Autumn-time 1958, two individuals have broken into the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City and made off with thousands of dollars’ worth of luxurious Italian wigs. The accused are the two drag queens Claudia – Claude Diaz – and Josephine Baker – Robert Perez – who stole the wigs for their own drag acts as well as to flog backstage. In a letter to a so-called ‘Reno’, Josephine confesses all; signing off with a cautious ‘P.S. burn this letter please’. This is one of many letters addressed to ‘Reno’ written by 1950’s drag queens found in an LA storage unit in 2014. This ‘Reno Martin’ is really Ed Limato, a successful talent agent and former radio DJ who died in 2010, and these letters boast a rare and glorious insight into the forbidden underground drag scene of the fifties. Instead of a plethora of photographs, letters, and culturally famed historical figures – LGBTQ+ history is often tracked by arrest records and the few scarce artifacts that escaped being destroyed by families. This is a precious example of the latter. Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera, P.S. Burn This Letter Please is an important and celebratory reconstruction of the lives of those invisible to history as it delves deep into the rich past of New York City’s drag culture.
Photo © Courtesy of BFI Flare
Combining handwritten reports, rare archival footage and photographs, and the personal testimonials of queens now in their 80’s or 90’s, Seligman and Tiexiera work to create an all-encompassing and vibrant image of life as a drag queen in 50s New York. The documentary constantly notes the distressing impact of living under the constant risk of being arrested or sent to a psychiatric ward had on gay people at the time. Even under the looming threat of police raids and police brutality, the gay nightclub scene of the fifties was a shining example of just how important tight-knit communities, clubs, and friendships were (and still are) in providing a space of expression and resilience for LGBTQ+ people. Piecing together the colourful communities and characters of the drag scene at the time, the documentary highlights the inherently political and unyielding nature of drag culture. This ongoing resistance – still even in the accounts of the queens today – is one of the most beautiful and mesmerising things about the film. Excitingly detailing how he and Josephine ‘mopped’ (stole) the wigs, Claude proudly pulls out one of the gorgeous 60-year-old wigs he stole from the Met Opera many years ago. Putting a middle finger up, he boasts how the incompetent police didn’t even realise when he handed them back a cheap synthetic wig instead of a thousand-dollar lace front. A small sign of defiance but also a dazzling show of all the strength, grit, and courage it took to dare to be a drag queen in a time where being gay was so heavily prosecuted by law.
Photo © Courtesy of BFI Flare
Diving deep into the hidden world of fifties drag, P.S. Burn this Letter Please takes us on a journey of all the clubs and ballrooms that the drag queens frequented. First, there’s the bars – Club 82, Moroccan Village – run by the mafia. The line-up consisted of live-singing shows (lip-syncing was banned) full of glamour and entertainment accompanied by a live orchestra– the performers were usually gay men while the waiters were butch lesbians. Although the performers were never paid, the mafia affiliation meant these clubs were much less likely to be raided by the police. Such clubs attracted a whole host of ‘tourists’ – gawping heterosexual groups eager to get a glimpse – and even drew in the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty, and Judy Garland. While it would be so heart-warming to think that in such a harshly conservative time of history there could be a space for gay individuals to be so openly themselves amongst straight audiences, the queens in their testimonials still stress that many audiences still thought of it as a ‘freakshow’ act and would grow uncomfortable if a drag queen should dare wander too near to them in the crowd.
On a more community-led level, there was balls – organised by the LGBTQ+ community for the LGBTQ+ community. Organised by the likes of famed ballroom hosts Dayzee Dee and Phil Black, these annual gatherings were a chance for drag queens, femme mimics, and anyone who wanted to give it a go the chance to show off their best outfits and poses on the runway all in the hopes of snatching a trophy. Through blurred polaroids and wistful testimonies, we get an invaluable peek into the exciting and vibrant scenes of mid-century ballroom culture and a profound sense of just how important these balls were in helping people find their sense of belonging. ‘We found each other – we found where we belong’ fondly states Terry, a transwoman and renowned former female-impersonator.
Photo © Courtesy of BFI Flare
Although filled with joyous memories and sweet recollections, there is an irrefutable sadness that underpins this documentary. In one of his interview moments, Claude is handed an old photo from one of New York’s many dazzling balls. He starts to well up and cry ‘I have to keep in mind that that’s over’ he says, ‘that’s over and finished and I’m sorry that that’s over and finished – you have no idea’. Between so many now-closed-down clubs and deceased friends – doting over old photographs and letters is not just a source of joy but also a reminder that these times, and the individuals that filled them, are now irretrievable. Discussing Aaron, his partner of many years who died of HIV, Michael (Daphne) recalls having to use separate plates from Aaron and being too scared to even kiss him; the devastating impact of the misinformation and fear of the time. In other instances, a beloved dressmaker Billie was murdered by a lover for telling him that he was HIV positive. Whole communities weren’t allowed to say a final goodbye to their closest friends because they were banned from the funerals by disapproving families. Recounting a generation of gay men who lost their lives to the AIDS crisis that Reagan’s administration ignored– by 1995, 10% of gay men between the ages of 25 to 44 in America had died from AIDs – P.S. Burn This Letter Please points out that an overlooking of gay struggles, communities, and experiences is not only a disservice to history and the individuals involved but also fatal.
Filled with warming testaments, extraordinary footage, and irresistible bouts of nostalgia, Seligman and Tiexiera’s documentary is an enthralling and gorgeous homage to a community that has for so long been stigmatised, shunned, and ostracised. Unearthing a section of history that has so often been ignored or deliberately hidden away, P.S. Burn This Letter Please is a beautiful tribute to all those forgotten to time.
Written by Abi Aherne
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.