While many Warhol fans know about Candy Darling’s significant part in the Tennessee Williams play, Small Craft Warnings; many of them don’t know that Darling was cast looong past the golden period of Williams’ career. After the death of a beloved ex-boyfriend from lung cancer in 1963 (a man who Williams had cared for from diagnosis to death, despite their recent break-up), Williams’ life was marked by alcoholism, drug abuse, and depression. He never reclaimed the success of his earlier career, and was often strung out, even in public.
In the clip below, (an excerpt from the slightly low-rent, but super-informative A & E special, Tennessee Williams: Wounded Genius), you can watch a moment from the play’s infamous press conference. While Williams slurs and fawns all over his actors, Darling looks on in what appears to be obvious discomfort. Small Craft Warnings opened off-Broadway in 1972 to lukewarm reviews. In a painful blur of art and life, Williams actually took over the role of an alcoholic doctor practicing medicine without a license—a change he made in the middle of the play’s run.
An early photo of Vargas, focusing on her beautiful face, and cropping out whatever masculine clothes she might have been wearing at the time.
A word of comfort to non-Spanish speakers: Mexican toddlers have a stronger command of the language than I do, but the first time I heard Chavela Vargas’ “Paloma Negra,” I knew exactly what she was saying. There are some artists that convey such an intense pathos without the benefit of a common language, even attempting to write about them leaves one feeling a little hackneyed, but I’ll do my best.
Chavela Vargas was born Isabel Vargas Lizano in Costa Rica in 1919. In the midst of an unstable childhood, she moved to Mexico at the tender ago of 14 to pursue a singing career in the burgeoning Mexican arts scene. For years she busked, wearing men’s clothing and smoking cigars. She carried a gun and embodied the machismo of her artistic idiom. Though she covered quite a bit of ground stylistically, Vargas was mainly known for her rancheras- traditional Mexican music performed with a single voice and Spanish guitar. Rancheras are often mournful torch songs sung by drunken men; alcohol provided a socially acceptable loophole for Mexican machismo to be shrugged aside for emotional and vulnerable performances. On the more rare occasion that rancheras were performed by women, gender pronouns were obviously switched to keep everything tidily heterosexual. Vargas simply sang to the girls.
Vargas in full poncho
It wasn’t until her 30s that her career began to flourish, kick-started by a brief but successful visit to pre-Castro Cuba. By the time she became popular in Mexico, she was as much known for her bombastic persona and unapologetic sexuality as she was for her powerful voice and intense performances. She would come to shows on motorcycles, smoke cigars onstage, imbibe heavily, and openly flirt with men’s wives during performances (many swear she took a few home with her). All of this was during a time when even wearing pants was scandalous behavior for a woman in Mexico. While she had a rich sense of humor, one of her stylistic trademarks was slowing down cheeky tunes, transforming what were originally dirty little ditties into something intensely erotic. The scandals cost her a lot of work, but Vargas had no interest in catering to anyone’s notion of respectability.
Much of her life is shrouded in rumor and half-truths. It’s said that Vargas walked with a limp due to an injury incurred while attempting to climb in the second story window of an ex-lover. (Given Vargas’ difficulties with alcoholism, this isn’t particularly difficult to believe.) It’s known that she was incredibly close to Frida Kahlo, even living with her and her husband, Diego Rivera, for a time. I’ve never found absolute confirmation that they were lovers, but it’s largely accepted as fact by fans of both artists. Vargas even made an appearance in the 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic, singing a ghostly version of one of her signature songs, “”La Llorona,” (“The Weeping Woman”). I urge you to listen to both versions back to back; Vargas’ age and alcoholism seasoned her voice with a quality I can only describe as post-beautiful.
While Vargas’ career was fraught with ups and downs, she virtually disappeared for about 15 years starting in the late 70s. Intense depression and alcoholism finally sent her into a long seclusion, but in 1991 she returned to the stage, happy, healthy and transformed. With her famed trademark innuendo, the 74-year-old butch lesbian declared her never-ending commitment to music at a concert in Madrid, saying, “When you like something, you should do it all night long.” She officially came out in 2000, at age 81, and played Carnegie Hall three years later. She continued singing and recording up until her death in 2012, at age 93.
