The Gay Word

As a result of doing research into LGBT history for my novel I became fascinated by how the meanings of “in” words change. In the 1940s gays lived in a secret world. No one was in the closet because such a concept didn’t exist. Homosexuals were considered either criminal or mentally disturbed so you were not likely to go around advertising. It was a time when it was illegal to serve liquor to immoral persons and homosexuals were high on the “do not serve” list. But in their secret world a culture was growing and as with every culture it had its own words to refer to itself and to those who inhabited the out-group beyond them.

The Word ‘Gay’
It is often assumed that the word “gay” to refer to homosexuals came into use in the 1960s after Stonewall. But it is important to remember that “gays” had been living secret lives for decades before this. Stonewall only made straights aware of a word that had already been in use. I remember hearing straights in the seventies bemoaning the ruination of the word “gay” because of its “new” meaning. In reality, if a word can ever truly be termed “ruined”(meanings of all words are constantly changing; it is the nature of language) it was “ruined” long before the late 1960s.

The word “gay” meaning homosexual has been in use since the 1920s. Some authorities say one of its early meanings was “loose woman” or “prostitute” and then it gradually came to mean homosexual; other authorities claim that the use of the word gay to mean homosexual began long before the 1920s. Word derivations are hard to track, but we do know that the word gay, meaning homosexual was in use before the 1940s. In Bringing up Baby, a 1938 movie with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, Grant wears a frilly woman’s bathrobe and jumps up and down proclaiming, “I just went gay all of a sudden.” Remarkably, this got passed the censors and the straight audiences.  It was against the Hayes Code to include any reference to sexual perversion (homosexuality) in films. The censors and most of those in the audience (but certainly not all) had to interpret “gay” as meaning happy.


The Word ‘Lesbian
Although the word ‘gay’ was in use by gays in the 1940s and hidden from the outer world, the word lesbian was not generally used by gays. The word “lesbian” was considered a street word and derogatory. It was only used by the outer world and was intended to be insulting or “clinical.” “Lesbian” did not become a positive term until the 1970’s when gay women claimed the word for themselves and re-claimed its original meaning in relation to Sappho, the Greek Female poet, who lived on the Island of Lesbos. During the forties, fifties and sixties gay women referred to themselves as “gay girls.”


Beautiful lesbian flirting couple on the sofa.

The Jams
Gays in the 1940 and 50s also had their own special names for non-gays.  They called them “jams,”  “straights,” (in use since 1941) and “normals” The word “normal” seems to have been used prior to the 1940s and probably lasted well into the late forties and beyond. Gore Vidal in The City and The Pillar, argumentatively the first novel about male homosexuals, published in the U.S. in 1948, used the word “normals” throughout his book to refer to straights.  This may give some indication of the degree of internalized homophobia that understandably existed during that time.

Medical Terms In Use in the 1940s (and before and after)
Medical men who were trying to be objective about the “disease” of homosexuality used the following terms:
Invert (men and women)
Third Sex (men and women)
Lesbian (women)
Tribadist (women)

The Positive Terms Women Used for Themselves
Gay girl (most popular)
Sapphist (used somewhat)
Homophile (used more often for men, but also applied to women)


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Nice Review for Juliana (Vol 1: 1941-1944) from Kirkus

In this debut historical novel, a girl seeks stardom on Broadway but instead discovers unexpected feelings when she meets a charismatic lesbian singer.

Alice “Al” Huffman has just graduated from high school in June 1941. She and her best friend, Aggie Wright, giddily depart the potato fields of Long Island for New York City, following their boyfriends Danny Boyd and Dickie Dunn. They all plan to act on Broadway except for Danny, who wants to write novels. For Al, moving is also a chance “to start my life away from the mother who tried to kill me” and to see new sights, such as celebrities and “real homosexuals.” The foursome’s prospects brighten when they meet Broadway producer Maxwell P. Harlington III, who offers his services. Soon, Al is intrigued and unsettled by Juliana Styles, a singer whose voice sounds “like warm milk slipping down the whole of my body,” but she tries to block out such thoughts. She believes that marrying Danny will give her security—but then she discovers Danny naked in Max’s apartment, and soon after, she has an encounter with Juliana, which results in Al’s first orgasm. Wartime brings changes to the foursome’s relationship, and Al’s misgivings about exploring her sexuality deepen. As the book ends, Al has new hopes, both for her producing career and for her relationship with Juliana.

