Monday, April 13, 2015

Bruz Fletcher - Louise Brooks' Gay Friend from Indiana

A timely look back. . . . at Louise Brooks' gay friend from Indiana, the one-and-only Bruz Fletcher.

Chances are, even the most ardent Louise Brooks devotee will not have heard of Bruz Fletcher (1906 - 1941), a 1930s recording artist and entertainer. Tyler Alpern's groundbreaking book, Bruz Fletcher: Camped, Tramped & a Riotous Vamp (Blurb.com, 2010), tells the story of this multi-talented performer, composer, novelist, and artist. At the heart of Alpern's book, and Fletcher's life, was his sexuality. Fletcher was queer – an entertainer associated with the Pansy Craze of pre-WWII America – and about as out as one could be in the 1930s. Fletcher was also friends with Louise Brooks. In fact, in 1935 the two performed on the same bill for a few weeks at The Patio, a Palm Beach, Florida nightclub (see advertisement below). A few years later, Brooks was also known to frequent Fletcher’s nightclub performances at Club Bali in Hollywood.

In the late 1930s, Fletcher was a fixture on the Hollywood scene. His name regularly shows up in society and gossip columns of the time. As a popular local nightclub act, many film world celebrities saw him perform at the Club Bali, where his campy though coded routine was showcased. According to newspaper accounts of the time, Brooks saw Fletcher perform on at least five different occasions in 1937 and 1938. The well known costume designer Travis Banton, who was also gay, was her companion on at least two of those outings.

Brooks plays only a small role in Fletcher’s story, though their connections went beyond social encounters. Earlier on in 1929, for example, Fletcher appeared on stage with Brooks’ American Venus co-star, Esther Ralston. Fletcher wrote her act, his partner Casey Roberts designed her gowns, and together they played to packed houses in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and elsewhere. Fletcher also wrote songs for Peggy Fears, another one-time friend and fellow performer of Brooks (in the Ziegfeld Follies). Over the years, Fletcher wrote material and sometimes toured with other silent era films stars, including Leatrice Joy.

Brooks’ sexual orientation – and attitudes towards gays and lesbians – has been a matter of some debate. Was she straight, or bi-curious, or simply open to possibilities? In her apparent friendship with Fletcher, we find yet one more example of a homosexual or lesbian with whom Brooks associated. (Another example is Pepi Lederer, Marion Davies niece.)

Bruz Fletcher: Camped, Tramped & a Riotous Vamp pieces together the story of how Fletcher came to associate with early Hollywood stars – and how he came to enjoy a celebrated run at the Club Bali. It was the pinnacle of his all-to-brief career.

Notably, Fletcher's record-breaking four-year run at Club Bali (8804 Sunset Blvd.) had been originally been booked for just two weeks in 1935, but was so popular that it ran until early 1940. In 1938, Los Angeles Times columnist Hedda Hopper wrote that entertainer had the longest local run in nightclubs of anyone she could remember, and that was two years before Fletcher's run ended. (Others who checked out Fletcher's act included Humprhey Bogart, Beatrice Lillie, Norma Talmadge, Ronald Reagan, Howard Hughes, and Gypsy Rose Lee.) Remarkably, Fletcher was mentioned in the Los Angeles Times nearly two hundred times during his Club Bali run.



Fletcher was born to one of the wealthiest and most dysfunctional families in Indiana. It’s said that Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons was inspired, in part, by the Fletcher family. (The Magnificent Ambersons was later turned into a magnificent film by Orson Welles.) In fact, Fletcher’s Aunt married the popular Pulitzer Prize winning novelist.

Fletcher’s father lost the fortune his family had built over generations, only to became an elevator operator in Tarzana, California. Bruz Fletcher ran away from home at age 8, and later attempted suicide as a teen. While home from school for the holidays, his mother and grandmother drank poison in committing a double suicide. His older sister escaped family life and lived as a man, joined a Broadway show, then went to Germany where she was jilted by a count. Later, she was committed to an asylum and was arrested for attacking the fraudulent Lady Bathurst before dying at age 24.

In his short life, Fletcher would twice live a rags-to-riches experience. As an entertainer, he overcame it all and sparkled as he performed nightly in glamorous high society nightclubs, delighting his often well-known patrons with his witty, sophisticated and often risqué songs.

Though he killed himself at age 34 in 1941, Fletcher left behind three albums of remarkable songs as well as two novels that give colorful and candid glimpses into his world – a world populated by society dowagers, misfits, celebrities, addicts, servants, lovers and eccentrics that covered a variety of sexualities and mores.

Six years in the making, Bruz Fletcher: Camped, Tramped & a Riotous Vamp tells the story of one of the forgotten pre-Stonewall artists whose story has only recently come to light. It is heavily illustrated, and contains lyrics to most of Fletcher’s songs, contributions from family members, collectors, and fans. Bruz Fletcher: Camped, Tramped & a Riotous Vamp is a remarkable book because it tells such a remarkable story.

Besides his book, Alpern compiled a compact disc of Fletcher’s rare recordings from the 1930s, including "Nympho-Dipso-Ego Maniac" and "She's My Most Intimate Friend" and "The Hellish Mrs. Haskell." One of the more risqué recordings is "My Doctor". Each take double entendre to the limit. Fletcher's signature song, "Drunk with Love," was daringly adopted by Frances Faye and became a standard in gay bars for decades to follow. (One of Fletcher's recording was noted by Robert Benchley, while another One of Bruz Fletcher’s records is included in Ernest Hemingway’s collection at his residence museum in Cuba.)

Originally issued by the independent Liberty Music Shop label, Fletcher’s recordings – the same ones Brooks heard, can be found on the recently issued Drunk with Love. It is available through CD Baby and amazon.com, and is well worth checking out. Because of their Brooks' connection, a few tracks can also be heard on RadioLulu.

For more info: The genesis of Tyler Alpern’s book about Bruz Fletcher is his excellent website about the entertainer at www.tyleralpern.com/bruz.html. Check it out. Tyler Alpern’s Bruz Fletcher: Camped, Tramped & a Riotous Vamp is available through Blurb.com.

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