'P.S. Burn This Letter Please' — fascinating '50s New York drag scene told in new book

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Tuesday September 12, 2023
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Michael Algona as Daphne in a drag runway show.<br>photo from the 'P.S. Burn This Letter Please' collection
Michael Algona as Daphne in a drag runway show.
photo from the 'P.S. Burn This Letter Please' collection

"The phone rang four times before it was picked up. A man's soft voice on the other end answered. 'Hello?'

'Hello,' I sang out, hoping this could be the one. 'Is this Daphne?' I held my breath. My fingers were crossed so tightly they could snap.

He replied, 'Well, that's a name I haven't heard in a while....'"

In 2014, Craig Olsen and his partner Richard Konigsberg were wrapping up the estate of their late friend of more than two decades, Hollywood super-agent Ed Limato. Olsen was going through boxes of Limato's personal effects when he stumbled upon a series of letters addressed to someone named Reno Martin from a writer using the name Daphne talking about drag in New York in the 1950s.

In total there was a cache more than 200 letters. Olsen discovered a tape of Limato as the disc jockey Reno Martin, and then found a letter with the name and address in Queens of one Michael Algona in handwriting that matched Daphne's. In follow-up research that seems straight from the pages of a mystery novel, Olsen found Daphne/Michael and through Daphne went on to find other letter writers from the cache.

The letters were the genesis of the award-winning 2020 documentary, "P.S. Burn This Letter Please," which can be accessed online through public libraries using the streaming service Kanopy. If you haven't seen it, you should treat yourself.

Olsen has now followed up the film with a book of the same title released this August. It is both an essential history and a riveting tale of both the discovery of these lives and the details of a world only glimpsed before. The letters in the book date from March 1955 to 1965, with the majority being from 1957 and 1958. It's a welcome addition to the information provided in the film.

The book and film both tell a riveting story. History from before Stonewall is filled with tales of lives ruined by discovered homosexuality or the closeted lives of famous people hidden from the public eye. This book is definitely neither of those things. The people in these letters are living fully formed working class gay —and one transgender— lives in 1950s New York.

Author Craig Olsen  

The letter writers were part of the House of Boomatzas (Italian '50s slang for sex workers) and included Roberto "Josephine Baker" Perez and Claudio "Claudia" Diaz, who ran away from their families. As a result Diaz spent time on a chain gang in Alabama and was held in the Bellevue psychiatric ward when he was returned to New York.

But again, this is not a recounting of the sad lives of unfortunates; far from it. The resilient letter writers spend time performing in bars like Club 82 and socializing in bars like the Cork Club and the Wagon Wheel, and attending events like Phil Black's balls in Harlem.

Among the fascinating stories in the book is the support (both financial and emotional) that Anna Genovese, the proprietor and hostess of Club 82 (and member of the Genovese crime family), gave to Terry "Teri" Noel when she sought gender reassignment care in the 1950s.

Other fascinating tales include a story about Salvador Dali doing drawings of a performer at Club 82 and the story of a massive wig heist from the Metropolitan Opera. I spoke with Craig Olsen about the stories told in his book, which has just been published.

Gigi, Charlie, Daphne and a dancer from a drag show, from the 'P.S. Burn This Letter Please' collection  

Michael Flanagan: I'm fascinated that Ed Limato left the letters in storage and that he knew that you would be involved with sorting through his effects. Do you think he hoped you would find them and find the source of the letters? Would he have been happy to have them chronicled in the documentary and the film?
Craig Olsen: You've nailed it. Ed Limato was far more than just witty. His cleverness was an art form. After sharing more than twenty years with Ed, it became evident that every move he made was deliberate. My partner in crime, Richard Konigsberg, who helms The Edward F. Limato Foundation, held the deepest connection with Ed. Thus, when the time came, Richard shouldered the significant responsibility of being Ed's estate executor.

The tale of one afternoon when Richie and I embarked on the task of sorting Ed's vast safe at his Beverly Hills abode is a testament to the intrigue that surrounded Ed. Among the myriad treasures within, my gaze was captured by a seemingly inconspicuous clear plastic sheet. Tucked within was a precisely typed letter addressed to an individual named Reno, capped with the casual, "As Always, Daphne."

