The lights over the Ship Cafe were still advertising the “Last Night of Jean Malin” when, on the morning of 10 August, 1933, the main attraction, his boyfriend Jimmy Forlenza and fellow actor Patsy Kelly piled into his car to head off to a party at the Hollywood Barn.
Tired after finishing a fortnight-long booking, Malin accidentally put the sedan into reverse, sending it off Venice Pier and into the water. Forlenza and Kelly escaped but Malin, trapped under the steering wheel, wasn’t so lucky. The brightest star of the Pansy Craze – a spate of wild parties full of drag queens and bawdy songs – was dead at 25.
The roots of the Pansy Craze stretch back decades, at least as far as the first of New York’s infamous masquerade balls, held in Harlem in 1869. The city already had a number of gay-friendly bars, including Pfaff’s Beer Cellar (favoured by Walt Whitman) and the Slide, which Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Evening World labelled “morally the lowest in New York, Paris, London or Berlin”. But the popularity of these drag (or fag) balls was such that by the 1920s, as many as 7,000 people of all colours and classes were attending. Prizes were awarded for the best costumes and Malin was often among the prizewinners.
The 1920s also saw an increase in the number of bohemian enclaves in rundown areas, such as New York’s Greenwich Village. Painters, poets and performers were lured by the cheap rents and by an increasingly wild and lawless lifestyle. Prohibition had given birth to a black market for booze and a bustling underground scene, where bright young things slumming it in mob-run nightspots developed a taste for camp, cutting repartee.
LGBT people were flocking to cities as much for the nightlife as for the ability to connect with others. Soon, Variety was reporting that Broadway “will have nite places with ‘pansies’ as the main draw. Paris and Berlin have similar night resorts, with the queers attracting the lays.” In Berlin, you could hear singers performing Das Lila Lied (The Lavender Song), one of the earliest songs to celebrate homosexuality. “This song became the gay anthem of the time and still has status today,” says singer Ute Lemper. “The lyrics are witty and ballsy, quite unbelievable.” You can hear its influence in the work of Rufus Wainwright, Marc Almond and others.
Every European capital, and several major US cities, had similar scenes: London had Douglas Byng and Noël Coward, who once admitted: “I should love to perform There Are Fairies in the Bottom of My Garden, but I don’t dare. It might come out There Are Fairies in the Garden of My Bottom.”
Performers, including the acid-tongued Malin, quickly eclipsed the drag acts that had been a stage staple for decades. Malin began his own career in drag, as Imogene Wilson, but it was as the tuxedoed MC of Club Abbey that he “gave Broadway its first glimpse of pansy nightlife”, as Mark Hellinger of the Syracuse Journal put it. At Club Abbey, Malin ditched the dresses and reinvented himself as a high-camp, waspish, obviously gay man – and it was this that singled him out. For possibly the first time ever, an entertainer’s entire act revolved around an explicit queerness. “What was novel is that he did not bring a drag act to the club, but instead performed in elegant men’s clothing, and brought with him the camp wit of the gay subculture,” explains LGBT historian JD Doyle. “If he was heckled by men at the club he knew how to cut them to shreds, to the delight of the crowd.” At 200lbs and over six feet tall, few would argue with him anyway.
“Malin was a tremendous success and other club owners followed the lead,” Hellinger reported. “Before the mainstream knew what happened, there was a hand on a hip for every light on Broadway.” Songs with titles such as Masculine Women, Feminine Men and Let’s All Be Fairies were all the rage, and Malin’s innovative style was copied by dozens of others with varying degrees of success. Gladys Bentley, dressed in a white top hat and tails, kept punters happy in Harlem belting out risqué versions of popular songs, but Malin was the undisputed queen of the Pansy Craze.
Prohibition had forced legitimate bars to shut up shop, and the mob-run speakeasies that sprang up in their place were openly flouting the law. Crooked cops took backhanders to look the other way, but with serious violence breaking out between rival gangs keen for a slice of this lucrative pie, the authorities had to do something. And as many of these clubs had floor shows starring LGBT acts, it must have seemed that wherever the pansies went, trouble followed.