Vargas and Frida Kahlo
Below is some rare early footage of Vargas performing her famous rendition of “Macorina,” a poem that she set to music of her own composition. During the refrain, “Put your hand here, Macorina,” Vargas’ own hand would wander between her thighs. It was her first hit, and it was originally banned in Mexico, a country that now reveres here as one of its great daughters. The lyrics:
Put your hand here, Macorina
Put your hand here.
Put your hand here, Macorina
Put your hand here.
Your feet left the mat
And your skirt escaped
Seeking the boundary
On seeing your slender waist
The sugar canes threw
Themselves down along the way
For you to grind
As if you were a mill.
Put your hand ...
Your breasts, soursop fruit
Your mouth a blessing
Of ripe guanabana
And your slender waist
Was the same as that dance
Put your hand ...
Then the dawn
That takes you from my arms
And I not knowing what to do
With that woman scent
Like mango and new cane
With which you filled me at
The hot sound of that dance.
Put your hand ...
Although for myself, I can’t even comprehend not liking Bette Midler—for me it was love at first sight—I am told that she is an acquired taste; and one that my darling wife—who has great taste in music and everything else, I hasten to add—has not acquired. This morning, I was blasting her first LP, The Divine Miss M from 1972 —I haven’t heard it in years—and it simply knocked me out. Produced by Barry Manilow, Ahmet Ertegun and the Grammy-award winning producer Joel Dorn, with a crack set of session musicians and back-up singers like Cissy Houston and Melissa Manchester, The Divine Miss M is nothing less than the unveiling of a very major talent on the world, as Midler’s 40+ years at the top of her profession attest to. She didn’t write any of the songs, but trust me, she owns them all. She’s one of those people who just oozes talent and concerning the quality of her voice and its incredible power, well, she belongs in that smallest circle of diva divas, like Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli and Ethel Merman. She’s got the lungs, no two ways about it.
This morning I was poking around the Internet reading about Bette Midler’s early career and there are a lot of interesting things I discovered, especially for those of you reading this who think of her more as the Midler-of-the-road songstress of “From A Distance,” than the raunchy, brassy young broad she started her career as.
The short story is that she was a talkative Jewish chick with a BIG personality who grew up in a mostly Asian neighborhood in Honolulu, who was dying to get out of there from an early age. She moved to New York in 1965 at the age of 20 and by 1967 she was playing the small role of Tzeitel in the original cast of Fiddler on the Roof, with Zero Mostel, Maria Karnilova, Bea Arthur and other notables.
Midler really came into her own, however, in the cabaret of the Continental Baths, a pioneering gay bathhouse where gay and straight culture mixed in the 70s. An Aretha Franklin album hit Midler like a bolt from the blue and she decided to become a singer, mixing campy classics like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Leader of the Pack” with her wacky thrift store fashion sense, quirky personality and dirty jokes. A friend suggested that she might want to consider launching her unconventional stage show at an unconventional place and so Midler took up a residency at the Continental Baths, playing next to a waterfall to an audience consisting of male bathhouse patrons wearing nothing but white towels and “chic” straight couples looking for an unusual night out.
It was here that Midler’s brassy “fag hag” persona (“I am the last of the truly tacky women”) took shape and it was imperative that she do everything she could to capture the attention of the Continental Baths clientele: after all, there was basically a Dionysian orgy going on all around her. When Midler opened her mouth to sing, the orgy parted like the Red Sea. Her musical director for her formative years was the aforementioned Manilow, who would perform, it has been said, wearing only a towel himself, as he sat at his piano.
While this underground residency was going on, Midler was performing regularly on mainstream talkshows like David Frost’s, Merv Griffin’s and even the super straight (but unfailingly sweet) Mike Douglas’ show. Where her star really rose, though, was when Johnny Carson took Midler on as a sort of protege. She appeared on The Tonight Show quite regularly for 18 months and even opened for Carson in Las Vegas. By the time The Divine Miss M came out, she was already a known quantity and Midler went on to win a Grammy that year, the album selling nearly a million copies.
Bette Midler is an important figure in the history of gay rights in this country. Not for any one thing that she did, more for what she stood for. When her show came to town, it was an excuse for her gay fans to come out in force, dress up and get their freak on, at a time there would have been few opportunities to do so in most American cities. With her big personality and “trash with flash” Midler became a rallying point for young gay men of the 70s, not in a political sense, but a cultural sense, Midler injecting sassy gay sensibilities into the mainstream via her megawatt talents.
