Volume four, Issue 24 | June 23 - 29, 2005

FILM

SUPERSTAR IN A HOUSEDRESS
The Life and Legend of Jackie Curtis
By Craig B. Highberger
Penguin Books
241 pages, plus DVD, $24.95

Craig B. Highberger

Jackie Curtis, the subject of a new biography, is seen in a Barbra wig at Max’s Kansas City in 1973.

Warhol’s Brainy Goddess

A Jackie Curtis biography chronicles when drag was defiant

By JAMES McCOURT

In alphabetical order, they are Candy, Holly, Jackie—the triple-goddess of the mystery temple religion founded by Andy Warhol and Mickey Ruskin on Union Square and Park Avenue South in the fabled New York City of 1964. As such, they are worthy of examination in detail—every sincerely attested mythic/biographic scrap that comes to light you may clip and attach as a supplement to the back of Craig B. Highberger’s “Superstar in a House Dress.”

Jackie Curtis last went before the rolling cameras as Inez, in the film version of George Haas’ “Doris and Inez Speak the Truth,” which Haas wrote for himself and Tom Carey, the original Inez, to perform in cabaret theater at Alex Di Lorenzo’s club-of-all-clubs, Danceteria, and at other late-night venues. I don’t remember who played Doris, only that he was very good, but Doris’ boyfriend, the mailman Francis, was played by the legendary Tom Noonan and Inez’s boyfriend Tony, whom Doris accuses of raping her, setting Inez off into a volcanic rage, was played by the smolderingly beautiful Michael Santoro, who subsequently went out to Hollywood and became Julia Roberts’ bodyguard.

A videotape of the film might yet be found in Los Angeles.

Jackie’s last drug run, the one that killed her weeks after “Doris and Inez Speak the Truth” wrapped, was exacerbated by a reckless course of over-the-counter antihistamines and some terribly unwise boosters of amphetamine done between takes, which may or may not have enhanced a truly amazing performance, climaxing in Inez’s tearing a whole room apart—“Shit, man, that’s one set nobody’s gonna hafta strike!”—which entailed an enormous amount of strength and no little dexterity, since the last thing the actor wanted was for his precious collection of photographs of Lana Turner decorating the set’s walls to come to grief.

Jackie was a method actor, in training at the time, under the name Shannon Montgomery, at the HB Studios, and this push-pull scene mandate—tear the room to pieces, but save the pictures on the wall—was a greater histrionic challenge than anything Paul Morrissey, the filmmaker had given her, which is not for a minute to denigrate the Morrissey aesthetic, which tends to be more ichnographic than histrionic. Morrissey and Jackie Curtis clearly went after the Joseph Von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich aesthetic, and matched it, as can be seen in the cover photograph of “Superstar in a Housedress,” which is being marketed with a companion DVD of the same title, a documentary feature which has already enjoyed considerable, deserved success, to which this volume relates as a “novelization.”

Torn-housedress drag was a lazy Sunday afternoon New York way of life in the queer-communal ‘60s. Once everybody had pulled themselves together after the long night at the bars, somebody would be sent out for a couple of six packs. Sister would jump into the torn housedress—signifying there was a tough guy in her life—the platform wedgies and some class of head gear and schlep it down to the bodega.
“I can’t sell you beer on Sunday `til six-o’clock,” the proprietor would declare. “Come on, Manuel, if I’ve got the balls to come out lookin’ like this—and I’m in real danger, ‘cause I ain’t wearin’ the necessary three articles of male clothing; I’m out here ridin’ bareback, Manuel; I’m riskin’ my position—you can fuckin’ well sell me a coupla six packs. Y’know comes the revolution, we’re gonna be on your side, sweetheart.”

Therefore, when Jackie hit Max’s Kansas City night after night looking like Gravel Gertie and talking like a truck driver who somehow had gotten to know Carole Lombard, she was paying tribute to her peers on the Lower East and the Upper West Side. Candy and Holly were all about glamour, glory and gold. Jackie wrote the script for that tale—a segment of which touchingly closes “Superstar in a Housedress”—but all the while she had not far in the back of that teeming mind a real idea about social transformation, about a society in which a man (homo or heterosexual) could indeed trot out on a Sunday afternoon dressed in clothing normally associated with a woman. Indeed, heterosexual cross-dressers owe as much to Jackie Curtis as does any drag queen walking the streets unmolested today.

I mention histrionics and stretch—with attendant stretch marks in the form of needle tracks—because much is made in “Superstar in a Housedress” of Jackie’s adoration of Carol Burnett in “Once Upon a Mattress,” which opened at the Orpheum, diagonally across Second Avenue from her grandmother’s bar, Slugger Ann’s, but what is not mentioned is that that same theater subsequently housed the famous early ‘60s Phoenix Repertory Company—lots of Shakespeare and comedies of manners, which attracted a very sophisticated, uptown, mixed crowd. Loads of reputable heterosexuals and many flexible academics were doing intermissions at Slugger’s, and not a morsel of this high culture was lost on John Holder Jr.

“I wanted to be able to converse with people;

I didn’t just want to say things like ‘Isn’t Lana

Turner wonderful?’ You know, I didn’t want to be a

queen with subjects.”

