January 19, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera
Culture Representation: Taking place in primarily in New York City, the documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” interviews a predominantly white group of people (with a few Latinos and African Americans), who are current and former drag queens or LGBTQ book authors/historians, about the New York City drag scene in the 1950s and 1960s.
Culture Clash: Dressing in drag and being a member of the LGBTQ community often had to be kept underground, since people were arrested or faced other punishment if they weren’t heterosexual.
Culture Audience: “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in drag queen culture or LGBTQ history from the mid-20th century.
Drag queens have become a very visible part of mainstream pop culture, due in large part to the Emmy-winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and other TV shows about drag queens. But there used to be a time in the U.S. when dressing as a drag queen in public was illegal and could put people in danger of being physically harmed. During the 1950s to 1960s, television became fixtures in American households, but the idea of a TV show about drag queens would be considered too offensive or scandalous at the time. What was going through the minds of gay/queer men who were New York City drag queens in their prime during this era?
The documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” takes an insightful look at this underreported part of LGBTQ history, by including numerous interviews with the drag queens of this era, as well as authors of books that researched this culture. During this era, LGBTQ people could be legally fired from jobs, assaulted or worse, just because of their sexuality. When closeted LGBTQ people wrote love letters or other letters declaring their sexuality, it was very common for the letter writers to ask the recipients to burn the letters, out of fear that the letters could get into the wrong hands. This fear of homophobic persecution is the sobering inspiration for the documentary’s title.
Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” features a charismatic cast of current and former drag queens who were mostly in their 80s and 90s when this documentary was filmed. Some of the people who are interviewed started out as drag queens in their youth and then decided to live as transgender women. And they all have tales to tell that are fascinating as well as harrowing.
The interviewees include:
- Michael Alonga (Drag name: Daphne), a former drag queen who had a lover of 18 years named Aaron who died of AIDS in 1986
- Henry Arango (Drag name: Adrian), a Cuban immigrant whose drag name was inspired by his mother Adriana
- James Bidgood (Drag name: Terry Howe), a drag queen and costume designer
- Robert Bouvard (Drag name: Robbie Ross), a former Air Force member who’s originally from Wichita, Kansas
- Claude Diaz (Drag name: Claudia), who was arrested in 1958, at age 23, for stealing Metropolitan Opera wigs valued at $3,000 at the time
- Lennie (no last name) (Drag names: Dee Dee LaRue, Dayzee Dee), a former drag ball promoter who came to New York City from a rural Pennsylvania town, after leaving home at 18 to join the military
- Terry Noel (Drag name: Terry), who got transsexual surgery arranged by Anna Genovese, the sister of mob boss Vito Genovese
- George Roth (Drag name: Rita George), who was named Miss Fire lsland in 1969, and who impersonated a woman in public for the first time when he put on his mother’s orange taffeta dress and went grocery shopping
- Joseph Touchette (Drag name: Tish), who says that the description “drag queen” was derogatory back then and the preferred description was “female impersonator”
Also interviewed are “Gay New York” author George Chauncey, “Vintage Drag” author Thomasine Bartlett and “Mother Camp” author Esther Newton. Drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys comments on the importance of finding letters written by LGBTQ people from eras when it was illegal to be a non-heterosexual: “Photographs tell us one thing. Words tell another.”
And because there was such a fear of these letters being found, they were often destroyed. Robert Corber, a professor in American institutions and values at Trinity College, has this to say in the documentary about the huge void in LGBTQ historical papers that chronicle what it was like to be queer in the U.S. during these bygone eras: “We don’t have archives of letters, archives of diaries. What we do have are archives of arrest records.”
“P.S. Burn This Letter Please” mentions one of the main inspirations for the documentary: In 2014, a box containing hundreds of letters was discovered in a Los Angeles storage unit. The letters dated back to the 1950s and were addressed to a young man named Reno Martin, who would later become known as Hollywood agent Ed Limato. When Martin left his hometown to pursue a career in radio, his closest gay/queer friends wrote the letters to stay connected to him.
The friends, many of whom became drag queens in New York City, trusted Martin with their most intimate stories. He became their confidant, and the letters they wrote to him have now become important written documents for drag queen history since most of these types of letters were destroyed out of fear.
