Gidlow duet. They call it “very highbrow”!! At least, this is what Cook informs me, & his acquaintance with this circle is fairly representative.

H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 27 May 1918, Letters to Alfred Galpin and Others 193

This is the first mention of Gidlow or Mills in Lovecraft’s letters. Cook was apparently a recipient of an issue or two of Les Mouches Fantastiques, who in turn passed it on to Lovecraft (LAGO 215). The same issue of The Conservative which contained Galpin’s parody “Two Loves” also contains Lovecraft’s review Gidlow & Mills’ LGBTQ-heavy amateur journal, which reads in part:

The reader may, up to date, unearth nothing save a concentrated series of more or les sprimitive and wholly unintellectual sense-impressions; instinct, form, colour, odour, and the like, grouped in all the artistic chaos characteristic of the late Oscar Wilde of none too fragrant memory. Much of this matter is, as might be expected, in execrable taste. Now is this Life? […]

It seems to The Conservative that Miss Gidlow and Mr. Mills, instead of being divinely endowed sers in sole possession of all Life’s truths, are a pair of rather youthful persons suffring from a sadly distorted philosophical perspective. Instead of seeing Life in its entirety, they see but one tiny phase, which they mistake for the whole. What worlds of beauty—pure Uranian beauty—are utterly denied them on account of their bondage to the lower regions of the senses! It is almost pitiful to hear superficial allusions to “Truth” from the lips of those whose eyes are sealed to the Intellectual Absolute; who knows not the upper altitudes of pure though, in which empirical forms and material aspects are nothing.

The editors of Les Mouches complain very bitterly of the inartistic quality of amateur journalism; a complaint half just and half otherwise. The very nature of our institution necessitates a modicum of crudity, but if Miss Gidlow and Mr. Mills were more analytical, they could see beauty in much which appears ugly to their rather astigmatic vision.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Les Mouches Fantastiques,” Collected Essays 1.204

There is a bit of a pot-calling-the-kettle black here: Gidlow was only eight years younger than Lovecraft himself, who was not yet 28 at the time and had only emerged into amateur journalism four years previously. Lovecraft did not sign this editorial, but was taking on the rhetorical persona of the old and cynical Conservative of the title of his amateur journalism, even though he and Gidlow were pretty comparable on that score. It is doubtful Lovecraft missed the content of the issue: the reference to Oscar Wilde, who had been jailed for homosexuality in 1895, is a little too pointed. The reference to “Uranian” beauty does not appear to be a reference to the sexological term for homosexuality per se, or to the pedophilic Uranian poets, but the older Classical reference that underlies it: the love of spiritual beauty that supersedes love of physical beauty. It is also possible that Lovecraft used the term without understanding its different possible meanings in the context of homosexual subject matter.

Unfortunately, while Lovecraft’s letters and amateur journal writings have been saved and published; we don’t have Gidlow or Mills’ take on this critique, at least not directly. They could easily have seen it; if W. Paul Cook could send a copy of Les Mouches Fantastiques to Lovecraft, he could easily have mailed a copy of The Conservative to Montreal. Gidlow’s autobiography does not focus much on the response to Les Mouches, aside from a correspondent in Cuba who was appreciative of the openly homosexual content, and Graeme Davis’ arrival in Montreal and his affair with Mills. Davis wrote a lengthy review of Les Mouches in his own amateur journal The Lingerer in 1919.

A total of five issues of Les Mouches would be produced from 1918 to 1920, the fifth and final being dated May 1920. Unlike earlier issues, the final issue was finely printed rather than mimeographed. It is not clear if Lovecraft saw anything more than that single 1918 issue of Les Mouches; his letters are silent on Gidlow and Mills for two years. Then, in 1920, he mentions them again:

The hedonist, following Aristippus and Gidlow-Mills, believes in seeking the wildest delights of sense, and ina accepting all the consequences both to the individual and to society. That is what he calls “living”—the poor fish! He thinks the calm and unemotional epicurean is only half alive; that he misses something in avoiding the violent alternation of emotional exaltation and depression.

