KATHY: Hey, folks! This is Kathy.
TOBIN: And Tobin!
KATHY: This week, we want to share an episode of one of our favorite shows out there. It’s called “The Nod,” and it’s hosted by Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings.
TOBIN: Ugh! Love them. Great people. They feature great conversations and deeply-reported stories about black culture. As they like to say, the show is all about blackness from blackness’ biggest fans.
KATHY: And we wanted to play their episode about Stormé DeLarverie, who was one of the leaders of the queer rights movement in the US. We think you’ll like it as much as we do.
TOBIN: Brittany has the story.
BRITTANY: Okay, so: mental picture time.
[PIT ORCHESTRA TUNING STARTS]
BRITTANY: The year is 1957, and you're seated at the Apollo Theater up in Harlem, and the show's about to start. Y’know, the orchestra in the pit is tuning up, and the lights are starting to dim, and everyone in the audience is hushed and dressed to impress.
[ORCHESTRA FADES, 50s-ERA JAZZY MUSIC PLAYS]
BRITTANY: So the band starts and the lights come up and suddenly the entire stage is populated with 25 of the most dazzling divas that you have ever seen in your life. You know, in all different shapes and sizes and colors. I mean, you know, they have headdresses with feathers, and crystals, and the cleavage just hiked up high. And their eyebrow arches are, like, damn near touching heaven. And then the announcer, who is kind of like the anchor for the show, makes an entrance into the most unusual show.
VOICE: Introducing the world’s most unusual show. And now the Jewel Box overture with Ned Harvey and his orchestra.
BRITTANY: And his town hall and in a beautiful slim-cut tuxedo. I mean, like, whatever people think when they hear the word “debonair,” like, he is it. And he's got this rich baritone voice that just sails out over the crowd, and he leads the chorus of showgirls into the show's signature song.
VOICE: ...and you can’t do a show without girls!
You're watching the Jewel Box Revue. And, like any other show at the Apollo, this is top of the line — but it's just a little different than their usual shows. The show is billed as twenty-five men and one girl. So most of the people on stage are impersonating women, and the audience is supposed to spend the show figuring out who the quote-unquote “real girl” is. Toward the end of the show, it’s dramatically revealed that none of the people high kicking in dresses was the “real girl.” It was actually the smooth baritone in the tuxedo — Stormé DeLarverie.
VOICE: And the one thing we know, oh, the one thing we know is, you can’t do a show without girls!
BRITTANY: I kind of became obsessed with Stormé a while ago when I came across her photo randomly. It was this glamorous black-and-white photo probably from the 1950s and in it was a slim black woman in a tuxedo [BREATH] and she had short, platinum-blonde hair — it was styled kind of in a conch — and she had smooth pale skin, and this haunting gaze that just drew me in. You know, at the time I didn't know anything about Stormé's life as the leader of the Jewel Box Revue. In fact, I didn't know anything about her life. All I knew is that there was this poise, this presence emanating from that photo. She seemed powerful and important and she gave off the charisma of a Hollywood star. But I've never heard of her before. So I started digging — and I really had to dig. There are so few records of her and not a lot of people who know her whole life story. But the more I learned, the more astounding it seemed that I didn't know who she was. Everyone needs to know about this woman. And today I'm going to tell you all about her and how she moved on from a tough Southern upbringing to become a glamorous drag performer and a vigilant defender of the defenseless. A true American hero.
[SLOW PIANO MUSIC STARTS]
BRITTANY: So in order for me to tell you this story we gotta go back. Like, way back to 1920 and all the way down to New Orleans, Louisiana. That's where our hero, Stormé DeLarverie, was born on December 24th to a white father and a black mother.
LISA: Stormé was born mixed-race in the Deep South. She was not issued a birth certificate.
BRITTANY: This is Stormé's friend of over 25 years, Lisa Cannistraci. Over the years, Stormé shared a lot with Lisa.
LISA: So, she always identified as black [PAUSE] because she was very close with her mom. You know, being mixed-race she was taunted by the white kids, she was taunted by the black kids. She was always swimming upriver and, you know, she was — she was attacked multiple times almost near death when she was a kid, like, beaten to a pulp.
