Due to world premiere at April’s postponed Tribeca Film Festival, a stunning new documentary co-directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera, P.S. Burn This Letter Please, looks back at the lives of several New York drag queens during the 1950s and 60s, and introduces us to some of them now in eighties and nineties with intimate interviews.
Following the discovery of a box of old letters in a storage unit in Los Angeles in 2014, the film traces 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.
The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with P.S. Burn This Letter Please co-directors Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera about the challenge of tracking down the authors of these letters, drag culture being passed down from one generation to the next and the importance of uncovering pre-Stonewall LGBTQ history.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Everything springs from these amazing letters written by New York drag queens in the 1950s to their friend Reno. How were they discovered and how did they come to your attention?
Michael Seligman: “Well, it started in 2014 when our producer Craig Olsen and executive producer Richard Konigsberg were going through a storage unit of a friend who had passed away. They found these letters and instantly recognised that they were unique and special. They’re good friends of mine, and we started pawing through the letters and we were just astounded by the fact that they existed, and by the information in them and the language, and the style and the intimacy. It was so thrilling. We wondered what we could do them and kicked around a few different ideas: ‘Is this a book? Is this someone reading the letters as a dramatic one person show?’ Eventually we landed on the idea of a documentary film and exploring this history that none of us knew anything about, and we were pretty certain that nobody else did either.”
Tell us about the way that these extraordinary letters are brought to life in the film; they’re beautifully animated and read, with Jonathan Kirkscey’s gorgeous music. It worked really well I thought.
Jennifer Tiexiera: “ The letters had so much personality just on paper and something that was really important to us was that we preserve that personality. Not only with the handwriting, which was just exquisite, and the doodles, which added an extra layer of intimacy. You could tell that they were writing to someone that they really loved and cared about. So we knew that we wanted to stay true to their tone and what they were saying. We found Grant Nellessen, while Michael was watching the Scotty Bowers documentary, and Michael said ‘this animator is incredible’. We sat with Grant and brainstormed how we could do it. Each of the letter writers had such different personalities. Josephine was absolutely Josephine and Daphne’s style of writing was unique to her. Grant was amazing in creating a look for each of the letter writers. Beyond that, we spent a lot of time making sure that the letters stayed true to that initial discovery, because you become quite immune to it, especially once you get to the four year point of being on a film. So if you can capture that initial excitement that you felt the first time that this was revealed to you then that’s what you shoot for. The letters have been morphing over the last coupe of years until we landed on the final draft probably at the beginning of this year.”
You mean in terms of deciding which extracts you were going to use in finished film?
Michael: “Yes, there are probably 120 pages of letters in total, and the four queens that we selected to be in the film were the core group in the friendship circle. They were the ones who we were able to find out so much more about. But there are at least a dozen writers that we don’t feature in the finished film.”
And would you like to say anything about the voices that you use to bring the letters to life? Because they do such a great job, you mentioned the language used in them Michael, words like ‘cunty’ I was surprised to hear, and ‘mopping’…
Yes! And the actors who you use to read them, they really enjoy saying those words and they make them sound delicious don’t they.
Michael: “We really had fun casting, which we had some help with. Adam Faison, who’s our voice of Daphne, is a friend of mine and as we were cutting some things together I reached out to him because I love his voice and his personality, and he’s at the right age that Daphne would have been at the time she wrote these letters. So we just recorded him reading on my iPhone initially. Prior to that it had just been my voice, and the voices of the people behind the scenes on the film. They were fine and they did the trick of getting us to that point, but once we brought in the actors they just breathed life into these voices and they had just so much fun with it. And it’s funny, of course I’ve seen the movie a million times and every time I hear Daphne’s voice I just get this wistful sense of excitement.”
Jennifer: “And the actors were so excited about the letters too. I mean it was such a discovery for them when they read them for the first time, which reinvigorated our excitement and our connection to the letters. They couldn’t believe what these guys were saying 50 or 60 years ago.”
