Gay life in 1940's Bronzeville: The Story of "Nancy Kelly"
DOCUMENT: In February 1994, Allen Drexel, then a graduate student in history at the University of Chicago, interviewed Lorenzo Banyard, known as "Nancy Kelly" in the South Side Drag Circuit of the 1940s. The document provides a unique window on the life of young Black gay male living in Bronzeville in the 1940s. The most relevant excerpts of this interview are reproduced below. Allen Drexel's research is available in Creating a Place for Ourselves)
Can you tell me about your childhood and your family?
I was born in New Orleans, August 30th 1917. We came to Chicago in 1924. My grandmother brought my sister and I up here and we stayed on 31st street. My auntie had a whorehouse. I went to school here in Chicago. Douglass School was the first school I went to. Then when I got a little older I went to Phillips. Phillips burned, I left Phillips and went to DuSable, for three years in high school.
I have one brother and one sister. My father was somewhere in Chicago. I would see him every now and then. He worked at the stockyard. When I would go up there to see him, his name was Arthur, I would go to see him and get some money, he would say “Boy, I ain’t got no money’. I left him alone. He came up here in 1919. They had a train they would send down there to the south to get all the Negroes to work here for the stockyard. You know the stockyard was the big thing. This is how he got that job. He stayed there 40 years.
But my mother and him were never together. I can’t remember a day they were together…
How did you figure out you were gay?
I knew I was gay when I was 12 years old. I got abused when I was 8 years old on the lakefront. I was so skinny; I would swish all the time. The guy was one of my auntie’s boyfriends.
But I never really had a problem with my family. The only problem that I had was with my uncle. I was his godchild. My mother never said anything. My sister used to call me “Sissy” so much I thought my name was “sissy.” My mother never, until the day she left, said anything to me. Women would tell her about me, they said “you know your son is a sissy because he wears women’s clothes” and she would always said ‘you ain’t got none to do with that, sh sh sh just leave him alone.” My grandmother raised me, she was strong, she was born during slavery time, in 1865.
My uncle was the same way. The boys were going to beat me up one day, they were so hard on a queen, and they told my uncle, “He’s a sissy” and he said “Well, he’s my sissy” and he had the biggest fight on 45th street. My uncle whipped all those little punks up there. And later on they all became trade. Same boys. They used to come down to the 1410 [West Roosevelt Road, a gay club].
How would you say gays were treated in the 40s?
They were treated like dogs. The vice squad was so bad. You would be taken to jail and they would put you in the laundry in jail. They wouldn’t put you with the boys. You had to wash some old funky clothes. So it was pretty rough.
How did you become acquainted with the gay scene?
I learned how to dance in 1939. It was another queen who taught me, Valda Gray. I admired her. She had this long hair and the makeup… These queens were making money from their dancing. We had gigs. We would ask the lady how much they would give us, because they would pay by the show. You’d get six dollars, and that was kinda nice. If you would work a full show, from Friday to Sunday, you would be put on a salary. That would be quite a bit of money.
Who were the famous gays in the 40s?
Valda Gray! She was a producer at Joe’s and all the other clubs… I don’t remember when Valda came on the scene. It must have been about 1940 when she came to Chicago. She lived in Indianapolis. I met her at the Halloween Balls. Sometimes you didn’t see her for four or five months. Then when Halloween came she would come back. We didn’t have too many halls where we could dance.
Where would you go dance in the 40s?
There was place on Roosevelt Road, called 1410 West Roosevelt road. A Jewish fellow owned it. He was paying girls ten dollars per night to do a show to build up his crowd. And another queen was working there. Her name was Jeanne Leroux and she asked me if I wanted to go.
Everybody avoided this place like the plague. The boys were so hostile. They would tear your drags off, tear your wigs off. They would make nasty remarks. They would say stuff like “come on in and suck my dick” but I needed some money, and I borrowed a drag from one of the queens. I had put my make up on it, and get on the street corner and shock the people. ‘Cuz we wore grease paint you know. Well anyway, it was Max Factor grease paint, No. 8.
And I told my best friend, she said “Where are you going?” I had just turned on 43rd street and King Drive. “Well I am going to 1410.” She said “Sister, don’t do that… they can kill you over there…” I said “I am going there because the guy will pay 10 dollars a show!” and I know I can do three shows and I will hit the floor three times. So I went it was a streetcar they had no buses then…
You wore drags in the streets?
Wig, make up, high shoes, and your makeup kit, you know... And I got on…I don’t want to think about it sometimes because I feel like I wanna cry. I got on this streetcar, and this little lady was sitting right across from me, you know, and here I got all this make up on, the eyelashes, the lipstick and everything, and Cuban heels (cause I didn’t dance in high heels – Cuban heels are much lower and can grip the floor better.) All the queens danced in heels but I didn’t trust them.
So anyway this lady was sitting right across from me, and then comes this dude: “Hey baby you sure do look good!” I said “Jesus,” and now I’m going to have to struggle with him until I get to Roosevelt road. I said to him “what’s your problem man?” and the old lady said “come on honey, sit over here…” She said “We women are not even safe anymore, that old... I would like to curse him, but I’m a Christian woman.” Everybody on the streetcar was looking at me. I just sat there and crossed my legs.
