Monday, September 18, 2023

The Riddle of Jessie Reed


 (As anyone who has followed this blog knows, I am obsessed with the story of Jessie Reed, the ill-fated Ziegfeld Follies showgirl who married my grandfather Leonard Minor Reno. Several years ago, I published my account of her extraordinary life, "Haunted Melody" HERE on this blog.

Afterwards, I posted a follow-up discussing the problems I've had in finding out her roots. Since then I have come across new material that has helped answer some of those questions and dispense with others. Hence this update on the anniversary of her death. The older version has been retired. 

I recommend to anyone reading this new post to read "Haunted Melody" first. I hope you will indulge me in this detailed deconstruction of her vital statistics. )


Perhaps the greatest enigma about Jessie Reed is who she really was. When I first learned of her, after my mother died, I found some papers related to my grandfather discussing his seven-year marriage to her. I also found a book about the Ziegfeld Follies written by Marjorie Farnsworth that claimed Reed's real name was Jessie Rogers. But I began to doubt that, especially since the account had other errors and didn't have any documents to support its statements. A lot of it seemed to have been compiled from third-hand sources. I decided to go and find out more on my own. 

It's been quite an undertaking, literally and figuratively, like putting together a mosaic of Jessie's life from the small bits and pieces I've been able to cull from archives and historical records. She wasn't a diary writer and left no personal papers that I am aware of. Everything about her was mercurial, ephemeral and maddeningly elusive.

The first official document that I found was Jessie Reed's death certificate. She died on September 18, 1940, "age 42" which would put her birth year at 1898, if her birth month preceded September. (Her obit in Variety and elsewhere said she was 43.) There's not much information on the death certificate, aside from a few medical details. She died from pneumonia. Her birthplace was given as San Antonio, which might be inaccurate. Her father's name was given as Jessie Richard. No mother's name was given. The informant is a person named Wilson Brett, a man that I have not been able to find any record of. He may have been a friend or just a hospital official. And I suspect the mention of San Antonio had more to do with the fact that Jessie's daughter was living there at the time. It's possible she had been contacted by the nursing staff. It's doubtful she would have known much about Jessie's roots since they were completely estranged.

Thanks to the death certificate, which had her Social Security number written on it, I was able to chat with someone from the SSA office near me who explained that he couldn't give me a copy of her application, but he was able to tell me that her name was listed as Jessie M. Reed. And her birth date as July 1897. She had applied to the program in 1936 around the time that newspaper reports first surfaced that she was hard-up and on relief.

How then did the name Rogers get attached to her? Apparently her first husband, Ollie Debrow, referred to her by that name during his murder trial in 1917. Or so I thought. I checked some of the court transcripts and didn't see that name mentioned. It turns out that the source for this alleged quote is a heavily redacted transcript of Ollie’s testimony that her second husband Dan Caswell had used in his spurious memoirs that were serialized in newspapers across the country in 1922 after their divorce. Either Caswell had misquoted Ollie or perhaps the court stenographer had heard him wrong. It could be that “Jessie Rogers” was simply Jessie’s stage name at the time (she changed her name so many times), although I have been unable to find any mention of her using this name in the numerous newspaper clippings I found from the period. 


Apparently there is now a French Wikipedia page dedicated to Jessie Reed (here) that gives her maiden name as Richardson, citing her marriage license in 1912 to Ollie Debrow where her name was written as “Jessie May Richardson.” But just a year later in 1913 her name is listed as “Jessie M. Richards” on her daughter Ann’s birth certificate. So which is it? Richards or Richardson?  I suspect the wedding license version was a clerical error since even Oliver's last name Durborrow is misspelled as Durbarow.  I'm pretty confident that the last name is Richards.

One can easily go mad poring through Census records, as I have done countless times, on microfilm or online, hoping to find the real Jessie Reed somewhere in one of them. Despite countless hours, I have not found Jessie in the 1900, 1910, 1920 or 1930 censuses. I have combed every record, using every possible variation of her name (Reed, Rogers, Richard, Richards, Richardson, Debrow and Reno etc) and followed every possible clue to no avail. This is frustrating and surprising since there is almost always some record, no matter how off (a botched birth year, or a daughter incorrectly listed as a son, for instance.)

I did manage in the end to find her in one census, the 1940 one, in Chicago, living at the Metropole Hotel. Her name is given as Jessie Reed and her age as 42. The page was filled out in April so that would mean she was born in 1897 if her birth month was in fact July. But as we know, census records are often erroneous. Her profession, for example, is mistakenly written on the line below her entry, as “nightclub hostess.” The girl whose entry it was mistakenly written in wasn't old enough to be working at a nightclub, so it makes more sense that it is intended for Jessie Reed (she was indeed a "nightclub hostess" at the time.) The most interesting fact about this document is that it says she was born in "Alabama," not Texas. More on that fascinating detail below.

Where else to look? I focused on Houston where she married Ollie Debrow in 1912. There were a lot of people named Jessie Richards in Texas. Even some named Jessie May Richards, and Richardson. But I have checked every possible candidate and found that they are invariably someone else, or tied to someone's family tree, and then are scratched off my list. It also appears that the name “Jessie May” was a popular name in its day. Thousands of girls born between 1890 and 1900 had that name, making research all the more difficult. It wasn’t until 1928 that Jessie Reed started to use the name Jessica. Curiously, the name Jessica rarely appears in the 1900 or 1910 censuses anywhere in Texas and I’ve come to the conclusion that Jessie just made it up later in life because it sounded more mature and perhaps, in her mind, sophisticated.

Adding to the confusion of Jessie’s roots is her marriage license with Dan Caswell, the document that was of such interest to reporters back in 1920. That too should be a slam-dunk, at least in a normal, non-theatrical world, since most people rarely lie or misrepresent themselves on official documents during such happy (one assumes) circumstances. But in Jessie’s case, nothing is ever simple, and never cut-and-dried. She had a genius for disinformation. Jessie gave her birth date as July 3, 1898 on that document. And claims her birth name was Reed, the stage name she assumed when she moved to New York and posed as the sister of Nora Reed in their act, "The Reed Sisters." 

On her 1920 marriage certificate she names her parents as James and Anna Reed. This is odd since Nora's parents are named Ed and Sallie, but perhaps Jessie had dropped the sister act by then. No doubt Jessie was reluctant to give her name as the former Mrs. Debrow (or Durburrow, as it were), and she had already divorced Ollie in 1917. She used her alias here since it was the name she was best known by and because she didn’t want Caswell to know she had been previously married. She may also not have wanted the world to find out anything about her Richards family relatives. She may also have tweaked the birth year, perhaps because Dan was born in 1899 and she didn’t want him to think she was much older than he was. Dan too was chastised in the press for falsely claiming on his wedding application that he was an actor. He also misled people into thinking that he was a millionaire when the truth was more complicated. It's not inconceivable that both of them were well in their cups when they tied the knot. Accuracy was hardly their strong suit.

In an interview that occurred shortly after she wed Caswell, Jessie was asked if her maiden name was Reed and she insisted it was. The interviewer, perhaps hoping she’d slip up, asked her if her parents’ name was also Reed. Jessie said of course it was. But when asked about her previous marriage, and daughter, Jessie cut the interview short. She had a lot to lose. She was a Ziegfeld headliner and her name could be seen alongside such big stars as W. C. Fields and Fannie Brice. A hint of scandal could derail her career.

(1920 ad featuring Jessie Reed in the cast.)

The names James and Anna seemed like a perfect lead but I've never been able to find a couple in the 1900 Census named James and Anna Richards, or Richardson, with a daughter born in 1897. The 1900 Census is the only one I know of that included birth months as well as years, so it's possible to search all the Jessies in that census who were born in July 1897. And very often 1898. None fit the paradigm in Texas. Nor in Alabama for that matter.  

I had better luck locating Jessie by consulting the Houston city directories. In the 1910/1911 edition, which was compiled in July 1910, there is a listing for a “Miss Jessie Richard,” “cash girl at Alkemeyer” living at 1505 Elysian. This is the first time this person appears and the last. Alkemeyer was a dry goods store very similar to Levy Bros that Jessie had claimed to have worked at in one of her early Ziegfeld interviews. She may have worked at both. Alkemeyer is also the store Ollie had been caught breaking into in 1908.

Levy Bros in Houston early 1900s.
Alkemeyer's General Store, Houston

There were several other people named Jessie Richard or Richards in Houston directories of that period. Most were clearly men, as a white female would customarily be listed as Miss or Mrs. Some were African-American. Directories added the letter "c" for "colored" in those segregated days. I was able to check these people out and cross them off the list. A young woman named Jessie Richards who lived at 836 Arthur Street seemed a possibility, but she committed suicide by carbolic acid poisoning in 1915. Several articles were written about her. A Miss Jessie Richards living on Hardcastle Street was arrested in 1914 for felony theft and is described as being from Beaumont. So we can eliminate her too. Our Jessie Richards was in San Antonio in those days living and performing as Jessie Debrow. (Oddly, in some reviews she is called "Miss Ollie Debrow." She appears on stage and in the San Antonio directory under that name.) 

Another Jessie Richards, who worked at Nabisco Biscuit Company, seemed intriguing since Dan Caswell had once said that Jessie worked at a "cracker factory" in Houston before he married her. But this Jessie appears to be a man (no Miss or Mrs added), and a typo; he has the same address as "Jesse A. Richardson" in the previous year's listing, an "operator at the Cozy Theater," originally from Missouri. Born in 1888, he never married and is too young to be Jessie's father. And a glance at earlier census records shows he did not have a sister named Jessie. Could she have been a cousin or niece? Doubtful. He seems to be the only one living in Houston at the time and I could not find any family or marriage records for him. 

