GRAPH BOOKS: PRINTED MATTER FROM RADICAL ART AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS. FEMINIST HISTORIANS OF MATERIAL CULTURE.
Archive of Drag Performer Burma Taylor (1929-2004)
(Drag) (Transgender) Archive of Drag Performer Burma Taylor (1929-2004), a.k.a. BeBe Taylor, a.k.a. Gene “Gary” Garra. Approximately 440 photographs (some altered or collaged), hundreds of reproduced fashion and erotic illustrations, newspaper clippings, handbills, and misc. drag ephemera, pasted in two elephant folio scrapbooks [24-½ x 19-½ in. and 23 x 19 in.], together with 34 homoerotic drawings by Taylor, loose. Regarding the linguistic framework of this description, when referring to Burma/BeBe/Gary, we will generally use the pronouns “they” and “them,” but we use “he/him” and “she/her” where it preserves historical accuracy (of speech about drag, and when direct references to such pronouns can be established in the scrapbooks themselves).
A monumental visual record of a drag career spanning more than thirty years, recording Burma Taylor’s evolution from Catskill resort drag shows in the early 1950s to a Drag magazine centerfold in 1983. Taylor’s surprisingly fluid identity both foreshadows and parallels the remarkable social and cultural shifts in the performance of gender and sexuality during the same period; shifts that led to increased visibility for gay communities and nonbinary people.
Compiled without regard to chronology, the enormous scrapbook pages weave together a personal history of drag and desire, punctuated by color and b/w photographs of family, lovers and friends. Included in the folios are original artworks, both drawings and collages, which ecstatically combine the popular illustration of pin-up girls (Petty, Vargas, et al.); the faces of Hollywood film icons of the 1940s; sci-fi and horror films; and the erotic art of Tom of Finland, George Quaintance, and others.
Taylor’s story begins in the center of Vol. I, in a series of photos of his Italian immigrant parents, Frank and Rosie, who arrived in New York in 1906. A sister was born in 1910, but Taylor, born Gene Frank “Gary” Garra, was born much later, when his parents were 37 and 49. He grew up in Brooklyn and Queens, and was 18 in 1945, barely missing the draft for WWII. There are many suggestive photos that appear to be taken between 1945-1950, but the scrapbook’s next dated record is a 1952 advertisement for an upper west side hair salon where Taylor worked. Around the same time, he began to perform in drag, known for his belly-dancing and celebrity impersonations (most notably of Rita Hayworth).
The same year?, he landed a lead performance, under the alias BeBe Taylor, in “Guys will be Girls,” a drag show at the fabled Catskills pickup spot, the Pussycat Lounge, in Kiamesha Lake, NY. He also entered the downtown party scene. Prominent photos of Taylor in several slur-filled articles are featured in the scrapbooks, including “New York’s Fancy Faggot Fracas,” and “These Mad Artists’ Balls,” at least one from the magazine Tip-Off. Although these articles make use of the worst homophobic stereotypes, they are remarkably open about the real sexuality and community of drag (even as it is performed for straight audiences), rather than the wink-and-nudge coverage it often received in the mainstream press. These articles are themselves crucial, and strikingly rare, historical documents of the wide-range of discourse surrounding queer communities in the 1950s.
In the late 1950s or early 1960s, Taylor seems to have shed their “Gary” identity completely. Copious scrapbook documentation of glamorous performances and modeling jobs during the 1960s and 1970s are followed by an extensive collection of photographic prints of Rita Hayworth, Glen Ford, and other film stars. Taylor’s personal photography from this period, however, is intimate and casual, documenting an open, public life as a gay man, and increasingly, as a woman.
Around the time of Taylor’s first photoshoot for Lee Brewster’s radical transvestite magazine Drag (1972), their stylized feminine persona had evolved into a highly sexualized, but less-binary one. Taylor’s own artwork reflects this, depicting erotic fantasy scenes with men, women, and androgynous or hermaphroditic characters, including mermaids and monsters, in endless combinations.
In her 1983 Drag centerfold, Taylor is described as a resident of California. There are many photos that seem to be taken in California, where Taylor was probably identifying publicly as a woman, although she was clearly comfortable in front of the camera without her clothes on, and with a nonbinary set of physical sex markers.
There are a number of images that could be as late as the 90s. A substantial amount of research remains to be done on Taylor, their circle and connections to Brewster, the Queens Liberation Front, and their later life. Genealogical records suggest Gene Garra died in NYC in 2004, and was buried in Potter’s Field. The Drag centerfold can be viewed here.
Two vols. Elephant folio. Vol. 1: Black binder, 24-½ x 19-½ inches, with 17 leaves; each leaf mounted recto and verso  pp. with b/w and color photos, handbills, newspaper clippings, original artwork, most in colored pencil, and a large number of cut-out reproductions of early Hollywood and gay illustrators; each page covered in rigid plastic film; inside rear board also collaged. Including nine pages of personal and professional photography of Taylor, their friends, and family (for a total of more than 250 photographs, a few pages mostly 3-¼ x 2-¼ in., but many larger, including several 8 x 10 in. portraits, and pages of collaged performance photos taken from larger prints), two pages of Taylor’s drawings, and one full-page caricature of Taylor by Zel, the celebrity caricaturist of the Brown Derby, Los Angeles. Most elements Very Good, a few cut-outs discolored by scrapbook paste. Cloth boards, metal ring binder, rubbed. Vol. II: Black stab-bound portfolio, 23 x 19 in., with 11 leaves mounted recto and verso;  pp. with b/w photos, newspaper clippings, and collaged Hollywood film stills and other photos of classic film stars (for a total of approx. 190 photographic prints: 60 personal and 130 promo, many altered/collaged); inside rear board also collaged. First two leaves  pp. and rear board with photos of Taylor and clippings of parties and performances they attended (for a total of approx. 60 personal photos).
Together with 34 loose drawings, various sizes, most approaching or larger than 8-½ x 10-½ in., a few smaller. A few signed and dated. Some toning to edges, leaves with remnants of previous mounting verso, not visible recto. Very good. Currently housed in protective plastic sleeves.