Playwright Vanda (The Forgetting Curve, 2014, etc.) offers a well-researched, richly textured look at LGBT life in 1940s New York City, a time when women could get into trouble just for wearing trousers. She gives a good sense of the gay world’s sub rosa signals, codes, secret celebrities, and in-jokes. Her dialogue, fittingly for a playwright, is sharp and does much to aid characterization and add historical flavor; for example, unsophisticated Al expresses her reactions to an erotic explosion with “Oh, gosh, gosh, oh, gosh, gosh.” … (A) story that… captures the fear, excitement, and eroticism of a young lesbian’s awakening in the 1940s.
(Kirkus Reviews, 3/31/16)

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Madame Spivy: Patron Saint of “Fags”

Who Was She?

spivy I wonder how many LGBT folks today know who Madame Spivy was. Well, Spivy was an early pioneer in the gay rights movement, although I doubt she would’ve seen herself that way. She was a nightclub owner and entertainer who from the early 40s to the mid 50s kept Spivy’s Roof going despite her poor money management skills. Spivey’s Roof was a nightclub where gay men and women could go and be “almost” out. This meant it wasn’t a gay club, most of the patrons were straight, but gays could openly gather there if they didn’t call too much attention to themselves. According to Gavin (2006) Spivy wanted her various girlfriends to come into the club, and she didn’t think it would be fair to let them in while leaving out the men. Each night gay men lined the bar in their white tuxedos. Spivy’s was a good place for the men to meet each other and a little “fumbling around in the dark” was not uncommon. But Spivy, a short, stout woman who usually wore black dresses with shoulder pads and had black hair combed into a stiff pompadour with a white streak going from front to back (Gavin, 2006, p 30), could be moody. Every once in awhile she would stand up in the middle of the dining area and yell, “Get all the fairies out of here!” Gavin doesn’t say whether this was a joke or whether she actually pushed the gay men out. I rather think not. As one patron put it Spivy was the “patron saint of fags.”

Spivy’s Roof

searchSpivy’s Roof was located in the penthouse of 139 East 57 Street in New York City. To get there you rode up in a rickety elevator, which opened into a world of glitter and chrome and tightly packed tables and chairs. On the walls were paper sculptures of “stars” such as Katherine Cornell and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Madame Spivy had her devoted fans who came to hear her perform a set of 15 “sophisticated” or “blue” songs. She was supposed to do two shows a night on the weekend, but she paid no attention to time or scheduling. Often she still hadn’t begun the ten o’clock show at 11:30. It wasn’t uncommon for her fans to begin chanting “Spivy! Spivy!” to try to coax her onto the stage. But Madame Spivy was in the back talking to one or more of her girlfriends, among them Tallulah Bankhead or Patsy Kelly.

Spivy was always the star at Spivy’s Roof despite, allowing others to perform on her stages, such as Mabel Mercer, and the then unknown Carol Channing.


An Unknown Piano Player You May Know
Spivy always had two pianos, one under the spotlight and another in the back covered in shadows. The pianist in the back played the ambient music and also backed up Spivy’s own playing when she sang. The word was that she kept that shadowy pianist in the back, because she wasn’t very good, but she had no intention of sharing the spotlight with anyone else. One of her early pianists, hidden in shadows, was 21 year old Walter Liberace. Imagine him being stuck in the back and in shadow. Well, that didn’t last long, but to find out what happened between Spivy and Walter I hope you’ll read my novel, JULIANA. There’s a chapter on Spivy’s Roof in which the scene with the young Liberace gets played out. liberace05-1024

The times these people lived in were very different from ours in some significant ways. One commentator who was a regular at Spivy’s Roof when he was sixteen—they didn’t seem to be quite so fussy about legal drinking age back then—said “I was probably too innocent to think of Spivy’s sexuality. The concept of women loving women just didn’t exist in the groupthink of the era…” (
Spivy’s Roof was so successful in New York that Spivy thought she could expand into London, Paris and Rome. These clubs all failed. (
So What Happened to Her?
Spivy established a small acting career and you can see her in The Manchurian Candidate and Requiem for a Heavyweight. She also starred in some TV episodes of Hitchcock Presents.

Spivy in Requiem for a Heavy Weight




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The 1940s Christmas Village Putz House

DSC03253When I was a child my mother had these little cardboard houses with glitter all over them.  There was a hole in the back to put a light.  She also had little metal figures to go with the houses.  With them she made a Christmas Village under the tree.  As I grew older the houses and figures were relegated to storage.  Until one day my kid sister and I found them again. We made our own Christmas Village in between our two rooms.  I think we did it a few more Christmases after that.  I remember how much I loved looking at our little town all lit up.  It looked like such a wonderful place to live.  But, as with all children, my sister and I grew up and lost track of the little Christmas Village houses and people.  My parents moved and who knows where these things ended up.

Lately, I found myself longing for them (probably my novel was doing that to me) so I did a little research and I found out the Christmas Village houses and the metal people were a tradition throughout the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. They were sold in five and dime stores and in catalogues like Sears & Roebucks.  The “best” I read came from the 1930’s, during the depression.  Although people could not afford much during that time, they could afford a “putz house” for under the tree.  I wonder if the ones my sister and I played with were from the 1930s when my mother was a girl.  Fascinated by the history of these little houses I headed for ebay where I found plenty for bidding and for sale.  I figured if I couldn’t have the Village from my mother I could begin my own.  So that’s what I did. They make me feel closer to the characters in my novel.


