Tag Archives: eccentrics

Gay History: A Famous Drag Queen, a Mummy in the Closet, and a Baffling Mystery

Sequined gowns weren’t the only thing stashed in Dorian Corey’s wardrobe.

Dorian Corey in a still from Paris is Burning. ALL IMAGES FROM PARIS IS BURNING

IN OCTOBER OF 1993, LOIS Taylor entered the Harlem apartment of Dorian Corey, a drag performer and dressmaker who’d died of AIDS two months earlier at the age of 56. Accompanied by two men searching for Halloween costumes, Taylor, a fellow New York drag queen and caretaker of Corey in her final days, was hoping to sell them a small fraction of Corey’s wardrobe. They rifled through fabric, feathers, and sequins before they encountered a large closet, where, Taylor said, the sight of a musty green-plaid garment bag folded over on the floor piqued their collective interest.

“I only weigh 135 pounds. I couldn’t lift that thing,” Taylor told New York magazine in 1993. Resigning to her powerlessness to find the zipper, Taylor handed a pair of scissors to one of the men, only to learn that what the curious mass lacked in portability, it made up for in distinct malodor. Without inspecting further, Taylor called the police.

Peeling through multiple layers—first the bag’s fabric, then taped wrappings of what was likely Naugahyde, a type of faux leather, and plastic—detectives revealed a grisly sight: a partially mummified body in the fetal position, its formerly brown complexion now purple and yellow, its ears mere cartilaginous vestiges, its blue-and-white boxer shorts tattered, with a bullet hole in its head. Encased within the layers, detective Raul Figueroa observed, were detachable pull-tabs from flip-top beer cans, whose prime in the United States ranged from the 1960s to the 1970s.

Despite the technical hurdles posed by decay, Figueroa managed to extract fingerprints from the corpse. The body was identified as Robert “Bobby” Worley, born December 18, 1938. The only extant records from Worley’s life were criminal; he’d been arrested for raping and assaulting a woman in 1963 and served three years in prison. By most accounts, he was estranged from his family and hadn’t been seen since the mid- to late ’60s. Coupling this with Figueroa’s pull-tab dating method, detectives concluded the shooting must have happened at least 20 years prior.

Superficial cues might dictate that Dorian Corey had little reason to engage in violent crime. A graduate from the Parsons School of Design, she had a knack for graphic design, which she parlayed into repute as a costumer. In the Harlem drag ball scene—where veteran drag queens and their young breakdancing and voguing counterparts participated in tongue-in-cheek pageants to showcase humor, irony, and ambition through performance—Corey was a stalwart diva. Her experience led her to mentor and support young queens as the mother of her drag family, the House of Corey. “You lend money to your friends—not very much money—and [give] advice…sometimes, if someone got evicted or whatever, you might take them in,” she explained on a 1991 episode of the Joan Rivers Show.

What stands in starkest contrast to the gruesome implications in her closet, perhaps, is Corey’s demeanor. The most extensive video footage of Corey is from the 1990 Jennie Livingston documentary Paris Is Burning, an examination of the aforementioned ball culture; in interviews, she was witty, realistic, and unflappable. In contrast to the grandiosity of aspiring models and housewives, she had a self-possessed cadence and world-weary observations, which endeared her to a comparatively mainstream audience.

“Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world,” she says in the film. “Then you think, you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name…If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.”

Yet it’s apparent, from her interviews and an alleged silence about her life with Worley, that Corey was also guarded. Considered in tandem with the circumstances of the discovery, plenty of questions remain. Why might she have committed murder? What was her relationship to Robert Worley? How and why was the body preserved and not disposed of? Despite a lack of evidence or sources who are still living (many queens who knew Corey have succumbed to either disease or violence), these questions have provoked a number of theories.

Though the idea has now fallen out of favor, some posited that Corey was “protecting” the real murderer. In 1988—between the probable time of Worley’s and Corey’s deaths—Corey moved from her apartment at 150th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue to one located 10 blocks over on West 140th Street. The notion that the body was in the closet before she moved, the hypothesis goes, is more plausible than that of Dorian’s lugging a corpse from one home to another.

