Queen Sabrina, Flawless Mother
America's majestic drag queen mother has spent her life mentoring her daughters and granddaughters.
Still life from the Flawless Sabrina Archive, 2015. All photos by Rachel Stern for VICE
Towards the end of her* X-rated 1968 documentary The Queen, Flawless Mother Sabrina takes the stage at New York City's Town Hall. Not-quite-thirty (but already America's doyenne of drag), she wears the gown, make-up, and breasts of a much older woman. The room is filthy with fame, both on stage and at the judging table: Andy Warhol, International Chrysis, Terry Southern, Jerry Lieber, Mario Montez, Crystal LaBeija, George Plimpton. They're gathered for the finale of the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, the cross-country drag pageant that Flawless started in 1958, when she was a nineteen-year-old psych major at UPenn. Tonight, all eyes are on her.
"There can only be one queen," Sabrina intones, quieting the function.
She's not in the competition; there are other girls vying for the title. One even wins. But Sabrina's right; there can be only one queen.
Historical significance is like pop stardom: some folks are one-hit wonders, their fame just a momentary blip on their larger journey toward becoming something you Google while stoned at 1 AM. Mitt Romney, say.
A precious few are hit machines, unforgettables like Ben Franklin, who invented everything and farted everywhere.
And then there are those poor "musician's musicians," who are destined to dwell in oxymoronic obscurity: thanked in all the liner notes, inspiring all the greats, standing just to the left of every spotlight, providing a lick on this track or a verse on that, but always "underappreciated" and "ahead of their time." This is the liminal world of the unsung superstar, the mantle of near-fame that Flawless Mother Sabrina wears like a second-hand mink.
Rarely do these people get recognized, and almost never while they're alive. To be honest, I'd heard Flawless's name bandied about for years, but I never really knew who she was. So when I received an email last fall from performance art star Zackary Drucker announcing a funding campaign for the Flawless Sabrina Archive, my first thought was "Shit, she's dead," followed by "Does she really need an archive?"
I quickly discovered two things. First, that Flawless was alive and kicking it on 72nd Street, right off Central Park, where she'd been since the late sixties. And second, that she wended through the last fifty years of American history like a queer Forrest Gump, touching Edie Sedgwick and William Burroughs, Bobby Kennedy and Jackie O., L.A. in the 70s, Paris in the 80s, and New York always and forever. It wasn't she who needed the archive, I realized, but rather, we who needed an archive devoted to her: the poor Jewish kid from "coal dust South Philly" whose legacy was as important as it was invisible.
To begin to understand Sabrina's place in history, I called Joe Jeffreys, professor at NYU, drag historian and the creator of Drag Show Video Verite, a project that documents, preserves, and shares historical drag footage.
Jeffreys first noticed Flawless in a blink-and-you've-missed-it cameo in John Waters' cult classic Pink Flamingos. As Divine licks her way through the house of her nemesis, a poster for The Queen hangs on the wall behind her. Jeffreys, in college at the time, hunted down a VHS copy and "was blown away by this unexpectedly beautiful film with this incredible narrative."
The documentary followed the contestants of the 1967 Nationals, which were the annual culmination of the more than 50 smaller pageants that Flawless put on every year. In order to make it, she approached Andy Warhol, who had attended a few of her events in the past. He agreed to be one of the judges, connected her with some financiers who put up $10,000 in seed money, and brought on Hollywood talent like producers Lewis Allen (Lord of the Flies & Farenheit 451) and Sy Litvinoff (A Clockwork Orange & The Man Who Fell to Earth). The film took over a year to make and edit, during which time Flawless left Philadelphia for New York City, where she's remained ever since.
In 2008, Jeffreys received a grant from The Jerome Foundation to study some outtakes from The Queen that had been unearthed at the University of Texas. There, he discovered a reel taken at the after party, in which luminaries like Erica Jong can be seen dancing with the queens. Midway through, a knock on the door revealed a passel of NYC's finest intent on raiding the party (this was pre-Stonewall, after all), until a smiling pixie appeared from the crowd, talked them down, and slammed the door behind them.
"That," Jeffreys grinned like a cat stealing cream, "was Edie Sedgwick," the Warhol superstar.