These houses were originally made in Japan so, of course, the importing of them stopped during the war.  One story I read was about Ted Althof, a well-known collector, who met an older woman who had worked at a five and dime when Pearl Harbor was bombed.  The day after the bombing her boss told her to collect anything made in Japan and put it on the curb to be taken away. American toy companies began producing them (Martin, 2010).

These houses are amazingly simplistic in their construction–we would never accept them today–but this simplicity seems to add to their charm. Despite being simplistic they are delicately made.  They have little cellophane windows which a breath could  tear.  It’s incredible how many houses have their cellophane windows still in tack.  It makes me a little nervous.  They’ve survived 60 and more years before they got to my tree. What if they can’t survive me?  Such responsibility!

Woman & Man & Bench

What do these houses and metal figures have to do with the lives of LGBT folks (the subject of my novel) living secretly in New York City in the 1940’s?  Well, one of my missions with this novel is to show that LGBT people have been living everywhere through every time and they’ve been celebrating the same traditions that everyone else celebrates, including putting little glitter houses under their Christmas trees.  They have never been alien beings despite having a long history of being treated that way.

Today there is gobs of information on the net about this tradition (its origin and history) and there are collectors who talk to each other in chat rooms and discussion forums.  I don’t think I’ll ever go that far, but there is something very comforting about waking up in the morning and looking down on the quiet little village under my tree and imagining what life might be like in a place like that.

Martin, M.J. (2010). ‘Putz’ House Christmas Villages of the early 20th century bring out nostalgia for collectors. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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A Little Known Fact About the Stage Door Canteen

An Important Little Known Fact About the Stage Door Canteen

You’ve probably seen the film, The Stage Door Canteen, with lots of singing and dancing and movie stars serving sandwiches to the soldiers and sailors who come there for a night of fun and dancing with the volunteer hostesses before they take off for the war.  The film’s story focuses on four soldiers who are in New York City for the very first time.  They come to the Canteen and fall in love.  It is all very innocently romantic.  But there was much more to the Canteen than most people know.

The American Theater Wing headed by Rachel Crothers and Antoinette Perry established the Stage Door Canteen in New York. It was one of the many programs established by the American Theater Wing during the war. Miss Jane Cowl and Miss Selena Royle put their own successful acting careers on hold in order to keep the New  York Canteen running seven nights a week. (Get a load of all those unsung women!)

The Only Integrated Club in Times Square

The Stage Door Canteen was the only completely integrated club in the area. During the forties in Times Square African Americans could be and often were denied entry into movie theaters and nightclubs. (This was a time when seeing a black bus driver, elevator operator, doorman or policeman was very unusual) Some movie theaters would admit people of color, but only allow them to sit in the back. The Stage Door Canteen was a vitally important ground breaker.  

The film, Stage Door Canteen, however, supported our country’s bias by not showing a single African American soldier or hostess in its filmed version of the club. Therefore, most people are unaware that African American women also served their country by volunteering at the Stage Door Canteen.

Hostesses were required to dance with soldiers of all races and if they could not do this they were dismissed.

The only other club that allowed people of color to be equal customers (and not just entertainers) was Café Society, Downtown, located at Sheridan Square in the West Village.

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For the Boys: World War 2 Fashions, Pre & Post

Before the War

The late thirties/ early forties was a time of fedoras on men and hats, gloves, and girdles on women. That was before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor marking the United States’ entry into World War 2. Shortly thereafter, everything changed. Most men turned in their fedoras for servicemen’s hats (Men ages 18-65 had to register for the draft; men up to age 45 could be drafted) Women lost the girdles. Who needs a girdle when your stockings are painted on with especially made leg make-up and your girlfriend draws the seams on with an eyebrow pencil?



World War 2 and Rationing

During World War 2, in an effort to save precious materials needed for the war, The War Production Board (WPB) was in charge of rationing civilian goods. The first to be rationed was sugar and gasoline. Gradually other items were added like rubber, coffee and meat (somehow poultry didn’t count as meat so it wasn’t rationed). Alcohol wasn’t rationed because the misery of Prohibition was still fresh in everyone’s mind. As my character, Juliana, says, “Maybe if we all spend the war inebriated we won’t mind the shortages.”

You couldn’t buy a refrigerator or a Bendix washer (the first automatic, non-ringer type) during the war, but these companies regularly advertised in the popular magazines, reminding customers of all they were giving to the war effort.