Last year there was quite rightly a big focus on and celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. It’s such a significant event that is not to be underestimated, but it’s important that we don’t see that as a starting point for our shared queer history. That’s why I think this film, and other documentaries, are so special because they examine what LGBTQ life was like before that milestone. How far was that an incentive for you both in making the film?
Michael: “Absolutely. Our historians in the film acknowledge the fact that for a lot of us, LGBTQ history begins at Stonewall. You have the pride of the Seventies and then the AIDS crisis in the Eighties and Nineties, and then gay marriage and on from there. So little is known about before 1969. What there is, in terms of what’s portrayed in movies…I like to use the example of Far From Heaven, where you have this film that depicts a man dealing with his sexuality in the 1950s in New York City and it’s very dark and sketchy and there’s this idea that everyone was ashamed, everyone was in the closet, everyone was an alcoholic and miserable. So then to read these letters and to hear stories from the subjects themselves, and to hear how well-adjusted they were, how excited about life they were is just incredible. And yet they knew the limits of where they could operate, but they operated really kind of beautifully within those limits. I think most of our subjects had very long-term relationships, you know ten, or twenty, or twenty five years. So for us I think it was kind of a revelation that gay history did not begin at Stonewall and Pride didn’t really begin then either. These were proud people who lived really full lives, maybe on the outskirts. I think because in the 1950s you didn’t necessarily have to claim a sexual identity, that’s much more of a modern thing and maybe even a political thing now. So I think that there probably were a lot of people who were what we might now call queer, who were just out there and people were blind to it because they didn’t know the underground nature of the secret languages, of the looks, and the handshakes.”
Jennifer: “And one exciting common denominator that I think we were both really surprised by was when we asked the queens the questions, ‘do you have any regrets?’ Or ‘did you ever think it was dangerous, was there ever a point when you questioned these decisions you were making?’ Across the board they said that they had no other choice, there was no way that they weren’t going to be themselves, even in the face of all the adversity that they were up against at that time. So that was pretty remarkable as well. And one thing to add, that I always felt was so interesting, Michael is a producer on RuPaul’s Drag Race and when they have those history lessons they’ll usually be on Paris is Burning or Stonewall, that’s where it all started, but there’s just so much more out there.”
Michael: “Yeah, it’s required viewing when you start working on Drag Race, you have to watch Paris Is Burning because so much of the style of the TV show and the history goes back to that. And that’s only 1990, and when you think of that it is 30 years ago now, but to then go back 50, 60 and even 70 years, and to see that there is a through line in terms of drag history, it’s fascinating. The first time I ever heard anyone use the phrase ‘mopping’ was on RuPaul’s Drag Race, we did a challenge called ‘mop till you drop’ and the first time I heard ‘Glamazon’ was in the RuPaul song. Actually a lot of this vernacular and a lot of these customs I heard from RuPaul. And then to read these letters and to see them use the word ‘mop’ in 1955, or the word ‘Glamazon’ in 1957, and to realise that the history was somehow preserved and passed down, I’m going to say from drag mother to drag daughter, from years to decades, into the new century and how that was never even written down is pretty amazing. There’s no definitive book on drag lingo, there’s no history of drag apart from Esther Newton’s book Mother Camp. So how was this preserved? And what’s so amazing is that the queens that we interviewed for the documentary are literally our last links to that drag culture pre-Stonewall. Drag culture has been so wonderfully preserved and now we can see that direct connection between yesterday and today.”
I’m so grateful that you did get to speak to them and that you’ve got their interviews on film because I think they’re very special. There’s an investigative vibe in the air, a suspenseful aspect to the film and I wondered did you feel a little bit like queer history detectives in a way uncovering these stories? How did you go about finding the authors of these letters?