H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, April 1920, Letters to Alfred Galpin 90

The attitude is identical to 1918; perhaps Lovecraft had no other prompt than that the conversation had turned to pleasure-seeking as a philosophical issue once again. Yet only the next month, the subject came up again:

As to day-dreams & Rossie George—I am afraid that the wildest of his flights is rather tame compared with what I have seen in other universes whilst asleep. He can’t even get off this one poor planet, or rise much above the animal instincts here. Carcass-worshippers like Rossie & Elsie make me so infernally sick & tired that I lack patience with them. This reminds me—I never shewed you that putrid fellow’s letter, which he wrote me last summer. I promised to do so, & will enclose it herewith. My personal comment is twofold: (a) Nobody home. (B) Throw it in the garbage pail behind the house & cover well with chloride of lime Kindly return this bit of mental & moral aberration for preservation as a horrible example in my private museum of mental pahtology.

H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 21 May 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 164

R. G. Mills’ letter to H. P. Lovecraft is not known to survive, so we can only speculate as to the contents. It seems clear from context that Lovecraft did not destroy the letter, and he seemed willing to lend it to his friend Kleiner, which argues against it having anything blatantly obscene (by 1919 U.S. mail standards), and one can’t quite imagine Mills asking for a photograph of Lovecraft so that he could daydream about him as Gidlow claims Mills did with Davis. It seems unlikely that Mills openly flouted his homosexuality in the letter either, as Lovecraft remarked elsewhere that “I never heard of homosexuality as an actual instinct till I was over thirty” (LJS 146), and he would only have been 28 or 29 in the summer of 1919. The most likely content would probably be simply a response or rebuttal to Lovecraft’s critique in The Conservative; but perhaps there was something more. Lovecraft would go on to write:

Some persons shrink from a fellow like Rossie Mills when young because they deem him an unique & leprous abnormality; yet tolerate him in later years because they lean that most mortals share his foulness. I shrank from such in youth merely because I disliked them & was not like them. And in later life I still shrank from them, for exactly the same reason. I am the same & they are the same—& it does not matter to me that their qualities are more widely diffused than I had fancied.

H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 11 Jun 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 167

There are two possibilities here: either Lovecraft was (despite his later letter) aware that Mills was homosexual and this is simply homophobia, or Lovecraft was not aware Mills was homosexual and this is some other prejudice. While we can’t know for absolute certain which it was, there may be a clue in Lovecraft’s other letters and Gidlow’s autobiography. In a later letter Lovecraft recalled meeting Gordon Hatfield in 1922:

Have you seen that precious sissy Gordon Hatfield that I met in Cleveland? […] When I saw that marcelled what is it I didn’t know whether to kiss it or kill it! It used to sit cross-legged on the floor at Elgin’s and gaze soulfully upward. It didn’t like me and Galpin—too horrid, rough and mannish for it!

H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 8 Jan 1923, Letters to James F. Morton 63

LGBTQ+ folks in the 1920s faced not only legal and social discrimination but genuine violence for nonconformance with expected gender roles and behavior, or even suspected homosexual behavior. While Lovecraft did not engage in such violence, he was clearly aware of the social implications and was reacting as he thought was appropriate. It is notable that Lovecraft did not have that reaction to other homosexuals he met, such as Samuel Loveman and Hart Crane. In another letter he expands:

Another thing many nowadays overlook the fact that there are always distinctly effeminate types which are most distinctly not homosexual. I don’t know how psychology explains them, but we all know the sort of damned sissy who plays with girls & seems to dislike boys, & who—when he grows up—is a chronic “cake-eater”, hanging around girls, doting on dances, acquriing certain feminine mannerisms, intonations & tastes, & yet never having even the slightest perversion of erotic inclinations.

H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 14 Aug 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 146

In her autobiography, Gidlow writes that Roswell George Mills was “ambiguously beautiful” and when not at work “delicately made up and elegantly dressed, wearing exotic jewelry and as colorful clothes as he dared” (ELSA 74). While Lovecraft never met Mills in person, if he did get the impression from the letter received that Mills was a “sissy”—for example, if it was sent on perfumed stationery—that might be enough to satisfy the “putrid” comment.

Lovecraft’s thoughts on homosexuality, gender conformity, and early-20th century crises of masculinity aside, Elsie Alice Gidlow was not idle. In 1920 shortly after her 21st birthday she immigrated from Montreal to New York City, much as Lovecraft himself would do a few years later, away from her parents and her old life. The transition was marked by a change in name: Elsie became Elsa, which had been an occasional byline. While no longer president of the UAPAA (and the cessation of Les Mouches Fantastiques may have been due in part to her precarious finances at the time), she was still involved with amateur journalism…and as it happened, both Gidlow and Lovecraft were members of NAPA, reading and submitting to some of the same amateur journals.

In the United Amateur vo. 19, no. 5 (May 1920), an unsigned editorial “The Pseudo-United” records an attempt to recruit members of the UAPAA for the UAPA—particularly a branch of the UAPAA that had set up in Flatbush in Brooklyn—but the effort was rebuffed. While Gidlow isn’t named, and there is no clear indication she was involved, if she was still involved in the UAPAA while in New York, her word as former president might have carried some weight. The article, right down to the name, echoes some of the sentiments in a previous piece (“The Other United,” United Amateur vol. 16, no. 9, Jul 1917) that ran during Gidlow’s presidency of the UAPAA.

That she was still involved in amateur journalism is clear because she published an essay “Life for Life’s Sake” in The Wolverine (Oct 1920); the same amateur journal which would publish Lovecraft’s “The Street” (Dec 1920), “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (Mar 1921), and “The Nameless City” (Nov 1921). Gidlow’s essay begins:

Now that all the gods are cast down, now that they, products of the golden dust of human imagination that they were, are indistinguishable from the dust of the dead things that they mix with, now that they have become altogether disintegrated, so many are asking, What of us, what of the universe? What of life, to what purpose everything? Truly the first new blankness that comes after one’s exchange of Gods and Eternities for Nothingness is very crushing, devitalizingly deadening, and the resultant persisting thot is, This is life, then death; a flash of rainbow, then endless, cold grey; a light, then no light, something─nothing…middle distance thot. There are also the extremes: extreme nearness and the furthermost distance, and with these two the thot is the same, that thot being─what but Life for Life’s sake?

Elsa Gidlow, reprinted in The Fossil #329, 31

Lovecraft would respond directly to Gidlow with an answering essay: “Life for Humanity’s Sake” (American Amateur Sep 1920), which runs in part:

Miss Gidlow has discovered the fact that there is no vast supernatural intelligence governing the cosmos—a thing Democritus could have told her several centuries B.C.—and is amazingly distrubed thereat. Without stopping to consider the possibility of acquiescence in a purposeless, mechanical universe, she at once strives to invent a substittue for the mythology she has cast aside; and preaches a new and surprising discovery the ancient selfish hedonism whose folly was manifest before the death of its founder Aristippus. There is something both amusing and pathetic about the promulgation of hedonism in this complex age of human interdependence.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Life for Humanity’s Sake,” Collected Essays 5.45

This response was aimed not just at Gidlow, but also at fellow amateur and Lovecraft correspondent Maurice W. Moe who had likewise responded to Gidlow’s piece, which evidently dealt with the consideration of ethics once religion has been repudiated. While Lovecraft points out what he feels are flaws in both their arguments equally, his tone is patronizing…and Gidlow had perhaps been patronized once too often by amateur journalists. She at last responded with “The Literary Decadence of E.G.”, which reads in part:

There is Mr. Goodenough with his rhymed very-moral maxims; Mr. Lovecraft with his morbid imitations of artists he seems not even able to understand; Mr. Ward Phillips who admires Poe wisely and far too well, since he mimics him so laboriously; and a host of others, male and female, who apart from having no new word to speak, cannot write three consecutive rhymed verses in even metre, although they raise their voices tontinuously and wildly against “modern” poetry and that in their opinion heretical expression of a perverted intellect, vers libre.

