JULIANA, is Tales of the City, set in 1940s Greenwich Village instead of 1970s San Francisco. Gays and Lesbians hide in plain sight among straights who rarely notice them.
It’s 1941 and Alice Huffman, “Al,” comes from the potato fields of Long Island with her childhood friends to make it on the Broadway stage, only to find she has no talent. On the kids’ first day in New York City, they meet Maxwell P. Hartwell III, a failed nightclub owner and Broadway producer, who, according to Al, looks a little like Clark Gable. He invites them to a nightclub where Al hears Juliana, the glamorous, perpetually-on-the-brink-of stardom singer, for the first time. Al is instantly drawn to her and seeks her out. Juliana is a sexual risk-taker who easily reels in the mesmerized Al.
Through Juliana and Max Al is thrust into a world of “deviates” and “perverts” that she never before knew existed. Cameo appearances are made by Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Lauren Bacall, Tallulah Bankhead and Walter Liberace.
THE LIMOUSINE BUMPED and shook over the cobblestone on its way past Wanamaker’s department store. We turned off Broadway onto Eighth Street.
“Max, you know we could have just walked. It’s not far.”
“Maxwell P. Harlington does not—”
“Walk when he can take a limousine and look like a complete donkey. I know.”
“That wasn’t exactly how I would have put it, but you have the spirit of the thing.”
I opened the window trying to catch a breeze. I didn’t feel comfortable driving in a limousine like a grand lady. Last week after work, I walked up this street to the Whitney Museum ’cause I don’t know much about art and I wanted to educate myself. Sam’s Deli was across the street so I got myself a cheap salami and cheese sandwich. It seemed to me that in a neighborhood where you could get a cheap salami sandwich, you didn’t need to arrive in a limousine.
Timothy, our limousine driver, pulled the car over to the curb in front of an awning that said Tom Kat Klub. He opened the door for us. Timothy was a muscular man in a black jacket with a cap on his head. He bowed, “Good evening, Mr. Harlington. Evening, miss.”
Max yanked the long coat off me and threw it in the backseat. Timothy drove off leaving me standing on 8th Street where everyone could see me in pants. Max held the door of the Klub open, and I slipped inside looking straight ahead so I wouldn’t see people pointing at me. I followed close behind Max trying to keep my legs pressed tight together, but I kept knocking myself over.
This place was even smaller than the other club and not as bright. It was just as noisy, though. I hurried to sit down, relieved that sitting meant no one could see the bottom half of me. The ceiling fans whirred, pushing around the heat.
Max said this place was called a supper club and proceeded to order us two bologna sandwiches to go with our Manhattans. I learned much later that supper clubs had to serve food ’cause New York law required places serving liquor to also provide food even if it wasn’t anything more than a crummy bologna sandwich.
Soon the mistress of ceremonies came out on the tiny round stage. She was the tallest lady I’d ever seen with big wide shoulders and big hands she flapped around like fans. She had blonde hair that was piled higher on her head than Miss Virginia Sales, and she wore a dress that twinkled. She winked at people in the audience and moved her hips like Mae West. I leaned over to Max, “I’ve never heard of a lady announcer before.”
Max grumbled, “That’s a man.”
“I hate that. Men parading around like women. Undignified.”
“That lady is a man? Wow!” I sat back in my chair. What an amazing place this New York City was.
The man dressed like a woman, the mistress—no, master of ceremonies—sang some Broadway show tunes that I knew from the radio. Then he told some smutty stories. Max looked all around the room like he was nervous about something.
We had to sit through a comic, a juggler, and a man singing love songs while sweat rolled down his nose. Finally, the mistress/master announced Juliana. There was polite applause in between talking and silverware dropping as Juliana floated onto the stage looking untouched by the eighty- eight degree heat. She wore a silky royal blue dress that fell to her midcalf. Before leaving the stage, the master of ceremonies said something about his phony breasts compared to Juliana’s real ones only he used a different word for them that I didn’t like to use back then. I didn’t like that man dressed as a woman saying that to her, but the audience thought it was hysterical. Juliana blew him a kiss as he lifted the hem of his dress to exit. She leaned against a pole that was in the center of the stage, and the piano in the back played the introduction. She sang into the microphone starting off slow, then the tempo picked up and she moved away from the pole and danced while singing. She danced close to the edge of the stage and I gasped afraid she’d fall off, but she didn’t. Max looked proud of his protégé́.
