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Jackie Curtis: East Village Superstar, “Pioneer without a Frontier”

“I am not a boy, not a girl, I am not gay, not straight, I am not a drag queen, not a transsexual – I am just me, Jackie.” This wonderful declaration of what Jackie was not leaves so much space to explore who Jackie was — Villager, performer, superstar whose praises were sung by the likes of Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, and grandchild of the also-famed Villager, Slugger Ann

Jackie and Andy Warhol

Jackie Curtis was born on February 19, 1947 in New York City to John Holder and Jenevive Uglialoro. After they divorced, Jackie was mostly raised by her maternal grandmother, Slugger Ann, who famously performed at her bar, with which she shared her name. Jackie performed in the clothing of any and every gender, wearing lipstick, glitter, bright red hair, ripped dresses, and stockings. She wore many of Slugger Ann’s clothes and was an early purveyor of trash and glam, and perhaps helped to inspire the glam rock movement of the 1970s. Andy Warhol said of Curtis, “Jackie Curtis is not a drag queen. Jackie is an artist. A pioneer without a frontier.

Family History

Slugger Ann bar and cocktail lounge was located at 301 East 12th Street/192 Second Avenue at the corner of East 12th Street and 2nd Avenue, and witnessed more than a quarter-century of transformation in the East Village. The bar’s eponymous owner was Ann Uglialoro, born on April 30, 1906, the child of Italian immigrants. Ann had two daughters, Josephine and Jenevieve Uglialoro. Jenevieve was the mother of performance artist Jackie Curtis. Slugger Ann mostly raised Jackie. 

Slugger Ann and her husband behind the bar of Slugger Ann’s

Steven Wolf, writing a sweet and nostalgic farewell in the June 1980 issue of the East Village Eye, wrote: “It is impossible to write about Ann without mentioning that she was married at age 14, that she danced on Broadway while raising her four children, that she danced in a marathon for two months and won first prize, turned down a screen test in Hollywood, and won a jitterbugging contest at the Academy of Music on 14th St.” Jackie Curtis was behind the bar pouring Wolf a scotch while he interviewed Ann. 

Slugger Ann was also the super of the apartments above what is now the Village East Cinemas, which was previously the Yiddish Art Theater, diagonally across the street from her bar. The few apartments above the theater’s ticket window were, in the 1970s through 1990s, occupied by a series of prominent LGBT artists: Jackie Curtis, photographer Peter Hujar, and artist David Wojnarowicz. (From 1945 to 1953, the basement of the theater was home to the 181 Club, sometimes referred to as “the Homosexual Copacabana,” full of drag and gender-bending performers, so Jackie was really living inside the culture that allowed her to be who she was — and wasn’t.)  

According to The Downtown Pop Underground:

Jackie Curtis made the most of the radical shifts happening downtown in the 1960s, when bohemians escaped rising rents in Greenwich Village by moving eastward. A Lower East Side slum kid… “Jackie really grew up in the bar,” said Melba LaRose, the star of Jackie Curtis’s first play, Glamour, Glory, and Gold: The Life and Times of Nola Noon, Goddess and Star. … Jackie sometimes tended the bar in jeans and a white T‑shirt with a cigarette pack rolled up in a sleeve, and other times in a shredded dress. “It wasn’t a gay crowd or a drag queen crowd, but sometimes Jackie was tending bar in drag,” LaRose said. “But if any customers would have said anything about Jackie, Slugger Ann would have punched them out. She was very protective of Jackie.”

After Ann’s death in 1980 Slugger Ann’s closed. For many years it was Dick’s Bar, a popular East Village gay bar, and more recently has become the 12th Street Ale House. 

A Pioneer Without a Frontier

Jackie’s life in the Village was quite active, and while she may not have had a frontier according to Warhol, one of Curtis’s most active homes was La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, where Jackie debuted as an actress at the age of 17 in Tom Eyen’s play Miss Neferititi Regrets in 1965. This inspired her to write her own plays, influenced too by the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, a resident company at La MaMa. In 1969, she performed with the Playhouse of the Ridiculous in Tom Murrin’s Cock-Strong alongside Penny Arcade, Anthony Ingrassia, and others. 

Jackie Curtis, Penny Arcade, and Patti Smith in the East Village

Her Glamour, Glory and Gold, written in 1965-66, was first performed at the Playwrights Workshop Club at 14 Waverly Place in 1967 starring Darling, Melba LaRose, Jr., and Robert De Niro in his first appearance on stage, playing several roles. Among her works were Femme Fatale, and Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit with Ruby Lynn Reyner and Holly Woodlawn. She also co-directed a production of her own play, Vain Victory, at La MaMa in 1971, and directed and performed in Nick Markovich’s I Died Yesterday at La MaMa in 1983.

Curtis was also a singer and poet. In 1974, Curtis and Woodlawn appeared in Cabaret in the Sky at the New York Cultural Center. An album by Paul Serrato collecting songs from the Curtis works Lucky Wonderful and Vain Victory, including the love ballad “Who Are You,” which Curtis sang to Darling, was released in 2004. Curtis’ poem “B-Girls”, much of which is based on her observations of people who visited Slugger Ann’s, was included in the 1979 book The Poets’ Encyclopedia. At eight pages long, it was the longest poem in the book.

Jackie and Divine at Warhol’s theater

As a part of Andy Warhol’s Theater: Boys to Adore Galore at 62 East 4th Street, Jackie moved among drag queens and other Warhol superstars like Holly Woodlawn, Divine, and Candy Darling — they all hosted productions at the Theater. Of course, this opened the door to Curtis’s life on film. Warhol and director Paul Morrissey cast Curtis and Candy Darling in Flesh (1968) and, with the addition of Holly Woodlawn, in Women in Revolt (1971).

Just Speeding Away 

Jackie Curtis featured on the cover of “Gay Power” magazine

Jackie was immortalized in Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side:

Jackie is just speeding away
Thought she was James Dean for a day
Then I guess she had to crash
Valium would have helped that bash… 

Portrait of Jackie by Gary LeGault

Sadly, Jackie was just speeding away. She died of a heroin overdose on May 15, 1985. Her funeral was held just down the block from where she grew up, where she lived, and where she served scotch, at St. Ann’s Church on East 12th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues.

In 2004, the documentary “Superstar in a Housedress” by Craig Highberger, Jackie’s life and legacies are examined with performers and Villagers Penny Arcade, Lily Tomlin, and others — capturing what Jackie was and what she wasn’t, though without a cohesive or kind gender analysis as we have recognized today, given that it’s documented that Jackie preferred she/her pronouns. The full documentary is available online here.

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