Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 6: "Death of a Transvestite" (1967)

Four years after his debut novel, Ed Wood gave us a sequel, Death of a Transvestite.

"Pure determination held me by the groin."
- Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1967)

Ed Wood's standard headshot.
Ed Wood was many things, but lazy was not one of them. The man just never quit. When I think of Ed now, my image is not of a man standing behind a movie camera but rather a man hunched over a typewriter, churning out manuscripts and screenplays at a frenzied pace. In one of the innumerable documentaries about this odd auteur, actor Paul Marco ("Kelton the Cop") fondly recalled Ed typing away at a story while smoking, drinking, and carrying on conversations with friends. When asked which possessions he would save in case of an emergency, Ed selected his typewriter. What about his wife, Kathy? She could follow him, he explained. The man had ink and alcohol in his veins.

Getting the funding to make a movie is damned hard and frustrating work, and Eddie simply wasn't good at it. That's largely why his directing career evaporated after about a decade. But writing more or less eliminated the troublesome middlemen. There were no studio executives or financial backers to tell him no. It was just his brain, the typewriter, and the paper. Ed could bang out a novel and sell it to a publisher fairly quickly, and this would provide the cash he desperately needed to buy his booze and pay his rent, the former always taking precedent over the latter. But while Wood may have had a figurative gun pressed to his temple while he wrote these volumes, do not labor under the delusion that these books were soulless, mercenary endeavors.

On the contrary, there is much of the man himself in these sentences, perhaps in a form even purer or less diluted than one might find in his films. I won't say that "to read Ed Wood is to know Ed Wood," because the man was profoundly unknowable. Even his own wife, Kathy O'Hara, the woman who stayed with him for decades and was as close to him as anyone, considered her husband a "lost being on this earth" who "doesn't belong here." I will say, though, that Ed's written works give us valuable insight into this surprisingly complex man.

Fortunately, this project has finally given me an excuse to delve into the shadowy literary career of Edward D. Wood, Jr., something I've wanted to do ever since reading Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., which contains an extensive Ed Wood bibliography. In fact, the image from that book which really piqued my interest was the original 1967 cover of the novel which I'm reviewing today.

How could I not be intrigued by Death of a Transvestite? After all, the book's original cover depicts a man wearing a black bra, black panties, black garters, and fishnet stockings. He would look very much like a character in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) were it not for the cover's other ominous trappings. A small black rectangle, for instance, cancels out the man's eyes. And, of course, he is standing in a prison hallway which terminates in an electric chair. At the bottom of the page is the book's unforgettable tagline and tantalizing ad copy:    
The last request of a prisoner in the
death house. A revealing insight to the
"other life" of a man of action...

Now, at last, I get to see what was behind that arresting cover. Ah, the joys and privileges of adulthood! Incidentally, that cover photo was of actor Hugh Hooker from the movie Suburbia Confidential (1966), directed by Stephen Apostolof (aka "A.C. Stephen"), who worked with Ed many times in the 1960s and 1970s on film projects. Anyway, onto the book itself:


Ed Wood in one of the angora sweaters over which he obsessed so fervently.

Alternate titles: Let Me Die in Drag (sometimes credited to "Woodrow Edwards"); I Want to Die in Drag (Kindle edition), Hollywood Drag; Muerte de un travesti (translated into Spanish)

Availability: The most common edition is Death of a Transvestite (Four Walls Eight Windows 1998; reprinted by Da Capo Press, 1999), but an edition with the original cover is available as well (Angora Press, 1990). Those who want the Spanish language edition can opt for Muerte de un travesti (Punto de Lectura, 2002). And those who prefer to have the novel as an e-book may purchase I Want to Die in Drag: The Transgender Classic (Amazon Digital Services, 2005).

A few of the many editions of Death of a Transvestite.
Notice how many bear Ed's own name.
The backstory: A great deal happened in America in the four years between the publication of Ed Wood's debut novel, Killer in Drag (aka Black Lace Drag), and the appearance of its bizarre sequel, Death of a Transvestite (aka Let Me Die in Drag). The country lost a whole lot of its innocence between 1963 and 1967. The president, John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated in full view of the public. His alleged killer, too, had been gunned down in full view of the cameras. Under the leadership of hawkish new president Lyndon B. Johnson, the war in Vietnam had escalated severely and was claiming the lives of many young American men who had not volunteered for military service but instead had been drafted.

Legions of so-called "baby boomers," the children born during the prosperous, optimistic years following WWII, had started to reach their teens and twenties, and they began to form their own parallel society, separate from that of their parents, which became known as the counterculture. These young people were fiercely anti-war (after all, they were the ones expected to go fight it) and protested vigorously against it, often on college campuses. Moreover, they were tired of the strict, repressive, morality-bound world in which they had been raised and were eager to experiment with sex, drugs, art, music, and fashion.

Cultural observers began to speak of a "generation gap" emerging between the older folks and their children. Ed Wood, then 43, would have been closer in age to the parents and definitely fell on the pre-war side of the generation gap. People who know of Ed's transvestism and prodigious consumption of alcohol might have guessed that he'd be sympathetic to these adventurous young folks and their newfangled ideas. Nothing doing. As Rob Craig astutely points out in his book Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films (McFarland Press, 2009), Ed was "a unique cross between libertine and prude." Both sides are well represented in Death of a Transvestite.