When the Government Told Us What to Wear

Washing Machines

Washing Machines

One of the regulations The WPB came out with had to do with how much cloth could be used in make clothing. Although clothing wasn’t rationed in the US (except shoes*) as it was in Great Britain the WPB made regulations on how much cloth could be used to make any one outfit. The sleeves of dresses now had to be 3/4 length, dresses with no collars were favored. Double-breasted suits for both men and women became single breasted. There were no more women’s pleated skirts. (Stanton, 2009a) The WPB’s slogan was, “Control without regimentation,” meaning they didn’t want to tell designers how to initiate their regulations, but they did expect them to be followed. After all, this was being done “for the boys.” Everyone was behind it. Muriel Johnstone, a dress designer, advertising her new regulation dresses used the slogan: “Conserving material for victory.” (Old

In the interest of following the mandate to use less material—or so they claimed—designers started raising women’s hemlines from  mid-calf to just below the knee. The amount of clothes women wore during this time became less and less, especially in Hollywood. Watch the films made during the war. First, you’ll see a lot of those collarless dresses along with the shorter lengths. Also, you’ll note how scantily many of the women are dressed, lots of bare legs, bare arms, cleavage. Compare these outfits with the clothing worn in films made before the war and after. It was “all for the boys” to win the war. (Stanton, 2009b)


Alice, my main character in Juliana says, “I came home with a pair of pants.  I’d never had slacks before. No one wore them, except to do the gardening or maybe at the beach…. The Brown Derby in Hollywood refused to serve Marlene Dietrich when she showed up for lunch in pants.  Katherine Hepburn wore trousers all the time, but she was always getting kicked out of hotel lobbies.  One time the producer of one of her films took her pants out of her dressing room and left a skirt.  She walked across the movie lot in her underpants.”

Wearing pants in public before the war carried some pretty heavy social consequences when you were a celebrity, but the social restraints were even worse if you weren’t.  And then when once war was declared… Well, everyone’s heard of Rosie the Riveter.

Rosie the Riveter

Cross Dressing

Cross dressing in public was illegal for both genders during the 1940s.  Prior to this,  however, during the Pansy & Lesbian Craze of the 1920s and ’30s, (Heap, 2010) male and female impersonators were quite popular in certain nightclubs. (see Pansy & Lesbian Craze this blog) However in 1940 a New York City ordinance made it illegal for female impersonators (drag queens) to entertain wearing women’s clothes. The prohibition against crossdressing in public had been forbidden for both genders for some time.  Therefore, women suddenly wearing pants to work must have been awfully confusing for the police. The ordinance allowed a cop to stop anyone dressed in a way that was considered appropriate to the opposite gender and ask them to show that they were wearing three (some authorities say five) items of clothing from their own gender.  If they couldn’t do this then the cop could arrest them. But the laws had to become looser during the war to accommodate the army of new women factory workers. (I have found no authority to comment on this)  This offered an opportunity for butch lesbians to be freer in their clothing choices.  After the war society was even more vigilant than previously about cross dressing.  During the post war era you rarely saw a woman wearing pants in public.  For an example, watch I Love Lucy closely.  Sometimes Lucy or Ethel (mostly Ethel) wear pants in the house, but always, before going out they change their clothes.  This return to a rigid dress code, more rigid than before the war, put butch lesbians in quite a spot.  When they were out walking with a group of lesbians who could pass, butches in their men’s clothes would have to cross to the other side of the street when non-gays (or jams) approached so that the passing gay girls were not recognized.


Still, even during the war when women could wear pants in public they couldn’t wear just any pants.  Women’s pants always had the zippers on the side.  This lasted through the early sixties. Wearing pants with the zipper in the front would have been seen as scandalous. The same was true for dresses. The zipper was on the side.   Zippers in the front on trousers would have made women look shockingly mannish. And this was a society that worried about such things. Zippers in the back of dresses would go against womanly modesty by making a woman too accessible.  To see a side zipper in use on a dress watch the film, Gilda (1946), with Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford.  Gilda finishes singing, Put the Blame on Mama, Boys in a nightclub in which she has removed her opera gloves and a necklace. She challenges someone to come on stage  to help her unzip her dress.  Two dorky guys jump out of the audience to volunteer. They go for her zipper on the side.   (Sorry, guys or ladies according to your particular orientation, they don’t get far before the bouncer stops them and Glenn Ford punches Gilda in the face)

The Just Below the Knee Club

When the war ended you might expect that  after years of less material this next generation of fashion would be even more liberated. Not so.  Dior in Paris came out with the New Look, which meant longer skirt lengths with a flare, girdles and long line bras. He even added hip padding to make the waste took tiny.  This style ruled the 1950s and influenced ready to wear.  It was a reaction against the mannish, boxy styles of the war.

