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u3g-chauncey - " 304 THE ?0LITICS 0F GAY [ULTURE the...

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Unformatted text preview: " 304 THE ?0LITICS 0F GAY [ULTURE the theatrical boardinghouses in the area housed gay men; and some ten— ement apartments served as collective homes for the poorest of gay the-. ater wOrkers.13 Groups of theater and restaurant workers were joined by gay teenagers forced out of their natal homes by hostile parents, gay migrants from the American heartland, hustlers, gay bartenders, and men who had more conventional jobs elsewhere in the city but who val— ued the security and convenience such housing offered. The district also included numerous transient hotels and rooming houses where male (or heterosexual) couples who had met in a bar or on the street could rent a room for an hour.14 The men who lived and worked in the district formed the core of a social world—or several social worlds, really—in which men who both lived and worked elsewhere could participate. Times Square served as the primary social center for many such nonresidents, the place where they met their friends, built their strongest social ties, “let their hair down,” and constructed public identities different from those they maintained at work and elsewhere in the straight world. They built a gay world for themselves on the basis of the ties they developed in the commercial insti- tutions entrepreneurs had developed to serve the needs of the theater workers rooming in the district and the tourists who flocked there. Many gay men patronized the speakeasies located in the Fifties just west of Fifth Avenue, and the small, moderately priced restaurants, mostly Italian, that lined the West Forties and that served the large population of single men living in the area.” So many gay men visited or lived in the area that a man who had worked as a hustler in New York since the mid- twenties claimed in the mid-thirties that “all [the] restaurants and bar- rooms between Forty-third and Fifty-ninth, east and west, are just packed with [homosexuals],” and estimated that “one out of fOur [men] in these places is a homosexual.”3 As he suggested, gay men mingled with other customers in most of the area’s restaurants and bars, rather than cluster— ing in a few, exclusively gay places; although a few restaurants, such as Louis’ and the Jewel, and numerous cafeterias and Automats became known as gay meeting places in the 19203 and 19305 (see chapter 6). Even if he overstated the case considerably, the very fact that he perceived such a pervasive homosexual presence in the area’s restaurants is telling. People often referred to the hectic streets of the theater district as the “Frenzied Forties,” but Broadway Brevities, the one paper that delighted in identifying the haunts of even the most discreet gay men, went on to nickname the residential area just north of it as the “Faggy Fifties. ”17 PROHIBITION AND THE PANSY' CRAZE Gay life in Times Square remained largely invisible to outsiders until the 19205, when the area changed dramatically, in ways that made its gay "Punsies on Parade”: Prohibition and the Spectacle of the i’ansy 305 world larger, more secure, and more visible. In the eyes of many con— temporaries, Prohibition and the decline of the theater industry com— bined to transform the Square in the 19205 from a genteel theater dis- trict to a “tawdry” amusement district, a development only hastened by the onset of the Depression.18 Although the theater industry appeared to thrive through most of the prosperous twenties, with entrepreneurs building new theaters in the blocks north of Forty—second Street and Broadway enjoying its most successful season ever in 1927—28, when 264 new shows opened in the district, the boom masked the worsening structural problems of the industry. The burgeoning movie business was offering competition to stage shows thrOughout the country in the twenties, undermining New York’s own theater industry by precipitat- ing a collapse in the national theatrical road circuits in which New York—based companies had played the central role. The crisis con- fronting the industry became evident in 1929, when a fifth of Times Square’s theaters stood empty during the Christmas season, normally the busiest time of the year. While the district’s newest theaters contin- I'ued to do well, some of the oldest and most vulnerable of them—partic- ularly those clustered on Forty—second Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues—managed to stay open in the twenties only by convert— ing themselves into cheap “grind” movie hOuses. In 1931, in the midst of the Depression, several of them even became burlesque theaters. Both kinds of theaters catered to an almost exclusively male and “rough” audience, and some went so far as to let themselves be used as gay meet- ing grounds (as noted in chapter 7}. The effects of Prohibition on the Square’s economy and moral tone were both more abrupt and more pervasive, and helped make it possi— ble for the gay presence in the Square to grow. The Prohibition Amendment had been ratified in 1919 (and began being enforced under the Volstead Act- in January 1920) in large part to control public sociability—and in particular to destroy the autonomous working—class male culture of the immigrant saloon, which seemed so threatening to middle—class and rural Americans. But in cities such as New York, Prohibition resulted instead in the expansion of the sexual underworld and undermined the ability of the police and anti-vice societies to con— trol it. The economic pressures Prohibition put on the hotel industry by depriving it of liquor—related profits, for instance, led some of the sec— ond—class hotels in the West Forties to begin permitting prostitutes and speakeasies to operate out of their premises.19 Prohibition also drove many of the district’s elegant restaurants, cabarets, and roof gardens out of business, for such establishments had depended even more heav— ily on liquor sales for their profitability. They were replaced, on the one hand, by cheap cafeterias and restaurants whose profits depended 306 THE POiITICS 0F GAY CUiiURE on a high turnover rate rather than a high liquor-based profit margin, and, on the other hand, by nightclubs and speakeasies Whose prof— itability depended wholly on illegal liquor sales. The change was emblematized when Murray’s, a famous Forty-second Street restaurant, closed in 1924, only to be replaced by Hubert’s Museum, a cheap dime museum and freak show. “Forty-second Street, . .. the place where New York’s Broadway sector begins, is going to seed,” Variety warned in 1931. “More and more [it] is getting to look like 14th. No one thinks this is an accomplishment?” The criminalization of liquor not only drove many respectable middle- class establishments out of the restaurant business, but resulted in the vir- tual criminalization of nightlife. This had far-reaching implications for the culture of the city, but one of its most immediate consequences was to undermine the policing of the city’s nightlife in ways that benefited gay meeting places. The proliferation of illegal speakeasies and nightclubs after Prohibition led to the wholesale corruption of policing agencies, the systematic use of payoffs, and the development of crime syndicates that offered protection from the police. All of these measures made it easier for establishments where gay men gathered to survive, because they made them stand out less. All speakeasies—“not just gay speakeasies—had to bribe the authorities and warn their customers to be prepared to hide what they were doing on a moment’s notice. Prohibition did more than contribute to the corruption of the agen- cies charged with policing the city’s'moral life. Even more distressingly, from the perspective of the city’s moral guardians, the popular revolt in New York against the aims and tactics of Prohibition undermined the moral authority of such policing altogether. By 1931, the Committee of Fourteen, for one, was reduced to pleading that it had never “been interested in regulating the conduct of individuals,” an objective by that time evidently in some disrepute, but had only been concerned to attack the parties “who make money out of the exploitation of girls.” The onset of the Depression only exacerbated the problem. In 1932, the Committee, which had effectively prodded the police to pursue “moral criminals” since 1905, was forced to terminate its work when its traditional backers were unable or unwilling to support it any longer.21 Mayor Jimmy Walker’s popularity, by contrast, resulted in part from his highly visible participation in the city’s nightlife and his implicit repudiation of Prohibition through the tacit approval he and Tammany Hall gave to the city’s illegal nightclubs, including his sup- port for the end of local enforcement of the Volstead Act.22 Indeed, popular resistance to Prohibition seemed to undermine the respect for all forms of the law. Instead of purifying the nation by drawing a strict boundary between the acceptable and unacceptable, it threatened to “Punsies on Parade": Prohibition and The Spectacle of the Pansy 307 blur those boundaries