Sunday, 12 May 2013

Interview with Aleshia Brevard: Part 4

Monika: Before you started your movie and theatre career you were a female impersonator. How would you define this kind of vocation. Could it be regarded as a piece of art or just another form of entertainment or show business?
Aleshia: As I must always stress, Monika, the only assessments I can make on ANYTHING are based on personal experience. I cannot speak to the experience of others. No where would this be truer than when answering your question concerning female impersonation. There are many people, both straight and gay, who are devotees of impersonation as an art form. My experience ‘back-stage’, behind the façade at Finocchio’s in San Francisco, was limited and merely a respite during my gender journey. I was a neophyte, a “new Nanette”. I became a headliner at the prestigious night club in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s because of how I looked, not because of any professional expertise and/or show business acumen.
Publicity shot from Finocchio's in
"My Heart Belongs To Daddy" costume, 1962.
I was quite impressed, and at times awed by the long tradition of the art form and by the professionalism of the impressionist with whom I’d suddenly found myself working.
They taught me a great deal about the business of stage and importance of playing to one’s audience. I will always be grateful for that introduction to show business, even though without exception the concept of gender reassignment was abhorrent to my fellow performers.
The professional impersonators with whom I worked obviously did not identify as female, yet were all artists in their own right. My assumption, therefore, would have to be that there are possibly as many takes on the profession and on individual impersonators as there are individuals who self-identify as impersonators. 
Monika: At the start of your career in the late 50s you got a job in the prestigious female impersonation nightclub in San Francisco called Finocchio's. How did it happen?
Aleshia: As with most of the advantages that have come my way, it was a fluke that I ended up at Finocchio’s. The club was the acknowledged premier club for impersonation in the United States; I was an untrained interloper who had never been in ‘drag’ previous to my audition. I’d never even seen a professional ‘drag’ show prior to visiting Finocchio’s in the company of the priest with whom I lived. Even today it’s impossible for me to believe I was offered a job at the prestigious night club. All I had going for me was youth and stars-in-the-eyes.
Oh, sure, when I first saw the show I was besotted with the glamour, but my decision to audition was far more ‘bluff’ than ambition. My priest benefactor had been getting on my nerves with his insistence that I needed a career; that I needed to work toward “something”. So I impulsively said, “I’ll be a drag queen!” I was very young and equally foolish.
For my audition I was thrown on-stage as a “visiting artist”. Sink or swim. I swam – at least enough to get myself hired as a member of the chorus. The hitch was that Finocchio’s had no chorus. I was being given a test, a training period for which I would be paid a nominal $50 per week. The second fluke came when I put “My Heart Belongs To Daddy” into the show as a specialty act and was immediately bumped to headliner status, with a salary to match.
A shot with comedienne Phyllis Diller,
backstage at Finocchio's circa 1960.
Monika: You said that your problem with Finocchio’s was that for you it did not feel like ‘impersonation’ because at long last you were presenting yourself as the woman who had secretly lived sequestered away for far too many years.
Aleshia: Wow! That’s certainly true, Monika. From the moment I stepped onto the Finocchio’s stage I felt I was (at long last) being allowed to present my authentic self to the world. It was only a portion of my true being, however.
Soon a few hours nightly on stage was no longer enough. I wanted to be complete, on stage and off. It was during my time at Finocchio’s that I began to see gender guru, Dr. Harry Benjamin. From that point forward Finocchio’s stage served as a training ground for the future, as well as a source of income for financing my upcoming gender reassignment.
Monika: Did you have good relations with the other girls?
Aleshia: It’s not unfair to describe back-stage at Finocchio’s as a snake-pit. There were some very high-voltage divas in that cast. One of them was Stormy Lee, the clubs reigning exotic dancer and full-time holy terror. She had come up through the ranks, the hard way, and she was protective of her star status.
Ah, but it was Stormy who took me under her wing, mentoring my stage presentations and taking me for my first visit with Dr. Benjamin. Stormy’s gender reassignment followed mine by a year and we maintained a sisterly bond until her death in the early ‘90’s. My other working relationships remained ‘respectful’ but did not exist beyond the stage door – in large part because the other cast member’s held very negative attitudes toward transsexuality.
An early newspaper article on Charlotte.
Monika: You used to impersonate Marilyn Monroe …
Aleshia: Correction. Although it is true that the club advertised me as a Marilyn Monroe impressionist, that was never my intention. I was merely young, blond (on stage) and my most successful numbers were some of the same made famous by Marilyn Monroe.
