Culture: May 2003 Archives

And the paper of record remembers her.

Pepper [LaBeija] was the last of the four great queens of the modern Harlem balls; Angie Xtravaganza, Dorian Corey and Avis Pendavis all died in recent years. These four exuded a sort of wild expressionism that might make Las Vegas showgirls seem tame.
LaBeija was the last name used by all members of the House of LaBeija, the group of performers Pepper led.
When Pepper LaBeija was not onstage, she was William Jackson of the Bronx, who sometimes dressed as a man.
But to the younger members of the house, for whom there was no other family, she was "mother;" the others were the "children."
Miss LaBeija had diabetes, which had led to the amputation of both feet, and had been bedridden for most of the last decade. She last performed at a ball in 2001, when 30 attendants delivered her on a litter to the crowd's jubilation.

"Her specialty was the Egyptian effect," Marcel LaBeija said.

Pepper LaBeija was a legend to the members and patrons of the Harlem ball scene, a world of extravagant make-believe that crosses sexual boundaries and that was chronicled in "Paris Is Burning," directed by Jennie Livingston. In an interview, Ms. Livingston spoke of Pepper's "glamorous bravado" that stood out in a flock of Marilyn Monroes.

The public also glimpsed the ball scene in a Madonna video that featured voguing, a highly stylized and posed dance form used in the balls. Voguing was also featured at the Love Balls, which were held at Roseland in 1989 and 1990 and drew top fashion industry figures.

Though men have long dressed as women for many reasons, the modern institution of the Harlem ball began around 1960, said Marcel LaBeija, who is writing a book on the subject. The idea was to give gay blacks and Hispanics a place to dress up and perform. An earlier circuit for drag performers had been geared to white people, and black performers had sometimes whitened their faces to fit in.

The Times does it very right sometimes.
For most of her life, Miss LaBeija's world was the balls. Marcel said that Pepper supported herself by producing them and by teaching modeling.

In an interview with The Village Voice in 2000, Miss LaBeija said her life had grown more ordinary, and called herself an "old-way legend in recovery." Without mentioning her disabled status, she volunteered that she had even given up shoplifting designer clothes, called "mopping" by performers who rely on the practice.

"You mop, you get locked," she explained.

Pepper is survived by her mother, a son and a daughter.

Ved Mehta, talking wistfully about the house he did not get:"Really, I wanted to buy an old house and adapt to it," he said.

In America, everyone thinks he can build his own dream house. In the rest of the world, you adapt to the house. This country is so rich, everyone wants to dominate the world, not adapt to it.

Included in a Clemens Lecture presented in April for the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, by Kurt Vonnegut:

What other American landmark is as sacred to me as the Mark Twain House? The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln were country boys from Middle America, and both of them made the American people laugh at themselves and appreciate really important, really moral jokes.

I note that construction has stopped of a Mark Twain Museum here in Hartford —behind the carriage house of the Mark Twain House at 351 Farmington Avenue. Work persons have been sent home from that site because American "conservatives," as they call themselves, on Wall Street and at the head of so many of our corporations, have stolen a major fraction of our private savings, have ruined investors and employees by means of fraud and outright piracy.

Shock and awe.

And now, having installed themselves as our federal government, or taken control of it from outside, they have squandered our public treasury and then some. They have created a public debt of such appalling magnitude that our descendants, for whom we had such high hopes, will come into this world as poor as church mice.

Shock and awe.

What are the conservatives doing with all the money and power that used to belong to all of us? They are telling us to be absolutely terrified, and to run around in circles like chickens with their heads cut off. But they will save us. They are making us take off our shoes at airports. Can anybody here think of a more hilarious practical joke than that one?

Smile, America. You’re on Candid Camera.

And they have turned loose a myriad of our high-tech weapons, each one costing more than a hundred high schools, on a Third World country, in order to shock and awe human beings like us, like Adam and Eve, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

. . . .

What has happened to us? We have suffered a technological calamity. Television is now our form of government [my italics].

Further mocking our current regime in Washington, Vonnegut recalls the man who became the first president of a Republican Party which would reject him today. The words of Congressman Abraham Lincoln, describing President Polk's 1848 War on Mexico:
"Trusting to escape scrutiny by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory, that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood —that serpent’s eye, that charms to destroy, he plunged into war."
Vonnegut jumps up:
Holy smokes! I almost said, "Holy shit!" And I thought I was a writer!

John Lennon's boyhood home, a modest 1930s semi-detached just outside of Liverpool's center, has opened to the public with an English Heritage plaque on its facade. It's now a museum. Yoko Ono bought the house in 2001 and donated it to the National Trust. It's a sweet news story, but then, we expected that.

In 1945, when he was five, three years after his parents were divorced and with his father long at sea, his mother had decided her bohemian life with a new boyfriend was unsuitable for raising a child and John was put in the care of his uncle and aunt.

Uncle George died in 1955, and Aunt Mimi became the disciplinarian who tried to rein in the increasingly restive John. Ms. Ono said that one of Aunt Mimi's habits — prying into her nephew's diaries and notebooks — ended up contributing to his art. "He thought it was as if Mimi was looking over his shoulder, and so he started to write in gobbledygook, and he used to say that's how surrealism first got into his work," Ms. Ono said.

[The house] was sold in 1965, after Mr. Lennon bought a bungalow for his aunt on the English Channel coast at Poole in Dorset. For her new home, he gave her a stone tablet inscribed with a quote of hers that he wanted her never to forget.

It read, "A guitar's all right John, but you'll never earn a living by it."

More information, with more pictures, is available on the Trust's website. And on that site, Yoko describes the house, called Mendips: "This is the house where John did all his dreaming about his future, about the future of the world…and the rest is history!"

"It is our humble homage to a site which is part of the heritage of the entire world. Vine growing began here, and here, after 2000 years, we once more propose a wine made in Pompeii."
Senor Mastroberardino exaggerates a bit about the southern Italian origin of winemaking, but the Etruscan, Greek and Roman Campania's accomplishment, and his own, is significant nevertheless.

Ok, not a story that will appeal to everyone, but it definitely appears made for me. My maybe-all-too-numerous passions include food, wine, Italy, Naples, ancient history, landscapes, cities, and so on. By coincidence late last night we sat down to a simple Campanian dish, Spaghettini alle Vongole con Brocoli di Rapa (thin spaghetti with brocoli rabe and clams, with garlic and hot pepper flakes) accompanied by a wonderful Campanian white, a Falanghina (dei Campi Flegrei). Perfect.

Now if we only had access to Mastroberardino's Pompeian wine itself. But I'm definitely going to order more of that Falanghina.

This page is an archive of entries in the Culture category from May 2003.

previous archive: Culture: April 2003

next archiveCulture: June 2003