by Jon Newlin, NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana
Before our phantom streetcar stops at Storyville and we have to get off with
the rest of the sportin’ women, crib girls, baby dolls, and day laborers, we
might as well pause for a few words on 1) Methodology (or as Fats Waller might put it, Woman, What Is This History Stuff, Anyway?) and 2) The Title We Have Chosen For This Series which seems to mystify more than a few but seems equally to delight others, particularly those who knew Old Lady Dodt in her prime (and it was!), a time span roughly from the Late Cretaceous when dinosaurs disappeared to a couple of years ago when she met with a tragic, though happily not fatal, accident which confined her to a “care facility”...don’t you just love these meaningless, bloodless, passionless neologisms? Well, first, Hist’ry.
First of all, Subtext is everything. This means when you’re considering something that’s basically as non-existent as gay history has been until these last few years you’re working with instincts, rumors, insinuendos, gossip, lowly billingsgate, the most fugitive kind of information imaginable and the kind that dissipates like the odor of gardenias next to a compost pile.
Subtext is a lit’ry term that means that No Matter What They Think They’re Saying, They’re Really Saying Something Else ...or, to take a cheap example, queers have always known that the most overwrought Hollywood movies were Really About Them, they know that Billie Holiday and Chris Connor and Mabel Mercer and Whitney Houston and Rickie Lee Jones are Really Singing About Them, etc.
Here’s an even better example. Recently, my old and not particularly valued friend, Jerome Cottone, overly familiar to generations of Decatur Street panhandling and hustling trash as the hostess with the mostest at Vera Cruz restaurant, who on a good day, combines the more salient personality traits of his two great idols Maria Callas and Bela Lugosi into what he imagines passes for Charm and Sophistication, gifted me with a video of a movie I fondly remembered from my foolish and reckless youth entitled How To Make A Monster.
One of the things I remembered about it was How Gay It Was: this old queen makeup artist whose specialty is girleen! teenage-boy monsters is being shitcanned from the studio where he works because the new, coldblooded studio chiefs want to make rock-n-roll musicals and hot-rod pictures instead of good old fashioned horror pictures. (This is sort of like what happened to me at Limp Act, but we’ll save that for the proverbial snowy night in front of the fire.) So, he devises this makeup that puts the boys into a trance and they literally become the Teenage Werewolves and Frankensteins and kill everyone he wants out of the way. It still doesn’t save his job, however, and the whole thing ends badly with flames consuming the old sissy’s mansion and his life work and him, and these cute Fifties hustlerish-looking boys he’s turned into monsters sort of scratching their heads dazedly and wondering, Wha ... ?
Well, I popped the thing into the machine and it was all there, except in the meantime, it had become even gayer, just as I had. Presumably at some peculiar and chthonic level, American International Pictures in 1958 thought they were making another horror movie that could utilize the teenage monster makeup they had laying around. But that’s not what was going on at all.
The makeup man (and his devotedly long suffering dogsbody assistant, presumably an exlover who didn’t know when to leave) were even nellier than I remembered. One of the boys was played by the luscious Gary Conway who also posed for fizeek magazines wearing absolutely nothing, not a stitch but one of those little pouches strung on the discreetest minimum of twenty-pound test nylon, and no doubt these very pictures (as well as the talents he kept hidden from those who, like me, purchased said magazines at the old Oliver’s Newsstand next to the Roosevelt to see male flesh in comparative privacy) led to such acting jobs as ... How To Make A Monster!
It wasn’t hard to see Queer Metaphors working overtime and breathing heavily in this little grade-Z movie: the old dear slathers on the “special formula” makeup and puts the boys into a trance where they will do his will, no matter how evil they might think it without makeup on; they wake up feeling kinda funny in that classic Jesus Was l Drunk way, their skin feels peculiar as it never has before, and even when the makeupman is immolated along with his rouge pots and mascara brushes, they’re still not swift enough to figure out what’s gone on. OK, you tell me what went on. But ... on the surface, if you weren’t clued in, you’d think it was just a trashy little horror movie.
So that’s what I mean by Subtext. You have to extrapolate. (We could out at least half the famous people in Local History if we wanted to do enough extrapolating and we wouldn’t even need to mention Gerbils as has been done of late with one of our Highest Ranking Local Officials, this delicious canard is even bigger than the Galatoire’s Sale Rumor, and appears to have just as solid a basis in reality.) Also, you need to read through the lines much of the time (which coincidentally means you have to Read, et tu, Babs?) and sometimes you simply have to run with the rumors, if not for the Roses.
It isn’t my purpose to get into such arguments as those which possess Queer Studies such as Essentialism vs. Non-Essentialism (i.e., are queers really basically, intrinsically queers or is this just another form of warped social construction and control?) because it seems like things have always been more or less, numerically and demographically as they are now.
