Her Island History: 100 Years of Tenacious Island Women

Playwright Carolyn Gage discusses her latest project, the Lesbian History Trail of MDI, and her career writing and producing lesbian historical theatre.

lesbianhistorytrailmdi.weebly.com

Oral History Transcription:

Carolyn Gage

Southwest Harbor
Interviewed by Eloise Schultz

ES: I loved looking at the Lesbian History trail website, and I’d love to learn more about your experience creating it.

CG: It was really fun to build a website highlighting all the sites where famous lesbians have lived! Unfortunately, most of these structures are gone now, or private homes. Marguerite Yourcenar and Grace Frikck’s house is really the only one where you can still visit the actual structure and take a guided tour with docent. Two of the sites, the one for Jane Addams and for Edit Hamilton, are on private roads.

ES: Did you get in touch with anyone about the particular history of their home?

CG: The Mount Desert Island Historical Society’s Facebook page was very informative, and I did I asked some questions there… I was having a tough time locating Jane Addam’s house, and I kept running into wrong information. And I want to say that I think that, even when these homes have been torn down, there is still value in recognizing the site. Natalie Barney’s home was up on Norman Road, across from the Atlantic Eyrie, overlooking Bar Harbor. People can get an idea of the kind of luxury of these turn of the century millionaires by visiting La Rochelle, and then imagine it on top of that hill.

ES: How did you decide to start it?

CG: As a playwright, my work is very centered on my community, the lesbian community. I spend a lot of time recovering lesbian history and then adapting it for the stage. When I go someplace, I’m always interested in the lesbians who lived here. Reading the lives of the wealthy and socially elite lesbians of the 19th and 20th century, I noticed references to Bar Harbor over and over. Even if they didn’t live here, it seems that sooner or later, they would make their way up here at some time. But who actually lived here? Who bought property here? I was really astounded that there were six very famous couples who lived here, and one couple who should be famous—LaRue Spiker and Louise Gilbert. Some of these women did the work that put them on the map while they lived here. Hamilton’s book The Greek Way, for example, was written here… and a much of Yourcenar’s work was also written while she lived in Northeast Harbor.

ES: Thinking about lesbianism in history, I feel like so many relationships are couched as “companions” — as you recover these stories, what’s been your sense of how those histories are represented, or unrepresented as it were?

CG: Well, it’s historically been very unsafe to be lesbian. And I think that, to a certain extent, that is still true, and of course, this is reflected in the historical record. What has been obscured or even outright destroyed? This is especially true when it comes to letters, which are on the main ways we find out about the personal lives of these figures. Too often they either destroyed their lesbian correspondence, or else their heirs destroyed it. But I wanted to go back and talk about LaRue Spiker.

ES: She had been the editor, right?

CG: For two or three years, she was the editor of the Bar Harbor Times. She seems to have had some kind of disagreement with her publisher and quit to go back to freelancing. She was very, very progressive politically. Personally, I loved her story; I wish I had known her. She seemed like really a pistol. But some of her history has been hard to locate. I was never able to find a photograph of her partner Louise Gilbert.

ES: Well, the information that you were able to comb through was pretty assiduous.

CG: It was already done for me by Elizabeth Redhead, who wrote about LaRue for an issue of Chebacco. If I’m remembering rightly, I believe that she actually interviewed LaRue. Her article had a lot of detail about LaRue and Louise’s involvement in the Wade House Bombing in Louisville, Kentucky. LaRue and Louise were arrested and indicted for sedition, and I am sure that LaRue had a collection of documents about that time in her life, but unfortunately, they re not in the MDI Historical Society with her other papers. I am thinking that possibly they are in some archive in Louisville, but I was unable to locate them. And I was also trying to find her book, which might be relevant today, because it was a historical novel, a fictionalized biography about Elijah Lovejoy, a Maine abolitionist. I never found it.

ES: It sounds like she and Louise moved here to start a new life, a quieter one. I imagine that they wanted to continue their work — it would have been hard when they found it wasn’t welcome.

CG: Louise Gilbert had worked for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and then she worked for the League of Women Voters after she moved to the island. LaRue became very involved in local politics and also in environmental issues on the island. Both of these women had been through a terrible ordeal in Kentucky, and it seems that they moved here to reinvent themselves and to heal.
ES: How did you get interested in her?

CG: It was that Chebacco article! I saw the picture of her in high school, and she had such a look of self-possession — it was just clear. And I thought, “This girl already travels to her own drum.”