Here are links to some clips of the Divine Bette performing at the Baths. Considering the scarcity of consumer video cameras at that time, it’s a wonder that any visual records of Midler’s performances there exist at all, but here they are, thank you to the glory of YouTube. The two best clips, “Marajuana” and Fat Stuff” are not embeddable. “Fat Stuff” has a lot of good stage banter. (I liked one of the YouTube comments: “Wow, this was back when you had to be talented to have a career!” Too true, too true…)
Short local NY news story from the 90s on Midler and the Continental Baths:
Keith Haring had the great good fortune to become one of the most iconic and recognizable of the downtown artists of the 1980s—and while it was fairly obvious that he was gay and that his sexuality played some role in his work, a lot of people may be unaware that, on certain occasions, he expressed that side of himself far more fully in his art. Not all of it was fit for T-shirts or refrigerator magnets, in other words.
In 1989 Haring took over the second-floor bathroom of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Center on 13th Street in Greenwich Village—the exact address is 208 West 13th Street—and turned every blank surface he could find into an astonishing tableau of his familiar figures throbbing with every kind of imaginable urge. The title of the mural is “Once Upon a Time.” In effect, it’s a pre-AIDS bacchanal, and the images are at once reminiscent of a smutty Hieronymus Bosch and (this might just be me) the stately public friezes that Gustav Klimt instigated in fin-de-siècle Vienna, which at the time were considered shocking (they don’t seem shocking today). There’s a lil’ Picasso in there, too.
A year and a half ago, the restoration on the site was completed—the space has been converted from a bathroom to a meeting room. According to the LGBT Community Center’s website, the mural is currently “under wraps” because of construction, but ordinarily it’s available to be viewed by the public (however, I’m not certain of the viewing times; it’s not a museum, so it’s probably best to call in advance).
These pictures are pretty NSFW—I think they’re very nice but your cubicle co-worker might not share the opinion.
This is probably the last TV interview Derek Jarman gave to the BBC. It was recorded in August 1993 for the series Edinburgh Nights, a magazine program that reviewed theatrical productions, movies and exhibitions from across the Festival. I’d worked on the show twice before, but this time I was back to direct only one item: an interview with Jarman.
On a quiet Sunday morning, in a small hotel situated at the end of a long Georgian terrace, we sat in a cramped front room with a view onto cobbled streets and lush green gardens hemmed in by a black iron fence. The room was cluttered, not an ideal location, but we were on quick-turn-around: shoot it, edit it, get it out.
I hadn’t seen Derek in four years. The last time was during a summer in Glasgow where he had been exhibiting at the Third Eye Center. He seemed happy, dressed in a blue boiler suit and we wandered around a park where we filmed an interview with Derek talking to Richard Jobson about The Pet Shops Boys, films, AIDs and sexual politics. Now it was heart-breaking to see him again, this beautiful, brilliant man dressed in orange and pink and yellow, in vibrant contrast to the ravaging effects of his illness.
Jarman was in Edinburgh to screen his latest film, Blue, a single-shot movie of saturated color (Yves Klein blue), over which actors read extracts from his diary detailing the weeks Derek had spent in hospital, blind as a result of an eye infection caused by HIV. The diary formed the backbone to Blue, from which stories branched out—a film he described as “a sort of Schererazade.” Though it was an intimate portrait of his illness, there was no self-pity for as usual, Jarman was only thinking of others:
”I wanted to convey some of what I’d seen, and the disaster of which I’ve been living through of the last few years. I mean for instance, last Thursday, I was in the hospital, and there was a mom with a two-year-old child who’s got the same infection in the eyes as I have, I couldn’t… I sat and watched as I waited, it was just quite terrible, honestly, you know, I was thinking of this child, you know, that’s all happening and people don’t see it, and they don’t think about it very often, and I hope the film sort of makes people think about that just for a moment.”
Blue was Derek Jarman’s twelfth and final feature film, for which he won the Michael Powell Award at that year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. It was a much deserved (if late) reward, but as I left to rush back to an edit, I still felt that we had all failed to truly appreciate the man’s genius.
These paperbacks from the days of Stonewall are simply incredible. They elicit phrases that increasingly seem dead to us now—“the closet,” “homosexual panic”—and for that reason they make me sad. They straddle the categories of alarmism and regular ol’ enjoyment—expressing the inherently coded nature of gay life during that era. In that sense their true meaning is confusion and pain. I hope they gave their readers pleasure. One can hope, at least, that this particular facet of sexual life is dying off.
