In the 1920s, Elsa Gidlow was searching for her people. Intent on living her own nature rather than societal roles that didn’t fit, she had been the poetry editor for the radical arts and politics magazine Pearson’s in New York City. She co-published the first North American newspaper celebrating and discussing LGBT lives and issues and published the first book of lesbian poetry in the U.S. But Gidlow longed for companions who would question and play with ideas and ways of living.
She found them in San Francisco. One of the first was her Chinatown neighbor, gay novelist and short story writer Clarkson Crane. They wrote, dipped into the cold sea and built fires in the sand together at Ocean Beach.
Their long friendship was one of many in the life of the poet, who was born in 1898 in England and died in 1986 in Mill Valley at 87. Three of the most consequential were with poet and cultural critic Kenneth Rexroth, who’s been called the father of the San Francisco Renaissance; Irish poet and Celtic mythologist Ella Young; and philosopher and teacher Alan Watts, who popularized Eastern spirituality in the West. Despite her British-born reserve, Gidlow’s strength, openness and naturalness drew people of all ages, races and genders to her.
She insisted on living whole, being fully alive to all parts of her identity. Besides “sapphic love,” as she called it, that meant exploring her spiritual nature and connection to the earth, and what she found to be the most difficult — acceptance as a female poet.
Consequently, her whole being influenced, and was influenced by, the unfolding San Francisco Renaissance with its flowering of poetry for everyday people and their issues, exploring alternative spiritual practices, and finding natural, environment-sustaining ways of living.
When the innovative American Academy of Asian Studies opened in 1951, it became a Renaissance focal point. Watts’ lectures attracted waiting lists. His KPFA broadcasts reached beyond The City. That’s how Gidlow and Watts met. Eventually he, his wife Jano and Gidlow established the Society for Comparative Philosophy to promote this work.
Although Gidlow’s name isn’t well-known today, “she was central,” said Marcelina Martin, a filmmaker and friend of Gidlow’s who’s documenting her life. “Through knowing Elsa, Alan was introduced to women’s and goddess spirituality and a deeper mysticism.” Watts’ autobiography is dedicated to Gidlow. After he died, she and others continued the Society’s work.
In her own autobiography, “Elsa, I Come with My Songs,” Gidlow says she had felt a “loyalty to Nature” growing inside her since childhood. It blossomed through her friendship with Ella Young and manifested in her home life. Nurturing an organic flower and vegetable garden, tending hearth fires, moon-gazing and solstice celebrations were part of her daily life, inspired by pagan and Taoist rites.
Nature imagery fills her poetry grounded in the body — often erotic — with a pragmatic philosophy that turns ordinary daily experience transcendent. In 1971, her privately-funded poetry book “Moods of Eros” sold out and was widely commented on in feminist magazines. The sudden interest astonished Gidlow. She was in her 70s at the time and feminist presses were just emerging. Women asked for more poetry. Feminist magazines commissioned articles. Then, in 1976, her poetry book, “Sapphic Songs: Seventeen to Seventy,” sold out too.
Listening to a recording of Gidlow reading her poetry at age 82, you hear her mix of seriousness and good humor. In a clipped British accent seemingly softened by San Francisco mist, she tells a story about rising early and lighting a fire, as was her custom, in the chilly fog surrounded by trees. That particular morning prompted a transcendent experience that produced a poem called “Chains of Fire”:
“I know myself linked by chains of fire…/See in the shifting flame my mother/And grandmothers out over the world/Time through, back to the Paleolithic/In rock shelters where flint struck first sparks…/For no one owns or can own fire/It lends itself/Every hearth-keeper has known this.”
“Poets are not always sober and sane and practical,” she quipped, after several such poems. Then she read a playful one, and a humorous erotic one.
Andrew Harvey includes Gidlow and her poetry in his book “The Essential Gay Mystics.” She’s one of the people featured in the 1977 documentary “Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives.” In 1987 reviews of her autobiography, its publisher Bookleggers called Gidlow “the last of a crowd of famous intimates who made the Bay Area the artistic force it came to be in the 20th century.” The Bay Area Reporter said she’s “an example and source of strength for future generations of women who dare to be different.” Also, an “80-year-old mischievous and elegant lesbian.”
Having found her people and her own eclectic spirituality, in the 1950s Gidlow’s dream was to create a place of community and retreat where artistic and spiritual sensibilities and talents could flourish in the natural world. As a freelance journalist and editor and a woman, money was hard to come by. Yet, with help, she bought acreage on Mount Tamalpais and named it Druid Heights.
Many of the era’s most celebrated and iconic writers, musicians, artists, thinkers and counterculture figures visited or lived there for a time, including poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, comedian Lily Tomlin, jazz musician Louis Armstrong, rockers Neil Young and Steve Miller, filmmaker James Broughton, Esalen’s Michael Murphy, and Watts — who lived the last years of his life at Druid Heights at Gidlow’s invitation.
Now that the times are finally catching up to her, some are working to keep Gidlow from being lost to history. In addition to Martin’s upcoming documentary, Michael Toivonen, a woodworker who grew up near Druid Heights, is documenting its architecture and history. The property is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. About 1,200 people who follow the Save Druid Heights Facebook group hope to get the National Park Service which owns the land to restore and preserve it, primarily as an artists’ retreat to honor Gidlow’s wish.