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    Spivy: ‘The Last of the Fleur de Levys’

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    Presenting Spivy Le Voe: chanteuse, composer and nightclub owner, whose songs lampooned “the socially prominent and insufferably snobbish,” the very patrons she sought. During the 1940s, Spivy’s Roof, her place, and, of course, the lady herself were “must sees” on any elegant pub crawl of Manhattan. It was there, during her twice nightly performances, when James Gavin wrote that “the sophisticated [i.e., risqué] song finally became sophisticated.”

    Spivy was born Bertha Levine in Brooklyn in 1906. Writer Ignacio Schwartz described her as “a plump lady” who “wore her hair in a tight pompadour with a white streak down the middle. She would place a tall glass of what was probably chilled gin on the piano before her … . Her singing—her low, throaty voice—would always be perfect.” She never tried to conceal her lesbianism or her lovers, although, as propriety then dictated, she was discrete about both.

    Spivy Le Voe

    Legendary for her intense frugality, Spivy tended to hire performers who were either on their way up or their way down. In 1941, when she booked him, Walter (né Wladziu) Liberace (1919–1987), before he had a single name or a single candelabra, was at the beginning of his career. The engagement was a brief one, as was his second and last in 1943.

    As Broadway composer and musical director Buster Davis told Gavin, “One night he was up there playing and Spivy’s fans were getting restless for her to go on. [Someone] came over and said, ‘Spivy, are you ready?’ She answered in that booming voice, ‘Oh, tell the fairy to keep playing. I’ll be right there.’ Liberace heard her, as did half the room.” Whether she was being serious or saucy, the pianist, who always denied he was gay, quit soon after.

    Sheila Barrett

    Despite such occasional outbursts, Spivy’s was a club where gay men felt welcome and enjoyed each other’s company without fear of police raids. “It was the place in those days,” Davis said, “especially for men,” who adored her. Women did too, including her current lover, usually seated at the bar, and friends such as Tallulah Bankhead and Patsy Kelly, whom she entertained at specially reserved tables.

    Impressionist Sheila Barrett (1909–1980), “the nightclub Bernhardt,” was on her way down. A headliner in the 1930s, often receiving more than $2,000 a week, she had even performed for President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt at a Cabinet Dinner. Her personal life, just as impressive, included intimate relationships with Cissy Patterson, who owned the Washington Times-Herald, and Evalyn Walsh McLean, owner of the Hope Diamond.

    Barrett did not simply do voice impressions of celebrated people. She famously performed both roles in an episode from an imagined production of Hamlet that starred Bert Lahr as the Melancholy Dane and Lynne Fontanne as Ophelia; and a scene from Gone with the Wind had it been cast with Fanny Brice as Scarlett O’Hara and W. C. Fields as Rhett Butler. Her last appearance for Spivy was in 1948.

    John LaTouche

    Spivy mostly performed her own material—songs that typically lampooned the people and preoccupations of New York City’s so-called upper-class society. Many were written with Broadway lyricist John Latouche (1914–1956), including “The Last of the Fleur de Levys,” the story of a society matron whose time had passed. Often described as “The Female Noel Coward”—as was he—she brought a gay sensibility to both her performances and to her audience.

    Latouche had his first Broadway triumph in 1940, the year Spivy’s Roof opened, with the musical Cabin in the Sky starring Ethel Waters. His next success came in 1946, when he collaborated with composer Duke Ellington on the critically acclaimed Beggar’s Holiday, a contemporary, interracial version of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Gore Vidal thought him “probably the best lyricist in the history of the American musical.”

    In 1954, Latouche wrote the book and lyrics for The Golden Apple. Although it received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award as best musical of the year, it lasted only 125 performances on Broadway. Writing 40 years later, Ken Mandelbaum called it “a near-perfect piece,” the “most neglected masterwork of the American musical theatre.”

    Latouche died suddenly in 1956, only 41 years old, exactly one month after the world premiere of The Ballad of Baby Doe, for which he wrote the libretto and lyrics; it was one of the few American operas to have joined the standard repertoire. Long divorced from Connecticut heiress Theodora Griffis after a brief marriage, he was survived by poet Kenward Elmslie, his life partner, a grandson of publisher Joseph Pulitzer.

    After her nightclub closed in 1951, Spivy toured Europe, but her style and wit now seemed of a different time. She turned to theatre, portraying Mother Burnside in Auntie Mame on Broadway in 1957. When it closed in 1958, she joined the national touring company, and then moved on to character parts in film and television.

    Spivy’s motion picture career was brief, but she made an indelible impression in the small parts she took. She was Ruby Lightfoot in The Fugitive Kind (1960), which starred Marlon Brando; Ma Greeny, the vicious gang leader in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962); and Comrade Berezovo as seen by the brainwashed American soldiers in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), among other roles.

    Perhaps her most famous performance was in a 1959 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as the suave, sinister, gender ambiguous owner of Spirro’s, an exclusive restaurant that was about to serve up Mr. Laffler, played by Robert Morley, as the “Specialty of the House.” She died in 1971. Now sadly neglected, hers remains one of the fabulous personalities and majestic faces from our LGBT past.

    Spivy recorded two albums during the 1940s. Neither has ever been rereleased, but some of her best recordings may be heard at JD Doyle’s wonderful Queer Music Heritage site: http://www.queermusicheritage.com/

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.