by encouraging many normally law-abiding citi— zens to break the law, to regard the police as their enemies, and to question the law’s moral authority. Although Prohibition was designed to reduce the cultural influence of immigrants, it only increased it in New York by forcing “legitimate” middle—class entrepreneurs out of business and giving effective control of middle—class nightlife to immigrants. Ethnic “gangsters” not only sup— plied liquor to illegal speakeasies but operated many of them, where they introduced their patrons to the “low-life” world of prostitutes, gamblers, and “coarse” working—class entertainers. Visiting speakeasies brought middle—class Anglo-Americans into close—and unexpectedly favorable— contact with Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants and with a criminal underworld they previously would have shunned. Indeed, it was precisely the participation of middle—class men and (especially) women in the “immoral” and disreputable world of the speakeasies—and their apparent vogue among New Yorkers—that most concerned the city’s moral guardians. “Speakeasies lend an atmosphere of apparent respectability to prostitution,” the Committee of Fourteen warned in 1928. “They are attracting young women and men of a type who never would have visited the [vice resorts] which led to the organization of the Committee of Fourteen, 25 years ago; yet conditions in these speakeasies are becoming no less terrible than in those earlier [resorts].”23 The speakeasies, they feared, were dissolving the distinctions between middle—class respectability and working-class licentiousness that had long been central to the ideological self-repre— sentation of the middle class. The culture of the speakeasies did not mark so significant a break in the city’s middle-class entertainment habits as the Committee warned in its public statements, which the Committee’s senior officers well knew. Many middle-class men, at least, had frequented the resorts located in working-class neighborhoods at the turn of the century. More significant is that the conventions of middle—class sociability had been changing for more than a generation with the expansion of commercial entertain- ments. If the middle class had once restricted its social life to private clubs, homes, and exclusive restaurants or to formalized promenades in selected city boulevards, it had steadily moved into “public” due to the development of lobster palaces, cabarets, amusement parks, and other sites where men and women could-interact more freely.24 While much of the middle class continued to constitute itself as a class and distinguish itself from the working class, in part, through its different use of urban space, its sociability was less privatized than it had been before. Nonetheless, the organization and Culture of the speakeasies did enc0urage middle—class men and women to interact even more casually 308 THE POLITICS OF GAY CULTURE and to Experiment further with the norms governing acceptable public sociability. Usually smaller, more informal, and more intimate than the prewar cabarets and cafes—and less extravagant in decor, given the pos- sibility that they might be shut down at any time—the speakeasies filled the basements of the brownstones lining the side streets of Times Square; a fifth of the city’s speakeasies were said to be clustered there. Many of the clubs tried to capitalize on their setting by creating an intimate and freewheeling atmosphere. Even some of the larger clubs tried to enhance their appeal by using the personalities of their hosts and hostesses, such as Texas Guinan, Helen Morgan, and Harry Richman, to create a highly individualized, almost familial atmosphere. The speakeasies eroded the boundaries between respectability and crimi— nality, public and private, and between commercial space and home life, for the hosts welcomed patrons into their basement hideaways as if into their homes, and encouraged them to mingle with the other guests and to spurn the conventions that normally governed their public behavior. By speaking the password and entering a “Speakeasy,” patrons entered an intimate theater in which each was expected to play a role; the most notable sign of this to most observers was the degree to which single men and women were encouraged to interact with each other. Clubgoers’ participation in the criminalized demimonde of the speakeasies introduced them to new social worlds and encouraged them to test the limitspf social convention in other ways as well. As the historian Lewis Erenberg has remarked, speakeasies encouraged a sense of rebellion—and were regarded by the authorities as rebel— lious—because of the way they encouraged behavior that flouted pub- lic morality.” _ It was in this context that the flamboyant gay men known as fairies (or more commonly, in the 19205, as pansies) began to play a more prominent role in the culture and reputation of the city as whole and the Square in particular. Part of the attraction of amusement districts, after all, was that they constituted liminal spaces in which visitors were encouraged to disregard some of the social injunctions that normally constrained their behavior, allowing them to observe and vicariously experience forms of behavior that in other settings—particularly their own neighborhoods—they might consider objectionable enough to suppress. This aspect of Times Square?s appeal was only enhanced by the cultural developments of the Prohibition era. The popular revolt against the moral policing of Prohibition, the transformation of the Square into a “tawdry” amusement district, and the incitement to transgression generated by the speakeasies themselves fomented a rejec- tion of convention and an interest in the outré that both generated interest in pansies and made space for them. "Punsies on Parade”: i’mhibiliun and the Spectacle of the Pansy 309 Over the course of the decade, gay men became more visible in almost every setting the Square provided, including its streets, burlesque halls, theater roof gardens, and nightclubs, as well as the “legitimate” stage. Each of those settings was governed by different conventions, had differ- ent performance traditions, and provided a different sort of platform for pansies. A detailed analysis of those differences and of the role of the pansy in every aspect of the Square’s culture is beyond the scope of this study. I offer instead only a preliminary map of them here. Even this brief sketch of what came to be known as the pansy craze, though, should demonstrate that gay men became a highly visible part of New York’s Prohibition culture and that while they were often turned into a spectacle, some of them made this an unsettling spectacle indeed. The Square already had something of a gay reputation in the early 19205. One 1924 account, for example, bemoaned the number of “impudent sissies that clutter Times Square.”16 (The wording is signifi— cant, suggesting, as it does, the “shameless” or “brazen” manner—other favorite formulations—in which such men carried themselves in the face of social opprobrium.) As the Square became more of a “tawdry” amusement park, visiting the Square became more of a theatrical-experi— ence in itself, and pansies increasingly became part of the exotic specta— cle clubgoers and tOurists expected to see there. Thus when Vanity Fair’s “intimate guide to New York after dark” noted in 1931 that the tourist could see “anything” on Broadway at night, it included “pansies” among the sights along with the more predictable “song writers, college boys, . . . big shots, [and] bootleggers.”27 A New York tabloid noted the same year: “The latest gag about 2 AM. is to have your picture taken with one or two pansies on Times Square. The queens hang out there for the novel racket.”28 The pansies soon made their way onto the stages of Times Square as well. The district’s impresarios were constantly searching for new angles that might attract a crowd, and the growing competition among the the— aters, cabaret revues, nightclubs, and speakeasies encouraged them to vie with one another in challenging the conventional limits placed on enter— tainment and satisfying their customers’ appetite for new and ever more sensational thrills, a tendency only accentuated at the end of the 19203 when the Depression devastated their industry. The efforts of nightclub impresarios to cultivate and respond to the growing fascination of white middle-class clubgoers with African— American jazz and performance is the best-known aspect of this phenome— non, and in many ways the “Negro vogue” of the mid-twenties set the stage for the pansy craze that soon followed it. As white fascination with the burgeoning AfricanuAmerican world of Harlem grew in the 19203, entrepreneurs opened clubs featuring black entertainers in Times Square 310 THE POLITICS OF GAY CULTURE as well as Harlem, including the Everglades, the Club Alabam, and the Plantation. The existence of such clubs ensured that “slummers” would not even need to leave the security of a white neighborhood or sit in an integrated audience to witness the spectacle of black “primitivism.”29 The clubs thus played on their customers’ desire to feel they were transgressing the