The flashbulbs were going off left and right. I doubt anyone had ever seen the likes of me made up half male and half female. It’s difficult to imagine oneself as being handsome and gorgeous at the same time, but there I was, in the flesh.
Looking like this was not my intention. It began with an accident in my pantry and I wound up at the 1966 Drag Ball at Chicago’s Palmer House for an evening never to be forgotten.
Folks who came up to me to talk, and gawk, didn’t know which side of my face to talk to. It was hilarious and worth the effort of my friends and neighbors who made it possible.
Much to my chagrin, my photo wound up on the front page of the Chicago Tribune Sunday edition. I prayed my family would not notice. I planned to eventually come out to them but this was definitely not the way I intended to do it.
It began with a box of spaghetti I was about to place on a shelf in the pantry. The end of the box came open, sending spaghetti in all directions. In my haste to clean up the mess, I bent over and caught my skull at the edge of the left eye socket on an open door of a lower cabinet I didn’t notice, giving myself the most beautiful black eye you’ve ever seen. It didn’t swell, it just turned lovely shades of black and blue.
I wasn’t about to go out looking like a refugee from a bar brawl, so I called my neighbor, Carmen Trumann. Her husband, Paul, was a retired Hollywood make-up artist who would probably have what I needed to cover up my new look. Carmen cheerfully invited me to, “Come on over. We’ll fix you up.” They both had a good laugh when I walked in the door and applauded my accuracy in clobbering myself.
While Carmen was out of the room gathering the makeup to cover area black and blue, Paul sat there looking at me. Finally, I said, “Paul, what the hell are you looking at?”
“Donne, I’ve got an idea. Are you planning on attending the Drag Ball at the Palmer House on Saturday?”
As Carmen walked in with her hands full of boxes and bottles, Paul touched her arm, “Carm put that down and take a look at Donne’s face.”
She reached out and grabbed both of my cheeks, “What about his beautiful face?”
“What if we did half female and half male make-up?”
Carm stood up and joined her husband in surveying my face and then began to smile, “I think you’ve got something, but what about the black eye?”
“We’ll do the female makeup on that side and use blue eyeshadow over the bruise. If it shows through, no one will know the difference.”
It finally dawned on me what they were talking about, “Hey wait a minute. I’m not going to let you do something like that. It’s freaky. I’d have to shave off my beard,” which I had just begun. “What about clothing? You guys have to be joshing me.”
They both continued examining my face as if I weren’t there, “You wouldn’t have to shave off the whole beard,” Paul mused, “just the right side of your face.” They smiled at me and each other.
Then Carm got an idea and put her arm on Paul’s shoulder while they continued staring at me, “You’ve got that old morning suit we can cut in half, and I’ve got a black lace formal I’ll never wear again.” She giggled, “I can make it into a one-legged culotte. It has a high neck which will match the suit half. We can fit that to Donne and sew the suit half in place. I’ve got the hair extensions and can probably dig up some jewelry.”
Paul and Carmen were having such a good time disguising me, I didn’t have the heart to stop them. When they finished organizing the whole scheme they turned to me. “So what do you think?”
Paul looked like a kid again, about to open a Christmas present. I didn’t have the heart to say no. And I did kind of like the idea. I just looked at them with a pathetic grin.
“Well?” Carmen smiled.
“If I agree to this craziness, I’m not going alone...”
“We’ll go with you.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, okay. But, what if I have to pee? I’m not going to the men’s room alone.”
“Not to worry. We’ll be with you all the way.”
“We? You’ll both go into the men’s room with me?”
Carmen laughed, “Sure, why not.”
“We’ll need a photographer, and not just snapshots – something professional.” Paul looked at me, “Donne, do you know of anyone?”
I did but hesitated from mentioning his name. “I’ll let you know.” Eventually, I got hold of John Turner who worked for Root Photographers. Once he heard the plot he was on board. He had the lighting and camera equipment to provide the professional photo Paul and Carm were after.
It was 1966 and things like the Annual Drag Ball were relatively new and not wholly accepted. I was twenty-seven and still had my head up my ass, so I climbed on board as the day of the ball approached.
We planned on arriving at the Palmer House at 7 pm, Saturday, May First – coincidentally, my birthday. The costume had been fitted several days before the event so that would not be a problem outside of the time it would take to sew it into place. Carm was an excellent seamstress. Believe it or not, it was more comfortable than I thought possible. They decided against the gray morning suit and found a black tuxedo complete with tails. By the time they were finished, it had only one tail.
I shaved off the right side of my face around three in the afternoon, and then Paul went to work. He had retired from Hollywood years earlier but it was as if no time had passed when he began. His face lit up and his talented brain and hands went to work. Occasionally he passed a mirror in front of me so I could see the progress. John took pictures to mark the transformation.
