Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 97: "Drag Trade" (1967)

Time to dive into one of Eddie's books from the Summer of Love.

Some other Triumph Fact Books.
You know what's crazy? This series has been running for nearly seven years, dissecting seemingly every aspect of Edward D Wood, Jr.'s life and career, and yet we've barely touched on the dozens of full-length books Eddie wrote between 1963 and 1978. I've reviewed exactly three of Ed's novels, plus the posthumously published showbiz treatise Hollywood Rat Race. My colleague, Greg Dziawer, has been more focused on the books Ed Wood didn't write, i.e. the smutty paperback novels and sex manuals written by his colleagues and contemporaries but sometimes mistakenly attributed to Ed.

And yet, all the while, there's a mammoth body of literature that we've hardly made a dent in. These aren't "speculative" or "possible" Wood works either. These are undisputed and iron-clad. Ed put his real name on the cover of many of them! For whatever reason, though, we just haven't gotten around to them.

Well, for a change of pace this week, I've decided to cover Drag Trade, a paperback book released in 1967 by Triumph News Co. Inc. of Van Nuys, CA. Eddie went by his own name on this project. He's listed as "Ed Wood Jr." on the cover and "Edward D. Wood, Jr." on the title page. According to Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey, that's Eddie himself in drag on the cover. I have no reason to doubt it; the eyes and chin look about right. But the fellow on the cover does look a bit more put-together than Eddie usually did.

Drag Trade's cover bears the legend "A Triumph Fact Book," placing it in a series that includes such inviting titles as Virginity: Its Causes and Cures (1968) by Lydia Swann, The Money Lovers (1968) by Richard Christy, The Changing Sexual Deviant (1968) by Lance Boyle, She Prostitute (1968) by Wallace Arthur, The Mind Benders (1967) by Jonathan Smith, and the ever-popular Sodomy (1968) by Matt and Kathleen Galant. It seems this franchise was rather robust in the late '60s. According to the Technical Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, Triumph was "one of the most important publishers in the industry" during this time but was "reportedly not publishing as of July 1970."

But the cover page for Drag Trade identifies the book as "A Triumph Novel" and "A Novel by Edward D. Wood, Jr." Rudolph Grey, too, refers to it as a novel. So what is this thing? Frankly, it reads more like a series of short stories than it does like a novel. Each chapter—and there are eight of wildly varying length—contains its own individual set of characters. There is no overarching plot here. Instead, Drag Trade is structured (mostly) as a collection of case studies, as if Ed were relating real-life stories ripped from the headlines. A quintessentially Wood-ian disclaimer at the beginning declares: "These chapters are based on fact. Only the names of characters have been changed... for obvious reasons." (If Jack Webb and Criswell had a baby, that's how it would talk.)

I'm tempted to call Drag Trade a compendium of fictional nonfiction. Like "Drag It Out" or "Trucking's a Ball," it's purely the product of the author's booze-soaked imagination, but it's presented as the truth. The book is such a jumble of unrelated anecdotes and pseudo-journalistic digressions that it defies summarizing. Luckily, at the beginning of the penultimate and longest chapter, Ed Wood does manage to explain the premise with some degree of clarity:
"[I]t is not the plain transvestite who interests us here. What is of interest is the homosexual transvestite and the temporary drag who puts on women's clothing for the purpose of criminal activities."
Keep in mind that, throughout this book, Ed uses the word "drag" as a noun to describe a cross-dresser. So, in a larger sense, Drag Trade is about the overlap between transvestism and criminality. In some areas of the country, Ed Wood reminds us, cross-dressing was a crime in and of itself. But this book is really about men who exist at the fringes of society because of their transvestite tendencies and who turn to a life of crime, including robbery and prostitution, because they see this as their only viable option. In the book's final chapter, labeled "EPILOG," Ed clarifies:
"There are few 'true' transvestites who become criminals, few ever even get themselves into any kind of trouble. But the world is very big, and in it are many houses."
Nevertheless, this book is filled with stories of boys who start dressing as girls and end up either dead or, more commonly, in prison.