BUT not all women were so eager to embrace this New Look.  Groups of women around the country formed “Little below the knee” clubs to protest being put back into restrictive fashions.  When Christian Dior came to New York, the Manhattan branch of the “Little below the knee club” marched down Fifth Avenue in protest against him. (Hawthorne, 1996) Alas, the New Look won out and the  “little below the knee clubs” folded.  Women were once again encased in yards of satin, crinoline and corset-like undergarments.  They would have to wait for the sixties to get out of all that material. 





*Each individual was allowed 3 pairs of shoes a year, which doesn’t sound terribly harsh to me. Stage Door Canteen volunteers were permitted an extra pair of shoes because their shoes wore out quickly from all that dancing.

(For info about LGBT history in the thirties, forties, fifties and for specific NYC history go to


Cawthorne, N. (1996). The New look: The Dior revolution. Edison, NJ: Wellfleet Press.

Heap, C. (2010) The Pansy and lesbian craze in white and black. In slumming: sexual and racial encounters in American night life, 1885-1940, 231-276.

Stanton, S.L.(2009a) Limitation Order L-85: General restrictions. The United States in War and Peace (PDF)

Stanton, S.L.(2009b) Limitation Order L-85: Fashion and Morale, The United States in War and Peace


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I Miss the Magic of a Broadway Musical


The three-dimensional models of theatrical masks showing human emotions

This week I’ve been writing about a fictional musical that two of my characters are rehearsing because they are going to be in a Broadway show. In order to feel my way into the scene I needed something that would give me the sense of how this musical might sound.  I needed to listen to an old fashioned soundtrack, something from the fifties or sixties. I wanted to hear those kinds of  sounds and feel the excitement I once had for the theater before it was pounded out of me. (I spent more than twenty years as a playwright. If that doesn’t kill your love of theater nothing  will) I needed to get back a little of the magic I once knew.  I thought about the soundtracks I’ve listened to and the musicals I’d actually seen and out of the muck and mire of everyday life came a memory of one particular Broadway musical: Carnival. Not Carousel, Carnival.  People often mixed up the two.  And yes, Carnival like Carousel was made into a film, a pale comparison to the play.  I must have been eleven or twelve when I saw it.  I only saw it once and yet the impression it made on me was staggering. It was my first Broadway show.


My extracurricular music appreciation teacher brought the class to New York City to see it.  What a job that must have been.  Contacting parents, dealing with the money, arranging for group tickets, organizing parent volunteers, keeping track of us on the Long Island railroad and then the subway.  Just the thought of organizing a trip for thirty or so sixth graders makes my head hurt.  I remember we sat in the mezzanine or maybe it was the balcony (Remember balconies? We don’t seem to have them any more. Now they’re called the Loge or the Rear Mezzanine)

I don’t remember the other kids and I don’t remember getting to the theater. I have no recollection of the train ride. However, what I do remember is sitting on a red cushioned seat breathless as the curtain slowly opened.  Yes, there was a real curtain.  There is nothing like waiting for a curtain to open to reveal the secret magic of another world behind it.  Sets were far less grand than they are today, but no less magical and for me in my memory maybe they were more so. I remember the thrill of the overture, the costumes, the sound of the singers, the dancers. Oh and the storyline.  It was about a woman who comes from a small town, Mira, to work in a carnival. She falls in love with the puppeteer, but he can only communicate through his puppets. Without them he is mean to her.  Carrot Top the red headed puppet is the kindest and smartest one.  He was my favorite.  I already had a history with puppets.  That was how I’d began my writing career.  By  writing puppet shows for my first grade class. Carnival was perfect for me.

Flash forward to the present: As I sat thinking about Carnival I felt a great love not only for the theater, but for the teacher who took the trouble to get us there to see it.And I had the thought: Why don’t I do that?.  Why don’t I take my own students to the theater.My students are not the type who would take themselves to the theater.  Just like that music appreciation teacher I would be exposing my students to something very new. Despite being college students and living in the New York City area many have never been to a  Broadway show. I got momentarily excited. Yes, this could be a life changing experience for them. Then reality  swooped down and hit me on the head.  My students don’t have money.  Neither did our parents. Many of us were working class kids, but when the teacher talked to our parents and convinced them of the importance of this event out parents found a way to pay for such a trip.  But today? I’d be asking my students to make a major financial investment. Even discount prices would be more than they could imagine spending for something they would see as having little value in. I certainly couldn’t require them to attend, but if I made it optional I probably wouldn’t have enough students to get a group discount;  I could end up sitting in the theater with one enthusiastic student.

In the fifites and sixties New Yorkers were the main audience for Broadway. Now tourists are the main audience.  New Yorkers can’t afford the theater so that the theater habit has been gradually whittling away for most groups of people that live in the metropolitan area.  My students wouldn’t even see the point of spending all that money for one show.  And you know,  with all the bells and whistles that are demanded now on Broadway  and the high ticket prices, I hardly ever get that same excited thrill anymore. And I miss it.