Others maintain, more credibly, that Worley was a burglar who broke into Corey’s home, prompting Corey to act in self-defense. Corey lived in later-20th-century Harlem, where violent crime ran rampant. (Livingston recalled numerous gunfights outside Corey’s apartment during interviews for the film.) For her own protection, she presumably owned a gun; her friend Jessie Torres affirmed she had “a little .22” in an interview shortly after news of the murder surfaced. More telling, Corey had allegedly attached a note to the body reading “This poor man broke into my home and was trying to rob me.” Furthermore, the theory suggests a possible reason she kept the body: a black drag queen who lived in a poor, dangerous area in the ‘60s or ‘70s had little chance of garnering sympathy from the police.

Prevailing sentiment, however, contends that Corey and Worley had a turbulent romantic relationship that reached a tragic conclusion in a crime of passion. According to Taylor, Corey wrote a short, third-person story about a transgender woman who killed her lover after he browbeat her into having sex reassignment surgery. Handwritten on a piece of paper yellowed with age, the story seemed at least loosely autobiographical—Corey had had breast implants and possibly taken female hormones—and was peppered with references to her life, including the Pearl Box Revue, a touring drag show she’d performed with in the ‘60s.

Additional clues point to this supposition. Torres had relayed that Corey, hospitalized and in a haze of AZT and morphine, had confessed to her friend Sally in Corey’s final days. Richard Mailman, whose upcoming play Dorian’s Closet explores the story, says that, according to a police interview with Worley’s brother, Worley “showed up at his [brother’s] house one night drunk, and he was going on and on and on about Dorian. There was that sort of corroboration that he was in a relationship and did know Dorian.”

Indeed, any relationship they had was fraught. Reg Flowers, whose one-man play Out of the Bag plumbs the psyche of Robert Worley, suggests that Worley may have struggled to reconcile the pressures of appearing masculine and straight with his attraction to Corey, lashing out at her in bouts of frustration. “Being in a relationship with someone who was abusive would make sense [as an explanation], especially when you’re talking about when men are attracted to trans people,” he says. “My sense is that we’re talking about someone who might be closeted about their homosexuality as well, and so there might have been all kinds of internalized hatred and internalized oppression. My sense of it is that it was a dangerous situation that Dorian needed to get out of.”   

As for the body, Mailman postulates that Corey, fearing disposing of it would be too conspicuous in congested Manhattan, covered it in baking soda and wrapped it tightly to neutralize the inevitable odor. Decades’ worth of chemical reactions likely rendered an amateur mummification job. “I don’t think she had a criminal mind. She didn’t plan the murder, and when it happened, she had to think fast,” he says. “In the mind of someone who commits a crime of passion, that kind of makes sense.”

Still, how did Corey get away with murder? At least three factors may explain this: Corey’s consistent cool and grace, and Worley’s estrangement from his family and the lack of documentation about his life, and the suppression of the corpse’s stench. But perhaps the murder’s obscurity is primarily owed to a fourth, socioeconomic factor: the othering and invisibility of two poor, sexually complex black people navigating internal and external turmoil in 1960s and ‘70s America.

A definitive answer remains elusive and probably always will. It’s unsurprising: Corey was part of a highly marginalized world, and her life—even the part ripe for a campy tabloid headline—attracted little attention. Still, whatever brought these two together—and whatever happened the day of Worley’s death—Dorian Corey has made an indelible mark.

Reference

An Abbreviated History of the Decorated Male

Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood A/W16Photography by Juergen Teller

AnOther traces the history of male icons who have challenged modern tropes of masculinity, from Louis XIV to Andreas Kronthaler

It’s important to note that it’s only within the past few of centuries of western fashion that menswear has become synonymous with the tropes of masculine dress we might think of today. Even this relatively recent history of gender-regulated, pared-down, ostentation-eschewing style has been punctured with numerous anomalies that challenge the norms of said masculine taste standards. Heels, cosmetics, and other accoutrements that often constitute the cultural symbols of femininity have, at various periods, been equally associated with men and masculine ideals. As critics today return to embracing these often-neglected facets of men’s style, and designers from Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood to Grace Wales Bonner turn away from contemporary conventions of masculinity, we explore the appearance of the decorated male throughout history.