Another possibility is a fellow named James C. Richardson, paving contractor, who was living in 1912 at 709 Rusk Avenue, which just happens to be where Oliver Debrow and his family were living around that time. As with so many people who might fit into the mosaic of Jessie's life this man never appears in the directory again nor any of the census records for that area. He's a one-off. Intriguing, yes, but a dead end.
I opted to double-down on the "Miss Jessie Richard" who worked as a "cash girl" at Alkemeyer's, residing at 1505 Elysian. By using the street guide that accompanies the directory, I found a woman named “Mrs. Willie McCorquodale” also at that address. The number 2 appears after her name, which means she was living there with one other person. She lists herself as “Widow of Glenn.” A genealogical marriage index for Texas reveals a “Willie Richard” who married “G. McCorquodale” in 1907 in Orange, Texas. Richard, as I mentioned, was the surname given for Jessie Reed's father on her 1940 death certificate. Could Willie have been a relation? Perhaps Jessie’s aunt or sister? Or even perhaps her mother? The Houston directory includes Mrs. Willie McCorquodale’s profession as “operator at the American Laundry.” This fits with the anecdote told by reporters that Jessie was working at a laundry when she was younger. She could have been helping Willie at her job. An interesting aside is the fact that in the same directory Nora Flippen, Jessie's great friend, and the actress with whom she moved to New York in 1917, is listed as a "shirt folder" at Eureka Laundry in Houston.

It took some digging to find Glenn McCorquodale in the 1910 Census. His name was badly mangled. But he is still there in Orange, listed as a plumber, but also as “widowed.” This is funny, but telling. Both Willie and Glenn are listed as “widowed” in the same year even though they are both clearly alive. I suspect that means they were separated or divorced.
At first I had no luck finding any sign of Willie in the census from 1900 or 1910 or later. Nor in any of the Texas death indexes. She seemed to simply disappear from the records. (Her former husband, Glenn, however, did not. He was apparently shot and killed by his second wife in Orange, Texas in 1942.) But recently, I came upon a marriage record of a "Mrs. Willie McCorquodale" and someone named "Mr. Clint L. Hair" in Galveston on June 14, 1913. I had always looked for Willie's records in Houston, not elsewhere. Turns out Clint was also in the laundry business, a driver for the Pantatorium, and later the Model Laundry in Houston.

It was an easy step from there to find Willie's death certificate. In the past I had always been searching for either Willie Richard or Willie McCorquodale. But now I had the name Hair and found one for 1920. Her death certificate gives her maiden name as Clemons. This surprised me as I had assumed Richard was her maiden name. But this meant that she had been married prior to marrying Glenn McCorquodale.

After much probing, I found out that Willie is in fact in the 1910 Census, as “Richarts (wid),” living with her mother, Addie V Clemons, and siblings in Houston. Jessie is not there. And Willie is said to not have had any children. Confirming that her maiden name was Clemons led me to a fascinating break, an earlier marriage record for her, as “Willie Clement,” wed to a “J. B. Richards” in 1896, a year before Jessie was allegedly born. This took place in Caldwell, Burleson, TX where the Clements family (early records use Clements, while later ones invariably use Clemons) lived for many years on a farm and where I found Willie in the 1880 census with Addie and her large family, but incorrectly listed as an infant boy!

Willie's 1896 marriage record merely gives the names and the date, but no additional information regarding the families. I looked again at the 1910 Houston Directory and noticed a “Mrs. J. B. Richards” (widow) living at 611 Girard. This gave me pause because I thought perhaps these were two different people, but then I found Clint L. Hair living at the same address as Willie, and again in subsequent years with "Mrs. J. B. Richards" -- so she was indeed the same person, Mrs. Willie McCorquodale, who married him in 1913. I imagine they delayed getting married because C. L. Hair was previously married in 1903 to a woman named Lydia Ryan and their divorce was only finalized in April of 1913. He then married Willie in June. She only used the name Willie Hair from then on. They had three children together before her death in 1920. He remarried but died shortly after in 1922.
The significance of all this exhaustive research back and forth is that these new findings confirm that Willie Richards is indeed the same person in all the various Houston directories and census records. Why she was listed at two different addresses in the directory in 1910 I can't answer, nor why she is listed in the census that same year, living with her mother Addie on a different street. The timing between the three distinct records is brief. I can only think that for some reason she bounced around between the three residences. Perhaps she felt it was more proper to have a separate residence for her and Miss Jessie Richards.
I wouldn't blame anyone for saying, at this point, that there's no proof that this Miss Jessie Richards who happened to be living at 1505 Elysian isn't just a crazy coincidence. How do we know she was related to Willie Clemons Richards McCorquodale Hair at all? Well, that's a good question. But two facts I recently uncovered convince me that this was no case of mistaken identity, but that there was an important connection between these two people. 

First I had a lucky break when I located Willie Richards in the 1900 Census, living in Alabama with her husband J. B. Richards. Her name is twisted in the index as "Virllie" but if you look closely at the original document, and compare the lettering to others on the page, her name is clearly "Willie." Her husband is listed as “Jessie B. Richards,” born in Florida, now a farmer in Marengo County, Alabama. This stands out in my mind because on Jessie Reed's death certificate, as we know, her father's name is given as Jessie. And adding some support is the fact that in the 1940 census, as previously mentioned, Jessie gives her birthplace as Alabama, not Texas, as had always been assumed.

