Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Beverly Bennett, Part 1

by Steve Sparks, October 8, 2011

I met Beverley at her home at the Philo Pottery Inn and we sat in the lovely garden with some ‘real’ tea and biscuits (cookies) as we began our chat. Beverley was born in 1951 in Calcutta, in the Indian state of Bengal, the only child of parents George Bennett and Bridget Osbourn, who always went by her middle name, Sheila. The Bennett’s were a British family of greengrocers (vegetables and fruit) who had lived in the English county of Kent — the ‘Garden on England’ — for many generations. Beverley’s grandfather, Sidney ‘Ginger’ Bennett (he had red hair), had joined the British Army in India in the 1920s when the country was under British rule. He had retired to work on the Indian railroads as an engineer based in Calcutta where, after ‘Ginger’ married Adeline De Cruz, from a family of shopkeepers and bakers of Portuguese/English descent, Beverley’s father George was born.

As George was growing up, a girl of his age called Sheila Osbourn had become a neighborhood friend. The families were friends and they grew up playing with each other with Sheila later attending a girls’ school in the Himalayan Mountains near George’s all-boys school. In his late teens, George asked Sheila out on a date. According to George, “She had many boyfriends and I thought I had no chance but she said ‘Yes’! Her mother, Biddie, did not approve of my drinking and I’d sometimes pick Sheila up when I was half drunk so eventually Sheila gave me an ultimatum to ‘smarten up.’ I said I’d try and gradually I changed. I stopped drinking, told my friends I was happier being like this, and became a good boy. From that day on Sheila and I were never separated. Our relationship was simple — very sweet; very, very loving, and it grew stronger every day.”

The Osbourn family was also British and grandfather John Osbourn left England and became a structural engineer in India, where among his projects was the Howrah Bridge in Calcutta — the busiest bridge in the world with more than half a million pedestrians crossing every day. He married Beverley’s grandmother when she was just 15. “He had money and my great grandmother encouraged my grandmother to marry him because of that. However, after two years and the birth of my mother, she left him because of the abuse that came as a result of his alcoholism. My grandmother had a good time before beginning back-to-back long-term relationships with very wealthy men. This allowed my mother to attend finishing school, have her clothes hand made, be driven by a chauffeur, and, because of the gentlemen’s wealth, have bodyguards.”

“Both the Bennetts and Osbourns were families of the Raj with servants. With India changing so much after partition in 1947, and horrible scenes that followed, they all knew they would leave one day. To stay, you would have to be Indian, follow the Hindu religion, wear saris, and adapt Indian customs. We were British, Catholic, and would never fit in.”

George moved out of his family home and lived with Sheila’s family — “where they could keep an eye on me.” They dated for a year or so before getting engaged, which was sealed with a kiss at the cinema, and then saved money for a year to buy a wedding ring. They were married in 1950 and moved into a rented one-bedroom apartment and Beverley was born a year later. “I grew up with my closest friends at school being Portuguese and Dutch Jews, who together with the Brits had been very influential in India to that point. My Dad was an engineer with an air-conditioning company and Mum worked as a telephone operator, although she really didn’t have to and played most of the time. She did attend secretarial school and shorthand and typing because she thought that was the independent thing to do. However, she knew her mother had plenty of money and privilege if times got hard. My paternal grandmother, Adeline, thought that the Osbourns were snobs and that their coloring was ‘too dark’ for us to be associated with. Conversely, Winnie, my maternal grandmother, thought the Bennett’s were socially beneath them and had no money. She really spoiled me and my mother and made sure I had the right nannies.”

Despite the available privileges, Beverley grew up in an average middle class apartment but when her grandmother wanted to see her she would be picked up in their own rickshaw or chauffeur driven car and taken to the movies, or to her Indian dance lessons, or to hang out at her grandmothers where there were many servants inside a large compound with many bodyguards. “Tailors and cobblers would come to the house and measure us for clothes and shoes, returning later the same day with the finished products — of a very high quality, I should add. My parents did have a nanny for me and also had a cook but it was not like my grandmother’s home. I attended a Catholic nursery school and was not a nice child, being thoroughly spoilt by my grandmother. I remember I got perfectly good nannies fired just because I could. My friends were mainly my cousins and any others that I had were picked for me.”

Beverley’s father’s family had left India before partition and by 1955 her father was strongly encouraged to join them in London. “India had changed so much in those years. India wanted to be India with as little to remind them of colonial rule as possible. A form of racism against the former rulers was everywhere and my father would never be allowed to get a decent job. There was nothing for him in India anymore. He went to England and stayed with his parents in Edmonton, north London. My mother and I stayed for a few months as they kept refusing our passport application. Eventually my grandmother Winnie went to the passport office. She presented the official with a rolled up newspaper and suggested he read it. She had figured it out and had put a load of cash inside the paper. We got our passports. She was very, very upset at our departure. I was the apple of her eye, but staying was not an option. We could not take any money with us out of India, and my mother wore as much of her jewelry on her hands, feet and neck as she could. After making a few visits to Britain, Winnie did eventually come and live with us in London in 1968 — when her wealthy consorts died she had nothing. She even worked as a secretary for a time! She died in 1984.”

