Pansy Craze: the wild 1930s drag parties that kickstarted gay nightlife
The 1920s also saw an increase in the number of bohemian enclaves in rundown areas, such as New York’s Greenwich Village. Painters, poets and performers were lured by the cheap rents and by an increasingly wild and lawless lifestyle. Prohibition had given birth to a black market for booze and a bustling underground scene, where bright young things slumming it in mob-run nightspots developed a taste for camp, cutting repartee.
LGBT people were flocking to cities as much for the nightlife as for the ability to connect with others. Soon, Variety was reporting that Broadway “will have nite places with ‘pansies’ as the main draw. Paris and Berlin have similar night resorts, with the queers attracting the lays.” In Berlin, you could hear singers performing Das Lila Lied (The Lavender Song), one of the earliest songs to celebrate homosexuality. “This song became the gay anthem of the time and still has status today,” says singer Ute Lemper. “The lyrics are witty and ballsy, quite unbelievable.” You can hear its influence in the work of Rufus Wainwright, Marc Almond and others.
Every European capital, and several major US cities, had similar scenes: London had Douglas Byng and Noël Coward, who once admitted: “I should love to perform There Are Fairies in the Bottom of My Garden, but I don’t dare. It might come out There Are Fairies in the Garden of My Bottom.”
Performers, including the acid-tongued Malin, quickly eclipsed the drag acts that had been a stage staple for decades. Malin began his own career in drag, as Imogene Wilson, but it was as the tuxedoed MC of Club Abbey that he “gave Broadway its first glimpse of pansy nightlife”, as Mark Hellinger of the Syracuse Journal put it. At Club Abbey, Malin ditched the dresses and reinvented himself as a high-camp, waspish, obviously gay man – and it was this that singled him out. For possibly the first time ever, an entertainer’s entire act revolved around an explicit queerness. “What was novel is that he did not bring a drag act to the club, but instead performed in elegant men’s clothing, and brought with him the camp wit of the gay subculture,” explains LGBT historian JD Doyle. “If he was heckled by men at the club he knew how to cut them to shreds, to the delight of the crowd.” At 200lbs and over six feet tall, few would argue with him anyway.