Did you know that way before Stonewall, there lived people of courage who broke the gender norms and dared to do drag in a culture which criminalized it?
A box with letters was found, which were addressed to Reno Martin, withering away in a storage unit in Los Angeles – back in 2014. These letters were written by drag queens who loved, served looks and flourished in New York City 1950.
And in just a snap of fingers, these letters brought the hidden queer life – history which is full of passion, joy, heartache and scandal – to life.
Bringing their glory to limelight
P.S. Burn This Letter Please is based on these letters; it’s a documentary which gives us an incredible and important look into the lives and struggles of the drag life in a different era. Ever since they were discovered, directors Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera traced down all the living writers of these letters. They even managed to get their hands on age-old footage which brings out the queer history kept hidden away.
Following the death of American talent agent, Ed Limato, these letters came to see the light. He used Reno Martin as his pen name while living his disc jockey days. Even after he left New York City; he kept in touch with his drag queen pals through the means of letters. Limato neatly saved those correspondences his whole life; just waiting for the world to discover them.
Seligman recognized the letters as a treasure chest that could help resurrect a long-forgotten period in queer culture. Of course, finding the queens that dominated New York’s drag scene in the 1950s posed a challenge.
“These guys were writing these letters in secret, often using their drag names instead of their real names, so if the letters were discovered, nobody would know it was them,” Seligman told Pink News.
Seligman and Tiexiera were keen to film interviews with the remaining drag queens. Although, building confidence took time. The older queer people featured in PS Burn This Letter Please were also acutely conscious of the potential for stigma and bigotry if they went public with their accounts of New York’s 1950s drag scene.
In the end;
Tiexiera and Seligman traveled across the country to meet with the queens in order to form real bonds and establish relationships before doing sit-down interviews.
“It took us a while to convince the people to actually sit down and talk to us. Even though this was 60 odd years ago, for a lot of them, it was still a very private and personal part of their life that they hadn’t really spoken about.”-says Seligman
From Real to Reel
When the film begins; it is acknowledged that many letters and diaries written by LGBTQ+ people during this time period were discarded by disapproving family members; effectively closing a window on our queer past. As a result, the letters themselves are at the core of this lovingly crafted documentary; beautifully animated and read, and packed with queer jargon of the day, such as ‘Mary’, ‘trade’ and ‘cunty’.
Stunning photos of the drag queens are shown clearly, so as not to detract from their full glory; and are combined with recorded videos to create a captivating queer time capsule. Interviews with some former drag queens in their eighties and nineties bring this archive material to life in an engagingly emotional, intimate, and humour-filled way.
Among the veteran drag queens interviewed; is Lennie, now 89, who remembers becoming the first male cheerleader at his high school before discovering his drag persona and performing shows for his fellow Marines at sea. We also meet James Bidgood, the legendary gay artist and the director of Pink Narcissus, who recently turned 87; and Terry, who is 83 years old and remembers her performing days in the capital, and details her transitioning in 1960s.
What emerges is a fascinating look into the lives of this unique drag queen family and their extended circle. It’s full of things about where they shopped or “mopped” (shoplifted); and how the men rented a room to store and dress in their female clothes to avoid being discovered by their parents. The survey of the city’s venues that allowed drag queens at the time is also fascinating.
P.S. Burn This Letter Please is a touching and uplifting homage to these truly fierce; trailblazing queens’ grace, courage, and defiant self-expression.
The discovery confirms an undeniable fact: queer life in the 1950s, like queer life today, was nuanced and often shocking. There is no single story, no one-dimensional account of events. Even if mainstream culture wasn’t ready to embrace them, New York’s drag queens lived full, vibrant lives.
PS Burn This Letter Please was made with the aim of representing such complexities. Until now; historians researching the lives of queer people have had to rely on court, police, and hospital reports to piece together a picture of what happened. They were able to step away from that detached reading of the past after discovering Limato’s letters; instead bringing real people’s stories to life.
“It’s not all dark. It’s actually a lot of sequins and glitter,” Tiexiera says.
P.S. Burn This Letter Please is now streaming in the US on Discovery+.