Wednesday, March 15, 2023

The Broadway Butterfly Murder, 100 Years Later and Still Unsolved

DOROTHY KING: The Dark Side of the Roaring Twenties



It's hard to believe that it's been 11 years since I wrote my detailed blog piece on the murder of Dorothy King, known forever after in the tabloids as the "Broadway Butterfly." And 100 years after the fact -- she was killed March 15, 1923 -- her case still remains unsolved. It doesn't get any colder than that. For those of you who may be interested in refreshing your memories about the tragedy and the scandal that ensued, or are just now discovering her, here is a link to the article I wrote back then. I have to admit that while I was researching the case, I grew fond of Dorothy King. I had a picture of her on my bulletin board over my desk for the longest time. Even now I feel that she was treated very poorly by the press, as well as by her associates and family. The truth of her murder deserves to be told some day. Hopefully the answers will finally come.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

King of Queens: Karyl Norman

The Creole Fashion Plate:

In the annals of vaudeville, one name stands alone: Karyl Norman. He, along with Francis Renault, and Julian Eltinge, were the reigning kings, or queens, if you will, of female impersonation. But while much has been written about Eltinge and other interpreters of drag, such as Bert Savoy, Tom Martelle, Gene Malin, Earl Lind and Ray Bourbon, little is known about Karyl Norman, who by all accounts was one of the most fascinating and glamorous of vaudeville's gender-bending vamps, the original voguin' vixen and one of the premier princesses of the so-called "Pansy Craze." Karyl Norman paved the way for countless female impersonators who came after him. He also wrote many of his own songs, which puts him in a different league than Eltinge and his peers who always used songs written by others. Karyl's legacy endures primarily due to his sheet music which shows up constantly on eBay, although many dealers are not aware that this stylish siren was in reality a man.
Most accounts of Karyl Norman, I've found, are just plain wrong. His name is often misspelled, both his stage name and his birth name. I've seen mentions of him as "Norman Carroll," "Carl Newman," "Norman Thomas," and "Carole Norman." Writers have claimed his real name was George Paduzzi. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre says it was "Poduzzi." One account I read said that he was born in Australia; another that he was African-American and lived in Harlem. Yet another stated that he ran away from home at the age of 16 to join a minstrel show. The truth is less exotic but just as fascinating. Here is what I've managed to find out so far.
Karyl Norman was born George Francis Peduzzi on June 13, 1897 to a middle class family in Baltimore, Maryland. John Waters would be proud. George came from a long line of Peduzzis. According to census records, his family had been in Baltimore for generations, as far back as the 1790s. His grandfather Francis Peduzzi, born in Maryland around 1823, was a blacksmith and coach maker. Francis's father had come from Italy and settled in Maryland. (A Peter Peduzi married Sally Shaw in 1797 in Baltimore; this might be Francis's father.) By 1880 Francis had retired as a "grocer." He had married his wife, Amelia Chanceaulme, back in June, 1845. She must be the source of Karyl's fascination with Creole culture. The Chanceaulmes go back to the 1790s in Philadelphia. Martin Chanceaulme, born in the West Indies, around 1788, was a master craftsman and cabinet maker who did work for Winterthur. He moved to Baltimore by 1840 and is listed as white, with no "colored persons" in the household. Back in the 1700s, the word "creole" merely meant that someone was born in the colonies of French or Spanish descent. It did not imply necessarily that one was of mixed race.

Young George took the name Karyl Norman from his father, a carpenter, who was born Norman Augusta Peduzzi. It's not clear when Norman died, but he's listed on a passport application Karyl filled out in 1917, so he may have been alive at that point. I've not been able to find out any source for the name Karyl except that his mother, nee Mary Drusilla Hoffman, was born in Carroll County, Maryland. She was the devoted stage mother type, handy with a needle, who helped design Karyl's outlandish and sumptuous gowns. She traveled with him whenever he performed and eventually moved with him to New York City in the 20s when he lived above the nightclub where he worked. They were inseparable. When Karyl went to Europe in 1921 to perform in England and France, he took his mother along with him. When he returned on the Olympic and was met by the press at the disembarkation, she was standing by his side. Mama Rose had nothing on her.
But why did young Karyl style himself as the Creole Fashion Plate? Well, it turns out that the term "creole fashion plate" was not a new notion. Other minstrel performers had used the phrase around the same time. A "fashion plate" was a Victorian expression referring to sewing patterns that were sent out in template form and then cut along the patterns to recreate the design. Magazines like Godey's in the 1850s and 60's often printed color plates showcasing the latest Parisian styles. It was the height of chic to be called a "fashion plate," since it meant that one's own handsewn creations were the latest vogue.
When Karyl first took his act on the road, he was dubbed simply -- The Creole Fashion Plate. Flaunting his Creole roots was only natural. But there was also a long-standing tradition in minstrel shows of female impersonation. It goes back to before the Civil War, when traveling troupes donned blackface and imitated the high-spirited music of slaves. By the 1910s, touring "tabloid" shows were common. Parodying beautiful young black belles was part of the act. Black minstrel stars also put on blackface to accentuate the farce. Bert Williams, for example, was one of the biggest stars in show business. Karyl found his own peculiar niche and used it to his advantage, although he does not seem to have ever used cork to make himself appear darker. Perhaps his swarthy Italian coloring was sufficient, although his 1917 passport application describes his complexion as "fair." Whatever the shade of his skin tone, it seems apparent that Karyl needed to play up the minstrel aspects of his stage act in order to find work. First because it fit into the minstrel tradition but also because it was less threatening to society for an exotic Creole to be prancing around in women's clothes than some effeminate white guy from Baltimore.

