Peter Gunn: The Television First That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Oh, Mother!

Reader Mike from Jersey teased us with a comment over on the Peter Gunn page, suggesting that the show  featured an unnamed first in TV history that had “escaped all the experts,” and added “If you catch it you’ll slap your head and say Of course! How did I miss that?

How could I resist?

It took a little prodding, but Mike eventually relented and pointed me to a comment over on the Magnum Mania site (devoted, of course, to Magnum P.I.). In it, Luthers nephew Dobie detailed the Peter Gunn deal:

Brace yourself…

Peter Gunn featured the first lesbian on TV!

I’m paraphrasing here a bit, but here’s what Dobie had to say:

Mother was the owner of the eponymously named Mother’s, the swank waterfront jazz club where Edie sang and Peter greeted clients. She was also the first acknowledged lesbian on TV and no one got it, though the character of Mother as written is obviously one.

She was played by 6’2,” 200+ pounds film veteran Hope Emerson in the show’s first season, for which she received an Emmy nomination.

Supposedly a recognized leader in the Hollywood lesbian community, she certainly specialized in playing “manly/butch” women both on film and television, and hiring her became an easy way for a director to suggest that the character was a lesbian.

Her role on Gunn was a breakthrough role in TV history, as more than once the dialog  indicated her sexual orientation.

  • In “Skin Deep” (Season One, episode 29), Edie is waiting for Gunn in the nearly deserted nightclub in the wee hours. She’s at the bar, sadly reading her fortune with a Tarot card deck.
    Peter Gunn enters and asks, “Problem?”
    Edie: “According to this I should be with Lawrence Welk! Want me to do yours?”
    Edie flips over a card for Pete, sighs “I could kill myself” and reads Pete’s fortune, “You will meet a beautiful woman, blonde, very rich.”
    Perking up at that, Mother enthusiastically interjects, “I should have a deck like that!”
  • In “The Briefcase” (Season 2, episode 12), by which time Mother was being played by Minera Urecal:
    Gunn walks into Mothers to meet his new client, the very sexy Barbara Stuart.
    Mother directs him to the lanai where she awaits.
    Gunn: “Did she give you a name?”
    Mother: “Cooper”
    Arching her eyebrows, disappointed, she laments, “MISSUS Cooper.”
    Gunn: “Well that’s the way it goes, Mother.”
    Mother:  “Yeah it sure does, don’t it?”

Don’t it, indeed?

Except, despite the speculation and plenty of widespread gossip, there’s no real proof Emerson was actually gay—all we know is that she never married or had children. She certainly did play characters who may have been lesbians, but she never commented on her personal life, as far as I know. Granted, those were different times, and Hollywood is a small town. People talk.

This doesn’t really change how I feel about Peter Gunn, but the idea that Mother was gay does add a little more to the Cachet of Cool to the show.

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Mike from Jersey for the lead, and to Luther’s Nephew Dobie for allowing us to reprint his comments.

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