In 2007 John Maloof a young graduate working on a history project bought a suitcase full of photographic negatives in a Chicago auction hoping that one or two them maybe useful in his research. However what he discovered that day was a treasure trove of what is undoubtedly one on the finest collection of street photography ever made. They all turned out to be the work of one person a Vivian Maier, someone so totally unknown there wasn’t a single mention of her on Google or any other Internet search engine.
In 2014 a very similar event occurred when a trove of letters was discovered out of the blue in the storage locker of Los Angeles DJ and talent agent Reno Martin. They chronicled the joys, squabbles, and everyday lives of New York City drag queens during the 1950s and 60s.
The letters found their way from producer Craig Olsen into the hands of filmmakers Jennifer Tiexiera and Michael Seligman who turned this wonderful unique source of queer history into an engaging and compelling documentary that reveals a world that was such an important part of our community’s history in pre-Stonewall days.
Kudos for the filmmakers and their researchers for spending the next 4 years tracking down some of the letters surviving authors now all elderly gay men. And one transgender women.
When Martins’ work took him to LA a host of his NY drag queen friends insisted of writing him letters to fill him in with all the dish. They used a colorful campy language of their own some of which has since disappeared.
“There’s nothing like that Lana Turner pencil line of gorgeousness. Fuck Liz Taylor I want to be a bum that night.
Many of them had little or no income so they were avid shoplifters often making off with bales of expensive fabric to make thier glittery costumes. This evidently was called ‘mopping’ which even Urban Dictionary doesn’t seem to have heard of.
These were the days when homosexuality was illegal as was dressing up in womens clothing. It was the time of the ‘Lavender Scare‘ when the FBI would round up gay people, put them in jail, and then ensure that the newspapers would publish all their personal details. Being outed so publicly not only ruined people lives, but resulted in a great many details.
This documentary however focuses on the sheer joy that these particular gay men had living their own lives within society’s restrictions. Some of them got work as performers in the 82 Club . This was a elegant basement night club in the Bowery run by the Mafia and the audience would include likes of celebrities like Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, or Salvador Dalí. Otherwise it was a very straight ‘coach party’ crowd who made the drag performers feel both revered and reviled.
There was a cast of 32 most nights of female impersonators, illusionists and mimics ……. to them ‘drag queen’ was a term to describe the ones who worked the ‘street’.
It may have been tough but they were by all accounts a creative bunch. Unable to keep all their costumes and ‘paint’ at home for fear of being discovered they would club together to rent a room in Manhattan for $75 where they could all get dressed for the night.
The group included ‘Josephine Baker’ who her friends (righty) claimed was much pretty than the movie star herself. Josephine never paid for anything.and she and another performer broke in to the Metropolitan Opera one night and stole 72 of their very expensive wigs.
The other ‘Baker’ in the group was Billie a seamstress who could knock up a stunning couture gown for just $10. They needed these outrageously glamorous gowns to go to one of the Drag Balls. Somehow the City gave them one night Permits for what became the highlights of these NY queens social calendar.
One of the best of them was Phil Black’s in Harlem which with its very diverse crowd of gay and straight, black and white, made for one of the best inclusive events at that time.
The filmmakers intersperse this wonderfully colorful letters with vintage home movies, and photos. It is however the interviews with the queens themselves that give this movie its real heart. Each of them are so thankful that not only had they found where they belonged, but also that they all belonged together.
AIDS of course decimates their numbers like it did everywhere at that time in the 1980’s and gives us a sobering pause in this otherwise heartwarming tale.
So many men of that generation felt compelled to destroy all traces of their gay lives, or they families ended up doing this for them. This excellent totally unmissable movie should be a tribute to them too.
Their pasts helped shape our future and we are indebted to them all.
PS Burn This Letter Please is being screened at OUTFEST Virtual Film Fest