Confessions of a Drag Legend: Charles Busch’s Memoir Is Here, Darling

Charles Busch, the celebrated male actress, Tony-nominated playwright and, most recently, exuberant memoirist, has been thinking that his bed might make a good stage. At his Greenwich Village duplex last month, he noted how the arched entrance to his blindingly white boudoir resembles a proscenium.

The room is in the style of 1940s-vintage Dorothy Draper, an interior decorator known for her Modern Baroque sensibility. It is the sort of place, Busch observed, that you could imagine Gene Tierney bedding down as the chic advertising executive (and presumed murder victim) in the glamorous 1944 film noir “Laura.”

The show Busch would like to perform here, though, would be a production of Lucille Fletcher’s radio play “Sorry, Wrong Number,” in which a high-strung, bedridden rich woman overhears her own murder being plotted via a crossed telephone connection. The role was memorably played by Barbara Stanwyck in the 1948 film.

“I really should do it before I’m too old,” said Busch, who was then a few weeks shy of 69. With brushed-back, graying hair and a mandarin-collared shirt and trousers (drag is for the stage), he resembled a discreetly bohemian college professor.

He figured an audience of 12 could be squeezed into the hallway. Busch himself, presumably in a luxe peignoir, would be waiting “in the bed, like Jessica Chastain,” who sat onstage in a wordless prologue in the recent Broadway revival of “A Doll’s House.”

In his 2010 show “The Divine Sister,” Busch (here with Amy Rutberg) delivered a twisted tale of the secret lives of nuns.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Busch, too, would be in character from the get-go, “eating chocolates and being neurotic.” He plucked at the air with impatient, fidgeting fingers. Suddenly a doomed, desperate invalid woman seemed to loom before me. I felt dizzy, caught between a shiver and a giggle.

I had arrived just 10 minutes earlier chez Busch, whose “Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy” comes out on Tuesday. But already much of the essence of this man who plays women had been established: the encyclopedic frame of reference, the conjuring of a sparklingly sophisticated Manhattan, the summoning of a decades-spanning parade of actresses and, above all, the giddy Judy-and-Mickey-style excitement of putting on a show.

These elements are much in evidence in “Leading Lady,” a book that brings to mind “Act One” — Moss Hart’s classic account of a sentimental education in the theater — but with a lot more wigs and costume changes, as well as a blithe detour working as a rent boy for nine months. And, of course, a different roster of famous names as supporting players, who here include Liza Minnelli, Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury and Kim Novak.

Though the book was 14 years in the making (“I wrote many plays in between, darling”), autobiography would seem to come naturally to a man who says, “While I am living an experience, I am turning it into narrative.” Assembled as a time-scrambling mosaic of reminiscence and self-analysis, “Leading Lady” chronicles the ascent of a motherless boy who discovered that he was really good onstage only when he put on women’s clothes.

“When I play a male role, I’m fine,” he said, “but there’s somebody else who could do it better. But as far as being a male actress, I have a pretty healthy ego.”

The late-career films of Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Susan Hayward inspired Busch’s role as a faded screen diva with murder on her mind in “Die Mommie Die!”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Busch’s crowded résumé includes screenplays (his movie with Carl Andress, “The Sixth Reel,” in which he appears in and out of drag, will be screened in New York this month), national cabaret tours and the authorship of a hit Broadway comedy, “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.”

But as the memoir’s title suggests, Busch is above all a leading lady. His self-starring plays — inspired by the female-centric melodramas of vintage Hollywood — usually find him elaborately bewigged and begowned, cherry picking gestures and inflections from the likes of Stanwyck, Jean Harlow, Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford. These traits coalesce into a single, swirlingly allusive portrait, usually of a strong, fabulously dressed woman in jeopardy.

John Epperson, Busch’s longtime friend and, as the great Lypsinka, his peer in the downtown cross-dressing pantheon, sees both their work as part of a tradition of live performance that dates to drag antecedents like Charles Ludlam, the founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which presciently blurred the lines between both genres and genders. It was a sensibility taking fresh forms in East Village bars four decades ago like the Pyramid Club and the Limbo Lounge, the birthplace of Busch’s breakout work, “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” “As someone once said to me, ‘Observe the absurdities in the culture,’” Epperson said. “I think I was already doing that! And that’s what he does, too, in his own angled way.”

Staged Off Broadway with minimal budgets and maximal inventiveness, Busch’s plays have usually been everything their redolent titles promise — “Vampire Lesbians” (which had a five-year Off Broadway run in the mid-1980s), “The Lady in Question,” “Die Mommie Die!,” “The Divine Sister” and, most recently, “The Confession of Lily Dare,” which ran in New York shortly before the pandemic.

