A Boy and His Jewelries

I've learned many things reading The Fabulous Sylvester, among them the importance of looking one's best, of expressing oneself and never, ever to get between a 200 pound drag queen and his jewelries. You can mock his falsetto and diss his music but just try to steal his jewelries and the fabulous Sylvester will mess you up. And that is just one of the many reasons why after reading this book I wish Sylvester were still with us. We can always use more well-put-together dance music, for one thing, and we're perpetually in dire need of entertainers who don't take themselves too seriously. Also I'd like to just hang out with Sylvester for a day - because if this book is any indication, Sylvester WAS the party. I can't remember the last time I read a biography of an entertainer and ended up liking the subject even more.

There's nothing dismissive about calling this story of a boy from South Central who moved to San Francisco and became the First Lady of the Castro a true fairytale. Sylvester dreamed of a world where he could be who he was on his own terms and he sprinkled magic dust on himself and made it happen. Whether hanging out with the drugged out misfits known as the Cockettes or working it on the Merv Griffin Show, Sylvester didn't compromise and he didn't phone it in either.

Author Joshua Gamson uses Sylvester's life story to tell the broader story of gay liberation in the 1970s. If that sounds like a drag consider that Gamson at one point contends that San Francisco was to gays what Israel was to Jews "only with fewer wars and more parties." Gamson nearly always finds just the right balance between telling Sylvester's mostly joyous story and the realities of being gay in America in the 1970s. Even Sylvester's ultimate tragic death from AIDs ends up being a story of staying true to oneself.

This is a fun, smart book. If you read it, as I did, after reading the great punk history "Please Kill Me" you'll find yourself thinking that the Punks may have had all the best lines but the Disco Queens had all the fun.

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