by Jordan King
In 2014, a box was found in a Los Angeles storage unit. It was filled with hundreds of letters addressed to elusive American radio host Reno Martin. As it transpires, Martin was the confidante of choice for many gay men, drag queens, female illusionists, and femme mimics back in the 1950s and 1960s, a period in time where gay history is predominantly documented in terms of oppression, societal beliefs in homosexuality being a pathological illness, and stories of letters being burned and entire personal histories being erased to serve a heteronormative, nuclearly homogenous narrative. To many, gay history in America doesn’t even start until the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York. With the release of documentary P.S Burn This Letter Please, directors Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera take these letters to Reno Martin and allow them to ‘open a whole world’, to pinch the words of historian George Chauncey, one teeming with stories of bravery, rebellion, beautiful dresses, casual thievery, and revolutionary gay men and trans women blazing a trail for the queer youth of today.
Using the letters to Martin as a jumping off point, Seligman and Tiexiera turned private investigators (and turned to actual private investigators) to track down the figures so vividly brought to life in words. Scouring arrest records and event attendance registers linked to the days and dates in the letters to Martin, working with little more than first names alone to go on in terms of actually identifying people, the directors managed miraculously to track down a handful of Martin’s letter writers and subjects. The reward for Seligman and Tiexiera’s efforts is a documentary that brings together beautiful visualisations of the letters themselves, richly recorded voice-overs that breathe new life into words penned half a century ago, and intimate interviews with the now octogenarian and nonagenarians who have lived through it all, the good and the bad.
Formally, the film is an aesthetic and aural delight. The letters of mysterious figures such as ‘Daphne’, ‘Josephine’, and ‘Charlie’ float against beautiful Etsy-storefront-esque backgrounds, calligraphically evoked in the authors’ own handwriting lovingly restored or in typewriter print that reminds us a new historical document has been found and is being formed. The resurrection of slang words like ‘mopping’ (basically stealing), ‘cunty’ (cockiness), and ‘Glamazon’, which any RuPaul fans will likely already know very well, is achieved with real style and finesse. Jonathan Kirkscey’s accompaniment to the letter readings and talking heads segments is just as evocative, with sultry numbers, contemplative piano compositions, and beatnik beats conjuring a specific time and place. So much of documentarian filmmaking is dedicated to presenting information, and here the impetus to do so is especially profound, but when there is an invitation for the viewers’ imagination to help fill in gaps and take us back in time with the story being told, it just makes for a deeply satisfactory experience on a whole other level.
Though the brilliantly salacious and deeply revealing letters to Reno Martin are the indubitable stars of the show, of equally deserving starring roles are the people who Seligman and Tiexiera have managed to track down for interviews. From the remarkably brave Terry, a woman who was a femme impersonator before transitioning in the face of society and her father’s abhorrent disgust back in the 60s, to the 89-year-old former drag queen Lennie, who came from a theistically repressive background in Hershey, and beyond to men who now live across America and who all played their part in this extraordinary history, everyone interviewed provides frequently hilarious, occasionally emotional, and constantly eye-opening insights. I won’t divulge the identity of key letter writer Daphne here, as that is a reveal the documentary pulls off in brilliantly theatrical fashion, but the person who lived her life is one of the most fascinating men I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing from in a documentary.
As we’re taken on a rip-roaring ride through the favourite haunts and best-loved pastimes of these queens, impressionists, and femme-mimic fatales, taking in the mob-run clubs that the likes of Salvador Dali frequented and the glamorous balls that were way ahead of the curve in terms of ethnic mixing, we are given a snapshot of a community defined by a stubborn refusal to conform to the status quo. In these men’s defiance of a society that treated queerness as a commodity and drag shows as a curiosity, an example was clearly and powerfully set to the queer youth and drag community of today – do not compromise your truth to serve someone else’s self-serving lie. As impassioned one-time film star and 87-year-old former femme illusionist James – who proudly boasts ‘I didn’t turn gay, I was born gay’ – emotionally attests, to be an artist in the drag world is ‘to speak to people and say something, to make them see something.’
It’s not all about beautiful wigs and pilfered ballgowns, though they sure are nice, but moreover it is about knowing who you are and owning that, which in itself is a revolutionary act whether society has caught up to the times or not. That these men did this at a time where dressing as a woman could have you beaten or jailed just serves as a potent testament to how vitally important this commitment to yourself is, how vitally important it is to hold onto that which makes you uniquely you. Whilst the AIDS epidemic inevitably is touched upon as the film winds down towards its close, reminding us once again of the crushing fact that so many young men who should have been making memories were becoming them far before their time, the filmmakers sensitively handle the topic without taking from the overwhelmingly celebratory tone of the film as a whole. P.S. Burn This Letter Please, make no mistake, is as much a story of triumph as it is one of trials and tribulations. Demonstrating the indestructible power of words and the awe-inspiring strength of the gay and drag community’s forebears, Seligman and Tiexiera’s film gives us an invaluable new chapter in the history of America that is, simply put, fabulous.’
P.S. Burn This Letter Please is playing as part of BFI Flare Festival!
Buy your tickets now!