- “No Tears for Alden”: Black Female Impersonators as “Outsiders Within” in the Baltimore Afro-American
On New Year’s Eve in 1938, a national black newspaper, the Baltimore Afro-American, announced that famed Washington, DC, black female impersonator Alden Garrison had died.1 He was only thirty years old. Known for his appearances in nightclubs and stage performances in Baltimore, Atlantic City, and New York, Garrison was considered to be one of the most successful female impersonators on the Eastern Seaboard. Despite Garrison’s fame, the Afro-American lamented that there would be “No Tears for Alden,” as he died alone and penniless in Gallinger Hospital in Washington, DC. In fact, the paper disclosed that just a few “intimate friends” attended his funeral service. Nonetheless, a procession of curiosity seekers paraded by the casket prior to his last rites, hoping to get a glimpse of the performer who was largely known through coverage in the Afro-American. The popularity of female impersonators and gay men, often identified as the “pansy craze” of the interwar period, helps to explain the interest in Garrison’s body despite the fact that he had fallen into obscurity by the time of his death.2
Recently released from an Arlington, Virginia, jail, Garrison had voluntarily committed himself to Gallinger for malnutrition and chills a short time before his death. On its face, the story of Garrison’s death at such a young age is tragic but hardly surprising. Garrison was just one of many people who prematurely succumbed to death that year and every year. Of course, Garrison’s previous fame as a performer made his death worthy of attention. All three of the largest and most popular national black newspapers, the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Afro-American, covered Garrison’s death, attesting to his prominence in the [End Page 367] early twentieth-century world of black entertainment.3 Yet fame by itself was not solely responsible for the attention Garrison’s death received. The black press of the early twentieth century, particularly the Afro-American, covered female impersonators more so than mainstream newspapers. Black journalists registered the existence of gender-nonconforming expression in black communities through their coverage of female impersonators. Thus a combination of fame and public fixation on gender unorthodoxy in the guise of female impersonators insured that Garrison’s death would provide fodder for the front page.
While George Chauncey has demonstrated that early twentieth-century black newspapers were preoccupied with female impersonation, there have been no investigations of a single paper’s perspective or of the ways that specific reporters covered these topics.4 In other words, historians have used black newspapers to reveal what Eric Garber calls a public “spectacle of color” in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) history without fully revealing the multifaceted and textured dimension of black female impersonators’ individual lives.5 We still know very little about the history of men who defied conventional gender values and respectability politics within black communities in the first decades of the twentieth century and the specific journalists who covered them. A critical examination of the Afro-American’s coverage of Garrison’s life and death reveals that it was only specific columnists who regularly covered the “pansy beat” or conducted in-depth reporting on homosexual acts and gender-nonconforming dress among men in the late 1920s and 1930s. Afro-American pansy beat reporters Louis Lautier and Ralph Matthews reported on a general range of topics and events relating to gender-nonconforming dress and homosexuality among black men, but they paid special attention to a few specific female impersonators, one of whom was Garrison. His reputation as a skilled performer demanded their attention and captured the curiosity of the newspaper’s readers, whose thirst for such articles convinced the publishers to devote considerable editorial space to pansy-beat articles.
Moreover, Lautier’s and Matthews’s focus on Garrison in the Afro-American granted him a degree of subjectivity that was typically denied female impersonators in the black press. Female impersonators like Garrison typically made for good headlines, as they were viewed as oddities. Little [End Page 368] of their...