Michael: “Well, trying to find these queens was a challenge. Most of them were just trying to live within the confines of what was safe for them at the time, so these letters were all signed using their drag names. So it’s: ‘love Josephine’, or ‘love Daphne’, ‘love Gilda’. And it was like ‘good luck trying to find a drag queen with just a first name!’ There were no sender addresses, so there was a lot of detective work to do; picking out clues and dates and anything we could put together to try to build out the story of who these people might be. When they would reference an event we’d look that up. Was there a list of the people who were there that night? There might have been an arrest, so if that was talked about in the letter we’d try to find an arrest record, or try to find an article in the newspaper. That was how we tracked down Claude. We knew that there was a theft at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1958, which was mentioned in a letter, and so we went to the newspaper archives and searched through them. My favourite way to spend a weekend is with Google, so there was a lot of that!”
Jennifer: “But ultimately, even with those clues that we were able to take from the letters, which led us to getting Claude Diaz’s first and last name and his age, we still had to enlist the help of a private investigator. They gave us a huge list, I think the initial list had maybe thirty potential Claudes at that age around the country, and we had to call each of them. And so you can imagine our joy when we finally found our Claude and we threw a name out to him on the phone and it got really, really quiet on the other end of the line and he said ‘who is this?’ Then it turned into another long process of building trust with the queens and allowing them to open up to us, because we were asking them to go back to a part of their lives that happened 50 years ago. As you can see from the film, a lot of those events were pretty intense and emotional. I’d say more than half of them didn’t want to be in the doc when we first approached them and it would be three to six months later when they would actually agree to meet with us and be on camera. Even after that point there were still aspects of their lives that they chose to keep secret. Even though they’d had these full lives, they still had a bunch of stigmas attached to some parts of the lives they’d led which they chose to keep out of the film.”
Michael: “I think that really speaks to the fear that a lot of these people lived with and just sort of integrated into their lives. Certainly, Terry being a trans woman in the 1960s and with the other subjects being gay men, I think it’s hard for us through the lens of 2020 to understand how absolutely terrifying that was, and how brave it was of them to live the lives that they led, because today we can take it for granted. Sure there are areas where you’ve got to watch your back and be careful, and know what to say and what not to say, and how to act and how not to act, but for them, as Esther Newton points out in the film, being out there was such a remarkable act of courage that I honestly don’t think we can quite fathom now.”
Jennifer: “Granted that they did have this inherent fear that they’ve lived with, but when it came down to specific stories that we didn’t share at their request, that was more because they were worried about how it was going to affect a conservative or religious family member. It was very internal, which I thought was extremely interesting. Also with Terry, she’d lived her life with a husband and a son, and she’d never disclosed this information about being trans, so this was the first time that she was actually telling her story to an audience. At the same time she didn’t want to disclose her location, so there were all these kinds of caveats that we had to be very aware of.”
Jennifer, you’re also co-editor on the film. With the editing, you really give your subjects room to breathe, they don’t feel hurried, they have to compose themselves at times and I think it’s very sensitively handled. It must have been a fine line to draw, where you wanted to show how much revisiting this part of their lives meant to them without lingering too long on them when they’re overcome with emotion. Do you want to talk about the use of those interviews structurally and the editing aspect?
Jennifer: Sure, that’s the thing I loved the most. I’m an editor first and foremost, that’s where I started my documentary career. The amazing thing when you’re both directing and editing is that you get to be in the room when those powerful moments happen. Like when Claude describes Daphne’s dress. As he was describing it, Michael are I were looking at each other knowing we had the photograph of it which is one of our favourites, and Claude was going into such detail all from memory from 60 years ago and it was like he was completely transformed, transported back. Editorially, still keeping time constraints in mind, I think it was really important that we could recreate that moment of handing that photo over to him, that emotion that he felt, and he says it, ‘this is Daphne, I feel so overwhelmed by what is happening right now, I’d buried this so deep.’ So there were a lot of moments like that with our queens that we had flag marked from the very beginning, that we knew no matter what we would have to find time elsewhere in order to keep those in their entirety. I also have an amazing co-editor on this project Alex Bohs, who is ridiculously talented and who is so in tune with the queens and emotion, and so on the other side of that there was this fresh breath, these new eyes. Things that maybe we remembered differently, Alex would constantly contribute that freshness to it and make sure that every queen had their moment and their time, and what you spoke to about allowing that moment to breathe. So that’s kind of how we got there.”