So we arrived at Roosevelt Road, I got off at Roosevelt road and I could see everybody going looking out of the window, where is this man going with all this makeup on. And when I got to 1400, it was on Friday night, Jeanne Leroux was slick, she went in with the band boys, because she knew they weren’t going to bother her with the band boys.
When I got off the streetcar, I saw the punks right there… my heart fell. I said “oh lord.” I was not a fighter you know. I had to fight now, with my make-up kit. The boy said “here she comes… here she comes… I am gonna beat your mother fucking ass when you come out of there…” and I said “OK…”
Jeanne Leroux, she was peeping through the Venetia blinds, and she said “Look, I told you, why didn’t you wait?” I said “Well I wasn’t going to wait on you, you know, because I thought maybe I could get there early and finish making up, putting a little more makeup on and get set with the band what numbers you’re going to do.” And she said “Well, we’re not going to start the show right now, we’ll wait until it gets a little more crowded.”
Describe the crowd at these clubs where you were dancing?
It was a straight crowd, totally black, a Jewish guy owned the club, his son was the bartender and his nephew was behind the bar too. I don’t think they have crowds like that anymore. It was not a good crowd. It was the worst place in the world.
It was a big building, two floors. The first floor was a tavern, the second floor, I didn’t really know, I guess a family lived there. And there was a stage. It would seat 250 people. But they packed in there. So the owner said, “Let them see you, let them see you! Go sit up front, make money, make money.”
So, we did the first show, it was sad. We could do the band chorus, and we all had what we called the line, the half line, and we could do that and then we would do the special thing called the middle number, then we would do the finale. So he told us, “Work one more show, I’ll give you another $10.” We’d already made $10, so this was $20, that was good change. So, I would go and stand and look out the window and they would be peeping in there. So we did the second show. Place began to pack up then.
What would people do there?
Well, everybody was on welfare. They called it “charity” then, but now they call it something else. So the boss asked us if we wanted to do another show. We had made $20, so I asked Jeanne if she wanted to do another show. She said “Yeah, child, but let’s go up to the bar and have a drink.” And she knew I didn’t drink that much. I just took a shot. The band was happy to have us because that meant they were making more money too.
So anyway, we did the third show, we rocked the house. It was just like a circus. It was just me and Jeanne Leroux. And the crowd had got really mellow. And he told us we could do another show, a fourth show because it was still early, it wasn’t even 12 o’clock. So we did the fourth show and that was good money. So, I used to take my money and put it down in my shoe, but I learned something by going to the different clubs, I take my money and put it down in here, see…
First I would wrap it up in a handkerchief, a little small lady’s handkerchief and I would put a pin in there and put it down in here ‘cause they wasn’t going down in there…they’d make you take your shoes off, but they’d never thought about of going down in your dress. So, about 2 o’clock and Jeanne said “you going now or are you going to wait for the band?” I wanted to go down to 43rd to go to the Fred Robertsons, because his tavern was open all night long. So Jeanne said “Are you going to leave now?” I said “yes, child, I’ll see you later.”
And when I walked out that tavern, they reached for me. And I stepped back, the boy, his name was Little Cap (later on, we became real tight), and he said “Oh, we gonna get you know!” I said “What did I do to you?” I had kept one $5 out. I said “You all want some wine?” They drank wine. “Yeah, sissy, you gone get us some wine?” “Yeah!” So I gave them the money, he went into the tavern, got the wine, brought it back, gave me my change.
And an old lady was standing there, just looking at me. She couldn’t imagine me looking like that and I’m a man, with all this makeup on. I asked her “Would you like some of my cologne?” And they had a cologne named “Park and Tilford” and you put that on and you could smell me up to 99th street. It was just that strong. So I took it and gave her a little bit around here. I won her over.
It wasn’t the boys, which I found out later on in life, it was the women…they resented us that we could look like this. It wasn’t the boys. “He wants to be like us, go kick his ass.” I gave her a pair of earrings too. And this guy took me over to see his mother and next weekend I went over there.
What about the Drag Balls?
There’d have a big band, maybe about seven or eight pieces in the band, and everybody would be dancing with one another, and they’d be drinking. They had tables like a cabaret, and you’d dance with your friend or you’d dance with someone else’s friend. And the lesbians would be there, not to many of them, and they would dance with the queens.
The first lesbian I danced with, I thought was a man. Her name was Billy, and I thought Billy was a man until she told me “No baby, it ain’t like that.”
And then there was another queen who came from the north, I don’t know what happened to her. Her name was Ada Leonard. She used to come from the northside and bring her entourage because she liked black boys, you know. Yeah, she was white. She would come down and she had about 10-15 people with her and we would party. She’d buy drinks and everyone would drink with them. And she’d get drunk, get silly, you know. So, I don’t know what happened to her. I think around 1951 or 1952 she just disappeared….