They’re all from an imprint called French Line. I admire these books because they are so deadly intent about reaching their audience. The design of these covers is so potent—they are not kidding around. And hey—what’s Guy Fawkes doing writing Chamber of Homos, anyway? What’s up with that Nazi one? How long does it take to make a straight guy gay? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?
All of the covers but one use that circle-arrow male symbol—are those symbols themselves a relic of the sixties? you don’t see them very much anymore—and everything about these covers, every word and every image, is calculated to intrigue, alarm, and arouse.
Published in 1993 by the Queer caucus of the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, (formerly the above-ground auxiliary to the Weather Underground), this sly little bit of radical propaganda was handed out during the 1993 National Lesbian/Gay Rights March in Washington, DC. The event was far from culturally or ideologically uniform, with Sir Ian McKellen, RuPaul, Eartha Kitt and Urvashi Vaid (radical, anti-assimilation queer activist) all present.
At the time, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was becoming a high-profile issue, and as gay rights began to seep into the mainstream, the more radical queer communities began to push back with a critique of the newly “family-friendly” direction of the movement. Of course, now queer rights are almost wholly represented in mass media as naught but marriage and military service, and those who want no part of the US military or the wars they fight are dismissed as marginal malcontents.
Given the scatter-shot state of the anti-war movement at present, maybe we can bring this guy back as a new mascot?
It’s hard to believe, now that RuPaul is a beloved American icon who can be identified even by nursing home residents in Middle America, that cross-dressing used to be illegal. Despite being a long-standing tradition in Western civilization, especially in theater, the simple act of walking down a public street dressed in clothing associated with the gender you were not assigned at birth could get you arrested.
Non-heteronormative women, whether butches, drag kings, or transgender men, were easy targets for harassment and violence in pre-Stonewall America. Outside of the mainstream, their subculture survived in protected enclaves for most of the 20th century: gay- and lesbian-owned taverns, cabarets, and speakeasies, private clubs, salons, the annual Greenwich Village Drag Ball. At some universities and women’s colleges occasional cross-dressing parties were surprisingly socially acceptable.
But drag kings have been relatively obscure compared to drag queens, even on LOGO. It’s fairly easy to name four or five famous drag queens, but somewhat harder to name the same number of drag kings from today or a century ago.
Male bodied gender transgression has always been more visible, either because of guarding masculinity or simply because they are a lot taller. As a result so many female bodied performers have busted their asses with character, choreography, and costume and still never gotten to top the bill when queens are around. Now don’t get me wrong, I have some very dear friends who are queens, drag or otherwise. Some of my favorite performers are drag queens. That said, the constant removal of non-male bodied drag and gender performers from the drag movement, or even the queer movement, is fucking bullshit. Drag queens have long been a trademark representative of visual queerness, not because they are better in any way, but mainly because of the cultural dissonance caused by any male person “giving up” their masculinity for the less than desirable feminine presentation. I’m not saying drag queens haven’t been around the block, fighting the good fight. I’m just saying they weren’t the only ones there. Another element that I feel may contribute to the muffling of drag kings is the stereotyping of female-bodied queerness. it isn’t just straight porn projecting “straight looking” women fucking each other anymore. Shows like the L Word promote a gender-normative, hyper-sexualized female queerness that leaves no room for anything or anyone else. Who decided that genderfucked female bodies weren’t sexy? Homonormative, HRC pumping queer gentrification rears its ugly head again.
I asked JAC if it was likely that there will be a drag king equivalent of RuPaul any time soon. JAC replied:
At the moment, I don’t think it is likely. Heteronormative culture is fascinated with drag queens for one major reason—sexism and the obsession with masculinity. Masculinity and maleness are prized above all else in terms of power and privilege, so someone giving up masculinity is seen as comical, mysterious, confusing, and even fascinatingly disturbing. People feel the same way about kings, but less so as aspiring to masculinity is seen as reasonable and expected, since masculinity holds more power. Ironically, to those of us in the drag community, we think of it so differently; it is empowering and fun, challenging and political. Also, there is the irritating argument that queens take more work to get dressed, and are prettier’ and ‘sparklier’ than kings, and therefore deserve more attention. Anyone who says that obviously has never seen kings prepare for a show, or burst out on stage covered in sequins and bust out a complexly choreographed dance routine. And, we can’t forget that some of us are not kings or queens, but are in the middle of the genderbending spectrum, or there are also femmes and boy dancers (women who perform femininity, and men who perform masculinity). Being a genderbending performance artist myself, I am just as glittery and shiny as any queen, but why don’t I get the same attention? I don’t have penis and therefore it is supposed I can’t really be bucking the system that much. When I am outside my home community, say at a school or with an unfamiliar audience, I have actually noticed a difference in how the audience responds based on if they misread me as a queen, versus the next number when I am seen as a king or genderbender. So, if a drag audience is more preoccupied with queens, then I would assume the same for a TV audience. All in all, drag performers, no matter what kind, can be unfairly exotified or revered by outsiders no matter who or what we are. The levels are dependent on their own cultural views. But the real drag world is simply not what RuPaul’s show paints it to be and I don’t know if the media will ever care enough to show the world what we are really made of.
