The Bearded Lady
On Spivy's RoofPART II
This all came up while I was researching another New York regular of those years, Isaac Bashevis Singer. His story, "The Beard" just happened to bring to mind another of Spivy's songs. Both concerned themselves with a lady with a beard. Singer's was a lady of some solemnity, a lady whose husband would never let her shave, a woman who took to wearing a fedora and smoking a cigar.
Spivy's was more accepting: "She was only a bearded lady/In love with a surrealist." When they went about town, "She wore a rose in her beard/And he a lamb-chop in his boutonniere."
Like so many Googles that wander off into the varied, colorful bits of our pasts and history, this one gave me not a few surprises. Mme. Spivy, as she called herself, was, I find out, a lesbian. She never hid it which, in those days, took some courage. She also took up acting in her later days, was friends with some of the surrealists of the day.
I was sixteen when I first came into Spivy's Roof. In those supposedly less enlightened times in New York City, they figured that if you were old enough to get through the door alone you were old enough to drink, even to listen to "blue" songs --- not very provocative now; quite on the edge back then.
I was probably much too innocent to think of Spivy's sexuality ... outside of her racy songs, as if that had any thing to do with it. I was certainly not thinking of what we now so correctly --- if not a little scientifically --- call "orientation." The concept of women loving women just didn't exist in the groupthink of that era, any more than the thought of our loving those we were so casually rooming with in our loco parentis schools. As, for instance, that pink-cheeked, blonde-haired James Downey who lived just down the echoing hall from me, with the perfect teeth and a devastating smile, who unknowingly won my heart entire. Although I never told him. Or myself.
I probably just thought of it as a "friendship," as in "we were good friends." Although I suspect his nigh-about-perfect thighs and hairless, well-muscled chest entered into far too many of my dreams, especially during the near-incessant self-caresses that went on, so quietly, in my bed, some time after lights out.
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The second Spivy surprise was a result of her immense success in Manhattan --- probably due to a small, free weekly listing in the "About the Town" section of The New Yorker. Her club was always filled and was so prosperous that she tried to start other Spivy Clubs in England and France and Italy in the 1950s. She failed. Her humor was pure New York. It didn't travel.
But Spivy didn't just fade away. She later appeared in the movies The Manchurian Candidate and Requiem for a Heavyweight. She starred in several episodes of Hitchcock Presents. And, eventually, she died, of cirrhosis, in Woodland Hills, California, in January of 1971.
For me she didn't belong west of the Hudson. It was too far, I think, from that sophisticated, very sly, caged-in world of post-WWII New York ... where she brought culture to Buffalo, told of the adventures of "that pansy cat," and sang of the mysterious lady who
Dressed up like a fellow,
In a suit of real bright yellow
And in her hat, she wore a quill.
She would fall into splits
'Til folks lost their wits
And cried "Again, another refrain."
Her footwork is delicious
Though they say she shocked the bishop
But the bishop said, "Oh, no."
We will ... not ... leave ... this ... place ... until,
Three ... times ... more ... at ... least ... she ... will,
Do the tarantella
In her suit of real bright yellow
And in her hat
That goddamn quill.--- Ignacio Schwartz