Based on author Craig Highberger’s documentary of the same name, Superstar in a Housedress is a striking oral biography of avant-garde, cross-dressing performer Jackie Curtis. Even among Andy Warhol’s orbit of dramatic personas and colorful characters in the sixties and seventies, Curtis stood out. Whether done up in drag or portraying James Dean—to whom he bore an uncanny resemblance—he dazzled in films, plays, and cabarets. Friends fondly recall how he brought his onstage eccentricities to everyday life, holding court in the backroom of the iconic nightclub Max’s Kansas City wearing tattered thirties housedresses, torn stockings, fabulous wigs, and glittering makeup.
Curtis died of a drug overdose in 1985, but not before leaving an indelible mark on New York City’s underground art scene. More than just a performer, Curtis translated his fixation on fame and its trappings into his own poetry and outrageous plays, such as Glamour, Glory and Gold and Vain Victory. With snippets of his work alongside colorful recollections from his friends and acquaintances—including Lily Tomlin, Michael Musto, Holly Woodlawn, Harvey Fierstein, and Paul Morrissey—this is a fitting and touching tribute that evokes the spirited, creative energy that radiated from Jackie Curtis.
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Superstar in a Housedress
The Life and Legend of Jackie Curtis
By Craig B. Highberger
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2015 Craig B. Highberger
All rights reserved.
When I was a student in Paradoxology at the University of Spirit Lake in Washington, my professor told me that my mission in life was to see through the veneer of ambiguity, enigma, language, mathematics, science, and existence. To this end, I have traveled around the world collecting serious and whimsical puzzles.
It was the hot summer of 1966, America was getting involved with Vietnam, people were marching in the streets, there was a lot of marijuana smoke in the air, like the smell of flowers, and I went up to East 47th Street, to the studio, the factory of Andy Warhol. I did an interview with him and I also took photographs. And when I finished, this young kid walked up to me. He was very tall. He had a football player's physique and he said, "Hello, my name is Jackie. I need some pictures for my portfolio, would you take some pictures of me?" I introduced myself and he said, "I talked to Gerard, I know all about you. You know Andy wants me to star in a film about his life, I'm going to play Andy as a boy."
So the next day or two we went out together in the East Village and took a lot of photographs. Jackie Curtis was like some flowers – they're very bright and happy during the day, but at dusk he started to get more and more melancholy. Some people are like that; they take on the coloring, the mood of the night. Jackie seemed to be more of a night creature in many ways. And when the moodiness hit him, that's when I took my very best pictures of him. There was something tragic and very sad in his eyes, even when he smiled. He had the same sadness that you see in some gypsy children – mirth without happiness. There seemed to be a definite tragic air about him, as if he were conscious of his destiny. Jackie was all alone in the world. His parents had divorced and had started other families. He was living with his grandmother over a bar called "Slugger Ann's" on 13th Street and Second Avenue. He was very conscious of the fact that he had to make his own way in the world.
Jackie told me that when he was about twelve years old he would spend the summer in Tennessee with his father and stepmother. He told me that during one of these visits they must have needed a break from taking care of him so they dropped him off at the house of an Aunt and Uncle where he was to spend a week. Jackie did not like these relatives. He said his Aunt and Uncle were not friendly at all and acted put-upon and his cousins were mean and wouldn't play with him and he wanted to leave after the very first day. He said spending a week with them would have been an eternity.
On the second morning his Aunt came back from the supermarket and asked Jackie to go to the car and unload the groceries. This was a big family so there was a lot of food. And in one bag he noticed a lot of delicatessan coldcuts and cheese, about pound each of ham, turkey, swiss cheese, and baloney. The Aunt told Jackie to put away the things that belonged in the refrigerator and went down to the basement to start the laundry. Jackie told me while she was down there he opened up all of the packages. He wrote his name in very huge letters on the kitchen floor using the sliced coldcuts. He took the pound of ham and made a very large "J," the pound of turkey became the "A" and so on all the way through to the "IE" on the end. Of course his Aunt walked in the room and just went crazy. Jackie said she immediately telephoned his father and stepmother and said, "you have to come and get Jackie right away, we just can't tolerate this!"
Rev. Tim Holder
I'm Jackie Curtis' brother. Jackie used to talk about having family in Buladine, Tennessee. He was a member of the Buladine Citizen's Club, which he joined one summer he spent there with us. Dad could not live in the big city so the family moved to Tennessee. Jackie's mother could not live in Tennessee, which meant that they could not be together. So they divorced and Jackie went with his mother to live in New York.
I remember being in study hall in the library of my high school one day and was reading Newsweek magazine because I was interested in politics. I turned the page and there was a theater review with the headline "Ridiculous" which turned out to be a not very favorable review of Jackie Curtis' new play Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit. But as they say, any kind of news can be good news because here was a review of his play in a national magazine.
Jackie really wanted to break out and be on his own after high school, but he became frightened a lot. Life was very scary to him. Jackie tried living with friends many times during his life, but he always went back to Slugger Ann's. He never really had his own home. You need a place of your very own. You need a place where you can go and just shut the door and the whole world is outside. He didn't really have that. He didn't really have a father or mother in his life. He managed to bury that, but it came up later in his twenties and thirties in alcohol and drug abuse.
