In her performance piece “Gay Widow,” created during the height of the AIDS crisis as she watched many of her friends pass away from complications from AIDS, West Coast “fame-without-fortune” fag hag role model Dolores De Luce, or as she was known for many years in the queer scene of San Francisco and Venice Beach–Dolores De Luxe, raises her glass and toasts:
“To fags, hags, drags and performance junkies, art, love and drug addicts alike. Children lost in a diseased society who found one another, like ugly ducklings they glided on swan territory and for a brief moment got to shine. Here’s to the misfits, the queers, the outcasts, the freaks, my friends” (260).
Toasting our Filthy Dreams glasses back to De Luce, her rallying cry for those inhabitants of the Island Of Misfit Toys powerfully describes the individuals filling the pages of her moving and hysterical memoir, My Life, A Four Letter Word: Confessions Of A Counter Culture Diva.
To come clean, I had never heard of De Luce, or De Luxe, before glimpsing an event invitation for her book signing at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay And Lesbian Art. I read the summary of My Life, A Four Letter Word, including De Luce’s friendship with The Cockettes, Divine and her claim to fame as the winner of the $1.98 Beauty Contest (what an honor! I’m applauding as we speak.), and understood she was, as John Waters would say, the trash elder I never knew I had. Even her wonderful photograph on the front cover with her tight-fitting, born-to-be-cheap leopard print dress and red lipstick played to my love of bad taste. I was in love.
Admittedly, my knowledge of the queer West Coast scene has always been a tad limited. Of course, I know and adore those shimmering, sleazy and subversive glamazons of The Cockettes, but as a New York resident, I always felt closer to the glittery East Coast excess of the Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Thankfully, De Luce’s memoir not only takes readers on a bumpy ride through her anything-but-easy life but also maps out the freewheeling LSD-fueled queer performance scene of San Francisco and Venice Beach.
Opening with her Kathy Griffin and other television-influenced decision to write a memoir, De Luce describes, “This teenage girl trapped in a post-menopausal body is screaming to get out, so, move over sister hag, Kathy, who sold her memoir for two million; I have some priceless memories to write about too. After all, if Snooky from the Jersey Shore can write a book without having ever read one, my chances look pretty good” (4).
I hear you, Dee, and we’re so glad you took your chances because My Life, A Four Letter Word presents an important record of both De Luce’s personal journey, as well as the friendships, relationships and intimacies between a group of West Coast queers who constructed their own close-knit family.
My Life, A Four Letter Word begins with De Luce’s life from her traditional and conservative Italian American family in New Jersey. As a fellow Italian American girl, one of her most memorable moments for me was her black-adorned grandmother’s stunning yet unsurprisingly non-politically correct reaction to discovering 9-year old De Luce kissing Alan Din, a mixed race boy in school, stating frankly “If Dee ever marries that Chink at least I could get my shirts done for free” (30). Moving to the West Coast to pursue an acting career while dancing in topless bars, My Life, A Four Letter Word traces the birth of De Luce’s daughter Viva, her life as a single mother and her eventual discovery of a circle of queer friends from Divine to The Cockettes.
Featured in underground, indie films and hilarious performances such as her role as the Pumpkin (with, as Hunter S. Thompson would describe, a head full of acid) in a Cockette-filled production of Cinderella and a part of the White Trash Boom-Boom Girls in shows like White Trash, Little Italy, De Luce became the performer she always dreamed of as a girl in New Jersey, right in the center of queer San Francisco and Venice Beach. Not only did De Luce perform on stage and in films, but she also created hysterically sleazy and shocking spectacles, stunning the general public with her heroically trashy self.
Perhaps my favorite moment of De Luce’s queer career, besides winning Miss Alternative LA because toothless Waters superstar and “Egg Lady” Edith Massey thought she looked like “a mini-Divine,” was her entry to the “Queen of the Prom” contest. I’m going to quote De Luce at length because the entire chapter, entitled, Dild-O-Daze, makes me want to spontaneously combust:
“To enter the contest all one needed was a theme and an un-motorized float. For my shtick, I came up with A Leather Queen’s Wet Dream in the Castro, and convinced my roommates to play my slaves. Mark America build the float out of a shopping cart and a large trash can. Then he fashioned the head of a giant dildo with chicken wire and paper mache. He painted the whole thing glossy black to create a twelve-foot-long black shiny penis contraption on wheels. We hid in the bushes, oiling our flesh and getting ready, so as not to spoil the impact of our entrance. The boys wore black thongs and heavy metal paraphernalia and were harnessed to my chariot. I rode atop the magnificent dildo float wearing black underwear, torn black hose and S&M pumps.
