Melba LaRose was the star of Jackie Curtis’s first play, Glamour, Glory, and Gold: The Life and Times of Nola Noon, Goddess and Star, which was directed by Ron Link, who went on to direct many Off-Off-Broadway shows, including Tom Eyen’s Women Behind Bars.
Jackie Curtis made the most of the radical shifts happening downtown in the 1960s, when bohemians escaped rising rents in Greenwich Village by moving eastward. A Lower East Side slum kid, he was raised in a quasi-criminal atmosphere by a grandmother, known as Slugger Ann, and an aunt, Josephine Preston. Slugger Ann, who owned a bar with the same name, earned her nickname after working as a taxi dancer in a Times Square dance hall. Slugger Ann’s was a dimly lit Lower East Side corner bar with a few tables. One could find a cross section of low society and working people there, mostly truck drivers and laborers who would stop in for shots and beer. “Jackie really grew up in the bar,” said Melba LaRose, the star of Jackie Curtis’s first play, Glamour, Glory, and Gold: The Life and Times of Nola Noon, Goddess and Star. “Slugger Ann was a great old babe, loudmouthed. She obviously had been a beauty in her day, a sexy beauty. Bleached hair, and a feisty personality, great fun. And Jackie’s aunt Josie was great fun, too.” Slugger Ann would sometimes have a half dozen Chihuahuas stuffed inside her low-cut dress, propped up by her enormous breasts. Jackie sometimes tended the bar in jeans and a white T‑shirt with a cigarette pack rolled up in a sleeve, and other times in a shredded dress. “It wasn’t a gay crowd or a drag queen crowd, but sometimes Jackie was tending bar in drag,” LaRose said. “But if any customers would have said anything about Jackie, Slugger Ann would have punched them out. She was very protective of Jackie.”
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Jackie Curtis loved the limelight and couldn’t have been happier than when Lou Reed immortalized her in “Walk on the Wild Side,” his best-known song: “Jackie is just speeding away,” Reed sang, “thought she was James Dean for a day.” (Friends and acquaintances tended to use both “she” and “he” pronouns when describing Curtis, which was fitting for someone who insisted, “I’m not a boy, not a girl, not a faggot, not a drag queen, not a transsexual—I’m just me, Jackie.”) “Sometimes he’d kind of have a James Dean style, but ragged,” playwright Robert Heide said of Curtis, “and other times Jackie would dress as Barbara Stanwyck. She would look really good in a red wig or that kind of thing.” Jackie wasn’t the kind of drag queen who tried to pass herself off as a woman and instead developed a sui generis style—as Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin learned when she would drop by Wagner’s apartment dressed either as a man or woman. “What Jackie did was more like performance art,” Melba LaRose said. “I never thought of him as a woman. He went back and forth so many times. When I met Jackie, he was a little boy with a shopping bag. He had bangs. He was very cute.” “That was the beginning of pansexuality, and David Bowie picked up on that,” said Tony Zanetta, who worked with the glam rock singer. “I find a lot of similarities between Jackie Curtis and David Bowie.” Noting that Jackie had the same DIY aesthetic as John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous, Zanetta added, “Jackie Curtis’s tattered clothes look was do-it-yourself, number one. Like at Warhol’s Factory, it was about how, if you wanted to be an artist, you just basically said you were. Like with punk, if you wanted to be a musician or you wanted to be in a band, well, you didn’t really have to learn how to play an instrument. So Jackie Curtis, the Ridiculous, and punk are all connected.”
“Jackie [Curtis] wanted to write something that was a comedic takeoff on all those Hollywood stars of the thirties,” said Glamour, Glory, and Gold star Melba LaRose. “We were trying to make those movies our own.” Living through the chaos of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., they sought refuge in Hollywood’s dream factory. “I think we all came from very dysfunctional backgrounds, and we just sort of lived through those films,” LaRose said. “There was, of course, all the glamour and we genuinely loved all that—the makeup, the clothes, the feathers, the glitter. It was the beginning of camp. We thought we were really living out these parts onstage and in life, so we didn’t think of it as campy. It was a style that we created. Everything was larger than life, but still had reality in it, and it still had something in it that we really believed. It wasn’t just clowning.” Curtis and her friends weren’t simply passive consumers, as mass culture critics such as Theodor Adorno and Dwight Macdonald have characterized media audiences. They knowingly appropriated and subverted the heteronormative products of the culture industry, liberating them from their ideological constraints. “Jackie was a natural satirist,” Lily Tomlin observed, “because he was an outsider and an artist. All the notions he had about living and being made him really able to see the absurdity of the culture.”
