Back in the Day, Lesbian Drag Kings Worked for the Mafia

Taking a look back at a forgotten chapter of queer history with novelist Lisa Davis.

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Jul 5 2015, 5:52am

Archival photographs courtesy of Lisa Davis's website

At a café in lower Chelsea, author and historian Lisa Davis leaned across the table to pass 40-year-old lesbian gossip to me. "Corinne wanted to take everything from Lee," she said. "So Lee called the Mafia. They sent Big George to Long Island, and that was the end of the problem. Corinne immediately backed down, Big George went home, and Lee got half the business."

Davis paused for a moment to enjoy my shock. "Oh yes," she said. "The Mafia was very equitable!"

Although it might sound surprising to hear about out lesbians working with and for the mob, there was a time in New York City when all the gay clubs were Mafia-run. Davis is an expert on those years, and the author of Under the Mink, a mystery set in the world of the lesbians and drag kings working in the mob-run nightclubs that dominated the Greenwich Village gay scene in the 30s and 40s. Davis, as a young lesbian academic in New York in the 60s, befriended many of these women and captured their stories in her novel.

The book, like the world it describes, is an artifact of a once vibrant culture that's slowly dissolving into the mainstream. It was originally published in 2001 by Alyson Books, the storied LGBT publisher that's fallen on hard times. Thanks to IntoPrint Publishing, a company that helps get out-of-print books back into circulation, the book is once again available on Amazon. Under the Mink is not only a fun, engaging mystery, but it also offers a window into a largely unknown community of lesbians. The book is meticulously researched, drawing not only on interviews with the women involved, but on original research Davis also undertook.

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VICE sat down with Davis to talk about the 30s, the Mafia, and the glamorous drag king world her novel explores.

VICE: Very little of the world in this book is memorialized or remembered today. You're clearly not old enough to have lived it, unless you have a great moisturizing routine. So how did you learn about it?
Lisa Davis: I knew a woman named Gayle Krumpkin, alias "Gayle Williams" when she played the 181 Club—once upon a time, the biggest drag show in town. This was in the 60s, '64 or something? She and her friends had all worked in the bars. You would think that for gay girls, working for the Mafia would be some kind of scourge, but it was the greatest thing that ever happened to them. If they got together, that's all they talked about! And they all had photo albums. I took copious notes.

Being gay—dressing up in your little trousers and suit—you could easily get yourself murdered. The Mafia protected them.

Tell me about the bars.
These clubs began to open up in the late 30s. 1939 was the New York World's Fair. Mayor LaGuardia was always a puritan, but he really went into clean-up mode then. He pushed a lot of things out of Times Square. To where? The Village! Where the police could have cared less.

The clubs run by the Mafia were very elegant. Movie stars went to them. The gay bars were dives. Most of the bars in the Village were lesbian, while the boys were uptown under the 3rd Avenue "el," the elevated train. The girls were downtown on 3rd Street, under the 6th Avenue el. The Village belonged to the gay girls, because the suffragettes had been there first, and they were all queer as pink plates.

Gail Williams, a performer at Club 181

What was it like for these women, working for the mob?
Buddy Kent [another drag king of the era] said the Mafia was very good to the gay girls. They were coming out of the Depression, they had nothing, and being gay—dressing up in your little trousers and suit—you could easily get yourself murdered. The Mafia protected them.

The girls mostly worked as wait staff, but sometimes they were stars, like Blackie Dennis, who was a crooner. She was a big number. She also had a strip act, which she did at Jimmy Kelly's and other places. But most of them were waiters, some were drag kings, and some performed as strippers or worked as prostitutes. That was one reason the Mafia liked the girls: They could be moved over into prostitution. But the girls didn't seem to mind that either! I think because there was so much money in it.

So what happened? Why did the bars close?
The attacks on the Mafia during the 50s basically decimated them, so many of these clubs closed. What's his name who wrote the book about the Mafia, [Peter] Maas? He said they're just like the Democrats or the Republicans. But they [the government] had to get rid of the Mafia because they were making too much money and they couldn't control them. Oh, and television. Television put them out of business. C'est la vie.

Buddy Kent, left, and an acquaintance

What happened to the women?
Well, Gayle moved to "Fla"—that's Florida. To die, basically. Slowly but gracefully. But she survived because people she had known 50 years before in the clubs came to live with her in her trailer, because they had no other place to live. And so once again, they were all together. Toni the Stripper, Sully Sullivan—who was not a beautiful girl, one of those tough butch types. There they all were: Toni, and Sully, and Gayle, and somebody named Augusta Cohen (alias Gus Cole), and somebody else named Bill or whatever. All they did was sit around and talk about the ladies who worked for the Mafia.

Jackie Howe and Buddy Kent ran something called the Page 3 on the corner of Charles Street and Seventh Avenue. It's a very big space. Now it's some kind of Mexican thing, but it was a real club that ran from the mid-50s to the mid-60s. They did pretty well until television came along, Buddy said.

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