Accompanying the letter was a petite vintage photograph featuring a woman poised coyly before a mid-century modern credenza, her gaze drifting over her left shoulder. Cursive script on the photo's back unveiled the name "Josephine." Reading the letter, I sensed a certain uniqueness, though I placed it into a box in haste, without much further consideration.

Daphne as Marilyn Monroe, from the 'P.S. Burn This Letter Please' collection  

Years later, that very letter resurfaced in my thoughts after stumbling upon a cache of Ed's final possessions. It became apparent that Ed had deliberately seeded this subtle hint within his secure vault, confident in my eventual discovery. He knew me well enough to be certain.

As for your query regarding Ed's response to my meticulous documentation of these relics, I believe his sentiment would likely be positive. However, these letters are exceptionally personal, prompting a contemplation period with Richie. We mulled over whether sharing them was the right move.

These unfiltered letters, encapsulating ephemeral moments, offer a glimpse into the lives of a tight-knit group known as the Boomatzas, navigating New York in the 1950s. They embraced drag, staking their claim in the underground mafia nightclub scene and the city streets. The writers divulge secrets, desires, and yearnings.

Safeguarding my friend's reputation was paramount. I don't believe Ed foresaw my extensive exploration. He probably thought I'd simply enjoy reading the letters. He did, however, want me to know about this facet of his life. But what he likely didn't foresee was the unlocking of a hidden segment of LGBTQ history, a realm largely uncharted. My curiosity to unveil our queer past spurred the realization that this discovery demanded to be shared.

photo of a Philadelphia Mummers parade  

Through intensive research, I discovered a stark absence of information about LGBTQ history prior to the Stonewall era and the AIDS crisis. Accounts from real individuals, particularly drag queens, who openly shared their experiences, were virtually non-existent. In fact, the only records that historians can access from that time are arrest and hospital records. It's lamentable that the government overlooked preserving the history of marginalized communities.

Were you surprised by the number of outlets that the Boomatzas had to socialize and show off their outfits? I knew about Club 82 from Esther Newton's book, "Mother Camp," but I didn't know about the Cork Club or the Wagon Wheel, and I had no idea about Regent's Row or the Waldorf. Given the repression in the '50s, does it surprise you that there was such a big scene?
Absolutely; the sheer number of outlets where the Boomatzas could gather and flaunt their attire is quite remarkable. The landscape was diverse, ranging from Club 82 to the Cork Club, the Wagon Wheel, Regent's Row, 415 and the Waldorf. Given the constraints of the '50s, the breadth of this scene might seem surprising.

However, it's important to understand that the queer community, particularly drag queens, lived on the fringe of society, necessitating clever and creative ways to meet and socialize. The "Bird Circuit," with bars adopting avian names, was a covert signal for catering to a gay crowd.

A letter in the archive, from the 'P.S. Burn This Letter Please' collection  

Word-of-mouth communication was vital for learning about these spaces, as queer individuals shared information among themselves. The underground Ball scene also attracted crowds when promoters could rent halls for costume events. But if such events weren't sanctioned, they often ended in police raids and arrests.

The slang glossary in the front of the book is essential. How did you find out what this slang meant? Do you have any idea as to how long this slang had been in existence and what subculture it came from? Any idea when terms like "mopping" died out from common use?
Delving into the unique slang within the letters was a charming discovery, revealing a fascinating world of coded communication. The research process was a mix of deciphering foreign words and tapping into the insight of individuals like Daphne, who played a crucial role in defining these terms. Much of the slang was bespoke, invented to describe moments, feelings, or actions.

As for the origins of the slang, it's intriguing. Some words may have been influenced by existing jargon, while others were likely a product of this subculture's creativity. The decline of certain terms like "mopping" can vary, with some words seeing sporadic use even in recent years.

Paired queens, from the 'P.S. Burn This Letter Please' collection  

The story about Salvador Dali doing drawings of Baby Ella-Funt at Club 82 is fascinating. Do you know whether any of these were saved by other savvy performers or if Dali did this for other performers in other drag bars?
The anecdote about Salvador Dali creating drawings of Baby Ella-Funt is an incredible tidbit. It's a blend of surrealism and drag queen audacity — quintessentially delightful.

Unfortunately, I don't have information about whether any of these drawings were preserved by more savvy performers or if Dali created similar works for other drag performers or venues.