Here is a compendium of images of masculine drag from the past century. Whether these photos are from a one-off party, images of female cabaret or music hall entertainers in drag king costume, or a trans man’s daily wear is not always possible to pinpoint. But whatever their personal situation, they were living their lives exactly how they wanted and proud to be photographed doing so.
Above, Evelyn “Jackie” Bross, left, was 19 years-old and walking home from her job as a machinist at a defense plant when she was arrested for public indecency and cross-dressing in Chicago in 1943.
Music hall performer and drag king Ella Shields, 1933:
Murray 101: The life and times of Mr. Showbiz, 2009:
This morning, Drew Reisinger, Buncombe County, North Carolina’s Register of Deeds became the state’s first government official to seek approval for the granting of same-sex marriage licenses.
State Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has already signaled that the licenses will not be given—although he claims to personally support marriage equality—but Reisinger was undeterred and has forced a bit of a public confrontation over the matter.
“I will let each couple know that it is my hope to grant them a license, but I need to seek the North Carolina Attorney General’s approval,” he said. “I have concerns about whether we are violating people’s civil rights based on this summer’s Supreme Court decision.” (He’s referring here, in part, to North Carolina’s constitutional “Amendment One” banning gay marriage which passed with a comfortable margin—61% of the vote to 39% against—in 2012. Civil unions are not recognized in the state either.)
With a crowd of about 100 in the deeds office lobby cheering them on, same-sex couples filled out paperwork for marriage licenses beginning about 8 this morning.
Brenda Clark and Carol McCrory, of Fairview, were first in line. “We are hopeful that Attorney General Cooper will do the right thing and recognize our right to marry after 25 years in a committed relationship,” Clark said.
Reisinger said he will accept and hold same-sex marriage applications and push the question of equal marriage rights to Cooper, the state’s chief legal adviser, Reisinger said in a statement Monday night.
Drew Reisinger, you are truly a fine example of a public servant. And talk about the rock and the hard place that Drew and these charming ladies have put poor Cooper between. The guy says he’s pro equality. If so, why would he choose to vigorously oppose it in his state?
Cooper is widely expected to make a bid for governor in 2016. That’s why. Marriage equality isn’t something a pol in North Carolina—even a Democrat—wants hanging around his neck right now. He personally supports it, but so what if it’s politically risky? Cooper shouldn’t be able to have his cake and eat it on this issue. This is a matter of right and wrong and not political expediency. If this video makes the rounds the way it seems poised to—have your Kleenex ready—it’s going to put a lot of pressure on Roy Cooper to do the right thing.
Without a doubt, the very best coming out story I’ve ever heard saw the father of the “comer-outer”(?) react with probably the most hilariously droll and lovingly delivered deadpan line one could possibly whip out in that situation (and a joke held in reserve, no doubt, for some time in the teller’s back pocket):
“Well, they say that 10% of the population is gay and 15% are left-handed. At least my son won’t have trouble with scissors.”
I laughed until I cried when I heard that story over 20 years ago. I still do. If I end up having a gay kid, I will steal that line, Dr. Ferguson, you had better believe I will.
But, the best, most human and by far the sweetest thing I’ve seen all week (other than the Dachshund raising the baby ducks) is the “It Gets Better” video that was made by the mother of Bravo’s Andy Cohen. In it, Evelyn Cohen talks about what it was like for her when her son told her that he was gay, how she reacted and what she did afterwards. It’s really pretty amazing stuff, I promise you.
“I told this friend…‘What am I gonna do? Andy is gay,’ and she said, ‘What do you mean what are you going to do? He was gay yesterday and he’s the same person today. You just know a little more about him.’”