Alonga, who was one of the friends who wrote to Martin, comments on the importance of camaraderie in the underground New York City drag queen scene: “We felt like sisters … Well, sisters that were really brothers to the public.” Arango, who has an unapologetically flamboyant personality, shows off his collection of vintage dolls in the documentary and quips later in the movie: “I could never act butch. It would give me a rash.”
Where did these drag queens hang out in New York City? The two nightclubs mentioned the most in the documentary are Club 82 and Cork Club. Club 82 had more of a heterosexual crowd, who often went there to see female impersonators. According to the documentary, Club 82 also attracted a lot of celebrities, including John F. Kennedy Jr. (before he became U.S. president), Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Club 82’s general manager Pete Petillo was married to Anna Genovese, mob boss Vito Genovese’s sister who arranged for Noel’s transsexual surgery.
Cork Club was more underground than Club 82 and catered more to a LGBTQ crowd. One of the Cork Club regulars was a Dominican drag queen named Josephine Baker (real name: Roberto Perez), who dressed like the real Josephine Baker. Drag queen Josephine was a very close friend of Diaz, who describes Josephine in the documentary as “wild,” “gorgeous” and a “kleptomaniac.”
In fact, the two were partners in crime when they were busted for stealing those Met Opera wigs. (Perez tragically died of AIDS in 1988, at the age of 53.) Diaz also mentions that he and Perez were also very close friends with a drag queen named Billie.
Although there are certainly happy memories shared in the documentary, there are also tales of heartbreak, trauma and health problems. Because drag queens are often the targets of bigotry and ridicule, it can take a toll on their self-esteem. Noel says of the way he felt during most of his life: “I didn’t feel worthy of anything.”
Many of the drag queens say that they went through struggles with finances and mental health. Some turned to prostitution to support themselves. Diaz says he was put in a psychiatric institution at age 16, and he later became a sex worker. He says that he made more money as a prostitute when he was dressed in drag.
The documentary mentions that this clique of drag queens had a “trick room,” a description they used for a rented New York City hotel room where they kept their drag queen clothes. It was a safe storage space for those who couldn’t risk keeping the clothes in their own homes, for fear of homophobic retaliation.
Bouvard remembers that when he was in the military in New Orleans, he discovered gay bars. When he dressed in drag, he often fooled the military guys, who would escort him on dates, as if he were a cisgender woman. Bouvard mentions that if the men who escorted him knew the truth, he would have been killed. Later in the documentary, Bouvard opens up about his health problems, including being HIV-positive and having an amputated leg because of a blood clot.
Although all of the current and former drag queens who are interviewed in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” are white or Hispanic, the documentary gives a brief acknowledgement of African Americans in New York City drag culture. Phil Black, an African American drag queen, is mentioned as an influential scenester during the 1950s and 1960s, because he founded the racially integrated Phil Black Ball for drag queens. Unfortunately, Asians and Native Americans are not mentioned at all in the documentary. Viewers are left to speculate why there wasn’t enough information for these racial groups included in the film.
Harlem historian Michael Henry Adams explains in the movie that much of that erasure has to do with white men being the ones who usually get to write American history: “The best thing about history is to be able to go to the past and discover yourself. The great difficulty for we who are marginalized, be we women or black or gay, as you look at what is purported to be history, we’re invisible. We don’t exist.”
The filmmakers could have done a better job at exploring the underreported racial diversity in the New York City drag scene of the 1950s and 1960s. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” also could have used more revelations about the era’s drag beauty contests and drag costume balls that were and still are big parts of drag culture. Roth comments on these events: “We didn’t realize we were doing it for the next generations.”
The current and former drag queens in the documentary came of age before Pride parades existed, but they say that they became enthusiastic supporters once these parades began to happen in the 1970s. (The documentary shows Arango, in very skimpy drag gear, attending the New York City Drag March during Gay Pride Weekend in 2017.) These parades were a turning point for LGBTQ people and their allies to openly express themselves in an even more public way than previously done.
Despite some flaws, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” is best enjoyed as a compilation of anecdotes and personal stories, rather than a comprehensive historical account of New York City drag queen life in the 1950s and 1960s. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” would make an excellent companion piece with director Peter Howard’s 2019 documentary film “The Lavender Scare,” which goes more in-depth about why letter-burning was a big part of the LGBTQ community before the gay-rights movement happened.
Discovery+ premiered “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” on January 4, 2021.