“Be sure to tell the folk that read your paper that the church (MCC of the Palm Beaches) has more love and generosity than any place else I know,” said 85-year old Betty James at the end of her interview. “They visit me and help me when I need it. They’re really my family.”
Betty James knows family. The oldest of seven children of tobacco farming sharecroppers in Horry [pronounced Orr ee] County, SC, James married at 16 “to get out of that place as fast and far as I could.” But she never lost touch with her parents and over the years she worked to help her siblings get out of Horry, too.
“Mostly I was close to my mother,” she said. “Daddy had issues with alcohol and could be really mean sometimes, but my mother and I were close until she died.”
James and her husband moved to Brooklyn, NY where she became a cocktail waitress in order to “make a lot of money fast.” She met her second husband in Brooklyn and they adopted a son and bought a couple of houses together.
That marriage ended when James took her son and moved to Florida leaving her husband asleep in his bed. “Well, he said he didn’t want to move to Florida and I told him I was going. And I did,” she said, matter-of-factly.
She married her third husband in Florida and bought a hotel on Southern Boulevard in West Palm Beach. When that marriage ended, she got the hotel and he got the house.
She sold the hotel and opened a lesbian bar called the Crane’s Nest where she also met and fell in love with Linda Porter with whom she lived with for several years. “That let me know that I was a lesbian for sure,” she said.
That was also when she came out to her siblings. “I was 55 years old,” she said. My father was dead so he never knew and my family kept it from my mother so she never knew, either.”
When the Crane’s Nest lost its lease she opened Adam’s Attic on Dixie Avenue in West Palm Beach.
Operating both bars gave her insight into the dark under belly of gay life with all the kids who’d come to the door seeking a hand out or other assistance. “There were lots of kids on the streets. It was sad,” she said.
“We also did a lot of fund raising when AIDS hit us. We worked a lot with CAP which was just down the street.”
She then closed the Attic and semi retired, taking up flea market sales.
She bought her home in the tiny town of Cloud Lake where she settled in as an open lesbian. The town is located just west of I-95 on Southern Blvd. It’s only .1 square miles, and with only 135 residents it’s Palm Beach County’s smallest municipality.
After the mayor of Cloud Lake resigned with 7 months left, James was invited to serve out his term. She subsequently served from 2007 to 2011 when she had to resign due to ill health. During her tenure, she was the oldest elected official in the state and the first openly gay elected official in Palm Beach County.
For the last 20 years she has been in a relationship with Judy Tarlowe although they no longer live together. “She had to move away to take care of her elderly mother and she just never came back, but we’re still a couple,” James said. “She comes to visit and we’re very close.
Although James attended the 1981 opening of the MCC in 1981, she has only been regularly attending services for the past dozen years or so.
“It takes a while to get back to church when you’ve been mistreated at the hands of the religious,” she said. “Like so many of us have been. But this is a good church to choose. We welcome all.”