conventional boundaries of race while they resolutely confirmed them. Most of the district’s restaurants refused to serve African-Americans and the police made sure few of them lingered on the district’s streets, but their role in the clubs made them part of the spectacle of the Square. Similar Prohibition-era economic pressures and cultural dynamics resulted in the pansy becoming part of the show. If whites were intrigued by the “prirnitivism” of black culture, heterosexuals were equally intrigued by the “perversity” of gay culture. As the gay world of Greenwich Village and Harlem grew and became more visible in the wake of World War I and the imposition of Prohibition, it evoked growing curiosity on the part of slummers, just as the black social world of Harlem did. The growing popularity of the city’s drag balls revealed the heterosex— ual public’s growing fascination with gay culture. Hundreds of slummers had attended the Greenwich Village balls during the 1910s to catch a glimpse of “Homosexualists,” but the popularity and social cachet of the drags grew tremendously during Prohibition. “During the height of the New Negro era and the tourist invasion of Harlem [in the 19205 and early 19305],” Langston Hughes recalled a decade later, “it was fashion- able for the intelligentsia and the social leaders of both Harlem and the downtown area to occupy boxes at this ball and look down from above at the queerly assorted throng on the dancing floor.” The Vanderbilts, the Astors, and other pillars of respectability were often there, along with Broadway celebrities popular in the gay world, such as Beatrice Lillie, Clifton Webb, Jay Brennan, and Tallulah Bankhead.30 By most accounts, thousands of spectators gathered to watch the biggest balls in the late 19205 and early 1930s. “FAG BALLS EXPOSED” screamed a head- line in Broadway Brevz‘ties in 1932. “6,000 CROWD HUGE HALL AS QUEER MEN AND WOMEN DANCE.”31 {See figures 5.1 and 11.1.) By the early 19305, they were even being staged in Madison Square Garden and the Astor Hotel in midtown.32 Seizing on the public’s fascination with this new phenomenon, Times Square entrepreneurs began to evoke the flamboyant image of the pansy to generate business. “Pansy” acts began to appear on the stage, in the press, and in the clubs, but at this point they usually were the gay equiva— lent of blackface: straight actors putting on drag or stereotypical man- nerisms to mimic and ridicule gay men, to the hoots and jeers of an anti- gay audience. This buffoonery became a standard feature in burlesque and high—class cabaret revues alike, which reinforced the dominant pub- ”Punsies on Parade": Prohibition and the Spectacle of the Pansy 311 lic images of homosexuals. By the 19205, burlesque had been reduced to little more than a showcase for strippers and comedians who relentlessly played to salacious interests. A doctoral student at New York University who claimed he had attended a thousand burlesque performances in the mid-1930s to research his thesis reported that “homosexual situations [were] found in almost every performance—one man making advances to another, kissing him, ‘goosing’ him, etc.”33 “Queer doings” were also regularly giventhe spotlight in revues designed for higher—class audiences such as The Ritz Revue and Artists and Models, according to several observers, including one who went on to ask why “the public enjoy[s] seeing [such queer doings] portrayed in some of the most expensive and exclusive productions” if they “are as disgusting as [people] say they are.” Such high-class revues, typically produced on the stage of theater roof gardens, focused as much as burlesque did on the spectacle of barely clothed women’s bodies, but they “elevated” that spectacle, as the histo— rian Robert T. Allen notes, by connecting it “not with the working—class sexuality of burlesque but with the cosmopolitan worldliness of Paris.” Its comedians engaged in a more “sophisticated,” connotative humor, which often included considerable homosexual innuendo. One reviewer wryly complained in 1924 that The Ritz Revue, a typical amalgam of singing, dancing, and semi-nudity, included so “many references . . . to topics so disorderly that one suspects Kraft-Ebbings [sic] to be hidden among the librettists,” and he pointed especially to a sketch about the “‘The Four Horse—Women’ [a slang term for lesbians] and the impish ‘fairy’ tales that are told in the Ritz Revue” as requiring clarification for the “innocent majority of the playgoers.”34 Two years later another reviewer complained about the number “of ‘third sex’ species that has been seen around town of late.”35 Homosexuality became so much a part of the cultural landscape that several plays ventured to address the topic in the mid-twenties. The Shuberts decided in 1926 to produce The Captive, which was regarded as a serious depiction of the “social problem” of lesbianism, and the follow- ing year Mae West attempted to bring to Broadway a farcical representa- tion of pansy life, The Drag. Edouard Bournet’s Captive was a controver- sial enough venture, attracting large audiences (including many young women and female couples) and provoking widely varying responses. The critic George Jean Nathan regarded it as “the most subjective, corruptive, and potentially evil—fraught play ever shown in the American theater . . . nothing more or less than a documentary in favor of sex degeneracy.”6 But many Broadway powers defended the play’s effort to deal seriously with a timely issue. Variety hailed it as “the most daring play of the sea- son . . . and one of the best written and acted in years.”37 The controversy generated by The Captive took on added significance when the newspa— 312 THE POLETICS 0F GAY CULTURE per magnate William Randolph Hearst turned the play into the center- piece of his campaign for a state stage censorship law. The controversy was brought to a head in 1926 when Mae West opened Sex, a play she wrote and starred in, on Broadway, and announced her plan to bring a second play, The Drag, to New York after a series of try“ outs in Connecticut and New Jersey. The Drag promised to offer a vigor— ous defense of the right of homosexuals to lead their lives as they saw fit. It opened with a doctor denouncing the criminalization of homosexuality. “Are we going to declare these unfortunates who through no fault of their own have been born with instincts and desires different from ours? Are we . . . going to force them into secreCy and shame, for being what they can— not help being, by branding them as criminals . . . P” Even in the course of disagreeing with the doctor, a judge announced: “There are approximately five million homo-sexuals in the United States, and of these the great per- centage are born sexual inverts.” It soon unfolded that the judge’s own son was an invert, who had long hidden his homosexuality from his father. The play also highlighted the problem of police harassment. Full of references to police raids (“It was a great party but the place was raided and when they backed up the wagon, they got all but one and she jumped out the window”), the play ended with a raid on a drag ball.38 While reflecting the dominant culture’s conception—-one widely shared in the gay world—that gay men were half—women who desired “normal” men, the play also included constant references to taxi dri— ' vers, sailors, and other “rough trade” who found gay men sexually desirable. “I was born a male, my mind has been that of a female,” one character explained. “I’m the type that men prefer,” another declared. “I can . . . go through the navy yard without having the flags drop to half mast.” “Listen, dearie,” added yet another. “I’m just the type that men crave. The type that burns ’em up. Why, when I walk up 10th Avenue, you can smell the meat sizzling in Hell’s Kitchen.” When one queen told another that he had seen “your husband” the other day, the second had to ask, “Which one, dearie, which one?” The dialogue was also full of gay slang, campy repartee, and descriptions of luxurious drag gowns (“You should see the creation I’m wearing, dearie, Virginal white, no back, with oceans of this and oceans of that, trimmed with excitement in front”). The play drew much of its inspiration from its cast, about forty gay chorus boys whom West had apparently recruited at a Greenwich Village Speakeasy and whom she encouraged to impro— vise on stage. Mae West had patterned much of her own stage persona on that of Bert Savoy, one of the" first major female impersonators widely known to be gay. She had learned how to write this play (which she directed but did not perform in) from the gay men in her cast.39 The play put gay men on stage to play gay men. "Punsies on Parade": Prohibition and the Spectacle of the Pansy 313 The play culminated with an unscripted drag ball, which lasted twenty minutes and allowed thirty of its performers to put on a “show” much as they might have at Mother Childs, at a Rockland Palace ball, or in a night- club revue. “In the playing it is exactly like a revue number, or the floor show of a nightclub,” Variety reported in its review of the Bridgeport, Connecticut, opening; it took the sort of gay act that had become a part of Times Square’s