Despite its X-rating, The Queen and its stars made a splash at Cannes, and Renata Adler described it as "extraordinary" in her review in the New York Times. But it was pilloried for its content—not just the queens, who spoke frankly about marriage, gender identity, and coming out, but smaller moments that are almost invisible to the modern viewer: the mumbled "fuck" in the background of an argument, the peck on the cheek between the white winner and the black runner-up. In an era before Miss America was integrated, Flawless's pageants were open to all.
In fact, the Nationals were unprecedented in many ways. "There'd always been drag mock weddings and local pageants," Jeffreys said, "but Flawless made a circuit of it, which still exists today" in the form of Miss Gay America and other nationwide competitions. Crystal Labeija, a runner-up in The Queen, would go on to be the first to invoke the "House of" language that is now common parlance in the ballroom scene. And while traveling drag shows like The Jewel Box Revue had been popular in America since at least the turn of the century, most were put on for slumming straights, often in venues controlled by the mob. Flawless's events were for queers, by queers. If a local city had a charity devoted to what we would today call transgender issues—usually some kind of small-scale, communal pot for emergency housing or medical needs—Flawless would donate a portion of her proceeds. In this way, the Nationals helped create the very community that supported it. At their height, it's estimated that the Nationals employed nearly 100 people around the country, making Flawless quite possibly the biggest LGBT employer of the 1960s.
Sadly, Jeffreys said, a confluence of factors made The Queen disappear from our consciousness: neither Flawless nor Frank Simon, the director, went on to make another film, meaning there's no body of work for film buffs to fit this into. Disputes over the rights kept it from being widely available commercially, and its rating kept it out of most libraries (including, for many decades, the New York Public Library). And while the film was, for most of the world, their introduction to Flawless and The Nationals, for Flawless herself, The Queen marked the end of her career as a drag pageant organizer.
When I asked Jeffreys why, he scribbled a Manhattan phone number on a piece of paper. "Ask Flawless," he told me.
Sitting across from me in a mustard yellow blazer with a Clinton campaign button on the shoulder (Hillary, not Bill), Flawless served up history as one hot dish.
"Bobby Kennedy was what you'd call a tranny-chaser," she shook her head and thought about it for a second, "or.... Whatever." With a flick of one delicate, wrinkled wrist, she dismissed the word 'tranny' and all the debates around it. Flawless doesn't stand on ceremony, and isn't gender, as a social construction, just a lot of ceremony – primp and circumstance, if you will? She's not particularly fussed about pronouns or names, either, reflecting her long history in a world where the boundaries between gay, drag, and trans were not as well demarcated as they are today. When I asked if she had a pronoun or name preference for the purposes of this article, she told me "No—at your pleasure."
It was Kennedy who, in 1967, secured one of the snazziest venues the Nationals had ever visited: The Ritz Carlton in Boston. It was a disaster.
"The first two rows were all these fancy kids here to see these monkeys dressed in dresses," Flawless harrumphed. "I knew the bloom was off the rose."
That's when she decided to make The Queen and get out of the business, she told me. For a hot second she almost went to Broadway. David Merrick, the producer of Hello, Dolly!, was looking to shake up the show, and for a while, he considered an all-drag cast with Flawless in the lead. Among the things destined for the Flawless Sabrina Archive is a telegram from Jackie Kennedy telling her not to give up hope, that she, Jackie, was still pulling for Merrick to cast Flawless. Instead, Merrick went with Pearl Bailey, who won a special Tony for the role in 1968. Flawless went to Hollywood.
As we spoke, the front door to Flawless's apartment swung open and two of her legendary granddaughters walked in bearing groceries: artist Zackary Drucker and writer Diana Tourjee, the minds behind the Flawless Sabrina Archive. After some cooing, kissing, and making of tea, they joined Flawless behind the big wooden desk that dominated her impressively cramped living room, where every surface was covered in art and ephemera. In the room's dim close quarters, their hands and words twined around each other: Drucker giving Flawless tea, Flawless asking Tourjee to furnish this name or that date. Together, like the three fates, they spun Flawless's life story for me.
As the sixties cascaded to a close, the same wave of change that brought the brat pack to her Boston pageant sent Flawless to L.A. "I became an expert on homosexuality for the film industry," she told me, "because every homosexual in the world seemed to call me three times a day."