One such sad case is that of Charles Myers, aka Charlotte Myers, aka Shirley Myers. The son of a migrant farm worker and a gold-digging "beer-bar floozy," Charles is appalled by his mother's greed and promiscuity and responds by becoming closer to his father. Things go wrong for Charles when he introduces his girlfriend Shirley to his dad. The old man makes such a fuss over the young lady that Charles decides to feminize himself. One fateful night, Charles convinces Shirley to switch clothing with him as some kind of foreplay. Unfortunately, Shirley's parents catch the couple at a most inopportune moment and charge the boy with rape. From there, he spirals into a life of crime from which he never recovers. It ends up with him killing a Hollywood cabbie while in full drag. I doubt even Charles could explain exactly how he got to that point.

That's how Drag Trade is. These stories take place all over the United States—with a couple of side trips to Japan—but feature a lot of common elements.
  • These men often come from unhappy or broken homes, with one parent either absent or emotionally distant. 
  • Some of these cross-dressers decided to become more feminine in order to please their fathers, while many more were turned into pseudo-daughters by their coddling, overprotective mothers. (Shades of Ed Wood's own, oft-repeated origin story.) 
  • Either way, the one loving parent dies, and the child is left to fend for himself. 
  • Many of these characters travel to a big city in search of opportunities. There, they commit crimes in order to feed their addiction to women's clothing. 
  • Ultimately, after a period of success, they go too far and are arrested. 
  • Their stories usually end with them going to prison and having to wear drab denim uniforms and get their hair cut short—the ultimate punishment in this universe.

Was Ed Wood inspired by his friend Tor Johnson?
What stands out, then, are the weird variations on the book's basic themes. Ed devotes Chapter Three, for instance, to Stephen/Sadie, "a 240-pound, 35-year-old man" from a Swedish-American family. "He favored sheath dresses," Ed writes, "but his great hulk didn't really look good in them." I could not help but imagine Stephen as Tor Johnson. Chapter Two concerns Ranee Smith, a young African-American man from a family of poor Arkansas sharecroppers. This part of the story is written in a ridiculous ersatz "Negro" dialect possibly inspired by the works of Mark Twain.

Interestingly, Ranee leaves the farm partly to get away from meddlesome Civil Rights workers who just want to stir up trouble. Ed Wood's thoughts on race relations have no business being in a fetish book like Drag Trade, but that doesn't stop him from getting on his soapbox. In Chapter Six, he tells the story of some black cross-dressers who, at the suggestion of a New York agitator, attempt to infiltrate an all-white gay bar. ("It was a White Bar and catered only to the White swish crowd.") The "stout" owner, Nellie, is a lifelong member of the Ku Klux Klan and is willing to do whatever it takes to keep out these interlopers. At the climactic moment, however, a wealthy Hollywood star enters the bar and recognizes the leader of the protesters. Not wanting to offend this high-paying client, Nellie allows the black cross-dressers to stay. I think most people would consider this a small step forward for tolerance and sanity. Not Eddie. He writes:
"The Swish-in sit down was abated by that simple action, and the whites took to the idea like a duck to water. But the man from New York would have used his regular violence if necessary. The black hats won that round. It certainly is time for the white hats to do as much. The great vote is still undecided."
It boggles my mind that Eddie would make repeated pleas for tolerance on behalf of cross-dressers yet still be in favor of racial segregation. At moments like these, he seems like some wild-eyed prophet ranting at passersby on a street corner.

When it comes to the sections of Drag Trade set in Japan, I don't know what to say so I'd better say very little and avoid displaying my ignorance. According to Ed, the Japanese have a great fondness for feminized men called "sister boys." Lesbians, much less common, are called "brother girls." Furthermore, says Ed, "many of these clubs which support the female impersonator as a means of entertainment, prefer American or European acts against those of the Japanese." Is any of this accurate? I don't have the foggiest idea, and I doubt Ed does either. He's either fabricating all of this or repeating things he has heard or read elsewhere.

