The Mystery Model

One of my goals in creating posts about artist’s models like Chuck Howard, Randy Jack, and Ted Starkowski is to clear up misinformation posted online by galleries and auction houses. Whether the inaccuracies are intentionally deceptive or the result of laziness, the errors spread across the internet, with subjects misidentified and photo dates sometimes off by decades.

Recently, a series of nearly 30 nude model study photos were auctioned off in lots labeled “Jared French Nude Study of Tennessee Williams” or “Studio di nudo Tennessee Williams.” One set of two 8×10 photos sold for over $650. These should have been credited to the PaJaMa collective, which Jared French was a part of, and unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the lean muscularly defined model is certainly not writer Tennessee Williams.

Tennessee Williams was the subject of several PaJaMa photos in Provincetown and at Jared French’s New York City studio at 5 St. Luke’s Place. In one of these photos, Williams strikes the same pose in the same place as our mystery model.

So who was the thin young chap with the low-hangers?

In another corner of the internet, I found two of these photos in PaJaMa exhibit, dated 1943 and identifying the subject as dancer/choreographer John Butler (1918-1993). In the early 1940’s, he earned money working as an art model while studying dance with both Martha Graham and George Balanchine.

He was also photographed by George Platt Lynes:

AP article (1955)

Butler danced on Broadway as Dream Curly in the original production of Oklahoma! He appeared in a string of Broadway musicals throughout the 1940’s including Hollywood Pinafore, Inside U.S.A. and On The Town, where he dated cast mate Cris Alexander.

He began to transition into choreography in the late 1940’s. The combined influences of Balanchine and Graham gave his work unique elements of classical ballet as well as modern dance. He was one of the first to create works specifically for television, which was still considered a new and inferior medium. He choreographed variety show segments (The Ed Sullivan Show, The Kate Smith Show) as well as for Omnibus and full-length ballets and operas. His 1951 staging of Amahl and the Night Visitors was recreated annually for the following nine NBC holiday specials.

Butler performs as one of the Three Dancers in this 1955 broadcast.

Life Magazine profiled Butler in the April 25, 1955 issue:

In addition to his work choreographing for Broadway and television, Butler founded The John Butler Dance Company in 1955. It was later renamed American Dance Theater and toured Europe until it disbanded in 1961.

John Butler & Carmen de Lavallade rehearse Portrait of Billie, his dance meditation on Billie Holliday (ca 1960)
John Butler & Melvin Dwork (1963)

His most celebrated work was the staging of Carmina Burana (1959) for New York City Opera, which has been revived with over 30 companies.

In 1961 he met celebrated interior designer Melvin Dwork, who has called Butler “the love of my life.” They remained companions and friends until Butler’s death in 1993. Dwork was instrumental in preserving Butler’s dance legacy.

As he matured, Butler’s voluminous eyebrows became something of a trademark of his appearance. He appears to have embraced this with a level of zeal that surely inspired George Whipple.

Over the next several decades, Butler continued to choreograph throughout the U.S. and around the world. The Hague, Munich, Sydney, Spoleto, Montreal, and Warsaw were part of his regular rotation with occasional work in Italy and South America. Back in New York City he choreographed Medea, the first dance for Mikhail Baryshnikov after his defection to the West.

John Butler photographed in April of 1993. He died of lung cancer later that year at the age of 74.

In 1993, author Camille Hardy interviewed John Butler for Dance Magazine shortly before his death. As they sat in his Upper East Side apartment, surrounded by his artwork collection and the walls lined with the works of Warhol, Avedon and Lynes, he said “I’ve done everything in my life I ever wanted to do.”

New York Times Obituary (12/13/93)

See also:
Fire Island PaJaMa Party
Artist’s Muse: Chuck Howard
Artist’s Muse: Randy Jack
Artist’s Muse: Ted Starkowski
Buddy & Johnny: A Historic Photo Shoot

Fire Island PaJaMa Party

During vacations from the 1930’s through the mid-1950’s, artists Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and his wife Margaret Hoening French photographed each other on the beaches of Fire Island and later Cape Cod. Usually nude or donning simple costumes, they would also use found objects as props to create stark, surreal and/or erotic images. They passed Margaret’s Leica camera around, taking turns as subject and auteur. This collaborative authorship was reflected in the umbrella name they chose for this work, utilizing the first two letters of their first names: PaJaMa.