Tourjee, who is writing Flawless's biography, helped list the films she worked on: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Myra Breckenridge, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Anderson Tapes (in which she even had a small role), and Dog Day Afternoon. Some directors wanted to make sure they got the gay details right; others wanted help avoiding any whiff of faggotry. Regardless of what they wanted, Flawless said she did the same thing.
"Nothing," she laughed. "As a point of fact, I was instructed by my agent to find myself a place where the light was in their eyes and keep my mouth shut."
After five years of bicoastal living, she left the consultation business to team up with her good friend Rona Jaffe, who had dedicated her 1969 novel The Fame Game to Flawless. Together, they worked on "various things," like selling the film rights to the musical Hair. By this point, the 70s were in full swing and Flawless found herself at the intersection of two of its biggest trends: disco and skin.
"I produced a porn," she recalled, for which her half-brother Gregg Diamond wrote and produced a song called "More, More, More." Breathy and erotic, the song hit #4 on the 1976 Billboard Top 100. Because her brother was nervous that the porn connection might tank the song, Flawless set about learning how to sell music rights separately from film. This brought her back to Cannes, where she had connections, and eventually landed her on the doorstep of the French diplomat, novelist, and pederast, Roger Peyrefitte, who was looking for help turning his boyfriend's boyfriend into a pop star. And so Flawless became Peyrefitte's amanuensis, his gay Girl Friday.
Peyrefitte was so rich that when Flawless worried about losing her apartment in New York, he simply bought her building.
"I was some hick from South Philly," Flawless shook her head, still wondering over it all. "I qualified really well for being a slum bunny, but this was all new for me."
Peyrefitte jetted her around the world (forty-six countries in ten years, by her estimate), but he didn't pay particularly well, and after decades of being her own boss, working for someone else chaffed. "He collected weird people and put them in strange situations" as a kind of entertainment, walking a line perhaps a little too close to the gawking that had compelled Flawless to leave pageants behind. By the late 1980's, she was ready to return to the States, a decision cemented by meeting the love of her life, the artist Curtis Carman, who was working at the time in the catering department of the Hyatt Hotel.
But Flawless returned to a changed New York. Pleasure was out and AIDS was in. "My peer group was dying like flies," she mumbled, her voice pitched barely above a whisper. "So much genius evaporating. Awful. And then wondering why I wasn't dead..."
For a moment, Flawless seemed to fall back into the past. Half closed, her eyes moved rapidly, as though watching a spectral parade slip by. She leaned slightly to the left, her thin, bird-like body resting against Drucker's shoulder, unintentionally mimicking a photo on the wall behind them, in which Drucker and Flawless cuddled while in showgirl regalia. The two are a matched set; sisters separated by some fifty years. They've been twinsies ever since Drucker moved to New York to study art in 2000. In the years since, they've collaborated on many projects together, including She Gone Rogue, a film that was in the 2012 Whitney Biennial.
One hand on Drucker's shoulder, Flawless inhaled deeply and put her game face back on. "The decision had to be made whether I was going to go with the elders or the kids," she told me. Amidst all the doom and gloom of queer New York at the time, one group seemed determined to maintain the mantle of extravagance in the face of mounting tragedy: club kids.
"Nightlife in New York at that moment was just wonderful," Flawless grinned, recalling weeks spent creating costumes for esoteric theme parties at Mother and Crisco Disco. This was the era of Party Monster and monster clubs, Manhattan's last gasp as the nightlife center of America before it all got priced out and moved to Brooklyn.
It was at one of these parties—a Susanne Bartsch event at the midtown nightclub Bentley's—that Flawless met Ceyenne Doroshow. Now a public speaker, author, and advocate for homeless youth, Doroshow was a teen living in Central Park at the time. How she'd slipped past the velvet rope and into the party, she couldn't remember. But she'll never forget Flawless.
"I had no idea who she was, but I guess she could see I was down," Doroshow told me. Flawless took Doroshow upstate to stay with Flawless's mother for a while, to get some TLC while they developed a plan for Doroshow to take control of her life.
"When I tell people I've had a couple of parents, I really mean it," Doroshow said to me over the phone. "Without Flawless's guidance, I would have been one of the fallen." Doroshow got a job, finished her education, and now works for the largest food bank in New York City and as a public speaker and activist for trans issues and homelessness.