Born John Holden, Jr., ending his career as the much-married Ms. Curtis sporting the full-monty gossip-column moniker Jackie Curtis Emerson Dukeshire Cayce Keller Loud Groby McPhee Majchrzak, he was both a good son (putting his mother, the true-grit Jeanie Uglialoro, into his masterpiece, the marathon meta-musical phantasmagoria “Vain Victory”—music by Paul Serrato—the show that gave the terms “actor chemistry” and “ensemble theater” a whole range of new meanings) and a creature of unbridled passion who lived to have deep and penetrating carnal knowledge of anonymous bruisers.

Jackie could also be an absolute muthafucka to work with—that ground glass did not accidentally get into Holly Woodlawn’s shoes at the “Cabaret-in-the-Sky” the two dear friends did together in 1974, and yes, that was La Curtis stretched out in the road in front of Holly’s limousine at Carnegie Hall on the night Holly’s divine tribute to the silent film era, “Broken Goddess,” opened at the Carnegie Hall Cinema.

Never mind. The mourning was general and heartfelt when Jackie Curtis died of a heroin overdose in May 1985, with the funeral at St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church on East 11th Street. Curtis was dressed manly in a dark suit, but underneath it wore the black silk slip—a very Sicilian slip, such as her mother and grandmother wore—and was shod in the marabou mules she wore as Inez in “Doris and Inez Speak the Truth.”

For the fact is anybody who could at the age of 17 come out with “Nola Noonan: Glamour, Glory and Gold” and at 24 write, or otherwise appropriate and incorporate, the following two haunting passages in the whacked-out extravaganza of the absurd that was “Vain Victory” (“a story so touching it oughta be told with a whip”) is not to be dismissed by posterity.

Mary:
Who would hinder me, alone among your
dim aisles? To the nine sisters that instruct
me in the skies. Were my verses to paint them,
it would be enough. Faith chose no golden
threads to weave through my life. They are
deep, as deep as prodigal, as deep as pleasure.

Benito:
Underneath all the tales there does lie
something further, something different. How
different? The thing which is involved is of
a different nature. However, it may put on a
different appearance or indulge in its servant’s
appetites. It is cold, it is hungry, it is
violent and illusory.

You write like that, you wear what you want, I’m saying. And so for me, as for others of like mind—and we’re still here—the death of Jackie Curtis was as sad and pitiable as the deaths of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe.

So I am there in the back room of Max’s at the round table under Dan Flavin’s magenta neon halo this one night around midnight, which is early, but I am with my extremely cool and unflappable older brother David, a professor of political science. We are there this early because I wanted David to meet Donald Lyons, the smartest person I know and a staunch and vociferous political conservative. David is as staunch and vociferous a political liberal, and he and Donald are deep in an extremely animated and intricate discussion of history and politics, when up to the table sidles who else but Ms. Curtis.

I say to my brother, “Remember how I told you Max’s is pretty Damon Runyonesque, well this is Jackie Curtis, the most Damon Runyonesque character in the joint.” Jackie preens. Jackie is also very smart, if no match for Donald or David, but she goes way back in her mind, to her grandmother Slugger Ann and that saloon over on Second Avenue and Twelfth Street, and knows all about Damon Runyon. (Also, Jackie is a lot more than a Damon Runyon cartoon redrawn for the ‘60s; her behavioral roots go way back in New York, past her grandmother’s association with the likes of Jimmy Walker, past Mae West and the 1890s Bowery sidekicks of her Diamond Lil, back into Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick and past that even all the way to Five Corners and really treacherous gangs of old New York. This is why it was a terrible mistake for her to go to Hollywood and believe in it, thinking she resembled James Dean enough to play him onscreen. Jackie looked about as much like James Dean as I looked like Paul Newman. Jackie didn’t belong in Hollywood; Holly belonged in Hollywood… slow curtain.)

Jackie’s housedress is torn this evening at the shoulder, and Jackie has these what have been called linebacker shoulders, which she maneuvers like Garbo in “Ninotchka,” for truly, Jackie has more cultural reference than all the other superstars put together; indeed as much as Andy Warhol himself, even if she has to learn when to downplay the smarts when in collision with all these warped, drop-out braniacs who keep drifting into this reckless playpen doing enough drugs nightly to poison the city water supply.

In the early ‘80s, Jackie embraced recovery, but unhappily for all concerned, Jackie wedded to recovery turned out to be yet another replay of her long-since proxy wedding to the long-gone Eric Emerson—the groom was a no-show but the reception went on. (Every biographical sentence about Jackie Curtis should break in the middle with, “Undeterred, Jackie…”)

Many voices that would have made “Superstar in a Housedress”—book and film—even more interesting and valuable now echo in other rooms, empty ones from our perspective, bright and airy and on the astral, and of them all the one I most miss is Estelle’s. Estelle (Douglas Fisher), who makes a cameo appearance onstage in “Vain. Victory,” as replacement for the lethal Ondine, had Jackie down cold. It was like he’d been studying her, like she was a book, or a play, or a set of blueprints.

And so Jackie was, for some significant few who followed her, improving on the template, each to a considerable degree. She was also, throughout her short life, a gawky, almost feral kid whose momma was a big-city broad and whose daddy was a beautiful sailor boy from Tennessee who couldn’t hack the big city, packed it in and went back home to live a life of prosperous decency.

Jackie hacked it brilliantly till it hacked back, then she too went back home. Too soon.

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