But parade he did. In April 1916, Karyl performed in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland as George F. Peduzzi in Ned O'Brien's minstrel show at the City Opera House. He was listed simply as "singer." O'Brien, one of the top blackface comedians of the era, staged a number called "Darktown's Bravest Fighting the Flames." But it was "Geo F. Peduzzi" who won raves the next day as "an unrivalled female impersonator." Karyl's act was an immediate sensation. His costumes were over the top, yet never trashy. He had an innate sense of chic no matter how outré his routines. Thanks to his mother's handiwork, his creations dazzled theatregoers, male and female alike. He twirled about the stage in satins and silks and marabou feathers. He also had a gift for singing, his voice traipsing along two octaves, chasing notes from the top of his lady-like trill down to the depths of his ringing baritone. Variety noted that he could switch from a "male voice to a female falsetto "with the agility of a Flatbush commuter changing trains." Judging by his passport photo, he looked like what I imagine a Flatbush commuter would look like. But he's described on the form as being "5 Foot 6 inches tall. Dark Brown eyes. Dark Brown Hair. Straight Nose. Small Mouth. Round chin. High Forehead. Oval Face."

Despite his lack of looks out of drag, audiences clamored for more. Karyl was signed to the prestigious B. Keith syndicate and toured the country in Orpheum theatres alongside the Mellette Sisters, popular dancers of the day. First billed just as "The Creole Fashion Plate" without a name, it was left to audiences to decide if he was male or female. He was marketed as "Puzzling and Delightful!" "The Master Illusionist!" In Winnipeg, Canada, he won rave reviews: "He or she... possesses equally good soprano and bass voices. Seldom does a woman show more grace than the Fashion Plate, and seldom is a man more muscular." As his fame grew, Karyl's name was added to the marquee. Demand was strong. The new kid on the block, Karyl Norman, who had once worshiped at the heels of Francis Renault when he played Baltimore, was now giving even Julian Eltinge a run for his money. Karyl did find time amid his busy schedule to fill out a World War One draft registration card. But it would appear his services as a "theatrical performer" were not needed in the army.
In 1917, Karyl sailed to Australia to bring his novelty act to another continent. One can only imagine what the populace thought of his amusing Creole turns. Returning in February 1918 to Vancouver, Karyl continued to refine his act. He went back on tour. As silent pictures began to dominate the market, he introduced silver screen sirens into his routine, impersonating bombshells like Theda Bara, the original Vamp, and later Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson in Somerset Maugham's Rain. Karyl billed his art as "character impression," rather than female impersonation. But the audiences lapped it up no matter what it was called. Throughout the next ten years, he traveled the country, performing from Brooklyn to Oakland. He became one of the top headliners, as famous as Fanny Brice and Will Rogers. He did not always dress in drag. One of his most popular routines was dressing as a country bumpkin, a la Huckleberry Finn, which he performed in a play entitled That's My Boy.

Whatever Karyl Norman may have been in his private life, he was a master showman on the stage and a whiz at publicity. In 1921 he announced that he was engaged to the dazzling acrobatic star of vaudeville, Ruth Budd. This seemed to press agents a match made in hype heaven. For Ruth Budd was as masculine as Karyl was feminine. They were the Eagle and the Dove cooed gossip columnists, but it wasn't quite clear which was the Eagle and which the Dove.
Ruth Budd had made a name for herself as "The Girl with the Smile." Dangling from ropes in a tight-fitting white union suit, she dazzled audiences with her "dainty" and "winsome" charm, but also her "muscles of steel." She made her film debut as Darwa, a female Tarzan, in the 1919 flick A Scream in the Night. So when his engagement to this tomboy beauty was called off in 1922, few Broadway wags were surprised. As one newspaper put it, "He is the epitome of fastidious femininity -- coy, shrinking, super-refined. He is the violet, the cut glass, the rare china, the dove." And she, by inference, was the eagle.
What went wrong? Some blamed Rudd's domineering stage mother who didn't care for Karyl. Others said it was Mrs. Peduzzi who interfered, unwilling to share her son with another woman. Others claimed that Karyl had made the fatal mistake of offering to his bride-to-be suggestions on how to improve her act. She shot back that she'd been in vaudeville before he knew what a stage door looked like. Her accompanist Leo Minton took Karyl's side. She fired him on the spot and performed the next four days without an accompanist. Karyl called her from a drug store and rescinded his engagement vows. Ruth Budd was no softie. She sued Karyl for a whopping $50,000 for "breach of promise."
What those in-the-know knew, of course, was that Karyl was not the marrying kind. Unlike Eltinge who fiercely protested that he was not that way, Karyl was less inclined to mince words. Earlier in 1921, Karyl had been made an honorary member of the Ohio State University's dramatic club. The boys who dolled up as girls in the annual "Scarlet Mask" put on an all-male show called "Oh, My Omar," sporting Karyl's seductive wardrobe. He had donated his costumes, worth over $3000, the papers said, because of his devotion to the cast. In 1924, he was slated to appear in the fabled Greenwich Village Follies, which catered to the Bohemian set. Cole Porter wrote the music and lyrics that year. But according to various reports I've read, Karyl seems to have been dropped in favor of Fifi D'Orsay when the show went on tour.
Once when the Marx Brothers were appearing with Karyl in some dingy dive on the road somewhere, Groucho was asked to introduce the vaudeville star. But Groucho got tongue-tied and called Karyl, "The Queer Old Fashion Plate," and lost his job. So says Harpo in his memoirs. Others have claimed that quip as their own, including author Kenneth Rexroth who first saw Karyl in 1923 at The Green Mask, a "tea room" in San Francisco. He bitchily dubbed Karyl, a "queer ole chafing dish."

