Niles, Blair

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NILES, Blair

NILES, Blair (b.1880; d. 1959), writer.

A noted explorer, travel writer, ethnographer, and popular novelist who, though heterosexual, wrote sympathetically about gay life, Niles was born Mary Blair Rice in 1880 in Coles Ferry, Virginia. She was the daughter of Henry Crenshaw Rice and Gordon (Pryor) Rice and the granddaughter of the ardent secessionists and authors Roger A. Pryor and Sara Pryor.

In 1902, at the age of 22, Niles married explorer and naturalist William Beebe (best remembered for his 1934 world record ocean descent in the Bathysphere with Otis Barton). The couple took up residence in New York City, where they lived when not on expedition, a pattern Niles maintained for her entire life. Immediately following their marriage, the couple set out for Mexico to study and obtain animal specimens for New York City's Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo). They published an account of their experience, Two Bird Lovers in Mexico, in 1905. Later they visited Trinidad, Venezuela, and British Guinea, publishing an account of that voyage as well (Our Search for a Wilderness). In 1909 Niles and Beebe accepted an offer to lead an expedition to study pheasants around the world in their natural habitats. After a seventeen-month globe-trotting expedition, they returned to New York and published their research in the massive four-volume A Monograph of the Pheasants.

Niles's marriage to Beebe was not destined to last. Niles obtained a Nevada divorce from Beebe on the grounds of "cruelty" (the New York Times headline read, "Naturalist Was Cruel"). However, in 1913, the day after the divorce was final, Blair married architect Robert L. Niles Jr. and changed her name to Blair Niles. She and her second husband collaborated on several projects. One of the most popular was a four-part series of articles on "Devil's Island," published as a serial in July–August 1927 in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. Niles was said to be the only woman ever to have set foot on the Devil's Island penal colony in French Guiana. She and her husband, who acted as photographer for the project, were also said to be the only foreigners ever to have voluntarily visited the island. They were given full access to the prison and conducted extensive interviews of the men imprisoned there.

Niles also wrote two books based on her Devil's Island research: a hugely popular exposé titled Condemned to Devil's Island: The Biography of an Unknown Convict and a fictional work called Free. Condemned to Devil's Island was translated into many European languages, bringing foreign investigators to the penal colony and spurring prison reforms. The book was also made into the film Condemned, an early black and white "talkie." During this period, Blair enjoyed the company of such Hollywood luminaries as actress Mary Pickford.

The 1920s and 1930s were prolific years for Niles. From 1923 to 1939 the inveterate traveler authored twelve diverse books, ranging from travelogues such as Columbia, Land of Miracles to Strange Brother, a 1931 novel depicting gay life in Harlem, and a history of Virginia's James River (The James: From Sea to Iron Gate, 1939). In 1925 Niles also cofounded the Society of Woman Geographers (SWG), which is still in existence. In 1938 she received a Gold Medal from the City of Lima, Peru; in 1941 she received the Constance Lindsay Skinner Medal from the Women's National Book Association and the Bookseller's League; and in 1944 she received the SWG's highest honor.

Although significant, Niles' impact on the LGBT community seems to have been unintentional on her part. Niles approached LGBT life in Harlem as she did the tribes in South America about which she wrote—as an explorer and observer of human behavior. (The 1942 edition of Twentieth Century Authors describes Strange Brother as a sociological study of "male inverts," as homosexuals were then called.)

That Niles was well acquainted with LGBT life in New York despite being heterosexual is beyond doubt. Strange Brother explores in vivid detail both the world of Greenwich Village bohemians and urban speakeasies in the latter days of the Harlem Renaissance, and as such it is considered to be an extremely accurate portrayal of 1930s New York City LGBT life. For example, Strange Brother's fictional speakeasy, the Lobster Pot, was based on Harry Hansberry's legendary Clam House on 133rd Street where African American lesbian Gladys Bentley, "the bulldagger who sang the blues," performed in a tuxedo and top hat.

Strange Brother is significant because it was the first widely read American account of openly gay men, drag balls, and antigay police raids. Published just two years after Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness (1929), it is arguably the first popular novel to portray a gay man in a positive light. The novel chronicles the story of Mark Thornton, a young man who escapes his "shadow world" of homosexuality by losing himself in the black jazz joints of Harlem. Treated sympathetically by Niles, Thornton comes to Harlem from a small Midwestern town, not to find adventure or make assignations, but because he identifies with those he believes are also outcasts from American life.

Niles could not have anticipated the effect Strange Brother would have in the formation of LGBT identity. The book was widely distributed and read among gay men in the 1930s, and was listed by author Anthony Slide as one of fifty seminal "lost gay novels" of the first half of the twentieth century. It was still in print as of 2003.

Bibliography

Mumford, Kevin J. "Homosex Changes: Race, Cultural Geography, and the Emergence of the Gay." American Quarterly 48, no. 3 (1996): 395-414.

Slide, Anthony. Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2003.

Lea Pierce

see alsobentley, gladys; harlem renaissance; literature.

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