Friday, April 3, 2009

Behind the Sun: Queen Kate, approximately

From the Pacific Sun April 3, 2009

'Pacific Sun' unveils hidden talents of Armistead Maupin, drag queens...

by Jason Walsh

35 years ago

From the Sun vaults, April 4 - 10, 1974

"Plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she..."—Lou Reed, early '70s

The Pacific Sun was taking a walk on the wild side 35 years ago this week.

Not content with bestowing quality alternative journalism to only the north side of the Golden Gate, the Pacific Sun had spent the early months of 1974 paving media inroads down Doyle Drive and into the heart of the Castro with its ballyhooed "Pacific Sun San Francisco edition." A mere 10 years after honing its typesetting techniques through stories about Stinson fishing derbies and grisly Highway 1 auto carnage, the Sun was now landing big-city interviews with Martin Scorsese, partying with Divine and Johnny Thunders and wriggling onto the press list of the North Beach Playboy Club.

And, like any wide-eyed suburban catechumen on the prowl for authentic cultural modes of Shaky Town, there was only one place for a Marin publication to turn.

Drag queen parties.

And there was only one Pacific Sun cub reporter properly equipped to investigate such events.

Armistead Maupin.

The Sun's newest contributor was a 30-year-old North Carolinian (and one-time staffer for Jesse Helms) who'd arrived in San Francisco three years prior with the dream of becoming a writer. Brandishing a fondness for the perverse and a willingness to work on the cheap, the future best-selling author was a perfect fit to assist the Sun with its latest Barbary Coast adventure. In just his second assignment for the paper, the former conservative (who, at this time, was only taking a wary peek out of "the closet") found himself in the jam-packed California Hall surrounded by hundreds of Polk Gulch queens.

"Good evening, I'm Kate Marlowe, and this is my first ball of the season, so get in there and dance your tits off, darlings...ooooohhwee!" was the opening quote from the Maupin's April 1974 story about a soiree hosted by Union Street hairdresser Kenneth Marlowe. Kenneth was throwing the Polk Street fete for 800 of his closest friends (at $5 head) to fund the surgical procedure that would once and for all transform him into the XX-chromosomed "Katherine," just as nature had intended.

"Tonight is the ball to end balls," quipped Maupin.

Katherine, decked out in Max Factor and a black-sequined pantsuit, welcomed the reporter gregariously.

"Ohhh! I just greeted a couple of queens at the door who took one look at this crowd and said they thought this was supposed to be a gay party," she said, referring to the many pleated-slacks clad straights in the room. "Well, sweetie, I just told them—look bitches..."

Kenneth/Katherine was an ex-street hustler, gay-bordello madam and Bible-school dropout with a prurient, if predictable, knack for double entendre. ("No wonder I'm changing my sex," she howled while struggling to adjust a microphone, "I can't screw this for nuthin'!") She was hoping Maupin's Sun piece would help spread the word about her quest for a new gender identity. "I'm really tripping on the turnout for this," Marlowe purred excitedly. "I mean can you buhleeeeve it?"

The entertainment highlight of the evening was an appearance by legendary burlesque fan-dancer Sally Rand. "The room goes black, a blue spotlight hits the stage and Her Sexcellency glides into view," described Maupin. "At first she is swathed in the enormous pink fans, then the incredible legs and breasts emerge."

Rand was celebrating her 70th birthday that evening. "That's the nice thing about show business," the silent-screen and stage star said, after receiving a bouquet. "You get the flowers before you're dead."

Then a streaker bounded across the stage and everyone broke for cake.

A few heterosexual couples headed for the exits.

"You know what's wrong with the straight world?" Marlowe queried Maupin. "They don't know how to have a good time. They need me to show them. They need me... [her attention turns to a handsome young man strutting past] uh, would you like to dance?"

According to single-named author Nelson, who recounted the life of Marlowe in his 2000 book, Call Me Kate: The Story of Katherine Marlowe, a Transsexual, Kenneth eventually did realize his dream—becoming Katherine Marlowe in gender, as well as attitude, sometime in 1979.

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