Twilight of the Tribe: The Wedding that Wasn’t



SYMBOL OF GAY POWER

“I always wanted a formal wedding,” Jackie Curtis said, weeks before the wedding, as she chalked the marriage announcement on the sidewalk outside the Albert Hotel: Superstars Jackie Curtis (“Flesh,” “Cock Strong,” “The Moke-eaters”) and Eric Emerson (“Chelsea Girls,” “Lonesome Cowboys”) to Be Married on July 21. Everyone Welcome! “Even when I was a little child, I dreamed about getting married in a beautiful white gown and everything, with rice and a minister and a cake and a handsome husband. Eric is very handsome, you know, he is really very handsome.”

Last week her wedding happened— scheduled, the press release said, “to coincide spiritually and metaphysically with the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Which will be the bigger event? Only history will tell.”

It was a depressing and a discomforting occasion. About 100 of her friends were there on the East 11th Street roof, among­ them Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Stefan Brecht, Danny Fields, and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous actors: Penny Arcade, Rita Red, Holly “Miss Speed” Jones, Suzanna Bankstreet, Reginald Rimmington III, Marlene D-Train. Jaime de Carlo Lotts, thin-faced, intelligent, looking like an extra in “God’s Little Acre,” moved around the roof with a wine bottle, making people feel at home while the New Andrews Sisters sang “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” “Stormy Weather,” “He Touched Me.”

The guests mingled on the front section of the roof, drinking Gallo white wine and soda; they tended to bunch in small groups and stare out at one another, everyone growing nervous because the wedding was delayed in starting. It was the first time this season that the underground tribe had been together for a “public” happening — for that is what the event was, what justified it and gave it what beauty and grace it possessed, the warmth and renewal felt by all of us there, by the freaks and heads and actors and queens and the few hustlers­ and the poets and most of us, the majority, losers, the fact of being together again and of really hoping Jackie would pull off her wedding in style, that it would go well for her. Listening to David Peel and his band play, watching Melba La Rose tap-dance, Jackie Curtis and her bridal party sat nervously on the back of the roof, behind the chimneys and the pipes, waiting for the groom. He never appeared.

The wedding began about an hour late. Stewart Eaglespeed was importuned to stand in for the missing groom, Eric Emerson. Both Stewart and Eric work at Max’s Kansas City. The presiding clergyman was Louis Abolafia, who was dressed in Roman Catholic vestments plus a large “Louis Abolafia — New York’s Mayor in ’69” button. Jackie Curtis … looking quite stunning in a white ante-bellum gown, a beige shawl thrown over her right shoulder, her red-brown hair teased wildly, long simulated pearl earrings and white ribbons dangling from her ears, a bridal bouquet of daisies clutched in one hand, a carton of milk in the other, was finally carried from the back of the roof on the arms of her bridesmaid, Bunny Eisenhower, and her ersatz groom, while the maid of honor, the actress Ruby Lynn Reyner, followed in her train.

At the altar. The guests gathered around tightly, cracking jokes, giggling. A few photographers and a movie cameraman took shots, and the bridal couple paused and smiled sweetly for the press. Then sometime Reverend Abolafia began the service. At the question, “If any man can show just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him speak now,” the only man in the place to raise a protest was Jackie’s bridesmaid, Bunny Eisenhower.

“This woman has a baby!” Bunny screeched, raising a baby-like bundle high in her hands.

Jackie: “I do not. I never saw this woman before!”

Bunny, louder, “You know me!

Pause, Jackie, irritated, speaking in her best Audrey Hepburn we-are-not-amused voice, looking with contempt at her loud-mouthed bridesmaid: “All right, for Christ’s sake. I met her in a laundromat.”

The service proceeded. Someone interrupted and asked Jackie why she was marrying Stewart and not Eric. Jackie, aloof: “Oh, my husband had to work. So I have to marry someone else.”

The couple finished their vows. Reverend Abolafia pronounced them man and wife under the laws of New York State. The guests began to dance. Jackie and Stewart moved out and into the crowd, men and women rushing to kiss the happy couple, moving carefully, stopping again and again to receive congratulations, over to the side where Andy Warhol stood by himself with a polaroid camera. He took several pictures of the couple and gave them away. Larry Re, wearing an enormous, fluffy tutu, sheer tights, ballet shoes, flitted up to the couple on his toes, twirled, and informed Jackie and everyone else that Stewart Eaglespeed, the man she had just married, had “a past.”

“I don’t care,” Jackie said. “I know Stewart has a past. What’s a past between friends?”

And Stewart, protesting his masculinity among the fluttering queens, said, rather too emphatically, “Stewart also has a cock … ”

Larry Re twirled off and took over the center of the roof and made great, sweeping leaps and pirouettes. He was soon joined by Ruby Lynn Reyner, and they alternated in turn, each trying to out-dance the other like “Original Amateur Hour” contestants.

Penny Arcade came up to Stewart and asked if he was going to consummate the marriage. Stewart replied, “God, I hope not!”

Darkness came. The party continued under the photographers’ lights, interrupted once by a cop who appeared with a complaint to check out the noise. He left bewildered.

Jackie danced into the night, working at having fun, for it had become a disaster for her. It was to have been a real marriage, and she was to have been a real bride, like in the movies, femme, a virgin no less. Married and carried away into a Honeymoon Sunset in the arms of her Supestar. That she had believed possible, as she believed in such Shirley Temple things as happy endings and marriages-made·in-heaven and people flying like goddamn bluebirds somewhere over the rainbow. But the groom had not showed, and she could not entirely pull it off as a bride, and so she remained illegitimate somewhere between a drag queen and a woman, like Dylan’s Cinderella sweeping with echoing sound up Desolation Row.