How do I know this Willie in Marengo, Alabama in 1900 is the same as Willie McCorquodale in Houston in 1910? One thing is slightly off. The record says she has been married six years to J. B. But we know they were married in 1896. That could just be a mistake. Not an uncommon occurrence in Census records. What clinches it for me is that I noticed that two of her Texas siblings, Capitola Clements, 16 years old, and Fred Clements, 7, are living in the same house with the couple. Fred is listed in other records as Willie's sibling and as a son of Addie V. Clements (Clemons). Capitola, I am not sure of, but I know that Willie's father had a sister named Capitola, so it is logical that he would have named one of his daughters after her. In the 1910 census Addie Clemons is reported to have had 12 children, four of whom had died. Capitola may be among them. Willie had a sister named Ola and I wonder if that was a shortening of Capitola. The only fly-in-the-ointment there is that Ola is listed in the 1900 Census with Addie in Burleson, TX earlier in the same month. Burleson is roughly 500 miles from Marengo. She could have traveled by train. Or Capitola could just be another sister, one of the siblings who died young. (One can't be too thrown by multiple listings in censuses, I've discovered. In 1920 I found Ollie Debrow listed twice, once in San Antonio and again in New York City. People got around a lot more than we think in those days.)

Adding to the intrigue, a daughter named Alma A. Richards is also in the household, 2 years old, born May 1898. It's tempting to think that this child could be Jessie May Richards. The year is appropriate since Jessie gave that year on her marriage license with Dan Caswell, and while most sources later on put her birth year as 1897, I am beginning to wonder if she may not have been born in 1898 after all. 

I found a very reliable article published in a New Orleans newspaper in August 1916, containing police reports during Jessie's so-called tryst with theater manager P. E. Payne (see “Haunted Melody.") Jessie is quoted as insisting she was only 13 when she married Ollie in 1912. (They had married in February.) The article also says that she and Ollie had come to New Orleans from "their home in Florida." Perhaps this is a mistake since they were on tour at the time in Arkansas, but it does tie in to the fact that Jessie B. Richards had roots in Florida. Perhaps the couple did spend time there.


Further complicating things is the fact that Willie's daughter Alma A. Richards does not appear in any subsequent census or other vital records. She vanishes. So does Willie's husband Jessie B. Richards. He is not present in any other censuses. Perhaps they both died. Perhaps Jessie B. and Alma moved to another state or country. Who knows? It's a frustrating conundrum because this seemed to be a key to finally unlocking Jessie's roots. I've looked hard to find any records of Jessie B. Richards' parents since his father is listed as being born in Ireland, and his mother in Virginia. Usually that would make it easy to find them. But not in this case, of course. Without any further details about the father and daughter, it's hard to nail anything down.

Okay, fine, but we still haven't established a concrete link between Willie Richards and Jessie Reed other than that street address in the Houston Directory in 1910 and the fact that Willie had been married to Mr. Jessie B. Richards. That concerned me, so I dug around a bit more. And I came upon a new fact that in my book convinces me they must be related. I found a death notice for one of Willie's brothers, Robert G. Clemons, who died of TB in 1918. An obituary was posted in the Houston paper mentioning that five of his sisters attended his funeral. One of them was Ola now "Mrs. Fulghum," another was Allie (Mrs. Wilson), and Willie (as Mrs. C. L. Hair) and a fourth named Mrs. J. B. York, most likely Ruth Clemons, the youngest of Addie's children. She was an actress. (I found a J. B. York, manager at the Empress Theater in Houston, at that time but so far no marriage record for the two.) The fifth sister was the key; she is listed as Mrs. Kate Debrow. This confirmed it for me, because I realized that this was the Kate who married Will Debrow, Oliver's older brother, in 1916. Their wedding registration lists her as Kate Clemons. This makes Kate Clemons the sister-in-law of Jessie Reed -- and perhaps her aunt, if Willie was in fact her mother.

I then was startled to find out that Ruth Clemons and Kate Clemons performed alongside the Debrow Brothers as the Clemons Sisters. Ruth seems to have joined the act shortly after Kate married Will in 1916. Just a few weeks before Jessie ran out on Ollie and fled to New Orleans, as documented above, she was performing in a show with Kate and Ruth. She got good notices too. And just a few days after the incident she was back on tour with Ollie and the Debrows in Little Rock, Arkansas. They went on performing together after Jessie left for New York, appearing in Houston at the Cozy Theatre in the 20s.


In the 1920 Census, "Dainty" Ruth was living with Kate and Will Debrow. Later she appeared to move to Los Angeles to make her mark as an actress. She's there in the 1930 Census, and appeared in a few product ads. But eventually she came back home and got remarried.  Kate Debrow died in 1936. She was buried in Houston as Kate Clemons.

One of the big questions I have regarding Jessie Reed and her early career is why no one ever came forward and discussed her Houston roots. Many of the Clemons family were still alive when she died in 1940. And at the peak of her fame. But none of the obituaries of Jessie I've found in the Houston papers and the San Antonio ones ever talked about Jessie's roots in those two towns. Did they not know that she was performing in vaudeville there? No mention of the murder trial in San Antonio appears in these write-ups either. Surely there must have been some reporters who remembered her, or family members who could have corrected errors in some of these articles or written their own tribute to her. If only they had told us who she was none of this archival sleuthing would have been necessary.