Cute sock puppet isolated on white



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Excerpt from my forthcoming novel, JULIANA

Excerpt from Juliana, the novel



Chapter Eight

            The limousine bumped and shook over the cobblestone on its way past Wanamaker’s department store. We turned off Broadway onto Eighth Street.

“Max, you know we could have just walked. It’s not far.”

“Maxwell P. Harlington does not—”

“Walk when he can take a limousine and look like a complete donkey. I know.”

“That wasn’t exactly how I would have put it, but you have the spirit of the thing.”

I opened the window trying to catch a breeze. I didn’t feel comfortable driving in a limousine like a grand lady. Last week after work, I walked up this street to the Whitney Museum ’cause I don’t know much about art and I wanted to educate myself. Sam’s Deli was across the street so I got myself a cheap salami and cheese sandwich. It seemed to me that in a neighborhood where you could get a cheap salami sandwich, you didn’t need to arrive in a limousine.

Timothy, our limousine driver, pulled the car over to the curb in front of an awning that said Tom Kat Klub. He opened the door for us. Timothy was a muscular man in a black jacket with a cap on his head. He bowed, “Good evening, Mr. Harlington. Evening, miss.”

Max yanked the long coat off me and threw it in the backseat. Timothy drove off leaving me standing on 8th Street where everyone could see me in pants. Max held the door of the Klub open, and I slipped inside looking straight ahead so I wouldn’t see people pointing at me. I followed close behind Max trying to keep my legs pressed tight together, but I kept knocking myself over.

This place was even smaller than the other club and not as bright. It was just as noisy, though. I hurried to sit down, relieved that sitting meant no one could see the bottom half of me. The ceiling fans whirred, pushing around the heat.

Max said this place was called a supper club and proceeded to order us two bologna sandwiches to go with our Manhattans. I learned much later that supper clubs had to serve food ’cause New York law required places serving liquor to also provide food even if it wasn’t anything more than a crummy bologna sandwich.

Soon the mistress of ceremonies came out on the tiny round stage. She was the tallest lady I’d ever seen with big wide shoulders and big hands she flapped around like fans. She had blonde hair that was piled higher on her head than Miss Virginia Sales, and she wore a dress that twinkled. She winked at people in the audience and moved her hips like Mae West. I leaned over to Max, “I’ve never heard of a lady announcer before.”

Max grumbled, “That’s a man.”


“I hate that. Men parading around like women. Undignified.”

“That lady is a man? Wow!” I sat back in my chair. What an amazing place this New York City was.

The man dressed like a woman, the mistress—no, master of ceremonies—sang some Broadway show tunes that I knew from the radio. Then he told some smutty stories. Max looked all around the room like he was nervous about something.

We had to sit through a comic, a juggler, and a man singing love songs while sweat rolled down his nose. Finally, the mistress/master announced Juliana. There was polite applause in between talking and silverware dropping as Juliana floated onto the stage looking untouched by the eighty-eight degree heat. She wore a silky royal blue dress that fell to her midcalf. Before leaving the stage, the master of ceremonies said something about his phony breasts compared to Juliana’s real ones only he used a different word for them that I didn’t like to use back then. I didn’t like that man dressed as a woman saying that to her, but the audience thought it was hysterical. Juliana blew him a kiss as he lifted the hem of his dress to exit.

She leaned against a pole that was in the center of the stage, and the piano in the back played the introduction. She sang into the microphone starting off slow, then the tempo picked up and she moved away from the pole and danced while singing. She danced close to the edge of the stage and I gasped afraid she’d fall off, but she didn’t. Max looked proud of his protégé.

She finished the song with a flourish. I applauded so hard I thought my hands would fall off. Max didn’t clap; he just stared at her. “Such a beautiful woman,” I heard him whisper, but he wasn’t talking to me.

Juliana leaned against the piano and began “Ten Cents a Dance.” Max slapped his hand against the table. “I told her never to sing that song.”

“Why not? I think it sounds good.”

“You would. Can you picture that woman actually working for ten cents a dance, having men slobbering all over her?”

I had to admit he had a point, but I didn’t want to admit it. “It’s just a song.”

“Just a song?” He shook his head. “Don’t talk to me.” He grumbled through the whole song.

When she finished, he crossed his arms over his chest, scowling, his mustache wiggling on his upper lip. “Come on, Max, clap for her. She was good.”

“How would you know? You’ve got stardust in your pants.”


We had to sit through a few more acts, but I don’t remember what they were. None of them were like Juliana. A couple times the fortune-teller stopped by our table wanting to tell our fortunes, but Max shooed her away.

When the lights came up, Max got out his wallet to pay the bill. Timothy, the limousine driver, rushed up to the table. “Mr. Harlington, Mr. Harlington, there’s an emergency. Come right away.”