The crowd split like the red sea as I rushed in like Pharaohs Chariot chasing he slaves in Egypt. Through the audience of mostly hippies and some lades who regularly attended the park’s band shell every Sunday for the usual free classical concert, my slave boys pulled me toward the stage. The impact and sight of me, riding that gigantic dildo while whipping my slaves into submission, caused a few little old ladies to faint. Hands down I became the undisputed winner and was crowned queen of the prom, adding another step in my climb to fame without fortune” (160-61).
What a way to make an entrance! Whoo, Mary, is it hot in here or is it just me?
As an unabashedly rabid fan of John Waters and all the Dreamland crew, I fanatically tore through De Luce’s touching chapter/ode to drag terrorist Divine, who De Luce describes as the mother she never had. As De Luce explains, “When Divine took the stage in her foot-high bouffant wig that sat inches above a human’s natural hairline and her painted cat eyes, I immediately recognized her as my long lost alien mother” (120). Who wouldn’t feel that way!
While I certainly don’t want to spoil all De Luce’s roller coaster story for you, dear Filthy Dreams readers, De Luce’s life has certainly not been all just California fun in the sun. Enduring an abusive boyfriend, a terrifyingly violent rape, the rejection of her New Jersey family after the birth of her mixed race daughter and the death of many of her friends due to complications from AIDS, De Luce’s life has been filled with as many tribulations as it has queer romps. However, De Luce’s unwavering strength and sense of humor continues to pull her through these extremely difficult situations. As with many of us who choose the path less traveled, life is not always simple and yet, her endurance and positivity remains a powerful takeaway from the memoir.
More than just underground celebrity worship and hilarious quips, De Luce’s My Life, A Four Letter Word reveals the importance of the genre of memoir in capturing queer histories that could easily be erased or forgotten. Like Justin Vivian Bond’s Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels and David Wojnarowicz’s Close To The Knives: A Memoir Of Disintegration, De Luce’s memoir allows her experiences, queer intimacies and friendships to endure.
Throughout her memoir, the friendship between De Luce and her queer friends, roommates and sometimes lovers beautifully shines through, depicting the relationships that many of us know but don’t always read in texts or see on De Luce’s beloved medium, TV.
As Ann Cvetkovich explains in An Archive Of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures, the memoir has emerged largely in queer culture as a means to preserve queer experiences, feelings and shared intimacies. Much of the queer memoirs came out around the height of the AIDS crisis when the need to archive queer experiences entered a life-or-death, remembered-or-forgotten state of emergency. As Cvetkovich states, “Within queer culture, memoir has been a particularly rich genre for documenting the AIDS crisis, providing gay men with a forum to articulate what it means to live in the presence of death and record their lives before it is too late” (210).
Like the lesbian caretaker memoirs analyzed by Cvetkovich, De Luce’s own memoir details the gut-wrenching last days of many in De Luce’s queer social circle during the 1980s and 1990s. Revealing the queer bonds between De Luce and her queer friends, My Life, A Four Letter Word portrays the love that extends for her friends through sickness and eventual death. As De Luce remembers, “As a woman living on the edge at the end of time, I felt more familiar with death than life as I buried the dead from the mid 80s into the mid 90s. Coming from a long line of Italian drama queens, I had to fiercely fight the impulse to throw myself onto the coffins. I knew better than to expect sympathy for being a middle-aged fag hag who was losing my lifelong companions and the people in the straight world I no inhabited just could never know the depth of my loss” (266).
By telling her story, De Luce bravely constructs a place for these intimacies, relationships and losses to be preserved, beyond the deaths of her friends and lovers, beyond even her life and ours.
The memoir certainly does not end with loss as De Luce finishes her tale with the revelation that her daughter Viva is now a singer and performer, a Liza to her Judy. Perhaps unbeknownst to De Luce, Viva is certainly not her only hag inheritor. After reading My Life, A Four Letter Word, I know that I and many of us other hags in black leather jackets owe a great debt to Dolores De Luce for her bravery, humor, performances and of course, her campy sense of trash.