At one point, following the filming of “The Misfits”, Marilyn came to the club to catch my act. After having said all that it may ring hollow for me to protest that I wasn’t impersonating the blond goddess of film. In truth, however, I wasn’t.
My stage presentations were nightly rehearsals for the woman I hoped to become. I was a fledgling, a kid in transition, and I was looking to develop a workable persona for life. Management wanted ‘Marilyn’ and as their blond ingénue, I most fit the bill.
Whenever I changed my hair style or colour, it was always the management’s insistence that I return to what they believe made me most marketable. For me, however, each gesture, each inflection, was a lesson, teaching me what best drew appreciative audience response. This knowledge I added to my bag of tricks and took with me into the real world beyond the Finocchio’s stage.
Monika: How about the owners of the club – the Finocchio family? Did they interfere in how the shows were produced? 
Aleshia: It is my understanding that the first Mrs. Finocchio, Madge, had been a hands-on owner. One who controlled with an iron fist. It was said that each night she would deliver furs to the dressing rooms for her stars; then she’d take the furs home for safe keeping. That continued, or so the story goes, until she was robbed at gun point on her way home. 
But during my stint at Finocchio’s the family was entrusting the production numbers to producer and ‘Mistress of Ceremonies’, Lestra LaMonte. Lestra was a graduate from the vaudeville stage -- and also ruled with an iron fist. Aside from the two lavish production numbers, however, each artist perfected and performed their individual specialty numbers. It made for a great training ground.
A newspaper blurb from years at Finocchio’s
as impersonator, Lee Shaw.
Monika: You worked in the club for three years leaving soon to have your gender reassignment surgery. Did you ever regret leaving the club?
Aleshia: Regrets? Are you kidding? I gleefully fled in the dark of night! Because Mr. Finicchio, backed by my AGVA union representative, refused to let me leave the club (even though my contract had expired), I sold my wardrobe before leaving my dressing room and skipped town before my next scheduled appearance. No, Monika, there were no regrets. I had been very lucky to get the opportunity to work for the Finocchio family and develop my stage persona, but the time had come for a new life to begin.
Monika: Through Dr. Benjamin you met and became friends with Charlotte MacLeod. Could you elaborate on your friendship with her?
Aleshia: Charlotte’s reassignment, as you probably know, followed Christine Jorgensen’s ground-breaking surgery in Denmark. Both Charlotte and I were bred, born and raised in the South. I was from the eastern end of Tennessee; Charlotte was raised in the western portion of the state. In my mind’s eye dear Charlotte will forever remain the very prototype of the Southern Belle. One could almost hear crinolines rustling as she approached. She was a true sister in every sense of the word. Sweet to the core.
Let me stress that I have tremendous respect for women like Charlotte, women who follow their dream to put transition behind them, settle comfortably into marriage and who are content to dedicate their lives to motherhood in suburbia. Charlotte was certainly the prototype for women of that ilk in our community. She lived out her life in stealth, never feeling any need to look backward.
I often wonder why in today’s gender community some are quick to dismiss such a life as irrelevant. Women like Charlotte helped pave the road for us all. Although she is no longer with us, Charlotte will always claim a piece of my heart.
A production number shot with
Stormy Lee (on the right), circa 1960.
Monika: Did you have other transgender friends or you preferred living among cis women only?
Aleshia: Can’t say there was ever a conscious choice made concerning the women with whom I socialized. Seems life just throws certain people together. Other than Charlotte and Kathy (nee Stormy Lee) I knew no other transsexuals. In those days there weren’t many of us around, you know. Charlotte, Kathy and I remained friends, of course, each of us having married and settled in Southern California.
Charlotte and her husband lived relatively close by in San Fernando Valley, and like me she was raising a brood of stepchildren. They often joined my husband and me for well-deserved dinners out. Our husbands were never aware of our histories, so that offered an added sense of security.
Other than these two women, however, my female friendships were with cis women, generally the wives of men with whom my husband worked, women I met in school, or other actresses from the entertainment industry in which I was still working. I hasten to repeat that it wasn’t a conscious matter of preference, more a result of the decidedly heterosexual lifestyle I was living.
Monika: Later, you worked as a stripper in Reno and as a Playboy Bunny at the Sunset Strip hutch…
Aleshia: Both Reno and the Playboy Club happened before the early 70’s when I married and retired to the San Fernando Valley to raise three boys. My stint in both Reno and Honolulu as an exotic, following my showgirl turn at The Dunes, had occurred in the early to mid 60’s. I’d worked as a Playboy Bunny on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip following “The Love God”, my first film, in 1969.
