This is a story about New York in the 1970s. A broken, genderfuck friendship story.
When I was 14 years old and an aspiring writer, my best friend was a 28-year-old drag queen and performance artist named Stephen Varble. I was in the ninth grade at Brearley, an all-girls school on the Upper East Side, and at that point Stephen was really the only boy I knew. For almost three years, we explored the seedier undersides of the city; he introduced me to cocaine and kissing and to John Waters’ star Divine, and I provided him, grudgingly, with something approaching home. We charmed, wounded, infuriated each other, squabbled and made up, but even in our most exasperated moments, we each had this weird faith in our friendship as a kind of artistic endeavor: I interviewed Stephen about his work, recorded in my diary every conversation, every meeting; we wrote poems about each other; Stephen commissioned a photographer friend to make a film of the two of us, of which only two stills survive. He called me “Nenna Fiction.”
I went away to college, and stopped answering Stephen’s letters. He became a religious recluse, got AIDS, and died; later he was forgotten because his art was so militantly ephemeral, and because most of the photographers who documented his performances also died of AIDS and were forgotten. Now both he and they are being rediscovered, and the first museum show devoted to Stephen Varble’s work is opening in New York in September this year. It’s taken me 40-odd years to be able to begin thinking about this friendship, which is also a story about Aids, genderqueer art, and a city that not so long ago offered possibilities of wild, unsurveilled freedom and experimentation.
It’s Easter Sunday, Fifth Avenue.The year is 1975. By the 70s, the Easter Parade’s gone from being a society ritual—John D. Rockefeller walking his family to church—to carnival kitsch: couples wearing Easter bonnets the size of grand pianos, Latina triplets in hot-pink lace tap-dancing outside St Patrick’s.
My own Easter’s been—so far—pretty quiet. I’m cutting across Fifth Avenue at 59th, a pale baby-faced adolescent dressed in a sailor’s peacoat and white canvas Keds, on my way home from seeing Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty at the Paris. (The Paris, cater-corner to the Plaza Hotel, had a side entrance you could sneak through if the movie was R-rated.)
I used to go to the movies a lot on my own—to Rogers and Astaire double bills at Theater 80 St. Marks, to Truffaut movies at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, and to the Anthology Film Archives to see films by Jack Smith, who’d been a friend of my mother’s.
I did a lot of things by myself as a kid. There was some damage in me that meant I found other people’s company exhausting. I thought it was my business to be solitary, a watcher, that that was what writers were.
The Easter Parade is winding down, when I spot Him. Her. Them. The Apparition. The Apparition is a bearded young man, lunar-white except for the lavender-and-pink eye makeup. He’s wearing a headdress of half-burnt wooden matches crowned by a souvenir matador and bull, a gown made of golden Seagram’s V.O. labels, and a pair of black evening pumps. He is on the arm of a mustachioed cowboy in black leather, and he’s performing this silent movie pantomime: sidle, shimmy, eyelash flutter, ogle. A small crowd surrounds him.
The thing is, I know him already. I’d clocked the Apparition a month earlier at a Tibetan evening at St. Mark’s Church-In-The-Bowery, drifting up the aisle in a white wool cassock, with a shredded paperback of the novel Forever Amber strapped open across his forehead like an Orthodox Jew’s tefillin, its pages fluttering. Odder still, I’m carrying a photo of him in my wallet, clipped from the SoHo Weekly News. I don’t know his name, but already he’s in there with my hottest fetishes, and I know we belong together in some way.
I pass the leather cowboy my newspaper clipping, and now the Apparition’s doing her tricks just for me. “What’s your name, little girl?” she whispers in this Southern drawl. She’s surprised to see a kid like me at the Easter Parade. “It used to be real festive, but now it’s all RIFF RAFF!”—her voice hiking up to a gargled shriek.
She’s right. The mood’s turned hostile—a gang of Puerto Rican men has moved in, catcalling, baiting. A soda can is thrown, just misses. The two policemen watching don’t do a thing. This random violence from strangers will become familiar to me, tripping along the streets of Lower Manhattan, the Rockaways—worst of all, Staten Island—arm in arm with a bearded man dressed in ballgowns made of garbage: it’s part of the perspectival whiplash entailed when a child of privilege falls in with someone from the wrong side of the socio-sexual tracks.
The Apparition, unfazed, bats her eyelashes at this jeering circle of males, except that suddenly she and the cowboy have disappeared down a subway entrance, and me along with them. We’re on a downtown train, and the Apparition is taking me home to his.