One morning I was having coffee and sticky buns with my young neighbors who look up to me with sort of starry-eyed adoration reserved for an elder whose hair they have to help dye every six weeks or so and conversation turned, as it so often does when the sun comes up, to the Parisian lesbian circles that Colette wrote about with a degree of seriousness and condescension in The Pure and The Impure and that Djuna Bames wrote about with more than a degree of frivolous scorn and derision. Talking about Natalie and Sylvia and Dolly and Margaret and Liane and Djuna and Gertrude and Alice and Lady Una, one of my neighbors said, “Why did all those dykes dress like men? What was their problem?”
Wiping the froth from his lips, I tried expostulating thus, “Well, dollink, the reason we hear about women like Natalie Barney or Lady Una Troubridge or Gertrude and Alice is not because they were so mannish, but because they represent the tip of the iceberg. After all, liebchen, they were privileged either by wealth or talent or being the chosen companion of someone with same, thus they represent exceptions not rules...no doubt, Paris was simply stuffed to bursting with ordinary bulldaggers and lipstick types -cf. Colette’s novels about her musichall days or the Claudine books, or Brassai’s photographs of Thirties lesbian bars for confirmation of same. It’s the same reason that we hear throughout what passes for Gay History about Men In Frocks and Women In Smoking Jackets ... these people could make themselves known for what they were with relative impunity because they had some money, some sort of talent or gifts artistic or not, or perhaps they were simply related to powerful people, members of royal or noble families, and they generally moved in circles where only the whiff of an eyebrow got cocked if Madame So-and-So was caught smooching with Mlle. Whatsit or if the Duc de Who was discovered fondling the chauffeur or footman or stableboy belonging in every sense of the term to the Comte de Such-et-Such, but for every one of these, you have to remember there were a dozen sissies or dykes you’ll never hear about. But then, chulito, this is true of ordinary people of every persuasion and penchant in all historical times, and a few hysterical ones, too.” Having said my piece about this, both to my neighbors and to my gentle and genteel readers, I’ll pass on to John Dodt.
I’ve chosen Old Lady Dodt as my muse, my Clio, for this series of pieces for a particular reason, and not just because it allows me to make a deliriously goofy play on words as the title. John Dodt belongs, as the old General keeps saying in The Rules of the Game, “to a vanishing race” people like him, who can not only tell stories, a dying art, that of the raconteur, but who have stories told about them, are rarer than ever. That I didn’t like John Dodt when I first met him...I was in high school at the time and simply full of myself as one naturally is, and yes, children, there were cavemen battling it out with dinosaurs right outside the door. When I ran into him again, formally, it was laterat a City Council hearing before a vote on whether to continue to allow Mardi Gras parades in the French Quarter; he was, of course, against it. I was for it. (I’m of two minds on the subject these days, but I think the opponents of the parades were more prescient than those of us in favor realized.)
Eventually we made friends, and he never tired of telling me, in no uncertain terms, “I can’t understand a goddam f---in’ thing you write!” with a look on his face as he said this that indicated that he very well understood every comma and semicolon. When he left us for the North Shore, I understand he was working at Petunias, having as they say in three-decker Victorian novels, come down in the world; John Dodt is living proof that you can lose all your money and still be glamorous. (His unforgettable crash at the Petronius Queens Reunion Ball was yet more proof of glamour; completely hootched, he came out in hoop skirt and tumbled, falling onto his back. He had no drawers on. And he didn’t get up since he’d broken a few bones and the audience was flashed by Old Lady Dodt for some time until someone had the presence of mind to investigate the peculiar variation on poppin’ the gator that was being performed by this horizontal and hoopskirted belle.)
Yeah, I know what you young children are saying, but Mr. Dodt was not your garden variety Bitter Old Queen. Certainly, like most of us who grew up back in those geological mists, he had a far more interesting life than anyone under thirty can have these days unless they try very, very hard. He also remembered everything, names, dates, places, circumferences, longitudes and latitudes if necessary. When my friend Carol Flake was writing her book on Carnival a few years ago, she asked me during one bibulous session at the Napoleon House who she ought to interview about the Gay Krewes.
I immediately thought of John and told her that, well, he might not want to talk to some straight woman and that he would make it very clear, that he was sort of cantankerous and reprobatish, but that if she caught him on a good day, bon mots and mal mots and anecdotes would peel the paint off the walls. A fearless woman, she called Petunias and spent an afternoon with him; she could talk of nothing else after: His phenomenal memory not just for the facts but for the details and the juice, his wicked way with a story, and his kindness not only in giving her so much time but his kindness as revealed in the attitude he had toward others. His contribution was one of the cornerstones of the book; Carol was genuinely grieved when I told her what had happened to him.
And he had class: My favorite John Dodt story is that when he lost all of his money and had to abandon the grandeur (and pretensions) of his St. Louis Street house, he went to work at Petunias, first as a busboy. Someone he always disliked came into the restaurant one night and John went over and gave them their water and menus and what have you, and this obnoxious queen said something smirky like, “Well, well, John Dodt! I’ve always wanted to have a millionaire as my waiter!” Old Lady Dodt drew himself up to his lofty height, looked witheringly at this creature and said, “I’m not your waiter .. I’m your f---in’ busboy!” That’s why this column is for him.