As fate would have it, I was being featured on a billboard advertising the film, located directly across the street from the Playboy Club. I think that contributed to my being hired for the hutch. I will add, bye the bye, that although I’d truly loved working in burlesque, I detested every single moment of slinging drinks in a Bunny costume. Glamour isn’t always what first meets the eye; being a Bunny was exceedingly hard work.
Universal Studios publicity shot for
"The Love God", 1969.
Monika: How do you recollect the Stonewall riots? Did you regard it as a turning point in the sexual revolution of 1969?
Aleshia: I blush to admit that by 1969 I was so caught up in my middle-of-the-road life that I was unaware of Stonewall, which with hindsight I fully realize was a turning point for gay rights. If I heard about the Stonewall Riots on the news, it simply did not register.
I suspect at the time there were even many successful gay men who did not view Stonewall as a turning point for their community. As an example of this, at the time I had a close relationship with my first college roommate, who lived in Los Angeles with his male partner. They often joined my husband and me for dinner, followed by a spirited card game of ‘Hearts’. I bring this up because I don’t recall either of these gay men ever mentioning Stonewall or its potential importance.
Many successful gay men, I assume, had grown accustomed to the comfortable lives they lived and did not wish to rock the boat. That’s supposition, of course. Don’t know this will register with your entire readership, but I think it’s important to additionally comment (perhaps in my own defence) that by 1969 I’d already been caught up in and survived a sexual revolution of my own.
In the early 60’s, at the time of my gender reassignment, I’d entered main-stream society as a woman, suddenly required to master a new working knowledge of human sexuality, psychedelic drugs, and the effects of a counter-culture which rejected the conservative ways and embrace individual freedom. It was a new world for me, in more ways than one.
Shot with the Pussycats and Don Knotts
(Aleshia on Don’s far left).
Monika: Was there anyone in the transgender community whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing for the gay activism?
Aleshia: I’m sure there probably would have been, Monika, although my above statement generally covers this question. It wasn’t a matter of burying my head in the sands of Southern California as much as it was that during those years the pressures and concerns of my daily life had assumed a different formatting.
By the 70’s I was working full time in the film and television industry, in addition to pursuing training for a profession that by its very nature demanded full concentration. My intimate friends were part of the same industry and our focus was admittedly narrow in scope. I had not been in a gay bar in almost a decade.
Monika: The early 80s were marred by your mother’s death. You lost someone very important in your life.
Aleshia: Mother’s untimely death was an unexpected and devastating blow, which is putting it quite mildly. I felt lost and suddenly without direction. My mother, my best friend and closest confidant, was only 65 when she died. It was a tragic loss for our entire family. It is during such trying times that one’s metal is truly tested.
Now, over thirty years later, I think of my mother almost daily, hoping that during her life she fully realized how much she was loved and how grateful I was for her ongoing nurturing support. Mother had always been there for me, through good times and bad. Mother had been the one person on whom I’d known I could always depend. It was her death that quite literally forced me to master the art of standing alone. I miss her terribly. Somehow, however, the faith she’d always had in me remains a constant source of support.
At home in Tennessee during recovery from 1962 SRS.
Monika: Was she always supportive of your transition?
Aleshia: Mozelle, my mother, was an amazing woman. At first, it’s fair to say, she had moments of self-doubt, wondering if she’d unintentionally done something to cause my transsexuality. Thankfully that quickly passed as she got to know me as her daughter. Quite naturally it had been a great shock to my parents when Dr. Harry Benjamin called to explain transsexuality and to assure them that for their “son” surgery was the only answer for aligning body and mind. 
How could they grasp what they were hearing? In the early ‘60’s transsexuality was rare, at best, and for most people an alien concept -- especially in the rural South. As a child I had been extremely feminine, doing my best to disappear into the woodwork, but even the remote possibility of my transition had never occurred to my parents. Such things did not happen in their world. It’s possible they had never even heard of Christine Jorgensen. If so, I’m relatively sure they had dismissed the phenomena as an abnormality, something of no importance to them or their children.
I regret the severe shock my reassignment caused my parents. It was unfair, yet there was no other way. Devastated though they had been by Dr. Benjamin’s call, afterwards they came to California to be by my side of the surgery – and to meet the man I intended to marry. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? I’m amazed by the strength, love and fortitude my parents showed during those very trying times. During their cross-country trip my mother kept worrying that she might slip and call me by the name I’d been given at birth. Yet, upon first seeing me in California, nervously waiting to greet them in my skirt and blouse, Mother turned to Daddy and said, “There she is! There’s Aleshia.” My mother had immediately accepted me as her daughter – and she never looked back.