roof garden revues, dramatically expanded it, and trans— posed it to the legitimate stage. The problem was that this threatened the legitimacy of the Broadway stage. “The attempt to put the piece on at this particular juncture is the dumbest thing imaginable,” Variety warned, clearly with Hearst’s censorship campaign in mind. “If it ever gets to Broadway, it would be a calamity, just at this time, when, more than ever before, the Subject of a Broadway play censor is under national agitation.”4° Divided over whether to condemn The Captive or to defend it as a serious drama, Broadway united in attacking The Drag as a dangerous threat to the autonomy of the stage. But the police soon took the matter out of the theater industry’s hands. On the night of February 9, 1927, they raided productions of The Captive, Sex, and a third play, Virgin Man, and arrested members of their casts, including Mae West herself. Most of the city’s papers connected the raids to the threat of The Drag’s being brought to the city, as the theater historian Kaier Curtin has noted, and on the day after West’s arrest, a municipal prosecutor in Bayonne, New Jersey, ordered that city’s production of The Drag to be closed. Mae West promptly obtained a court injunction against police interfer- ence with Sex, and continued starring in it for six weeks before being convicted and sentenced to jail for ten days for “maintaining a public nuisance.” The Captive also managed to secure an injunction and run for five more days before its producers decided to close it. But West never tried to bring The Drag to the city. Two months later, the state leg- islature amended the public obscenity code to include a ban on any play “depicting or dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy, or sex perver— sion.” Four years after the state legislature had for the first time specifi- cally prohibited homosexual “lewdness” or cruising, it enacted the first law specifically banning the appearance of gay people or discussion of gay issues on the stage.41 Eliminating gay characters from the legitimate Broadway stage did not eliminate homosexuality from Broadway, however. Not only did homo- sexual innuendo delivered by straight performers continue to appear in cabaret revues and burlesque, but as the district began to reel from the effects of the Depression, pansies themselves began to become part of the draw in a number of the Square’s best-known nightclubs. A series of arti— cles on the front page of Variety in 1930 and 1931 bemoaned the state of 314 THE PUiITlfS 0F GAY EULTURE “B’WAY’S DYING NITE CLUBS” and “BROADWAY’S LOST LURE,” warning that clubgoers were deserting the clubs for cheaper and more freewheeling private parties.42 As the clubs turned to ever more exotic acts in a desper- ate effort to attract a crowd in the face of this crisis, several entrepre~ neurs tried to imitate the success of a handful of Greenwich Village clubs in drawing tourists with “pansy shows.” Not long after the onset of the Depression and end of the Negro vogue, a pansy craze seized Broadway. In 1930—31, clubs with pansy acts became the hottest in town. Most of the gay club acts of Times Square originated in the mid-19205 in several Village clubs, which had initially offered gay—oriented enter- tainment to cultivate a gay following rather than to pander to tourists. Many of the entertainers were female impersonators. Jack (or Jackie) Mason, who was later to become a major impresario in professional female—impersonator circles, for instance, ran a club on Charles Street where female impersonators served as masters of ceremonies.43 Other entertainers were simply gay men who exhibited a camp gay styie on stage; as the sociologist Caroline Ware put it, demeaningly but accu- rately, the “favorite entertainer” at another Village Speakeasy was “a ‘pansy’ whose best stunt was a take—off on being a ‘pansy.”’44 The Rubaiyat, a “queer Greenwich Village dive” that was the best known of the clubs, seems to have been the first to try to cultivate an uptown audi— ence by featuring such pansy acts; it may have hoped to duplicate the success of the Greenwich Village balls in drawing shimmers with the allure of homosexual exotica. The Rubaiyat began as something of a gay club—~0r as one hostile 1931 account stated, it catered originally to “boys with falsetto voices hnd girls who sang in basso profundo,” who “gathered there nightly.” But, the account continued, it soon began to expand its audience, attracting “the night riders and the gadabouts,” sated with normal entertainments, who were “seeking new thrills.” As a result, it also attracted the attention of the police, who raided it in 1930, but not before midtown producers had noticed the success of its strategy and it had started a trend.“ The career of Gene Malin, who starred at the Rubaiyat before it was raided and who led the movement of gay acts into midtown, illustrates the complex cultural politics of the pansy craze. Born in Brooklyn in 1908 to Polish and Lithuanian parents, Malin was a precocious teenager and took New York by storm in his early twenties. Victor Eugene James Malin took the name “Jean” Malin upon his entry into New York’s gay world and when in drag also used the name of Imogene Wilson, one of the most famous of the Ziegfeld Follies Showgirls. He competed for prizes at the city’s drag balls while still in his mid-teens, and was said to have won prizes for an outfit of black velvet and silver lace and for several other more exotic creations consisting entirely of pink or gold feathers. "Punsies on Parade”: Prohibition and the Spectacle of the Pnnsy 315 Malin worked as a chorus boy in several Broadway shows, but, after losing several jobs because he was considered too effeminate, decided to become a professional female impersonator. In the mid-19203, while still a teenager, he began working in gay clubs in the Village, moving from Paul and Joe’s to Jackie Mason’s Charles Street Speakeasy and eventually to the Rubaiyat. There he appeared under his drag name, probably attracted some of the people who knew him from the balls, and earned the meager sum of ten to fifteen dollars a week. His luck changed in the spring of 1930 when several Broadway columnists who saw him perform there liked his act, and one of them persuaded Louis Schwartz, part owner of the Club Abbey, to see it. Schwartz, as one columnist later explained, “saw in Malin a distinct novelty for a Broadway that was tiring of the customary masters-of—ceremonies.” Deciding to give “Broadway its first glimpse of pansy night life,” another columnist reported, Schwartz booked Malin at his elegant uptown club and had an immediate success, which other clubs soon imitated.46 By the time Malin moved his act from the Village to the Club Abbey, he had transformed his stage role from that of a female impersonator to that of a pansy. A large and imposing man, he strolled about the club, interacting with the patrons and using his camp wit to entertain them (and presumably scandalizing them with his overtly gay com- ments). The club’s master of ceremonies and central attraction, he introduced other performers and was assisted, for a time, by Helen Morgan, Jr., a female impersonator who had taken the name of the well-known torch singer and club hostess (and gay favorite) Helen Morgan (see figure 11.2). Malin’s “act” was simply to bring the camp wit of the gay subculture from Greenwich Village to the floor of one of the city’s swankiest clubs, although virtually no evidence remains con- cerning the precise content of that act. He “wore men’s clothes,” one paper explained, “but [he] talked and acted like women.” Some news- papers continued to call him a female impersonator, even though he wore men’s clothes; others called him a male impersonator, as if his men’s clothes were the only manly thing about him. In a glowing account of Malin’s success at the Abbey, Daily Mirror columnist Mark Hellinger explained: “Standing on the floor for an hour at a time and making no bones about earning his living as a professional pansy, Malin intrigued those customers who did not resent this type of thing.” As Hellinger’s account suggests, Malin was widely thought to be a pansy playing a pansy. When Malin married Christine Williams in January 1931, the Daily News ran the headline “JEAN MALIN MARRIES GIRL!” The article went on to remind readers that Malin was a “horticultural lad”-—a com— mon and readily understood allusion to the sort of man nicknamed 316 THE i’OLllICS 0F GAY CULiURE Figure 11.2.. In 1931, when the pansy entertainer Jean Malin was the toast of Broadway, Vanity Fair published this drawing of him at the Club Abbey, where he was master of ceremonies. Malin is sh0wn2with Helen Morgan, Jr., a female imper- sonator. (From Vanity Fair, February 1931. Courtesy Vanity Fair. Copyrigbt © 1931 [renewed 1959] by Comic Nast Publications Inc.) ) “pansy” and “buttercup”—“whose boast is ‘I wear a rose in my lapel because it won’t stay in my hair.’” Within a few months the papers reported that Malin and his wife had slept in twin beds on their honey- moon, and when they subsequently filed for divorce the papers called it a “one-night marriage” and agreed that the reason given for the