The Sunset Strip in the '60s.
Those of you who have read Killer in Drag will recall that, in that book, cross-dressing New York assassin Glen Marker (aka "Glenda Satin") was falsely accused of the murder of wealthy homosexual Dalten Van Carter and had to go on the run. He got as far as Colorado, where he purchased a small carnival and began a relationship with troubled prostitute Rose Graves. Unfortunately, the carnival only brought Glen/Glenda unforeseen new problems, and he reluctantly left Rose to go to Los Angeles. In doing so, he barely escaped from a pair of crooked cops, Mac and Ernie, who died in a wild climactic car chase. While Glen/Glenda was making his way to the West Coast, his former mob bosses from "the Syndicate" back East were dispatching another drag queen to hunt him down. That's how Killer in Drag ends.

The sequel picks up with Glen Marker on death row, having apparently been convicted of murder (we never find out precisely whose, though) and about to go to the electric chair*. He has one final wish, though: to be allowed to die in drag as his "Glenda" character. In exchange for this final courtesy, Glen agrees to tell the warden his entire story. The bulk of the novel is a series of flashbacks -- Glen's memories intermingled with those of other characters in the saga and various lawmen, waitresses, bellboys, and others who just happened to witness some of the events. The overarching narrative is of Glen Marker's attempts to establish himself in Los Angeles, while constantly being pursued by the vicious, hawk-nosed Paul/Paula, a thrill-killer turned professional assassin, who once idolized Glen and now must destroy him.

Despite this unpleasantness, Glen/Glenda manages to start a romantic relationship with rising young actress Cynthia "Cindy" Harding, who is the "kept woman" of wealthy, aging, would-be lothario Ronnie Dixon. Together, Glenda and Cindy explore the nightlife of Los Angeles, including the gay and lesbian bars of the Sunset Strip. But the Strip is being infiltrated by rowdy "teenagers" and "beatniks," attracting the unwanted attention of the police. A full-scale riot breaks out one night, providing the chaotic backdrop for the final, bloody showdown between Glen/Glenda and Paul/Paula. His story told, Glenda bravely accepts her fate in the death house, clad in an angora sweater and brown skirt borrowed from the warden's daughter.
*HISTORICAL NOTE: While capital punishment was the law in California in 1967, the electric chair has never been used in that state. Capital punishment was briefly suspended in California from 1972 to 1978. In reality, Glen Marker could have opted for lethal injection or the gas chamber.

A typical scene from Jack Webb's Dragnet 1967
The reading experience: Befuddling and compelling at once. Killer in Drag was written in a third-person omniscient voice and told its eccentric story in a basically typical pulp novel style. The plot of Death of a Transvestite unfolds in a much more disorienting, fragmented way.

In a previous entry in this series, I wrote that Ed's script for The Violent Years was clearly influenced by Jack Webb's seminal radio and TV police series of the 1950s, Dragnet, with its deadpan narration by a police officer and its supposed basis in fact. Well, more than anything, reading Death of a Transvestite is like watching an episode of Jack Webb's revival series, Dragnet 1967, only told largely from the criminal's point of view and incorporating the transvestism and wild sexual experimentation which were the hallmarks of Wood's work. Perhaps you've seen Dragnet 1967 in reruns. In it, Sgt. Joe Friday (Webb), still as straightlaced and humorless as he was in the 1950s, comes face to face with the counterculture: hippies, longhairs, acid freaks, gurus, and more. This incredible contrast between old and new, the "generation gap" neatly encapsulated, has made the revival series a longstanding camp classic.

Ideologically, Ed Wood had a surprising amount in common with super-conservative Jack Webb. The policemen in this book are the same dutiful, honest lawmen you'll find in most of Ed's work. (The crooked cops of Killer in Drag are an anomaly.) Ed's utter contempt for the youth culture, whom he amusingly misidentifies as "beatniks," a term roughly a decade past its expiration date, is plain. Remember, this is a man who eagerly joined the Marines in WWII, so he would have had no sympathy whatsoever for the anti-Vietnam movement.

What seems hypocritical to me is his condemnation of the drug scene, specifically acid and marijuana. (There is one brief reference to "the white stuff," by which he means heroin, not cocaine.) I say "hypocritical" because Ed was altering his own consciousness with alcohol whenever he could, and the characters in his novels do likewise. Booze is nearly as central a motif in Death of a Transvestite as angora.

First edition of Robert Bloch's Psycho.
Beyond this consideration, Dragnet's documentary-style approach to storytelling causes Ed to treat this novel as a factual report compiled from various confessions and eyewitness reports. One is reminded of the prologue of Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), in which Criswell insists the story is factual, "based only on the secret testimony of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal." The weirdest aspect of Death of a Transvestite is the fact that the novel, despite its supposedly "official" nature,  is written in the lurid, panting, purple-prose style of any sleazy dime novel and contains sordid details and dreamy digressions which would never, ever appear in a police document. How would waitresses and airport employees even know what the main characters were thinking, unless LA is populated by psychics? It's as if the LAPD dutifully gathered its source material then turned it over to Harold Robbins, Grace Metalious, or Jacqueline Susann (or perhaps all three, taking turns) for editing.

And maybe Robert Bloch might have taken a turn spicing this material up, too, since the Paul/Paula character bears a certain resemblance to Psycho's Norman Bates. Like Norman, Paul is a cross-dressing mama's boy who kills the women who sexually excite him. The briefly-glimpsed-yet-crucial character of Paul's indulgent mother is perhaps yet another example of Ed Wood using his writing to work through some deeply-ingrained Oedipal issues.

For such a slim, slight volume, Death of a Transvestite is surprisingly heady stuff and provides the aspiring Wood-ologist with all sorts of fodder for theories and fantasies. Copies of it are plentiful and cheap. Do yourself a favor and pick one up at the earliest convenience.

Next week: Literary month continues as I tackle another one of Ed's novels from 1967. Make plans to be back here in seven days for a review of the spicy-sounding Devil Girls.