Editor’s note: Lily Lester is the New York Social Media Fellow for New York Jewish Week at Hey Alma’s parent company, 70 Faces Media.
I didn’t know who Eve Adams was until a new play, “The Great Lesbian Love of Eve Adams,” fell into my inbox. I was intrigued by the title. My friend and playwright Paige Esterly had read a New York Times profile on Eve Adams — a Jewish immigrant trailblazer who ran a lesbian speakeasy in the West Village during prohibition, wrote and published the first written account of lesbian life in America (“Lesbian Love”) and — get this — wore pants. The article inspired Paige’s new play which is premiering this week in New York City.
The body of the email was brief: “Please be kind!! It might be utter crap really and truly…” I didn’t quite understand that Paige was asking for my opinion on her play because she was asking me to step into Eve’s shoes. Paige and I met in college, collaborated on numerous projects and found an artistic partnership. Unbeknownst to me, she had written Eve with me in mind. I agreed to do the project on the spot (duh) and she graciously asked if there was a director I particularly wanted to work with. Of course, I suggested my older sister Jenny Lester – I think they would call this a nepo-sister in Hollywood? Jenny directed me in the first show I ever did (I played the Prince in “Cinderella” which is about as gay as a fourth grader can get), and she’s been my favorite director since.
Last summer, we put up a staged workshop of “The Great Lesbian Love of Eve Adams,” and after a sold-out, one-night-only performance, we knew the show was destined for a bigger life. This summer, one year later, we are officially premiering for a two-week run. There’s also an additional element this time around: As Eve was a Polish-Jewish immigrant who spoke five languages, her dialect would have been extremely unique. In preparation for this production, I spent hours with a dialect coach, helping me perfect an idiolect akin to how she may have sounded. Understanding how Eve found her voice through multiple languages, communities and countries helped me find a deeper connection with her — and with my familial ancestors who made the same journey to America.
Eve Adams was a true pioneer, a force of energetic passion. She epitomized what it means to be a hero. On June 4, 1912 she immigrated to the United States from Mława, Poland. She floated around the United States using her wit, charm and the five languages she spoke. Eve got by selling books and magazines and tutoring private language students. As soon as the government caught wind of her “anarchist” ties (she helped Emma Goldman distribute her paper “Mother Earth”) a file of her whereabouts was kept on record.
She eventually landed in New York City and opened her “tearoom” on MacDougal Street in the West Village. Now the restaurant La Lanterna, Eve’s Hangout was a lesbian speakeasy right in the middle of the bohemian Village.
Eve collected friends and community everywhere she went. As she often felt she was too queer for the straight, cis crowd, and too Jewish for the elite, white lesbians, she had no choice but to make her own way — and she did. She wrote stories and love letters, and recounted the love stories of queer couples around her in her book “Lesbian Love.”This 75-page book of short essays also includes personal accounts from Eve’s queer life, although under various pseudonyms throughout. It’s an intimate and gorgeous snapshot of a moment in queer history, very far from the pornographic propaganda American papers claimed the book was as soon as it reached circles outside of its intended queer audience.
Eve lived as a queer woman in the United States for nearly 25 years, surviving raids, arrests and friends’ deportations. It wasn’t until she published her book “Lesbian Love” that she was arrested, put on trial and eventually deported herself. The government had kept copious notes and records on her, planning her demise. After a few years living in exile, she was ultimately sent to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.
Two years ago I had no idea who Eve was. The truth is, two years ago I was only just realizing the full capacity of who I was, too: I was falling in love with a woman for the first time. This wasn’t particularly shocking to me — I had been obsessed with MUNA for years, “But I’m A Cheerleader” happened to be my favorite movie and I had just bought my first carabiner (lol). Only a few years earlier, I was living in a college dorm in The Village. Unknowingly, Eve had paved the way for me, just across Washington Square Park.
I had kissed so many girls at that point that it just seemed like part of my personality. But falling in love was something entirely new to me. As a bi-whatever person, it’s very frustrating to have a long-distance committed relationship with a woman while everyone is asking “OH SO YOU’RE A LESBIAN NOW!?” I couldn’t understand why people around me desperately needed a label for this most intimate, profound experience of my falling in love.
When Eve came into my life through Paige’s play, I was just beginning to understand the depth of my own affection. And when I read the script, though it was a first draft, I was moved to tears. Here was Eve, a woman begging for a chance to live just as herself, to walk around the world in the clothes she desired and to love whomever she loved. And there I was, a young pants-wearing woman, learning what love might really be. And I was just allowed to learn with another woman. The casual nature of my queerness was the very thing Eve had dreamed was possible, and though she was never able to live her truth without consequences, in part thanks to her legacy, I have the chance to live mine.
If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of Eve Adams before, it’s because her story was nearly lost to history. That is, until one of the final copies of “Lesbian Love” was found in an Albany apartment entryway in 1999. Eve’s story had been re-written by the American government and tabloid magazines years after she was gone, but reporting by Jonathan Ned Katz was able to set the record straight (or rather, gay). Katz wrote the book “The Daring Life and Dangerous Times of Eve Adams.”
Now, Paige’s play has given Eve’s voice another outlet. Playing Eve is giving me the chance to take on her voice (literally). This is how Eve will survive. The oral tradition of storytelling is an extremely Jewish one — we say l’dor v’dor, translated to mean “from generation to generation” — but it’s also a queer one and a theatrical one. It is how our ancestors, our culture and our stories live on.