Public Faces, Private Lives
Text from Improper Bostonians

Sylvia Sidney

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. You've 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 and vulgar."

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 said, "Oh, 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."