Michael: “And that breathing room you mentioned, is a style that we both use when actually doing the interviews, where you let them talk and you don’t say anything. You know that there’s going to be another wave of thought or a memory that comes through, so it takes a lot of silence, because if you ask a question it’s not like with a podcast or a radio show where you kind of want to keep the energy going and keep it alive, you just sit there and you know there’s going to be something else. It was like that moment with Claude, I think all I’d said was ‘tell me about Daphne’, and then he launched into this whole thing and just kept going. I was thinking I want to show him this picture, but I wanted to make sure that he’d got to the very end of that moment before interrupting that flow. So that was the style that we incorporated into the whole making of the film.”
I like those moments of connection between the person doing the interviews and the queens, like you handing over the photograph. Sometimes documentary interviews can feel a little cold like the subject is just talking to a camera, but with this film you feel that there are actual humans there that they are talking to, so you get that warmth.
Jennifer: “We love them so much honestly and I think you get a sense of that from the film. I’ve never met anyone like any of them before. They’re such powerful, amazing individuals. There’s always that big question ‘do you break that wall?’ And in this case we didn’t do it a lot, but we felt that there were moments where we hoped you could feel how much we loved them and the connection that we have to them.”
You mentioned that one photograph of Daphne, which is just beautiful and there’s so much going on in it, there’s the beautiful dress of course, the crowd, and there’s a policeman watching at the front on the right. With the photographs you chose not animate them or do anything showy with them, you just let them sit there for us to take in. Could you say something about finding the photographs and the moving images you include and the way you present them?
Michael: “The letters started everything and for a very long time all we had were words. There was so much in those words that lit us up and made us want to dig further and deeper, and then we had phone calls, so then we had a voice to go with the letters, but still no picture. Then finally, when we visited the queens, first of all seeing them in 3D and being able to hug them and show our appreciation for them was incredible! I think it always caught them off guard, because they are all so sweet and humble. Michael, when I first spoke to him was like ‘it’s so adorable that you would care about something I wrote when I was 22!’ He couldn’t quite wrap his head around it. So to meet them in person was amazing and then to have them say ‘here, I dug out some old photographs’, we would cry over these photographs because they were just beautiful. These aren’t things you can find online, they aren’t in any archive, these are something that our subjects had in their closets and probably hadn’t looked at themselves in decades and now they were dragging them out – no pun intended! They were reliving those moments. Some of the archival film material we only found in March, just before the whole world fell apart, we were chasing some archive material that didn’t work out with the person who owned the copyright to it, and so we ended up going on this mad scramble and we found moving images of our Josephine on the Internet which was crazy.”
Jennifer: “Yes, which was like the best day of our lives!” Something that was crazy and key to this whole thing was making the decision that we wanted to tell more of a collected history vs just focusing on the letters. Realising how little there was from this decade, we had photos from our queens, but we were really limited when it came to moving images. We actually spent a year or so recreating most of these stories and they turned out beautifully. I think we developed a very strong appreciation for the aesthetic and the time and effort that these queens put into their looks and getting ready. We shot probably over 50 hours on super 8 of recreations in order to illustrate those stories. But Michael’s extraordinarily talented at researching and tracking down crazy collections in attics and basements and putting the word out there. So once we started getting archive material we realised that we were going to be able to put together the film in a way where we didn’t need the recreations after all that work we’d put into them. But we wanted to stay authentic, and once we were able to find actual footage of our queens we lost almost every recreation that we’d shot.”
