From Drags to Riches: The Untold Story of Charles Pierce.
By John Wallraff
New York: Harrington Park Press, 2002, 245 pp., $19.95.
Click on cover to buy from Amazon for $13.57
Reviewed by Todd G. Morrison, PhD
From Drags to Riches is a "warts ‘n' all" biography of Charles
Pierce, a popular female impersonator or male actress (the term he preferred
until it was usurped by other female impersonators and, thus, "lost its
class and value" [p. 217]). Written by his close friend, John Wallraff,
the book has moments of interest. The chapter detailing Pierce's unsuccessful
battle with prostate cancer and subsequent funeral service (Chapter 35)
is moving and Wallraff's descriptions of pre-liberation gay culture are
intriguing (e.g., the fetishization of "rough trade;" gay men's adherence
to a "feminine" model of sexual difference; etc.). Overall, however,
Drags to Riches remains a frustratingly shallow account of what it
meant to be a gay entertainer in the United States during the 1950s and
beyond. For example, the author fails to examine in sufficient detail the
sociocultural backdrop that fostered Pierce's career in the 1950s and 1960s
and, ironically, rendered him increasingly anachronistic later on.
(It is unlikely that impersonations of Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead
possessed much currency in the gay culture of the late 1980s.) The
death of camp, as it is defined traditionally, isn't explored – despite,
the possibility that its decline may have contributed to Pierce's decision
to retire in 1990.
In lieu of analysis, the author provides a series of sensationalistic sex scenes:
"Suck it!" David commanded. "Go on, you've been wanting it long enough, cocksucker! Get down on your knees and suck me off!" (p. xvi)
"That pretty little ass of yours is just waiting for my big cock. Oh man, I'm gonna fuck you silly!" With that, he slowly entered Charles' opening, and when he did, Charles cried out in pain. How could he take Ty's huge manhood? (p. 22)
"Oh, yeah! Don't stop! Fuck me! Fuck me!" Charles clutched Steve's hard buns and pulled him deeper into him, one finger exploring the marine's rear cavity. (p. 129)
One gratuitous description involves two individuals (Boyd Ransome, proud possessor of an "amazing manhood" [p. 149] and Raven, a "beautiful boy woman" [p. 148]) who are peripheral to Pierce's life. Yet, a page is devoted to detailing a sexual encounter between these individuals; an encounter in which bikini panties cling to a throbbing tumescence and penises are engulfed by eager mouths (p. 149).
The detailed nature of these descriptions begs the question: How did Wallraff obtain this information? Was he hiding in various bedrooms, automobiles, etc., tape recorder in hand? The overheated prose (the penis, for example, is invariably referred to as a swollen member, vibrant shaft, and so forth) results in these "cock tales" (p. 125) being comedic rather than erotic. (The possibility that the author was attempting to achieve the former effect appears unlikely.) Most annoyingly, the inclusion of these sexual episodes suggests a cynical attempt to "tap into" the gay market. Was there concern that a biography of Charles Pierce would be less commercial if it didn't include "bikini-covered bulge[s]" and "naked, sexy, well-buffed [bodies]" (p. 161)?
Wallraff also grants considerable attention to Pierce's nightclub material, which is given verbatim throughout the book.
Why do they have a cock on a weathervane? Because it would look like hell to have a cunt up there. The wind would blow through it and give off erroneous weather reports. (p. 142)
Hi, I'm Peg Bracken. I wrote the I Cook to Hate Book. When unexpected guests drop by my house I don't serve them chipped beef on toast. Hell no! I serve them shit on a shingle. (p. 164)
If I could find a man as butch as Princess Stephanie, I'd marry him. She's so butch, she rolls her own tampons. I saw her jump start her dildo. (p. 205)
Unfortunately, the amusement value of such lines appears to be contingent on Pierce's skillful delivery. Divorced from their theatrical context, his "outrageous monologues" (back cover) read as sour, misogynistic, and dated.
In conclusion, From Drags to Riches: The Untold Story of Charles
Pierce, is best reserved for fans of the late entertainer. Those hoping
to obtain a thoughtful analysis of pre-liberation gay culture or female
impersonators, or a psychologically astute portrait of Pierce himself,
had best look elsewhere.