The Pansy Craze was a period in the late 1920s and early 1930s in which gay clubs and performers (known as pansy performers) experienced a surge in underground popularity in the United States.

Performance styles

In this period, there were drag performers such as Ray Bourbon (described below) and Karyl Norman; and flamboyant personalities including Gene Malin, also known as Jean Malin (more below), and Bruz Fletcher (also below). Whereas Malin was a witty emcee (master of ceremonies), Fletcher composed and sang clever, slightly risqué songs akin to the rhyming style of Cole Porter and Noel Coward, but with content that was even heavier with gay code, that managed to also speak to the general public—or at least the sophisticated public. In a similar vein, Dwight Fiske also emerged at this time, and later the delightfully infamous Madame Spivy, a kind of "lesbian Noel Coward", who entertained throngs at her famous rooftop cabaret in midtown Manhattan, and later in clubs throughout the world, with numerous appearances in movies and television. Prohibition, which ended in 1933, created a network of exclusive clubs where these performers flourished.


By the end of the 1920s - Broadway's brief flirtation with homosexual themes not withstanding - much of the public image of "gay" people was still limited to the various drag balls in the Village and in Harlem - but the early 1930s saw a new development within a highly commercial context, bringing the gay subculture of the enclaves of Greenwich Village and Harlem onto the mainstream stages of midtown Manhattan in a veritable Pansy Craze from 1930 until the repeal of prohibition in 1933, with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as President. The novelty of the "Pansy Acts" seems to have come on the heels of "the vogue of Negro entertainment" that had previously swept the speakeasies and clubs during much of the 1920s. Prohibition fostered an insatiable curiosity for novelty in the nightclubs (thus the period is remembered as the "Anything Goes" era.) It is perhaps telling that after the repeal of prohibition, this tolerance waned. Any sympathetic portrayal of gay characters termed sexual perverts was prohibited by the motion-picture production code from being included in Hollywood films. Performer Ray Bourbon was arrested many times for an act that is tame by today’s standards. By 1940, laws were so strict that even the internationally famous female impersonator Julian Eltinge (who had been a huge star of stage and screen with wide mainstream acceptance and success) could not get a waiver from the LA police to perform in drag, so for his act, he was forced to wear a tux and point to his gowns hanging on racks behind him! After the relative freedom of the 1920s and 1930s, it became increasingly difficult for gay performers to find work.

The 1920s and 1930s saw the emergence of notable and visible gay and lesbian presence and subculture in various cities in the USA. In many ways, New York City set the tone, particularly in its "bohemian artistic enclaves" of Greenwich Village and Harlem, as well as in the cabarets and speakeasies around the Broadway Theater District centered on Times Square. Whereas the late 19th century restricted gay male activity to the seedy red-light district under the elevated train of the Bowery, with an even less visible lesbian life (largely restricted to private salons for upper class women and a quite limited dance hall life for the less well-off), Prohibition allowed the first emergence of a visible gay and lesbian life in a largely middle-class context. Prohibition forced a new mixing of all kinds of people—all in search of the same illicit drink, and economics made for a culture of at least mild tolerance if not outright "anything goes". As prohibition was quite bad for business in cosmopolitan cities, one is tempted to conclude that city officials and Madison Avenue conspired together to create the "Cult of the Urban Sophisticate" who was above the petty and outdated moralism of the Temperance movement. Not only did the 1920s see the emergence of visible, tolerated gay enclaves—but also the emergence of several gay-owned (or more often lesbian-owned) and operated speakeasies and clubs (precursors of the outright "gay" or "lesbian" bars). Likewise, there was an increasing association of gay and lesbian people with a kind of cultural renaissance, with many artists and writers gay and lesbian, and many of the salons that nurtured this talent, whether in the Village, Harlem or in sister commentates in Paris, run by women, quite often Lesbians.[1]