As I said before, I've barely looked at Ed's novels, but I've reviewed plenty of his short stories. I can confidently say that Drag Trade is made from of the same basic material as those stories. As ever, Ed Wood's main motifs are cross-dressing, sex, booze, and death. Typically, Eddie devotes many paragraphs to describing items of clothing, particularly fuzzy angora sweaters. But there are the usual skirts, blouses, nighties, negligees, and undies, as well. Silk, satin, and nylon retain their customary importance in this novel as they do in other Wood works.

Many of the scenes here take place in grubby bars or sleazy cocktail lounges, Ed's usual locales. Drag Trade is peopled by drunks, hustlers, bums, hookers, and con men, exactly the same kind of people who populate Blood Splatters Quickly and Angora Fever. Eddie also flat-out cannibalized this novel for ideas for his later short stories, including "Super Who?" (the "female" robber who turns out to be a guy) and "Island Divorce" (blackmailing a prominent man with embarrassing gay photos).

But this wasn't all a familiar experience for me. I learned some things, too. A stealth theme of Drag Trade is that of acceptance, both by individuals and by society at large. Eddie uses the word "accept" a lot throughout Drag Trade, as in Chapter Seven when he opines:
"It is never enough to dress up in girls' clothes, in one's room, and parade for one's self in front of a full length mirror. They must get out on the street and be accepted in the role by all of society. The female impersonator, on stage, accomplishes just that. He is seen and accepted for what he is."
This made me realize how important the idea of acceptance is in Ed's debut feature Glen or Glenda (1953) as well. Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell) advises Barbara (Dolores Fuller) that she "must take the place, give the love, and accept the facts that [her boyfriend Glen's alter ego] Glenda has always accepted." Ed uses the idea of acceptance throughout Glen or Glenda, as when Dr. Alton says that Glen and Barbara "accepted each other" on the night of their engagement or that Alan/Ann ('Tommy' Haines) was "accepted" into the United States Army. That word must have meant a lot to Ed.

Dr. Alton makes a plea for tolerance.
Although this film contains many of the same themes —and even some of the same scenes—as Glen or Glenda, it utterly lacks that film's sense of can-do optimism. In Glenda, for instance, Dr. Alton says that "Glen/Glenda should consult a competent psychologist." But in Drag Trade, Ed tells us that "Charlie would have to stand Psychiatric treatment for another three years, but there was no Psychiatrist who would ever be able to help him."

And in Glen or Glenda, the good doctor assures the audience that a happy, well-adjusted transvestite "can be more of a credit to his community and his government" once he receives the proper feminine attire. But these same items only inflame the criminal impulses of the characters in Drag Trade. These men guard their wardrobes jealously and are willing to resort to robbery and worse in order to obtain more feminine finery. Not a good citizen in the bunch.

Honestly, there is so much information contained within Drag Trade that I couldn't possibly describe it all to you without this review turning into a 10,000-word behemoth. I thought about reviewing each chapter individually, as if they were separate short stories, but even that approach wouldn't work since the chapters range from half a page to nearly 50 pages in length. At first, it seems that each chapter is going to contain one case study apiece, but Eddie gives up on that sensible structure about midway through. The back half of Drag Trade is a random scrapheap of stories and ideas, with crime and cross-dressing as the only connecting threads.

All in all, Drag Trade is everything a fan might conceivably want out of an Edward D. Wood, Jr. novel. It's campy. It's delirious. It's idiosyncratic in that very particular, stilted, Wood-ian way. It certainly gives you insight into how Eddie thought, what he valued, and how he viewed the world at large. But I would suggest that readers start with the short story collections instead. I'm beginning to think that the short story, rather than the novel, was Eddie's ideal medium as a writer. I can handle six or seven pages of this stuff at a time. After 159 pages, I felt discombobulated.