Bert Savoy: The First Queen in the Whole Wide World

by Mickey Weems
Contributor
Saturday Jul 12, 2008

As far back as we can collectively remember, Gay history has been blessed with plenty of gender benders. But the persona of the drag queen as we know it today is a fairly new version of men who dress and behave as women.

And the very first true drag queen was Bert Savoy.

What it means to be a queen

As was stated in the movie, To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, a drag queen is a specific kind of a man who dresses and behaves like a woman. The lovely Noxeema Jackson (played by Wesley Snipes) breaks it down:

"When a straight man dresses like a woman and goes on a sexual kick, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man's body, he [sic] is a transsexual. When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender, he (SNAP!) is a drag queen."

According to this definition, a full-fledged drag queen must first be a Gay man (or at least perceived as one). The performance of the queen is not simply that of a man who looks and acts like a woman. Rather, it is in the complex interplay of absurdity and humor that we call camp, when a man who declares his erotic attraction to other men takes on the trappings of femininity as comic accessories.

Everett mounts the throne

In the late 19th century, boys and young men who performed on stage as women were popular, especially in the rowdy towns of the Wild West filled with male miners, trappers, ranchers, and railroad workers.

Everett McKenzie was born in Boston in 1876. By the age of 14, he was already working in hootchie-kootchie clubs, working his way west to the Dakotas, Montana, and Alaska. Known as "Maude" by his contemporaries, he decided to try his hand at fortune telling as "Madame Veen," a vocation that led to his arrest in Baltimore.

MacKenzie was tried and sentenced to 60 days in jail. Insisting that he be allowed to wear women's makeup while serving his time, MacKenzie told the judge, "It's an eccentricity."

MacKenzie was taken in as an apprentice by the Russell Brothers in 1914. The Russell Brothers were a duo of female impersonators who acted like 2 rude Irish servant girls in a performance called "Maids to Order." Their schtick brought down the ire of Irish anti-defamation societies, who tried to have the act banned.

It was with the Russell Brothers that not-so-young Everett perfected the camp and cattiness of his most famous character, Bert Savoy, the female impersonator who wasn't afraid to be openly Gay and a flaming queen, onstage and off.

Too Straight for the crown: Julian Eltinge

MacKenzie/Savoy had risked sever homophobic backlash by being every bit as outrageous in his public persona as a man as he was when he dressed as a woman. A wildly popular female impersonator before him, Julian Eltinge, was not so bold.

Julian Eltinge was the classic female illusionist, a man who would accurately portray a woman, and then take great pains to let the public know he was a real man (i.e. butch and Straight) in real life. In the case of Julian, it was a double illusion. Not only was he not female, he was also not straight.

One cannot fault Eltinge for trying to fit the expectations of his time. He learned painfully at an early age what could happen if he queered out too severely. Born and raised in Butte, Montana (where Savoy had also performed in his younger years), young Julian was kicked out of his home by his father when word came back that the boy was acting like a girl for money at the local saloon.

When he was performing onstage, Eltinge was the antithesis of the vulgar drag queen: he was beautiful, elegantly feminine, and mysteriously alluring. It was his success in being feminine that drove him to perform publicity stunts confirming his virility and proving his attraction to women.

MacKenzie/Savoy felt all the same pressures. He entered into a marriage of convenience with his business partner Anne Krehmker in 1905. The relationship did not last long.

Fame

The Bert Savoy that would become our first queen did not really hit her stride until Bert met Jay Brennan, a chorus dancer and fellow female impersonator.

It was a Vaudevillian marriage made in Heaven. Bert would wear extravagant gowns, wide hats perched on his head at a sharp angle, and gab about his girlfriend "Margie" to Jay, who played the role of the Straight straight man. Savoy and Brennan became renowned primarily for Savoy, his exaggerated hip-swaying saunter, repetitious chatter, sexual innuendo, and big-mouthed laugh.

Rumors have it that Bert Savoy taught Mae West how to be a vamp. Savoy's signature phrases, "You mussssst come over" and "You don't know the half of it, Dearie!" eventually became the titles of 2 performances that were recorded on vinyl for posterity (Mae West's "Come up and see me sometime" was supposedly taken from Savoy). Bert and Jay also appeared in a cameo in at least one film, a film entitled, appropriately enough, Two Flaming Youths with W.C. Fields, and in Ziegfield's Follies in 1918.

The ultimate exit line

Savoy's career was kicking into full swing. He and Brennan had been in major shows, and recorded on both vinyl and cinema film. The future was bright.

Actually, for Bert Savoy, the future would become too bright in a flash. After a performance he, Brennan, Bert's half-brother and another friend went to a beach on Long Island when a thunderstorm quickly overtook them. A bolt of lightning struck nearby, and Savoy screamed, "Ain't Miss God cuttin' up something awful?"

An instant later, he was himself struck by lightning and killed.

The Queen was dead. May her descendants live on.

Dr. Mickey Weems is a folklorist, anthropologist and scholar of religion/sexuality studies. He has just published The Fierce Tribe, a book combining intellectual insight about Circuit parties with pictures of Circuit hotties. Mickey and his husband Kevin Mason are coordinators for Qualia, a not-for-profit conference and festival dedicated to Gay folklife. Dr. Weems may be reached at mickeyweems@yahoo.com


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