This opinion, in the main, applies to the N.A.P.A. The “United” displays more youth and spirit but less, if possible, literary ability, its A.J.’s being mostly filled with slangy recruiting propaganda or banal opinions on President Wilson’s or somebody else’s attitude under such and such circumstances. The contributors to these journals also run to imitative verse.

The possibilities of Amateur Journalism are limitless. That I have always believed. But its development is retarded by the majority of its members’ too-obvious limitations.

Elsa Gidlow, reprinted in The Fossil #329, 34

“Ward Phillips” was one of Lovecraft’s pseudonyms. Amateur journalists, including Lovecraft, responded:

In the July American Amateur, the precocious Miss Elsie (alias Elsa) A. Gidlow of Les Mouches fame refers with admirable courtesy to “Mr. Lovecraft with his morid imitations of artists he seems not even able to understand”. Possibly Mistress Elsie-Elsa would prefer that the amateurs follower her own example, and perpetrate morbid imitations of morbid artists whom nobody outside the asylum is able to understand.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Lucubrations Lovecraftian,” United Co-Operative vol. 1, no. 3 (Apr 1921),
Collected Essays 1.284

Miss Gidlow mentions Mr. Lovecraft. I confess I’ve tried manfully to read his poetry and have gone to sleep over it. Yet I have read his few stories with genuine pleasure. I recall that one night I let the moon shine in my eyes because I was afraid to get up and pull down the shade after reading one of his stories, “Dagon” I think it was. No doubt other readers would toss it aside and remark that they could do better than that. Perhaps they could and perhaps some of them tried.

Pearl K. Merritt, “Amateur Journalism is Not Futile” in American Amateur Sep 1920, reprinted in The Fossil #329, 34-35

Lovecraft had begun to publish more fiction in the amateur press, including “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (The Vagrant, May 1920), and Gidlow’s comment seems aimed at those early works. His response is a bit juvenile, amounting to little more than “I’m rubber and you’re glue.” It isn’t known if Gidlow read their replies.

Gidlow left amateur journalism by the end of 1920, though W. Paul Cook published a poem some years later in 1927. In 1923, Elsa Gidlow published On a Grey Thread, considered to be the first book of lesbian poetry published in the United States; she would travel widely, write and lecture, and cement her place in the history of LGBTQ+ literature. Her autobiography ELSA is said to be the first where the author “outs” herself as a lesbian, without a pseudonym.

Lovecraft continued his own life as well, met and married Sonia H. Greene. Their tumultuous marriage would coincide with Greene holding the UAPA presidency for two terms, 1923-1924 and 1924-1925, with Lovecraft as Official Editor. Despite his best efforts, without his leadership recruitment stalled and the UAPA became moribund around 1926; the UAPAA continued on, and Lovecraft’s later dealings with amateur journalism in the 1930s exclusively involve the National Amateur Press Association.

While Lovecraft’s interaction with Elsa Gidlow, R. G. Mills, and Les Mouches Fantastiques was slight, the encounters stuck with him and cropped up in a few of his later writings. In a later issue of The Conservative (#12, Mar 1923) he would recall them in an editorial:

Shall we remain comfortably cloistered with out Milton and Wordsworth, never again to know the amusing buzzing of such quaint irritants as Les Mouches Fantastiques?

H. P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays 2.64

The same year, while Lovecraft was serving as interim president of NAPA for the remainder of the 1922-1923 term, his tone is a bit different:

Intelligent controversy will shortly receive a stimulus from the appearance in our microcosm of Mr. H. A. Joslen, the first thorough “young modern” we have had since the Gidlow-Mills days.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “President’s Message”, National Amateur #45 (May 1923),
Collected Essays 1.334

Mr. H. A. Joslen’s Gipsy [sic] is an unique and by no means unwelcome addition to amateur journalism, supplying the place of the long-departed Les Mouches Fantastiques.
—H. P. Lovecraft, The Conservative #13 (Jul 1923), Collected Essays 1.343

This does not appear to be Lovecraft giving any kind of backhanded compliment to Joslen or his amateur journal Gypsy, as elsewhere Lovecraft spoke approvingly of Joslen’s youth, energy, and determination to maintain a high literary quality in his amateur journal. While Lovecraft as a metrical mechanic was averse to free verse, and his cosmic philosophy would have been at odds with any philosophy that devolved to overwhelming preoccupation with physical pleasure—he never complained of the overall quality of Les Mouches Fantastiques‘ production, nor accused it of being of low literary quality. Perhaps he did have a sneaky respect for Gidlow & Mills and their skill and efforts, even if he disagreed with the specific content.