Years later Cadmus explained, “After we’d been working most of the day, we’d go out late afternoons and take photographs when the light was best. They were just playthings. We would hand out these little photographs when we went to dinner parties, like playing cards.”

The dynamic was complicated: Cadmus and Jared were lovers – a relationship that continued during the marriage. All three lived and worked in a townhouse at 5 St. Lukes Place in Greenwich Village.

A 2015 New York Times review of a PaJaMa exhibition noted that their photos “breathed eroticism.” While some of the hundreds of photos are masterpieces of magical realism, others appear to be figure studies for their painting. And then there are simple snapshots of nude men frolicking on the beach, enjoying the sun and surf.

Right: Jared French on Fire Island (1940) Left: Paul Cadmus’ etching “Youth With Kite”, 1941

Jared French and his considerable wares are the most frequent subject of the photographs, with entire rolls of film devoted to his nude poses and posturing. Cadmus and Margaret are slightly more demure although we do not know who was giving direction from behind the camera at any given time.

These three artists were joined by various friends and lovers through the years, fellow artists and writers that were part of their New York social circle.

Dancer/Model José Martinez appears in PaJaMa photos of the late 1930’s with Paul Cadmus

1938 PaJaMa photos of writer Glenway Westcott sometimes appear online mislabled as Paul Cadmus or Ted Starkowski.

Writer Donald Windham (with Cadmus & French), 1938

Photographer George Platt Lynes was a frequent guest with his own camera.

Jared French in Saltaire after the devastating hurricane of 1938.

West of Saltaire, the Fire Island Lighthouse served as a frequent backdrop.

Jensen Yow, Bill Harris & Jack Fontan, ca. 1950

Now well into his 90’s, Alexander Jensen Yow recently recalled the circle of artists, as well as his participation in PaJaMa photos of the early 1950’s. “Paul posed us and took the pictures. I was never out there with Jerry (Jared). There were plenty of personality conflicts all scattered around with these people, but I never knew what they were or anything… Jerry was always nice to me though. But his and Margaret’s was a strange relationship… She was crazy about Jerry but she was always in the background, you know. Always there. Jerry did what he wanted to do, and she tagged after him. I was so green when I met these people that I didn’t know how to act…. I tried to be discreet but it wasn’t easy.”

Paul Cadmus, “The Shower”, 1943
Margaret French, “The Moon by Day”, 1939

As with George Platt Lynes’ male nude photographs, the PaJaMa collection did not receive much notice or recognition until the 1990’s. They are now frequently exhibited in galleries and selections are a part of the MOMA collection.

PaJaMa, Nantucket, 1946

See Also:
Artist’s Muse: Chuck Howard
Artist’s Muse: Ted Starkowski
Artist’s Muse: Randy Jack
Buddy & Johnny: A Historic Photo Shoot

Len & Cub – A Relationship In Photos

A new book gives insight into a same-sex relationship in rural Canada a century ago.

Tinted photo of Leonard “Len” Keith (1891-1950) & Joseph “Cub” Coates (1899-1965) on a trip to Jemseg, New Brunswick (1916)

If it weren’t for the advent of the self-timing camera, we would not know anything about the relationship between Len & Cub. There are no surviving notes, letters or documents to provide any further evidence. Luckily, Len had an interest in photography and documented their intimacy in a trove of images spanning nearly 15 years. These photos serve to illustrate their story in the recently published book Len & Cub: A Queer History (Goose Lane Press) by Meredith J. Batt and Dusty Green.

Len & Cub features Len’s photos of the duo between 1916 and 1930 and tells the story of a relationship in early 20th Century rural North America. These photos provide the oldest known photographic records of a same-sex couple in New Brunswick, Canada.

The term “queer” seems a bit ill-fitting to describe the actions of individuals a century ago, when even the terms “homosexual” or “gay” were not part of the vernacular. The choice of language is explained by the authors, who dedicate the book to the queer youth of New Brunswick. As Green states in his preface, “… the record of their lives is a testament to the resilience of queer people and an affirmation that we belong in any place we choose to call home.”

Leonard “Len” Keith  was born in 1891 in Butternut Ridge (now Havelock), New Brunswick. His family enjoyed a moderate amount of wealth as the owners of a match factory and later a grist mill. Joseph “Cub” Coates was born 8 years later, the son of a farmer who was a neighbor to the Keith family. Together Len and Cub shared a love of the outdoors and documented their outings in photos. The pictures taken during hunting and canoe trips with their arms around each other or lying in bed together make clear the affection they held for each other.

When Len was called to service during World War I, Cub signed up as well, and the two trained together in Quebec.

Cub and Len in training at Saint-Jen-sur-Richelieu, Quebec (1918)

Photos of the duo are less frequent in the late 1920’s. Len’s camera captures several other unnamed male companions that accompanied him on trips and other outdoor adventures.

Len was also a car enthusiast and eventually opened a garage, which he later converted into a pool hall. Cub continued to make a living farming and then as a butcher.

In 1931, Len was forced to leave Havelock, allegedly due to his homosexual activities. He signed over control of his business and finances to his sister Lucy and headed to the United States. He later settled in Montreal, where he resided until succumbing to cancer in 1950. His sister arranged for his burial in Havelock.

It appears that Cub was not caught up in the scandal that forced Len out of town. He stayed in Havelock until 1940, when he married Rita Cameron, a nurse from the neighboring town of Chatham. After he served in WWII, the couple relocated to Moncton. He would go on to become a prominent figure in New Brunswick’s harness racing circles before his death in 1965.

Len & Cub, ca 1916

The photos were donated to the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick by John Corey, a local historian who purchased them at a Keith family estate sale in 1984. Corey’s father had been a classmate of Len’s and knew both families. When he donated the collection, John referred to Len & Cub as “boyfriends” and also identified a photo of an individual who was instrumental in driving Len out of Havelock.

As some of these photos began to circulate on the internet several years ago, curiosity about Len & Cub’s story grew. In addition to the recent publication of the book, the BeaverBrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, NB is featuring an exhibition of the photos from April 2 – July 29, 2022.

Click here to watch a short video about Len and Cub from the CBC.

Mme Spivy: I Brought Culture To Buffalo In The 90’s

Ladies and Gentleman, it is time once again to revisit that late great dynamic lady of song, Madame Spivy LaVoe or LeVoe (1906-1970), also known simply as Spivy. A lesbian entertainer, nightclub owner and character actress, Spivy has been described as “The Female Noel Coward” – to which I add “…. if he had been born in Brooklyn as Bertha Levine.”

In case you missed them, these are our previous Madame Spivy posts:
The Alley Cat
The Tarantella
Auntie’s Face
100% American Girls
A Tropical Fish

Our latest offering is one of her signature songs: “I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s”. Curiously, on the recording Spivy introduces the song as “Intimate Memories of Buffalo In The 90’s.” This is the fourth side we have profiled from her 1939 album Seven Gay Sophisticated Songs. The lyrics were written by Everett Marcy, who also co-wrote (with Spivy) “Why Don’t You,” another song from the album. Marcy also had a few Broadway writing credits including New Faces of 1936.

Prince Paul Chavchavadze

The music is credited to Prince Paul Chavchavadze (1899-1971), a writer, translator, and deposed Georgian royal living in New York City. And with that nugget of information, I have to say… whenever I look into the eclectic array of international bohemians associated with Spivy, I am reminded of the party scene at the beginning of Auntie Mame. This is also a fitting scenario considering Spivy later played Mother Burnside in the Broadway production.

Oscar Wilde plays a part in the lyrics of the song, as a guest in the home of our fictional hostess. It should be noted that he did conduct several lecture tours across the U.S., including speaking engagements in Buffalo. One of the topics was “The Decorative Arts.”

I Brought Culture to Buffalo In the 90’s

I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s. When Wilde was there, he visited my home
I showed him all the glories I’d bought so cheap in Greece
and all the wonders I’d brought home from Rome.
He was spellbound at the splendor of my whatnot and the cigar butt Papa got from General Grant.
He couldn’t tear his eyes from my bay window and the maidenhair beneath the rubber plants.

