“PS BURN THIS LETTER PLEASE”— New York’s Gay Drag Scene in the 1950’s and 1960’s


New York’s Gay Drag Scene in the 1950’s and 1960’s

Amos Lassen

Set among the drag balls of the 1950’s, mostly in New York City, “PS Burn This Letter Please” mixes oral and epistolary history— interviews we see from the still-living participants of the balls and letters from a box left in a storage locker. Taken together, we get the story of the gay scene of New York and the broader United States.

In 2007, John Maloof was  a young graduate working on a history project. He bought a suitcase full of photographic negatives in a Chicago auction hoping to be able to use them in his research.  What he discovered was a fine collection of street photography that was the work of one person, Vivian Maier, who was a complete unknown. Then in 2014  letters were found in the storage locker of Los Angeles DJ and talent agent, Reno Martin. These letters were about the lives of New York City drag queens during the 1950s and 60s.  

The letters came to from  producer Craig Olsen and fiolmmalers Jennifer Tiexiera and Michael Seligman who used them to make this film, a unique look at LGBTQ history that takes us a world, pre-Stonewall days.The filmmakers spent four years finding those who wrote the letters. We never learn who the real Reno Martin is but we do meet his friends, most of whom are still alive. They live all over the country and are in their 80s and 90s. They had come to New York because of the freedom that they thought they would find.

The letters describe the balls and friendships of the period, and are written in vocabulary we seldom use today showing the evolving language of identity. We also see photos and snapshots of queens wearing chic dresses and celebrating. Here are  some misconceptions of New York’s LGBTQ scene, such as asking about The 82 Club; a popular mob-owned drag bar that were normalized and open 1950’s America and the fear of punishment by the authorities and the courage to live freely.

Here were the days when homosexuality was illegal as was dressing up in women’s clothing.  The film capturesthe joyof these gay men as they lives their lives in a restricted society. The letters are mixed in with vintage home movies, and photos.  The interviews are wonderful as we hear how happy these men were to have found a place where they belonged.