He once confided to me that he was still a virgin at 18 and that he was scared to have sex with anybody. He said that when he was told 'the facts' as he called them, he said to the other kids without thinking, 'My mother and father never did that!' and he was subjected to much merciless ragging. He almost never mentioned his family (I didn't even know he had a brother) and the only time he mentioned his mother was once when he spoke of leaving high school: "I knew my mother wouldn't have served another plate of food to me, so I got that high school diploma!"
Jackie once said to me, "Girls really have it good because they can dress in skirts or they can dress like a boy." He would often make statements that were really questions. It was really as if he was asking me is this right? Should I think these things? Is it right to feel this way? Jackie didn't have anyone to show him what a man is in this society. He didn't know if he should be straight, bisexual or homosexual – it was all very confusing to him as an adolescent, and it wasn't something I could help him with.
I relate to Jackie because of my own background in Detroit. I lived in a working class neighborhood that was very mixed racially and ethnically. I grew up living in a very old apartment house that was filled with all kinds of people. And I can imagine what it was like for Jackie hanging out at Slugger Ann's when he was young. My dad was also a big drinker and a gambler and I went to all the bars and the bookie joints with him. And I was just kind of in love with everybody, and all the different classes and education levels and politics and all I ever really saw was how alike they were – how elevated and grand they could be and how low and base they could be at another time, each one of them. And I could imagine Jackie seeing people at Slugger Ann's through similar eyes.
On my Edith Ann album, I have Edith yelling into Parr's bar "Hey Ed, is my dad in there?" And we had a soundtrack of a bar and a gregarious old woman talking in the background "Hey what're ya doin' Ed?" – you hear pool cues cracking and balls breaking and it probably was just like Slugger Ann's.
Jackie on Slugger Ann:
My Grandmother Slugger Ann used to read palms, cards, tea leaves, bumps on heads and hold séances, She taught me about reincarnation and astrology and gave me a book on superstitions.
One of the greatest things my Grandmother ever told me was: "Don't cut your hair — your ears will show. Don't ever let anybody tell you you're handsome — because you're too tall, gaunt, awkward and scary looking. But you're lucky. Be nice but beware. Believe in yourself and everyone else will believe. I think it's fine to be considered strange because you're certain to be noticed. An individual is remembered."
Jackie came from a very colorful background. His grandmother was very nice, but she was a very tough lady too – she had to be, she ran a bar in a very rough working class neighborhood. I mean there were prostitutes who hung out at Slugger Ann's bar, and there was a whorehouse right upstairs at one point. For years there was a numbers racket going on out of the place too. Jackie told me all of this. In the early 1930s during prohibition his grandmother Slugger Ann ran a New York speakeasy, so you can imagine there was probably Sicilian Mafia involvement from way back.
Jackie had a couple of Uncles who had been Marines in World War II. They were Slugger Ann's sons, Jack and Tony. Uncle Jackie, he was really nice but he had shell shock or some nervous or psychological disorder from the horrible experiences he had in the war. Uncle Tony was not nice at all. He was really macho and bullheaded and when Jackie started running around in a dress Uncle Tony chased him around the city with a gun. He wanted to beat Jackie up because he said he was a disgrace to the family name. For years Jackie had to always watch out for him, so he wouldn't go into the parts of the city where Uncle Tony worked or hung out. It sounds unbelievable but it's true. Jackie talked about it on the David Susskind show in the early seventies and that was when the whole family was still alive and they were all watching it in Slugger Ann's bar so you know it's true. When Uncle Tony died of a heart attack in his car with his girlfriend everybody was very relieved.
Jackie Curtis told me that her grandmother Slugger Ann had been a Burlesque Queen, a Vaudeville stripper. She was also the mistress of former New York Mayor Jimmie Walker. Walker bought her the Slugger Annie's bar so she could retire from stripping. She encouraged Jackie to get into show business. Slugger had enormous breasts and sometimes would wear this low-cut dress. Believe it or not, she would occasionally come into the bar with her seven tiny Chihuahuas inside her dress. She would have them perched on top of her once voluptuous breasts, hanging out of the top of her dress for laughs!
Everyone in the bar would just flip out. Just imagine these seven little glaring doggies yipping and yapping like the medusa's head of snakes. No one could go near Slugger – imagine she is standing there sporting seven live Chihuahuas, perched on top of her breasts! There was a little black one with evil eyes that never stopped staring at you and barking. You wanted to murder it. You would put a pump down its throat or your foot if she would just turn her head for a minute. They were like vipers, or a school of piranhas. A very strange woman, Slugger Annie.
Curtis was one of my dearest family members. As early as I was doing my first communion Curtis had been in drag the night before for the first time. He shocked my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt – needless to say. But the next morning, he was bright and early in St. Anne's Church, being my godfather.