divorce— incompatibility—“was a good one.” Only Broadway Brevities and the Daily Mirror explicitly stated that Malin was a pansy, but the other papers did not need to. One column in the Daily News went so far to ask of Malin, “Is he —-?”; it did not need to fill in the blank with the word bomo- sexual or pansy since the editors were confident that the public presumed he was. Malin, in other words, was regarded as a gay man whose nightclub act revolved around his being gay, not as a “normal” man scornfully mim- icking gay mannerisms or engaging in homosexual buffoonery, as was the case in most vaudeville and burlesque routines. And although he had been imported to midtown by impresarios keen to exploit the nightclub public’s fascination with sexual perversity, Malin did not abide by the conventions of pansy impersonation. That he was not isolated on a stage “Punsies on Parade": Prohibition and the Spectacle of the Pansy 31 7 was significant in itself, for the conventional spatial arrangement would have served to reinforce the cultural distance between him, as a per- former, and a clearly demarcated audience.47 More significantly, his act included ridiculing the men in the audience who heckled him. Or, as one newspaper put it, his act was simply to “infuriate [the] red—blooded he— men who visited his club with their sweeties.” His very presence on the club floor elicited the catcalls of many men in the club, but he responded to their abuse by ripping them to shreds with the drag queen’s best weapon: his wit. “He had a lisp, and an attitude, but he also had a sharp tongue,” according to one columnist. “The wise cracks and inquiries of the men who hooted at his act found ready answer.” And if hostile spectators tried to use brute force to take him on after he had defeated them with his wit, he was prepared to humble them on those terms as well. “He was a huge youth,” one paper reported, “weighing 200, and a six footer. Not a few professional pugilists sighed because Jean seemed to prefer dinner rings to boxing rings.” Although Malin’s act remained tame enough to safeguard its wide appeal, it nonetheless embod— ied the complicated relationship between pansies and “normal” men. His behavior was consistent with their demeaning stereotype of how a pansy should behave, but he demanded their respect; he fascinated and enter- tained them, but he also threatened and infuriated them. This was an astonishing reversal of gay men’s usual fate on the stage, and it electrified segments of the gay world as well as the straight. Broadway Brevities, a tabloid more explicit about gay matters than other papers were, reported that after his nightclub success “the pansies hailed La Malin as their queen!,” and we can well imagine that even while he dismayed those gay men who would have preferred a more conventional-seeming and respectable representative, he earned the admiration of others. Rather than hide his inclinations, he proclaimed proudly in his best-known quip that he would “rather be Spanish than mannish,” a line whose significance as a parody of masculine gender imperatives was evident to all. It seems likely that many men who had been subjected to catcalls on the streets felt he stood up for them as much as for himself when he took on the hecklers in his audience. A story told about Malin highlights the image he developed as a street-smart defender of his dignity as a gay man and the degree to which his fans thought his stage and offstage personas were one and the same. Published in the Daily Mirror after he had become famous, and presumably circulating in the gay world before then, the story explained that after winning a prize for being the “best dressed woman” at a Greenwich Village drag ball, he had wandered into a cafeteria without having bothered to change his clothes. This was, as noted in chapter 10, a common step for a man to take after experiencing the heady solidarity 318 THE POLITIES 0F GAY CUllURE of a drag ball, and the heckling he started to receive from some of the other customers at the cafeteria was also fairly routine. But What hap- pened next was not. “When a party of four rough looking birds tossed a pitcher of hot water at him as he danced by,” the columnist reported, “he pitched into them. After beating three of them into insensibility, the fight went into the street, with two taxi drivers coming to the assistance of the surviving member of the original foursome.” The story portrayed Malin as claiming his right to move openly through the city as a drag queen. Still, it ended on a suitable camp note. When the fight was over, Malin was said to have had tears in his eyes. Yes, he’d won the fight, he told another man, “but look at the disgraceful state my gown is in!”48 This sort of hostile encounter was an everyday occurrence on the streets of the city: Malin elevated it to an art in his club act, and, not the least of his successes, he briefly became the darling—and top earner—of Broadway. Given the inequalities of power in the Times Square club world and in the culture at large, it was inevitable that he would be” turned into a spectacle and his act exploited for the amusement and profit of the straight world. More remarkable, however, given that con— text, was Malin’s determination to challenge his marginalization as a gay man and his success in creating more space for the gay members of his audience and for gay culture at large. The success of Malin’s club act quickly led other clubs to hire imitators. “Before the main stem knew what had happened, there was a hand on a hip for every light on Broadway,” one columnist recalled. “He established a new fashion in masters of ceremonies,” declared another paper more sedately, by “creat[ing] a vogue for effeminacy” in 1930 and 1931. In September 1930, Variety reported in a businesslike manner that Malin’s success the previous spring “had inspired plans for several “nite places with ‘pansies’ as the main draw,” and noted that Berlin and Paris, like Greenwich Village, already featured “similar night resorts, with the queers attracting the lays.”“—‘9 By November, one of Variety’s reviewers was com— plaining about the number of “fast~tempoed, ‘pansy’ dominated, mid—town spots.“0 The Argonaut began to feature a gay act {even Malin appeared there after leaving the Abbey), and the Club Calais opened, featuring Arthur (“Rose”) Budd and Jackie Maye, “the male soprano?” The degree to which the pansy craze was patterned on—and temporarily supplanted— the Negro vogue was indicated when even the Everglades, which previ— ously had featured a Southern—inflected “colored show,” briefly got into the act. In December its featured performer was Francis Renault, one of the Country’s best-known female impersonators.52 _ The pansy craze may have reached its zenith on December 19, 1930, when a new club calling itself the Pansy Club opened across the street from the Everglades. Featuring another of the nation’s best—known female "i’unsies on Parade": Prohibition and the Spectacle of The Pansy 319 impersonators, Karyl Norman, the “Creole Fashion Plate,” the club sent out opening—night invitations printed in lavender ink to the “regular list of first nighters.“3 Its newspaper advertisement announced that it would fea- ture “something different’ entitled ‘PANSIES ON PARADE” (see figure 11.3). The floor show’s title was an allusion, which would have been easily recog- nized at the time, to the central event of the city’s biggest drag balls, the “parade of the fairies” that preceded the costume contest. In announcmg its intention to put “pansies on parade” the club promised to offer its patrons a safely contained, but still titillating, version of the subcultural practices of a marginalized group brought into the heart of the City’s most prestigious entertainment district. Much as the old Everglades had offered its Times Square patrons an easily digestible taste of Harlem, the Pansy Club {as well as the new Everglades) offered them a palatable taste of the Village. . While pansies were featured at several of the district’s nightclubs that attracted an affluent audience of society people (as well as well—heeled criminal figures, Such incongruous intermingling being characteristic of Prohibition—era nightlife), they also appeared in Times Square clubs attracting a “rougher” audience of single men and women. Their different role in such clubs highlights the continuing class differences in the place of gay men in such social settings. For example, the Coffee Cliff, a nightclub on Forty—fifth Street near Broadway, just three blocks south of the Pansy Club, featured “normal” male entertainers and female singers, but at the AMUSEMENTH. Ope‘ns Tonight After Theatre Karyl Norman The Creole Fashion Plate Duran, West & Doran (Three Americln Beauties) will: a bevy of beautiful girls inflame-thing different"eniiil=d Figure 11_3_ At the height of the Pansy craze in 1930—31, a nightclub calling itself "PANSII‘B 0N PARADE" “‘ the “‘9'” the Pansy Club opened in the heart of Times Square. The club featured a pansy P chorus line and host Karyl Norman, one - f the nation’s best-known female imper— Br adwa. 0 _ . . . . (Jfigsftwaip. afar smug,” sonators. (Advertisement an unidentified For Ruervaliom Phone Chicken'ng New York newspaper, D61:wa 19, 1930. 