“Dear Reno. Baker got me all hopped up on drag again. We were having coffee at the Waldorf about 4 o’clock. Some butch looking rube comes over and asks us if we know where ‘you can get big size high heels’. Well that immediately got the drag ball rolling.”
When US writer and producer Craig Olsen found a cache of handwritten letters in the belongings of his late friend Ed Limato, he couldn’t have known that he had unearthed a rare, vital sliver of LGBTQ+ history. Limato had been a legendary Hollywood agent with a string of A-list talents such as Kevin Costner and Sharon Stone. He had been known for his pre-Oscar parties and impeccable style. When Olsen started reading the florid, slangy letters he began to realise that Limato had had a secret life before he landed in Hollywood.
It turned out that in the late 1950s, Limato, aka Reno Martin, had been the confidant of a coterie of drag queens in New York who called themselves The Boomatzas. Among them were Daphne, GiGi, Claudia, and a Josephine Baker manqué. They wrote him gossipy notes in a unique vernacular: “fach” was face, a “bar rag” was a person who frequented bars, and if someone was “bummish” they were sophisticated and attractive. “Mopping” meant stealing or having sex and “nells” were effeminate men. As well as being a form of queer shorthand, the lexicon was intended to conceal their homosexuality should the letters fall into the wrong hands.
In our contemporary world of RuPaul, extravagant Pride marches, and drag brunches, it’s a shock to learn how dangerous the queens’ lives were at that time. The “Masquerade Law” declared it a crime to have your face “painted, discolored, concealed or be otherwise disguised”. But one night a year, the law was lifted and promoters were allowed to rent a venue and throw a drag ball. The queens lived for these nights, when they were free to parade their dazzling gowns and be together. On other nights, though, the Boomatzas ran the risk of arrest and casual beatings on the streets. They were treated appallingly by their families. One young man was sent to a mental hospital and locked up in the psych ward for violent, unmanageable boys — and homosexuals.
There were official drag cabaret clubs that had special licences. The male performers had to enter and exit the clubs in male attire, and the women — who dressed as men to wait tables — had to arrive and leave in women’s clothes. Club owners both protected and profited from the gay community, and of course it was the mafia that had the power to own and run them.
One remarkable character was Anna “The Bun” Genovese, proprietor of the infamous Club 82 and wife of the head of the notorious Genovese family. She was tiny and tough, with her black hair piled high on her head (hence her nickname), but she was extremely kind to her “femme illusionists”. She even arranged for one, Teri Noel, to undergo hormone treatment and gender-affirmation therapy.
Club 82 was a magnet for a celebrity clientele that included the Kennedys, Judy Garland, and Liz Taylor with Richard Burton. Their star power dimmed in the face of the shiny, camp, be-feathered artistes. Salvador Dali was smitten with the headline performer, Baby Ella-Funt, and would send her sketches on cocktail napkins backstage, which she routinely binned. In one outrageous caper, Josephine and Claudia snatched 35 wigs from the Metropolitan Opera House and sold them to the sisterhood.
The cops tracked some down to the Club 82 dressing room and raided it, tearing them from the heads of the showgirls, who then did time for being in possession of stolen goods. P.S. Burn This Letter Please: The Fabulous and Fraught Birth of Modern Drag, in the Queens’ Own Words gathers together many of the letters of the girls, along with photographs and playbills. It took Olsen several years to track down some surviving Boomatzas.
He found Daphne, then very old and living on the Upper East Side, under his real name of Michael Alogna. He had worked for decades as a successful playwright and puppeteer. It took Olsen some time to convince him to talk about his drag days, as he was slightly ashamed of them, but eventually he opened up and produced marvellous photographs and anecdotes. He died during the pandemic.
Claudia and Teri were also found and shared their stories, but many of the people from the drag scene, including Josephine, had succumbed to HIV. Josephine’s mother had never accepted her son as gay and blamed the circle of queer friends for Josephine’s death. At the funeral she turned them away from the church.
In the introduction to this fascinating, celebratory but, at times, deeply sad book, one of the leading US drag queens, Sasha Velour, says that such personal accounts provide a fresh and inspiring angle on the usually depressing official record. “There’s a joy and messiness that we must always remember… let’s not forget the most important takeaway: that no matter what, we should always remember to camp, carry, and pull a scene! Kisses, darling. Got to go!”
• From the October edition of Wanted, 2023.