Before there was Pose, before Madonna showed us all how to Vogue, before Stonewall, there were courageous individuals in the ‘50s who busted gender norms, donning drag in a “Leave it to Beaver” America and paved the way for those that followed, daring to be different in a culture that sought to criminalize their behavior. Combing through a treasure trove of letters found in a storage unit in 2014, the creative team behind P.S. Burn This Letter Please embarked on a five-year journey to reconstruct the lives of its protagonists.
Burn this Letter offers a fascinating glimpse into the pre-Stonewall era of drag queens, femme mimics and female impersonators. Many of them from small towns across America’s heartland itching to flee to the big city in search of a better (freer) life where they could fully express themselves. Such as James Bidgood, a former female impersonator from Madison, Wisconsin who upon arriving in New York said, “As soon as I stepped off the bus, I knew I was where I was meant to be.” Or Lennie (age 89) from the Lower East Side, a former drag queen known as “Dee Dee La Rue” who grew up in Pennsylvania and holds the distinction of being the first male cheerleader in Hershey. He left home at the age of 18 and joined the military creating his alter ego “Dee Dee La Rue,” donning drag for a show to entertain his fellow soldiers, and describing how he had to get an escort from his dressing room to the stage because the sight of a woman (real or otherwise) made him a magnet for sex-starved soldiers. There was Robert from Wichita Kansas, a self-described femme mimic who recalls staring at the train tracks as a three-year-old, knowing he could not wait to get the hell out of Dodge. He describes how he received an undesirable discharge from the military which stripped him of dignity and veteran’s benefits.
There is a lot to take in, visually and otherwise. The juxtaposition of the images and archival footage from their heyday with their current selves reflecting on their shenanigans and the way they were. It all but beckons for a second viewing to process it all. Here are five reasons (though there are more, to be sure) to watch and savor this gem as well as a revealing behind-the-scenes chat with the creative team who excavated this slice of LGBTQ+ history.
An Epistolary Love Letter for Generations to Come
In this modern age of texts, Twitter, and email, P.S. Burn this Letter Please resurrects the lost art of letter writing and the days where missives were sent on a one-way path to their recipient. Hearing the letters read aloud in present-day voice-over all these years later, adds a poignant dimension to their stories. The letters are a potent time capsule, recapturing the wit, the lingo and the catchphrases with style and panache, a community borne of adversity carving out a safe space with like-minded misfits and outcasts. As drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys remarks in the documentary, “Photographs tell us one thing; words tell us another.”
You Cannot Make This Up
Credit must be paid to the colorful cast of characters. At the top of that list was the story I have dubbed “The Great Wig Heist of 1958.” Now in his 80s, Claude Diaz (aka “Claudia”) recounts in vivid detail how he and his partner in crime found their way into the Metropolitan Opera House after-hours, by virtue of a front gate that was somehow left unlocked. Like something out of a movie, the octogenarian candidly recounts how the 20-something-year-olds made their way inside the vaunted building and kicked in the door to the wig room and made off with 33 Italian wigs worth thousands of dollars. But before they left the hallowed halls of this treasured opera house, Claude nonchalantly recounts how he brazenly pleasured himself on the stage of the Met. Or as he delicately put it, he got his “cookies off” during this after-hours heist. When his shocked partner-in-crime saw what he was up to and asked what the hell he was doing, Claude/Claudia responded dryly, “I’m saving this memory.” They wound up serving a year on Riker’s Island for breaking and entering, but Claude wryly quips how a couple drag queens outsmarted the NYPD. When they were ordered to return the wigs, they got the last laugh, substituting cheap synthetic wigs to cops who couldn’t tell the difference between shit and Shinola.
