|Birthplace||San Francisco, California, USA|
|Occupation||Waiter, singer, drag queen, LGBT rights activist|
José Julio Sarria (b. December 12, 1922 or December 12, 1923) is an American drag queen and political activist from San Francisco, California. Known for his years of performing at the historic Black Cat Bar in the 1950s and 1960s, Sarria entertained patrons with satirical versions of popular songs and operas while encouraging them to live their lives as openly as possible.
Sarria was born to Maria Dolores Maldonado and Julio Sarria, each of whom was from an upper-class background (she from Colombia, he from Nicaragua). The couple did not marry and Julio took no interest in his son's life. Maria initially raised José on her own but when this became too difficult she placed him with another couple. Both they and his mother indulged his early interest in wearing girl's clothing. Sarria showed an affinity for languages, which led to his first serious romance with another man. Sarria tutored Paul Kolish, an Austrian baron who had fled Austria. Sarria and Kolish fell in love and their relationship endured until Kolish and his son were killed in a car accident in 1947.
Sarria served in the United States Army during World War II. Following his discharge, he studied to become a teacher and frequented the Black Cat. There he met waiter Jimmy Moore, the man Sarria describes as "the love of [his] life". Sarria was hired as a cocktail waiter. Following a conviction on a morals charge, Sarria, realizing he could never become a certified teacher, began performing in drag. He began performing regularly at the Black Cat. An early LGBT activist, Sarria co-founded several homophile organizations, including the League for Civil Education, the Tavern Guild and the Society for Individual Rights (SIR). Sarria became the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961. In 1964 Sarria declared himself "Empress José I, The Widow Norton" and founded the Imperial Court System, which grew to become an international association of charitable organizations.
Following the closure of the Black Cat in 1964, Sarria went to work with restaurateur Pierre Parker. The pair operated French restaurants at World's Fairs. It was while working at the 1964 New York World's Fair that Sarria learned that Jimmy Moore had committed suicide. Sarria worked at several more Fairs before retiring in 1974. After living with Parker in Phoenix, Arizona for several years, Sarria returned to San Francisco. He continued to reign over the Courts for 43 years, before abdicating in 2007. For his lifetime of activism, the city of San Francisco renamed a section of 16th Street in Sarria's honor.
Sarria was born in San Francisco, California to Maria Dolores Maldonado and Julio Sarria. His family was of Spanish and Colombian origin. His mother Maria was born in Bogotá, in what was then known as Gran Colombia, to an upper class and politically active family. During the events of the Thousand Days War and following the death of her mother, Maria sought out the protection of her mother's friend, General Rafael Uribe Uribe, to escape Colombia. The general located Maria's surviving uncle, who took her to the American consulate. There she was made a ward of the United States and relocated to Panama. She worked as a maid for the Kopp family, owners of the Bavaria Brewery, until 1919. In 1919 she relocated to Guatemala City but remained there for just six months and, in 1920, sailed to San Francisco. It was on the ship to America that she met Julio Sarria. Julio was from a large and well-to-do family in Nicaragua, the grandson of Spanish immigrants.
Upon their arrival in San Francisco, Maria worked for a year for the woman who sponsored her passage to the United States and then took a job as a maid with a family named Jost. Julio was the maitre d' at the Palace Hotel. Julio courted her for some time, until Maria realized she was pregnant. Their son José was born on December 12. His birth certificate reads 1923 but Sarria believes he was born in 1922. Julio and Maria never married.
Sarria's mother continued to work for the Jost family but it became increasingly difficult for her to fulfil her job responsibilities and care for an infant. Maria made arrangements for him to be raised by another couple, Jesserina and Charles Millen. Jesserina had recently lost her youngest child to diptheria and suffered severe depression. Her doctor suggested she take in another child to raise and after meeting with her Maria agreed to let her raise José. José came to consider the Millens and their children to be his second family. Maria bought a house and moved the Millens and José into it.
Sarria had no relationship with his birth father, who showed no interest in him or in supporting him. Eventually a warrant was issued for Julio Sarria's arrest for failure to pay child support. Julio was brought before a judge and ordered to pay five dollars to be released. The money was turned over to care for José. Each month until he returned to Nicaragua in around 1926 or 1927, Julio was arrested, paid the five dollars and was released. Julio died in Nicaragua in 1945. José would learn years later from Julio's other son that Julio had acknowledged José as his first-born.
