The outstanding feature documentary P.S. Burn This Letter Please, which was due to world premiere at this month’s Tribeca Film Festival, uncovers the history of New York’s drag queens of the 1950s and ’60s. Following the discovery of a box of old letters in a storage unit in Los Angeles in 2014, filmmakers Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera, making their directorial debuts, trace the stories of the authors of this colourful correspondence that vividly depicts the city’s queer life pre-Stonewall. One letter ends with a postscript that gives the film its title. Fortunately, the recipient of these epistolary treasures, a radio host known as Reno Martin, disobeyed the instruction.
As the film opens, there’s an acknowledgement that so often letters and diaries from this era written by LGBTQ+ people were destroyed by disapproving family members, thereby drawing the curtain on a window to our queer history. Consequently at the heart of this lovingly made documentary are the letters themselves, beautifully animated and read, filled with the queer jargon of the day, like ‘Mary’, ‘trade’ and ‘cunty’. Stunning photographs of the drag queens are simply presented, not distracting us from their full glory, along with filmed footage, form a captivating queer time capsule. This archive material is brought to life by engagingly emotional, intimate and humour filled interviews with some former drag queens—or female mimics or impersonators as they preferred to be called at the time—now in their 80s and 90s.
Among the interviews of veteran drag queens are Lennie, now 89, who recalls being the first male cheerleader at his high school before discovering his drag persona, Dee Dee La Rue and performing shows for his fellow Marines at sea. In fact he proved so ravishing in drag that he was given security to protect him from the seamen’s advances before taking to the stage to entertain them. Legendary gay artist and Pink Narcissus filmmaker, James Bidgood, who recently turned 87, describes his first impressions upon arriving in Manhattan and his years as a drag queen there. We also meet 83 year-old Terry, who recalls her performing years in the city and details her transition in 1960s, the resulting disapproval from some around her, and the support she received from her friend’s doctor.
What builds is a fascinating insight in the lives of this chosen family of drag queens and their wider circle. It’s rich with details such as where they shopped, or ‘mopped’ (shoplifted), and the way that the men collectively rented a room to store their female clothing and dress in to avoid being found out by their parents. Also intriguing is the survey of the city’s venues of the era that admitted drag queens, like the the Cork Club, and those that regularly had queens perform on stage such as the East Village’s celebrated 82 Club. Audience members at the 82 included Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Judy Garland, Salvador Dalí and JFK. Of course many of the venues that admitted men wearing women’s clothing, thereby risking being raided by the NYPD, were mob owned. (For a deeper exploration of the convergence of mafia and gay history listen to co-director Michael Seligman’s podcast series Mob Queens). There are also some great images of the drag balls of the late ’50s and ’60s, including Phil Black’s Harlem Ball, a rare example at that time of both an integrated space.
Not only did the drag queens of the ’50s and ’60s risk assault or arrest by going out in public, but they were also far from embraced by many of their fellow homosexuals. The Mattachine Society, for instance, formed in New York in 1950, thought drag queens damaged society’s perception of gay men, harming the chance of acceptance and equality. In fact even as recently as 1994, when the city was gearing up for the twenty fifth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, organisers of the official pride parade didn’t want leathermen or drag queens to be represented, thus giving birth to the annual NYC Drag March, thanks in part to activist and rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker.
The talking head interviews with contemporary commentators such as Harlem historian Michael Henry Adams and LGBTQ scholar Esther Newton are wisely kept to a minimum, allowing them to provide the occasional astute observation and context, without detracting from the interviews with the former queens themselves. Listening to the words of our queer ancestors, I was deeply grateful to the filmmakers for capturing them on film. Editors Alex Bohs and Jennifer Tiexiera give these interviews time to breathe, while composer Jonathan Kirkscey’s beautiful score never feels manipulative, but rather like a gentle hug that allows you to cry.
P.S. Burn This Letter Please is an moving and uplifting tribute to the beauty, bravery and defiant self-expression of these truly fierce, trailblazing queens.
By James Kleinmann
P.S. Burn This Letter Please was due to have its world premiere at this month’s Tribeca Film Festival. For more information on the film head to the official website and follow the instagram account @PSBurnThisLetterPlease.