Whatever his critics might have called him, Karyl had the last laugh. He continued to wow audiences from coast to coast. In 1925 Wood Soanes, writing in the Oakland Tribune, lauded him as "a top-notch entertainer," the "premier female impersonator on the stage." Norman, he went on, "brings youth and a feminine voice that Eltinge in his prime did not possess." He "scored a tremendous hit with the Orpheumites who called him back for two encores and treated him to so many curtain calls that a speech was necessary to allow the show to proceed." The following year, in July, Soanes added that Karyl Norman was set to appear in a new play called "The Half-Caste" by Jack McClellan. It's not clear if that show ever made it to the stage.
In April 1927, however, Karyl Norman made the leap from "vo-de-ville" to the legitimate stage when he was given his own Broadway show: Lady Do, at the Liberty Theatre. A full-fledged musical, choreographed by none other than Busby Berkeley who would go onto fame in Hollywood, the show also starred lovely Nancy Welford. Karyl played several characters, including Rose Walthal who lived on a large estate in Roslyn, Long Island. Despite ho-hum notices -- the Times said it ran to "two exceedingly long acts" -- the spectacle, set in Paris and New York, ran for 50 performances and was a triumph for Karyl who had come a long way from little ol' Baltimo'. The show also marked the Broadway debut of a handsome young Latin lover named Cesar Romero who waltzed about the stage with his partner Elizabeth Higgins, a young heiress.
Soon Hollywood beckoned. Karyl was signed by Vitaphone Pictures at Warner Bros to appear in a couple of shorts: Types in which he sang "Georgianna," "Daisy Days" and "5 Foot 2"; and Silks and Satins, in which he crooned "Daddy Come Home" while gussied up in his Creole finery. In 1929 he was appearing beside Jimmy Durante at the Palace.

In 1930 Karyl, after returning from another triumphant tour of Australia and New Zealand, achieved fame of a different sort when he appeared as the headline attraction at a new nightspot called The Pansy Club at 204 W. 48th Street, on the corner of Broadway in New York. Part of the so-called Pansy Craze of the late 20s and 30s, this club catered to a different clientele than those of his old vaudeville days. The queerness of drag was coming out of the closet. No one who dropped by the Pansy Club could claim ignorance as to the sexual persuasion of the "queens" who vogued along its runways. Like the drag balls up in Harlem, the Pansy Club was a hideaway for a burgeoning underground gay subculture, but also a haven for aging flappers and party-goers who liked "slumming." That these establishments were run by gangsters proved their undoing however.
In January 1931, the Pansy Club was raided by the police and shut down, as was Cleo's Ninth Avenue Saloon at 46th Street. Just a few nights before Dutch Schultz, the notorious mobster, had been gunned down and stabbed, and very nearly killed, at Club Abbey, a notorious late-night hang-out where drag queen extraordinaire Gene Malin ruled the roost. Malin had previously starred at Club Rubiyat in Greenwich Village. While Schultz survived, others were killed and the police cracked down on all late-night clubs which violated blue laws. Some gay historians see the crackdown as motivated more by homophobia than concern for safety, but at the time it was defended as a direct response to organized crime's involvement in Manhattan's cabaret scene.

The raid seems to have impacted Karyl's career. While he continued to perform at vaudeville venues -- he was at the Orpheum in Oakland in October 1931, and at the Palace again with Jimmy Durante -- he worked more often at nightclubs. Vaudeville was dying. Most acts now were used simply as filler between movies. Talkies were the new fad. Karyl did a few RKO gigs at movie palaces. But it was less thrilling than his glory days as a B. Keith headliner. In 1932, Karyl found work as hostess at La Boheme, a now legendary nightclub in Los Angeles. Outfitted with 350 seats, La Boheme was everything its name implied, and catered to Hollywood celebs and their entourage, but it closed shortly after opening due to liquor violations. By 1933 he had opened his own place: the Karyl Norman Supper Club where he co-starred with soubrette: Colette Convoy.
Come 1934, Karyl's career showed no signs of winding down. He played the Parthenon in a show called "Harlem Scandals," alongside "12 sepia beauties" in a huge "colored revue" with stage, screen and radio stars. In July that same year, he was performing opposite Morton Downey at the Mayfair Gardens in Baltimore. In 1937 he moved across the continent where he was a fixture at San Francisco's Finocchio's, perhaps the most famous club featuring female impersonators. Then his career petered out. I can't find any trace of him for the next few years. Perhaps he got bored with the endless routine. But in 1943, columnist Leonard Lyons wrote that "Karyl Norman, the Creole Fashion Plate, is preparing a comeback with an impersonation of Lena Horne." No doubt his career was experiencing its own "Stormy Weather."

Most accounts state that George Francis Peduzzi died in 1947 in Hollywood, Florida. I haven't been able to find an obit for him. But a "George Peduzzi" is listed in Florida's death records for that year in Broward County. Most likely it is him. I like to think that he was enjoying the sun and fun of Florida's white sandy beaches when he died, a mere 50 years old, an aging beauty with perhaps too much makeup on, sort of a Creole version of Aschenbach from Death in Venice. His death may have gone unnoticed by many, but for those in the know, Karyl Norman will always reign as the unrivaled diva of vaudeville.
[ADDENDUM: While reading Robert Bloch's memoir, I was startled to find out that the author of Psycho had chosen the name Norman Bates partly because he wanted to reference, even subconsciously to readers, Karyl Norman! Bloch also said that it occurred to him that Bates was "neither woman nor man," a pun that underscored the cross-dressing that was part of his mental fixation with his mother. This little known fact was revelatory to me, especially since it shows that Karyl's legacy was even wider and more enduring than I imagined.]

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Through a Glass Noir

James Baldwin's "Peculiar" Tale 

[My essay, below, first appeared last month in Arts Coast Journal, at Link in previous post]

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is one of those rare novels that literally changes lives. Numerous authors over the years have singled it out as a favorite, one that inspired them in fact to become writers. Recently, BBC News listed it as “one of the 100 novels that shaped our world.” The Advocate placed it first on a list of the 25 best LGBT novels of all time. And yet when Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room back in the mid-‘50s it was a failure. His publisher, Alfred Knopf, who had launched him as one of the most prominent new writers of his generation just a few years before with Go Tell It On the Mountain, rejected it, calling it “repugnant.” One of his editors actually suggested Baldwin burn the manuscript or risk ruining his career.

The “problem” with Giovanni’s Room, a tale of a tortured love affair between two men in Paris, was that it dealt candidly with homosexuality, a subject that was taboo in mainstream culture and that was still illegal in the United States. But even more so, James Baldwin was African-American, and there were no black characters in the novel. Some of his supporters felt he had abandoned the cause. Others felt he had sold-out, or was over-reaching. One friend called it “a book in drag.” Baldwin argued that he had been treated poorly because the powers-that-be thought he was being “uppity,” attempting a novel that clearly was the turf of better known figures, i.e., the establishment, such as Henry James and Ernest Hemingway.