She finished the song with a flourish. I applauded so hard I thought my hands would fall off. Max didn’t clap; he just stared at her. “Such a beautiful woman,” I heard him whisper, but he wasn’t talking to me.
Juliana leaned against the piano and began “Ten Cents a Dance.” Max slapped his hand against the table. “I told her never to sing that song.”
“Why not? I think it sounds good.”
“You would. Can you picture that woman actually working for ten cents a dance, having men
slobbering all over her?”
I had to admit he had a point, but I didn’t want to admit it. “It’s just a song.”
“Just a song?” He shook his head. “Don’t talk to me.” He grumbled through the whole song.
When she finished, he crossed his arms over his chest, scowling, his mustache wiggling on his upper lip. “Come on, Max, clap for her. She was good.”
“How would you know? You’ve got stardust in your pants.”
We had to sit through a few more acts, but I don’t remember what they were. None of them were like Juliana. A couple times the fortune-teller stopped by our table wanting to tell our fortunes, but Max shooed her away.
When the lights came up, Max got out his wallet to pay the bill. Timothy, the limousine driver, rushed up to the table. “Mr. Harlington, Mr. Harlington, there’s an emergency. Come right away.”
“Can’t it wait, Slag, uh, Timothy? I’m right in the middle of—”
“It’s urgent, sir.”
“Oh, well, in that case. Al, get in that line over there? That’s the line to Juliana’s dressing room.”
“But you said you’d introduce me.”
“I would. But there’s an emergency. Hurry. You don’t want to miss her.” He threw some bills on
the table and ran out with Timothy.
I sat there thinking I should forget it and go home. Still, I did go to the trouble of buying the slacks and wearing them in public.
I stood behind a man and a woman who chatted cheerfully, talking about how wonderful she’d been and predicting she’d soon be a star. Another couple turned to talk with them. “Wasn’t that impersonator funny?” the woman in a hat with a feather bobbing up and down said. “I just
“You don’t see many anymore,” a man in a business suit and a big belly said. “Used to be there were lots of clubs where you could see the pansies and bull daggers, but not so much anymore. Used to make a man glad to go home and make love to his wife.”
“George. We’re in public,” the woman who I supposed was his wife said, hiding her face with her gloved hand.
George laughed. “You know what I mean.” He nodded at the other man, who chewed on a cigar. “I surely do know,” the man said, with a slight Southern accent. “Those fairies made a man glad he was normal.”
Juliana opened her door. She was all pink and white in her dressing gown, her lipstick, red, and when she spoke her voice was like a velvet ribbon floating on a breeze.
“To Vivian. Is that correct?” I heard her say as she scribbled on someone’s program.
“Tom?” she asked the man standing next in line. “Well, aren’t you a dear, Tom.” Tom walked off happily caressing his program.
As she handed back a signed program “To Barbara,” the male impersonator came running up to her. He didn’t have his wig on so it was easier to see he was a man, but he was still wearing the dress and high heels. It was scary seeing him look like a man and a woman at the same time.
“Juliana, darling,” he said, “I simply must speak to you.” He took out a handkerchief to wipe tears from his eyes. “I don’t know what to do. Oh, that man. Can you spare me a teensy weensy?”
Juliana smiled. “Of course, dear. Go in.” She turned to those of us on line. “Sorry. No more tonight.”
A woman walking past me said to her friend “Can you believe that? Wearing trousers in public.”
I quickly pulled my legs together. In my hurry, I’d forgotten what I was wearing.
Her friend in a hat with floppy flowers agreed. “Like a farmer. What is the younger generation coming to?”