BRITTANY: Here's how Storme described her childhood in a story from a 2009 interview:
STORMÉ: Some of the things that they did to people who were mixed blood — you have to remember my mother is black and I have a white face. I’m crippled in one leg! Took me years to get the brace off my leg. I've got a big scar here where they left me hanging on a fence. My one leg.
BRITTANY: But having a white father and black mother was not the only way Stormé knew she was different.
LISA: She knew she wasn’t attracted to men and ah … but, you know, you couldn't really be out. You probably — she probably would have been murdered. And so she needed to leave the South and she moved to Chicago and she went there as a woman who dressed like a man.
[CROONING PIANO MUSIC STARTS]
BRITTANY: Chicago gave Stormé a fresh start. She lived as a straight man during that time. You see, being a masculine-presenting queer woman was dangerous — and even illegal — in a lot of places. But living as a straight man let Stormé present herself how she wanted and she looked good. Here's Lisa again.
LISA: I mean, what — Stormé was gorgeous. I mean, I don't think she looked like James Dean, but I think she had the swagger of James Dean. Like, she had that natural, just quiet, sexy look.
BRITTANY: She was in her 20s now. She wasn't getting bullied and harassed anymore. She got a shot at a normal life. She even got a boo.
LISA: She had a beautiful, beautiful partner. Her name was Diana, and Diana was a dancer. And Diana would have her girlfriends all over the house and they would play cards in the kitchen and Stormé would have her friends over and they would hang out in the den and drink brandy and smoke cigars. It was like that.
BRITTANY: Chicago also gave Stormé a chance to really come into her own as a singer. You see, she had always loved performing and she sang a lot growing up in New Orleans. But back then she had to do it in a sensible dress, a curl bob, string of pearls … you know, women's clothing. But being in Chicago so far from home gave her the freedom to tap into the look that would eventually make her famous. She went from looking like a long lost Andrews Sister to wearing a long slim suit, close cropped hair, and she had this ten-mile stare that — so I have been told — used to knock the ladies dead. And it was looking like this that Stormé took her act on the road. In her travels, Stormé met two men who would change her life forever.
[OLD-TIMEY MUSIC STARTS]
BRITTANY: Their names were Doc Benner and Danny Brown and they were the creators of the Jewel Box Revue. They'd built something of a small empire around their traveling drag revues in the ‘30s and ‘40s and they played clubs in Miami, Cleveland, Detroit … They played all over the country. Danny and Doc wanted to elevate what they called “The Art of Female Impersonation.” They wanted to bring it out of sort of the burlesque vaudeville scene and take it to, like, you know, like, the big stage. And in Stormé they basically found the perfect emcee. Stormé joined the show as emcee and kind of their de facto musical director in 1955 and she stayed for 14 years. And over that time, Stormé became a hit. [PAUSE] Here’s Stormé's friend Lisa again.
LISA: She was one of my favorite subjects for Diana Arbus, the photographer. So Diane’s took some really amazing shots of her. Stormé would talk about her affiliations with Dinah Washington. You know, some of the old singers — Nina Simone, because she traveled in those circles, you know, those sophisticated African-American circles and, you know, she was — she was highly regarded, you know, as was — she was royalty, you know? She was royalty.
BRITTANY: The show was a huge success and it played all over, you know, at big name theaters, and also chitlin circuit venues, including the Apollo Theater where they played several times a year.
MERIDA: First and foremost — the Jewel Box Revue was a top-notch performance project. That's number one. Everything about it: the set, the costumes, and the performers were top-notch.
BRITTANY: This is Merida Dunn. She’s, like, almost hyperactive and she's tall and she’s, like, oozing with style. She used to be a model and she saw the Jewel Box Revue, like, quite a few times as a young girl growing up in Harlem. And to this day she has nothing but praise for the show.
MERIDA: No amount of money was spared in making that Jewel Box Revue. I mean it was top of it. If it needed a mink coat. If it needed a zebra, it had a zebra.
BRITTANY: What about the singing and the dancing?