It would’ve made it a completely different film in a way because you wouldn’t have had that authentic time capsule aspect that you get from it.
It felt like quite a few aspects of the film could have been their own feature length documentaries. Like the history of Club 82, which I live very close to in the East Village. What were your guiding principles when it came to staying focused, touching on different areas without getting sidetracked?
Michael: “This story is so big and I think there’s an instinct to want to tell the whole history of drag and the 1950s and lean into a lot of what the historians were saying and the facts and the information that I just love. Whereas Jen tends to lean more into the subjects themselves, and I think that was the right way to go, which was looking at the direct connections to the people in this movie and how can we explore those.”
Jennifer: “There was so much amazing material and things that we were uncovering and we had the ability to bring them to life in a way that was firsthand. If a queen had a story to back up the bigger picture of what we were saying then it made it in, so the film was assembled with those stories being the temple. You’d usually create this linear narrative and fill it in with anecdotes along the way, but we constructed it the opposite way.”
Michael, you host the very successful podcast Mob Queens, which touches on some of the same areas in the film, focusing on Anna Genovese. Could you tell us a bit about your interest in the subject matter and how we see that in the film?
Michael: “I’ve always been fascinated by history and personal history and I think for any of us who are LGBT or who grow up in a way where you don’t see yourself being reflected in mainstream history it’s powerful. As Michael Henry Adams so eloquently points out at the very top of the film; if you’re black, gay or a woman if you look at what’s purported to be history we are invisible. For me personally, and for Jen in some ways too and other people involved in the film, those of us who are on the margins, who are not straight white men, we grow up with this idea of what history is and the things we learn in school. Then as an adult you find that’s only a small portion of the story and that there are in fact all these other just as fascinating, just as complicated, just as remarkable humans beings who have lived these rich lives that we’re never told about. I think it gives all of us this sense of empowerment that we don’t necessary grow up with. Like with the Anna Genovese story that we tell on Mob Queens, what was so fascinating to me about that was here was a woman who was a business woman, a mob wife, an entrepreneur…
Jennifer: “…her parents were immigrants…”
Michael: “…yes, and her growing up in a tiny apartment and then moving to a mansion in the 1920s and being a celebrated figure in her own way. And the only thing we could find that existed about her story was stuff about her husband. He was of course a fascinating character too, but even in stories that were actually about Anna Genovese herself, it would still say ‘Mrs Vito Genovese wife of… did blah blah blah’, so she wasn’t even getting her own headlines when the story was about her, she was still ‘Mrs so and so’, and it’s just so frustrating. And so I think for us on this film, and for Jessica Bendinger who’s one of our executive producers and my partner on the podcast, we just thought we have to tell this story. I think it goes back to that sense of empowerment that a lot of people grow up with that those of us who are on the margins don’t get a chance to have, we don’t get to read about and hear about. So I think it’s sort of setting the record straight in a way, although not entirely straight!”
I love that a lot of the LGBTQ history that comes up is through people’s personal stories, like Robert’s undesirable discharge for being gay, or the fact that it was illegal to be served alcohol or for men to wear women’s clothing in bars.
Jennifer: “It was really about just trying to strike a balance. We definitely didn’t want to to paint them in this dark, sad way, because they were living extraordinary lives, but we also wanted to make sure that we still contextualise. So these are gentle reminders of what they were up against, of what the environment was like at that time, the dangers that they had to think about when they left the house and left the clubs. It was really important that we didn’t repeat other projects that we respect that have already done these historical pieces, that’s not what we were going for. I think it really helps put their stories into perspective as well. Robert was the top of his class, he was the best radio control operator that had come out of that base. After everything he’d sacrificed and done for them to have that be how his story ended with the Air Force was terrible, but it was also the catalyst that pushed him into drag. Anything Robbie does he does amazingly, he did makeup and wigs on Broadway for years and has had so many successful careers, but I think it’s really important to note how this country treated these people and that’s just a small aspect of it.”