In January 1931, mobster Charles Sherman was shot and stabbed at the Club Abbey, female impersonator Karyl Norman (appearing in a revue entitled Pansies on Parade) was caught up in a police raid on Manhattan’s appropriately named Pansy Club, and on the same night, police shut down the Club Calais speakeasy, another popular pansy haunt. Sherman survived the attack, but four years later his corpse was found buried in a pit of quicklime.
Tired of the trouble the pansy clubs attracted, New York’s police commissioner Edward P Mulrooney stationed a cop at the door of every known pansy nightspot and barred female impersonators from the local clubs. Some acts tried valiantly to cling on but Malin, effectively barred from working in New York, went to Boston where, according to the front page of scandal sheet Brevities: “Queers seek succor! Fairies cruise in daisy beds of Boston, making the city a lavenderish camp of love.” Gladys Bentley took her butch lesbian act to San Francisco, but Malin, after briefly trying to re-establish his career in New York, decided to try his luck in Hollywood instead.
He appeared in a couple of films, but after seeing the rushes for one of them – Double Harness – RKO Studio president BB Kahane sent a memo stating: “I do not think we ought to have this man on the lot on any picture”, and Malin’s part was recast. When, following New York’s lead, Los Angeles also issued an edict banning female impersonators, it was time to move on.
“Pansies Blow US”, Brevities announced. “Prominent pansies of this country are scramming for Berlin and Paris [where] they have found a freedom not granted them in America.” London’s law enforcers were as intolerant as commissioner Mulrooney – in December 1932, more than 50 men were arrested at a private party in Holland Park Avenue, after undercover officers had watched them dancing and, they claimed, having sex dressed as women. More than 100 people were arrested at queer-friendly club The Caravan after locals complained of it being “frequented by sexual perverts, lesbians and sodomites.”
But Paris had a reputation for its laissez-faire attitude, and queer performers were encouraged by the success enjoyed in the city by American performers including bisexual dancer Josephine Baker and gay trapeze artist Barbette. Berlin, too, had been a mecca for LGBT people for decades before Brevities reported on the “queer resorts” where “patrons, either lesbian, fairy or normal sexed are welcome”. Ute Lemper, whose 1996 collection Berlin Cabaret Songs ignited new interest in the songs and stars of the period, says that she was “stunned by the array of songs that expressed freedom of sexuality, and also proclaimed emancipation and women’s rights.”
Like New York, Berlin’s regular drag balls made it a popular destination for LGBT tourists. Yet many regarded this tolerance as a sign of the country’s decadence, and Hitler’s rise to power saw countless bars, clubs and cafes closed. Nazi stormtroopers tore the heart out of Berlin’s cabaret scene, arresting anyone deemed entartete: degenerate. Max Hansen, who recorded War’n Sie Schon Mal In Mich Verliebt? (Weren’t You Ever In Love With Me?), in which a drunk Hitler made passes at a Jewish man, had to make a quick exit from Germany, and other cabaret stars either followed or went back into the closet. Willy Rosen, Max Ehrlich and Kurt Gerron (the star of Weill and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera) all died in Auschwitz. The bawdy, openly gay Paul O’Montis died in the Sachsenhausen camp, just 25 miles north of the stages he once commanded. “At the time of their creation, these songs were kind of shocking and anarchic,” adds Lemper. “Today, nothing can shock any more but these songs can still entertain and provoke.”
Hailed by Variety as “the best entertainer in the Village joints along the pansy lines”, Malin’s death in 1933 signalled the end of the Pansy Craze, and the repeal of prohibition that same year closed the doors of many speakeasys. The scenes he had filmed for the upcoming Clark Gable and Joan Crawford feature, Dancing Lady, were consigned to the cutting room floor. With the Hays Code effectively banning Hollywood from portraying homosexual characters (or “attempting to keep the dual-sex boys and lesbos out of films” as Variety put it), and war in Europe on the horizon, the LGBT performers who had dominated nightlife for more than a decade were driven back underground. It would be decades before we would see anything as outrageous again.