MERIDA: We talkin’ ‘bout the Jewel Box Revue. You wasn’t going get there if you couldn't sing or dance. They were ladies of gorgeous dimensions the way you try to see now like the RuPauls of now, they were then.
BRITTANY: At one point in our talk I pulled out a few old photographs, just to jog her memory.
MERIDA: Oh yes. Oh yes.
BRITTANY: Describe to me, uh, the photo.
MERIDA: Ah! Look at her, look at what she has on!
BRITTANY: Oh, yeah! No, I see there’s — there's a drag performer right in the center and — with a huge headdress. This is beautiful!
MERIDA: Look at everything! It's not just the headdress. Look at the shoes. Look at the whole outfit. Take a good look!
BRITTANY: And is this as you remember it?
MERIDA: Oh, yes. Definitely. That's why I was excited. ‘Cause I came from fashion so if you can still excite me, that’s good.
BRITTANY: Okay, so, call me country, but when I learned about this, I was like, “What?!” Like, there's a whole generation of baby boomers whose parents took them to a Sunday matinee drag show as a family activity? I needed to know how this could have been acceptable, given what we know about how people treat LGBT people to this day. So I called up this guy.
JOHN: My name is John Reddick. Uhh, I was born in Philadelphia, educated Ohio State.
BRITTANY: John is a Harlem historian and he says that playing with gender is about as old as time for black folks.
JOHN: One of the main performers at the Apollo was this comedian named, umm, Moms Mabley who was gay. And when you see her personal pictures, she dressed like a man. So everyone within her peer group knew she was gay.
BRITTANY: But he says that that doesn't mean that the ‘50s and the ‘60s were a more accepting time for queer black people than we remember. It was fine on the stage, but once they left the theater it was a different story.
JOHN: Technically, those performers could not go on the street dressed gender crossed. They could get arrested. I think into the ‘60s or — or so they could get arrested so, you know, it had to be so set in theater, you know, in the end, it's judged performance, you know? It’s the mask that’s being played up not, really the sexuality. It's like a masquerade ball or whatever you hear the idea that you're going to be this uh or whatever is knowing that you know under this is a man or a woman.
BRITTANY: But even if it was just performance sanitized from sexuality the Jewel Box Revue gave Stormé a place to be herself and the 50s and 60s were a pretty happy time for her. She traveled all over the country performing for adoring audiences. As herself! She was living in New York City. She had stopped pretending to be a straight man and not only did she have the love of Diana — her girlfriend — but she had the love and respect of her cast mates many of whom were guys 10 or 20 years her junior. She referred to them as her boys. It was like a chosen family and she considered herself the one who protected that family. Here's Stormé again talking about her former castmates:
STORMÉ: They were nice young men and they were my friends. They did everything I asked them to do. They showed me great respect and I respected them as performers and as human beings.
[ALTERNATIVE ROCKY MUSIC STARTS]
BRITTANY: Stormé had this little corner of the world set up the way she wanted. You know, like, this — this safe, warm little space for black or queer or creative people who, you know, kind of like her, they never quite fit in anywhere else. But then something happened. Something that made her realize she needed to protect that little world. That is coming up, after the break.
[BAR MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: And we’re back with an episode of “The Nod.”
BRITTANY: On June 28, 1969, Stormé was at the Stonewall Inn hanging with some friends. The Stonewall was a popular West Village Bar and also an unofficial community meeting place for young queer folks in New York at that time. That night, police raided the bar.
[MUSIC PLAYS, THEN ENDS. AFTER A SILENCE, DRIVING ANGRY MUSIC BUILDS]
BRITTANY: Now a raid in a gay hangout wasn’t unusual at that time. It was illegal to crossdress and illegal for gay people to gather in public. And cops would target certain bars looking for anyone breaking those laws. You know, they kick people out. They take their liquor. And look on their IDs to see whether their listed gender-matched the way that they were dressed. It was humiliating and subhuman treatment, but it was the law back then. But this night was different. After years of just complying with the usual hassling and arrests, folks got pissed. They refused to hand over their IDs. The people who the cops had to let go, they decided to stick around. And when the police started grabbing people and forcing them out of the bar, they fought back.