Yet Baldwin was undaunted. He sent it to another publisher, Michael Joseph in England, who didn’t have the squeamishness of his American counterparts. The book was then published in the States by Dial Press in 1956, and in subsequent paperback versions that sold very well. Over time, the novel has taken on its own iconic status, becoming one of Baldwin’s most admired books. In a telling twist of fate, it was recently reissued by Everyman’s Library, a division of Knopf.

Recently I picked up Giovanni’s Room again. I was looking for inspiration for my own novel, parts of which take place in Paris. I was struck by how wonderfully lyrical, and completely modern his book is, even now. The imagery is startling; the psychological intrigues intense. The language may seem tame by today’s standards, the sex perhaps too couched, some of the dialogue stilted, the female characters at times borderline caricatures, but the themes Baldwin explored — the dangers of lying to oneself, of self-hatred, and of homophobia — are as relevant today as they were back in the repressed 50s.

Baldwin knew the devastating impact these deceptions can have first hand. At 24 he moved to Paris, an exile by default who went abroad in order to write, but also to explore his sexuality with less restrictions and opprobrium. He mingled with other literary expats at les Deux Magots and Cafe de Flore, notably Richard Wright, Terry Southern, Herbert Gold, Chester Himes, and Alfred Kazin. He hobnobbed with Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean Genet, a friend, as well as a tetchy Truman Capote when he sailed into town for a visit.

But Baldwin, for all the glamour of his surroundings, was hardly enjoying the high life of expats as glorified by Hemingway. This was not Midnight in Paris. He was living hand to mouth, barely able to afford food, often crashing with friends, or finding cheap digs in the Latin Quarter, sporting rags and hand-me-downs, becoming as he put it, one of “les miserables,” a “lamentable.” At one point he even had to sell his clothes and his typewriter just to survive. At another, he was thrown in jail, allegedly for stealing bed sheets. The seedy confines of Giovanni’s room, from which the novel takes its name, resembles a jail cell, a prison of the mind in which the couple live out their doomed affair. It was a hard, often unhealthy lifestyle, but one that offered Baldwin something he rarely felt back in the States: freedom. Not just as a black man, but as a gay man. While in Paris, Baldwin fell in love with a young Swiss artist, Lucien, whom he met at a bar not unlike the one depicted in the novel. Giovanni’s Room is dedicated to him.

The first time I read Giovanni’s Room, I too had escaped to Paris, as a high school exchange student, living with a French family. A friend had given me a paperback copy of the book, suggesting it might “open my mind.” The cover drew me in, a pulpy sketch showing a handsome dark-haired young man posing seductively, his sensual eyes challenging the reader to take him on. There was nothing immediately evident to indicate to me that Baldwin was black, and none of the characters in the book were either. At first glance it seemed to be the type of novel Gore Vidal might have written. Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, which had been published earlier, in 1948, had explored similar themes. But Baldwin’s writing, I discovered, had heart and soul, something noticeably lacking in Vidal’s. And Baldwin was determined to avoid clichés, to write a gay-themed book that did not end, as Vidal’s original version had, and as so many other homosexual novels had before it, in suicide.

Giovanni’s Room did open my mind, but it acted too as a mirror. I recognized myself in its pages. Even though I was still sexually naive, and inexperienced, I had witnessed many of the characters Baldwin chronicles in his book: the pretty boys, drag queens and hustlers who make up the demimonde of late night Paris. I loved reading about their drunken cat-fights, louche liaisons, the rough-and-tumble sex. I even knew someone like the character Jacques, a generous old queen who is a mentor to the protagonist David. I’d met an older man, also named Jacques, who owned a chateau in France. He took me to a gay bar with a rowdy drag show that was straight out of La Cage Aux Folles. Our friendship was all very chaste, above board. Nothing untoward, as they say, happened. He was a gentleman. But I remember the thrill when he gave me 100 francs, no small sum to an 18-year-old then, and told me to treat myself to a night on the town.

I’d already been exploring Paris’s demimonde on my own. One evening, even though I had to be at school early the next morning, I snuck out at midnight and went to Le Drugstore, a brightly-lit American-style cafe on the Champs Élysées notorious for attracting prostitutes and their clients of both sexes. I had stumbled across it by accident one evening with school friends and promised myself I would go back on my own. That night I found myself sitting next to a table of a handful of young men, rail thin and too cocky for their own good, reminding me of the “knife-blade, tight trousered boys” described in Giovanni’s Room. Some had bleached blond or hennaed hair, and wore leather jackets and boots. They chain-smoked Gitanes and drank Pernod. One of them whispered hoarsely in guttural French to his mates. I could barely make out what he was saying, but the gist of it was clear. He had just come back from “rolling” a john, a trick. The group of boys laughed raucously and joked about finding another.

I felt a powerful sexual tension while observing them, especially since one of the hustlers kept staring at me, but also because I felt I was reliving what James Baldwin had so hauntingly evoked. Despite my youth, I was desperate to be part of their world, and his world. Perhaps it was loneliness or a desire for what the French call la nostalgie de la boue. In school we had read Verlaine and Rimbaud, and were taught that to create great poetry and to understand life one had to push one’s senses to the absolute limit. In my own small way, I was charting that path, hoping to become a writer. I thought of the quote by Walt Whitman which appears at the very start of Baldwin’s novel: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” It cut very close to home.

Perhaps that is why Baldwin chose to write Giovanni’s Room in the first person. Baldwin said he was initially reluctant to do so, citing Henry James, whom he considered “the master,” as a critic of the practice. But ultimately I think Baldwin knew that readers would respond more viscerally to the story if it were told directly, not from a remove, to see the novel, as Stendhal wrote, as a mirror, reflecting reality, both high and low. One can’t help but recognize shades of Baldwin in his chosen narrator, David, the handsome jock who shacks up with Giovanni in his fatefully dingy room. (David, it should be noted, was also Baldwin's stepfather’s name.) In fact, the novel opens as David sees his own reflection in a window, a twist on the Narcissus legend, but also revealing of his character, since he only sees himself, rather than the world that lies beyond. Baldwin was writing his own memoir in disguise, almost as if he were channeling himself in David, for in fact it was in many ways his own story, his own experience, his own tragedy.