I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s – the year I took the iron dog off our lawn.
In its place I put a Venus in a nightie and a rather naughty but authentic faun.
I completely reproduced the Versailles garden though the Erie claimed they had the right of way.
I swore I’d die before a tie was laid to desecrate Versailles. I made Buffalo the place it is today.

I was the first to have a Turkish corner though plenty followed suit, you may be sure.
I produced a pageant based on Jackie Horner and the deficit was given to the poor.
I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s. I made the natives conscious of the nude.
In my dining room I put “Boy Extracting Thorn From Foot” and my guests that winter scarcely touched their food.

The season that I gave my talks on yoga was one I felt I never could surpass.
I had a negligee cut like a toga and all my candelabra piped for gas.
I Brought Culture to Buffalo in the 90’s. When Wilde was there, he visited my home.
Filled with all the treasures of the ages and a nugget Uncle Nate had sent from Nome.

I showed him all the house right through the garret and said “What one thing does it still require?”
When Oscar looked at me, I could not bear it.
“A match,” he said, “Madame, a match to set the goddamn place on fire!”

This newspaper blurb (courtesy of the Queer Music Heritage page) mentions the song being “rented” to singer Bea Lillie:

Madame Spivy: A Tropical Fish

This is the plea of a poor little tropical fish. It’s very sad and we must be very quiet, please.

Ladies and germs, it’s time once again to visit that celebrated lady of song, Madame Spivy LaVoe. To the uninitiated, allow me to get you up to speed:

Spivy (1906-1970) was a lesbian entertainer, nightclub owner and character actress, Spivy has been described as “The Female Noel Coward” – to which I add “…. if he had been born in Brooklyn as Bertha Levine.” You can read earlier posts about her here:

The Alley Cat
The Tarantella
Auntie’s Face
100% American Girls
I Brought Culture To Buffalo In The 90’s

Today we will focus on “A Tropical Fish”, a song was co-written by Spivy with Jill “Billy” Rainsford. The duo also composed the previously profiled The Alley Cat. Both songs were featured on the 1939 album Seven Gay Sophisticated Songs By Spivy.

As with “Auntie’s Face”, Spivy begins this song with her trademark spoken intro “It’s very sad and we must be very quiet…” solemnly intoned before launching into the tune, which tells the story of a tropical fish writing a letter of complaint to Fiorello LaGuardia, the Mayor of New York City (1934-1945).

A Tropical Fish

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, the clerk and the trombone player,

The child on the street and the ultra-elite all write letters to the mayor.

La Guardia’s most conscientious – he tries to grant everyone’s wish

But they went him one better when he got a letter from somebody’s tropical fish.

Dear Mayor,” the letter began, “I’m writing as fish to man.

Our tank’s overheated and we’re being treated like common sardines in a can.

The way people watch us is quaint. Our privacy’s something what ain’t.

So be a good fella, my dear Fiorella and hear a poor fish’s complaint.

To be quite specific, the food is terrific.

We’re on the hay diet – you really should try it.

It tastes like the hook – gee, I wish we could cook.

The service is lousy – we have no back-housey.

And it’s some spot to be in with no pot to … cook in.

The innocent faunas are hiding in corners

Their love life is wearing with human eyes staring…

Why can’t we have covers like those birdcage lovers?

They’re hidden each night ‘til the morning sunlight

Then brought out to bath with no questions asked.

Dear Mayor, I’ve been very frank… but you don’t know life in a tank.

Believe me, it’s hellish and you wouldn’t relish to sleep in the water you drank.

Now here’s what we tropicals wish: Some bedrooms to give us ambish.

Less public relations and more comfort stations.

Yours truly,

A. Tropical Fish”

Lastly, here’s a syndicated article about Spivy that ran in newspapers across the country in late November, 1948. Note that her last name is mispelled “Devoe” with no mention of Bertha Levine.

Spivy Church 1948 full

Mme. Spivy: 100% American Girls

“Our country is so fine, it will really be divine, when we get everyone but us to move away.”

