Interviews

Preserving the Lifework of a Cross-Dressing Queer Legend

Flawless Sabrina reading Tarot cards in her apartment (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Flawless Sabrina reading Tarot cards in her apartment (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Earlier this year, as part of the Whitney Biennial, I had my Tarot cards read by Flawless Sabrina. Flawless’s name was one I’d heard many times, from friends in the New York City LGBT community who know her as a fabulous friend and mentor. Over the years, I’d come to understand just how important she was: a pioneering drag queen and LGBTQ activist starting in the 1950s, when gender conformity was the sine qua non of American culture. I was extremely excited to have the chance to meet her in person.

The Tarot reading was precious. When I sat down across from her, Flawless (aka Jack Doroshow), now 75, radiated warmth. She seemed to possess the sagacity of someone who’s lived long enough to know that the answers I was seeking in the cards were both important and trivial. What I found equally amazing was that Flawless had invited all of us strangers who signed up for readings into her home, her one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. The creaky, dramatically lit place was packed and spilling over with art, ephemera, and artifacts from her long life’s work.

Now, artist Zackary Drucker and writer Diana Tourjee are teaming up to tell Flawless’s story and archive the vast collection amassed in her small corner of New York. The Flawless Sabrina Archive will “be used to incite intergenerational discourse” and “continue the work of our namesake indefinitely,” the two write on their Kickstarter page. I emailed them to ask a few questions about the importance of the project and of Flawless Sabrina herself, whom they affectionately call “grandmother to our community.”

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Flawless Sabrina (photo courtesy Flawless Sabrina Archive)
Flawless Sabrina (photo courtesy Flawless Sabrina Archive)

Jillian Steinhauer: How did the idea for this project come about?

Diana Tourjee: I began methodically recording Flawless Sabrina’s oral history last spring after Zackary pitched the idea to write a book about Flawless’s life. I was into the idea, and FS and I really hit it off, so we started the process immediately. The summer was spent doing these weekly recordings, and naturally Flawless would pull out different relics of the past that provided further context for the stories she was telling me.

Flawless Sabrina Archive was conceived at the end of the summer during a trip I took to Los Angeles to cover the premiere of Amazon’s new transgender series, Transparent. Zackary is associate producer and consultant on Transparent, so as we were hanging out, preparing for the premiere, and musing on the Flawless project, we realized that these relics Flawless has amassed need to be preserved and made available to the public, because they are so historically significant. The archiving process is also excellent research for the book I am writing, and the documentary we plan to film, and other projects that stem from FSA. We got Flawless’s blessing and began planning immediately. The Kickstarter is just the first step toward getting seed money for this project.

JS: I know this is covered in the Kickstarter introductory video, but for those who know nothing about Flawless, can you give a brief overview of why she and her legacy are so important?

Zackary Drucker & DT: Flawless Sabrina is 75 years old, and for the past 55 years she has fought to make American society more hospitable to gender and sexual difference. She ran a national drag enterprise between 1959 and 1969 which did 46 shows a year and employed over 100 LGBT people. These pageants culminated in 1968 with a documentary film funded by Andy Warhol called The Queen, which was acclaimed domestically and became an international success at the Cannes Film Festival. She later consulted on several Hollywood films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as an “expert of homosexuality,” and became a cultural producer, collaborating on countless projects with prominent artists. Today she is a sage elder and archetype who continues to inspire and work with youth. As a multidisciplinary artist her history is particularly important in its relation to and influence upon modern movements in the arts and politics.

JS: The Kickstarter video showing a mock-up for a TV series by John Waters, Divine, and Flawless is a great example of what exists in the Flawless Sabrina Archive. Can you give any more examples of other gems?

ZD & DT: There are a bevy of captivating relics found in the Flawless Sabrina Archive. Flawless’s work has always been very connected to community, thus much of what she’s done has been collaborative. By the mid ’60s Flawless had already become an icon in the underground art world and attracted the attention of such artists as Andy Warhol, John Waters, and William S. Burroughs.

FSA has a few Warhol pieces in its collection, including a sketch of Flawless Sabrina with a reminder, “Next time don’t be late!” Burroughs and Flawless were lovers for many years, and his work is scattered throughout the archive, including a painting he did of his mother and a collage. One very interesting thing we recently found is a telegram from Jackie Kennedy.

In 1967 David Merrick was looking for a way to change up his successful Broadway musical Hello Dolly! Flawless Sabrina was one of the performers he was considering for the role. In ’67 Flawless was making The Queen, which was highly anticipated, funded by Andy Warhol, and (temporarily) sponsored by the Muscular Dystrophy Association. In the telegram from Jackie she is relaying news that Merrick is still very interested in Flawless filling the role.

Humorously, Flawless’s name is written incorrectly. She is referred to as “FLOORLESS SABRINA” throughout the telegram. Jackie relays the salary Betty Grabel earned when she played Dolly, then continues to gush about Flawless, “FLOORLESS 1968 SUPER STAR SABRINA MUST BE EASILY WORTH 100 TIMES MORE THINK OF THE BEAUTY OF IT NOT TO MENTION HER SINGING VOICE.” Instead of doing a drag version of Hello Dolly!, Merrick cast African-American actors and the lead role went to Pearl Bailey.

Flawless Sabrina (photo courtesy Flawless Sabrina Archive)
Flawless Sabrina (photo courtesy Flawless Sabrina Archive)

JS: What are your plans for the archive? I’m asking in somewhat concrete terms, so, for example: where will it be housed, how will it be accessible, will there be exhibitions, are you looking for an institution to take it in, etc?

ZD & DT: In the near future we’d like to tour Flawless Sabrina Archive to accessible exhibition venues. It will be more of a living archive, in that it is an active and expanding project and not stale or stagnant. By taking this collection across the country we are giving it back to the people and paying homage to our namesake as we follow the footsteps she left from coast to coast in the ’60s.

We expect to use the collection in a variety of ways to inform and further develop current movements in the arts and politics. The archive is the foundation of FSA and will inspire and direct future projects as we develop the values of our organization. Eventually, some years down the road, this collection will find a home at an appropriate institution whose intentions and values are in line with Flawless Sabrina’s ethos of community development and empowerment. It will always be accessible, whether on tour or permanent public display.

The Flawless Sabrina Archive is fundraising on Kickstarter until December 8.

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