Beat generation's Jane 'Jae' Whitaker dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday April 17, 2024
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Jane "Jae" Whitaker sat in front of photos of herself and Janis Joplin during a "Living History" panel discussion at the GLBT Historical Society Museum in 2017 that commemorated the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco. Photo: Gerard Koskovich
Jane "Jae" Whitaker sat in front of photos of herself and Janis Joplin during a "Living History" panel discussion at the GLBT Historical Society Museum in 2017 that commemorated the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco. Photo: Gerard Koskovich

Jane Ethel "Jae" Whitaker, a Black lesbian who experienced San Francisco at the height of the Beat generation, died March 27. She was 86.

According to friends, Ms. Whitaker, known by friends as Jane or Jae, had been in declining health in recent years. A circle of close friends cared for her.

Brian Derickson, a straight ally, is one of those who helped take care of Ms. Whitaker. In an email message to the Bay Area Reporter, Derickson wrote that Ms. Whitaker was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease in 2019 and admitted to Kaiser hospice in the summer of 2023. Ms. Whitaker passed away in her States Street home in San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro neighborhood.

Tashuana Johnson, Ms. Whitaker's niece, told the B.A.R. that the two were very close. Johnson lives in Suffolk, Virginia, and in a phone interview, said that she traveled to San Francisco to visit her aunt.

"She loved San Francisco," Johnson said. "She was so humble and her energy was so positive with people."

Ms. Whitaker is perhaps best known for a 10-month romantic relationship she had with bi rock star Janis Joplin in 1963. She also rubbed shoulders with Beat greats the late gay poet Allen Ginsberg and the late City Lights Bookstore co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti. According to an obituary written by her friend Margaret Wilson, Ms. Whitaker also met famed musicians the late David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash when she helped run a club at Ocean Beach.

On July 6, 2017, Ms. Whitaker appeared at a "Living History" panel discussion at the GLBT Historical Society Museum in the heart of the Castro neighborhood. The program promoted the society's exhibit, "Lavender-Tinted Glasses: A Groovy Gay Look at the Summer of Love," that coincided with the 50th anniversary of the seminal season, when young people, many self-described hippies, flocked to the city's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.

The B.A.R. noted at the time that Ms. Whitaker was met with a standing ovation at the end of the program.

"It was a special time. It all was special because I was living it. When I look back on it, it will all be special," Ms. Whitaker said at the event.

Joey Cain, a gay man, curated that exhibit at the historical society. In an email he recalled meeting Ms. Whitaker.

"When I first contacted her while doing research for the 'Queers in the Summer of Love' exhibit, Jae was a bit guarded," Cain wrote. "But she invited me over to her house and, after talking for a while, we really hit it off. She opened up and shared her memories and photos of herself and of Janis Joplin. She was so generous in letting me do the very public interview with her at the GLBT museum. We continued to talk and see each other now and then, but COVID made it more difficult, and we hadn't been in touch for a year or two."

Cain noted that Ms. Whitaker lived a rewarding life.

"She had such a full and creative life well beyond the short Janis affair," he stated. "She continued to make music with others into her later years and she had a circle of friends that really cherished her. I'll miss her lovely smile and sly wit."

Jane "Jae" Whitaker, left, shared a laugh with Joey Cain, curator of the GLBT Historical Society's "Lavender-Tinted Glasses: A Groovy Gay Look at the Summer of Love" exhibition, during a 2017 panel discussion at the archival group  

Early years
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on February 14, 1938 to Mollie Kate Weaver and Roy Pittman, Ms. Whitaker also spent her early years in Enfield, North Carolina. Her father was a sharecropper in Virginia, her friend Lillian Crist told the B.A.R. in a phone interview. Ms. Whitaker had said by the time she was 5 years old, she knew she was different. She moved from North Carolina to New York when she was 15, the obituary noted.

Michael Pittman, Johnson's father and Ms. Whitaker's younger brother, confirmed that she left home when she was a teen.

"Jane left home early, at the age of 15," Johnson, who also lives in Suffolk, said via phone. "She traveled to New York, went to college, and then came to San Francisco and never left."

After graduating from high school, she traveled across the country with a woman, eventually landing in San Francisco in the early 1960s, the B.A.R. noted in its 2017 article. Wilson's obituary stated that the woman's name was Pauley, though she could not remember her last name.

Queer public historian Gerard Koskovich stated that Ms. Whitaker told stories of her life as a Black lesbian.

During the historical society discussion, Ms. Whitaker talked about her memories living with Joplin, discovering Bob Dylan's music, and brought the audience back to a time when being a Black lesbian was far from acceptable.

"Blacks were not accepted too well," she said. "I was like a fly in the buttermilk everywhere I went, but we made it."

Stories of segregated facilities and even attempted attacks on Ms. Whitaker were discussed. Times became even tougher when she entered a biracial relationship with Joplin after meeting her at a bar.

Ms. Whitaker said that she was often vilified for being a Black lesbian dating a white woman in those times. Because of this, Joplin herself did not accept her own bisexuality, Ms. Whitaker said during the historical society talk.