Ladies and Gentleman, it is time once again to revisit that late great dynamic lady of song, Madame Spivy LaVoe (1906-1970), also known simply as Spivy. A lesbian entertainer, nightclub owner and character actress, Spivy has been described as “The Female Noel Coward” – to which I add “…. if he had been born in Brooklyn as Bertha Levine.” You can read other posts about her here:
The Alley Cat
The Tarantella
Auntie’s Face
A Tropical Fish
I Brought Culture To Buffalo In The 90s

Film Spivy Manchurian Candidate2Given the current political climate, it’s a perfect time to have a listen to “100% American Girls”, a stinging satirical composition by Charlotte Kent which reminds us that nationalism, xenophobia and gentile racism have been marching hand-in-hand across this great land for generations. God Bless America.

The opening line addresses the “Daughters, Aunts, Mothers and Second Cousins of the War of 1812…” – a not-so-subtle swipe at the exclusive, ultra-white & conservative Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).

Grant Wood’s 1932 painting Daughters Of Revolution.

The line “You’re supposed to be keeping THOSE people out of Constitution Hall…” refers to the Washington DC concert hall owned by the DAR.  In 1939, they denied African-American singer Marian Anderson the opportunity to sing before an integrated audience, causing First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign her membership in protest. The Roosevelts then arranged for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. The result was an historic performance before an integrated crowd of more than 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions.

Some notes on other references in the song:

Westbrook Pegler was a columnist at the time who opposed labor unions and The New Deal.

Note that Consuela – the only ethnic name mentioned – is directed to be “the rabble,” or disorderly crowd.

Alfred M. Landon was the Republican presidential candidate in 1936 who lost to FDR in a landslide vote.

First Lady Dolley Madison was a world-renowned hostess who, according to lore, was the first to serve guests ice cream at the White House.

100% American Girls

Members of the Daughters, Aunts, Mothers and Second Cousins of the War of 1812, form into double file.

Stop twitching at that bunting Carrie and smile. Take off that feather boa, Mary Louise this is a parade, not a charade.

Vera, you go right back to Washington, you’re not supposed to be marching at all! You’re supposed to be keeping THOSE people out of Constitution Hall.

Please… you on the float there. Lord Calvin is sagging. Yankee Doodle is flat. Your powder is wet. And your Mayflower is dragging.

Oh thank God here’s George III. Alright Lizzie, stand right there and sneer.

Please Consuela, someone has to be the rabble. You throw the Boston tea right in this little box over here.

Remember the things we said we’d never abandon. Remember we’re still true to Alfred M. Landon.

Remember when the Bill of Rights…. HMMMM ….. tried to get fresh with me!

My Westbook Pegler ’tis of thee. Ah ha! The bugle! Formation girls:

Nelly pull your belly in – it’s for the U.S.A. We’ve got to be adorable today.

Oh aren’t you excited? And isn’t this a binge? Lets unfurl every curl in our lunatic fringe.

Tilly, Queenie, Magnolia, Hillaire… to arms!

Nelly pull your belly in and hold your chin up high. We’ll give the crowd a treat as we pass by.

The Pricker unit forward, the Bilbo club behind….And Bessie you keep waving what your grandpa signed.

All together now: Comb your hair for California, wash your neck for Io-way.

Our country is so fine, it will really be divine when we get everyone but us to move away.

Take a Benzedrine for old Virginia, where our daddies sniffed their snuff with dukes and earls.

We are for the human race, which is lovely (in its place). We’re 100% American Girls!

What? Do I see one of you lag when before you is marching the flag?

Did Washington crossing the Delaware say “Let’s call it off, boys – I’m not in the mood for rowing”?

Did Betsy Ross say “Fold up the banner girls –  I hate sewing”?

Hmmm. Really girls! Eyes up! Curls up and away!

Annie pull your fanny in  – it’s for the U.S.A. We’ve got to be adorable today.

When Valley Forge was icy and up to here in snow… did Dolly Madison say “No”?

Myrtle, Cissy, Prissy, Mamie – to arms!

Annie pull your fanny in  – it’s for the U.S.A. We’re 100% American Girls!

This song – along with “Madame’s Lament” – were the two Charlotte Kent compositions featured on Spivy’s 1947 album An Evening With Spivy. Kent had several songwriting credits in film and on Broadway throughout the 1930’s. In 1939, she contributed to the book & lyrics of the musical Sing For Your Supper along with John La Touche, another composer with whom Spivy collaborated. We will get to those recordings at a later date. Stay tuned!

