I'm drunk with love, my body aches...
BRUZ FLETCHER Remembering a Pioneering Gay Voice
Multi talented writer, photograher, composer, performer Bruz Fletcher, born to one of the wealthiest and most dysfunctional families in Indiana, twice took the difficult journey of riches to rags in his short, turbulent 34 years. His drama filled life was an ever changing saga, a wild and sad story of extremes and incredible plot twists. He ran away from home at age 8 and attempted suicide as young teen. While home for the school holidays, his mother and grandmother drank poison committing a double suicide. His older sister escaped their family’s high society life and lived as a man, joined a Broadway show, then took off for Germany where she was jilted by a count. Later she was committed to an asylum and was arrested for attacking the fraudulent Lady Bathurst before dying at age 24. His father lost the fortune and prestigious banks his family built over generations a became an elevator operator. Bruz overcame it all and sparkled as he entertained nightly in glamorous nightclubs, delighting his often well-known patrons with his electric, quick witted, sophisticated and risqué songs. His record 5 year run at L.A.'s Club Bali created a bawdy partylike atmosphere in what was a wild oasis for the city's most outrageous celebrities and notables. An out and bold pioneer, Fletcher and his partner Casey Roberts lived together openly in home after home, in state after state, hosting salons and publicly collaborated on numerous artistic endeavors ranging from the theatrical, to literary, to the decorative and fine arts. The two kept no secrets about living together over the years. Their domestic arrangements were written often about in newspapers and magazines as were their many artistic collaborations. Few such open, prominent and well documented gay couples existed in that era.
Though he killed himself at age 34 in 1941, Fletcher left behind three albums of wonderful songs and two novels that give some colorful and candid glimpses into his own world populated by society dowagers, misfits, celebrities, addicts, servants, lovers and eccentrics that covered a wide variety sexualities and mores. Bruz was an early feminist of sorts creating a myriad of bold, powerful, smart, independent, female characters who were often sexual outsiders. These women resonated deeply with homosexuals who related to them on many different levels. Bruz even created a transexual character before such people were possible. Bruz Fletcher's songs make a fascinating study as well as still-heady entertainment. Living as openly as a gay man could, he became a master of gay code and double speak in order to survive and flourish in a very homophobic era. His lyric gender-play reveals the necessity for gay men of his generation to speak out of three sides of their mouths. With lyrics sprinkled with gay code, he also cleverly manages to delight and titillate the general public -- or at least the sophisticated public.
Much like Jay Little, or Samuel Steward, Bruz Fletcher is one of the few rare and forgotten pre-Stonewall gay artists whose story has recently come to light. Research has revealed tantalizing clues and many fascinating details about this amazing performer. Since going online in 2004, the goal of this website has been to rescue Bruz Fletcher and his music from obscurity.
The website proved to be so successful in collecting data that in 2009, a 186 page book became available that chronicled in detail Bruz's incredible life and documents his work. The latest editions grew to 194 pages for the public edition and 252 pages for the private "collectors'" version. The website still highlights some of these details and is a place to continue updating new discoveries and is a forum for all to contribute comments and details. Over the years, this fluid website has been the original source for all portrait photos of Fletcher that you find elsewhere online and essentially any information about Fletcher other than a simple discography. JD Doyle also posts some original source articles and his website is the first stop anyone should make for beginning research on any queer performer. Last updates: December 2014.
Please e-mail Tyler Alpern at Tyler_alpern@yahoo.com to contribute about Bruz or Miss Jimmie Reynard. No detail too small or insignificant. Each bit of trivia and source helps to build the story.
I would be willing to buy or trade for Fletcher, Roberts or Reynard related materials. Contact me first!
Bruz Fletcher: Camped, Tramped & A Riotous Vamp
is almost 200 pages containing the fruits of 9 years of exhaustive research including: heaps of unpublished images, Bruz Fletcher's extended and fascinating biography and family, analysis and commentary of his work from both queer and straight perspectives, lyricsto his songs; contributions from family members, collectors, and fans; bibliography, research details and more. Available Here. Interested past and new contributors to this site can receive a free collectors-only edition of the book with an additional 50+ pages and updated in 2013!