"She didn't want anyone to know she was gay," Ms. Whitaker said. "She wouldn't let anyone even take our picture together."

Joplin was performing and writing music, while Ms. Whitaker worked various jobs. The relationship eventually faded. Joplin died in 1970 of a heroin overdose at the age of 27.

Ms. Whitaker long had a love of music and played in a trio band. Ms. Whitaker was featured in the documentary, "Janis: Little Girl Blue," which discusses Joplin's multiple lesbian relationships.

Jane "Jae" Whitaker worked as an usher at San Francisco Giants games. Photo: Courtesy Margaret Wilson  

A full life
Ms. Whitaker had a long career working as a window clerk at the U.S. Postal Service from 1962-1999, according to the obituary. She worked for much of her career at the Rincon Post Office, Wilson said in a phone interview. That's where the two women met. Ms. Whitaker was 22 years Wilson's senior and Wilson looked up to her as a big sister.

Wilson, a straight ally, said the two traveled together, including on Ms. Whitaker's first trip outside the U.S. to Costa Rica in early 2020, right before the COVID pandemic hit. At 81, she rode zip lines across the rainforest, Wilson recalled.

Wilson was part of the circle of friends who helped care for Ms. Whitaker, and she was with Ms. Whitaker on a trip to Seattle in 2019 when she first detected something might be wrong. Ms. Whitaker was walking to the Space Needle with Wilson when she had to stop to catch her breath.

In spite of her illness, which for the past year required that she be on oxygen 24/7, Ms. Whitaker remained pretty active until shortly before her passing. For many years, she and Crist would get together and play guitar, often at Ms. Whitaker's home.

Crist, a lesbian, told the B.A.R. in a phone interview that she first met Ms. Whitaker at Wild Side West, a lesbian bar in Bernal Heights.

"She was so flirty — she would not describe herself that way, but she came on strong," Crist recalled. "We became the best of friends over the guitar."

They jammed at Wild Side West and, in later years, at Ms. Whitaker's home, Crist said.

Barbara Messmore, another longtime friend and a bi woman, told the B.A.R. in a phone interview that she met Ms. Whitaker at Wild Side West when the bar was located in North Beach. "It was the primary way gays could socialize back then," she said.

Messmore said that Ms. Whitaker "was never a big drinker."

"She was the one who had it together," Messmore added.

Ms. Whitaker played pool at Gino and Carlo bar in North Beach, according to the obituary. And she liked Skip's Tavern in Bernal Heights. One day, while strolling down Cortland Avenue, Ms. Whitaker met Tito Jackson of The Jacksons who, after much conversation, invited Ms. Whitaker to a private concert he was giving at Skip's, the obituary stated.

Ms. Whitaker took carpentry classes at O'Connell High School, the obituary noted. The result was that she was able to install beautiful wood floors in her home and did other work. Derickson noted that Ms. Whitaker was a good carpenter.

"She took tremendous pride in her own carpentry work that expanded the 'Whitaker Mystery House' from two to three levels," he wrote, referring to the States Street home, where she built a beautiful staircase to the second story. "She used wood reclaimed from the post office for some of the flooring."

The obituary also noted that Ms. Whitaker was an amateur photographer and used her old 35mm camera. She liked to take scenic shots and candid shots of individuals. She enjoyed cooking a variety of international dishes and was a generous host.

After retiring from the postal service, Ms. Whitaker worked into her late 70s as a guest services usher for the San Francisco Giants, where she assisted with wheelchairs and strollers. "Yep, retired Jae was wheel-chairing others to their seats and stacking strollers," Wilson wrote in the obituary. She worked for the Giants from 2000 until she resigned in 2019.

"She enjoyed that and she was so well loved," Wilson said.

Lenore Chinn, a longtime lesbian activist in San Francisco, said she visited with Ms. Whitaker last year.

"I had the good fortune of 'inheriting' Jae and a group of good friends of the late artist Bernice Bing (aka Bingo) and she was certainly one of the most colorful of the lot," Chinn wrote in an email.

Messmore said that Ms. Whitaker was good friends with Bing, who eventually moved to Mendocino County on the northern California coast.

"We'd all go up there and visit Bingo," Messmore said.

Derickson noted that Ms. Whitaker "was laughing and singing with her friends until the week of her death."

"She was a lioness, loved by many," he added. "We spoke everyday from COVID onset in 2020 until the day she passed. I miss her terribly."

Derickson and Wilson were with Ms. Whitaker on March 27. Wilson told her to smile and stated in the obituary that she and Derickson witnessed "the most beautiful smile ever."

After Wilson stepped out the door, Derickson said that Ms. Whitaker slipped away quietly and peacefully at around 4:55 p.m.

Ms. Whitaker was predeceased by her parents, as well as a brother, Roy Pittman Jr. (His wife, Delores, survives him.) In addition to her brother Michael Pittman, she is survived by her siblings, Bishop Marjorie Ruffin, Wildon Long, Jesse Pittman (Yvonne), a host of nieces and nephews, and her godson, Jason Lee.

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