BRITTANY: Stonewall was a turning point in the LGBT rights movement. People were speaking up, saying, you know, “It's not enough to eke out an existence in the margins in the theater or in the bar scene.” They wanted full equality. A lot of people say that Stormé threw the first punch at Stonewall. Of course, LGBT history is rarely recorded, and Stormé herself was pretty coy about the whole thing. But according to pretty much everyone I talked to? Punching a cop for hassling her friends is exactly the type of person that Stormé was. Here's Lisa, Stormé's friend from earlier in the show.
LISA: You know, I think her — her experiences as a young person and being, you know, beat up and being not accepted for who — who she was … I think that all that lives inside her and she turned that around to protect the community, like, she recycled it — all the anger, you know, and she used it for good.
BRITTANY: 1969 was a big year of change for Stormé. We can't say for sure if there's a correlation between these two events, but about two months after Stonewall, Stormé quit the Jewel Box Revue. That same year she also lost the love of her life, her partner of over 25 years, Diana.
LISA: I know that Diana's death devastated her. She always holds — carried a picture of her in her wallet. She was beautiful, beautiful woman.
BRITTANY: So Stormé is no longer touring with the Jewel Box Revue, she’s angry at the way her community is being treated, and she's heartbroken. And this is when she enters a phase of her life where her own happy world isn't enough. She wants to take that feeling of love and protection that she has for her own community and bring it to the streets.
[DRUMMING MUSIC STARTS]
BRITTANY: So she joins an advocacy organization for LGBT rights and she decides to become a bodyguard. During the day as she watches over rich New York families. But at night she was watching out for her own. She worked the door at lesbian and gay bars with an iron fist and a pistol on her hip. Here's some footage of her from that period outside a lesbian bar called The Cubbyhole.
STORMÉ: No, guys, there isn't a fishbowl. Keep walking. Keep walking. Okay. Okay, okay. Okay! Alright. Alright, alright! No problems, guys. No problems. That’s alright. Okay, fine! Just keep walking. You already got enough problems tonight. Keep walking.
BRITTANY: Stormé continued to protect patrons of lesbian and gay bars for over thirty years. She laid down the law and she was known for watching out for younger queer women. She became known as kind of a cowboy of the West Village. Again, here's Stormé's friend Lisa Cannistraci.
LISA: “Don't you mess with my baby girls.” I mean, that's what she would say. She would be like, “Trust me, you want to keep walking,” and put her hand on her hip. Sometimes she would follow them up the block. [LAUGHS] I mean, she was amazing.
BRITTANY: So, here's the thing about Lisa. She was not only Stormé's good friend — they were actually co-workers for a while. They met in 1985 when they were both working at The Cubbyhole. Lisa was just a college student tending bar to make some money.
LISA: I worked Monday night, which is historically the slowest night in the bar business. And, uh, my shift was 9 to 4, and, uh, right around one in the morning, they would be empty till four, so that's three hours. I would study by my psychology stuff for St. John's and I would take little breaks and then Stormé and I would just chit-chat and we just bonded. I mean, it was really quite instant. We just liked each other right away.
BRITTANY: Working those long nights together, Lisa and Stormé forged a fast friendship, despite their 44 year age gap. For years The Cubbyhole was Storme's top gig, and when it closed in 1990, Lisa decided to buy the bar herself. She opened it one year later as Henrietta Hudson. And when it came time to staff up, she knew just who to call
LISA: Stormé worked for me immediately. I assembled an incredible staff, like, the crème de la crème, like, of the downtown gay scene.
BRITTANY: Stormé worked the door at Henrietta Hudson into her late 70s. It was her steadiest paycheck. But, even after she formally retired, Lisa kept paying her. I asked her why.
LISA: I knew she needed the money, and she deserved it. And she's my friend, and I do a lot of fundraising and stuff like that. There's nothing wrong with that — instead of fundraising for an organization, just directly giving somebody money who is amazing, who does a lot for the community.
