Jack Doroshow, Drag Pageant Impresario, Dies at 78

Jack Doroshow, Drag Pageant Impresario, Dies at 78

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Jack Doroshow, who organized drag shows around the United States and presided over them as the drag queen Flawless Sabrina years before such performers found a measure of mainstream success, died on Nov. 18 in Manhattan. He was 78.

His family said the cause was failure to thrive, a condition characterized by increasing frailty.

Mr. Doroshow organized his first show in 1959 and produced many thereafter, working surreptitiously to avoid the morality police and sometimes the actual police, since some cities and states still had laws against cross-dressing.

A show he organized at Town Hall in New York in 1967 was documented in the film “The Queen,” which was selected for the Cannes International Film Festival in 1968 and has come to be regarded as a landmark of gay, bisexual and transgender culture.

In his later decades Mr. Doroshow became an informal counselor and mentor to many of those in that culture, holding salons at his home on East 73rd Street in Manhattan. Flawless Sabrina was a mother or grandmother figure to those who visited there.

“Flawless was the single most influential person in my development as a human being and artist,” Zackary Drucker, a transgender artist and a producer of the Amazon show “Transparent,” said by email. “I can’t imagine anyone else believing in me with the passion and dedication that she did.” Ms. Drucker met Mr. Doroshow in 2001.

The performance artist Taylor Mac first met Flawless Sabrina in 2002 and also found her influence pivotal. “She came around at the right time with the right tough love,” he said by email.

“She basically said to me what I’d heard many other people say over the years,” he added, “but coming from her (perhaps because her tough love always felt more like an offering than a scolding, or perhaps because she was the embodiment of living an authentic artistic life) it made such clear sense, and I could see how the advice was something she herself was living. She said, ‘You have to commit to yourself before other people will commit to you.’ ”

Jack Allen Doroshow was born on Sept. 10, 1939, in Philadelphia. His father, Martin, was an antiques dealer who died when Jack was a boy. His mother was the former Eleanor Lynch.

Flawless Sabrina, left, at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival alongside Rachel Harlow, the winner of the 1967 drag contest depicted in the film “The Queen,” which was shown at the festival. The others are unidentified.

Diana Tourjée, a staff writer at Vice who, with Ms. Drucker, had been helping Mr. Doroshow organize his archive, said that in the late 1950s, on a trip to Manhattan from Philadelphia, Mr. Doroshow and two friends were staying at the Sloane House Y.M.C.A. when two drag queens from Pittsburgh, who were also staying there, encouraged the three to come to a show they were part of — a new experience for Mr. Doroshow.

Curiosity, Ms. Tourjée said, was always one of Mr. Doroshow’s defining traits, and he persuaded his two friends to give it a try, despite the steep-seeming $5 ticket price.

“What really amazed Jack,” she said in a telephone interview, “was that there were so many people in this room and they all paid $5 to get into the show. So for him it started very much as a business venture.”

He and his two friends staged a drag pageant in Philadelphia in 1959.

“That first pageant happened, and he and his buddies hosted it as men, dressed in suits,” Ms. Tourjée said. “What he always told me was that although he did well during the first pageant, the queens didn’t really like him because he was an outsider; he was a man in a suit who was just coming in and profiting off them.”

So when Mr. Doroshow, now on his own, planned a second show in Pittsburgh using those Y.M.C.A. connections, he brought in Ty Bennett, a well-known drag performer at the 82 Club in New York, to host. The success of that event led Mr. Bennett to ask for a share of Mr. Doroshow’s nascent business, but instead Mr. Doroshow decided that he could do his own hosting, and Flawless Sabrina was born.

“He figured, ‘I need to become some figure that can bring these pageants forward,’ ” Ms. Tourjée said, but not a queen who would pose a threat to the contestants. “The whole point of Flawless Sabrina was, she was supposed to be a noncompetitive mother,” Ms. Tourjée said. And so Mr. Doroshow, just 19 or 20, took on a late-middle-aged persona.

He formed a company, the Nationals Academy, to produce pageants, tapping into a subculture in cities large and small and relying on word of mouth.

“The places that were kind of off the beaten track were the places where the largest number of drag queens would come out of the hills in sausage curls and hoop skirts,” Mr. Doroshow recalled in an interview with The New York Times in 1993, when Film Forum in Manhattan brought back “The Queen” for a brief run.

Mr. Doroshow would sometimes be arrested on minor charges for his efforts, Ms. Tourjée said, but he developed ways around that, striking deals with local leaders to make a charitable donation in exchange for a variance from any troublesome regulations. A certain amount of denial was involved in some locales, he said.

“In the main,” he said, “the city fathers thought it was a show we were bringing in from out of town. They didn’t accept that it was people from the local area.”

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THE QUEEN 1968 trailerCreditVideo by laird23
Jack Doroshow in 2015. “You have to commit to yourself before other people will commit to you,” a friend recalled him saying.CreditNina Meledandri

If some of his pageants were staged on the sly, the one featured in “The Queen,” a film that Mr. Doroshow initiated and Frank Simon directed, was a flashy affair in Midtown Manhattan. The film documents a 1967 pageant featuring regional winners — Andy Warhol was among the judges — and is full of behind-the-scenes nuggets as the participants choose their clothes and hairstyles and talk about assorted topics, including the draft. One queen describes writing to President Lyndon B. Johnson after being rejected by his draft board, telling him that he had wanted to serve.

“I wanted to go not because I was a homosexual, because there were men there,” he says. “I wanted to help protect our country. It’s as simple as that. So I got a letter back that stated that they understood and that they couldn’t have me in the Army as of yet; maybe one day they’ll see things right and I could get in.”

After being shown at the 1968 Cannes festival, which was cut short by the street protests and strikes throughout France that year, “The Queen” went on to have a limited theatrical run to considerable acclaim, opening eyes. Renata Adler, writing in The Times, noted that society tended to marginalize and vilify the people the film depicted.

“But the drag queens, flattening their vowels, mincing — parodying, not even women, but themselves parodying women — seem all right as they are,” she wrote, “part of the American dream as defined by the narcissistic sex goddesses of old Hollywood.”

The film, though, was not universally embraced by the population it depicted, Ms. Tourjée and Ms. Drucker said. Some didn’t like the exposure; others resented that Mr. Doroshow had created a successful business while they continued to struggle and hide.

Mr. Doroshow soon became disillusioned with the pageants, Ms. Tourjée said; he organized his last in 1969 on Fire Island.

He is survived by his partner, Curtis Carman, whom he met in 1985; a half brother, Godfrey Diamond; and a half sister, Bambi Marksohn.

After living in Europe for much of the 1980s, Mr. Doroshow returned to New York, dabbling in various projects in his final decades. He and Flawless Sabrina were regular visitors to New York clubs, and Sabrina held court on East 73rd Street, displaying the work of young artists in her salon-style room. If you aspired to be one of her “grandchildren,” Ms. Drucker said, you needed to memorize certain rules of life, including “If it doesn’t make you nervous, it ain’t worth doing.”

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