One last thing, I did ultimately manage to find some tangible relics of Jessie's life -- a few brief letters of hers, including her autograph, that I bought from a book dealer a few years back. They were sent in 1922 to John Myers O'Hara, a poet and wealthy stockbroker, and a lifelong bachelor, who was a close friend of Sara Teasdale. He was staying at the Plaza Hotel. Jessie was in-between marriages, vacationing in Palm Beach, and jotted down a few wry comments to him about how "nice and green" everything was in Florida, how she was "spending a few dollars here," as well as the telling statement: "remember I have not forgotten your promise." If one reads between the lines, it seems she was hinting she could use some greenbacks to pay for her expensive stay at the Royal Poinciana Hotel.  

O'Hara, above, is best known for his translations of Sappho's love poetry and the poem "Atavism" which was quoted in Jack London's Call of the Wild. He must have been fond of Jessie because he glued her note cards and a newspaper image of her in his copy of Arthur Symon's Lesbia. Perhaps it was meant with a touch of irony. The first poem in the volume is "The Vampire," a ghoulish bit of verse that offers such lines as "She may not rest till she have sucked a man's heart from his breast," ending with "his lips sigh her name with his last breath, As the man swoons ecstatically on death." How would you like to bet that he sent Jessie the money? 

I've decided to pause my research at this point. I have exhausted all outlets. Perhaps someone out there might know more about Willie's husband Jessie B. Richards and his time in Alabama. Or of Alma. Could he have had a previous marriage and daughter? Was Jessie May Richards a niece, or even a cousin of his? Was she related to Willie? Or one of the Clemons family? Let me know what you find out. My email address is on the home page. 

Ultimately, it's fair to say that none of this is vitally important. Jessie lived her life the way she wanted to, having closed the door on her past. She left a legacy of broken hearts, unfulfilled dreams. Perhaps it's fitting that Jessie remains an enigma. As Roald Dahl once wrote: "Sometimes mysteries are more intriguing than explanations."


Thursday, May 18, 2023

Vaudeville Vedette: JULIAN ELTINGE

Back in December 1998, I wrote an article for OUT Magazine on the legendary female impersonator Julian Eltinge. OUT rarely did historical pieces, but I felt Eltinge's story was relevant to the societal changes going on at the time and as a role model for so many burgeoning drag performers. Imagine my surprise 25 years later to find that a new book has just come out exploring Eltinge's life, as well as that of two other contemporary theatrical legends: Bert Williams and Eva Tanguay. A Revolution in Three Acts by David Hajdu and John Carey is a marvelous illustrated history of their three lives, told through compelling graphic drawings, edited with wit and flair. 


    Reading it, I was inspired to go back to my article which I hadn't looked at in years. I was surprised by how much information I had been able to dig up back then, without the benefit of so many internet resources that we have today. Here it is on my blog in a slightly edited form for any and all to read.

    On a quiet Sunday morning in March of 1998 in New York City, Broadway's elegant but somewhat faded Empire Theatre, weighing 7.4 million pounds, was floated on tracks from its location on 42nd Street near Seventh Avenue to its new home, closer to Eighth. The Beaux Arts landmark, designed by architect Thomas A. Lamb in 1912, became the centerpiece of the new AMC Movie Complex, opened in 2000, part of the much ballyhooed redevelopment of Times Square. (In fact, only the lobby and entrance were relocated, the auditorium was razed.) The Empire's peculiar migration, a unique attempt to preserve the theater district's heritage while accommodating today's audiences, gave the media occasion to wax nostalgic for the bygone days of the Great White Way.

    Nearly ignored amid the hype was the fact that the Empire had originally been named The Eltinge, after Julian Eltinge, the legendary female impersonator who reigned over Broadway in the 1910s and '20s. Given the widespread celebration of Disney's new family-friendly Times Square, it was an ironic oversight, for the Eltinge is a vestige of 42nd Street's risque roots -- in 1942, when it was a burlesque house, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia shut down the Eltinge on morals charges -- and a symbol of what one gifted actor, rather than a phalanx of corporations could achieve. "It's amazing that one of the only theaters still standing on 42nd Street was built by a drag queen," says Charles Busch, of all of today's gender illusionists the likeliest heir to Julian Eltinge's legacy.

    Not since Edward Kynaston charmed Elizabethan audiences playing Shakespearean heroines had a man in feminine finery created such a sensation. Jerome Kern composed tunes for Eltinge. Erte designed his sets. King Edward VII of England, after inviting the star for a command performance at Windsor Castle, presented him with a white pit bull as a gift. On the silver screen, too, Eltinge scored in comic silent hits, introducing the joys of cross-dressing to the masses.

    In his day, Eltinge was an enormously popular star with a profound impact on show business for decades to come. Long before the Tony Award-winning shows Torch Song Trilogy and La Cage aux Folles set tongues wagging, Eltinge revolutionized the theater with The Fascinating Widow and The Crinoline Girl, the first musical farces to bring "glamour drag" onto the legitimate stage. Eltinge's more flamboyant vaudeville skits, where he literally let his hair down, had folks from coast to coast rolling in the aisles. Draped in silk from bejeweled head to painted toe, Eltinge spoofed dancer Ruth St. Denis in his exotic "goddess of incense" skit. Dashing across the stage, he would transform himself with lightning speed into a busty jungle queen, a rapturous nun, a spicy Creole, a nimble suffragette, or a brazen Salome. His sinuous Cobra Dance left gentlemen gasping. But Eltinge's most popular send-up spoofed the venerable Gibson Girl, flooring fashionable ladies with the star's refinement and poise.