Sarria attended the Emerson School for kindergarten and then, because he spoke only Spanish, was sent to private schools until learning English. Sarria began dressing in female clothes at an early age and his family indulged him, allowing him occasionally to go on family outings dressed as a girl. In his youth he studied ballet, tap dancing and singing.
When Sarria was around ten years old, he asked his mother how much money they had in the bank. Maria, who gave her money to her employer Mr. Jost to invest, asked to see the books. She discovered that Jost had been embezzling from her and from the other women whom she had referred to him. Jost was arrested, convicted and deported. Maria sued Jost's corporate partners and received a settlement but never recovered the bulk of the money. Unable to afford her house payments, Maria moved José and the Millen family to Redwood City in 1932.
As a teenager Sarria enrolled in Commerce High School, where he took advanced classes in French and German. With his Spanish and English these brought his total languages to four. It was Sarria's facility with languages that led to his first serious relationship with another man. Sarria tutored Paul Kolish, an Austrian baron who fled to Switzerland when the Nazis invaded Austria. He brought with him his wife and son Jonathan, each of whom suffered from asthma and tuberculosis. When his wife died, he brought Jonathan to America. Kolish found himself falling in love with his tutor and Sarria's family welcomed him and his son.
Upon Sarria's return from his overseas military service, Kolish began to worry about how if he died he would be able to take care of Sarria, because of the complete lack of legal recognition of same-sex relationships in the United States. He proposed marriage to Sarria's mother Maria. Maria was willing, but José refused to allow it. Given no other choice, Kolish contacted his only remaining adult relative, a dentist brother who lived in Hollywood, and left instructions for the care Sarria and his family.
On Christmas Day, 1947, Paul and Jonathan were driving to spend the holiday with Sarria and his family when they were struck by a drunk driver. Both were killed. Because of the title of nobility, the order of death would determine how the inheritance would be handled. The coroner determined that Jonathan died first, meaning that Paul's brother inherited everything. Dr. Kolish ignored Paul's wishes regarding Sarria. "I would have gotten one of the houses," Sarria claimed, "but he only gave me a little money and one ring. He claimed that was all Paul wanted me to have. He was so evil. He said afterwards, 'If you expect anything else, you're not going to get it.' "
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Sarria became determined to join the military, despite being, at just under five feet tall, too short to meet the Army's height requirement. Having graduated from high school and enrolled in college to study home economics, he seduced a major who was attached to the San Francisco recruiting station on the condition that the major approve Sarria's enlistment. Sarria was approved and entered the Army Reserve, continuing his studies as he waited to be called up to active duty. Shortly before he was scheduled for induction in the regular Army, his beloved second father, Charles Millen, died of a heart attack. Sarria's induction was delayed a month, then he was sworn in and ordered to Sacramento, California for basic training with the Signal Corps.
Because of his fluency in several languages, Sarria was assigned to Intelligence School. However, following a routine background check for security clearance, he was advised that he would no longer be in the program. Sarria assumes that it was because investigators discovered his homosexuality. "I mean I had no lisp, but I wasn't the most masculine guy in town ... So I think that they figured that I was a little bit gay." Sarria officially remained attached to the Signal Corps but was ordered to Cooks and Bakers School and trained as a cook. After graduating from cooking school, he was assigned to train as a scout, but deliberately failed the training because of the dangerous nature of the assignment. He was then assigned to the motor pool.
Through his work at the motor pool, Sarria met a young officer named Major Mataxis. He became the major's orderly, eventually running an officers' mess in occupied Germany where he cooked for Mataxis and about ten other officers. He was discharged from the Army in 1945, at the rank of Staff Sergeant.
The Nightingale of Montgomery Street
Following his military service, Sarria returned to San Francisco. He enrolled in college with plans of becoming a teacher. He and his sister Teresa began frequenting the Black Cat Bar, a center of the city's Beat and bohemian scene. Sarria and Teresa both became smitten with a waiter named Jimmy Moore and bet as to which of them could get him into bed first. José won the bet, and soon Jimmy and he were lovers. Sarria began covering for Moore when he was unable to work and soon Black Cat owner Sol Stoumen hired him as a cocktail waiter.