I felt my face getting hot. Before Juliana disappeared with the master of ceremonies, she pointed. “You.”
“Me?” I asked.
“Wait. Will you?”
She winked and a flurry of butterflies rose in my stomach. Then she was gone and I was waiting
I wondered if that man in there with her was a real homosexual, not an actor like Danny Kaye. I
reasoned that he probably was, judging from what the people in line said about him. Max had dumped me all by myself in a place that had real homosexuals running around. How could he do that? I was sure Max must be a very dangerous person to even know about places like this.
The time went by and Juliana didn’t come out. I paced to keep my feet from falling asleep. I looked at my watch and then I remembered Mrs. Minton and her curfew. I had to go and forget about…
“It’s all going to turn out just fine, Stevie,” Juliana said to the impersonator. “You’ll see.” My breath got stuck somewhere between my heart and my throat. I’d never been this close to anyone that glamorous before. It was almost like standing next to Garbo. Stevie sashayed by me managing those heels a lot better than I could.
Juliana said, “Come in.” I followed her into her small room. It had a vanity, a Japanese screen, and a rack of elaborate dresses too fancy for the room with its pockmarked cement walls. The whole place smelled of lipstick and face powder. She sat at her vanity and crossed one leg over the other. I could see the garter that held up her nylon.
I stayed pushed up against the shut door and limply held out my program, “Uh, miss? Miss?” “Juliana,” she said as she slid one of her nylons down her leg.
“No. Just Juliana.”
“Oh. Okay.” I was sure I’d start breathing again soon. “It’s just that I’m so nervous. Oh, I didn’t
mean to say that.”
“You’re delightful.” She slid the second nylon down her leg.
“Yes, and I love what you’re wearing.”
“You do? Max said…”
“Max? Max Harlington? You know him?”
“How is Max? I haven’t seen him in ages.”
“You haven’t? But I thought…”
“Nothing.” I forgot I was still holding my program out toward her.
“Did you want me to sign that?”
“Oh, yes, would you?”
“No.” She got up.
Barefooted, she padded toward the screen. “I have a feeling that you and I are going to know each other for a long time. I’ll sign that when we know each other better, when it will really mean something.” She slipped behind the screen. “So what’s your name, sweetheart?” Her head poked above the screen as she fiddled with buttons and snaps and taking things off and pulling things on. “Al, uh, Alice, uh…” No one had ever called me sweetheart before. Not even Danny.
“You don’t have a last name, either, Alice?”
“Oh, no, I do. It’s uh, uh…” The smell of her lipstick was affecting my thinking. “Huffman.”
“Well, Miss Alice Huffman. Everyone in New York City seems to come from some other place. Where do you come from?”
“Never heard of it.”
“It’s in Long Island.”
“Oh.” Juliana stepped out from behind the screen. She wore a green day dress with the collar up. “Well, Miss Huffman—” “My friends call me Al.”
“Does that mean I should call you Al?”
“You could if you wanted to.”
“All right. Al. You shall walk me home. ”
I was born and raised in Huntington Station, Long Island, but my mother would never let us call it that. She said we came from South Huntington. Saying we were from Huntington Station, according to my mother, made it sound like we came from the other side of the tracks. And, well, Mom, we did and that fact has greatly influenced my writing.
My novel, JULIANA (Vol. 1: 1941-1944) is the first in a series in which the same characters live out LGBT history in New York City through the decades.
As a playwright I have received a number honors, among them an Edward Albee Fellowship. My play, Vile Affections, published by Original Works was a finalist for a National Lambda Award. My play, Patient HM, which later became The Forgetting Curve, won the Pride Stage and Screen’s Women’s Playwriting Award and another play, Why’d Ya Make Me Wear This, Joe, won Celebration Theater’s (where Naked Boys Singing originated) Best New LGBT Play.
My non-fiction story, “Jack,” was published in Prairie Schooner and another non-fiction piece, “Roger: Lost Between Philosophies,” which appears in Pentimento was selected by New Millennium Writings for Honorable Mention from a submission pool of 1,300.