Elsa Gidlow was a British-born, Canadian-raised, American poet, freelance journalist, philosopher. She wrote On A Grey Thread(1923), the first volume of openly lesbian love poetry published in North America, when she was 23. In the 1950s, Gidlow helped found a bohemian community in Marin County, California. The community became known as Druid Heights, the name she had given to her land. In 1962 she, along with Alan Watts, formed the Society of Comparative Philosophy. She provided Alan a place to live and write during the last years of his life. Elsa was the author of thirteen books and appeared as herself in the documentary film, Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977). Completed just before her death, her autobiography, Elsa, I Come with My Songs (1986), recounts eight decades of her life story.
Elsa Gidlow was born Elfie Gidlow on 29 December 1898 in Hull, Yorkshire, England . Sometime around 1906, the Gidlow family emigrated to Tétreaultville, Quebec, Canada. At the age of fifteen, Gidlow 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.
In 1917, she began seeking out fellow writers and journalists. With collaborator Roswell George Mills, Gidlow published Les Mouches Fantastiques, the first gay and lesbian magazine in North America where gay and lesbian lives were celebrated. It was also adamantly anti-war, influenced by Mills and Gidlow's pacifist and anarchist viewpoints. 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 attention.
Gidlow 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. It was at this time she met Kenneth Rexroth, later known as the "father" of the San Francisco Renaissance. Later, in 1926, she sailed through the Panama Canal to San Francisco with her partner Violet (Tommy) Henry-Anderson, a Scottish golfer who was sixteen years her senior. With the exception of nearly a year spent in Europe, mostly in Paris, in 1928, she continued living in the San Francisco Bay Area for the rest of her life.
In the 1940s, she moved from San Francisco to Fairfax, California, where in 1944 she became active in local politics. 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 communists front organizations. However, as a philosophical anarchist Gidlow was ideologically opposed to communism, and she denied the accusation. 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."
Perhaps seeking solitude, Gidlow left her first home, Madrona in Fairfax, and the garden she had so lovingly tended for ten years there and, in 1954, purchased a ranch which she subsequently shared with Roger Somers and his family above Muir Woods on the southwest flank of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, California. Gidlow named her portion of the mountain ranch, which included the original farmhouse, "Druid Heights”, a nod to her friend, Irish mystic and poet Ella Young. Gidlow and her partner Isabel Grenfell Quallo (1896-1985) lived together for several years at Druid Heights, but family commitments called Isabel back to New York City. Also living at Druid Heights at one time or another were notable residents including her close friend Alan Watts, the poet Gary Snyder, furniture maker Edward Stiles, anti-pornography lawyer Catharine MacKinnon, feminist activist Margot St. James, and freewheeling bohemian Roger Somers.
Along with Watts and his wife Mary Jane (Jano) Yates, Gidlow planned and then co-founded the Society for Comparative Philosophy here in 1962. This society financed some of the improvements to the property and brought many of the important visitors and artists for whom Druid Heights is now known. Besides Alan Watts, through Elsa's largess, residents found a place to create or escape were David Wills, Catherine Mackinnon, Sunyata, John Blofeld, Hallie Iglehart-Austen and many leaders of various women's rights efforts. Druid Heights Artist Retreat (DHAR) was created after her death with a generous bequest to create retreats for women artists, although not at Druid Heights since Elsa's land had been given to Society of Comparative Philosophy. and subsequently purchased by eminent domain the National Park Service.
Gidlow socialized with many famous artists, radical thinkers, mystics, and political activists including, Ella Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Tom Robbins, Margo St. James, Allen Ginsberg, James Broughton, Baba Ram Dass, Lama Govinda, Li Gotami, Robert Shapiro, Maude Oakes, Robert Duncan, Clarkson Crane, Sara Bard Field, Kenneth Rexroth, Albert Bender, Catharine MacKinnon, June Singer, Fritjof Capra, Lou Harrison, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Robinson and Una Jeffers, Dorothy Erskine, and Maya Angelou. Some of these came to, or were frequent visitors of, Druid Heights. Gidlow helped plan the funeral for her friend Alan Watts, when he died there. The monks from nearby Green Gulch Monastery often came to visit and participated in a ceremony there upon Alan's death which included an Anglican Mass; 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.
Gidlow's autobiography, Elsa, I Come with My Songs: The Autobiography of Elsa Gidlow, published in 1986, gives a personal and detailed account of seeking, finding and creating a life with other lesbians, artists and writers. Notably, it is the first full-life lesbian autobiography. Gidlow also discussed her lifetime experience as a lesbian before the LGBT Movement in the critically acclaimed 1977 documentary feature Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, which was released theatrically and which was broadcast on many PBS stations around the United States starting in 1978.
The last month of her life, Gidlow experienced two strokes. She chose not to seek medical care in a hospital and died at home in Druid Heights at the age of 87. Elsa was surrounded by a circle of friends who cared for her during this final passage. Gidlow was cremated and her ashes were mixed with rice and buried beneath an apple tree in Druid Heights, a Buddhist ceremony led by Yvonne Rand from Green Gulch Zen Center. Parts of Druid Heights have subsequently fallen into ruin, but Gidlow's home remained intact as recently as 2012.
Gidlow's Estate donated her extensive personal papers to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco in 1991. The collection consists of 16 boxes (13 linear feet) of correspondence, journals, literary manuscripts, legal records, photographs and other materials documenting Gidlow's life, work and relationships. The papers are organized into nine series: Correspondence, Subject Files, Manuscripts, Published Works, Journals and Yearbooks, Audio-Visual and Photographs, Ephemera, Oversize Materials, and Original Documents. The collection is fully processed and available to researchers. The copyrights are held by Druid Heights Artists Retreat.
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)