Bitchy society gossip provided the inspiration and subject for so many of Bruz’s songs: She’s My Most Intimate Friend, Miss Day, The Hellish Mrs. Haskell (Society Lady), Hello Darling, and Mrs. Lichtenfall. His highly narrative songs mostly reflect the wealthy lifestyle he was born into and the cafe society he became a glittering part of. Although they are amusing fictional tales, they are autobiographical windows into his world. One can't help but speculate if there is not some autobiographical truth in the song "Peter Lillie Daisy." It is the story of a demanding father and oddly gendered child who eventually finds success, happiness and acceptance in Hollywood and writes his father off. His songs are a showcase of his quick comic wit, but include a heavy mix of tragedy. His protagonists often have terrible ends in spite of the light, happy nature of the songs. The “gorgeous” gay butler in “Mrs. Lichtenfall” is shot dead, the madcap society girl turned movie star Miss Day dies young, the Adonis-like traveling salesman Hilly Brown is castrated, and perhaps drawing a bit from his own life: a mother is poisoned. Fletcher’s two love ballads “Reminiscent of You” and “Drunk with Love” leave the singer/composer ultimately alone. “Oh, For a Week in the Country,” "The Prairie" and “The Simple Things of Life” are not at all what their titles suggest but are in fact genuine love songs to the modern urban life of the well to do. A definite homoeroticism flavors his entire songbook. “Oh, For a Week in the Country” and "The Prairie" are rich with gay code and double meanings but "My Doctor" is a transparent and unashamed gay love song. There is an occasional sense of elitism in his lyrics and writing that clearly reflect his privileged upbringing and a definite distrust and indifference to “servants.”
Bruz recorded for the small independent label Liberty Music Shop. His songs have a only a few direct uncoded homosexual references but can be described as sophisticated, energetic, witty, gossipy, campy, bitchy, cosmopolitan, bawdy; in a single word gay. They are full of rhymes, innuendo and amusing puns much in the manner of fellow Hoosier Cole Porter or Noel Coward. The double entendres in "Lei from Hawaii" and "Keep an Eye on His Business" are cheeky and irreverent.
Bruz wrote and performed in an era when homosexuality was considered a perversion by the medical community, a sickness to be cured and was legally a crime punishable by imprisonment. He spoke out against that mentality in the only way he could, guised in metaphor and comedy. Perhaps inspired by the pet monkeys he and Casey kept, the lyrics to "Hello Darling" find Bruz using his fondness of monkeys as a metaphor to mock society’s beliefs that homosexuals were sick perverts and criminals: "The new psychiatrist that I am going to in the Bleeker Building says that I’ve got a primate urge, yens to sleep with monkeys, marmosets - anything with a big tail. I’ll have to marry Gargantua before I get through. Don’t you understand - it’s my only escape! Waiter, it’s coming on me again. Send out quickly and get me an ape!" The same comic device was later used in Cabaret in the staging of the song "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" where an ape was substituted for a Jewish girlfriend. Bruz would have to use metaphor and comedy to express that kind of social criticism. No one was publicly challenging the misunderstood nature and harsh treatment of homosexuality in the thirties. I think it may be his most daring lyric!
In “Peter Lillie Daisy” (also recorded as “It,” ) Bruz is much more direct in confronting the mores of a hostile society, and thru song he makes himself a pioneer in his early public affirmantion of gender fluidity and even the idea of transgender and transexual people. Little Peter Lillie Daisy or "It" is a misunderstood young person with the wonderful ability to instantly change its sex from male to female and back again. Seeking its father’s approval and searching for its place in the world it ends up finding its own self acceptance and happiness. To a population of closeted homosexuals forced to move with great agility between the worlds of straight and gay, the metaphor of changing one’s gender at a whim, must have been easily appreciated. Much like the Shakespearean fool, a character who used humor to speak the truth to an otherwise unreceptive monarch and attentive audience, Bruz’s “sophisticated” or risqué comedy had profound meaning delivered in a palatable manner.
Bruz’s prominent use of code words ‘gay’ and ‘belle’ in “Garden City Belle” would have been noticed by homosexuals of the thirties even though they do not have a functional double meaning here. This proud tale of a sexual outsider would resonate with a gay audience. The fact that the belle is truly of female gender still fits 30s code when gay men often referred to themselves and others as ‘she.’ Stuart Timmons’ article on Bruz explains, “But the girls could easily be boys beneath, especially in an era when gay men often considered each other as 'sisters' and when drag names abounded.” Like “Keep an Eye on His Business” Bruz plays a woman by quoting her entirely in the song. He does not imitate a woman’s voice in either or when he quotes women in “The Hellish Mrs. Haskell,”“Miss Day,”“Mrs. Licthenfall” or “Hello, Darling!” but the flip side of “Garden City Belle” is “The Human News Reel” in which every character is female and Bruz does use a different and sometimes falsetto voice to personify each. For the character of the overtly lesbian and stereotypically butch masseuse, he actually deepens his voice. In the song, she works on Greta Garbo, whose affairs with women in 20s and 30s are well documented. Bruz may well have been privy to that knowledge, hence the reference.
