The Beauty Queen is my love song to New York City. Country girl that I am, it took 22 years of segueing in and out of the city, and having my eardrums get a little callused by the screeching of subway wheels and noise of jackhammers, before I could write about N'Yawk with affection and appreciation.
Often the ideas for my novels start with asking myself a question. "What would it be like for a closeted gay family member to have a relative like Anita Bryant?" I started asking this after seeing Anita Bryant, and her homophobia, and the rumors that she had gay family members, in the headlines in the late 1970s. There were also rumors that the so-called Jesus Freaks were organizing more seriously into a movement, and formally declaring war on secular humanism, sexual immorality and of course homosexuals. The news of this declaration did not reach the ears of most gay people, deafened as they were by disco music and the sounds of the surf on Fire Island. I was deafened by disco music myself, at that time — those were my hard-drinking party days. But I happened to hear the rumors because I was still editing books at the Reader's Digest, which had its ties with the Moral Majority, Campus Crusade for Christ and other right-wing orgs of the time.
Jeannie Laird Colter, born-again politician running for New York City office, was my fictional answer to the Anita Bryant character. But I wanted the book to be "more" than a gay political thriller. So I layered it like baklava with city subtext.
In The Beauty Queen, I broke with my tradition of keeping to one point of view, and wrote it from various POVs: the lesbian cop, the gay dad, Jeannie Colter herself. As always, the characters grew out of people that I had known. Women cops, real ones that I'd met, including one whose book I had worked on at the Digest — and lesbian cops, in those days before any were out at NYPD. Gay dads, real ones from wealthy families. Wealthy people like the Rockefellers and Paleys that I met in the course of Digest work. People who were passionate about the culture and history of New York City. New York City politicians that I'd met through my Digest job, and charismatic women activists like Aileen Hernandez, one of my idols in those days.
Many of my city haunts got leaved into the book — the Statue of Liberty, the Sumptuary restaurant, Battery Park, book and antique shops, the Mattachine library, the Metropolitan Community Church.
South Street and its rich history of shipping and shipping had a special lure for me, because of my dad's love of the sea. Pop and I visited South Street on his last trip to New York in 1977. We walked around on the decks of the Peking, clipper ship at her dead-end mooring, then visited the Fulton Fish Market, and ate fish and chips at Sloppy Louie's. New York is and always has been, above everything, a port of call — whether you get there by sea or by air, with people of every conceivable religion and culture flooding in to pick up their lives there. The ships, the harbor, their promise of openness and freedom and voyages into the unknown, became the overriding metaphor for New York socialite and developer William Laird — his dream of coming out, and his terror of having his bible-thumping daughter find out he was gay.
And there were the leather bars. The leather world of Danny the cop was opened to me in real life by playwright Doric Wilson, who had just created T.O.S.O.S., the first gay theater in New York. Doric was another ranch kid making it in New York. We were the same age. He grew up on a ranch in eastern Washington State, on the lower Columbia River...which was downstream from my family's Montana ranch on the headwaters of the Columbia. Doric and I had a joke that we were fated to meet because our cowponies had waded in the same river.
Doric was still bartending at the Spike, so it was cool for me to go there early in the evening, when he was on duty, and drink Wild Turkey and talk with the guys. I am one of the few women who was ever in those bars, and respected the dress code by wearing a leather coat. People sometimes ask me if I went in the back room. No, I didn't. I have a good imagination, so I didn't need to see what went on there. Other nights, after the show, I'd party with Doric and Billy Blackwell and the T.O.S.O.S. crowd at other bars, then drive blearily back upstate to get a couple hours' sleep at my Bedford Hills home, then crawl to my Digest office in Chappaqua by 8:30 a.m. Those were the days — till I nearly killed myself in a car accident, falling asleep at the wheel one winter night on the icy Sawmill Parkway around 4 a.m. After that, I cut back on the drinking and partying.
One of my little private signatures in books is the cats. There are always cats doing a graceful walk-on, somewhere, somehow. Steve Goodnight's cat in The Front Runner. Striper in Harlan's Race. Paul's Abyssinian in Billy's Boy. The jaguar named Sun-Planets-Cat-Remembering in One Is The Sun. Mulata and her kittens in The Wild Man. And The Beauty Queen was the place to tell the story of the pier cats, and the old cop who fed them and worried about them — a real-life experience garnered while rescuing my car from the New York City pound on Pier 36.
And so I wrote: "Gradually [Bill Laird] had come to realize that there were two New Yorks. There was the visible New York, the one acknowledged in history books and old prints and bronze plaques and museums. And there was the invisible New York, unacknowledged anywhere save in the laws that forbade it and the sermons that condemned it. It was that gay and lesbian New York, so complex that few of its own inhabitants knew all its twisting byways, so complete that a person could live out his or her days there and hardly ever speak to a straight person."
Years later, when Wildcat Press got The Beauty Queen back into print, I added Doric's name to the dedication. He has remained one of my most enduring friends. His website and collected plays are at www.doricwilson.com.