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. Read more via the Guardian