Nurtured. Supported. Listened. Applauded. Hugged. Modeled. Advised. Inspired. These are only a few of the actions these five women performed during their lifetimes, actions that have shaped me, remembrances that linger in my being, lessons that get me through the day. Each of them left a stamp, an impression that sometimes feels like stigmata where they helped me overcome pain that threatened my well being. Other times, it’s as if they have anointed me with feathers that have allowed me to flit or fly or flame into regions of artistic
expression that some would deny me. If I’m sounding grand, they granted me me the permission to be grand. These are the women I honor, along with at least a hundred or so others, who have infused me with spirit.
Choosing an artistic influence is fraught because I don’t want to immediately come off as a stereotypical gay man who is shallow and utterly lacking in gravitas. That’s why I chose Mae over Judy or Marilyn. I’m only kinda kidding. I saw Judy at the Palace when I was a teenager and it was empowering in ways I won’t enumerate here but the electricity she generated from the stage to the audiences is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before or since. And Marilyn?
Well, that overwhelming blend of vulnerability and wanton sexuality seemed like a lesson plan for so many of us. But Mae didn’t really achieve her place in the Hollywood firmament until she was older that Marilyn was when she died. She had been on the New York stage (and in jail) writing plays about gay boys and transsexuals, one of them brazenly called Sex, an overt marketing ploy the playwright was counting on. Mae was a queer sexual rebel even before John
Rechy, a rebel who manifested Shakespeare’s advice: “To thine own self be true.” Because even in her many incarnations, throughout her seven-decade career, Mae was Mae, owning her self-knowing caricatured sexuality and fierce intelligence, and always getting the last laugh. There were many other ladies and dames on my list of superstars including Dorothy Parker, Edith Sitwell, Zelda Fitzgerald, Vita Sackville-West, Laura Nyro, and there are so many more. Ida Lupino, Lucy.
It seems that I always remember Connie coming toward me from a distance of twenty feet or so and I was panicking, wondering if she’d knock me down or I’d simply fall over from the sheer force of her undeniable power. The combination of her superior intellect, wicked humor, withering pronouncements, esteemed politics, and undisputed charisma was cyclonic, topped off with a head of Lucy-red hair sprouting in unruly patches all over her head, creating its own battle helmet. And then there was the voice, all Southern ooze, as piercing as an ambulance but then suddenly telling you a secret that no one else could possibly know. Connie was the first tranny—calm down, girls—I began to get to know. “Began,” that’s the sad part. I do wonder what she’d have to say about this important yet overzealous attention to the verbiage we use to define ourselves in the Twenty-First Century. She would take a long, theatrical drag on her ever-
present cigarette, look you in the eye, and then in a booming voice, say something pithy. I don’t know what exactly but it would be pithy. Connie was larger than life and that intimidated people. Not only did the reality of her gender put many people off, not to mention her choice of unconventional wardrobe (caftans, darling, caftans), her righteous anger and ability to articulate that anger resulted in her being taken very seriously in high places (the City Council, the Los Angeles Times, even the Mayor’s office). I observed her, and was finally able to call her a friend, as she determinedly held on to her extraordinary mission and
her enviable dignity. The darling girl died of AIDS in 1996 at 47. Her ashes wee scattered on the White House lawn. Faaaaaabulous. She lives on, believe me.
It feels like the influence she has had on my life and work continues to grow since her death. Or has my perspective been enhanced by others I’ve met who are lucky enough to have been touched by her almost magical powers who share this sense of her immortality? I met Mollie immediately after she saw my play, complications, at Highways, a piece that concerned the horrors of 911 with many of my usual themes woven in the various plot lines of six or seven intersecting monologues. Mollie, fairly stone-faced throughout, sat in the front row. She loved
the show and insisted that she would find me some paying work to utilize my talents. I am still—twenty years later—working in the arena that Mollie carved out for me. If you don’t know, Mollie was one of L.A.’s most influential women for several decades, known by many as “Saint Therese of Skid Row,” a label that is a bit flimsy when you look at her massive contributions to finding solutions to the conundrums surrounding homelessness. And what could I do? A denizen of
small theatre? “You’ll create theatre that looks at the issues,” she announced that day at Housing Works. “Come see me next week.” And that was that. I worked with her and whatever organization she was aligned with virtually until she died in One day, we were having coffee and I casually said, “I’d love to go to South Africa and study the AIDS situation there. I have been doing it here for a long time and I feel like I would learn so much and just might be able to bring something to their world. Plus what an experience it be for my daughter, Katherine. It’s just a thought.” She nodded and agreed that it would be an interesting idea. About two days later, she had planned the entire trip. She knew
what orphanage we could work with (that’s what you do), she had the lowest prices for airlines tabulated, even potential dates, and she’d gathered some names at the local AIDS organizations. “Oh, my God.” And, of course, she’d “help with the finances if necessary.” Somewhere along the line, she said, “You’ll do a show when we come back to L.A.” It was one of the most life-changing events of my life—and my daughter’s, too. The impact has never left either of us and we reference the specifics to this day. Now that is not to say there weren’t a few
hiccups along the way; I mean, a month is a foreign country when walking is sometimes the only option and one becomes famished and oh so thirsty. Did I mention that Mollie didn’t eat? And barely drank? Or should I say ate sparingly and very specifically. And watched what she spent. She was an ascetic who adhered to specific rules she’d set for herself. Katherine was beside herself because Mollie insisted we wait until we made it to the apartment to eat; not only would it be healthy, we wouldn’t spend any money. She didn’t understand the whims of a ten-year old whose level of agitation grew exponentially with each fucking pair of Golden Arches we passed—oh, yes, there were plenty of
McDonald’s in South Africa. When I saw tears forming, I knew I had to be Daddy. “Mollie, I’m sorry, but we have to stop and eat. And I know you…” began my spiel. Well, she listened, as only Mollie could, and delivered a line I had never heard before or since, “It will be adventure,” she said, “I’ve never been to a McDonald’s.” I miss her every day with all of my heart. She had water. A half a glass.