The last mention in Lovecraft’s published letters involved the contents of an old issue of The Recluse (Oct 1919), as part of a list of notable contents of that amateur journal:

Furthermore—an exotic Chinese piece called “Tea Flowers” (based on Wilde & suggesting Lesbianism) by Roswell George Mills, & a rather powerful ghoul-poem, “The Mould-Shade Speaks” by Winifred V. Jackson. A rather bizarre issue on the whole.

H. P. Lovecraft to Robert H. Barlow, 17 Dec 1933, O Fortunate Floridian! 91-92

“Tea Flowers” was a play dedicated to “Sappho,” which was Mills’ nickname for Gidlow. Probably, Lovecraft never knew that his young friend R. H. Barlow was homosexual—and perhaps wasn’t aware that in this off-hand mention, he provided a clue that there were more folk like him involved in amateur journalism, or at least those who dared to write on themes like Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name.”

It was probably Lovecraft’s first encounter with a lesbian; possibly the only one we have any verifiable record of. If that is the case it’s not clear if Lovecraft was even aware of it. His critiques of Les Mouches Fantastiques show he was not totally unaware of such things, but whether he recognized or knew of such matters at that early date, or simply glossed it all as Decadent literature is unclear.

The whole affair is little more than a footnote in the lives of writers that have gone on to be remembered for other things: Lovecraft for his weird fiction, Gidlow for her poetry and autobiography. Most of what we know about the interactions, which happened not in person but through the snail’s pace of scattered pieces published in amateur journals months apart, are from Lovecraft’s side of things—and even his biographies do not record the tiff. Nor does Gidlow mention Lovecraft in her autobiography; six or seven decades is more than enough time for emotions to fade and memories to grow dim. Yet they did play a role in one another’s story…and that story was entwined, informed, and shadowed by the growing awareness of and discrimination applied to LGBTQ+ folks.

For more on Elsa Gidlow, Lovecraft, and amateur journalism please check out:

  • “Lavender Ajays of the Red Scare Period: 1917-1920” by Ken Faig, Jr., in The Fossil #329.
  • Gidlow’s ajay poems and materials related to the history of the United Amateur Press Association, Gidlow’s presidency, and possible early amateur journalism activities are reprinted in The Fossil #332 and #334.
  • “The Lovecraft-Gidlow Centenary” by Ken Faig, Jr. in Lovecraftian People and Places (2022).

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

One thought on “Deeper Cut: Elsa Gidlow & Les Mouches Fantastiques

  1. I enjoyed this essay, although I might interpret HPL’s statement “I never heard of homosexuality as an actual instinct till I was over thirty” a little differently–Lovecraft would certainly have been aware of what he refers elsewhere (in the same letter? I don’t have that volume) as “perversion of erotic inclinations” even if he were unaware of any of the current psychological taxonomy and theories of “sexual instinct.” HPL’s use of “Uranian” is probably not as a sexological term, as you say; but the term was floating around in enough places that, given his interest in the Classical world, surely he intended to evoke some of the less-exalted connotations by using it. The various references you quote by HPL to Greek philosophers and philosophical movements would be enough to convince me of that, if I didn’t already know anything about Lovecraft. Although neither Gidlow’s poem nor Galpin’s parody much resembles it, I find it hard to believe that either of them didn’t intend readers to remember Lord Alfred Douglas’s poem “Two Loves,” the original from which Oscar Wilde’s courtroom speech on “the love that dare not speak its name” originates.

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