Gradually people began to drift off, most of them heading for an informal wedding feast in the back room of Max’s. As dusk came, Jackie, now wearing a royal blue cape over her bridal gown, danced with the men, laughing too much, playing it up as Authentic Woman for all she was worth, for all she was worth trying to make it come true in time.

I watched John Vaccaro dance. He was dressed in bermuda shorts and a short-sleeve shirt. It was he who, with Warhol and Jack Smith and a handful of others, had begun, in his early productions nearly a decade ago, what would become the underground scene. And I thought, Christ, how jaded we have become, with a kind of defensive insensitivity, jaded to the war raging while we danced, to the poverty in the city north of us, how introverted and self-regarding we had grown as we grew older, Vaccaro and Warhol and Jack Smith, among the few who created the tribe, getting older, fatigued, pressing, however distantly, middle age. Warhol especially worn through, beyond endurance, speaking tiredly in barely audible whispers, timid of crowds, conscious of their violence, his skin unusually white and drawn, the blood vessels on his face vividly scarlet, his chest scarred from the shooting. And what was worse, Warhol bored, making little games with his camera, but overwhelmingly, obviously bored. His boredom — broken only by the appearance of an incredibly handsome blond boy from Erie, Pennsylvania, straight, naive, refreshingly, comically, beautifully middle-brow, Midwestern, an inceptive quail who appeared at the non-wedding by chance and was, being utterly out of place, threatened by it and defended himself with silence broken only by occasional radical comments on the “capitalist” nature of the affair — and the undifferentiated sexuality of the gathering, unisexual, and the labored-at giddyness, the overdone homosexual gaiety, the spiritual and, yes, sexual inappetance of the tribe, this caused me to think that it had come to its conclusion, the tribe, it had become what it had once parodied, the drag queens no longer took off the falsies and the rest, Jackie Curtis was for all intents and purposes, to the tribe a woman; so far over the line, that was the pathos of the wedding, so far gone, baby, that her distress was real. She was the proverbial bride left standing humiliated at the church door, the rejected woman, marrying a man she never loved to spite a man she could not possess. Like a godawful bad novel, and the heroine was trying so goddamn hard not to admit her raging disappointment, her grief — all her life wanting to be married like a real American girl and then, on the day of her wedding, her initiation into femininity with the press and party and marriage feast and a dreamed-for marriage night, CONSUMMATION! and for the bridegroom not to come! Christ! With her lamps all lit, the feast prepared, for him not to come. At the end, alone on the roof, like Eleanor Rigby picking up rice after the wedding on the church floor.

***

Later at Max’s Kansas City the party was reunited, Jackie straggling in late, alone, unescorted. She spent the night drinking champagne and table-hopping in the back room among her friends while her former husband-to-be, Eric Emerson, remained in the front room making cracks about her to passing friends.

Eric, thinking he had missed out on a bad thing, thinking he would be leaving for France in two weeks to be in the Paris edition of “Hair,” so what did it matter, Eric explaining. “She said I didn’t have to be faithful. Now what the hell kind of marriage is that?” And, “If she wants to be a woman let her learn to take shit.” And, “Who wants to marry a wife with a five o’clock shadow?”

And Jackie, as morning came, sat amid the empty champagne glasses, Tally Brown and the poet Gerard Malanga keeping her company, as her wedding night withered, saying to me, “If you quote me, tell them, ‘Jackie Curtis laughed!‘ ” Pause. Then changing her mind, as women will, “No, say … say, ‘I was a ravished pixie,’ say that, Dotson, say Miss Jackie Curtis, rejected by Eric Emerson, oh, wasn’t that cruel? and it wasn’t even a legal marriage, he’s cruel. Say, ‘Jackie Curtis looked like a ravished pixie.’ ”

Before I left, I spoke with John Vaccaro again. He was sitting at a booth some distance from the round table where the bride lingered. The blond boy from Erie was with him. The boy said he was an SDS member and he kept trying to place some political judgment on the event, claiming that it was capitalist.

“Capitalist?” Vaccaro said, “how’s it capitalist? None of us have any money. Kid, this was an affair of the poor.”

The boy went on to ask rhetorically why you people are wasting your time on fag weddings and underground art crap when there was a war going on and a revolution to be made. “Those were two men who got married,” the boy said, “Two men! And Andy Warhol was shot by somebody and he still isn’t political. None of this shit has any political content. It’s counter-revolutionary bourgeois decadence. It’s going nowhere, man, I mean, really, where do you think this stuff is going to end, what’s next? After marrying two men, what else can you do? Why don’t you people wake up and do something for the Movement instead of all this decadence?”

Vaccaro, tired and more than a little bored, “I told Esquire once,” he said, “when they asked what we would do on the stage next, I said I would be interested in seeing someone murdered on stage. Maybe that’s next, huh?”

The kid did not understand.

Vaccaro: “We … I think we made the revolution, the Movement possible, in a sense we did, a long time ago, everybody who in their art attacked the basic values of American culture, all those people made you, even maybe made SDS possible. We gave you room, baby. And maybe, I think, maybe what we gave birth to, maybe what we made way for was a new batch of prudes. Where’s your tolerance, your compassion, huh, outside your speeches, where is it in your life? Jackie gets engaged and she gets jilted and she gets hurt and you have no understanding of her pain. What good is that to anything, that lack of understanding, what good is that to us?”

***

It was growing light outside when Jackie started for home. “I think,” she said, “I think maybe for the divorce we’ll have a party, what do you think?” Maybe there, in her refusal finally to give way to defeat, in her rebellion, in her inability to give way to the destiny of her birth, maybe in that resistance, however sentimental and apolitical, she was doing what she could to save the goddamn world from the prudes. ❖

 

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 7, 2020

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