In anticipation of a visit from my mother during the Eighties (before our estrangement began), a few friends were wondering what I’d do to amuse her while she was here from St. Louis. One who had never met her said, “Maybe a museum—the Norton Simon?” A pause. One who slightly knew her said, “A piano bar?” A third pal, who knew her very well, said, “Michael’s mother is a piano bar!” During the twenty plus years since her death, I have tried to dial down my anger regarding the Piano Bar—chaotic, too loud, out of control, horny—and search for the mommy who was in the mix somewhere, nurturing and compassionate. She was. But I cannot separate the two. I can’t absolve the Piano Bar who—maybe not intentionally but decidedly irresponsibly—transform my brother and me into her boyfriends rather than allow us to be her sons. I’ve spent too much time and energy either downplaying her behavior or exaggerating it. I’ve been the “victim of” her transgressions or the “victor over” them. It’s grown tedious. And today is a day to praise her and I am finally able accepts me, and I can see my Mother’s traits that also defined her: Tenacious, Intelligent, Generous, Funny, Friendly, Self-Effacing. When friends met her, they would gush, “Oh, I love your mother. She’s a hoot.” “Your mother is a camp.” “Oh, my Gawd, your mother is a character.” I’d often say, “Blanche DuBois is a character. You wouldn’t want her as your mother.” (I wouldn’t say that
In all its romantic splendor, the story goes something like this: My grandfather worked for the railroad (somewhere near St. Louis), mid-Eighteenth Century. Every morning, he and his cronies would watch the young ladies walk through a field of grass on their way to school. One of the girls stood out, not necessarily because of her beauty (she was more handsome than beautiful) but because of her carriage; not only was she the tallest of the tribe, she moved with a natural poise and gracefulness unknown to her peers. “See that girl,” he said, pointing her out to his gang. “I’m going to marry her one day.” And he did. Katherine. A Catholic wedding. Five kids, all boys (my father was first) in quick succession. A happy ending? No way. He was a jerk of many colors. Not only did he beat Katherine, he cheated on her and didn’t support his wife and the mother of five hungry boys. She did not stand by her man, but she would not divorce him because of the church’s edicts; in fact, many years later, she attended the funeral as the bereaved widow. Wow, I thought to myself when I heard that. My mother had her claws out when she told me (she of four marriages). I’m not sure how Grandma Kate survived but I never heard her complain. Not a word. And I never heard her say a negative word about her husband. In fact, I never heard her utter a negative word about any human being on this Earth. She did not judge, period. She possessed that gracefulness my nefarious grandfather perceived on the inside as well as the outside. She was saintly. And these are not the ramblings of a man who is idealizing her these many years later, blurring reality and replacing it with a fairy tale ending for this tribute. Without her luminous presence, her unconditional, all-encompassing affection and glowing warmth, I never would have made it. She didn’t know what gay meant, but she knew I was something. Something different. And she encouraged that.
Can I wear your nightgown? Let’s put on your curlers. Can I sing you a song?
Let’s dance, Grandma. I’ll do your hair and then you do mine. Tickle me. You are
so fun. I’m gonna put on your church shoes. I’ll be careful. They will look good
with the nightgown. You sit there, Grandma. This will be the stage. Oh, take the
curlers out. It’s time for the show. I’m going to sing the song you like. I might
sing it twice if you like it a lot because it’s the only one I really know. Applaud
loud but don’t disturb the neighbors. I know I’m funny. And you are silly,
Grandma. That’s us. Time for the show. I almost forgot. Rouge. I’m about to go
on. Could you get it for me? I am backstage. Thank you, darling. Pretend this is
the curtain. Okay?