“The Confession of Lily Dare,” a 2020 show, found Busch evoking Helen Hayes, Ruth Chatterton and other stars of pre-Code mother-love weepies.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

At first, they’re just a hoot. Shaped by a mix of sincere affection and amused distance, they echo the experience of watching the films that inspired them. It’s an approach that has allowed Busch to maintain a singular position in the increasingly crowded world of drag, which has become both the stuff of prime-time entertainment (see: “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and its progeny) and a political lightning rod. With its gleeful emphasis on the extravagantly made-over self, drag would seem to be a perfect fun house mirror for a culture ever more obsessed with the illusions — and truths — of self-presentation.

At the same time, men dressing as women now routinely evokes fire-breathing outrage from American conservatives. “That’s all just a snare and a delusion,” Busch said of the right-wing attacks on cross-dressing. “It’s like ‘Footloose’ or something,” he added, referring to the 1984 film about a small town that prohibits teenagers from dancing. “It would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous.”

For years, Busch bristled at being called a drag queen; in early interviews, he insisted that performing as a woman was purely an artistic choice. It is a stance that now embarrasses him. “If you base your entire creative life around female imagery, it has to come from somewhere profound,” he said.

From the moment he first donned drag for a play about Siamese twins he wrote while a student at Northwestern University, he realized that a female persona allowed him a confidence and expressiveness he lacked performing as a man. Today, he is happy to be called a “godmother of drag.” Reached on tour in California, two notable stars from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” confirmed Busch’s claim to that title.

BenDeLaCreme said Busch’s performances were “like this distillation of our collective queer conscious.” Jinkx Monsoon, who met Busch for lunch, found him to possess “all the grandeur and sparkle of an opera diva, the self-awareness of a vaudeville clown and the grace of a first lady giving a tour of the White House.” The actor Doug Plaut, who worked with Busch on “The Sixth Reel,” views him as a surrogate mother, as well as “the most fascinating person who has ever lived.”

Busch burst onto the New York theater scene in the mid-1980s with the long-running Off Broadway hit “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.”Credit…Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic, via Getty Images

Busch’s own mother died of a heart attack just down the street from their home in Hartsdale, N.Y., when Busch was 7, and her absence pervades “Leading Lady.” His father, who owned a record store, was affable but inattentive, and Busch’s maternal aunt, Lillian Blum, a smart, arts-loving widow who lived in Manhattan, stepped into the vacuum.

She was in essence “both my mother and my father,” he said his therapist pointed out. Busch sees her as the true hero of his book. She died in 1999.

Busch was also very close to his sister Margaret, who was three years older. “We were like empaths,” he said. “We were both really good mimics. And she was the most feminine, fragile little thing, but her Jimmy Cagney had as much nuance as my Greer Garson.” She died of cancer on July 13, and when I visited Busch a few weeks later, he was still raw from the loss.

He choked up talking about the comedian Joan Rivers, the most dominant of the mother figures he’s been drawn to throughout his adult life. “After she died, I was kind of sniffing around a bunch of older ladies, thinking I’d find another one,” he said. “But you can’t replace people.”

Busch is working on a show about the playwright Henrik Ibsen’s widow, who is “sexually awakened by a sailor.”Credit…Justin Kaneps for The New York Times

He did seem a bit washed-out that day, especially amid the vibrant portraits of him throughout the Chinese-red living room to which we had adjourned. These included Busch à la Dietrich, on a sofa cushion; Busch as Sarah Bernhardt in moody black and white; Busch as a springy human exclamation point per the theater illustrator Al Hirschfeld; and a host of diversely made-up busts Busch created from his own face mask.

It felt like the natural setting for someone who habitually shifts among different selves. As we talked, his voice most often brought to mind not his beloved movie goddesses but the aw-shucks wholesomeness of the boy-next-door matinee idol Van Johnson or a young Jimmy Stewart.

The women would surface, though, in bursts of ripe annotation — the breathless booming of Bette Davis, the stateliness of Norma Shearer or the “deadpan look that’s slightly mad” that shows up, he said, in every performance by Vivien Leigh, his favorite actress.

He’s thinking of at last incorporating the patrician tones of Katharine Hepburn, circa “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” into his next production, “Ibsen’s Ghost: An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy.” It’s about the epochal dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s widow, who is “sexually awakened by a sailor,” and is scheduled to arrive in New York early next year.

“It may be my farewell performance,” he said solemnly. I reminded him that he had said the same thing about “Lily Dare” a few years ago.

“Yes, that was going to be my farewell performance,” he agreed, a bit testy. “But I don’t know.” He then landed the requisite one-liner with a dry Eve Arden drawl: “I don’t have enough hobbies.”

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