This week, the sad news ricocheted around the New York performance, drag, art, and nightlife community that Brian Butterick, otherwise known as drag queen Hattie Hathaway (or sometimes, Loretta Nicks, plain old Loretta or Loretta B. DeMille) passed away. If you, dearest reader, don’t recognize Butterick’s name immediately, just assume that everything you love about contemporary drag culture or romanticize about the bygone East Village art and nightlife of the 1970s and 1980s can be directly traced to Butterick. From working the door at the notoriously snooty Mudd Club to acting as creative director at The Pyramid Club’s freewheeling height to co-founding Wigstock and co-producing Night of 1000 Stevies to appearing in some of David Wojnarowicz’s most iconic artworks to performing with the Blacklips Performance Cult to assisting Rose Wood in some of her most notorious performances at The Box, Butterick was a preeminent filth elder for anyone interested in experimental art and performance.
Obviously, for someone with this storied of a life, Butterick deserves much more than this paltry tribute on Filthy Dreams (and many more tributes on other arts-related sites *side eye*), but this is the least I can do to express his importance to a younger generation like me who came to know Butterick through his undeniable influence. I’ll admit, though I met Butterick and saw him perform, I certainly didn’t know him well as many others did. However, he leaves a significant legacy that exemplifies a seemingly distant era of New York’s creative landscape when poets could also be drag queens, as well as no wave musicians, bartenders, producers and creative directors, rather than picking your brand and sticking to it as artists tend to do today.
I saw Butterick’s figure before I even knew his name, strolling through the sleaze of old sordid Times Square and cruising through the piers, all while donning a mask of Arthur Rimbaud in David Wojnarowicz’s series Arthur Rimbaud in New York. A flaneur without a face, Butterick’s thin figure, echoing Wojnarowicz’s own, traced a trajectory through the desolate and destroyed terrain of nearly bankrupt late 1970s New York.
Butterick’s appearance in Wojnarowicz’s artwork isn’t limited to just the Rimbaud series, however. As Cynthia Carr explains in her biography of Wojnarowicz Fire In The Belly, “He’d started a new project–portraits of men. This went on for months, with Brian his most frequent subject: Brian blindfolded. Brian in a bow tie. Brian at the barbershop. Brian at home. Brian on the sand, against a wall, in a car, lying on grass, shooting up. Brian as St. Sebastian at the pier, standing in what used to be an office or a cubicle. And of course, Brian as Rimbaud. Brian remembers always complaining, ‘I don’t wanna,’ Because he worked nights and David was constantly after him to ‘get up, get up.’” Some of these images can be found embedded in Wojnarowicz’s well-known works, including the scene of Butterick as St. Sebastian in the Wardline Pier in the lower righthand corner of Wojnarowicz’s Fuck You Faggot Fucker.
While I hesitate to immediately combine Butterick’s legacy with Wojnarowicz’s now heavily mythologized image in the art world (though it is how I was introduced to Butterick), it is undeniable that the two former lovers, friends and collaborators had a special connection. Butterick, who was born in the Bronx, and Wojnarowicz met at a poetry reading at the Prospect Park band shell in the early 1970s and later became lovers. Much of their romance isn’t covered in Wojnarowicz’s journals. According to Cynthia Carr, “David mentioned none of this in the journal–not because Brian meant so little to him but because he meant so much. This was a pattern that would continue for the rest of David’s life.” Brian also remembered their relationship fondly as he reflected to Michael Musto in Paper in 2016: “I’ve had three important relationships, and I think it’s more than anyone should have. One of them was [artist] David Wojnarowicz, so I have a pretty good track record. The fact that they weren’t “till death do us part”–even David–doesn’t make the relationships any less valuable. They were genius, beautiful people–and I’m difficult too.”
Butterick also collaborated with Wojnarowicz in their band 3 Teens Kill 4 with Julie Hair, Jesse Hultberg and Doug Bressler. A mélange of tape recorded sounds, spoken word and no wave experimentation with songs like “Tell Me Something Good,” “Crime Drama,” “Hunger,” and “Hut/Bean Song,” 3 Teens Kill 4 are, like most of the bands from that period, just on the edge of unlistenable. Sure, they’re more palatable and danceable than Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, but still a delicious way to alienate relatives. In 2011, 3 Teens Kill 4 reunited for the first time in years for a performance In Peace & War: 3 Teens Kill 4 as a part of the HOWL Festival, and more recently played at the Whitney Museum in conjunction with their Wojnarowicz retrospective History Keeps Me Awake At Night.