It seems that as the public became more familiar with the visibility of gay and lesbian life, it is the very image of such people that inspired repressive reaction. In 1923, the NY State Legislature had prohibited homosexual "lewdness" or cruising. Then in 1927, came a swift and comprehensive reaction to a spate of sex themed plays on Broadway. Many had homosexual themes or characters, although they often still portrayed homosexuality in a negative light. With plays like "The Captive", staring Helen Menkin, Mae West's "Sex" and her "The Drag" (on its pre-Broadway out of town tryouts), the NY State legislature amended the public obscenity code to include a ban on any play "depicting or dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy, or sex perversion." Any theater presenting such productions could be padlocked for one full year. Perhaps because of this new official censure, the next stage in public presentation of homosexuals occurred in speakeasies and cabarets, albeit rather upscale ones.

Gene Malin

This change is probably best illustrated by the brief meteoric rise of the career/phenomenon of Gene (Jean) Malin. Gene Malin was born Victor Eugene James Malin in Brooklyn on June 30, 1908 to working class Polish/Lithuanian parents. He had 2 brothers and 2 sisters. As a child, Gene attended P.S. 50 in Brooklyn and then went on to Eastern District High School for a while. One brother became a police officer, and the other worked for a sugar refinery, but Gene had other inclinations early on. As a teenager, Gene was already winning prizes for his costumes at the elaborate Manhattan Drag Balls of the 1920s. By his late teens, Malin had worked as a chorus boy in several Broadway shows ("Princess Flavor”, "Miami”, "Sisters of the Chorus"). Around the same period, Malin worked at several Greenwhich Village clubs as a drag performer, most notably the "Rubaiyat".

Several columnists noted his talent and in 1930 (at age 22) Malin was booked at Louis Schwartzs' elegant "Club Abbey" at 46th and 8th Ave. It was at this point that Mailins' career and fate took a most interesting turn. Although Malin was at times assisted by "Helen Morgan JR.", a popular drag artist of the day, he did not appear in drag himself. The crux of his act was not to impersonate women, but to appear as an openly gay male. Here he moved on stage and amongst the audience members as a Tuxedo clad, elegant, witty, wisecracking Emcee (the Master of Ceremonies). He still often resorted to a broad exaggerated swishing image and the many other such "Pansy acts" that followed—often had a tone of a straight Vaudeville man doing an exaggerated impersonation of an effeminate "Pansy". Perhaps the joke had several levels - as the performer was often a gay man doing his impression of a straight man doing his impression of a gay man.[2] In doing so, Malin and other such performers as "Karyl Norman" and "Ray Bourbon" ignited a "Pansy Craze" in New York’s speakeasies and later in other cities as well.

Malin became the top earner of Broadway for a time. After headlining numerous New York Clubs, he took his act to Boston and ultimately to the West Coast. While in Hollywood, he appeared in several films (such as "Arizona to Broadway" and Joan Crawford's "Dancing Lady”) usually as the stock character of a witty limpwristed clerk.[3]

In the early hours of August 10 1933, Gene Malin was killed in a freak accident. He had just performed a "farewell performance" at the "Ship Cafe" in Venice, California. He piled into his sedan with roommate Jimmy Forlenza and comedic actress Patsy Kelly. It seems that Malin confused the gears and the car lurched in reverse and went off a pier into the water. Malin was instantly killed (pinned under the steering wheel) the other two were seriously hurt, but miraculously survived. It is staggering to realize that Malin was only 24 years of age at the time of his death. Although many in his audience probably saw him as one more oddity, in a short span of time Malin had made history.[4]

Bert Savoy

A flurry of obituaries followed in all the cities where Malin had performed. Interestingly, many of the articles drew a comparison to the death 10 years or so prior, of famed vaudevillian drag performer Bert Savoy (whose character was largely the inspiration for the persona of Mae West). Born in 1880, Bert Savoy began his drag act doing a hootchie-kootchie dance at freak shows in Boston and polished it in the wilds of Alaska. He hit the big time in 1914 while understudying for James Russell of the Russell Brothers (known for their "bitch" act: a pair of Irish servant girls) in "Maids to Order" and Russell dropped dead. Savoy had begun his partnership as comedic partner to "straight man", Jay Brennan the year before (after Savoy had picked up Brennan on a streetcar) The team was a huge success; they headlined in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918.