Front page of the "Tennessean", Nashville's leading
newspaper in 1969.
Monika: Your mother’s death is also the symbolic end of your first book "The Woman I Was Not Born To Be" …
Aleshia: Yes, the first book deals with the childhood years, transition, and reassignment. It seemed only fitting I end that chapter of my life with the death of my best friend and supporter. When that book was published in 2002, by Temple University Press, I had no intention of writing a sequel. I soon realized, however, that life had indeed gone on; the second half of my life had allowed many of Mozelle’s dreams for my future to come true. That struck me as much more important than the angst and early trauma that had gotten me there. The result of this realization and celebration of life resulted in “The Woman I WAS Born To Be”, published in 2009, by Blue Feather Books.
Monika: In the book you write frankly about the degree to which you organized your life around pleasing men, and how absurd it all seems to you now.
Aleshia: Well, yes, Monika, being found pleasing by men was indeed part of my journey. (Smile!) From time to time my relationships have been over rough road. It was all a learning process, as all lives are. I had been a child of the 50’s and 60’s, a time when gender roles were clearly drawn and closely adhered to. Women generally played a subservient role. I blush to admit subservience came naturally to me.
By the time of my reassignment feminism was in its formative stages -- but I had yet to learn that “Someone to Watch Over Me” was merely a song, and one written by a man. My SRS surgeon, Dr. Elmer Belt, had even assured me I would have a remarkable life because I understood men. Ha! It took several decades and many husbands before I finally realized that I didn’t understand men, not in the least. 
Monika: You got married four times. One husband of the four, the first husband whom you married twice, seemed to be the love of your life?
Aleshia: Hardly! The “love of my life” was actually my first love, the man I did not marry. Perhaps that’s why his memory has remained so precious! My first (and second) husband, Lee, was a talented musician and a charming scallywag. He also happened to be gay, a fact that had completely escaped me at the time of our first marriage. So much for gaydar! I adored Lee, but we were friends rather than anything resembling lovers. Neither of our needs could be met. “So why did you marry him a second time?” you may ask. Good question, one for which I’m not sure I have an equally good answer. I’d liked living with him – for the most part. He made me laugh. He was my friend.
Then on the heels of “The Love God” tour I’d become very ill with the Hong Kong Flu. Of all the men I knew or had been dating, only Lee showed up with chicken soup, a box of Kleenex and a soothing word. He even washed my dishes. I decided that perhaps, just perhaps, a woman needs a good friend more than she’ll ever need a not-so-good husband. Lee and I truly loved each other, but it was a brotherly/sisterly love. The sad truth is that we both required more.
Action shot from Finocchio’s.
Monika: And the other husbands?
Aleshia: My third marriage, which I referenced earlier, brought three darling, rambunctious boys into my life. I loved my stepsons and I loved being their mother, challenging though they often were. Being married to their Southern born father also had many challenges, particularly later on in the marriage. I still wanted my career; my husband wanted a stay-at-home wife. 
In the beginning of our marriage he’d taken some pride in my career, but that slowly began to change. Perhaps the ‘new’ had begun to wear off the relationship. When I dug in my heels and accepted an offer to go on the road with a theatre production, the proverbial writing was on the wall.
After my husband retaliated, if retaliation was the cause of his infidelity, I decided to take a break from the marriage and return to graduate school – in another state. My husband did me the honour of divorcing me. My last, and I do mean last, marriage was to a lovely young man twenty-four years my junior. By this time I should have been old enough to know better. The difference in age, when added to MANY other relationship problems, led to that divorce. Even though I had met this husband while active in theatre, he too began to make demands about my career. 
At some point we must all decide where we find the most joy and happiness. I made that decision. I certainly do not regret having indulged in the marriage merry-go-round, but I’m ever so glad to have finally discovered the joys of living alone and playing by my own rules.
Monika: Have you ever thought about being a mother?
Aleshia: Years ago my friend Kathy, with whom everything had begun in San Francisco at Finocchio’s, made the comment that considering my love of children and the number of men I’d thought I loved, perhaps it was a blessing that I couldn’t bear children. Seemingly she thought I’d have been a real life version of the little ol’ woman who lived in a shoe – with so many children I didn’t know what to do. She might have had a point! Still, I consider myself very fortunate to have had a hand in the raising of three very special young men. They made my life more full.

All the photos: courtesy of Aleshia Brevard.
Done on 12 May 2013

© 2013 - Monika 

Ms Aleshia Brevard has passed to the other side. May she find the happiness and love she gave to others. Thank you for all you have done ...
1 July 2017

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