By 5 p.m., Paul stood back and sighed, “Voila.” It was finished. At least the face was finished. He still had the hair extensions to put in place which took another hour. The smell of the spirits he was using to glue everything in place gave me cause to wonder how he was going to get all that glue out. He said not to worry, he would clean it up when the show was over.
Carm came in with one emerald earring and a beautiful faux emerald ring which she slipped on my finger. She’d applied false fingernails on my right hand earlier while Paul was applying the makeup.
When I finally got a good look in the mirror I realized he had drawn in a different eyebrow. My own eyebrow was still there but masterfully disguised with makeup and dark eyeshadow.
I hardly recognized the right side of my face. It was someone else. Someone quite beautiful. It was then that I realized how women could hide behind makeup so easily, deceiving the world as to their real appearance.
It was almost 5:30 when Carm strapped me into the merry widow corset. She pulled the laces until I began gasping for breath and blithely advised me that I needed a feminine waist for the gown as well as a right breast. I grunted and she tied it off.
The see-through black lace gown was floor length so thankfully high heels were not necessary. One high heel would have made it impossible. The gown had long black lace sleeves so I didn’t have to shave my arm which I positively would not have done. A black silk stocking and a slipper with an attached emerald broach worked perfectly. Where she got a size 12 slipper remains a mystery. It certainly was not one of hers.
Once the black lace gown was in place the task of sewing the tuxedo onto the gown began. A zippered fly was masterfully disguised. I was amazed at how fast they accomplished everything. True artists at work along with a lot of Hollywood experience.
By 6:15 it was finished. I walked around, and sat down to make sure it held together; we were ready to go. I stood up as we heard a knock at the door. Carmen opened it and there stood a uniformed chauffeur. Unbeknownst to me, they had hired a limo for the event.
Paul grinned, “Showtime,” and off we went. The limo pulled up to the front of the Palmer House which was packed with a crowd of onlookers and photographers. The chauffeur came around and opened the door.
Paul and Carmen got out and stood aside. Paul extended his hand to support me. I took hold of his hand and, as instructed, slowly emerged from the Limo. I immediately heard the gasps. No one had ever seen anything like it – at least not in Chicago. Carmen had coached me on how to act, thank goodness. I think I would have run for the hills otherwise.
We paused on the red carpet at the entrance to the Hotel so the photographers could have their way. Little did I realize a full-length and head and shoulders photos of me would be on the front page of the Chicago Tribune’s morning edition. When I saw it, the first thing I thought of were my parents. I hadn’t come out to the family and hoped they wouldn’t make the connection.
Paul and Carmen never left my side which was a blessing. They knew what I was in for and weren’t about to let the event collapse. The evening was somewhat of a blur to me, so many conversations, so many questions which I diverted to Paul and Carmen. The most memorable moments were watching people who were talking to me. I could tell by their eye movements, they didn’t know which side of my face to talk to. It was hilarious and so much fun.
There was a lot of cutting in when I was on the dance floor. It seemed everyone, gentlemen and ladies wanted a chance to dance with this bewitching creature – me. Carmen had me practice being the female follower which came to me easily. So, I switched from leading to following rather easily.
Carmen suggested I whisper when talking so as to disguise my real voice. With that tight corset, it was easy. I think I gasped more than whispered. But it seemed to work. I spotted a few friends who had no idea I was going to attend the ball. Their expressions were jaw-droppingly priceless when they realized who they were talking to.
In the weeks that followed, I had a lot of explaining to do. But it was so much fun I still bless Paul and Carmen for talking me into doing it.
The ball was still going strong at midnight, but this Cinderella was exhausted. I looked at Paul who rescued me, “Come on, we’re going home.” And off we went. The flashbulbs were still going off when we got into the Limo. We didn’t talk much on the way home. There was an unspoken satisfaction permeating the atmosphere.
By 2:30 a.m., I was almost back to normal. The black eye was still with me. Paul promised he would fix it later after I had slept, which he did masterfully.
Later in the morning, I shaved off the rest of the beard and began it anew. I was having lunch with Paul and Carmen when John showed up with prints of the photos he had taken. We laughed and sighed at those moments that came and went so quickly. It was like a time warp, never to be repeated. But there was a sense of accomplishment of having created something so unique.
Carmen laid the Tribune in front of me and kissed my cheek. I think I gasped when I saw the photo splashed across the front page and the article beneath. Thank goodness no names were printed. My family never referred to the article so I assumed they didn’t suspect who it was looking back at them.
It was a Kodak moment I relish looking back upon. We have the photos. Unfortunately, video cameras were not plentiful in those days. It would have been nice to have a living memory in addition to the photos. Every time I put supplies away in my pantry. I still chuckle, thinking about those moments of being Donne and Donna Mae at the same time.