Nov 29, 2013

Bowery Billy and his Boyfriend Lulu

In my book We Boys Together: Teenagers in Love Before Girl-Craziness, I spend a lot of time on the boy's adventure series of the 1920s (such as the Hardy Boys).  They usually involved teenage same-sex pairs with a passion, exclusivity, and domesticity you would never see today: gay partners in all but the name.

But I didn't know how far back the fad extended until the Scans Daily website posted some cover scans of Bowery Billy, a teen sleuth from the mean streets of New York.  His adventures appeared in Bowery Boy Weekly, one of the illustrated story papers called "penny dreadfuls" because they cost a penny, and they were "dreadful."

A precursor of the working-class East Side Kids of 1930s movies, Billy was, according to the blurb, "an adventurous little Street Arab (homeless kid.)"  He  talks like this:

"Green bananers!  So dis pair is layin' for Bernard Gildersleeve, der millionaire that's jest come, from Chicago to show der fellers in New York how to blow in their boodle!"

Billy was tied up and threatened as much as Robin the Boy Wonder and other superhero sidekicks of 1940s comics.  This contraption seems designed to zero in on his manhood.

But who was rescuing him?  Did he have a boyfriend?  A girlfriend?  An adult benefacator?

After a diligent search, I managed to track down and read a story -- really a short novel, over 50 pages long.  And it turns out that Billy lives with a boy named Lulu.

Really Louis, but Billy gave him a girl's name because he originally thought he was a sissy:  he is "pale and delicate-looking," but with an inner resourcefulness. He knows how to use his fists.

The two live together, go out on adventures together, and rescue -- and then ignore -- girls together.  Of course, Billy needs rescuing quite often as well, and here Lulu is about to be drowned by evil cultists as Billy rushes in.

At the end of the story I read, "Bowery Billy became the millionaire's guest on board of the beautiful yacht.  Lulu Drexel remained with him for the night."

I'm reminded of the line in The Well of Loneliness (1928) which caused it to be judged obscene.  The lesbians meet, talk of love, "and that night they were not parted."

A gay teenage romance in 1904.