55529553 From Yale Collection of American Literature, Reserve Your Table I Beineclze Rare Boole and Manuscripts Library, Yale University.) 320 THE POLITICS OF GAY CUlTURE height of the pansy craze in December 1930, the management also employed a “man attired in woman’s clothes, apparently a fairy, [who] was dancing with men.” The master of ceremonies, who told “many indecent jokes . . . which the audience appeared to enjoy,” according to an investi— gator, highlighted the sexual aspects of the female impersonator’s character (and the association of gay men with prostitutes) by bringing him onto the floor and cracking, “How does she look? Don’t she look like Polly Adler [a well—known madam]?” The club was not a “fairy hangout”; it catered to single men by offering them a risque floor show, hard liquor, and the opportunity to mingle freely with the “unescorted” women, many of them prostitutes, who could be found there. Malin’s appearance in an elite social setting was an unprecedented development, brought about in part by the cultural ethos of Prohibition, and it is unsurprising that the Club Abbey received the attention of the press, since the appearance of fairies in such a setting was anomalous. But the fairy’s appearance in the Square’s rougher clubs drew on a long history of gay visibility in such social settings. The fairy employed at the Coffee Cliff, moreover, interacted with the men there_ even more assertively than Malin did with his patrons. While Malin talked with his patrons, the fairy danced with his, the most intimate behavior pos- sible in such an environinent.54 When the pansy craze in the city’s nightclubs was at its height in the winter of 1930—31, two of Times Square’s three most successful clubs “depended upon ‘pansy personalities’ for their main draw,” according to Variety. In its New Year’s Eve review of the state of Broadway that season, Variety concluded that “the horticultural touch added to the gay spots this year [is] the most significant development in nite club floor shows. ”55 It already detected signs, though, that the “pansy floor shows . . . are begin- ning to . . . [lose] their drawing power”, just the week before, the Everglades and the D’Orsay had “discontinued the boys doing male imita— tions, substituting conventional girl revues and manly m.c.’s.”56 While the pansy craze lasted only a bit longer in Times Square, for rea— sons to be discussed in the following chapter, it quickly spread to other parts of the nation. Several of the pansy acts that had taken root in New York soon blossomed in other cities as well.“ Jean Malin, for one, took his act to Boston after the Club Abbey closed, and then went on to lMore research needs to be conducted on other cities to determine the scope, chronology, duration, and causes of the craze, as well as its broader cultural mean- ing. A handful of articles in Variety suggests, however, that while it was centered in large cities and resort towns, it nonetheless took hold in places as disparate as Chicago, Arizona, and Colorado. A handful of pansy clubs drawing a mixed or largely straight audience survived in cities in the 19405, ’505, and ’605, including the Club 181, its successor the Club 82, the Club Capri in New York City, and Finocchio’s in San Francisco. "Punsies on Parade": Prohibition and The Spectacle of the Pansy 321 Hollywood, where he became the toast of the town before dying in a car accident in the summer of 1933 at age twenty—five (he drowned when his car careened off a pier). By September 1932, Hollywood had four pansy clubs, three of them starring pansy performers or female impersonators who had headlined at clubs in New York the year before: Malin in a club bearing his name, Karyl Norman at La Boheme, and Franc1s Renault at Clarke’s. Rae Bourbon starred at Jimmy’s Back Yard, and BBB, s fea— tured a line of ten “boys.” “Several oo~la-la entertainers are figuring on opening spots here,” Variety reported, “believing the craze Wlll buildup, and hold at least over the winter.” A month later, c1ty authorities launched a “drive on the Nance and Lesbian amusement places in town,” but the clubs survived for another two seasons before the author— ities discovered, or began enforcing, an ordinance prohibiting tbs. appearance of anyone in a cafe in drag unless employed in the cafe. Apparently enough drag queens and other gay men had been patroniziiisg the clubs that banning them was enough to kill “the. lavender spots. Rae Bourbon promptly took his “Boys Will Be Girls” revue to Sari Francisco, where for two weeks he headlined “Frisco’s first pansy show at Tait’s café before it suCCumbed to a series of raids. (Since a_radi0 sta- tion had decided to broadcast the show, the first raid was carried'live on the local airwaves.)5S The mayor of Atlantic City reacted as negatively to the spread of pansy acts as San Francisco officials had; be banned such acts in January 1933 after becoming enraged by the “adverse advertis- ing” the resort was getting because the only two clubs still open tlgt winter, the Pansy Club and the Cotton Club, both featured pansy acts. PANSIES IN THE MEDIA _ ' Although the pansy craze peaked in New York’s nightclubs in 1930—31, a flurry of novels, films, and newspaper reports kept pansies in the pub- lic eye for several more years. In the summer of 1932, the New York tabloid Broadway Brevities announced that “queens are very much. the fashion just now. From the comic pansy-baiting in vaudeVille to serious works, called ‘of art,’ like Blair Niles’ [new novel] ‘Strange Brother, your queen is held up to the humorous tolerance, and even the soulful admira— tion, of the great public.”50 Brevitz'es was right, and in its own breathless style it had both paid homage to and helpedlge‘nerate that fashion by providing extensive coverage of the gay scene 111-1128 pages. The first edi- tion of Brevities appeared as a monthly in the mid—twenties,land, like its weekly successor, it included numerous features on gay life, including a1: astonishing yearlong series of articles in 1924 on “Nights in Fairyland, which described some of the major institutions of the gay world, from Louis’ Restaurant on Forty-ninth Street to Mother Childs at Columbus Circle (see figure 6.1). This edition of Bren/ities appears to have been sup- 322 THE POLITICS OF GAY CULTURE pressed by the authorities, although the exact circumstances of its demise are uncertain. It reappeared in 1931, in any case, billing itself as “America’s First National Tabloid Weekly” and offering even more extensive coverage of the gay scene. Usually twelve to sixteen pages, it included a plethora of gay items in its general survey of Broadway gossip and regularly devoted its entire first or last page to stories on the gay world.“ Cartoons detecting a sexual subtext in virtually every kind of interaction between men and women ran side by side with cartoons lam- pooning the efforts of pansies of pick up men on Riverside Drive (see fig- ure 7.1), their desire for sailors and policemen (see figure 3.1), and their supposed insistence on claiming the status of women (see figure 2.1).62 Many of the gay—related cartoons and humorous sketches published in the paper lent themselves to divergent readings. They often made fun of gay men or lesbians, but some of them could easily have represented a jaded gay insider’s view of his milieu. Indeed, the paper’s political per- spective on the gay world is curiously difficult to determine. The diffi- culty is revealing, for the multiple readings possible of its stories and-w. cartoons that are possible (and the now obscure internal politics that may have produced such complexity) suggest the complex ramifications for gay life of the sudden attention paid pansies. As the pages of Brevitz'es illustrate, the pansy craze made the gay world more visible—to itself and those seeking to become a part of it, as well as to curious out— siders—even as it subjected it to considerable exploitation. The paper’s coverage was often abrasive and demeaning, but it provided a good deal of information about meeting places, prominent figures in the gay world such as Jean Malin and Jackie Mason, drag balls, police activity, and the like, which gay readers would have found useful. Many of the cartoons ridiculed gay men and lesbians, but no more than they ridiculed the interactions of presumptive heterosexuals, and some of them showed lesbians in positions of relative power over the men desperately pursu- ing them. “I love you with all my heart and want you for my wife,” begs one man on his knees at the foot of Eve, smartly dressed in a skirt and tuxedo jacket and surrounded by paintings of buxom women. Oh says Eve, “who up until then had taken no part in the c0nversation . . have you a wife?” Another cartoon portrayed two beautiful women wearing ties and short hair, leaving the club Doo Dike Inn arm in arm. Glancing back at the man beginning to follow them, the “First Ikeday” says to the other: “Let’s be nice to him Billie; maybe he has a sister.”63 The paper’s articles were so well informed and accurate in their cover- age of the gay scene that many of them were almost surely written by les— bians or gay men. In its 1924 “Nights in Fairyland” series, Brevities referred to gay meeting places dating back to the turn of the century, such as Columbia Hall (better knOWn as Paresis Hall) and the Black Cat, ' "Punsies 0n Parade”: Prohibition and The Spectacle of the Pnnsy 323 as well as to raids on the Ariston, Lafayette, and Everard baths back to 1903.64 In the 19305 it also provided remarkably thorough and accurate histories of the gay and lesbian speakeasies of the previous decade, as well as comments on more current personalities and clubs. It published biting depictions of gay life (as well as articles that seem to offer an arch—or “bitchy”—-insider’s camp commentary on gay foibles), but it also published letters from gay readers and their supporters that criti— cized Such coverage and propounded a more positive view (such as the letter from the father of a gay man quoted in chapter 10). While it overtly construed its writers and readers as straight, the paper was almost certainly read and written, in part, by gay people. Part of the reason Brevitz'es was so well informed about the gay scene was that it hired the columnist Billy Scully away from the Greenwich Village Weekly News, where, as noted in chapter 9, he had written knowl- edgeable and generally positive notices of gay events and personalities.