“Can’t it wait, Slag, uh, Timothy? I’m right in the middle of—”

“It’s urgent, sir.”

“Oh, well, in that case. Al, get in that line over there? That’s the line to Juliana’s dressing room.”

“But you said you’d introduce me.”

“I would. But there’s an emergency. Hurry. You don’t want to miss her.” He threw some bills on the table and ran out with Timothy.

I sat there thinking I should forget it and go home. Still, I did go to the trouble of buying the slacks and wearing them in public.

I stood behind a man and a woman who chatted cheerfully, talking about how wonderful she’d been and predicting she’d soon be a star.

Another couple turned to talk with them. “Wasn’t that impersonator funny?” the woman in a hat with a feather bobbing up and down said. “I just love fairies.”

“You don’t see many anymore,” a man in a business suit and a big belly said. “Used to be there were lots of clubs where you could see the pansies and bull daggers, but not so much anymore. Used to make a man glad to go home and make love to his wife.”

“George. We’re in public,” the woman who I supposed was his wife said, hiding her face with her gloved hand.

George laughed. “You know what I mean.” He nodded at the other man, who chewed on a cigar.

“I surely do know,” the man said, with a slight Southern accent. “Those fairies made a man glad he was normal.”

Juliana opened her door. She was all pink and white in her dressing gown, her lipstick, red, and when she spoke her voice was like a velvet ribbon floating on a breeze.

“To Vivian. Is that correct?” I heard her say as she scribbled on someone’s program.

“Tom?” she asked the man standing next in line. “Well, aren’t you a dear, Tom.” Tom walked off happily caressing his program.

As she handed back a signed program “To Barbara,” the male impersonator came running up to her. He didn’t have his wig on so it was easier to see he was a man, but he was still wearing the dress and high heels. It was scary seeing him look like a man and a woman at the same time.

“Juliana, darling,” he said, “I simply must speak to you.” He took out a handkerchief to wipe tears from his eyes. “I don’t know what to do. Oh, that man. Can you spare me a teensy weensy?”

Juliana smiled. “Of course, dear. Go in.” She turned to those of us on line. “Sorry. No more tonight.”

A woman walking past me said to her friend “Can you believe that? Wearing trousers in public.”

I quickly pulled my legs together. In my hurry, I’d forgotten what I was wearing.

Her friend in a hat with floppy flowers agreed. “Like a farmer. What is the younger generation coming to?”

I felt my face getting hot. Before Juliana disappeared with the master of ceremonies, she pointed. “You.”

“Me?” I asked.

“Wait. Will you?”


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I Went Back to the Park Today: The Different Worlds Men & Women Enter

I went back to the park today. I hadn’t been there in a couple years. Well, no, that’s not exactly accurate. Of course, I’d been there. I mean, really–I only live a block away; I walk through it all the time.  But today I actually sat down on a bench to read.  That’s what I hadn’t done in years. I needed to get out of my airless apartment so  I thought I’d give it another try.  IMG_0230

As I entered I passed a friend who lives in the same apartment building as I do. He was pouring over his own book so not wanting to interrupt his quiet reading or my own I kept going. I found my place on a bench further up the walk.

Later in the day, I ran into my friend coming off the elevator. “Hi, Frank,” I said.  “I saw you in the park today.”

“Oh, yes, I love reading in the park on a summer day. I do it almost every afternoon.”

“It went pretty well for me today too,” I told him. “Only one person interrupted to ask me for money. And no one tried to expose himself to me.”

“What? That happens?”

“All the time. That’s why I stopped going to the park.”

“That’s terrible.”

“I guess these aren’t things that happen to you.”


This got me thinking.  I often give to people who are on the street wanting money.  I especially give to musicians, but I do also give to people with signs and cups. There’s a young schizophrenic woman who appears to live outside the bank.  She’s so lost that even asking for money is too hard; sometimes when I walk by her I’ll drop a five in her lap. I only mention this to point out that I’m not some hard-hearted soul whose against helping out a fellow traveler. That’s not what this article is about.  It’s about people entering my world uninvited. That’s what I don’t like–being forced into an interaction I didn’t ask for.

After I spoke to my friend I realized that those who actively confront me for money, sometimes demand it, do not do so with men.  My friend had NEVER had this happen to him in the park, while for me it was a regular event. My choice of whether to interact or not was regularly taken away.

Being exposed to, thankfully, is less common, but it was regular enough to have made me give up going to the park. Look, I’m a city person.  I, of course, have learned ways of dealing with these situations.  One of those ways was to stop going to the park.  But why should I have to do this?

