Charles Busch's campy, candid memoir, 'Leading Lady'

  • by Jim Piechota
  • Tuesday October 3, 2023
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Charles Busch
Charles Busch

Iconic, award-winning playwright, actor, and screenwriter Charles Busch begins his new memoir with a story about Joan Rivers in 2013 where he waited outside of the Richard Rodgers Theatre for the comedian to scamper down the street in a fur coat flapping around her legs to meet him. He remarks that with her insane schedule, "Joan did most of her sleeping at the theater."

This kind of candid (and often dishy) storytelling permeates "Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy" and creates the kind of reading experience theater fans, celebrity followers, performance buffs, LGBTQ readers, and everyone else in between, will relish.

Composed in short clips easily read in one sitting or enjoyed in several sessions, the book brims with anecdotes from Busch's storied career and his effeminate childhood growing up in Westchester County, New York with his two older sisters. His early love of performance bloomed into a successful and encouraging theater degree from Northwestern University.

While these fancifully entertaining snippets into Busch's life and career aren't laid out in a particularly linear style (a zigzagging timeline is more accurate), they are effortlessly readable and wonderfully engaging.

The book is well balanced as well. Darker moments include the death of the star's mother when he was 7, which was devastating and life changing for Busch, especially since he nor his sisters ever truly connected with his opera-loving father.

His beloved, intellectual, wealthy, and widowed Aunt Lil (Busch's true "leading lady") picked up the pieces and raised him with her in Manhattan from that moment onward, taking him to Broadway shows from an early age, but he would never truly recover from the loss.

Instead of wallowing in grief, however, his aunt encouraged him to enroll in the High School of Music and Art in New York City which "embraced the 1968 hippie aesthetic in every way" and to let his burgeoning stagestruck love of performance flourish naturally.

Busch also somberly reflects on the legions of friends lost to the AIDS epidemic, which encompasses years encased with social challenges and the sobering realities of tragic deaths.

Lighter, dishier reflections include insider details about the 1984 creation of his long-running Off-Broadway cult classic, "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," hanging out in Las Vegas in 1990 at a corporate video convention with MGM stars Ann Miller, Debbie Reynolds, June Allyson, and Esther Williams, and being acknowledged at the Rainbow Room in the sarcastic style of the one and only Elaine Stritch.

Meeting Kim Novak and Liza Minnelli, working with Rosie O'Donnell, and running into "elegant, worldly" Claudette Colbert after a show of his own on Fire Island in the late 1980s run right up against his pseudo-stalking of Greta Garbo and the many stories of his time as a drag queen, which was radically different (in negative connotations) in 1985 than it is today.

Campy, candid, nostalgic, reminiscent, exuberantly breezy, and a book 14 years in the making (he completed the manuscript during the Covid-19 pandemic), Charles Busch unabashedly lays the nearly 70 years of his vivid, adventuresome life out on the page, with his storytelling chops in full delightful effect.

'Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy' by Charles Busch; Smart Pop Books/Penguin-Random House, $27.95

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