Could we talk a bit about the difference between the ball scene and performing in clubs in 50s and 60s. The balls were more of an LGBTQ community event, whereas the clubs had mainly straight audiences didn’t they? As Esther Newton talks about in the film the clubs were “stigmatised people performing for ‘the normals’”.
Michael: ” Yes, I think the club scene was exactly as you say, whereas the ball scene, which I think is still the case today, was very much performance for their peers. While there were the looky-loos that would come, these events going back into the 1930s and 40s would draw crowds of four and five thousand people in Harlem. Maybe a couple of thousand were the spectators, who would also come in their own dress up, but by and large the crowd there was queens performing for other queens for their respect and admiration, and to inspire their fellow queens. And as Jim Bidgood says, they would get home and immediately start preparing for next year’s ball, they’d be so inspired! And to think this was one night out of the year that you got to be yourself. It’s hard to fathom now when you see people in drag everywhere. In LA, in New York City, and in small town USA, there’s always going to be a gay bar and there’s always going to be a drag queen at that gay bar, it’s just a given, and to think that this was illegal. What is illegal about it?!”
Jennifer: “And a special permit had to be secured, that always blew my mind. Once it was over you had to get out of there really fast, before they were accosted on the street or could get in any trouble.”
And the balls were integrated spaces as you point out in the film.
Jennifer: “Yes, and that would be the dream documentary to make after this. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to get into Jewel Box Review, but that was the first integrated travelling show that Robbie and Terry were part of. If we’d had the time we would have dug deeper into that, but even the Harlem section of the film, what we put together took us five years to discover, there was even less on the queens from Harlem and Phil Black, that was actually some of the hardest information to find. It’s such a short section and I wish it could be longer, because every time that bit of the film comes up we love it, it’s so beautiful and so important. One of our historians, Thomasine Bartlett, who wrote a dissertation entitled Vintage Drag, told us that when she wrote that paper she couldn’t find one African American queen to sit down with her and talk about that era because it was so taboo, and we quickly realised that we were having the same issues.”
You have some great contributions form your historians and expects, while keeping the focus on your queens, the experts don’t dominate the film, they just contextualise.
Michael: “I would make a ten hour documentary series and it would be so much more of the talking heads! But Jen was always the advocate for leaning into more of the emotional storytelling and to minimise the facts and the figures which to me are super fascinating, but maybe it would have made for a slightly less emotional story. Our hope is to take the hours of footage we have with the experts and to give that a life either on our website or through an educational portal so people can still have access to this wonderful history.”
Jennifer: “It was so exciting for us, because this is definitely the fist time that all of these historians have been together in one place, so we want to make sure that we utilise them, because the interviews are fascinating. It was kind of an embarrassment of riches, with all this amazing information, but ultimately this was the film that we were making.”
Finally, could you each tell me about your favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, book, play, music, artwork or person, someone or something that’s really resonated with you over the years and why. Or it could be something current.
Michael: “The first thing that comes to my mind that made me think ‘oh, maybe it’s OK to be gay’ was Tales of the City back in the 1990s. I watched it on PBS, when I was still living at home, I was still in the closet and I thought ‘oh, OK, maybe this isn’t such a bad life after all!’ I don’t know if it’s my favourite, but it’s definitely something that had an impact on my life. ”
Jennifer: “I think it’s those first early ones isn’t it, I mean for me I was the biggest My So Called Life fan. I grew up in a really small town and two of my closest guy friends were gay and they couldn’t tell anyone, and we had this kind of secret language that was developed through watching that show and knowing that there was a big world out there and that they were going to be able to be themselves at some point.”
P.S. Burn This Letter Please was due to have its world premiere at the postponed 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. For more details on the film and updates on future screenings head to the official website. You can follow the film on Twitter @psbtlp and Instagram @psburnthisletterplease.