BRITTANY: The fact that Lisa kept paying Stormé even after she stopped working there … it touched me. It was such a simple gesture, but something so big at the same time, you know? Stormé would come in on a Sunday night she sit at the bar get a vodka rocks and, you know, she’d get an envelope. It was kind of like she was collecting a pension. Stormé kept coming into Henrietta Hudson until about 2010. Then she stopped coming. She was getting older and tended to stay closer to home. She and Lisa fell out of touch. And then Lisa got some news. Stormé had fallen and broken a bone, and because she had no listed blood relatives she was taken under the care of the state. And she was suffering from dementia. [PAUSE] One of Stormé’s neighbors, a woman named Michelle Zala Paani, reached out to Lisa and a bunch of other people in the bar scene that Stormé knew. She set up a meeting to try to figure out how they could help her.
LISA: There were about 12, maybe 14 people, and we got together, and we talked about the situation. I didn't see anything solution-based. I didn't really see that anybody was looking for a solution. They were just kinda in the problem. But we were slated to meet the next week and come back with some, you know, some — something. Two people showed up. It was me and Michelle, who I didn't know. I never knew her. But it was a fucking heartache that nobody came to a second meeting.
BRITTANY: No one else was stepping up, so Lisa and Michelle stepped in. They met with a lawyer, a state congressman, and a judge and won the right to be Stormé's legal guardians. And their first order of business? They put Stormé up in the Cadillac of nursing homes so she could finish her days in comfort.
LISA: It was a beauti— it was a utopian idea of this assisted living facility for people who didn't have a lot of money that showed them respect, and that was pretty, and that was clean, and had good food and had activities. Everybody was so loving. They knew Stormé's backstory. They were intrigued.
BRITTANY: After all those years of fighting, she was safe, she was comfortable, and she was being taken care of. The same way she had taken care of others her whole life.
[DRIVING MELANCHOLY BUT INSPIRING MUSIC]
BRITTANY: Stormé was somebody for whom life was really hard. From the day she was born, she was labelled illegitimate, and it’s a label that could have followed her throughout her entire life. It could have made her bitter. But neither one of those things happened. It was touching and it was beautiful how, at the end of Storme's life, you know, the people that she protected for so long came back to protect her. She had given out so much love over the course of her life. It really — it really came back as a comfort to her in the end. That is — that’s the lesson to me that — of her life. That’s, like, the lesson that her life teaches. You could pull out a gun on some people, you can pack a pistol, you could — but you could also be a loving person. And Stormé was just so brave. Like, she didn't feel the need to fulfill anybody's ideas about, you know, what she should look like, or how she should dress, or who she should be. You know, she fought a lot of battles and she put up with a lot of shit. And, you know, unless you really dig, you're not really going to find this woman’s story. The nursing home where she was living was maybe a ten-minute walk from my apartment. And I didn't know her. She — she died before I even learned who she was. You know, this is somebody who should have had ticker tape parades. There should be streets named after her. But if I hadn't have happened to see her face, her glamorous face, in the corner of my computer screen, I — I — I would never even have gone down this path.
[MUSIC CHANGES TO A MELANCHOLIC VOCAL SONG, WHICH PLAYS FOR A MOMENT]
BRITTANY: Stormé DeLarverie died on May 24, 2014, at the ripe old age of 93.
[APPLAUSE, MUSIC ENDS]
[MODERN HIP-HOPPY MUSIC STARTS]
BRITTANY: “The Nod” is produced by me, Brittany Luse, with Eric Eddings, Kate Parkinson-Morgan, and James T. Green. Our senior producer is Sarah Abdurrahman. We were edited this week by Annie-Rose Strasser, Alex Blumberg and Jorge Just. Additional editing help from Sarah Geis and Jordan Barnes. Fact checking by Nicole Pasulka. Engineering from Cedric Wilson and Matthew Boll. Our theme music is by Calid B. Additional music in the show by Bobby Lord, Haley Shaw, The Five Du-Tones and The Morrie Morrison Orchestra.
Special thanks to Michelle Parkerson and Women Make Movies for granting us permission to use excerpts from her film Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box, also to Kirk Klocke for granting us permission to use a 2009 interview of Stormé and, finally, to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.