During the 20s, Broadway flirted with, ahem, homosexual themes, but the real performers were in small venues in the Village and up in Harlem. With Prohibition came the loss of inhibitions, and these once-underground performers became celebrated in private clubs and speakeasies all over New York.
Gene [Jean] Malin was born Victor Eugene James Malin in Brooklyn in 1908. he had two brothers; one became a cop and the other worked for a sugar refinery. Gene designed costumes, and won many awards for his efforts at the elaborate Manhattan Drag Balls of the 1920s.
By his late teens, he was a chorus boy in several Broadway shows, and began working as a drag performer in several Greenwich Village clubs, most notably the “Rubaiyat”. Newspaper columnists took note of his performances and soon Malin was booked at Louis Schwartzs’ elegant “Club Abbey.”
It was all very Victor/Victoria.
Malin became the top earner of Broadway for a time. After headlining numerous New York Clubs, he took his act to Boston and ultimately to the West Coast, where he had small roles in several films, usually as the stock character of a witty limpwristed clerk.
A flurry of obituaries followed in all the cities where Malin had performed. Interestingly, many of the articles drew a comparison to the death 10 years or so prior, of famed vaudevillian drag performer Bert Savoy–whose character was largely the inspiration for the persona of Mae West.
Savoy was one of the first of such acts to clearly be associated in the minds of his audience as being overtly homosexual. While most other female impersonators of the day, such as Julian Eltinge, went to great lengths to let you know that they were engaged in painstaking artifice–Eltinge’s career was marked by an all-out public relations effort to show him in any number of traditional “virile male” activities when off stage–Bert Savoy was out, both on- and off-stage.
The story of Bert Savoys’ death is legendary and, by all accounts, absolutely true. On June 26, 1923, Savoy and two friends were walking along the shore at Long Beach watching an upcoming storm when a thunderclap prompted Savoy to squeal “Ain’t Miss God cuttin’ up somethin’ awful?”
Girl knew how to make an exit.
Another artist that cashed in on the Pansy Craze with kind of a sophisticated and campy bitchiness was Bruz Fletcher. His career only ran from about 1929 to 1940 and when he committed suicide in 1941, at age 34, it was generally reported that he was despondent over his inability to find work as a gay performer.
One of his fans noted that Fletcher had “a level of genius equaled by very, very few.” Fletcher became a master of gay code and double speak in order to survive and flourish in a very homophobic era. A singer, composer, novelist, playwright, the darling of sophisticated night spots in the 30s, Bruz Fletcher left behind 3 albums of complex coded songs and 2 novels. His drama-filled life was a sad story of extremes and incredible plot twists.
Equally dramatic was the life and career of Ray (Rae) Bourbon. If a good deal of mystery surrounds Bourbon, so many years after his death in 1971, it is probably due to the fact that Bourbon excelled at generating numerous conflicting stories about himself.
He was either born as “Hal Wadell” in Texarkana, in 1892, or “Ramon Icarez” in or near Chihuahua, TX in 1898, or the son of Franz Joseph of Austria and Louisa Bourbon. Many “facts” regarding Bourbon’s early life, his claim to birth of Bourbon royalty, his claim to an education at Tulane Medical School in New Orleans, his claim to have been Pancho Villa’s notorious “Señora Diablo” are all unsubstantiated and probably products of Bourbon’s own active imagination.
He was a queen with a dream and an aptitude for storytelling.
By the mid-20s, Bourbon was working with Bert Sherry as the vaudeville team of “Bourbon and Sherry” and later toured with the Martin Sisters. In 1932, he was working full-time as a female impersonator at Jimmy’s Back Yard in Hollywood and Tait’s in San Francisco. It was at Taits, in 1933, where his “Boys Will Be Girls” review was raided by police during a live radio show.
Ray’s comedy was, at once, highbrow and lowbrow, overtly gay and covertly subversive, and yet, despite his influence on gay men, he remained vague about his own sexuality. There is evidence that he had relationships with both men and women, was married twice, and fathered at least one son. In his memoirs, Ray discusses his sexual attractions and relationships to both genders with equal enthusiasm, but never called himself gay or bisexual. He worked on stage in and out of drag.
Another great Bourbon exaggeration came when he cashed in on the news of Christine Jorgensen and claimed to have had a sex change in 1956; this is almost certainly not true.
After a once quite successful career, by the late 1960s Bourbon had fallen on hard times. In 1968, barely eking out a living, traveling through Texas and working at the Jewel Box Revue in Kansas City, Bourbon was implicated in the murder of a dog kennel owner where Bourbon had lodged over 70 dogs.
October 13, 1970 – The first meeting of the London branch of the Gay Liberation Front was held at the London School of Economics.
October 13, 1987 – In Washington DC 600 people were arrested in an act of civil disobedience at the US Supreme Court to protest the Bowers v. Hardwick decision which upheld the constitutionality of Georgia’s sodomy law. It was the largest number to participate in an act of civil disobedience since the Vietnam War. (Federal law prohibits protesting on the steps of the US Supreme Court.)
October 13, 1993 – The Lesbian Avengers protested during a speech by Senator Sam Nunn (D) in New York City. Nunn fought to retain the military’s ban on gay and lesbian servicepersons.
October 13, 1997 – Retired US Army Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, who challenged the ban on gay and lesbian servicepersons, announced that she was considering running for the House of Representatives.
October 13, 1998 – In a New York Times article, Steven Schwalm, a spokesman for the Family Research Council, said that hate crimes laws criminalize pro-family beliefs.
October 13, 1999 – The French National Assembly approved a law giving unwed gay and straight couples the same rights as married couples.
October 13, 1999 – President Clinton renewed his call to include gay men and lesbians in hate crimes legislation.