Melba LaRose first met Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling during a production of Glamour, Glory, and Gold, a ridiculous send‑up of Hollywood melodramas. She played the lead role as Nola Noon, an amalgam of old movie stars like Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. The play—Curtis’s first—began with Noon working in a burlesque house, followed her rise as a big Hollywood star, and ended with LaRose’s character mock-tragically walking into the ocean as the Warsaw Concerto played. Glamour, Glory, and Gold was directed by Ron Link, who went on to direct many Off-Off-Broadway shows, including Tom Eyen’s Women Behind Bars. During the opening scene of this explosive production, LaRose walked onstage wearing nine feather boas and started throwing glitter. “It was everywhere,” she said. “The set was covered with sparkles and glitter.” Oddly enough, the show’s title came directly from Lady Bird Johnson (President Lyndon Johnson’s wife) when she crossed paths with an extravagantly dressed Jackie Curtis, who was lurking in the lobby of the Lincoln Center. As Johnson came down a set of stairs, she saw Curtis and exclaimed in her regal southern accent, “Oh my. Glamour, glory, and gold.” Jackie thought, Ding! Yes. That’s gonna be the title of my play.
Jackie Curtis, who was always writing, quickly followed his theatrical debut with a musical, Lucky Wonderful. It was based on the life of Tommy Manville, a playboy socialite who had several strange, exotic wives. “Jackie decided to write a musical,” Melba LaRose said, “and he starred in it, and Paul Serrato wrote the music for it.” Serrato also composed music for Curtis’s biggest underground hit, 1971’s Vain Victory, and he later did a cabaret act with Holly Woodlawn. He first met Curtis when he worked at the Paperback Gallery, one of Greenwich Village’s literary hotspots. “Jackie would come in, as everybody did,” He first said. “Through one thing or another—we were all very young then—Jackie and I became friends. Jackie learned that I was a musician and composer, and he came in and told me, ‘I’m writing this script for this musical. You want to do the music for it?’ And so I said, ‘Of course.’ And that’s how we met, in a Greenwich Village bookstore.” Lucky Wonderful included a lovely bossa nova number, “My Angel,” along with the sultry “White Shoulders, Black and Blue” (the song was later revived in Vain Victory for Candy Darling to sing). The songs were fairly low-key, though the acting was wildly animated. “Jackie wrote things with tremendous energy,” Melba LaRose said, “and each show was only an hour and ten minutes straight through. It was high, high octane energy.”
Jackie Curtis was big, not at all femme, and looked like a man in a dress: a little stubble or a beard, torn stockings, trashed dresses, smeared makeup, and plenty of body odor. This tattered look came out of necessity because Curtis was constantly broke, though it was also deliberate—because if a rich patron gave her a brand-new designer dress, she didn’t think twice about shredding it. “They would get rips and things in them,” recalled her friend Jayne County, “and she really didn’t have the money to buy new ones, so she would just continue to wear them and they’d get more and more holes in them. Finally, they were just kind of rags on her legs. They became works of art. Sometimes she would put them together with safety pins, not because she was trying to be cute, but because she was really trying to keep the dress together. It became a style and a fashion, but she was the first person I ever saw to wear that style.” Curtis loved 1930s dresses, which could easily be found in thrift stores or by raiding Slugger Ann’s and Aunt Josie’s closets. One time, when a neighbor passed away, Jackie crawled through the window onto the building ledge and broke into the deceased woman’s apartment, bringing back an entire wardrobe of black Italian dresses, shoes, and accessories. “Jackie was blowing up the idea of gender,” actress Melba LaRose observed. “When he was a boy he liked to look really rough: saddle shoes or other big shoes, vest sweaters like a boy jock.” Agosto Machado recalled, “With Jackie, you never knew what she was going to wear or what she was going to do, but she had a force of personality.”
Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn weren’t clinically insane or homicidal, but they still contributed to the Factory’s edgy atmosphere. It was fueled by heavy drug use and hard living, which Warhol mined as grist for his movies Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), and Women in Revolt (1972), which featured this trashy trio. “He took advantage of them, and I didn’t really like that at all,” said Curtis’s friend Melba LaRose. “I always found Andy very cold, and with not much to say. And of course the people around him said all these witty things and then he’d get credit for it. Jackie and Candy were always very witty.” Their exhibitionism, which made for compelling cinema and great PR, stood in contrast to Warhol’s wordless, blank persona. “Jackie, Holly, and Candy had problems with Warhol because he didn’t really pay them,” said another friend, Bruce Eyster. Warhol did give them token money, but they still ended up marching over from Max’s Kansas City to the Factory to scream and beg for more money—something that underscored a genuine divide between Warhol and some of those he mixed with. Even though many vied to be in his social world, Warhol wasn’t revered or respected in the same way as Jack Smith, Harry Koutoukas, and other struggling downtown artists who prioritized art over money. “You wondered if some of the entourage people—Billy Name, Taylor Mead, and so forth—would jump out the window,” Robert Heide added. “They’d go back to their shabby little rooms because there was this double standard going on. I think ultimately that’s one of the reasons I think Andy got shot.”
From Chapter 18 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore