"THE SWEETEST TRANSVESTITE" - THEME MAGAZINE, 2011
In 1947, Southern Philadelphia was a dangerous, intolerant place. Little Jack Doroshow was eight years old when his grandmother sat him down and explained to him the state of affairs in his neighborhood: two rival mob families had left Sicily, immigrating to not only the same country, but the same city in the same state, and they had managed to travel thousands of miles to end up on the same block. The bitter feuding had caused warring in the streets, turning teenagers into gangsters, and gutters into blood streams, leaving Philadelphia ravaged with violence, out of the control of the police. The general practice for residents who didn't partake in the chaos, was to keep your head down, and your business to yourself. Unfortunately, the three most surefire ways to come under the scrutiny of the local meatheads, were to be either Jewish, Homosexual, or black. Since it took only two days for the first black mailman in the neighborhood to be shot square between the eyes, and grandma Doroshow already knew little Jack possessed both of the other two traits, she explained what gangs were, and where not to go. Naturally, that's where Jack went immediately.
As he tells it, Jack wandered into the Sicilian part of the neighborhood, and befriended a teenage mobster boy. The two became enamored with eachother, and were inseparable. One day a pair of kids rolled up to the unlikely duo on their bicycles, and shouted at the older boy: "You know that kids a faggot, AND a jew?!" The teen mobster, Joey Palumbo, only squeezed Jack's little hand tighter. Perhaps it was this sense of acceptance that gave Jack the freedom to recognize his future walking by him, when, a decade later, he ventured out of Philly on a road trip to New York with two of his best friends. It was 1957, the year that Kerouac released "On The Road", and a judge ruled that Allen Ginsberg's masterful summation of the era, the poem "Howl", was not obscene and could be widely distributed. Colonies of artists starving for bread, but feasting on intellect were running the downtown scene, and experimentation with drugs and alternative lifestyles were actively clashing with the conservative spirit of 1950's America. It was at the Sloane House, a residential YMCA building on West 34th street teeming with gay boys paying $0.75 a night for a bed, that Jack spotted "a couple queens getting dressed down the hall". Fascinated, he approached them and asked them where they were going. "There's this thing going on at the Manhattan Center!", they exclaimed. Jack convinced his friends to go with him, and he paid the five dollar cover charge that would change his life. At the age of 18, out and proud with his mother and siblings, and looking for a scheme to get rich quick, Jack Doroshow stood and watched as men in high heels paraded past him in a contest for best female illusionist. He clutched his entry ticket, feeling the hole his precious couple bucks burned in his now empty pocket, and he realized he had struck gold.
When Jack and his friends hosted their first competition, they did it in tuxedos, and it took all of five minutes for them to be booed from the stage. It became clear that if they were going to be successful, they had to be in drag themselves. One of his friends quickly threw in the towel, saying "if you lay down with pigs, you smell like shit". Jack went to his mother, who, in all her practicality, asked, "how much are you making?" "$600", Jack explained. She simply responded, "You go girl".
Though it was a felony in the 1950's and 1960's to cross dress, Jack would spend the next eleven years traveling the States continuously, hosting and headlining the country's biggest drag competitions. Structured much like an olympic game but with more lipstick, the events involved several competitive rounds where contestants were awarded points for 'walk', 'make up', 'gown' and 'bathing suits', the last segment of which tended to separate the ladies from the boys. Using massive phone trees in each city, he promoted his events surreptitiously, trying to avoid the complicated arm of the law. Because he hosted the event, and steered the entire ship, Jack became a sort of den mother to the misfits and outcasts that flocked to his tribe, and he took to the nurturing position naturally. Eventually discovering the theory of the 'non-competitive mother', Jack sacrificed the urge for beauty in his costumed persona, and invented the character of 'The Flawless Mother Sabrina', a jewish mother type, who reigned over the proceedings with protective care and wisdom, rather than a threatening sense of superiority. Naturally, young queens and homosexuals, often ostracized from their lives at home, began to flock to him for advice and care.
By the late 1960's, Jack had racked up dozens of felonies for his cross dressing, when he met Andy Warhol. Warhol decided to help fund a documentary about Sabrina and her roving band of beauty queens, and connected Jack with several wealthy philanthropists and a film crew, resulting in the 1968 release of the black and white documentary "The Queen". Around the time of the film's official release, Jack gave up hosting the contests, his family of queens, and the life he'd known for over ten years and moved to New York permanently. "Certainty may be desirable, but uncertainty is unavoidable. If it doesn't make you nervous, it ain't worth doing." With that, Jack began a new life, and ended an era. However, although she had officially turned in her badge as leader of the traveling queer scouts, Mother Sabrina's work was far from done.
Let us fast forward forty years, to the summer of 2010, in New York City. Several months ago I asked a mutual friend who is drag performer and has been in New York going on twenty years, who the bonafide drag mother of the city was. Without thinking twice, he handed me a napkin with Jack's phone number on it. When I called Jack's home phone, a voice answered with an affirmative "hi", instead of the usual "hello?". I explained what I was after, and he gleefully invited me up to his home - a small one bedroom on the upper East Side that he's had since the late sixties. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to my grandmother, Jack welcomed me into his apartment wearing fluorescent orange suspenders, a spiked collar, and coke bottle glasses, bright blue eye makeup still in place from a performance the night before. Let it be stated clearly, at this point, that Jack Doroshow is now seventy years old.
We sat at Jack's majestic dark wooden desk, amidst a smattering of wigs, costume pieces, drawings, and photographs of his past, and he told me his life story. After the release of The Queen, Jack spent a decade flitting between projects, which included starring in a porn film with Rudolf Nuryev's boyfriend, a twenty year stint in Paris working for a wealthy record exec, and being an "expert on Homosexuality" for Hollywood films, which meant advising Butch Cassidy how to not look fey. In 1985 he met Curtis, his boyfriend of 25 years. Jack doesn't believe in monogamy, or cohabitation, so he and Curtis don't live together, but he lights up like a lamp when he speaks to Curtis' tender heart and loving spirit. A constant throughout the conversation is the ringing telephone. First it's his 'kid' Zach - a burgeoning drag star, pictured, mid-performance, in a magazine on Jack's table, shirtless, with a long red mane, completely indistinguishable from a beautiful woman - then it's Curtis, simply calling to tell Jack he loves him.
Jack says he has a huge family now, of kids he's taken on as practically his own. Not in any parental sense of feeding or clothing them, but in that he has nurtured them through issues of emerging adulthood, and what prove to be difficult life choices, like deciding to be a professional drag performer. They call Jack almost daily, to check in, and be reminded that "if this ain't good, what the fuck is?". Jack's position as matriarch of the family is a vital anchor in what can be a tornado of options, goals, hatred, and discouragement. He brings his 'kids' a sense of home, regardless of their chosen pursuits, or even their genders. He simply wants to give.By his own measure, Jack has succeeded in his greatest life goal, beyond a shadow of a doubt. As he puts it:
"Success is not the right pursuit, the goal should be significance."
© Copyright, iO Tillett Wright 2012