Louis XIV as Apollo in Le Ballet Royal de la nuitArtwork by Henri Gissey

Power Heels, Powder and Patriarchy

As is so often the case, one cannot speak about western fashion without mentioning examples outside the Occident. Makeup for men is known to have been prominent throughout the ancient world, with nail varnish being worn by those throughout all ranks of society at least as early as 3000 BCE in Japan and China. Perhaps the best-known example of ancient male cosmetics would be the wearing of eye makeup by the ancient Egyptians, while heels are a comparatively younger affair, worn by men throughout the medieval near east where they had the functional purpose of allowing horse riders to stand up in their stirrups and fire arrows. When these same Persian heels arrived in the court of Louis XIV, their purpose was altogether more decorative. Himself an admirer of this elevated footwear, they came to be known as the “Louis Heel”. The image of the 17th aristocrat is possibly one of the most prominent historical images of the decorated man; alongside heels, they opted for wigs, face powders and other makeup such as artificial beauty spots.

The Macaroni. A real Character at the late MasqueradeMezzotint by Philip Dawe, 1773

So many of these items were simply not yet strict symbols of femininity. Indeed, far removed from today’s concepts of masculine dress, many of these were as much to do with power and patriarchy as individual expressions of style. It is often cited that the diminutive King Louis took to heels and towering wigs to impart a more “monarchic” height, while it has been observed that it was only due to trends of women imitating men’s fashion that the heel became common amongst both genders. In 18th-century Europe, particularly in England, decoration reached new heights with the “Macaroni”. Macaroni referred to groups of cultured young men whose interest in fashion was seen as excessive. Their hairstyles and powdered wigs, jewellery, attire, makeup and generally “effete” appearance were cause for concern amongst many who felt they were rather too unmanly. It is worth noting, however, that whilst frowned upon and associated with effeminacy, there was not quite the same negative weight to such styles (or indeed to effeminacy) as there later was in Victorian society. Class, however, was heavily at play and while it might be considered acceptable or even suitable for a man of certain social status to sport highly stylised attire, a man of lower rank would not be received as warmly.

Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey

Eccentrics and Exiles

There was a notable shift come the Victorian era, one that was particularly visible in Britain. Following some high-profile scandals in the press, attitudes towards gender became markedly less tolerant. In many ways, the late 1800s in particular can be thought of as a cut-off point for the social rules that shaped men’s style – whatever was considered masculine around this period remained so in a manner that had not quite been so rigid previously. This rigidity did not mean that there weren’t several who defied or ignored convention. If fortunate they were classified as eccentrics, as was the case with Henry Cyril Paget, whose elaborate headdresses and bejewelled costumes (which often contained Louis heels), amazed and also horrified many.

Paget, however, had the protections of wealth and status and that often worked to convert perceived queerness into tolerated eccentricity. Others were not so lucky. Even the likes of photographer Cecil Beaton, who was by no means lacking in money and social standing, suffered from the rampant homophobia that suffused the post-Victorian air. At a friend’s ball, he was famously dunked in a fountain by a group of “hearties”, because of his wearing makeup. Similarly, Quentin Crisp’s love of makeup and feminine attire resulted in his being chased through the streets, kicked and beaten. What was certainly apparent by the 1930s was that, in the public consciousness, the image of the decorated man had become consolidated with a vision of femininity and queerness that was violently received.

Self-portraitPhotography by Samuel Fosso

The Opening and Breaking of Menswear

This consolidation was to have a lasting effect. Vogue ball culture, which emerged from American black drag scenes of the 1930s, is particularly pivotal, in that it shows how queer cultures and groups utilised the negative connotations of the decorative to challenge and undermine the dominant status of masculinity. Elsewhere, counterculture made constant recourse to what had become strictly feminine symbols. With the disco movement, we see men in heels once again, this time in the form of platforms, while the flamboyant impulse was once more loose in the embracing of all the glitter and ornament that have now come to be thought of as “camp”. Similarly, the New Romantic movement which came about almost a decade later is defined by its disregard of the doggedly concrete rules about what men could and couldn’t wear, elevating instead the “excesses” of costume.

Current conversation regarding menswear and cosmetics is becoming increasingly preoccupied with noting the breaking down and opening up of menswear. For many, the mere loosening of men’s fashion is not enough – the very existence of menswear and womenswear as two separate strands, something which is central to the mechanisms of the fashion industry, continues to keep harmful gender norms alive (in spite of the move of some designers, like Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood, to do away with such divisions). While designers like Claire Barrow emphasise the essential non-binary nature of their clothes, when it comes to more commercial bodies, such as Selfridges, who recently made the decision to promote gender-neutral clothing with a retail concept space titled ‘Agender’, it can be hard not to suspect the cold machinations of trends and advertising at work. For some, defying dominant gender standards is a choice, but for others, it is a necessity and not something to be left to the mercy of consumerism.

Reference