“ In October 1931, Seully announced in the Weekly News that he was leaving the Village paper for Brevities, and although his name never appeared on the latter’s masthead, it seems likely that he was the author who began writing stories for Brevities the next month under pseudonyms whose homosexual innuendo was blatant: “John Swallow Martin,” “Stephen O’Toole,” and “Buddy Browning.” His extensive articles on the gay scene, which often took up the entire first or back page, appeared under banner headlines reveling in their knowledge and use of gay argot (see figure 11.1). Although his articles in Brevitz’es were generally more mocking in their coverage of the gay scene than those in the Weekly News, their tone seems to have served as a legitimizing ruse for articles that were, on the whole, extremely informative. For example, the front page of the November 9, 1931, issue was devoted to an article titled “Sapphic Sisters Scrami,” which traced the history of lesbian clubs in the city and included an extended discussion of Eve Addams’s club, which Scuily had discussed a few weeks earlier in a‘IWeekly News column. The author was listed as “Connie Lingle.” Brevities was only one of the city’s newspapers to increase its cover- age of the gay scene in the early 19303: The Broadway Terrier, intro- duced at about the same time as Brevities, adopted a similar tone, and devoted a double column in most issues to the “Pansy Bugle,” which reported “fictitious but typical homosexual exploits in a heavy satirical style.”6 Even more established papers increased their coverage of the gay world in the 19205 and 19303, although none matched Brevities’s detail, volume, or explicitness. Most of the press accounts of the gay scene focused on the Village and took a sensationalist, outsider’s per- spective. Bernarr Macfadden’s short—lived tabloid, the New York Evening-Graphic (nicknamed the Evening—Pornographic by some), 324 THE POLITI‘CS 0F GAY CULTURE reported on the gay scene using the rhetoric of moral outrage. In the summer of 1931, for instance, Paul Yawitz began his Evening-Graphic series on the depravity of the Village with a scornful look at the gay clubs of MacDougal Street, which he called “the innermost stations of Greenwich Village’s sex, pollution and human decay.”67 Even Vanity Fair provided limited coverage of the pansy craze. In a survey of New York nightlife, it included a sketch of Jean Malin and Helen Morgan, jr., at the “‘smart’ Club Abbey” (see figure 11.2), which it described as one of “the growing pains of our metropolitan culture.”63 Variety, the New York—based trade publication of the entertainment industry, in which many gay men worked, regularly covered the gay scene from the mid—19205 until 1931. Most of the articles concerned the role of homosexuality in show business—the spread of pansy acts, the censorship of homosexual innuendo in vaudeville, the controversy over The Captive—but the paper also published articles with less obvious connections to its bailiwick, about gay men in a Coney Island beauty contest, arrests of men in drag, and the like. Its gay coverage was never“ extensive, but for several years it seems to have presumed, or acknowl- edged, that its theater—industry readership might be interested in such things.69 'The early thirties also saw book publishers race to satisfy the public’s growing interest in the gay scene, for a flurry of gay—themed novels appeared between 1931 and 1934. Several of them depicted New York’s gay world. As their titles suggest, most focused on the flamboyant fairy: Strange Brother by Blair Niles (1931), Twilight Men by Andre Tellier (1931), A Scarlet Pansy by Robert Scully (1932), Goldie by Kennilworth Bruce (1933), Better Angel by Richard Meeker (1933), and Butterfly Men by Lew Levenson (1934). The arrival of such novels suggests the extent to which social convention had been undermined by the 1930s, for publishers had previously been unwilling to broach the subject of homosexuality. Just a few years earlier, in 1929, the New York publisher Covici—Friede had been taken to court and convicted for obscenity for dating to publish Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, a conviction only overturned on appeal.70 More important, the novels suggest that a few authors were able to seize the possibilities created by the pansy craze to depict the gay world and publicly articulate a gay sensibility. The writing in some of the novels was wooden, although a few fairly sparkled with camp repartee. Some portrayed the gay world in unflattering terms, but several provided remarkably detailed descriptions and defenses of gay speakeasies, drag balls, and other institutions. Most ended with the death or suicide of the gay protagonist, but only a few made this end seem inevitable; in the other novels the ending is obviously nothing but an obligatory bow to con- vention, transparently intended to disarm the moralists who might other— "Punsies oin Parade”: ProhibiTion and the Spectacle of The Pansy 325 wise have tried to suppress the books. The novels were widely discussed by gay men, and a few received attention in the straight press.71 The Prohibition-era preoccupation with pansies made its way into the movies as well. A handful of films on gay subjects appeared, along with many more that included gay images. Two gay films shown in New York received particular attention: Miiclehen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform, 1931), a German release depicting lesbian love at a boarding school as a form of resistance to authoritarianism, and Chained, a study of “a male captive,” its ads declared, in a testimony to the notoriety the play The Captive had achieved (see figure 11.4). Many more movies included inci- dental gay characters or had their protagonists engage in homosexual buffoonery, particularly as vaudevillians began to move into films and create a new genre of vaudeville-inflected film comedy. Laurel and Hardy movies, for instance, regularly depicted one of the duo goosing the other, pulling down his pants, or engaging in obscene poses. In one early fea— ture, Their First Mistake (Roach, 1932), Laurel and Hardy decide to adopt a child, without consulting Ollie’s wife. When she walks out, they proceed to establish a household and raise the child themselves. Before long they are sleeping together (with the baby) in Hardy’s marriage bed and Laurel is sucking the bottle Hardy holds; in another scene Hardy holds the bottle in his lap and strokes it so hard that the milk spurts out of it. Soon they receive a court notice announcing that Hardy’s wife is suing for divorce and naming Laurel as the co-respondent.72 Such films caricatured pansies but also destabilized gender categories and implied that any man might sexually desire another man. The flavor of the old vaudeville and burlesque pansy routines is pre— served in the Bugs Bunny cartoons produced for movie theaters in the 19405 and 19505, which drew on many of those routines but were able, as cartoons, to avoid the censorship imposed on other films by then. Along with the exaggerated physical blows and falls and even more exaggerated misunderstandings of the old stage forms, the cartoons regularly depicted Bugs putting on drag and giving Elmer a big, wet kiss. In the duo’s very first meeting in A -Wilcl Hare (1940), Bugs gives Elmer a kiss after stroking the man’s rifle repeatedly; in What’s Cookin’, Doc? (1944) Bugs dresses as Carmen Miranda and puts on a drag show extravaganza.73 In doing so the cartoons drew directly on the vaudeville and burlesque traditions of homo- sexual buffoonery and pansy caricature. By the late 19205, gay men had become a conspicuous part of New York City’s nightlife. They had been visible since the late nineteenth century in some of the city’s immigrant and working—class neighborhoods, and _ since the 19105 in the bohemian enclave of Greenwich Village. But in the 19205 they moved into the center of the city’s most prestigious entertain- an. new 10ng :5 um“ All Non; York is talking about and reading an unusual novel which in: be called “the that landlth a! thin important than yet attempted . . (better than The Well a! Lam“ The Mental mucus». who wrote it. has uh.in “a handful handling of a delicate subject." Th- fltlo at the bank is ' TWILIGHTMEN It is on sale at $2.50 at all bookstores. Published by GREENEERG, 160 Fifth.Ave., New York. ALREADY IN'ITS 3RD LARGE PRINTING .35- "1-IfijVfic-pgfill‘frrvrf‘jTH-wa— _ .y I J, .. - In ash megawatt. was. 1'! ill? Ill do Mm I " Hm woman'ivfié opened - r In: arms in bill In could _ not "turn man's "quote. , mo..