Stephen Varble had been in New York six years when we met. He was born in 1946 in Owensboro, Kentucky. There are still a lot of Varbles in Owensboro. Judging by YouTube postings, if your name is Varble, you are most likely to seek fame as an evangelical preacher or a bluegrass banjo player. (There is also a 51-minute film on YouTube of Stephen dancing in the disco Hurrah, naked beneath a costume made of bead curtains and a life preserver stolen from the Staten Island Ferry.)
Stephen’s family were stalwarts of the Audubon Church of the Nazarene, his father had some kind of real-estate business, and Stephen was a mamma’s boy, but he must have known pretty early he had to hightail it to a big city. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Kentucky, and arrived in New York “with seven dollars and a pretty face,” he later told me. He waited tables at the ice cream parlor Serendipity, and supposedly was fired for performing stripteases for the customers, but also got his master’s in film from Columbia. Straightaway, he encountered Jack Smith, another bearded costume queen whose baroque bacchanalia shot on damaged film stock went right into Stephen’s bloodstream; he performed in Fluxus happenings; his plays were produced at Lincoln Center and La MaMa. These are the building blocks of a mainstream arts career, but already there was something virulently anti-institutional in Stephen’s ethic that made him sabotage any glimmer of even supposedly “indie” success.“Shrieking that someone had forged a million-dollar check in his name and he wanted the money back ‘Now! Now! Now!,’ Stephen exploded his condom-breasts like a gender jihadi and began writing checks with the blood.”
By the time we met in the spring of 1975, Stephen was practicing what he described as Gutter Art: street performances in costumes concocted from materials he found in the dumpster. Sometimes these performances involved corralling passersby into guerrilla “tours” of the SoHo galleries; sometimes he had himself driven around town by his patron Morihito Miyazaki in a Rolls-Royce, wearing an Elizabethan-style hooped skirt constructed from egg cartons, and stopping outside strategic sites—the Metropolitan Museum, say—to wash a stack of dishes in the gutter. In Stephen’s most famous action, staged a year after we met, he flounced into a branch of Chemical Bank, wearing a gown made of dollar bills, with breasts formed by twin condoms filled with fake blood. Shrieking that someone had forged a million-dollar check in his name and he wanted the money back “Now! Now! Now!,” Stephen exploded his condom-breasts like a gender jihadi and began writing checks with the blood.
What do you do with an artist whose politics are expressed with such whimsical coquettishness that you could mistake his assault on capitalism and the art industry for mere camp? This was class warfare, though Stephen would say that his dispossessed were the natural aristocrats dismayed by the tackiness of contemporary commerce. Like Diogenes, the ancient Greek philosopher who is the godfather of political street art, Stephen had come to debase the currency.
We are sitting on the M train, me, Stephen in his golden Easter Parade dress, and the leather-clad cowboy, headed to Stephen’s apartment on the Lower East Side.The cowboy, Stephen’s off-and-on lover, is called Robert Savage, and he’s shy to the point of mutism. He’s an experimental composer who works in a jewelry store “to satisfy his insatiable passion for opals,” Stephen explains. “He’s kinda mystical, but we don’t have sex anymore because he does awful things to himself: he’s a self-castrator. He carries on these long, secret blood rituals—draining his veins and sticking things up his urethra to make the blood gush out. He’s always getting hospitalized, with blood streaming.” Leaning closer, Stephen confides, “He can’t even beat off anymore!”
Robert, silent, grinds the heels of his black policeman shoes into the subway-car flooring.
I look at Robert sideways with an unsettled kind of fellow feeling. Sex scares me rigid. Soon as my child’s body sprouted unwanted breasts, middle-aged men had started rubbing themselves against me on buses, murmuring obscenities. Home is no refuge: since I was little, my mother’s bedtime stories have been about the different things she likes to get up to with her boyfriends.
My reaction to all this sexual terror has been to become obsessed with gay male strangers, whom I stalk at a safe distance. Only by keeping everything in my head, with multiple barriers against consummation, can I feel some control. It will take me some time to realize that I’m not just attracted to gay men, I want to be one. I’ve gone from dreaming myself Tom Sawyer to dreaming myself Tom of Finland.
Today, my adolescent self might be tempted to identify as genderqueer—Stephen, I am guessing, would have found the whole notion of “identifying” drearily bureaucratic—but back in 1975, this attraction to an outlaw tribe from which I was excluded felt somewhere between tag-along embarrassing and insane.
No more insane, though, than wanting to drain your own blood or dress up in garbage.
Stephen’s studio, above a Chinese takeout on Delancey Street, resembles a backstage costume room, with wardrobe racks and a dressmaker’s dummy and a giant, pink satin mattress on the floor. Stephen and Robert and I roll all over it and tickle each other with pink feather-puff pillows, till Stephen announces, “I’m so ravenous I could eat this pillow and lick my fingers afterwards.” He’s biting each knuckle hard in quick succession—”That keeps them kinda staring and agonized-looking”—but his self-cannibalism is also hunger. He’s often hungry, and mostly I’m too well fed myself to respond to the hints. Luckily, tonight my weekly allowance is still intact, so Robert and I watch Stephen change to a pair of Levi’s and a plaid flannel shirt—he’s constantly code-switching from Marie Debris, his costume-queen alter ego, to butch-er styles of queerness—and I treat him and Robert to dinner at the Star of Bengal, which is Stephen’s “favorite place in the wo-orld because they serve pomegranate cocktails that make you scream,” he says, letting out a ladylike caterwaul. I am quietly soaring, it’s one of those moments when a kid thinks: my real life, the life I’ve always dreamed of, has just begun.
In the spring of 2016, I came upon a Peter Hujar photograph of Stephen from his Chemical Bank action. Eyes half closed in swooning bliss, luscious lips parted in a roguish smile, he brandishes a check made out to Peter Hujar for “zero million dollars.”
My heart crashed.
It had been decades since I’d thought of Stephen. The last time we met, after a long break, was in 1982, and ever since, as the AIDS epidemic raged and gentrification erased all his old habitats, I’d blanked him from my consciousness. Wondering what had happened to Stephen would have meant admitting that he must have died of AIDS—why else wouldn’t I have heard from him in all these years?
I googled “Stephen Varble” and waited.
There’s a hideous stomach drop when you google an old friend, and no entries turn up: an absence that tells you this person had stopped existing by the time the web came along.
I tried again, and this time found a reference to “the now forgotten performance artist Stephen Varble, an early Aids victim.” His dates: 1946–1984.
The knowledge that I’d stayed away from my friend when he was sick and dying was terrible.
But Stephen Varble isn’t forgotten.
Over the next few months, I keep trawling, and finally a live item surfaces: David Getsy, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is doing research on Stephen Varble and genderqueer performance in the 70s. He’s giving lectures, organizing an exhibition. I contact Getsy. The material record is scarce, he tells me: Stephen’s last surviving costume, which had been stored in a friend’s basement, was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy. I unearth my long-buried trove of Varble memorabilia, send Getsy scans of letters, photos, homemade press releases; Getsy mails me two stills from my vanished film with Stephen.
In May 2017, I go to Getsy’s lecture on Varble and Genderqueer Street Performance at Queen Mary University in London, where I now live. Afterwards, the British graduate students debate whether Varble’s geisha-girl motifs are orientalism, or a camp “elevation of the racially downgraded other,” and Getsy gently reminds them that Varble’s art is not just critique, but also alive with “disruptive pleasure.”
Today, radical art from the 70s and 80s, with its ethic of transience, marginality, inclusion of the excluded, looks “right” to us. There are museum retrospectives of David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, Adrian Piper; a new generation is discovering the work of Martin Wong, Klaus Nomi, the Cockettes, seeking out these crazily gifted artists and guerrilla performers whose exploration of gender transgression, socioeconomic precarity, institutional sexism and racism seem so prescient.
Stephen Varble, long forgotten, has finally come into his own. His playful assaults on museums, banks and luxury stores, wearing female-gendered garbage, now look totally on the mark.
In September, David Getsy’s Rubbish and Dreams—the first exhibit of Varble’s work since 1977—will be opening at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art on Wooster Street.
In April 1975, three weeks after our first encounter, I invited Stephen home to meet my parents. My parents were a curious mix: they hung out with underground filmmakers, but they were also Park Avenue society people, which meant that certain class boundaries had to be reinforced, terms negotiated, before their 14-year-old daughter could bring home the drag queen she’d met at the Easter Parade.
No, Stephen was not allowed to come to dinner, but he could come for an after-dinner drink. No, Stephen was not allowed to come as Marie Debris, but he could come in his civvies. This one almost proved a deal-breaker—Stephen claimed it was like “asking a peacock to wear a raincoat,” but in the end he appeared wearing jeans, an undershirt and full makeup.
“We had all been very tense, but it was alright, actually,” I noted in my diary. Stephen drank “lots and lots of sherry,” and he and my parents talked about Warhol stars they knew.
At midnight, my parents went to bed, and I fed Stephen the remains of the shad-roe dinner (Christ, if I could go back in time the first thing I’d do is make sure the boy got properly fed).We then dressed up in my mother’s old clothes—Stephen in an emerald-green ostrich-feather jacket; me in an ankle-length Yves Saint Laurent cavalry coat—and headed down to a nightspot called Lady Astor’s, on Lafayette Street.
I had some allowance so I paid for everything. It was a quite weird, faintly congenial scene there—men in pink satin boots to their thighs. We sat on a crowded little sofa, talking about killing ourselves and Dostoevsky and Stephen’s money problems. He is very desperate and unhappy. He feels that I don’t like Marie Debris and said, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t give her up.”
We drew a lot of stares, I noted, “despite the unusual nature of the company.” After a few drinks—vodka gimlets for me, gin and tonics for him—Stephen cheered up:
. . . so we left at about one thirty or quarter of two. The air was very cool and everyone we met was drunk, even the cats looked drunk. Stephen said that he had become obsessed by me and I was the one person in his life now
. . . Stephen said he wanted to show me his favorite place in NYC. We went to this waterfront, under things which looked like an El [train tracks] fallen into desuetude and past this gay bar called something like Keller’s. All these leather creatures were in front of it staring at us as we passed. It was the trucking district, there were thousands of trucks along these streets. We walked out to the river and squeezed in between trucks to this very spooky place, just the embankment by a pier very close to the murky water.The whole place was very deathly, S. said he came here sometimes when he thought of killing himself. I felt very spooked and also quite fascinated. S. is so brilliant
– even Dad, who is not too astute about these things, saw it. He needs a love object and I don’t want it to be me, though it could become so despite what he refers to [as] his “dubious orientation.” I only want to be what I am at present—a loved one, as he put it. We walked along the embankment, frequently running into sinister couples. I was the only woman I saw the whole time. We went out on the pier and passed this immense empty shell of a building about five floors and doorless. A few men entered it surreptitiously. It looked completely black inside. Stephen said it was the most exquisite place inside and very bizarre sex scenes went on in there—he wished he could take me in there but he was scared to, maybe we could come back. We went on for blocks and blocks, past tons of gay bars. He pointed out West Beth and we went into this discotheque for a few minutes inside an old warehouse. There were blocks of slaughterhouses which looked like deserted stables which had big signs which had words like “feet flanks” on them. There were also 2 whorehouses, side by side, which people were filing into. They had hand-painted signs: the sting and the dungeon. The windows were cemented over. We spent until about 3:30 around there, talking very seriously. I wish he didn’t need such constant reassuring and support, but . . . I feel good because there is certainty and security in our friendship.
Over the next couple of years, I kept returning to the West Side piers with Stephen. He’d dress me in his motorcycle jacket, and we’d cruise the S&M bars. I can still see the poster in the Eagle’s Nest that said Wednesday Night FFA (Fist Fuckers of America), the swinging doors leading, I was told, to the “dentist’s chair with no seat to it.” (I never ventured farther than the front room.) I can still see the mustachioed men with their leather chaps and chains, leaning against a wall or pillar silent, unsmiling. How many of those men are alive today? I can still feel the charge of being in this intensely forbidden and forbidding environment, in which I was invisible and hence free to stare. Stephen used to worry that he’d get in trouble for bringing me, a female child, and no wonder, but the only “trouble” was the night we got ambushed by one of the white gangs that came over from New Jersey or Little Italy to beat up gay men.
Stephen giggled at the hurled bottles. “Now you boys stop it before I lose my temper,” he threatened when they pulled to shreds his green ostrich feather bolero jacket.
This was a person who risked physical violence every time he set foot out of doors.
Forty-three years later, I’m thinking back to my nocturnal waterfront wanderings with Stephen. 1975 was the year when artist Gordon Matta-Clark created his site-specific Day’s End in a rotting warehouse on the West Side piers—an area Matta-Clark described in oddly police-chief-like terms as housing “a criminal situation of alarming proportions.” 1975 was when Peter Hujar, Leonard Fink and Alvin Baltrop first began photographing this post- industrial wasteland where, as Baltrop recalled, “merrymaking . . . habitually gave way to muggings, callous yet detached violence, rape, suicide and, in some instances, murder.”
What was a 14-year-old girl doing on the West Side Highway at 3 a.m. with a transvestite who was dressed in her mother’s clothes? Why did this desolate place seem, as I write in my diary, “my promised land?” I survived my chronic taste for danger because I was privileged, white, female, and lucky.
But many of my friends weren’t so lucky, Stephen among them, and of all the artists and photographers I’ve mentioned, only one is still alive, Adrian Piper, which is why this piece is also a kind of “Lament for the Makers.”
Partial List of Items in Stephen Varble’s costumes:
Chicken bones Milk cartons A baby bottle Piano keys
A head of lettuce
A typewriter ribbon
An air-conditioner insulator belt A loaf of Wonder Bread
A toy fighter plane (worn as codpiece)
35 mm slides of his married lover’s family vacations (borrowed – and ruined – without permission)
After Getsy’s lecture at Queen Mary University, he comes over to my place for dinner. I ask him about Stephen’s final years. In the early eighties, Stephen and Daniel Cahill, the married merchant marine who was Stephen’s last partner, became increasingly immersed in a religious cult of their own invention, holing up in their apartment on Riverside and 100th Street, and producing illuminated art and an unfinished video epic of a Pre-Raphaelite opulence and intricacy.
Earlier, I’d asked Getsy about Stephen’s death. It was too sad, too disturbing, he’d said. He didn’t want to spoil our evening. Now, choking up, he tells me what he’s learned. After Stephen died, Cahill refused to let go of his body for days. Eventually, Cahill’s wife had to get the fire department to break down the door and take Stephen’s body away.“I survived my chronic taste for danger because I was privileged, white, female, and lucky. But many of my friends weren’t so lucky, Stephen among them.”
We sit in silence. Finally I say I don’t think it’s so sad; I think it’s wonderful that Stephen died at home, so cherished. I think he would have seen such necrophiliac mourning as a refusal to submit to the “strang unmercifull tyrand” who, as the 16th-century poet William Dunbar writes in his plague-time “Lament for the Makers,” was devouring his brightest peers.
Later, I learn that the person who told Getsy this story got it confused with someone else’s death, and that actually Stephen died at Lenox Hill Hospital. In fact, very few people who died of an AIDS-related illness, no matter how devoted their lovers, friends, family, or how much they loathed the state medical establishment’s criminal indifference, was spared a hospital death, but it strikes me that there is nonetheless a kind of allegorical truth to the story.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been transcribing my diaries from the 1970s. Rereading them, I’ve felt haunted by Stephen’s ghost.
I can smell the metallic tinge of his perfume that reminded me of wire coat hangers, hear his mock-scandalized Kentucky intonations, touch the red-gold stubble on his chiseled chin. This ghost is demanding my recognition; our past is tangible.
We’re there, on a mattress in the rubble-strewn basement of his patron Morihito Miyazaki’s never-to-be-opened nightclub in the East 50s. It’s 6 May 1976, 1.30 a.m. Stephen tries to make me eat a dead fly; I sing him my favorite Cole Porter song, “I’m a Gigolo”; he bites my sneaker. We’re trying to guess how many men Stephen’s been to bed with—thousands—and I’m trying not to admit I haven’t been to bed with any, and when he asks me who I fancy, I say Peter Hujar, and he threatens to call Peter and tell him to come right away.
I kept saying I had to go, & Stephen kept giving reasons why I couldn’t possibly. He was very piteous, because he had a bad cold, & of course is such a hypochondriac. He kept complaining about it, & my lack of sympathy & so finally I asked, rather annoyed, “Well, what do you want me to do about it?” He said, “You know the answer.” I didn’t. “Well, suck my cock.” I didn’t however, & we parted on very good terms.
We had a strong sense of place, but no sense of time. We didn’t know what was coming. We didn’t know that this age of freedom would be so brief, that six years later, in David Wojnarowicz’s words, people would begin “waking up with the diseases of small birds and mammals,” and that politicians and clergymen would use the public-health crisis to re-criminalize sexual “deviance” and that real-estate developers would use it to expedite the clearances that would turn NewYork’s unsafe spaces into a glossy simulacrum of the urban experience.
Stephen Varble’s artistic practice, which at the time I found kind of embarrassing and that now seems powerfully truthful, lasted a mere nine years.
It’s an autumn evening, 1977 now, Stephen and I are in a booth at the Lexington Candy Shop on 83rd, splitting a Dusty Road sundae. We’re both ravenous, but I’m broke and he only has four dollars. I’m interviewing him about his recent action at Tiffany’s, we’re laughing at the Buster Keatonesque finale in which he and the security guards trying to eject him got stuck going round and round in the revolving doors.
I ask him to define his beliefs, and Stephen leans back, eyelids lowered so you see the violet veins, and says, “I believe in the purity of artifice and the grandeur of the gutter.”
And what do I believe?
I’m asking myself this question today. I’m 20 years older than Stephen Varble was when he died, almost 30 years older than he was when we first met, and my answer is, I believe in him.