Then it hit me.  With all the liberation and equality spiels that are thrown around when you’re a woman you are vulnerable to a host of interactions that men don’t even know exist.   For me simply going into a park to read was a bigger ordeal than it would ever be for Frank. He was completely empathic to my situation and I even heard some outrage in his voice, but he would never know the subliminal battle, the preparation to fend off unwanted interactions, that every woman fights each day when she simply leaves her home. Every day a woman enters a world that is far different from the one a man enters.  It is fraught with subtle interruptions, annoyances, anxieties and the unspoken knowledge that things can get much worse than being accosted by a beggar or an exposer.



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What’s in a Name?

I thought a good place to begin this writers’ blog was to wonder about names. Our own birth names, the author names we might give ourselves, the names of our characters. What difference does it make what we call ourselves? What difference does it make what we call our characters? Was Shakespeare right in saying a “rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” If you have one of those names that is frequently mispronounced, like I do, then maybe you aren’t so eager to agree with Shakespeare. 

People are always asking about my name (or mispronouncing it). They want to know why I only have one name. This has gotten me thinking about how names affect us as writers and how our relationship to our own names affect the names we give to our characters. Charles Dickens rising from obscurity into prominence once told his children something to the effect of, “Your name (the one he had created by becoming a renowned author) is all you have.” The implication being they had to present themselves in a certain way because of the name he’d given them. And that works for some people–having a family name that they are proud of and need to live up to. I suspect, though, that the family name thing is less important to most Americans than other nationalities. Except maybe those Mayflower folks, but I’ve never met any of them.

Some writers choose pseudonyms that, I guess, make them feel more like themselves, names which express their identity. A popular example would be Samuel L. Clemens who became Mark Twain. Under what circumstances he took this name is not completely clear, but when you boil down all the possible reasons you’re really left with the fact that the phrase “mark twain” had to do with the way River Boat Captains measured the depth of water. By choosing the name “Mark Twain” Mark Twain was communicating an important aspect of his identity to the world. And isn’t that what a name does? It communicates a certain something about our identity. Some people achieve distinctiveness by including their middle name in their writer’s name. Others just use initials for their first and middle name: P.D. Wodehouse, R.K. Rollins. Often this is done by women to hide that they are women with the hope that this will up their chances of being published. Joanne Rowling is a good example again. She used her pen name to publish the Henry Potter series because her publisher thought that young boys wouldn’t read a book by a woman ( Charles Dickens

Recently, Leonard Jacobs, founder of The Clyde Fitch Report, a popular on-line journal of culture and politics, asked me:

Can you touch on the roots of your single-name identity?

My answer:

I don’t know how long ago I started with that, but I’ve only used one name for quite some time. Edward Albee calls me “the playwright with one name.” I just don’t feel that any last name suits me. I guess I feel self-created and therefore I feel that Vanda describes me just fine and I don’t need anything more.

It gives me lots of trouble, though. I’m always amazed at how many uncreative, inflexible people there are in the theater. Once I wrote to a director who I’d never met. I may have been commenting on a book he wrote. I don’t think I was asking him to read my work, but he wrote back to say that he would never work with anyone who used only one name. I found that hysterically funny, but also sad. Computers won’t accept my one name approach to life, but I guess I expect more from a human being, especially one who purports to be in a field requiring imagination and flights of fancy. I never wrote back to him, but in truth, I would never work with him either. I couldn’t work with a rigid rule monger masquerading as a director. I wonder if Sapphire has these problems. Or Mo’nique. What about the British writer Saki? Madonna? Cher?

That brings me to the problems of being a one-name writer confronting the computer. A computer wants you to fill in all the little boxes; it won’t accept a form with the last name left out. I finally found a way around this dilemma. In the box where it says “Last Name” I now write “Neveruseit.” I’ve actually gone to writers’ conferences where the organizers have printed “Vanda Neveruseit” on my name-tag. They attempt some really strange pronunciations and want to know if it’s German. Or perhaps French? (



What about character names?

My relationship to my own name occasionally shows up in my work. When I first started writing back in eighth grade I would look at Names for Babies books and choose a character name that was unusual, distinctive and less likely to be pronounced correctly and give that name to my main character. Even now I sometimes forget to give characters last names. Lately I have developed a character who is known by one name, a cabaret singer, Juliana. Her last name is only introduced later in the novel. I’ve always found the naming of my characters to be an exciting process. Often, the name pops off the page and when that happens I know the character has just chosen their own name. Other times, thankfully much less often, I have to struggle to find the name. I try out different ones and it takes awhile before the character is satisfied with what has been chosen.

Character names are important. Some literary characters come to be like a part of our family and certainly a part of of our souls. Memorable characters like: Heathcliff, Anna Karenina, Peter Pan, Huckleberry Finn. I know you can come up with your own list of characters who have taken up residence in your heart.

So how do you feel about names? Your own name? Your writer’s name? Your characters’ names? I’d love to hear from you about this.


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