Meanwhile, Beverley was now in London, wandering, “What did you do to me?” She and her parents lived in the attic at her father’s parents’ home along with various other aunts, uncles, and cousins. “It was damp and cold. I was told to no longer speak any of the languages I knew — Hindi, Urdu, Tamil — just English, and I had no nannies. I was very miserable. My mother literally couldn’t boil an egg — she never had to cook. There was no chauffeur, just these big crowded red vehicles called buses! People did not know what to make of me and my mother and our dark skin. On top of all that my grandmother Adeline was an abusive tyrant to me. I hardly saw my grandfather although I do remember him rolling cigarettes with one hand, his very red hair, and him brewing his tea at night for drinking the next morning. It must have been like mud.”

Beverley’s father got a job in a factory while her mother became a secretary at the Norwegian Consulate. “I went to a local school, St Edmund’s Catholic, where I was the only ‘Wog’! — Western Oriental Gentleman was the normal explanation for this term — one that was very prevalent during the 50s, 60s and 70s. It was a derogatory term for people from most of the British colonies. Later two cousins came over from India who were as dark as me so I was not the only one anymore. I was a very social child and made friends at school — including Rossina Rossi. Her family owned a café (diner) and she was my first crush when I was 11, or maybe it was the food at her parent’s café — it’s was all a bit of a blur at that age!”

In 1963, Beverley started at Sir Thomas More Grammar School, a mixed gender school that required a school uniform. “I was always getting into trouble by ‘fashionizing’ my uniform. I was pretty good at my studies but in my situation, further education was not an option — it was to be a job at 16 and marriage not long after. My first job was as an operator with the national telephone company, run by the Government Post Office Department. I worked in the seedy district of Soho, which was a big eye-opener at the time, with its adult clubs, cinemas, strippers, and prostitutes. My cousin Jackie, who is five years older than me, led my social life and she’d get me into pubs at 16. (The drinking age was, and is, 18 in the UK.). They were not strict with ID’s and we’d also go to dances and a blues club called the Ferry Pub where I saw Elton John, Long John Baldry and others in their early days. I even saw The Dave Clark Five before they became big in England. One of them cleaned my Mum’s office!”

During these first few years in England, Beverley also traveled abroad with her cousin Jackie, mainly in Western Europe, but at 19 her mother told her that she had a friend in America whom she could stay with. “I didn’t care where I went as long as I had somewhere cheap to stay. I had not really thought about the States until my mother mentioned her friend who lived in San Francisco. I did not know much about it when I arrived in the Haight Asbury district in 1971. The relics of the summer of love were still around — burned out hippies not knowing what to do. I stayed for three weeks and my Mum’s friend, Chita, said I was welcome to come back anytime. She even said I could work for her at the nanny service she did out of her house.”

“After I returned to London I realized that I wanted an adventure and to stay in the States for an extended time. My Dad couldn’t understand why and we argued a lot about it. But my mind was made up. The UK had changed and racism was on the rise with the arrival of many West Indians, Pakistanis and Indians in recent years. Two months later I was back in the US to stay, living on Cole Street in SF. It all just fell into place. I was extremely lucky.”

Beverley moved into the house on Cole Street and started work. “From having had a nanny years before, I now became one! I found it very easy and there were two great things about living on Cole Street — Maude’s lesbian bar and Bradley’s Corner gay men’s bar. I was ‘out’ in the UK to most people, but not my parents. The scenes I had already experienced were quite scary — ‘maybe I’m not gay’, I sometimes thought. Maude’s was one of the only two real lesbian bars in the City at the time — 1971; the other was Peg’s Place. I was into clothes and dressed quite differently to most people, certainly compared to most dykes with their plaid shirts and jeans. They did not like me in Maude’s because of this, and maybe my accent too, I don’t really know. Anyway, on only my third time there a woman chased me out with a pool cue in her hand. I ran over to Bradley’s where they bought me a drink and were very friendly. That became my bar of choice and they showed me the ropes and even found me women! I did go back to Maude’s a couple of times but they ignored me when I ordered drinks so that was that for the next few years.”

By the mid-70s, after a few years of the dating game, Beverley started a serious relationship with Jean Bowker, a woman 20 years older who was a stewardess with Unite Airlines. They were together for a number of years. “I would still visit the UK once a year and my parents began to visit me in SF. I had started studying psychology at City College, while continuing the nanny job, and I moved in with Jean at Page and Stanyan Streets. When we broke up I enjoyed a couple of years as a bachelorette when I was a very happy camper, always out in the ‘scene,’ with many dates, before starting another serious relationship, this time with Nancy Keller. I also left the nanny job and worked for an answering service for various businesses in the Castro district. After Nancy and I broke up, I went back to the party lifestyle once more and really experienced life with a whole range of drugs, women, and a crazy social scene of clubs, music, and parties.”

Around 1983, Beverley was at Maude’s when she was offered a drink by a woman that she refused. The woman was quite upset at the snub and continued to pursue Beverley for the next year. “I don’t remember this, but apparently I ignored her and then, a year later, this same woman ignored me at a club one night. I did not recognize her. She told me about the incident at Maude’s but I did not remember. Anyway she did not want to know me at that point but now I was interested and so I bribed her friend to get me her number. It was Monika Fuchs, a German woman, the original lipstick lesbian. She went to Germany for a trip the next day but I did not know this and called the number hundreds of times. I broke her answering machine. Eventually, after she returned, she agreed to meet me for coffee at Café Flore. She made me wait for 40 minutes and then wanted champagne, not coffee. I did not have enough money on me so I suggested we went somewhere else — where I knew the bartender and would get the drinks free. We had a good time and Monika and I have not been apart since — that’s 27 years and counting.”

Part Two of Beverley’s interview will appear next week.

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