- -- ‘ BROTHER I. A bran and during story chill the dill-Ilia of in III-r.- nedl‘lc am It] mull-u new. making with rum» 4! humus VII twinge-ring novel. The "fairly a! String. Inflm IIII lull ‘Hlllld by may confidential lotion. . 3H “men. 52.30 I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I l I I I I I I I I I III-IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII “CHAINED” A FORCEFUL PICTURE III-IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII-IIIIIIIIIIIIIII An, nsrounomo TALE 01' UNNATURAL LOVES! ACME THEATRE UNION SQUARE AT FDUHTEEN‘I'H 51'. Starting Saturday, Nov. lst' Continuous PERFORMANCE DAILY lo in. H.113 I‘ P. M. I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I = i: (THE STORY or A MALE CAP’I‘IVE’) g g l Figure 11.4. it seemed that all of New York was talking about homosexual- ity in the early 19305, when a host of novels and films dealing with gay t0p- ics appeared. (Advertisements from unidentified New York newspapers, 1931—33. Prom Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Yale University.) “Punsies on Parade”: Prohibition and the Spectacle of the Pansy 327 ment district, became the subject of plays, films, novels, and newspaper headlines, and attracted thousands of spectators to Harlem’s largest balls rooms. “All New York is talking,” an ad for a gay novel published in 1931 proclaimed (see figure 11.4). The ad made its claim in typically hyperbolic fashion—but in fact much of New York was talking about the pansy phenomenon. The pansy craze highlights the cultural upheaval wr0ught by Prohibition. By criminalizing much of New York City’s nightlife, Prohibition gave con- trol of that nightlife to men and women from the “lower classes” who introduced middle—class audiences to “coarse” forms of entertainment pre— viously restricted to working-class neighborhoods. Fairies were a part of the culture of those neighborhoods, and they moved with the gangsters to Times Square and other centers of middle-class nightlife.74 By driving mid- dle-class men and women to break the law if they wanted to socialize where they could have a drink and bringing them in contact with “low-life” fig— ures, Prohibition encouraged them to transgress other social boundaries as well. By impinging on middle-class as well as working-class life, Prohibition led many middle—class New Yorkers to question the moral agenda of the social-purity forces for the first time. The reaction of middle—class clubgoers to the moral agenda of the Prohibitionists was consonant with the sense of disillusionment that fol- lowed World War 1.75 The nation’s leaders had promoted it as the most noble, selfless, and just of wars, but its moralistic pretensions had been shattered for many Americans by the power-brokering at the Versailles peace conference and by the massive strikes, the race riots, and the Red scare that convulsed the nation in the year following the armistice. Many people came to reject the moral certainties that had fueled both the war and the Prohibition campaign. One sign of this was that the old fear of “overcivilization” gave way to a new appreciation of “sophistication.” Displaying sophistication became one of the ways many New Yorkers dis— tinguished themselves from the “narrow-minded” folk whom they blamed for the passage of Prohibition and whose moral fervor now seemed dan— gerously constraining. New Yorkers could demonstrate their sophistica— tion, in part, by their knowledge and appreciation of the very transgressive social practices that so horrified the social—purity forces—be it the rhythms of African-American jazz or the double entendre of gay male repartee. Vanity Fair hinted at this when it described “Jean Malin’s ‘smart’ Club Abbey, where, through a lavender mist somewhat bewildered clientele smirk with self—conscious sophistication at the delicate antics of their host.” Keen to assert its superiority over host and clientele alike, the maga- zine was hardly enthusiastic about Malin’s “wilted postures and tense war- bling”; it concluded that clubs with pansy acts were simply “the growing pains of our metropolitan Culture.”76 But even though the magazine 328 THE POLITICS OF GAY CULTURE thought the “bewildered” members of Malin’s audience were unable to understand him, it recognized they thought it was important that they appear to understand him. At that moment in the development of “metro- politan culture,” having the daring to see and the ability to appreciate the sophisticated double-entendre and camp antics of a gay man seemed to some the pinnacle of sophistication. The Vanity Fair article suggests the complex origins and multiple mean- ings of the pansy craze and its similarities to the “Negro vogue” that pre— ceded it. Both fads allowed members of the dominant culture to shore up their identities and solidarity by contrasting themselves with the otherness of the African—American and the homosexual. At a time of bitter white eth— nic rivalries, which resulted in the resurgence of anti~Semitism and the pas- sage of exclusionary immigration laws in the early 19205, the spectacle of black “primitivism” allowed whites to express their solidarity with other whites by distinguishing themselves from blacks. At a time when the cul— ture of the speakeasies and the 1920s’ celebration of affluence and con- sumption might have undermined conventional soarces of masculine iden- tity, the spectacle of the pansy allowed men to confirm their manliness and solidarity with other men by distinguishing themselves from pansies. But each spectacle provoked a wider range of responses than this. Malin’s courage in “standing on the floor for an hour at a time and making no bones about [being] a professional pansy” elicited respect as well as ridicule. Jazz appealed because it seemed primitive, and camp because it seemed perverse; but each had a utopian appeal as well, for each seemed to offer a path to freedom from the constraints of the bourgeois moral order under which men and women self-consciously chafed. The Negro and pansy vogues each revealed only a fraction of a vibrant urban subculture to the dominant Culture, but those fractions pointed to worlds that seemed to some New Yorkers to offer alternatives to the constraining forms of that dominant culture.” The changing organization of middle-class sociability and the peculiar cultural ethos generated by World War I and Prohibition help explain how the pansy craze became possible, but in themselves they cannot account for it. Lesbians and gay men also made it happen, by starting their own speakeasies and performing at clubs in the Village and Harlem, by organiz- ing drag balls in the city’s ballrooms, and by carrying themselves openly in the city’s streets and putting on “shows” for the other customers at the city’s Automats, cafeterias, and Speakeasies. The fascination they provoked led entertainment entrepreneurs to put homosexuals on their own stages. At first pansies were simply mimicked and ridiculed by “normal” comics who made gay men and lesbians the objects of their jokes or included homosexual buffoonery in their stage routines. They were caricatured by cartoonists in Broadway Brevitz'es and sneered at by columnists in the "Punsiss on Parade": Prohibition and the Spectacle of The Pansy 329 Evening-Graphic. While this dismissive ridicule set the predominant tone of the pansy craze, even it betrayed a fascination with the gay subculture and a nervousness about the questions its visibility raised regarding the inevitability of heterosexual arrangements. By the late 19203 and early 19305, gay men had moved to center stage themselves. Jean Malin and his imitators spoke for themselves and forced their audiences to contend with them directly in unequal verbal contests that left the audiences alternately charmed, bewildered, dazzled, and outraged. The clubs put the “pansies on parade” in order to profit from the curiosity provoked by the pansies’ own willingness to parade openly thrOughout the city. But at least some gay performers seized the opportunities Prohibition culture provided to expand the space available for gay selfurepresentation and to challenge the conventions of ridicule and disdain that governed the straight world’s response to them. ...
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This note was uploaded on 01/14/2011 for the course MUS 355 taught by Professor Carson during the Spring '08 term at ASU.

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u3g-chauncey - " 304 THE ?0LITICS 0F GAY [ULTURE the...

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