Madame Spivy’s Tarantella

Ladies and Gentleman, I’d like to reintroduce you to someone you should know (if you saw my earlier post about her): the late great Madame Spivy LaVoe or LeVoe (1906-1970), also known simply as Spivy. A lesbian entertainer, nightclub owner and character actress, Spivy has been described as “The Female Noel Coward” – to which I add “…. if he was born Bertha Levine in Brooklyn.”

Spivy piano

Spivy owned a chic NYC piano bar called Spivy’s Roof, which was on the top floor of a building that still stands at the corner of Fifty-Seventh Street & Lexington Avenue. Notable performers through its 11 year existence included Mabel Mercer, Thelma Carpenter and Martha Raye as well as early performances by Liberace and Paul Lynde.

Here is Paul Lynde talking about Spivy on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, April 30, 1976:

“I played another club – Spivy’s Roof. Do you remember Spivy’s? It was a penthouse club and it was very, very “in” when it was hot.  Well… I closed it. I closed Spivy’s. I really did. I was the last person to perform there and as I said it was up on top of the roof. And Spivy and I would be sitting back in the corner all alone and we’d hear the elevator and she’d say “Get your props, you’re on!” And I would get my props out… and it was just the elevator man… he was lonely and wanted to talk to us…. or the landlord trying to collect the rent.

“It was just incredible and you know Spivy… when we did have people, like on the weekend… I would announce her after I was through and she’d run in the john and lock herself in there until the club closed. She never would come on. She would as soon as the club closed … and Judy Garland and Martha Raye and Judy Holliday… they used to come in and Spivy would entertain all night long for them…. but she would not for the audience.

“Finally one night I went to work and the piano was down on the sidewalk under the canopy so I knew it was over.”

Spivy 7 gay LP copy

I previously posted her song The Alley Cat. Today we have The Tarantella – both such short recordings that they fit on the same side of a 78 record as part of her 1939 album Seven Gay Sophisticated Songs. This is one of the few compositions credited solely to Spivy.

The Tarantella

Oh she did the tarantella with a colorful umbrella and in her hat, she wore a quill.
She dressed up like a fella in a suit of real bright yellow just to give the audience a thrill.
She would prance in her dance with the chance that her pants wouldn’t stand the strain. 
She would fall into splits til the folks lost their wits and cried “Again! Another refrain!”

Her coattails she would swish up and they said she shocked the bishop
But the bishop said “Oh no.”
She may be slightly vicious but her footwear is delicious, why it makes me shout “Bravo!”
I shall not leave this place until three times more at least she will 
Do the tarantella with that colorful umbrella and in her hat, that darling quill.

Oh she did the tarantella with a colorful umbrella and in her hat, she wore a quill.
She dressed up like a fella in a suit of real bright yellow just to give the audience a thrill.
She would prance in her dance with the chance that her pants wouldn’t stand the strain. 
She would fall into splits til the folks lost their wits and cried “Again! Another refrain!”

Her coattails she would swish up and they said she shocked the bishop
But the bishop said “Oh no.”
She may be slightly vicious but her footwear is delicious, why it makes me shout “Bravo!”
I shall not leave this place until three times more at least she will 
Do the tarantella with that colorful umbrella and in her hat, that goddamn quill.

________________________________________________________

That goddamn quill. It always surprises me to hear swearing on a 78 record. Even light swearing. It’s not as if she dropped an F-bomb. But we are so used to the sanitized Hollywood version of the 1930’s that it is easy to forget that curse words were not invented in the 1960’s. It’s not the last expletive that we will hear from Madame Spivy, as future posts will show…

All our Spivy posts:
A Tropical Fish
Auntie’s Face
100% American Girls
The Alley Cat
I Brought Culture To Buffalo In The 90s

Spivy Manchurian Candidate
No quill in her hat: Madame Spivy in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Madame Spivy’s Alley Cat

Ladies and Gentleman, I’d like to introduce you to a long lost lady of song that you should know: the late great Madame Spivy LaVoe or LeVoe (1906-1970), also known simply as Spivy. A lesbian entertainer, nightclub owner and character actress, Spivy has been described as “The Female Noel Coward” – to which I would add “…. if he was born Bertha Levine in Brooklyn.”