At first glance, David seems to be the polar opposite of Baldwin. He’s white, blond, well-built. He stems from a long line of Caucasian ancestors, a point he underscores almost guiltily. Born in San Francisco, David was raised in Seattle, then moved to New York and eventually Connecticut. By his late 20s, bored and feeling frustrated, he leaves his family for Paris to “find himself.” He’s also hyper masculine, almost a parody of the macho man of his day. He played football in high school, is called “Butch” by his dad, and exudes an All-American stoic reserve that seems light years away from Baldwin’s own raw emotional nakedness. But David, like Baldwin, is rootless, a changeling. Baldwin was a bastard child, and David seems to bear a similar chip on his shoulder. He lost his mother when he was five. His father, who remarried, is aloof and unfeeling. He’s a loner, with few friends. Baldwin likewise never knew his father. His mother, a domestic, married another man who became Baldwin’s stepfather. They were not close. Like Baldwin, David is a heavy drinker prone to destructive binges. He admits that in one of them he exposed his true nature by making a pass at a sailor in a gay bar, shocking his friends, who believed he was straight. He’s also full of self-contempt, a deep-seated anger at the world that he hides beneath his steely armor. Such existential despair was a common theme in film noir and the tough Black Mask magazine mystery stories that led to them. Baldwin seems to be toying with the genre, structuring his novel around a scandalous murder case in which David is intimately involved.

David, for all his reserve, is a man of secrets. He hides a painful truth, one he’s succeeded in burying, claiming to others that he’d never slept with a man before. But then, he reveals to the reader, right at the outset of the book, an encounter he had with a young friend, Joey, near Coney Island in Brooklyn, when they were both boys. In a beautiful passage, Baldwin describes a brief encounter in which the two friends fall into each other’s arms and have exhilarating sex. Joey is described as “dark” or “brown” with “dark eyes” and “curly hair” — he is the other, and one can’t help but feel that on some level he is also a stand-in for a young James Baldwin. The happiness that the two boys share that night is quickly extinguished the next morning when David shuts it down. Joey’s body “suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured till madness came, in which I would lose my manhood.” Even the bed in which they’d lain “testified to vileness.” He cuts Joey off. And when he next sees him, David “picked up with a rougher, older crowd, and was very nasty to Joey. And the sadder this made him, the nastier… [he] became.”

It is this painful memory that sets the tone for the revelations to come, and one assumes the narrator will move beyond it, learn from it. That’s what novels are supposed to do. They’re journeys, lessons in life. But instead what we discover as we get further into Baldwin’s novel is that David is fated to relive this soul-killing over and over again. It’s the myth of Sisyphus; he is the homme fatal, fated to repeat this experience. But as with any type of sexual repression, or addiction, the result is much worse the next time around, a chain reaction of bad karma. And the next victim in his sights, Giovanni, will not, can not survive. He is to be sacrificed, destroyed. 

Shades of homophobia and self-hatred are deeply ingrained in David’s persona, and that’s the essence of the novel — that denying one’s true self will lead to destruction not only to one’s soul, but those around one. It’s easy to read David’s attraction to Giovanni, whom he meets in a bar where the boy works, as a romance. But Baldwin has something much trickier up his sleeve. This novel is actually an anti-romance, a Liebestod, or love/death song, told as a noir.

David describes his initial encounter with Giovanni as a seduction. Giovanni woos David, forces him to open up, to relax. He sees behind David’s mask. He takes him to bed that first night and David moves in with him. It all seems preordained. But that’s just how David is remembering it. How he has convinced himself it happened. And how he is relating it. In fact when David first sees Giovanni he describes him as a magnificent creature of the jungle, a lion. He’s irresistible and all-powerful. It’s easy to overlook, however, the line in which David compares Giovanni to a figure on “an auction block,” in short, a slave. Slowly one realizes that it is David who is the lion and that Giovanni’s room will become the arena, and Giovanni the martyr.

Paris room, by Brassai

Baldwin offers other hints to David’s dark side. It’s easy to see him as the affable jock, the All-American, a saint. But earlier in a scene at the bar, when an older gay man walks by, David feels disgust and derides this figure as “a zombie,” one of the undead. It’s a strikingly creepy moment. Time seems to stand still. The haunting image is eerily reminiscent of the overly made-up pestilent fop who appears as a harbinger of the plague in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, a book Baldwin admired. One also senses the influence of Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart, which is a story told in the first person, of a man who lives with a man, and then murders him. You hear Poe in the cadences of the narrator’s anguished, guilty revelations, in the oppressive Grand Guignol atmosphere, and the sense of impending doom, the death knell countdown to the inevitable fall of the guillotine and Giovanni’s death.

In a telling scene, David meets up with his flamboyant mentor Jacques, his reliable sugar daddy who always pays for his meals and drinks. It’s never really clear what their relationship is. Or was. Jacques is mystified by the way David treats Giovanni. He accuses him of being a sadist. And a hypocrite. David in turn is repulsed by him and dismisses the old queens who prey on young men, asking: “Is there really no other way for you but this? To kneel down forever before an army of boys for just five dirty minutes in the dark?” But Jacques parries deftly: “Think of the men who have kneeled before you while you thought of something else and pretended that nothing was happening down there in the dark between your legs.” The comment unnerves David. It acts as a Freudian slip might, exposing something David, who is relating the incident, has buried in his subconscious. Clearly David is not the innocent he claims to be and we as the reader have to wonder, how much else of his tale is a cover-up, a lie?

From there the narrative begins deliberately to unravel, fragment. Giovanni loses his job at the bar and comes unhinged. His emotional needs suffocate David, who takes out his frustrations on Giovanni, finding fault in his every move, in the filthy cluttered room he lives in, even mocking Giovanni’s appearance. One afternoon, out of spite, he picks up an American girl named Sue and takes her to bed, using her almost violently, humiliating her. Afterward, he walks along the Seine, thinking of suicide. Then his fiancée, who bears the curious name Hella, finally returns to Paris. When she meets Giovanni she teases David about his “peculiar friends.” Feeling trapped, David decides to stay with her, turning his back on Giovanni and his homosexual past. The two decide to leave Paris and relocate to the south of France.

