In about 1963 Janis lived with Jae Whitaker, an amateur musician who shared Janis’ passion for music. She craved the spotlight, says Jae, who took Janis to a photographer’s studio to have some publicity shots taken. The radio was always on in their apartment and they sang along with it. When they’d go to the bars, they’d sing along with the jukebox, too. It was Janis who turned Jae on to Bob Dylan. “I remember we had a little grass and a little wine, and Janis said, ‘I gotta tell you about somebody I just love. I gotta meet him one day.'” Janis put his record on the turntable and said, “Just listen to the words. He’s just wonderful.” Jae really liked his lyrics but “thought he was an old man. About sixty or seventy years old.” Jae remembers Janis listening to everything from Hank Williams and Hank Show to blues and pop songs. Bessie Smith was her idol, though. “She felt she was Bessie Smith reincarnated. She really did.”
Janis met Jae in the spring of 1963 at Gino and Carlo’s, a North Beach gay bar around the corner from the Coffee Gallery. For most of 1963 and 1964 Janis ran with a lesbian crowd, which is why Chet Helms and she drifted apart. Jae had seen Janis and Linda Gottfried hanging out at the North Beach bars, and it was Linda who first caught her eye. But Mark Evans, a bisexual man they all knew, told Jae to go after Janis instead. After all, Linda was heterosexual while Janis would swing both ways. “Jae was so cute,” remembers Linda. “She had a real short afro and looked a little like an androgynous guy. She was really sweet, and she loved Janis.” Their relationship wasn’t one-sided, though, at least not at first. Jae suspects Janis liked her partly because she was considered a catch in the lesbian community and knew old blues and R & B, but also because she was black. In truth, race was a factor for Jae, too. “We were both rebels,” she says. “I mean, I was attracted to white girls.”
Almost as soon as Janis moved in with Jae – a mere two months into their relationship – things started to go downhill. Whenever Janis was faced with a tender, considerate lover, she’d respond by radiating ambivalence. She would leave, hitchhiking for days at a time, and Jae was never sure whether Janis’ traveling companions were just friends, as she claimed, or lovers. Jae was no homebody herself in this period but says, “I was too settled for Janis, even then. For her to go off to New York or wherever and expect that she could come back and be with me – I couldn’t handle it.” And then there was Janis’ “nobody-wants-to-fuck-me” rap, which was something she used to say all the time. “What the hell you think I’m doing?” Jae would snap. “She’d say it in front of other people,” Jae recalls, “letting them know she was still available.” Jae suspects Janis did it because she thought of herself as ugly. “I didn’t think she was ugly. I thought she was very attractive. But I told her, ‘You just do some fucking ugly things.'”
Janis tested Jae as well, constantly asking whether Jae really loved her. But Janis was so obviously ambivalent that Jae held her feelings in cheek. More than anything else, Janis created distance between her and Jae by going on about how much she wanted the proverbial white picket fence. All the talk about the white picket fence, settling down with a man, and having kids gave Jae pause. “I knew I was transitional,” she says. “yet she did move in with me. She didn’t have to. I guess in some way I gave her that white picket fence. “In early 1964 they broke up and Janis moved out. Jae saw her only infrequently after that. “Once she started going with men and shooting up, I just kinda stayed out of her life unless she called.” When Janis got in touch it was usually to ask for money, and on three or four occasions Jae gave her twenty dollars.
“Janis was a walking contadiction,” Jae says, looking back on their relationship. Janis would say she wasn’t gay, but “you could almost take anything Janis said, turn it backwards, and that would be the truth, too,” Jae observes. “I think she wanted kids, but I also think she really felt very good with a woman, yet she punished herself for that feeling. She didn’t think it was right.” When Janis picked her boyfriends, though, she chose guys that Jae thought would have given almost any woman second thoughts about heterosexuality. “I’d ask her, ‘How are you going to get this white picket fence and a child and everything when you pick up the most chickenshit assholes on the street?’ She’d say, ‘Well, I will when I’m ready.'”
Upon hearing the news of Janis’ death Jae yelled at the television. “You goddamn stupid bitch!” she shouted. “I was just so angry and hurt.”