Bruz Fletcher’s long run at Club Bali ended the week of January 10, 1940. Although he once again topped the bill there, appearing with the great Nellie Lutcher from May thru mid June and mid July to mid September, he only worked 19 weeks that year. In his final week at the Bali, Hedda Hopper (perhaps in an effort to help save his job) wrote in her column "don't miss Bruz Fletcher at the Bali." From that same month there exists a strange telegram exchanged between Jack Sowden and James Broughton expressing concern for Bruz. Sometime in 1940, Fletcher cut his last few records for Liberty Music Shop. Bruz mysteriously disappeared for a while at the end of 1940, spent the holidays with family and returned to Hollywood in late January 1941 and was dismayed upon his return to find the Bali closed.
Due to frequent police crackdowns on gay performers and clubs, Bruz and many other performers could not find employment. He thus grew increasingly despondent and appaerntly committed suicide on Feb. 8, 1941, in Tarzana, California at the age of thirty-four. He had just spent the Christmas holidays in Saranac, New York, with his extended family and seemed fine then. His death came as a total shock to them. The strange circumstances of his death and the characters and places involved are typical of the high drama and mystery that shrouds his short complex life.
Bruz’s body was cremated in Canoga Park under the directions of his father who was living in Tarzana working as an elevator operator and there was no memorial service. He is not buried with the other Fletchers. After about a year and with some help from one of Bruz's aunts, Bruz's ashes were given to Casey. Bruz had been disillusioned and unhappy in Los Angeles and had no ties to Indiana so where to place Bruz was a bit of a quadry. Bruz loved monkeys. Before he kept them as pets and when Casey and Bruz romance first began, they would often visit the monkey house at the LA Zoo. Those were the days when Bruz was most happy. In a scene that must have been Felliniesque, Casey and a mob of friends brought Bruz's ashes to the San Diego Zoo and left him with the monkeys.
Bruz's Aunt Louisa once wrote:
I wish that there were some wonderful place
Called the Land of Beginning Again,
Where all our mistakes, and all our heartaches,
And all of our poor selfish griefs
Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door,
And never be put on again.
But there is not such a place, or at least there was not for Bruz.
Bruz’s own words express much the same sentiments as penned by his aunt. Describing his character failed songwriter Peter Martin, Bruz wrote: “He wished he had a head master and was back in school. That someone could correct him and give him five black marks and allow him to start again. That was the horrible part about growing up. There wasn’t anyone to do that. There wasn’t anyone to apologize to or blame. It was always your own damn fault.”
Incidentally, Bruz's first novel did not live up to its jovial title. Instead, it begins with the cryptic dedication, “to Agnes, who makes life much less a hell than it was originally intended.”
In 1946, the wild Frances Faye made a daring choice to include Bruz’s “Drunk with Love” on her first album! She kept Bruz’s artistry alive by recording the song on 3 of her albums over her career and by performing in it concerts for decades until she retired. By doing so in those closeted days, she outted herself to the gay folks in the audience who would know the record and its source. Yet she never mentioned its composer and let the beauty of the song be unspoiled by its sad history. Marijane Meaker's book, "Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950's," mentions that Faye’s rendition of the song was frequently played in lesbian bars of the era. Balladeer Miss Jimmie Reynard (a legendary male impersonator or drag king pioneer aka Miss Jimmy Reynard) recorded a faithful, heart felt and same sex lyric version of the tune. Dressed in a man's suit, wearing red lipstick and shorter hair, she must have performed the song countless times at lesbian bars Mona's 440 and Mona's Candle Light in San Francisco and at Tess's Cafe Internationale in Los Angeles where she may have encountered Fletcher or Faye just a block away at the Bali. The song really became an anthem and never seems to have lost popularity in San Francisco.
