Introduction
Lesbian rule: a mason’s rule made of lead, which could be bent to fit the curves of a
molding (Aristotle, Eth. Nic. v. x. 7); hence, fig., a principle of judgment that is pliant and
accommodating.—Oxford English Dictionary
In college and in the years just after, I frequented a lesbian bar called
Hepburn’s. Named obviously after Katharine, the bar was decorated with
production-still enlargements of Hepburn’s face. Teeny pads of laven-
der paper, with a discreet Hepburn’s across the top, sat in old-fashioned
glasses alongside miniature pencils, ready for the exchange of phone
numbers and note-taking. (On reflection it appears that I did more of
the latter than the former.) On one of those pads, about ten years ago, I
wrote ‘‘Sylvia Scarlett. Why lesbian?’’
Most of the photographs in that bar featured Hepburn in her famous
cross-dressing role in the 1935 film Sylvia Scarlett, directed by the gay and
extraordinary George Cukor.With hair slicked back and shirt collar fram-
ing her young patrician face, Hepburn’s image as a dashing boy clearly
excited a lesbian reading, set lesbian somehow reverberating. Hepburn’s
—the bar—borrowed the image and also those excitations, that indeter-
minate allure, for its own. In some ways, it made perfect sense: the bar
was in Philadelphia, a city identified with Hepburn not only through
a later George Cukor film in which she starred, The Philadelphia Story
(1940), but also through Hepburn’s time spent near Philadelphia at Bryn
Mawr College, as I was. Like other Cukor films and indeed like other
films in which women disguised themselves as boys or men, Sylvia Scar-
lett offered a beautiful orchestration of inversion, a playful romp along
the lines of gender and sexual difference, with the bonus attractions of
chiseled stars and high production values. Sylvia Scarlett, like the bar
itself, nestles into what Judith Mayne reminds us is a liminal space,
oscillating between visibility and invisibility, wherein we find ourselves
secretly knowing that to which others remain
oblivious.1
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