    Not content merely to promenade in lady's attire, Eltinge also sang and danced, penning lyrics to novelty songs with coy titles such as "Two Heads Are Better Than One," or "Don't Trust Those Big Gray Eyes." Sometimes he was even known to play a blushing young girl in a revealing bathing suit, warbling "Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?" (an act considered too racy for some venues). But whether he was flouncing about in marabou feathers, surrounded by a flock of his scantily dressed chorus girls, the Vampettes, or standing in a spotlight at the proscenium's edge, blanketed in lace as a bride, it was nearly impossible to tell that Julian Eltinge was a man.


    And what a man he was: At 5 feet 8 inches and 180 pounds, Eltinge was far from dainty. But the star's small hands and feet made the illusion work. So did the lethal corsets that his Japanese dresser, Shima, would help him shimmy into, reducing a 40-inch waist to a 25. Eltinge also knew how to use makeup to his advantage, softening his chin and tapering his robust neck. At the end of each show, lest the audience be taken in by his masquerade, he would doff his wig to remove any lingering doubt. 

    Extremely popular with female audiences, who in the 1910s were for the first time venturing out to the theater on their own, Eltinge published his own magazine of beauty and fashion tips, Julian Eltinge Magazine. Inside, the genteel artiste posed in full wig, makeup, and gowns for ads selling everything from wardrobe trunks and cold cream to cough drops and girdles. Apparently women of the day found nothing bizarre in taking their cues from a female impersonator.

    "Eltinge represented the perfect girl's guide of how to behave," says Leonard Finger, a [now-retired] casting director and collector of theatrical ephemera. "Onstage, he moved like a dream, his lily white arms covered in rice powder. He was the girl next door, the kind you'd want to bring home to mother. But he was also a gay man's wish of what a feminine role model would be." Indeed, some of his tips to male fans can be read as veiled asides to men confused about their sexuality. "When you're accused of being peculiar, don't consider it in the light of a slap," Eltinge advised, oozing subtext. "It's really the peculiar man -- the different man -- who wins out."

    Who was this "Gay Deceiver," as the New York Times dubbed him early on? It's hard to say, for much of Eltinge's life is shrouded in mystery. Eltinge's managers generated reams of copy filled with fanciful half truths about him, and like many dissemblers, Eltinge himself spun stories whenever they suited his needs. By most accounts, he was born William Julian Dalton to Irish-American parents in Newtonville, Massachusetts. But several other sources list his hometown as Butte, Montana (hence his signature stage tune, "The Cute Little Beaut from Butte.") He actually spent several years there as a child. He adopted the name Julian Eltinge when he debuted in drag, according to one source, so as not to offend his family.

    Scholars don't even agree on the pronunciation of his name. Does it rhyme with fling or fringe? The answer can be found at the opening of the film The Band Wagon starring Fred Astaire. In a scene on 42nd Street, just before the famous "Shoe Shine" number Astaire mentions twice "the Eltinge Theatre." He clearly pronounces it to rhyme with tinge.  (NOTE: The new book "Revolution in Three Acts," cited above, however, argues that the name is pronounced to rhyme with "belting," quoting Eltinge.)

    Dates of his birth vary as well, athough 1883 is the most often cited. (His passport application from 1919 gives his birth date as May 14, 1881). At the outset of his career, Eltinge claimed to be a Harvard graduate who'd first made his mark in the famous Hasty Pudding Show. This helped lend legitimacy to his act and painted him as a boy from a good family, doing drag as a lark. In another tall tale, he claimed to have inherited a million dollars from an elderly Englishman who'd made a fortune in cutlery. 

    The truth was a bit less grandiose since his father, Joseph Dalton, was a mining engineer, excessively fond of a drink, who roamed the country, unable to hold down a steady job. Eltinge moved with his parents, before finally settling in Boston, where, at age 14, he landed a job as a clerk in a dry-goods store. At night, he hung out with a troupe of theatrical young clerks. Gregor Benko, a music archivist and collector of gay memorabilia, sees these loosely organized turn-of-the-century clubs as forerunners of modern gay associations. "While not overtly homosexual, these groups would attract men who were ambivalent about their sexuality," Benko says. "It was a safe place to be themselves."

    They also put on variety shows that lured Broadway scouts. To perfect his craft, Eltinge took dancing and singing lessons. As Eltinge told it, after a ballet class he began aping one of the heavy-set girls. The matronly drama teacher, Mrs. Wyman, caught him in his impromptu parody and exclaimed, "There is not a girl in the class who knows how to use her arms as well as you!" She suggested he make cross-dressing his career. Soon he began starring in a series of revues staged by the Boston Cadets, a group known for its inspired gender bending.