Savoy was one of the first of such acts to clearly be associated in the minds of the viewing audience as being overtly homosexual in theme and content. Most other female impersonators of the day, such as the international sensation, Julian Eltinge, went to great lengths to let you know that they were engaged in painstaking artifice. Eltinge's career was accompanied by a pull out the stops public relations effort to show him in any number of traditional "virile male" activities, when off stage. (See: Although Drag had always been a main staple of vaudeville, it was not performed as or perceived as "gay" until the appearance of Savoy, who was pure camp on and off the stage. The two routines which gave rise to Savoy's catchphrases "You Don't Know The Half Of It Dearie" and "You Must Come Over"­were preserved for posterity on a rare 1923 Vocalion recording made shortly before Savoy's untimely demise.[5]

The story of Bert Savoys' death is legendary and, by all accounts, absolutely true: on June 26 1923 Savoy and two friends were walking along the shore at Long Beach watching an upcoming storm when a thunderclap prompted Savoy to squeal "Ain't Miss God cuttin' up somethin' awful?" He was immediately struck dead by a bolt of lightning. Brennan continued the act quite successfully for a while with Stanley Rogers, owing much to the fact that Rogers copied Savoy's mannerisms and catchphrases to a tee. Brennan later became a scriptwriter in the movies and died in 1961 at the age of 78.

Bruz Fletcher

Another artist that cashed in on the Pansy Craze with kind of a sophisticated and campy bitchiness in his recordings was Bruz Fletcher. His career only ran from about 1929 to 1940 and when he committed suicide in 1941, at age 34, it was generally reported that he was despondent over his inability to find work as a gay performer. He had “a level of genius equaled by very, very few,” recalled one of his fans. He became a master of gay code and double speak in order to survive and flourish in a very homophobic era. A singer, composer, novelist, playwright, the darling of sophisticated night spots in the 1930s. He left behind 3 albums of complex coded songs and 2 novels. His drama filled life was a sad story of extremes and incredible plot twists. One of his more risqué recordings was called "My Doctor."(1935) [6]

Ray Bourbon

Equally dramatic was the life and career of Ray (Rae) Bourbon. If a good deal of mystery surrounds Bourbon, so many years after his death in 1971, it is probably due to the fact that Bourbon excelled at generating numerous conflicting stories about himself. He claimed, at various times, to have been born as "Hal Wadell" in Texarkana, TX in 1892, "Ramon Icarez" in or near Chihuahua, TX in 1898, and the son of Franz Joseph of Austria and Louisa Bourbon. Many "facts" regarding Bourbon's early life­, his claim to birth of Bourbon royalty, his claim to an education at Tulane Medical School in New Orleans, his claim to have been Pancho Villa's notorious "Señora Diablo"­ are all unsubstantiated and probably products of Bourbon's own active imagination. He claimed to have begun in the theatre in England in 1913, and this may well be true. He returned to the US by 1917 and, known as Rae Bourbon, supposedly won a Photoplay contest and was awarded a studio contract as first prize. He would say later that he worked in several silent films, and it is reported that he appeared under the name "Ramon Icarez" as a fire dancer at the opening of the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1923.