But the first time Doroshow was invited to address an out-of-state conference, she realized something: her birth name had so much baggage connected to it, she wanted to leave it behind. So she called Flawless.
"I said 'Ma, I want to know if I can use your name. I want to be Ceyenne Doroshow.'" (Doroshow is Flawless's birth name.)
The "Mother" moniker that Flawless had taken on as a joke in the 50s—a way to make it clear that she wasn't in competition with the girls in the pageants—had now become her true identity. Doroshow would be the first of many daughters and granddaughters that Flawless would mentor over the decades.
When I recounted this story to Flawless, she downplayed her part, insisting that if anything, Doroshow had rescued her by keeping her young and connected to the world. But Drucker, still seated next to Flawless, fixed me with a gimlet eye. "Flawless is the single most influential person in my development as an artist and a human," she said point blank. Beside her, Tourjee nodded.
Creating the Flawless Sabrina Archive, they told me, was their way of saying thank you to someone who helped so many queer young people. It was also Drucker's way of protecting Flawless, of mothering her own mother when disaster struck in the form of an eviction letter sent last summer. Flawless' former boss Peyrefitte had died years before, and ownership of the property had reverted to a Swiss bank that wanted to bounce Flawless and up the rent (a shockingly common situation facing queer elders in this country today).
Tapping a long, thin More brand cigarette against the desk in front of her, Tourjee couldn't help but sigh in frustration as she recounted the story.
"They were trying to frame this like she was a hoarder," Tourjee's cigarette traced a dismissive semi-circle in the air, encompassing the entire room and its possessions in one louche gesture. Thanks to a pro-bono lawyer from the New York Legal Assistance Group, the eviction proceedings never manifested, but they catalyzed the idea to create a protected repository devoted to Flawless's life.
What exactly that means, they're still working out. The online campaign was fully funded and raised over $20,000, but that's far less than would be necessary to hire an archivist and purchase or rent a permanent home. For now, they have a storage space in Manhattan, and Tourjee is cataloging Flawless's belongings as they move them into it. This includes everything from the treatment for a proposed talk show featuring Flawless, John Waters, and Divine, to a set of tarot cards given to Flawless by her ex-boyfriend Bill (AKA William Burroughs). The more time you spend looking at Flawless's history, the more connections you find; the more times she's in that spot right next to the center of it all.
But cataloging this stuff for posterity's sake, or as a kind of memorial to Flawless, is the last thing Drucker and Tourjee want. "We're not interested in establishing this archive in and of itself," Tourjee told me, "We're interested in how it is useful to people today." They hope to find a way to bring the Archive around the country before giving them a permanent home.
For her part, Flawless seems somewhat embarrassed by all the attention. "If it's something that's useful to people, and there's a way for it to generate income for kids to travel or to give artists a place to work..." she trailed off and shrugged. Not for me—that was the clear message. But if it could help someone else, if it could continue to give to the community she had nurtured and nourished—fuck, the community she had created—she'd go along.
"That's Flawless," Drucker smiled with the air of someone apologizing for a beloved older relative. "She's really a producer. And producers are not the visible people, they're the people who make things happen."
And what is history but a record of things that happened, one that, in this case, has been set a little too straight?
In researching this story, I ran into an endless number of dead-ends: records not kept, lives not valued, stories that died with the people who lived them. And every time, all I could think was: If only there was someone, somewhere, who had saved this stuff.
The Flawless Sabrina Archive won't patch all of the holes, but in preserving one gorgeous glittery thread of history, it suggests all the others that we've lost, or just haven't found yet. This last century has defined what it means to be gay or trans; a massive social upheaval that happened over the course of a single human lifetime. Let's not allow the queers who changed history to sink back into the very erasure they rescued us from.
*Author's note: I've chosen to use female pronouns and the name Flawless Mother Sabrina throughout this piece. The people I spoke to and interviews I read with Flawless varied widely in how they referred to her, and she herself was agnostic on the matter. Perhaps the best explanation for this was given to me by her biographer, Diana Tourjee, who said: "People refer to Flawless by the way in which they identify with her."
Follow Hugh Ryan on Twitter.