In March, Farrell, who lived next door to DeLarverie at the Hotel Chelsea, found DeLarverie disoriented and, uncharacteristically, asking for help. DeLarverie was shaking and dehydrated, and she was taken to and treated at the nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital. No next of kin has been located, and she no domestic partner. Friends say that she had a long term relationship with an aerialist and burlesque performer, but that was “a long time ago.”
With no one in her life legally able to make health care decisions, she was given a court appointed a guardian: the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged (“JASA”). She remained at the hospital as doctors ascertained her ability to care for herself. When St. Vincent’s went bankrupt and closed abruptly, she was transferred to the nursing home. SAGE, an advocacy group for elderly members of the LGBT community, has also been offering assistance. Her friends say that communication with the aforementioned groups has been inadequate and a source of frustration, and they feel powerless to improve her situation.
When Farrell and I entered room 609, DeLarverie was lying on her twin sized bed motionless, expressionless, her blue-grey eyes focusing on nothing in particular. Then she saw Farrell, she instantly brightened up, telling her that she had a spill earlier in the week but that she was fine. I was introduced to her, and she sat up. “Ask me anything,” she said.
DeLarverie has dementia. During my visit, she occasionally believed she was still at the Hotel Chelsea, but memories of her childhood, the pivotal night in front of the Stonewall Inn, the characters important in her life, and other significant life experiences remain as fresh as ever. Farrell and I chatted with her about her life experiences, from the life altering to the mundane.
One of the first things I noticed was a few pictures that were arranged neatly on a shelf beside her bed. One photograph depicted her and a young man standing arm in arm. “Who is that?” I asked. “That’s one of my children,” she responded. Farrell explained that she calls young people in the gay community that she befriends her “children.” “He’s a bastard,” DeLarverie added about the man in the photograph, chuckling. She continued, saying that she would meet younger gays in various bars and clubs throughout the city. “So you refer to young gay men that you meet as ‘your children?'” I asked. “Lesbians too,” she corrected.
DeLarverie was born in 1920 in New Orleans. Her father was a wealthy white man, and her mother was an African-American woman who worked for his family. I asked her whether she encountered difficulties growing up as a mixed race child in the segregated south. “Yes I did,” she said emphatically. Neighborhood kids used to harass her. It was something she didn’t want to revisit, because when I asked what the other kids said to her, a look of displeasure crossed her face said, “I don’t want to repeat.”
There were two bullies who were particularly odious, and she said that one day she became fed up with the bullying and fought back. “I knocked their heads together. They thought they were hardasses. They ended up one on top of the other!” In Bassett’s film, she recalls, “When you grew up like me, honey, you better be able to see all the way around you, because when the black kids weren’t chasing me, the white kids were chasing me, and if they weren’t, the dogs were chasing me, or the snakes were chasing me. Somebody was always chasing me – until I stopped running.” Her friends say that the bullying was so persistent that her father sent her away to school for a few years to study in a safer and less chaotic environment.
As a teenager she joined the Ringling Bros. Circus. “I rode the jumping horses,” she said, mimicking jumping motions with her hand. “Sidesaddle,” she added. In Bassett’s film she humorously commented on the discomfort encountered while riding sidesaddle. “Let me tell you. Learning how to ride a horse sidesaddle can be injurious to your butt… My butt took a beating!” A fall resulting in a few fractured bones ended her days as an equestrian.
She first realized that she was gay when she was around 18, she said. She recalled the day when the vague and nebulous feelings of being somehow different from everyone else finally crystallized into something definitive. “One day, I woke up and went, ‘oh!'” she said, her hand motioning to an imaginary light bulb above her head. I remarked that the late 1930s and early 1940s were probably not good times for gay people, that there was no such thing as a gay identity, and there probably wasn’t even a word for being gay.
She said, “Oh yes there was. The word was ‘queer.’ That’s what they called us.” The word was used as a slur.
During the 1950s and 1960s, DeLarverie was part of the legendary drag troupe, The Jewel Box Revue. She told me, “There were around 25 guys and me.” The men performed in women’s clothes, and she, the only female in the troupe, performed dressed as a man. In an era still marked by segregation, the Revue featured both black and white performers and attracted a mainstream mixed-race crowd, playing regular shows at the Apollo Theater and traveling the country to perform in major cities. Even after the group disbanded, it continued to live on in popular culture.
Broadway musical A Chorus Line contains a monologue about the Revue. DeLarverie’s time in the Jewel Box Revue inspired a documentary by filmmaker Michelle Parkerson, Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box, and her masculine presentation and attire in the Revue have been examined in college textbooks. DeLarverie mentioned a few times that she used to wear men’s clothes around New York City. “I was doing it, and then [other lesbians] started doing it!” she said.