Later, Pearl Bailey recorded the song with alternate, 'radio safe' lyrics that entirely changed the meaning, but chanteuse Joyce Byant, whose hair glistened shiny silver from heavy and toxic radiator paint, gained noteriety recording a crazy interpretation of the original version which was publicily banned from the radio. Her record's label oddly also gave Bryant and Stuart writing credit for Bruz's tune! The 1950 posthumously published sheet music of the song features Bryant on the cover but justly returns tune smithing credit to Bruz. The orginal Faye and Reynard recordings leave the song unattributed and a later Faye recordings attribute the song alternately to Fletcher friend Queenie Smith or Fletcher himself. The change of format from 78 rpm to LPs in the early 50’s doomed Bruz’s recordings into a premature deep obscurity.
San Francisco saloon singer and "inventor of the piano bar" Wilbur Stump released an album that included the uncredited "Drunk with Love" on the occasion of his 75th birthday and to commemorate 63 years in show business in 1978. Closer to Fletcher's original version than to Faye's, the plaintiff lyrics must have struck a chord in the seven-times divorced, alcoholic nightclub performer. He can be heard singing the song in the 1985 film "My Mother Married Wilbur Stump." Peter Allen biographer Stephen MacLean wrote that urged by his assistant Bruce, “Peter had obsessively tried to find sheet music on “Drunk with Love,” but almost like Frances herself, could find no trace it ever existed except from her recording.” It seems that Bruz, like the character Peter Martin from his first novel, gave up trying to get publishers to buy his songs. Bruz only copyrighted four of his songs, including however,“Drunk with Love.” In 2004, singer Terese Genecco won “Entertainer of the Year” at a San Francisco Cabaret Competition singing Bruz’s “Drunk with Love.” She writes, “Since I was unable to locate the sheet music, I carefully transcribed the chords and lyrics to “Drunk With Love” and, during a showcase event held by the competition organizers, proceeded to regale the crowd of over two hundred with my best interpretation of Frances Faye, complete with the “ex-husband” introduction of my now amazingly talented and fabulous accompanist, Barry Lloyd. The room went wild. A gentleman in the audience contacted the producer the next day asking him to find out where I found a copy of the sheet music for “Drunk With Love!”
Other songs have lived on too. “She’s My Most Intimate Friend” was all but plagiarized for the great Bea Arthur number “Couldn’t Be Happier” in Ben Bagley’s Shoestring Revue. Carroll Davis' performance of "She's My Most Intimate Friend" can be seen in the 1985 documentary "Before Stonewall." Around 1950, Reta Ray, The Naughty Nightingale, recorded “Keep an Eye on Your Husband’s Business” which borrowed heavily from Bruz. As recently as 2006, Dr. Demento has on four occasions included “My Doctor” on his show. You can now hear part of "My Doctor" online at JD Doyle's Queer Music Heritage. Go to the June 2004 page: http://www.queermusicheritage.com/jun2004.html and hear the song. Drunk with Love is the title of the 2005 tribute show to Frances Faye and 2007 CD. Hear Bruz sing "Drunk with Love" at Radiolulu. Bruz's contribution to gay life in the 1930's and my website is documented in Stuart Timmons' 2006 article in The Gay and Lesbian Review and mentioned briefly in his book book Gay LA. In a 2009 interview published by Lavendermagazine.com, Doug Wright revealed that the gay character of Gould in the musical "Grey Gardens" was partially inspired by Bruz Fletcher, "... we sort of drew alot of inspiration from a cabaret piano player from the 1940s named Bruz Fletcher. He made a few recordings that are still available to us. He was wildly camp and ended up committing suicide. And very droll, but clearly a product of that early generation of gay man in this country for whom it was disapproved of socially and (who were) still living a coded underground life so it engendered alot of internalized homophobia and I think Gould suffered from all of that. So he’s kind of a tragic broken figure I think."
As recently as December 2012, I have been informed about other exciting projects in the works. In 2012, 2 copies of an unknown and distinctly different version of Bruz performing "Drunk with Love" surfaced and in 2013, 4 more letters written by Fletcher came to light. Previoulsy unknown artwork and articles by Casey have recently been found and as well as sheet music for unrecorded songs by Fletcher. In October 2013, 3 more unpublished songs surfaced that have themes similar to 'Drunk with Love' and 'Reminiscent of You.' There is a love song to a New York Man and the sadness of a call girl.
Copyright Tyler Alpern 2004 - 2014
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