Faces, Private Lives
from Improper Bostonians
Sylvia Sidney, Boston's most (in)famous drag queen, described himself as "a
fun-loving, outspoken homosexual who speaks his mind - and if people don't like
it, the hell with them, my dear." He began his career as a drag performer
in 1947, at the age of seventeen.
For his first performance, Sylvia stepped out on
stage wearing purple lounging pajamas with white polka
dots. Patrons of the Rex, a straight club, booed him
off the stage. As Sylvia tells it, local piano virtuoso
Jerry Whiting found him backstage crying. Whiting told
him to go back out, pick up the microphone, and say whatever
was on his mind. Sylvia went back out for a second show
and let loose with a string of expletives that wouldn't
quit. The audience started throwing money and cheering.
The manager offered him five dollars for three shows
a night, and a career was born.
"I'm not considered
a drag queen, per se, trying to impersonate another woman.
never seen a woman that looked like me! I look
more like a hard-core madam, sort of a Mae West
caricature. When I hit the stage, I'm coarse, loud
Sylvia received his stage name one day in the 1940s
while walking through the
Public Garden. "I went down to what they call Queen's Row in the Public
Garden. It was a dirt road. They had benches. Some older queens were there. They
hi honey! How are you? Aren't you cute?" I wasn't really cute at all. They
said, "What's your name?" I said, 'My name is Sidney.' They said, 'We'll
call you Sylvia.' They called everybody a name. There was a Bette Davis, there
was a Helen Morgan. There was a queen who looked like Katharine Hepburn. She
had a twin brother - the Hepburn sisters."