I had always tried onstage to eliminate any effeminate mannerisms, and consequently, came across as lively as the animatronic Abe Lincoln at Disneyland. Playing a female role gave me a freedom of expression I had never known. What a relief when I first saw myself in the mirror in full drag. I had small features, was only 5-foot-7 and was blessed with great legs. Maybe not as beautiful as Garbo, but I could realistically look like the female character I had written for myself.
The plan was to present the play in the dorm lounge for our friends on a Sunday afternoon. That relatively unambitious dream was fated not to be. I knew a fellow, Scott Blakeman, who organized a weekend film series called “Midnight Madness” in the student union auditorium. He had lost the rights to the film they were showing the following week.
“How about doing your play for two nights on a real stage?” he suggested. He could give us what they would have paid as a film rental fee. We would have a budget. We would have wigs. A star would be born.
A few days before the performance, the campus paper, The Daily Northwestern, asked to interview me. La publicité! I had never been interviewed before. A young journalism major met me in the cafeteria. He seemed painfully shy and hardly asked a single question. With an instinctive flair for the provocative quote, I began describing the show in the most outrageous terms. The young man remained poker-faced.
Opening night was upon us. President Gerald R. Ford’s son Jack was visiting the campus that day. I picked up a copy of The Daily Northwestern. Poor Jack Ford didn’t even make the front page. No. Half of the page was devoted to an enormous photo of me in full drag accompanying the headline “Degeneracy Reigns!” All of my crazy, lurid quotes were laid out like coffins in a mortuary showroom. I panicked. Would every homophobic jock show up to heckle us? Would we be pelted with tomatoes?
The auditorium was jam-packed. Ed and I were strapped into a flaming-red sequined twin costume with matching red curly wigs and platform shoes. When the curtain opened and the student audience got its first glimpse of us, there was a deafening whoop of laughter and applause. It didn’t smack of ridicule but delight.
Despite the pounding of my heart, for the first time onstage, I felt at ease. Playing a female character with authenticity, and evoking iconic actresses from the golden age of Hollywood, proved to be my theatrical persona. Drag for me was not an expression of outrage or even satire but came from a place of profound love and respect, not only for the great actresses of the past but also for the strength and beauty of the women in my family.
In the 1930s Warner Bros. movie of my life, there would now be an extended montage covering the next 40 years. It would include the marquees of the many plays I’ve written and starred in, nearly all as the leading lady, perhaps ending with my Tony nomination for best play for “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.”
In the last four years, I’ve tried my hand at cabaret performance, too. It wasn’t a sudden decision; opportunities presented themselves, and I’ve ridden the wave with great enthusiasm. Singing in cabaret, without a fictional role to play, I can be unguarded and vulnerable and able to share a lifetime of anecdotes. I’ve even been thinking about doing my act out of drag. It seems like Salome’s last veil.
I’ve approached some venues to see what they think. So far they’d prefer me to be in drag. They’re worried that my audience might stay away otherwise. It would be a bold move for me to be dressed as a man. Now, isn’t that a kooky twist?