Photo: Bert Savoy via Confetta.
1876 – 1923
Another book I will, frustratingly, never be able to write is about the Godfather of Camp, Bert Savoy—there is just not enough information on him to make a book out of (and believed me, I dug). Too sad, as he was one of the first high-ass, “out” drag queens, and he was damn funny, too.
Bert was born Everett McKenzie in Boston in 1876. By the 1890s, he was trouping all over the country, in medicine shows, honky-tonks, stock companies, and carnivals (he was jailed at least once, for cross-dressing). Early in the new century, he apprenticed with the Rogers Brothers, a successful comedy drag act who starred in such Broadway shows as The Rogers Brothers in Wall Street, The Rogers Brothers in Washington, The Rogers Brothers in Paris, etc. They played not lovely and ladylike queens, but the sort Divine would recognize: bawdy, slapstick Irish “Bridgets.”
When Bert Savoy hit Broadway, the biggest drag star in America was the languid, socially acceptable Julian Eltinge. In private life, Eltinge was so far in the closet that he was in the next apartment: he smoked cigars, engaged in fistfights, ogled chorines. He made his Broadway debut in 1904’s Mr. Wix of Wixham, and over the next ten years or so starred in The Fascinating Widow, The Crinoline Girl, Cousin Lucy; he toured in vaudeville and made a handful of movies (he also gave his name to 42nd Street’s Eltinge Theater, now the AMC Movie Theater). Eltinge was always a Charley’s Aunt type onstage: he played the straight, all-American boy who, for some tortured plot reason, has to unwillingly don drag. Bert Savoy used no such subterfuge; he just pranced onstage in drag.
By the mid-teens, Bert had teamed with straight man (so to speak) Jay Brennan, as The Society Jesters, doing a two-act in vaudeville. Their first-known Broadway show was the star-studded but ill-fated Miss 1917, which also featured Irene Castle, Bessie McCoy Davis, Peggy Hopkins Joyce, Marion Davies, Weber and Fields, Ann Pennington, Van and Schenck—I would kill to see that show. Yet it closed in two months. Savoy and Brennan also graced Ziegfeld’s 1918 Follies, which boasted a breath-taking cast (Eddie Cantor, Marilyn Miller, Frank Carter, Doris Eaton—whom I have met!—W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, poor doomed Allyn King, Kay Laurell, poor doomed Martha Mansfield, Ann Pennington, champion Charleston dancer Bee Palmer). Savoy and Brennan moved from Ziegfeld to the naughtier, gay-friendly Greenwich Village Follies, for the 1920 and ’22 editions (among their costars were singers Frank Crumit and Marguerite Young, and dancer Carl Randall).
One of the oddest sidelights on Bert Savoy’s life was his marriage to costume designer Anna Krehmker (also reported as “Clamper”), in 1905—for all his butch behavior, at least Julian Eltinge never married a beard). Of course, who knows why Savoy and Clamper married? Business reasons? Perhaps they were good friends? Many arrangements like this work out wonderfully, but this one did not: Clamper filed for divorce in 1921, charging brutality (which, predictably, the papers found hilarious).
It is often written that Mae West copied her persona from Bert Savoy—but if so, it must have been her stage, not film persona. While West had a slow, drawling delivery, Bert Savoy was snappy and brisk, more like Bette Midler doing her Sophie Tucker jokes: “How dare you talk to me, how dare you talk to me, why, it’s getting’ so a girl ain’t safe on the street after three or four in the mornin’!”
Wearing a bright red wig and the latest in Paris frocks, Savoy camped and minced and limp-wristed his way into drag history. In their act, the dapper Brennan chatted with the flashy, trashy Savoy (whose character was not named), mostly about the doings of her even trashier friend Margie: on entering a paddy wagon, Margie cries, “Let me in first, last time I had to stand!” and she staggers off a ship “after just a few harmless nips,” climbs in one door of a taxi, falls out the other side, and asks, “How much do I owe ya?” The comedy was bawdy but certainly not filthy, and much of it downright funny. When told of an American Tragedy-like scenario of a man who pushed his wife out of a boat and hit her on the head with an oar every time she came up for air, Margie reasoned, “Well, she was a fool to come up.”
In 1920, Savoy told the Dramatic Mirror that he and Jay Brennan had recently “canned” their old tag line, “I’m glad you asked me . . . the gag line now is ‘You must come over.’ Then we also had ‘You don’t know the half of it, dearie.’” Currently in the Greenwich Village Follies, “We are still getting offers for other shows. Got a chance to go to London.”
Bert Savoy’s death was just as colorful and eyebrow-raising as his life, and has entered into show-biz legend. During a heat wave on June 26, 1923, Bert (then about 46 or 47 years old) was strolling on Long Beach with four actor friends; he and dancer Jack Grossman were several paces ahead of their companions. A thunderstorm rolled in, breaking the heat; at the first thunderclap, Bert put one hand on his hip and supposedly said, “Well, ain’t Miss God cuttin’ up somethin’ fierce?” (or, alternately, “That’ll be quite enough out of you, Miss God!”)—and was promptly struck dead by lightning. Grossman, too, was killed, and their friends knocked flat but uninjured.
Bert Savoy lies today in a lovely grave erected by his mother in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx; Jay Brennan (Savoy’s executor—frustratingly, any papers are long-missing) tried to continue with other partners, but none had the wit and charm of Bert Savoy. Brennan died in 1961; Bert Savoy lives on in the glamorous personas of such modern-day comic stars as Lypsinka and Varla Jean Merman.
There are no YouTube clips of Bert Savoy, so I am linking to an mp3 file I hope you can open, from J.D. Doyle’s marvelous Pansy Craze show from a few years back. After a great recording of Cole Porter singing “Anything Goes” and Doyle’s intro, you will find the only two recordings made by Savoy and Brennan, from one of their Greenwich Village Follies acts: http://www.queermusicheritage.us/MAY2010/QMHMAY10A.mp3 “I recommend you stay tuned and hear the equally wonderful Jean Malin, Ray Bourbon and Bruz Fletcher, among others. My dears, you don’t know the half of it!”