At around this time, Sarria was arrested for solicitation in a sting operation at the St. Francis Hotel. Sarria maintains his innocence, stating that the arresting officer knew him personally. "But they had to make an example of somebody ... I was in the wrong place at the wrong time." Nonetheless, he was convicted and subjected to a large fine. Sarria, understanding that his conviction meant he could never become certified as a teacher, dropped out of college. Unsure of how to find work, he took the advice of a drag performer named Michelle and entered a drag contest at an Oakland bar called Pearl's. Sarria took second place, winning a two-week performance contract at the bar at $50 a week. "I decided then to be the most notorious impersonator or homosexual or fairy or whatever you wanted to call me–and you would pay me for it." Returning to San Francisco, he picked up some small singing jobs while still cocktail waiting at the Black Cat.
One night at the Black Cat, Sarria recognized the piano player's rendition of Bizet's opera Carmen and began singing arias from the opera while he delivered drinks. This quickly led to a schedule of three to four shows a night, along with a regular Sunday afternoon show. Sarria was billed as "The Nightingale of Montgomery Street." Initially he focused on singing parodies of popular torch songs. Soon, however, Sarria was performing full-blown parodic operas in his natural high tenor. His specialty was a re-working of Carmen set in modern-day San Francisco. Sarria as Carmen would prowl through the popular cruising area Union Square. The audience cheered "Carmen" on as she dodged the vice squad and made her escape.
Sarria encouraged patrons to be as open and honest as possible. "People were living double lives and I didn't understand it. It was persecution. Why be ashamed of who you are?" He exhorted the clientele, "There's nothing wrong with being gay–the crime is getting caught", and "United we stand, divided they catch us one by one". At closing time he would call upon patrons to join hands and sing "God Save Us Nelly Queens" to the tune of "God Save the Queen". Sometimes he would bring the crowd outside to sing the final verse to the men across the street in jail, who had been arrested in raids earlier in the night. Speaking of this ritual in the film Word is Out, gay journalist George Mendenhall said:
"It sounds silly, but if you lived at that time and had the oppression coming down from the police department and from society, there was nowhere to turn ... and to be able to put your arms around other gay men and to be able to stand up and sing 'God Save Us Nelly Queens' ... we were really not saying 'God Save Us Nelly Queens.' We were saying 'We have our rights, too.'"
Sarria fought against police harassment, both of gays and of gay bars. Raids on gay bars were routine, with everyone inside the raided bar taken into custody and charged with such crimes as being "inmates in a disorderly house". Although the charges were routinely dropped, the arrested patrons' names, addresses and workplaces were printed in the newspapers. When charges were not dropped, the arrested men usually quietly pleaded guilty. Sarria encouraged men to plead not guilty and demand a jury trial. Following Sarria's advice, more and more gay men began demanding jury trials, so many that court dockets were overloaded and judges began expecting that prosecutors have actual evidence against the accused before going to trial. One favored harassment technique, employed especially on Halloween after midnight, was to arrest drag queens under an old city ordinance that made it illegal for a man to dress in women's clothing with an "intent to deceive". In consultation with attorney Melvin Belli, Sarria countered this tactic by distributing labels to his fellow drag queens (hand-made, in the shape of a black cat's head) that read "I am a boy". If confronted, the queen would simply display the tag to prove that there was no intent to deceive. Sarria's actions helped bring an end to Halloween police raids. Along with Guy Strait, Sarria formed the League for Civil Education (LCE) in 1960 or 1961. The LCE ran educational programs on the topic of homosexuality and provided support for men being ostracized for being gay and for those caught in police raids.
During an intensive period of police pressure after the 1959 San Francisco mayoral election in which the supposed leniency of city government toward homosexuals became an issue, Sarria ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, becoming the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States. Although Sarria never expected to win he almost did win by default. On the last day for candidates to file petitions, city officials realized that there were fewer than five candidates running for the five open seats, which would have guaranteed Sarria a seat. By the end of the day, a total of 34 candidates had filed. LCE co-founder Strait began printing the LCE News in part to support Sarria's candidacy. Sarria garnered some 6,000 votes in the city-wide race, finishing ninth. This was not enough to win a seat but was enough to shock political pundits and set in motion the idea that a gay voting bloc could wield real power in city politics. "[He] put the gay vote on the map," said Terence Kissack, former executive director of the GLBT Historical Society. "He made it visible and showed there was a constituency."
In 1962, Sarria along with bar owners and employees formed the Tavern Guild, the country's first gay business association. The Guild raised money for legal fees and bail for people arrested at gay bars and helped bar owners coordinate their response to the harassment of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and the police.
Sarria continued to perform and agitate at the Black Cat until, after some 15 years of unrelenting police pressure, the bar lost its liquor license in 1963. The Black Cat stayed open as a luncheonette for a few more months before finally closing for good in February 1964.
