My guest today is award winning playwright Vanda, who is currently working on her first novel, Juliana.
Who Was She?
I wonder how many LGBT folks today know who Madame Spivy was. Well, Spivy was an early pioneer in the gay rights movement, although I doubt she would’ve seen herself that way. She was a nightclub owner and entertainer who from the early 40s to the mid 50s kept Spivy’s Roof going despite her poor money management skills. Spivey’s Roof was a nightclub where gay men and women could go and be “almost” out. This meant it wasn’t a gay club, most of the patrons were straight, but gays could openly gather there if they didn’t call too much attention to themselves. According to Gavin (2006) Spivy wanted her various girlfriends to come into the club, and she didn’t think it would be fair to let them in while leaving out the men. Each night gay men lined the bar in their white tuxedos. Spivy’s was a good place for the men to meet each other and a little “fumbling around in the dark” was not uncommon. But Spivy, a short, stout woman in a black dress and black hair combed into a stiff pompadour with a white streak going from front to back (Gavin, 2006, p 30), could be moody. Every once in awhile she would stand up in the middle of the dining area and yell, “Get all the fairies out of here.” Gavin doesn’t say whether this was a joke or whether she actually pushed the gay men out. I rather think not. As one patron put it Spivy was the “patron saint of fags.”
Spivy’s Roof was located in the penthouse of 139 East 57 Street in New York City. To get there you rode up in a rickety elevator, which opened into a world of glitter and chrome and tightly packed tables and chairs. On the walls were paper sculptures of “stars” such as Katherine Cornell and Gypsy Rose Lee.
Madame Spivy had her devoted fans who came to hear her perform a set of 15 “sophisticated” or “blue” songs. She was supposed to do two shows a night on the weekend, but she paid no attention to time or scheduling. Often she still hadn’t begun the ten o’clock show at 11:30. It wasn’t uncommon for her fans to begin chanting “Spivy! Spivy!” to try to coax her onto the stage. But Madame Spivy was in the back talking to one or more of her girlfriends, among them Tallulah Bankhead or Patsy Kelly.
Spivy was always the star at Spivy’s Roof despite, allowing others to perform on her stages, such as Mabel Mercer, and the then unknown Carol Channing.
strong>An Unknown Piano Player You May Know
Spivy always had two pianos, one under the spotlight and another in the back covered in shadows. The pianist in the back played the ambient music and also backed up Spivy’s own playing when she sang. The word was that she kept that shadowy pianist in the back, because she wasn’t very good. Still she had no intention of sharing the spotlight with anyone else.One of her early pianists, hidden in shadows, was 21year old Walter Liberace. Imagine him being stuck in the back and in shadow. Well, that didn’t last long, but to find out what happened between Spivy and Walter I hope you’ll read my novel, JULIANA. There’s a chapter on Spivy’s Roof in which the scene with the young Liberace gets played out.
The times these people lived in were very different from ours in some significant ways. One commentator who was a regular at Spivy’s Roof when he was sixteen—they didn’t seem to be quite so fussy about legal drinking age back then—said “I was probably too innocent to think of Spivy’s sexuality. The concept of women loving women just didn’t exist in the groupthink of the era…” (www.ralphmag.org/DJ/spivy2.html)
Spivy’s Roof was so successful in New York that Spivy thought she could expand into London, Paris and Rome. These clubs all failed. (www.ralphmag.org/DJ/spivy2.html)
So What Happened to Her?
Spivy established a small acting career and you can see her in The Manchurian Candidate and Requiem for a Heavyweight. She also starred in some TV episodes of Hitchcock Presents.
Gavin, J (2006). Intimate nights. New York: Back Stage Books
Ralph (n.d). The Bearded Lady on Spivy’s Roof, Part I. http://www.ralphmag.org/DJ/spivy1.html
Based on research for my novel, JULIANA: It’s 1941 in New York City
where gay men and women live secretly among straights.
Many thanks, Vanda, for such a fascinating article. Madame Spivy was quite a lady! Good luck with your novel, Juliana, and please let us know when it’s available.