Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 155: Letters from Female Impersonators, Vol. 3 (1961)

Ed Wood as "Shirlee" in the pages of Letters from Female Impersonators, Vol. 3 (1961).

One of the most exciting aspects of studying Ed Wood is that Eddie was so hyper-prolific, both as a writer and a filmmaker, that I will likely never run out of material of his to cover on this blog. Somehow, in 54 turbulent years, he managed to produce several lifetimes' worth of material. And there's an army of people out there—not a big army, but a determined one—scouring the archives in search of more Wood work. And they're finding it! Still today, over 44 years after Ed Wood's death, more of the man's articles, scripts, and films continue to bubble to the surface.

Last week, for instance, Austin filmmaker and queer historian Elizabeth Purchell posted something incredibly exciting to Facebook and Twitter: several pages from a 1961 publication called Letters from Female Impersonators, Vol. 3. What makes these pages so special is that they feature vintage photos of Ed Wood in full drag, along with a letter he wrote under the name "Shirlee." This was such an astounding find that some fans were skeptical at first, but a scan of the entire magazine turned up at the Digital Transgender Archive. The doubt soon evaporated.

Irving Klaw and Bettie Page.
Letters from Female Impersonators, Vol. 3 is almost too good to be true. It comes to us from Nutrix Co. of Jersey City, NJ. You'd think a company with that name would be selling vitamins or protein shakes, but this Nutrix (a pun on "new tricks") was an adult fetish publisher of the late 1950s and early '60s. Besides Letters from Female Impersonators, their offerings include: Tales of Female Domination Over Man, Brutal Punishment for Captive Girls, Manacled Slaves Bondage Adventure, Punished in Petticoats, and Psycho Girl Handled with Restraint. The company's history was brief but memorable. As Shawn Langrick recently pointed out on Facebook:
Nutrix Co, from Jersey City, NJ, was the publisher of this and other "fetish" mags in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Irving Klaw was apparently the President of Nutrix. They were forced out of business in 1964 after being indicted on 84 obscenity charges.
In case you've forgotten, the Brooklyn-born Klaw (1910-1966) was the self-proclaimed "pin-up king" most closely associated with commissioning the fetish photos of Bettie Page. If you want to delve into Nutrix's legal woes, here is a good place to start. And there's more here. It seems that it was the company's bondage publications that got them into trouble most often.

The Ed Wood content in Letters is generous: seven full pages of a 64-page publication. (I've seen it described variously as a "magazine," a "book," and a "booklet." Choose the term that suits you.) We get four large B&W pictures of Ed in drag, plus a lengthy letter in which Ed gives his semi-fabricated backstory to the editor. 

Fans will want to spend some quality time studying the photos. We see Eddie in a variety of outfits and at least two brunette wigs—one with Bettie Page-type bangs, the other without. Although Ed's face has started to bloat and droop just a bit in his late 30s, he appears still relatively trim in the full-body shots. His makeup and jewelry are tasteful. I believe I see at least two separate angora sweaters—a cardigan and a pullover. Also, and I may be misinterpreting something here, but it looks like Ed has a bulging vein in his right forearm in one picture.

Who could have taken these shots, some of which are slightly blurry and overlit? Ed's wife Kathy is one candidate. These snapshots appear to have been taken at home, and I'd like to think we are looking at Ed and Kathy's bungalow at 6136 Bonner St. in North Hollywood. In any event, we get a glimpse of Eddie's very early 1960s-looking furniture. I noticed that, in one of the pictures, Ed appears to be doing domestic work, tidying up the living room. This is similar to the behavior of Alan/Ann ("Tommy" Haynes) in Glen or Glenda (1953).

(left) "Tommy" Haynes in Glen or Glenda; (right) Ed Wood in Letters from Female Impersonators.

The accompanying letter, attributed only to "SHIRLEE," is another keeper. Apart from the novelization of Casual Company, we have relatively few examples of Ed Wood's prose pre-Killer in Drag (1963), so that makes Letters from Female Impersonators, Vol. 3 especially valuable. I like that Ed kicks things off with one of his trademark stilted, oddly phrased sentences: "The best way to inform you is to give you some facts about myself." And what, pray tell, are those "facts" he wants the editors at Nutrix to know? Well, first and foremost, Ed talks about his early love of women's sweaters and their omnipresence in his life. "I learned to like the softness," he writes.

Eddie also gives us a rundown of his time in the Marine Corps during World War II, but he does not feel the need to exaggerate his heroism this time. He says only that he did four years, was stationed in the South Pacific,  and received an honorable discharge in 1946. No battle stories here. He then mentions working as a female impersonator in New York City, including at the long-gone Moroccan Village. He then mentions doing a "sweater girl" act in Washington D.C., where he had moved to "further my writing studies." If you'll recall, sweater girls were a major motif throughout When the Topic is Sex (2021). Eddie's brief time in D.C. has long been part of his self-curated legend, and in this letter, he states that he purchased his first angora sweater during this era.

Eddie devotes the next few paragraphs of his letter to another pivotal time that may or may not have actually happened—his stint on the carnival circuit. I think this letter gives us more detail than any other version of Ed's story. He claims he started as the operator of a coin pitch game and wore "male clothing." Business was lousy, though, so he started dressing in drag. This led, Ed says, to doing a "half-man and half-woman act" and eventually a "striptease in the girlie shows." What's especially interesting is that Ed says he had "a large natural bosom and needed no fillers to pad up my bust lines." When Eddie wrote about cross-dressing later in life, he often mentions men who do not need to rely on falsies to fill a brassiere.

Speaking of Ed's writing career, it's one of the major themes of this letter to Nutrix Co. "Always I have been writing," he states with confidence, mentioning a 1945 play and a 1946 novel. (Could both of these be Casual Company? It definitely existed in both forms back then.) Already in self-promotion mode, Eddie also offers to send several of his "unpublished articles" to Nutrix. He even cites three never-before-seen titles: "Pink Panties at Tarawa," "Caught in a Bombing Raid With Skirts On," and "Transvestite in a Studio Wardrobe." While it's unlikely these works will ever resurface, Eddie all but certainly reused this material in later stories and articles. To quote a line from Necromania (1970): "Baby, I don't waste a thing!"

If anything gets short shrift here, it's Ed Wood's filmmaking career. He'd been making movies for over a decade by this point, but he mentions nothing of being a director. Instead, he maintains that his female impersonator act landed him a starring role in I Led Two Lives aka Glen or Glenda aka I Changed My Sex. He does not boast about having written and directed this motion picture, and he doesn't even bother to name drop Bela Lugosi. I suppose he was tailoring this letter toward a specific audience, and these readers would be much more interested in hearing about the $400 angora dress that Eddie had "handknit for me alone."

Letters from a Female Impersonator, Vol. 3 is a wonderful artifact and we should all be very grateful to Elizabeth Purchell for bringing it to our attention in 2023. I'm telling you, the field of Woodology is only getting more and more interesting, and I know there are some more incredible Wood discoveries headed your way in the months to come. Boy, are you lucky!