But it’s no good. In the end David loses both Giovanni and Hella. Despite opting for marriage in the future, with dreams of raising children, David can’t escape his other self. He goes on a bender, leaving Hella alone while he shacks up with some randy sailors he picks up in Nice. By the time Hella tracks down David to a seedy gay bar, with his arm around a drunken sailor, it’s too late for a revelation or a reunion. She leaves David just as he had left Giovanni.  

And what of Giovanni? Once betrayed by David, Giovanni descends into a spiral of despair, drinking heavily and using drugs, resorting to theft to make ends meet. He becomes Jacques’s kept boy, degrading himself further. Finally he kills his former employer, the bar owner Guillaume. He steals some cash and strangles him with the sash of his robe. Giovanni hides out on a barge until he is discovered. The state exacts its ultimate revenge. He is to be beheaded for his crime, executed by guillotine, a fate clearly echoing that of another outsider, Julien Sorel, in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

The plot twists of Giovanni’s Room may seem a bit melodramatic to our modern sensibilities. But Baldwin wasn’t just going for Grand Guignol effects or playing the noir card. His story was grounded in fact. He was inspired by a figure he’d met in a bar in Paris, a handsome grifter with a dark, criminal past, who ended up committing murder and being executed for it. The guillotine was still prevalent in Paris when Baldwin wrote his novel and unbeknownst to me was still in use when I was living there in the mid-70s. It was finally banned in 1977.

Giovanni’s Room ends as it began. David is in the south of France, packing up to leave. He stands now in front of a mirror, naked, examining himself. In a strange moment of self-awareness, he blames his body for his unhappiness. “And I look at my body, which is under sentence of death. It is lean, hard, and cold, the incarnation of a mystery.” And while he imagines Giovanni far off in Paris being led to the guillotine, facing a door, beyond which “the knife is waiting,” David looks at his own body in a similar macabre light. “I look at my sex, my troubling sex,” he states, “and wonder how it can be redeemed, how I can save it from the knife.” But at the very moment he imagines Giovanni is being slain, David steps away from the mirror, packs up his belongings and exits his house, tearing up a letter Jacques has written him about Giovanni. He throws the pieces into the air, but a gust of wind causes some of them to fall back on him. He can’t escape the memory of Giovanni, nor what he did to him. We are left to assume David will return to America, to his former life, no doubt to start the dark cycle all over again.  


Saturday, June 29, 2019

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Mystery of George Baxt

Pioneering Pen: George Baxt
In lofty discussions of pioneering gay writers in fancy literary journals the name George Baxt rarely comes up. But Baxt, a former agent turned writer, was far more influential than he is given credit for. His work ranges from theater and film (he wrote the screenplay for the cult fright flick Circus of Horrors) to a series of popular mystery novels, including the ground-breaking pre-Stonewall classic: A Queer Kind of Death.

George Baxt was a true character, the kind of guy you'd love to have at a party, but would hate to have on your bad side. He had a wicked tongue, spitting out barbs like watermelon seeds. I never met the man. But I'd heard over the years about his enormous wealth of knowledge about the theater, old talkies and movie stars. He knew where all the bodies were buried and was never shy about spilling the dirt.  Reading through his hilarious books, of which I have a small collection, I got to thinking. Why isn't George Baxt better known? It's a riddle I tried to solve the only way I know how, by reading everything I could find about him.
I first encountered the name George Baxt when I stumbled upon a copy of A Queer Kind of Death. Published in 1966, it featured a campy gay detective, and a black one to boot: Pharoah Love. (The spelling mistake in his first name was deliberate). Pharoah Love was an audacious "cool cat" who loved jazz, his swanky Jaguar and sexy white boys. Campy, outrageous, arch and far-fetched, the novel created a sensation. This was before gay liberation and very few "legitimate" books were published with openly homosexual heroes. (For the record, there had been gay detectives in previous works, most notably, Rodney Garland's The Heart in Exile (1953) and The Gay Detective by Lou Rand in 1960.) Baxt was shocked by the response. He hadn't thought it was that unusual. He was basically writing about people and the life he knew in Greenwich Village and the rest of Manhattan. But the book struck a Pre-Stonewall nerve. It was hip, irreverent and sexy. Anthony Boucher of the New York Times gave it a rave review, noting that the salty tale "deals with a Manhattan subculture wholly devoid of ethics or morality. Staid readers may well find it shocking, but it is beautifully plotted and written with elegance and wit." Rarely has a first book found such a devoted audience. The love affair with Pharoah Love continued. Baxt followed Queer up with two Love sequels: Swing Low, Sweet Harriet; and Topsy and Evil.
Later, I re-encountered Baxt's work when I dove into The Dorothy Parker Murder Case, the debut title in a series of mysteries he concocted in the 80s, using celebrity sleuths. He commandeered Noel Coward, George Raft, Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and even Alfred Hitchcock into his series, penning riotous, madcap capers with each of them that are wickedly clever and entertaining.

For my money, none is funnier than the first one. The Dorothy Parker Murder Case is a marvel to read. The writing is fluid. Self-assured. Totally committed. And absolutely hilarious. It's as if Baxt were channeling Dorothy Parker herself which is no small accomplishment. It opens with a harrowing bit of black comedy. Dorothy Parker is attempting suicide in the john of her hotel room after ordering lunch. "After slitting her wrists, Dorothy Parker sat in the bathroom waiting patiently to be rescued." That's all he needed to say. It sets the wry, but touching tone for the entire tale. I don't think anyone has written a better celebrity sleuth mystery before or after. But Baxt had the inside scoop. He was always writing about people he knew personally. He was a familiar figure in the worlds he wrote about. The more I delved into his lively, but checkered past, the more I realized where he got the raw material for his scandalous books.