By the mid-20s, Bourbon was working with Bert Sherry as the vaudeville team of "Bourbon and Sherry" and later toured with the Martin Sisters. In 1932, he was working full-time as a female impersonator at such clubs as Jimmy's Back Yard in Hollywood and Tait's in San Francisco. (At this last club, in May 1933, his "Boys Will Be Girls" review was raided by police during a live radio broadcast.) In the later 30s and early 40s he headlined at the Rendezvous in Los Angeles and starred in his own revue, "Don't Call Me Madam." His "Insults of 1944", which began at the Playtime Theatre in Los Angeles in January of that year, caught the attention of Mae West during its New York production in May, 1944 at La Vie Parisienne. She cast him in her 1944 production of 'Catherine Was Great" and in her 1948 production of "Diamond Lil". Throughout the 50s and 60s Bourbon entertained at hundreds of clubs throughout the US and released dozens of albums, certainly the most prolific female impersonator to have done the latter. His appearances are still fondly remembered by many who saw him when he toured in big and small towns all over the country, providing many isolated Gay men with a glimpse of the loose-knit urban Gay community of the pre-Stonewall era. Ray’s comedy was, at once, highbrow and lowbrow, overtly Gay and covertly subversive. Despite his influence on Gays, he remained vague about his own sexuality. There is evidence that he had relationships with both men and women, was married twice, and fathered at least one son. In his memoirs, Ray discusses his sexual attractions and relationships to both genders with equal enthusiasm, but never called himself Gay or bisexual. He worked on stage in and out of drag. Bourbon was probably cashing in on the news of Christine Jorgensen when he claimed to have had a sex change in 1956 (almost certainly not true)

After a once quite successful career, by the late 1960s Bourbon had fallen on hard times. In 1968, Bourbon was barely eking out a living, traveling through Texas and working at the Jewel Box Revue in Kansas City. During this time he was implicated in the murder of the owner of a Dog Kennel where Bourbon had lodged a collection of some 70 dogs. The circumstances alone beg many questions, but Bourbon was convicted as the mastermind of the killing along with two conspirators. The 78-year-old Bourbon was given a 99-year sentence. He died a short time later, on January 19 1971 in the Howard County Texas prison, while penning his unfinished memoirs "Daddy Was a Lady".


  1. [ A survey of the gay and lesbian performers of this era (including recordings)].
  2. (Shades of Victor Victoria.)
  3. To hear a recording of Gene Malin performing one of his most famous numbers, "I'd rather be Spanish than mannish", please go to:
  4. For an excellent discussion on Malin and the phenomenon of the Pansy Craze, please see: Chapter 11. "Pansies on Parade." Prohibition and the Spectacle of the Pansy. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 by George Chauncey. (1994)
  5. To hear these recordings, please go to:
  6. His signature song "Drunk with Love" was daringly adopted by Frances Faye and became a standard in gay bars for decades to follow. For a thorough biography and samples of his work please see:

External links

  • Dragstravaganza: One of the best informational sources, courtesy of the incomparable Charles C. Cage.[1]
  • Musicals Exhaustive site re: history of Musical Theater-- (includes substantial GLBT info) by John Kenrick.[2].
  • Gene Mailin and the Pansy Craze (A basic site-but full of information and images. This is one of the few remaining segments of the "Urban Sophisticates: GLBT-performers in the Jazz Age:" series of websites put together several years ago by a self described "aging NYC chorus-boy").[3]
  • "Queer Music Heritage": A great repository of sound clips, photos and more, "Queer Music Heritage" is both a radio show and a website, and the goal of both is to preserve and share the music of GLBT culture. Both are produced by JD Doyle-for "Queer Voices" on KPFT 90.1 FM, Houston, TX.[4]
  • Gladys Bentley Profile at Queer Cultural Center: excellent site about one of the greatest openly lesbian performers of the Jazz Age: Queer Cultural Center - Bentley Profile.
  • A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem. By Eric Garber: This is still probably the definitive article re: GLBT performers in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. Written by the late Eric Garber, whose pioneering research is the bedrock for most subsequent efforts.[5]
  • "Don't Call me Madame: The Life and Work of Ray Bourbon": This is probably THE definitive site re: Ray Bourbon. Part of a larger project courtesy of Randy A. Riddle.[6]
  • "Ray Bourbon: Discography": excellent collection of sound clips.[7]
  • "Less than six degrees of Mercedes DeAcosta": chronicles the lesbian lady of (20th Cen) arts and letters: Tripod - Mercedes DeAcosta.
  • George Chauncey: Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (especially Chapter 11, "Pansies on Parade" about Prohibition and the spectacle of the pansy).

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