My first memories of Curtis dressed in drag are when he came up to the house with Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling. We lived in a railroad apartment and I would sit in my room and the three of them would go back and forth from the bathroom fixing their makeup, with the feather boas, the glitter all over the place. I actually had no clue that this was Curtis dressed up as a woman. I'm ten years old sitting on my bed looking up at these tall drag queens with feather boas flying behind them, they're all looking at me as they're passing. It was quite a novelty for me. I knew the life way before I grew up.
Curtis was always at odds with our Uncle Tony. The first time Uncle Tony saw him in drag they had a few choice words, and Tony chased him out of the bar and right down 12th Street. Imagine Curtis with the feathers and the high heels running down the block with this angry macho street man chasing after him! Uncle Tony never caught up with him. Curtis was fast enough, thank god.
Jackie on Sexual Ambiguity:
It is very strange, but I only seem to get into trouble when I'm a boy. The worst was when the cops found a gun in my studio. It was inoperable and a prop, but they arrested me anyway. I feel somehow the trouble I have as a boy compensates for the sensational time I have as one of the girls just sitting around.
You might think that being a gay boy would be more liberating – but for me it's not. Because I feel trapped as a boy. But you must understand that I don't feel like a woman trapped in the body of a male. Candy and Holly take female hormones and talk about having sex change operations. That is not for me at all, because my body is my body, and my sex is my sex and my ambiguity is my ambiguity. And I cling to that, fervently.
There was a small theatre group putting on a production of A Midsummer's Night Dream and Jackie came over once with a copy of the play in a small paperback book and said that he wanted to study the part of Puck and that he knew he could do it. 'Puck is like me, you know, I know just how he feels: the fairies don't trust him because he spends so much time with humans and Oberon doesn't even totally trust him and the humans don't want him and where can he go? So, he makes mischief.'
Then Jackie composed himself on my bed and recited Puck's last speech as the dying rays of the sun (I faced West) came in my window. That's how I like to remember Jackie, reciting, 'If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here, while these visions did appear ...' I will never forget that as he spoke the last line of 'Give me your hands, if we be friends and Robin shall restore amends!' he flung out his arms towards me and tears came from his eyes and ran down his face. 'I'm sorry,' he said, looking for a Kleenex, 'I've been feeling peculiar all day. Let's go down to that Deli downstairs and get a roast chicken and bring it up here and I'll read you the role of Puck like you've never heard Puck!'
Jackie Curtis on being a student:
When I was a teenager, I sought out all the greats in the New York theater world and went to them as a student would go to a master, to learn and work. They recognized my talents and they wanted to help me. But some of them were interested in helping me in other ways. Some of them were interested in special talents. If you get my meaning. They wanted to help me, alright. Help me into the bed. And I'd say, "No. I have to go home to my grandmother now." And it was true, it wasn't an alibi. I wanted to work with them, not sleep with them. I was brought up a good Italian Catholic girl by my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother.
Rev. Tim Holder
As an adolescent I came to question my brother's sexuality, wondering was Jackie gay, was he straight, was he transgendered? And frankly, at first I was very ashamed that such a person was in my family.
Later I myself addressed my own sexuality, having become not too many years ago the first openly gay priest in the diocese of Alabama. I look back in celebration of Jackie's life and I remember one interview quote in particular. Jackie told a persistent reporter – "I am not gay, I am not straight, I am just me, Jackie." That was a real proclamation of liberation: do not label me, do not categorize me.
Jackie Curtis on ambition:
I want to hit the heights. I want to be a Broadway star. I don't want to be just a cheap lady of the chorus who is always yearning for a star on the door and a dressing room full of red roses! I feel like a superstar in a housedress, because all I really care about is my work.
Jackie actually did try to hold office jobs. He did try to have a straight life and earn some money so he wouldn't have his family supporting him. So he would go to a New York temp agency and they would send him to these clerical jobs. He would go in his P-coat with his shopping bag. He told me he was a great hit with a lot of the offices because "Nobody reads an invoice like Jackie." He would deliver the mail and answer the phones. He told me that he looked at these jobs as if he had been given a part in a play or a movie said, "I did my best. I played my part. I was wonderful." However, one day he arrived at one of these jobs wearing a wig and a dress with sequins and delivered the mail in drag. That was the end of that job, and after that I don't think he spent much time in offices.
Jackie Curtis came to La Mama in 1965 in Tom Eyen's Miss Neferititi Regrets. This was the play that Bette Midler first appeared in as well. She played Miss Neferititi, and Jackie played Tolomy, her brother. Jackie was in many other plays at La Mama as well. In 1970 he wrote and starred in Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit, and in 1971 he was in Vain Victory. Jackie wrote the show and Andy Warhol performed with Jackie here at La Mama.
Excerpted from Superstar in a Housedress by Craig B. Highberger. Copyright © 2015 Craig B. Highberger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- A Collect for Jackie Curtis
- Timeline of Jackie Curtis’s Life
- Chapter 1 – Youth
- Chapter 2 – Drag
- Chapter 3 – Films, Plays, and Poetry
- Chapter 4 – Antics
- Chapter 5 – Drugs and Death
- Interviewee Bios
- About the Author