Pulp Sensation: Pharoah Love

Like his most popular character Pharoah Love, Baxt was a fabulous creature of many talents and a cat of nine lives. But he also shied away from revealing interviews. Armed with very little to go on, I set out to see if I could fit together a few shreds of his life story.  His name appears on Wikipedia, and on IMDB as the screenwriter of such horror hits as the aforementioned Circus of Horrors and Horror Hotel. But there is only scant biographical information given.

Cult fave: "Circus of Horrors"
Luckily I found an obituary for him written in England. (Except for a few isolated notices, the American media failed to mention his passing in 2003.) The obit focuses primarily on his film work in that country. Baxt had moved to England in the 50s and wrote most of his scripts there. Variety had posted a rather perfunctory obituary, again primarily because of the screen credits. But there was scant material for a researcher to rely on to find out where he came from and who his family was.
His book jackets provided a few more intriguing details. On the back of A Queer Kind of Death he wrote: "George Baxt was a dropout. He left Brooklyn College to pursue a writing career." In another, he said he was born on a kitchen table in Brooklyn, New York. So taking that as a starting point, I did a little census-scouring and found that he was born in Brooklyn on June 11, 1923, the son of Samuel Baxt, an operator at a clothing manufacturer who came over from Minsk, Russia around 1906. George's mother was Lena Steinhouse whom Samuel had married in 1910. George had several siblings, a brother Morris, a sister Esther and a sister Juliette. They lived on Dumont Avenue. Nearby is an Isidore Baxt whom I presume is his uncle. He also came over from Minsk in 1906. By 1930, George's father had opened his own grocery store on Avenue L.
Baxt joked later that he had an active sex life as a boy in Brooklyn. He was not shy. One commentator quoted him as saying he "regarded gay sex among the Irish, Italians, and Jews as normal." Baxt settled down "with a boyfriend in high school, although he claimed to also have sex with teachers, particularly those in Physical Education." He was probably just being his old provocative self. But it does indicate that Baxt was a rebel with a cause early on. He claimed in yet another wry author's note that his first published piece appeared in the Brooklyn Times-Union when he was nine. He was paid a couple of dollars for it and got bit by the freelance writer's bug. He scribbled articles in high school and won the Columbia Scholastic Press Award. He sold his first radio script at 18.
Baxt went to City College and Brooklyn College before dropping out to pursue his passion for the theatre. His first venture was a musical play called Pity the Kiddies which was performed in 1942 for one night only at the Barbizon Plaza's concert hall. In March that year he performed as an actor in Theatre of the Soul by Nicolai Evreinov, staged by his friend William Boyman.

Baxt claimed to have been in the armed services which might explain the gap in his career credits from 1942 to 1945. But I have not found any records of such service. He also claimed to have been a "propagandist for Voice of America." In 1946, he wrote a one-act play Laughter of Ladies that was produced at a theatre showcase on 47th Street. A year later he penned a comedy, Alex in Wonderland, about a Jewish family in Canarsie. Boyman announced that Molly Picon, the Yiddish actress, was set to star in it, but it never seems to have gotten off the ground. Later he changed the title to Make Momma Happy and it made the rounds. At one point Sidney Lumet (son of the famous Yiddish actor Baruch Lumet, and later film director) was slated to appear in it. 

Laughing Lady: Grayson Hall

In 1948 Blanche Yurka announced she was to star in Laughter of Ladies. Then Estelle Winwood was added to the cast. (In his Tallulah Bankhead book, which features Winwood, Baxt makes it clear that Yurka was fired because the producers and directors found her wanting. He also makes the outlandish claim she was a murderess, but that's another story.) The play failed to get picked up. It was eventually staged with Grayson Hall (of Dark Shadows fame) in a New Jersey summer theater in 1953, and went on tour to Hartford and Philadelphia in the fall. It never appears to have made it to Broadway. 
Obviously George Baxt was having a hard time gate-crashing the Great White Way. He often got pocket change by pitching stories to Walter Winchell. "Always on the hunt for new clients," his UK obit says, "he would ride in the elevator in the Algonquin Hotel to find out who was staying there." This experience would serve him well later in his Dorothy Parker novel. As an actor's agent, he was not always a good judge of up-and-coming talent. He admitted to throwing a young James Dean out of his office because the kid needed a shower!

Missed Opportunity: James Dean
Later Baxt found side work as a disc jockey to make ends meet. An announcement in the Times in 1953 says he had signed a rental lease at 449 E. 58th Street. (Apparently there was nothing odd in those days about publishing one's address in the paper). Judging by the tony East Side address, he couldn't have been doing too poorly.
In the mid-50s he segued from radio into television. He scouted talent for The Big Show, helping Tallulah Bankhead land a lucrative gig on there. By 1955 he penned a comedy for NBC called The Way Things Happen starring Peter Lind Hayes. He made a bigger splash with a David Susskind production of Mrs. Miniver for TV, starring Maureen O'Hara in the Greer Garson role. Keir Dullea and Juliette Mills co-starred.
In 1956 he returned to the theater, writing a sketch for Ben Bagley's show The Littlest Revue at the Phoenix. But nothing came from that. His dream of making his name on the stage came to a crashing halt.
Faced with the distressing fact that he couldn't catch a break on Broadway, and that several of his clients were blacklisted as Red sympathizers, Baxt escaped to England, and accepted an offer from producer Hannah Weinstein to work on the British TV series Sword of Freedom. "I went to England on a three-month contract and stayed five years," he later said. The show starred Edmund Purdom, of The Student Prince fame, as an artist and freedom fighter in Florence during the Renaissance. "A lot of later famous people starred," Baxt quipped.  "Joan Plowright played Mona Lisa. I wrote 10 of the 39 episodes. I used to call it 'The Sword of Boredom.'"
Eager for a change, Baxt began writing horror films for British producers, and struck gold. Circus of Horrors was cited by the New York Times as "the crispest, handsomest and most stylish movie shocker in a long time." The eerie 60s camp classic Horror Hotel (aka City of the Dead) from Amicus Films, featured a suave Christopher Lee in a bookend cameo as a devilish professor.