    While the kind of performances we now call "drag" were not out of the ordinary at this time, Eltinge brought a new and exciting energy to his turns in the spotlight. He realized he got bigger laughs when he imitated the mannerisms of a pretty girl rather than whooping it up in a clownish charade. He cleverly mimicked traits of well-known figures from Boston's elite Beacon Hill. By twirling his hair like a celebrated debutante or parroting the accent of a grande dame in the audience, Eltinge brought down the house. Soon he was playing swank parties in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Newport, Rhode Island.

    Hervey Jolin, a retired decorator in his 90s [he has since passed away], remembers seeing Eltinge in these early days before World War I. "I was just a child and my mother took me," Jolin recalls. "Eltinge was a knockout. There was no satire in his performance. He streaked across the stage in one costume after another: lace dresses, evening glitter, a turban. We all delighted in his shape and fashions. He was almost like a museum exhibit, a historical figure, like the Duchess of Marlborough." There was more to it than mere voguing. "He really devoted his career to showing how beautiful women were," Jolin adds. "Yet there was something freakish in his appeal. Mothers enjoyed watching him, but they'd always say, 'I wouldn't want a boy of mine to do that.'"

    As word spread of Eltinge's triumphs, Broadway producer Edward E. Rice cast him in a new farce at the Bijou, Mr. Wix of Wickham, with music by Jerome Kern. The show, which opened in 1904, ran only six weeks. But Eltinge, who appeared in skirts, was singled out. Wrote one reviewer, "If a man ever succeeded in lifting and almost totally obliterating the stigma which naturally attaches itself to this work, Eltinge has." Soon he was the talk of the town for his performance in Lifting The Lid at the Aerial Theatre atop the New Amsterdam (now owned by Disney) and his appearance at Madison Square Garden won raves. 

    Next Eltinge conquered Berlin, Vienna, and London, then sailed on to Japan, China, Australia and New Zealand. He dragged along 14 steamer trunks filled with his latest fashions, allegedly"made for him by the finest couturiers in Paris" (though he actually designed them himself). When not overseas, Eltinge hit the road, playing in everything from opera houses to mining camps. He was even scheduled to appear at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, but the show was banned when elders peeked at his costumes. Back in New York, his producer built the theater in his name with proceeds from his lucrative road shows.


    It wasn't long before Tinseltown beckoned. Eltinge starred in several silent pictures between 1917 and 1925, including The Clever Mrs. Carfax and The Countess Charming. Pouring his earnings into real estate, Eltinge lived in splendor with his parents at his farm in Fort Salonga, on Long Island's North Shore, and at his California ranch in Alpine, near San Diego. Villa Capitstrano, his lavish digs in Silver Lake, near Hollywood, was splashed across the pages of Architectural Record as the ultimate in good taste. Like a backdrop from Sunset Boulevard, this apricot-hued palace overflowed with ocelot and bear-skin rugs, antlered chandeliers, and Oriental fabrics. Here Eltinge entertained Hollywood friends such as Charlie Chaplin and opera diva Geraldine Farrar. Occasionally, just for fun, he would appear at parties en travestie, like the time he drove up to the Mayflower Hotel in Pasadena in a Hickson gown and "spurred bellboys and porters to their best endeavors," as the Los Angeles Times reported. No matter what Eltinge did, he generated headlines.

    Despite his remarkable career, Eltinge, who saw himself as an actor above all else, would bemoan the limitations of drag. His dream in life was to play Shakespeare's Juliet, but he never could shake the success of his camp routines or give up the staggering fees he commanded in vaudeville. "There are some disagreeable features about the work," he once confessed in a rare moment of candor. "But I suppose that is true of almost anything one might undertake. Before I took to skirts, I used to do buck-and-wing dancing, cakewalks. But now nothing seems acceptable unless I appear in skirts and do lots of kicking."

    There was also the question that persistently dogged Eltinge. Was the "queerest woman in the world," as one review insinuated, actually queer? Eltinge worked overtime to quash the rumors: He boasted he'd been engaged 10 times, then blamed his bachelorhood on his "bad temper." As a publicity stunt, he proposed to vaudeville star Eva Tanguay -- who often appeared onstage dressed as a man -- but the engagement was called off. In an effort to prove his manliness, he challenged Gentleman Jim Corbett, the famous prizefighter, to a bout in the ring and posed for photos that were reprinted around the world. Eltinge was constantly shot fishing or riding his horse, Fanny X (although the two pinkie rings and his precious lap-dogs belied any claims to butchness). When in a new town, he'd sometimes hire a flack to heckle him as the curtain rose. Then Eltinge would "beat up" the man and throw him out the door. Other times, there was no need for the charade: The hecklers were real.


    Little evidence remains of Eltinge's actual sexual persuasion, though many of his contemporaries assumed he was homosexual. "In the days of vaudeville, I did shows with some of the greatest female impersonators ever," Milton Berle, famous for his own drag turns, once said. "Karyl Norman, Bert Savoy, and Julian Eltinge. Of course I worked with straight men too." Eltinge's heterosexual blustering was, above all, good business. His work depended on his mainstream allure; any hint of scandal would have ruined him. There were varying statutes across the nation forbidding men from impersonating women, both onstage and off. The laws had a chilling effect: In 1927, Mae West, who quipped she'd learned how to be a woman by watching Eltinge perform, saw her racy play The Drag canceled before it opened in New York because of a threatened police raid. Eltinge had to devise ways to circumvent the censors; he played a man forced to appear as a "lady" in a plot device. Wrote one Cleveland reviewer: "There are two kinds of men who impersonate women. Eltinge is the other kind. There is nothing sissified about him."