José I, The Widow Norton
With the demise of the Black Cat, Sarria helped found the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) in 1963. SIR grew out of a split between Sarria and Strait over the direction that the LCE was heading. Strait and his supporters wanted to focus more on publishing the group's newsletter, while Sarria and his supporters wanted to maintain focus on street-level organizing. SIR sponsored both social and political functions, including bowling leagues, bridge clubs, voter registration drives and "Candidates' Nights" and published its own magazine, Vector. In association with the Tavern Guild, SIR printed and distributed "Pocket Lawyers." These pocket-sized guides offered advice on what to do if arrested or harassed by police. SIR lasted for 17 years.
Crowned Queen of the Beaux Arts Ball in 1964 by the Tavern Guild, Sarria, stating that he was "already a queen", proclaimed himself "Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton." Sarria devised the name "Widow Norton" as a reference to the much-celebrated citizen of 19th century San Francisco, Joshua Norton, who had declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico in 1859. Sarria organized elaborate annual pilgrimages to lay flowers on Norton's grave in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, California. He has purchased a plot adjacent to Norton's and plans to be interred there.
Sarria's assumption of the title of Empress led to the establishment of the Imperial Court System, a network of non-profit charitable organizations throughout the United States and Canada that raise money for various beneficiaries. Sarria is much revered within the hierarchy of the Imperial Court System and is affectionately and informally known as "Mama" or "Mama José" among Imperial Court members. The "José Honors Awards" are presented to Imperial Court dignitaries and others in an annual banquet held in Sarria's honor.
In 1964, Sarria went into business with restaurateur Pierre Parker, who owned restaurants called "Lucky Pierre" in Carmel, California and New York City. They met when Parker wandered into the Black Cat one night and they struck up a friendship. In addition to his restaurants, Parker held the French food concession for the World's Fair. He invited Sarria to join him at the 1964 New York World's Fair.
It was while working at the Fair that Sarria learned that his longtime companion, Jimmy Moore, was dead. Moore had been a frequent drinker throughout their relationship and had been arrested a number of times for being drunk in public. A judge finally told Moore that the next time he was arrested he would be given the maximum sentence. Moore was arrested again and, scared of a long prison term, hanged himself in jail. Although devastated, Sarria could not come home from the exposition. At the end of the Fair he returned and he and Moore's father consoled each other. "And so, that ended my big romance. The great love of my life. It carried on for nine years."
Sarria and Parker worked together through both seasons of the New York fair, Expo 67 in Montreal, HemisFair '68 in San Antonio, Texas and Expo '74 in Spokane, Washington, after which Sarria retired. He and Parker moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where Sarria lived until 1977. He then returned to San Francisco. He remained politically active, endorsing the candidacies of Harvey Milk for the Board of Supervisors. Milk would in 1977 win the board seat that Sarria had sought in 1961.
Sarria and members of the Imperial Court appeared along with other notable drag queens in the opening scenes of the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995).
In 2005, Sarria found himself at the center of a legal controversy over his role on the jury in the 1991 murder trial of Clifford Bolden. Bolden had been sentenced to death in 1991 for the 1986 murder of Henry Michael Pederson, whom Bolden allegedly picked up in a bar in San Francisco's Castro district. Bolden's attorneys claimed that Sarria, who was not on the jury that convicted Bolden but was seated as an alternate for the penalty phase, had known Bolden's lover, Pederson and another of the jurors. They alleged that he had concealed this knowledge in order to remain on the jury and push for a death sentence. Sarria acknowledged having spoken occasionally with the other juror but denied the rest of the allegations. Sarria was cleared of wrongdoing in February 2008.
Sarria was honored in 2005 with the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee's Lifetime Achievement Grand Marshal Award. On May 25, 2006, Sarria's lifetime of activism was commemorated when the city of San Francisco renamed a section of 16th Street in the Castro to José Sarria Court. A plaque outlining Sarria's accomplishments is embedded in the sidewalk in front of the Harvey Milk Memorial Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, which is located at 1 José Sarria Court.
Sarria reigned over the Imperial Court System until February 17, 2007, abdicating the throne in favor of his first heir apparent, Nicole Murray-Ramirez, who assumed the title Empress Nicole the Great, Queen Mother of the Americas. Sarria resides in Palm Springs, California.
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- Widow Norton on International Imperial Court Website
- Photos of the Black Cat Cafe at the San Francisco Public Library Historic Photo Collection
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