A number of people in the book wound up in jail on various charges. Do you think that part of the culture of "mopping" (i.e. theft) could be put down to this relationship with the criminal world; that is, they were already seen as being criminals, why not make some profit from it. The story about the wig theft from the opera is epic, by the way.
The intersection between the queer world and criminal culture during that time was complex. The queens of the Boomatzas, street-smart and resourceful, embraced the concept of "mopping" as a way to seize opportunities that arose. Considering the environment of the 1950s, where LGBTQ individuals were often considered criminals simply for their identity, it's not surprising that they would find ways to earn money even through unconventional means. The tale of the wig theft from the opera is indeed epic — a testament to their audacity and ingenuity.

Daphne in a showgirl costume, from the 'P.S. Burn This Letter Please' collection  

The book has explanatory passages in in on things like racism in the LGBTQ world in the '50s and general information about our shared history. Do you see the book as being an educational tool?
The book, in many ways, serves as an educational tool, shedding light on LGBTQ history that often remains hidden. It's important to note that many queer individuals lack awareness of their own history, simply because it isn't a subject often discussed or taught.

Seeking out this history is often a personal endeavor. The aim is to help straight and queer individuals understand LGBTQ history and build a stronger base for acceptance. As queer anthropologist Esther Newton aptly put it, "This is our history, this is where we came from."

How was this rich history lost before you found the letters? I was surprised that none of the letters from Ed/Reno in response were saved. Do you think that is because the people receiving the letters didn't think that they were of any historical value, or were their lives were lived so close to the edge that they weren't concerned about it? Or was it that they considered written documentation to be dangerous and discarded it?
The lost history before the discovery of the letters is a poignant aspect. The absence of responses to Ed/Reno's letters could be attributed to multiple factors. Those receiving the letters might not have deemed them historically significant, or their precarious lives might have led them to prioritize survival over preservation. The title, "The Queen's Letters," reflects the potential dangers of written documentation during that era, suggesting that these letters might have been discarded due to the perceived risks.

Daphne's butch look
from the 'P.S. Burn This Letter Please' collection  

The relationship between Terry Noel and Anna Genovese (of the Genovese family) and how much help Anna gave Terry in transitioning is fascinating. Do you know how long they kept in touch with one another? Did Terry continue to hear from Anna up until Anna's death in 1982?
The relationship between Terry Noel and Anna Genovese, from the Genovese family, is indeed a remarkable testament to understanding and support. While I don't have precise details about the duration of their contact, Anna's role in assisting Terry during his transition at a time when such journeys were arduous is truly heartening.

I was also fascinated by the interaction between Michael Algona and his father, when he called Michael a "Suzie" (a slang term indicating homosexuality) and told him not to wear makeup. Do you know whether the Italian-American performers at places like Club 82 were disparaged by Italian crime syndicate members for doing drag?
The interaction between Michael Algona and his father, with the use of the term "Suzie," reflects the complexities of those times. While Italian-American performers might have faced disparagement from some quarters, it's important to remember that the LGBTQ community, including drag queens, often had to navigate prejudices not just from society at large but also from within their own marginalized subgroups.

There are still several mysteries surrounding what happened to members of the Boomatzas including Charlie and Gigi. Did you hear anything more about their lives after the film was released and do you have any hopes that you will find out more after the book gets into circulation?
The mysteries surrounding the lives of individuals like Charlie and Gigi continue to captivate. As the book gains traction, it's my hope that more information surfaces, shedding light on their stories. The book introduces new queens not featured in the film. In fact, I met Robin Tyler after the film was finished. Her connection to the story resonated with me. It would have been a shame not to have shared her experience.

The culture in San Francisco at the time you write about was very different. There were bars that were owned by gays and lesbians, for instance and attempts to fight police harassment in the early '60s. Do you know if the letter writers in your book knew this and if they ever considered moving here?
The contrast in culture between San Francisco and the events chronicled in the book is striking. Bars owned by LGBTQ individuals, attempts to counter police harassment — these aspects showcase a different approach to societal challenges. It's uncertain whether the letter writers knew of this alternative landscape, given that their focus might have primarily been on immediate concerns.

'P.S. Burn This Letter Please' by Craig Olsen

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