Spivy cover2In the 1930’s, the former Ms. Levine entertained as a singer/pianist in the back room at Tony’s, a Fifty-Second Street speakeasy and celebrity hot spot. In 1939, the New York Times wrote that “Spivy’s material, witty, acid, and tragicomic, is better than most of the essays one hears about town, and her delivery is that of a sophisticated artist on her own grounds. She knows the value of surprise in punching a line, she uses understatement unerringly, and her piano accompaniment is superb.”

Spivy opened her own chic piano bar, Spivy’s Roof, in the summer of 1940 on the top floor of a building at the corner of Fifty-Seventh Street & Lexington Avenue. Notable performers through its 11 year existence included Mabel Mercer, Thelma Carpenter and Martha Raye as well as early performances by Liberace and Paul Lynde. Spivy’s Roof makes an appearance in the seminal book Gay New York and pops up in several memoirs and biographies of performers, artists and notable society personalities of that era.

Spivy's Roof

Writer Ignacio Schwartz fondly recalls visits to Spivy’s Roof when he was a Holden Caulfield-esque 16 year old boarding school student seeking adventure in New York. The whole article is worth a read, but here’s an excerpt:

She was a plump lady (one writer said that she was “squat like a bulldog.”) She wore her hair in a tight pompadour with a white streak down the middle. She would place a tall glass of what was probably chilled gin on the piano before her. During her time on stage, she would drain a couple, but her singing — her low, throaty voice — would always be perfect.

The one (song) I remember best of all is The Alley Cat. I cannot for the life of me remember more than a couple of lines of Hamlet that I was taught in that Prussian military school. I still have trouble remembering which novels were written by the Brontë sisters and the ones that came from the pen of Jane Austen. But to this day I can recite most of the words of The Alley Cat, along with the intonations, the riffs (and the pauses for laughs) exactly as it has been tricked away in my memory-bag for the last fifty years.

Spivy Alley Cat copy

“The Alley Cat”, which Spivy co-wrote with Jill Rainsford, was a staple from her live show and recorded for her 78 album Seven Gay Sophisticated Songs (1939).

Here’s a video that I put together with lyrics included:

The Alley Cat

On the 14th floor of a walk-up flat, I used to keep an alley cat.
Each night I’d walk him down the stair, and waited while he got the air.
He grew up fast and developed a yen, no sooner was he in than he was out again.
I hated to spoil his fun, but I knew what must be done.

So I called the cat and he staggered home, with a ragged ear and a broken dome
But I knew he felt like hell that day, so I spoke to him this way:
Is it worth it? For that momentary something to yowl around til neighbors call the cops?
Is it worth it? For that momentary something to have nine hundred kittens call you “Pop”?

You’ve been an awful wild cat – you should welcome a vacation.
Just to sit around and brood and think about your operation.
I’ll give you one more night out to complete your education
Then the sheltered life is good enough for you.

I took him to the vet and had his profile bobbed, and when he sat down he said, ‘Hell, I’ve been robbed!’
He went out that night but came right home to bed, and the look on his face was a scream as he said:
“Well, you’ve done it. Now the operation’s over, I’ll never be the same, it seems so strange, but you’ve done it.
Now the operation’s over, no longer will I take chances with the mange.

I had so many wives, I didn’t know where I was at.
But since my change of scenery all the girl cats holler ‘Scat!’
I pass them by and hear them cry; ‘There goes that pansy cat.’
But the sheltered life is good enough for me.”

Spivy 7gay copy

Spivy recorded approximately 15 of her most popular songs. Some she co-wrote with Rainsford, others with lyricist John LaTouche. None of these recordings – originally issued on 78 record albums between 1939-1949 – were ever reissued in any format. I am slowly uploading them to YouTube and will dole them out along with other Spivy tidbits in the near future.

In the meantime, if you are so inclined, check out the Queer Music Heritage website , which has a lot of information on Spivy, although the site is rather antiquated and some browsers won’t support it…. If you choose to heed the “unsecure site” warnings and avoid it… then the sheltered life is good enough for you.