A Cathartic Walk Down Memory Lane
Burn this Letter is notable not only for the impact it has on the audience, but for the impact it had on its subjects. In one sequence, one of the men, Michael Alonga, recounts his father’s reaction when he learned his son dressed as a “Susie” – a derogatory term for men who wore drag – after his father had to bail him out of jail for dressing in women’s clothes. It is a soul-crushing memory which shows the lasting impact of his father’s words. You can feel the visceral disgust and contempt as he spits out the words as if he were reliving the moment right then and there. Alonga recalls the first time he expressed this proclivity as a seven-year-old when his father (an opera buff) took him to see Madame Butterfly at the Met. He knew then and there, telling his father, “I wanna be Madame Butterfly.”
If you think the queens on Drag Race cornered the market on sassy repartee, think again. Many of the letters were penned by “Daphne” who had a particularly droll wit and a way with words. Some expressions are still in common use today, while others have all but disappeared. You might want to keep a notepad handy to keep track of the colorful turns of phrase and lingo du jour. For instance, the term “mopping” – slang for shoplifting – has nothing to do with cleaning floors. As one of the drag queens put it, “Whatever drag we were wearing, we stole.” A “trick room” was a place (often a cheap motel room jointly rented) where drag queens would stash their drag couture, a place they could safely change without arousing fear or exposure.
I sat down with one of the directors (virtually) Michael Seligman who answered some of my burning questions and offered a behind-the-scenes look at the making of this documentary.
Can you talk about how these letters came into your possession?
Seligman: The letters were found in the storage unit of a friend who had recently passed away. There were so many, and they weren’t in any order, so it took time to organize them and decode them, but once we did, a story emerged, and we knew they were very special. We went back and forth about sharing them publicly because many of them are so personal. But ultimately, we decided they were important to share with our community.
Was it difficult to track down these people and were they immediately willing to participate?
It took years to track all the people down. We even used a private detective to locate a few of them. And once we got in contact, it took months of conversations before several of our subjects agreed to be filmed. Many them didn’t feel that they had anything special to say or add to the story… but after the interviews, they were all ultimately grateful for having the opportunity to share their experiences and know that they would be saved for future generations. They are the last of their generation and we are lucky to have captured their stories when we did.
There is a moment where one of the individuals gets choked up at the sight of a photograph of his friend. What was it like for these individuals to revisit this chapter of their lives?
There were lots of tears in front of and behind the cameras during these interviews. What was so remarkable is that they were reliving these moments purely from their memories. In most cases, they did not have photographs or journals or anything to refer to. So, you get the sense that these images were seared into their minds because they were peak moments for each of them. Even more remarkable is when we would have different subjects retelling the same stories and how the details matched up, so you know they were pretty accurate in their recollections.
What was the biggest discovery or surprise in the making of this documentary?
One of the myths of queer life before Stonewall is that people were ashamed, closeted, unhappy, and that may have been true for some. But to make this discovery, first of the letters and then of the people who lived this history, and to discover how well-adjusted, happy, self-assured they were was incredible. They understood the limits of their personal freedoms, but they operated with such buoyancy and fearlessness right to the edges of those boundaries. And that was a joy to discover because it shows how, as queer people, we cannot be held down.
Credit must be paid to the individual who held onto to these letters, a one-time radio broadcaster who went on to become a legendary agent in Hollywood. Though he went by the name Reno Martin early in his professional career, his real identity is something you will have to watch the documentary to discover.
Reno was a central figure in the lives of these queens, a friend to them when he lived in New York, and their desire to continue to share their lives with him after he left the city is the reason these letters exist. It is also a testament to Reno and to the person he later became – a man who was central to the lives of many performers in the years to come.
Seeing these drag queens, many of them now in their 80s and 90s, revisit the good old days with tears and laughter and nostalgia is touching, bittersweet and poignant all wrapped into one magnificent sequined bow. As Claude (aka Claudia) Diaz puts it, “We were the freaks. I was 15 in a black lace sequined strapless dress and gold sequined pumps that I borrowed from a hooker. The only thing that was mine was my hair.” But amidst the memories was the backdrop of all-too-real headlines of the day underscoring an existence fraught with the prospect of imprisonment, violence, or both. Their greatest act of resistance was simply existing.
Last modified: January 5, 2021