But horror was not all Baxt was up to. One of his niftiest flicks was Payroll, a taut gangster film, featuring Beckett actress Billie Whitelaw.

Gangster Noir: "Payroll"
Horror Classic: "Shadow of the Cat"
In 1961, Baxt wrote the eerie thriller Shadow of the Cat, about a fierce feline seeking revenge on those who murdered its mistress. Creating an aura of suspense, director John Gilling filmed it entirely from a cat's-eye view. Other credits include Burn, Witch, Burn. Not surprisingly, Baxt also had a hand in the camp classic The Abominable Dr. Phibes starring Vincent Price. Although uncredited, Baxt is said to have come up with the now-famous device of having Phibes rise out of the floor playing his ghoulish pipe organ.
Perhaps longing for his show biz roots, or the gay life of Manhattan, Baxt returned to Amerca in the early 60s. He landed a plum assignment, writing a new adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel for CBS. Starring Maureen O'Hara, Zachary Scott and Michael Rennie, it was another David Susskind hit. The Times called it "exciting and richly mounted."
He collaborated on a new suspense series My Son, the Detective that was probably too camp for its own good. He also wrote episodes of The Defenders. In 1963 Broadway beckoned anew. Judy Holliday was set to play in Baxt's latest play, Not in Her Stars, with Martin Gabel. But nothing materialized. Gabel went on to act in Marnie instead. Then in 1964 the play was revived. Nancy Walker the comedian was slated to direct. Jane Wyman hoped to bring it to Broadway with co-star Anita Louise. Alas, it too, like Phibes's organ, was a mere pipe dream.
No doubt these repeated failures broke Baxt's spirit. He abandoned the stage completely. For two years he seems to have done nothing, or so reports in the Times indicate. Two years of silence. But Baxt broke that silence with his outspoken first novel, A Queer Kind of Death and his career took a whole new turn. He wrote the two Love sequels, then launched a new series of "wild, wacky, and weird" mysteries featuring detective Max Van Larsen in such farcical fare as A Parade of Cockeyed Creatures. Among Baxt's other books are The Affair at Royalties (1971) and Burning Sappho (1972).

"Horror on Snape Island" Poster
In 1972 he returned to the silver screen to write Tower of Evil (aka Horror on Snape Island), based on his novel of the same name. He did not always have the Midas Touch when it came to books. His 1979 novel, The Neon Graveyard, a scathing send-up of Hollywood, was panned by Newgate Callendar in the Crime Books review section at the Times. That proved to be one of the few bad notices he ever got. Even the great doyenne of mysteries, Ruth Rendell, who was not known for dispensing superlatives with ease, described Baxt as "brilliant and hilarious," adding, "I love reading George Baxt."
Baxt caught his breath and dreamed up the celebrity sleuth series which put him back at the top of his game. He even wrote himself into a few, depicting a character named George Baxt. It was his own Hitchcock moment. He continued to write until the 1990s. According to Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold, who wrote about Baxt and interviewed him when the latter was living in Los Angeles, Baxt was very proud that the clever epigrams in the Dorothy Parker volume were all his own creation. "He told me that the people who made Mrs Parker & The Vicious Circle," Feingold recalls, "had tried to get him to share the historical basis for the lines he wrote so they could use them in the script.  He said, 'I invented them and if you want to use them, you'll have to pay me!'"

Witty Muse: Dorothy Parker
Towards the end of his career, he was wooed back into writing again about Pharoah Love, his most popular creation, whom he'd killed off in Topsy & Evil. He penned two "sequels," A Queer Kind of Love and A Queer Kind of Umbrella, set in Chinatown and using a second Pharoah Love character. But they did little to revive interest in him or his earlier work. By then his accomplishment in writing successful gay mysteries was overshadowed by the impact of Joseph Hansen and his Brandstetter mysteries which were more in the traditional hard-boiled vein and much more accessible to a wider audience. Most people I've talked to who are interested in vintage gay literature (and believe me, it's a vanishing breed) have never even heard of George Baxt. He died at the age of 80 in 2003. Typically the New York Times didn't even bother to write him an obituary even though he had been one of their favorite authors.
I wish I had met George Baxt. Maybe somewhere along the line I did, but didn't know it. Although from what I've read that sounds hard to do. Journalist Tom Vallance once described meeting Baxt: "I had lunch with Baxt just once, several years ago in New York, and found him wonderful company with great zest and a rich fund of anecdotes. He could also be caustic, and he had been known over the years to have alienated some of his friends. His family described him as 'outrageous and curmudgeonly, a complaining, perpetual naysayer', but added that he always remembered to phone on birthdays and give presents to the children."
I can see Baxt as a doting crotchety uncle. But one also gets the sense reading about George Baxt that he was pretty much a loner. On one book jacket he described himself as "a collector of film and theatre books [who] sits up till all hours for old movies on television." He said his best friend was his VCR. Clive Hirschhorn, author of The Warner Brothers Story, recalled to Vallance that Baxt's "knowledge of movies was truly vast -- he could name all the girls who dance on the aeroplane wings in Flying Down to Rio!"
While there is not much else about George Baxt online or elsewhere, he is mentioned in a fun book of recollections by Wendy Werris called An Alphabetical Life. In it she describes a luncheon at Pete's Tavern in Manhattan in 1986 when she first met him. "Baxt was a rather small man in his mid-sixties, plump yet graceful and with thinning gray hair. Although I was friends with several gay men at that time, I had never met such a flamboyant queen as he. If you can imagine a swish, fey and girlish Phil Silvers, you'll have a picture of George Baxt. He was hilarious and irreverent. He batted his eyelashes to make a point when telling a dirty joke. His Brooklyn accent was delicious, and he had stories to tell about every great star from the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond. You never heard dirt dished until you heard it from the mouth of George Baxt."
Werris goes on to share some of his sizzling anecdotes involving Sal Mineo and what randy things Baxt wishes Gidget had done in her movies besides just going to Rome and Hawaii. In just a few snippets of conversation, Werris captures the ribald spirit of the man. It's the same priceless humor you can enjoy simply by reading any of George Baxt's campy books or seeing one of his thrilling movies.