House of Cards

Rhonda Lieberman on a Flawless Sabrina tarot reading at the Whitney Biennial

Mother Flawless Sabrina. (All photos: David Velasco)

DECADES PRE-RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE, in the days when men in “dresses were arrested by men in black dresses,” Flawless Sabrina, aka Jack Doroshow, produced and MC’d scores of camp “Miss All-American Beauty Pageants” and shot to fame in the 1968 documentary The Queen, an ur-text of midcentury fabulosity. (Decades pre–Paris is Burning, Crystal Labeija throws shade on-screen at the winner of the Nationals at Town Hall: “She doesn’t equal me… LOOK AT HER MAKE-UP!!! She looks terrible!”) While she’s the first to say she “didn’t make this stuff up,” the Flawless Mother was waving her freak flag and enabling others to do so in the 1950s and ’60s when it was considerably more outré, when not downright illegal, and the freedom to be (or seem like) whoever required spiritual courage as impeccable as one’s maquillage.

A free spirit par excellence blessed by a supportive mother who always cheered her on, the Legendary Flawless—even back in the ’60s, when she was a child herself!—was aware she was a role model for others (which was why she stopped dropping acid in 1967, she said, a free association that popped up when I complimented her tie-dye leggings). In recent years, her spiritual path of fabulosity has unfolded through mentoring “the children.” One collaboration in particular, with artists Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, touchingly allies venerable drag history with youthful ambition to demonstrate the drag and Warhol lesson 101: If you can hitch your wagon to a star and bask in their reflected glory, you go girl! This May-December trans-drag synergy celebrates Flawless’s legacy as a mentor, and as part of Drucker and Ernst’s participation in this year’s Whitney Biennial, Flawless Sabrina did tarot readings for a few lucky querents. A rare opportunity to experience her vibe directly.

On a stunning springtime afternoon, a few doors from the fairyland that is Central Park, I showed up at chez Flawless, who resides not far from the Whitney in a prewar lair befitting bohemian royalty. Kind of like a Warhol-era Victorian meets camp womb covered with archaeological layers of groovy artifacts. The very existence of this bohemian oasis amid some of the toniest real estate in the world is a feat of magick in itself, a living relic of the days when artists could afford to live in Manhattan, and especially poignant right now when even the middle class is getting squeezed out. The archaic cage-elevator had the homely smell of an old library.

It was a lovefest as soon as I was ushered in by her attentive (thirtysomething?) boyfriend Curtis, who was heating up lunch, and within two minutes I wanted Sabrina to adopt me. “You’re a child!” She held out her arms for a hug—and I loved the reading already—and the beneficent lighting. She sported the aforementioned psychedelic leggings, layered shirts, a metallic streak of gold on her scarf, and a fedora over her un-bewigged head. She looked frail, feisty, and focused. It was clear this was a warm person determined to leave me feeling good about myself: I’ll take it! When she held my hands to settle my energy, she fixed my gaze with so much affection I blurted out, “You’re a sweet man!” Whoops!

“Woman, bird, turtle, etc.”—she added.

“All of the above!”

Flawless Sabrina reads the tarot.

The tarot deck was a gift from William Burroughs, and the dark fabric on the wall, she must have pointed out to a zillion visitors, was Halston’s Ultrasuede, named in this very room by “Truman” himself. As tempting as it was to pump for more vintage gossip, it was also clear she is living very much in the present and like any good reader, eager to dispense spiritual advice moving forward.

“Just little cartoons on cardboard,” she muttered as she laid out the spread, and it struck me as totally fitting that a drag mentor would teach by reading the cards because, above all, the wisdom of the tarot always reminds us to use free will to deal with the hand that we are dealt. To use it as a vehicle of transformation.

And here, dear reader, I confess I made a selfish decision not to take notes so I could fully take in my reading, which was subtle, intense, open-ended and packed the punch of ten supportive drag grandmas shouting, “You go girl!”

It was apparent she sees her work now as empowering others to be free, to “please take care of yourself” and certainly “not to care what anyone thinks,” and how this continues her pioneering work as pageant impresario.

I marveled she was producing drag shows so many years ago, in the ’50s! Such a difficult time. She said she never thought she’d see the words “gay marriage” even printed in the New York Times. “I’m not even for marriage,” she quipped, “but I am for civil rights.” Right on.

Frank Simon, The Queen, 1968.

“If I had to start a revolution, I’d declare war on the future” (because politically that’s a “time bandit”—a pet phrase of hers: a way to lose time). Of course, the good future is the kids, she adds. “I don’t believe in success. Success is a moving target: You never get there. Significance takes the greed out of it. I think significance is realizing your dream to the broadest possible audience. Some kid sees. If you can do it, they can, too. The most selfish thing we can do is be generous—[the] way it manifests: When you subsidize those who by happenstance have been privy to something you’ve done or are emulating it—or more likely improve it—if the initial intent is to make the world better—the currency which is flawless is Art—[the] only currency we have on this planet…”

She kvelled about “my Zackary” enjoying “the prestige of the institution—because it can’t be dismissed—I’m so proud of the Whitney.”

Out of the closet and into the Whitney!