    Paradoxically, the very innocence that had catapulted Eltinge to stardom became his undoing, as newer acts made him appear hopelessly old-fashioned. His competitor Bert Savoy became a smash hit at the Ziegfeld Follies in the 20s by camping it up as a bawdy harlot. There was no question what side of the fence he was on. The "pansy craze" that swept Manhattan nightlife in the late 20s -- when upstanding New Yorkers went slumming at drag balls and gay speakeasies -- made Eltinge's act seem antiquated and quaint. Karyl Norman, the Creole Fashion Plate, and Francis Renault, "the Last of the Red Hot Papas," thrived on the high camp of their double-entendre-ridden drag.


    Eltinge had boxed himself in, unable to change with the times. As the Depression hit home, he was forced to sell his share in the Eltinge Theatre (ironically, he never played there) and gave up the villa in Silver Lake. He lamented that he had made three fortunes and lost them all. Eltinge had trouble finding work, and escalating weight problems made it nearly impossible for "the daintiest of soubrettes" to perform. He all but abandoned films after losing big bucks making The Adventuress, a 1920 picture with Rudolph Valentino, then a virtual unknown. Two years later, it was recut emphasizing Valentino, by then a huge matinee idol, and released as Isle of Love, but the film vanished without a trace.

    Eltinge never fit in with the Hollywood set, whose pre-Hays Code wild ways rubbed him the wrong way (a costar and friend, Virginia Rappe, went into a coma and died after an orgy in screen comedian Fatty Arbuckle's hotel room, a scandal that rocked the town in 1921.) Eltinge also hated sitting around studios, a far cry from his quicksilver vaudeville days, when he had more than 40 costume changes in one evening. "I had to lie around in a tight corset and dress and shoes all day waiting to go before the camera," he wailed, "and people at the hotels would stare at me so much that I didn't dare take off those terrible gold slippers that pinched my toes! Imagine a woman going around in a rich evening gown, silk hose, and a pair of big, comfortable number 10s on her feet!" Even at wit's end, Eltinge had standards. 

    Things spiraled further out of control during Prohibition. In 1923, Eltinge was caught smuggling liquor over the border from Canada; after a lot of damaging press and a sensational trial, he squeezed out an acquittal. In 1929, he had a car accident in Los Angeles, crashing into a police vehicle. Rumors of his excessive drinking were rampant. He had once joked, "I get about a pound of flesh with every highball," but now he was overweight and slugging back beer. His later films reveal a haggard, fading farceur, without any of the delicate subtlety that had been his strong suit. Too ill to perform, Eltinge canceled a world tour and retreated with his mother to his spread in Alpine. He made aborted attempts to turn the ranch into a resort for men and even talked of opening an Eltinge Theatre in L.A. but the plans never materialized.

    Desperate to revive his act in the '30s, Eltinge performed at the White Horse, a sleazy Hollywood nightclub with a gay clientele. Local laws made it illegal for a man to don women's clothes, even in a theatrical setting, so Eltinge was forced to do his act in a tuxedo and point to the costumes on a rack, asking the audience to imagine what he would look like. It was a dramatic comedown for the queen who'd once dazzled a king. In 1940, he was banned from performing at the Rendezvous in L.A., on the grounds that it was a gay club. His swan song in Hollywood was a forgettable cameo in the 1940 Bing Crosby film, If I Had My Way.

    When he returned to New York that year, Eltinge made another stab at a comeback. Impresario Billy Rose cast him in a nostalgic revue at his Diamond Horseshoe nightclub in the basement of the Paramount Hotel. The new act was a pale shadow of its former self, and Eltinge grew more depressed. One night he had to interrupt his performance because of a pain in his side. He went home and never returned. Ten days later, on May 7, 1941, Eltinge died under mysterious circumstances. Kenneth Anger wrote in Hollywood Babylon, not always a reliable source, that the star committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills, which few questioned. It seemed to some an apt final curtain for an aging, over-the-hill fop. But his death certificate says he died of natural causes. Some have speculated that what really killed him were the after-effects of kidney damage from decades of abusing diet pills. Drinking alcohol and wearing corsets hadn't helped either. For years, he suffered from appendicitis and was operated on twice. True to form, Eltinge claimed the scar on his stomach was from a swordfish that had got the better of him.

    After Eltinge's death, comedian George Jessel composed a tribute that was a eulogy of sorts saluting his friend. Written in Eltinge's voice, its final lines eloquently sum up the enigma of the man once known as "the most beautiful woman in the world" -- "Sometimes after a performance, I would go back to the hotel with all my makeup on; and men would try to flirt with me. Sometimes I'd kid them a bit, unless they got too fresh. Then I'd pull off my wig, and tell them about the touchdowns I made on the gridiron. I never married -- and I was not a fairy! Anyway, as long as you live your life, doing the best you can, harming no one, it's nobody's business what your sex life is. And if you have none, that's nobody's business either."

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.