One of the many stages 3 Teens Kill 4 graced was Danceteria, where Butterick and Wojnarowicz both worked at one time, including fatefully the night it was raided. While Wojnarowicz, perhaps in the art world’s attempt to make his work that of a “serious” artist, is rarely thought of in terms of nightlife, Butterick’s life and career is more intertwined with the queer world-making formed within clubs. In a fascinating interview with Michael Musto, Butterick laid out some of his own nightlife history. Beginning with his time as a late-night short order cook at the Empire Diner, he recalls: “Then I was a busboy at Danceteria [a rock dance club at 37th Street], which was really, really long shifts from eight or nine until eight or nine in the morning. They had no liquor license and they advertised in the New York Times! Whatever you can do illegal, they did it. They were all such mobsters. They thought they could get away with it. We all went to jail. By the time they moved it to 21st Street, it was a different branch of the family. Meanwhile, the Mudd Club [a new wavey hangout in Tribeca] was open and Richard Boch was working at the door. After Danceteria closed, I worked at an after hours club called Berlin, which opened at three in the morning. Iolo Carew worked at Berlin and got me the job at Mudd, from 1980-’81.”
Sick to death of the Mudd Club, Butterick eventually stomped over to the Pyramid Club and asked for a job, working security for a few months before becoming the creative director, booking rock performances as well as performance art and drag shows. As Butterick described in Red Bull Academy’s oral history of Pyramid, “It was everything I always wanted to do. It was a gay-run club that adored women. It was a mixture of loud rock and roll, and dancing and performance art. And drag queens.”
Of course, the drag at Pyramid, from Lady Bunny to Tabboo! to Lypsinka and Ethyl Eichelberger, revolutionized the form. It wasn’t just about passing as a glamazon or a famed first name-only icon like Cher, Judy or Liza. The Pyramid’s form of drag was closer to performance art than a beauty competition. As Butterick wrote in the catalogue of Secrets of the Great Pyramid: The Pyramid Cocktail Lounge as Cultural Laboratory, “And although we embraced parody wildly because we always loved a good ‘send-up,’ the drag we did was deconstructive. More like gender-fuck at first. Ripped fishnets with hairy legs, panty hose beneath Wall Street suits. Women in top hats and tuxedos. Blurring the lines of gender…beginning to erase the binary world…in doing so, we came to realize (more through instinct than intent) you had to own your own gender, sexual preference or role. And this was the last great revolution of the Twentieth Century. The beginning of what we now call Queer, though it didn’t have a name then. All of this was played out against the horrifying backdrop of the AIDS crisis, and yet it was a time of great joy and revelry. Around this time, I wrote this line in my journal: ‘Flow’r furious before the frost!’ That is exactly what we were doing then. And you had better believe they are doing it now.”
And Butterick was no different developing the drag persona Hattie Hathaway, a combination of his grandmother’s name and Jane Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies, known for her cutting wit, intelligence and one hell of a Stevie Nicks lip-sync. With their angular features, avant-garde performance style and humor, I always saw a connection between Hattie and Ethyl Eichelberger, which was solidified by a prior exhibition When Jackie Met Ethyl at Howl Gallery. The exhibition included a catalogue essay by Butterick on Eichelberger entitled “Pictures of Ethyl in my Head,” describing Ethyl as “my sister, my mentor, my friend…” Significantly, both Butterick and Eichelberger made their way uptown to Broadway in different productions of The Threepenny Opera. “Ethyl appeared in Broadway’s The Threepenny Opera in 1989 with Sting. I appeared in Threepenny with Alan Cumming in 2006. We are indeed birds of a feather…” Butterick wrote.
The Pyramid Club, like many nightlife spaces, was also a refuge for people during the HIV/AIDS pandemic that was decimating the arts and queer community of New York during the period. “I remember this kid named Rusty,” Butterick reflected for the Red Bull Academy, “I don’t think I ever knew his real name, coming up to me with KS (Kaposi’s Sarcoma) lesions all over his body and asking if he could dance on the bar in his underwear, and I let him. I thought it was an amazing, wonderful thing. At that point AIDS was fatal and the guy was a very handsome lad and the fact that he had these lesions were like a badge of honor, like the Purple Heart. I felt he should be able to express himself that way.” Later in the 90s, Butterick returned to the Pyramid to start “Fag Bar, the ACT UP official bar, for about year there.”
Not only connected to Pyramid during its heyday, Butterick also became co-producer of Jackie 60, the storied Tuesday night party in the Meatpacking District. As he reflected to Musto: “Jackie was not only proudly keeping the torch lit from anything we’d ever done, but there was such a beautiful cross section of people, and don’t forget the ’90s is when everything started to get compartmentalized — “this is a gay club, black club, tranny cub, goth club, club for people with short hair, long hair….”. We never did that at Jackie. It was very old school that way.”
In more recent years as the Meatpacking District turned into a playground for basics, overpriced cocktails and luxury shopping, Butterick carried on its ethos, continuing to perform as Hattie, including at the Night of 1000 Stevies (Hattie was slated to perform at the upcoming New Orleans Night of 1000 Stevies), with 3 Teens Kill 4, and curating shows and serving on the board of HOWL Gallery. As Butterick wrote about Eichelberger, “It is only by reaching out that we live forever.” I couldn’t say it better myself so as a remembrance, enjoy these videos of Brian/Hattie: