The current era has RuPaul’s Drag Race. The 1990s had Paris Is Burning. Even the pre-Stonewall 1960s had the seminal drag documentary The Queen. But what about before that?
There have been few documentary works that give us a character-driven, close-up look at gay and drag life in the 1950s, that era of white-bread conformity and McCarthyist anti-Communist witch hunts. So thank goddess that here comes P.S. Burn This Letter Please, an extraordinary look at 1950s gay and drag life in New York City, featuring many survivors.
The doc was developed around the discovery of a large cache of letters sent over several years from a wide variety of queens to a one “Reno Martin,” which was actually the early radio-broadcaster name of Ed Limato, a gay man who went on to be a huge Hollywood talent agent (repping the likes of Denzel Washington, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Richard Gere) before his 2010 death.
If it sounds like a real-life version of the kind of retro-queer thing Ryan Murphy would write—it kind of is! TheBody talked first with the doc’s producers, husbands Richard Konigsberg and Craig Olsen (who actually found the letters in question), then with its directors, Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera—all of them based in Los Angeles—about how this truly remarkable unearthing of nearly-forgotten gay history came to life.
Its festival-circuit career severely compromised by COVID, the film will be available for streaming in the near future; check in with the above website to find out when.
Tim Murphy: Richard and Craig, thank you so much for talking. The letters that you found play a huge role in this doc—read aloud as they are by the wonderful actors Adam Faison, Robin de Jesus, Cole Escola, and Matt Shively. How did you find them?
Richard Konigsberg: I’m a talent manager. In 1988, I had the honor of working as an assistant at the talent agency ICM for Ed Limato, a gay man. He became my mentor, and through some 20 years, we remained friends. When he passed away in 2010, he left me in charge of his estate. So I was getting ready to sell the contents of his home, and he had a fairly large safe in his bedroom, and we went into it to start clearing documents.
Craig Olsen: And I found this letter from someone named “Daphne,” all typed up, alongside a picture in a little cellophane protector of someone named “Josephine.” I started reading the letter and said, “Oh my God, listen to this!” But we were busy—and the letter and picture actually disappeared for quite a few years.
So then one day I came home from work to a garage full of boxes of Ed’s stuff and found a box of more than 200 letters written to a man named Reno Martin. They were from “Gigi,” “Charlie,” and “Josephine.” Each one was juicier than the next. I almost felt like I shouldn’t be reading them, because they were full of history: sexual details, falling in love, getting arrested, living in fear, getting found out, doing drag, and working for the Mafia. I thought: “This is out of control. ... Who was Reno Martin?”
So I called my friend Michael Seligman [the co-director]. I said, “You gotta read these letters.” So he did, and we started calling archives, such as the [LGBTQ] One archive at USC, asking them if they had 1950s–early ’60s source material written by drag queens. They all said no. Then it became clear to me that this needed to be a documentary. I think Ed left them for us to find. So we hired Michael and then a couple of years later, Jen, for her expertise.
Murphy: Terrific—now I’m going to turn to Michael and Jen to tell the rest of the story. Hi Michael and Jen!
Michael Seligman: Hi! So as Richard and Craig were telling you, they found all these letters and didn’t know what to make of them except that they were pretty interesting and funny. As we started sifting through them, we started to understand that all these people writing to Reno Martin were drag queens, writing about drag life around 1955. So we decided we absolutely needed to see if the letter writers were still alive and to track them down.
Murphy: And how did you find them?
Seligman: None of the writers signed their real names—only drag names. So we looked at all the clues, like location, tried to find whatever we could on our own, and then eventually hired a private detective.
Murphy: Tell us the story of how you found a few.
Jennifer Tiexiera: I think after Michael found “Daphne”—and you only realize who Daphne really is at the end of the film—we realized there could be more queens out there. We also used an amazing site called QueerMusicHeritage.com. So we would find other queens from the 1950s, which led to little hints that some of them were still alive. That’s how we were led to Robbie Ross; then we spoke to Chuck George, who said that he thought that Terry Noel was still alive. One led to another. In all, we found nine queens still living, in their 80s and 90s, all over the country—Santa Rosa, New Orleans, Texas, Oklahoma, New York City.
Murphy: Wow. How did you decide to structure the doc?
Tiexiera: We’ve been working at this for six years total. We could’ve made three docs with the amount of stuff we collected. What was important to us was, there’s this idea that gay history starts at Stonewall. There’s not a lot of available information before that time. So the first thing we had to do was create a previously nonexistent narrative of what it was to be gay and a drag queen in NYC in the 1950s, then have the queens as a collective voice in conjunction with the letters to define the decade.
Murphy: And how would you characterize that time in gay life?
Seligman: We learned that, yes, people were ashamed, in the closet, hidden from mainstream culture, and unhappy with their status. But we also learned how well-adjusted, how happy and buoyant so many gays were. They knew exactly what they were and the limits of where they could operate, but they also found a way to express themselves and have fun with being who they were, trying on different personas in places that were safe. So it was exciting to see that at this really challenging time, the height of the Red Scare when the government was lumping homosexuals and Communists together, these queer people were still risking danger in order to have fun.
Murphy: Having so many of the letters read aloud by great actors really brings them to life. How did you come up with that idea?
Tiexiera: The letters are the star of the film. From very early on, we wanted to bring them to life like that and also maintain the integrity of the original handwriting [which is recreated in the film] and paper textures. We wanted them to pop off the page.
Murphy: So, Reno Martin was the early radio-DJ name of Ed Limato, yes?
Seligman: Yes, he was a gay person who was kind of the centerpoint in this circle of gay friends, so when he moved from New York to New Orleans to work in radio, his friends wrote these letters to stay in touch, which was pretty common in a time when telephone calls were expensive. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find the letters Reno wrote back to them.
Murphy: You also surprised me with how much footage from ’50s-era gay bars and house parties you found. How did you find it?
Seligman: It was like looking for a needle in a gaystack, as I like to joke. We looked under every rock and asked everyone, but we also just had amazing luck. We were finding stuff right up to the premiere. At one point, a big amount of footage we were going to use, which was actually from the late ’60s, we couldn’t get the rights to—it’s extra footage from The Queen—and in a massive hurry, I jumped on the internet and found amazing archival footage of a drag ball in the 1950s that had only been uploaded recently. It was owned by a guy in Switzerland who didn’t even speak English but who let us use it. So there were some gay angels looking out for us.
Murphy: One thing that really surprised me from the letters was to realize how far back some slang goes—everything from the word “gay,” which did not come into common public use until the late ’60s and then the ’70s, to the word “mopped” (for stealing clothes) to “featured” (as in, paid attention to) to “c*nty.”
Seligman: Right. We saw how this history has been passed down from drag mothers to daughters to granddaughters throughout history, with no how-to book or video. It just shows you the brilliance of queer people and our desire to share our history. And I’m sure the queens of the 1950s were copying things from the 1920s and ’30s.
Murphy: Watching the footage of clubs and parties, you see some racial mingling, but among the living queens featured, there isn’t one of color.
Tiexiera: That was really difficult for us to tackle. We spoke with an expert, Thomasine Bartlett, who had written her entire dissertation on 1950s drag culture in New Orleans. And she, like us, could not find one African American to sit down with and talk about that time. I think there was just so much stigma already about being Black. Being a drag queen on top of it, you had to be even more careful.
But then we spoke with historian Michael Henry Adams, who informed us of the Harlem drag ball. It was actually Craig—who was watching the Roger Ross Williams documentary about the [legendary Harlem entertainment venue] Apollo—who realized that the footage in it was from a huge annual Harlem drag ball where the races mixed. That discovery allowed us to fill out that section, as all the African-American queens we identified from that era had passed on.
Murphy: What kind of stuff have you both worked on before?
Tiexiera: I have a long background in docs, first as an editor, then producer and writer. What was exciting about this project was finding a story we hadn’t seen or heard before. When Michael sent me a clip, I dropped what I was doing, called him immediately, and said, “I must work on this with you.” I wasn’t sure at first that the letters alone could sustain a feature. But Michael has this incredible background in research, so we jumped in. It was so fun, because we were making new discoveries every day.
Seligman: I worked in research on [the TV show] Mysteries and Scandals, stories that dated back to the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, so I got an amazing education in how to find things, go to archives, and put in different search terms. I probably would be a detective if I wasn’t doing what I do now. I also have a love of queer history and, having worked on RuPaul’s Drag Race, a love of drag—so this project was a perfect blending of my aptitude and interest.
Murphy: It’s interesting because the story toggles between the 1950s and the present but barely mentions AIDS, which I imagine claimed some of this community in their later life.
Seligman: We touch upon it only to express how many of these people we lost and why it’s so remarkable that the people we found survived not only AIDS but to a wonderful ripe old age with their faculties intact, able to sit down with us for hours and share these memories.
Tiexiera: And so many other docs, such as How to Survive a Plague, tackle AIDS so well.
Murphy: What is the meaning of this documentary to you both?
Tiexiera: Michael always says that it’s about the importance of searching your attic or basement, because you never really know what you’re going to discover.
Seligman: Also, in the queer community and probably the world at large, we don’t value old people as much as we should. I get choked up talking about this [he cries], but one of the best gifts of my life was to develop these friendships and hear these stories, and to be one of the conduits to put them on the record and give them their due. [These queens] are not going to be around forever.
Tiexiera: We also really tried to keep this a happy film, because life has been so dark lately that it just feels good to watch it. We’ve seen it 200 times, and we still cry tears of joy when we watch it.