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Ray Bourbon Models Spring 1931 Fashions at Bakersfield Department Store

I have to give credit to Kliph Nesteroff in his 2012 post on Ray Bourbon, “Murder in Mink“, at the WFMU blog, for this odd little highlight.

Imagine that you’re a housewife in Bakersfield, California in 1931 and, in your local paper, find a full page ad for the unveiling of the latest spring fashions at Weill’s Department Store.

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A Fashion Revue DeLux
Friday, March 13, 2 to 4 PM
During the Fashion Tea to Be Held at the Stockdale Country Club
Featuring Newest Spring Creations in Formal, Afternoon and Sports Apparel

Popular young club matrons will assist Mr. Rae Bourbon in modeling the new dresses, ensembles and coats.

Notice
Mr. Rae Bourbon will model dresses in our windows Friday evening, 8 to 10 o’clock, and all day Saturday

Ray is featured in a photo in the ad and described as the “popular actor and female impersonator who will model the garments, assisted by popular club matrons”.

A fashion show like this might turn heads today in Bakersfield, but, in 1931, when Ray and other drag performers were making headlines in Los Angeles and San Francisco with their sold-out nightclub appearances during the so-called Pansy Craze, it would have been the latest “in” thing for the smart set.

Weill’s Department Store was founded by Alphonse Weill, a Jewish immigrant to America, in the 1870s.  Weill died in 1946, but the store was still open for business until 1963.  Today, a historical marker marks the spot where the store once stood.

You have to wonder if Weill or someone else at the store heard about the Pansy shows and saw a publicity opportunity or might have even checked out one of Ray’s shows before tapping him to model fashions at the store.  We’ll probably never know how this whole thing came about, but can only wonder about the good time that was probably had by all in spring 1931 at Weill’s Department Store.

 

Did Ray Bourbon Ride With Pancho Villa … In Drag?

Pancho Villa riding a horse with troops

One of the more outlandish and remarkable stories about Ray Bourbon is that he rode with Pancho Villa.  In drag.

But did he?

After Ray was put in jail for conspiracy to commit murder, his defense lawyer, William W. Bell, as taken aback by the eccentric old man he had signed on to defend.  Ray told outrageous stories about knowing major figures like Bob Hope and Mae West – Bell was doubtful, but, at Ray’s urging, called them up and found out that Ray was telling the truth.

Something similar happened with Ray’s claims about riding with Pancho Villa, but eventually he became convinced there was something to the story.  He recalled talking with Ray about it in an interview in 1979.

The Pancho Villa thing — I thought the discussion of the invasion of Columbus, New Mexico, was interesting because he was apparently there, held by the United States authorities, and was going to be shot for gun-running. He knew a lot about Villa, apparently had known him for years.

This writer, Carlton Stowers, I think he’s with the Dallas Morning News. He interviewed him for Parade magazine. It was after this trial was over with that some authority first came out and said Villa used planes in the Revolution. Bourbon knew about that and told me about it. Villa visited the ranch in Texas, apparently knew his foster mother and father and they were on very good terms. I guess Bourbon was an actor of some sort even back then. He would dress up in women’s clothes.

Pancho Villa historic photo

Carlton Stowers heard about Ray’s claims on Pancho Villa and interviewed Ray in his jail cell about it.  He wrote up the interview and it was eventually published in the Grain Producer’s News in April 1975 as “La Señora Diablo.  Stowers gave me permission to integrate the article into Ray’s autobiography – the style of the piece closely matches Ray’s own writing.

In an early part of Ray’s autobiography, he discusses Villa’s friendship with Ray’s mother and her helping Villa and his men at their ranch if they needed food, horses, or a bunkhouse for the night.  Ray described the ranch as “near the Rio Grande in what is now Hudspeth County, 80 miles east of El Paso. There were 20,000 acres on the United States side and 75,000 on the Mexican side.”

Ray’s own encounter with Villa started when he returned from school in England, where he had broke into work on the stage.

I came home and told my mother that I wanted to help Villa in some way and after explaining to her that I felt with my knowledge of make up I could perhaps be useful as a disguised messenger, she sent a rider to tell him of my suggestion.

A few nights later he and about 40 riders carne to the ranch and I told him what I had mind.

I had several publicity photos of myself in all kinds of costumes, which I showed him. He sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee, seemingly not too impressed with my idea, so I excused myself and went to my room where I had my stage make up and a couple of wigs and some costumes.

When I returned to the kitchen, made up as a Mexican woman, he looked up at me and was speechless for a moment. Then he laughed, scratched his belly, and said, “Et weel work. We do et!”

I rode out with him that night, still in makeup. He also took Maria, telling her that she would be my constant companion.

Ray goes on to talk about his adventures running guns for Villa and almost getting killed by American troops.  Ray became known as “La Señora Diablo“.

Actually, I suppose it was Pancho who gave me the nickname. I had told him about one of the men who was always getting drunk and said he was no use to us and should he exiled. I told Pancho I wasn’t going to be led into a trap by a drunk.

He grinned and said, “You are a she devil.” The next day the man was gone.

After fighting with Villa in Columbus, New Mexico and, with Villa facing more formidable opposition from General Pershing, Ray stayed behind at the ranch.

By those who knew me and my family it was generally believed that I had been in England during my ”absence.” Yet things were rather uncomfortable for me at home since I was aware that the U. S. government would like to find me.

I was anxious to get away from Mexico and Texas and wanted to get back into acting so I told my mother that I was going to Hollywood to see if I could find work in the movies.

I had a very exciting career in the entertainment business – but it never matched the days when I rode with Villa.

Ray’s stories about Ray have never really been examined that closely by Villa researchers.  I’ve never found any concrete information on Ray’s mother and step-father and the large ranch they owned.  For now, it remains a tantalizing possibility and a fascinating little highlight of Ray’s storied life.

 

The Strange Case of Ray Bourbon, the FBI, and the Russian Defectors

In the mid-1990s, on a hunch, I sent a public records request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to see if the agency might have a file on Ray Bourbon.  With Ray’s many travels, his high profile as a performer, and notoriety for his arrests for dressing in drag, I wondered if the FBI might have kept an eye on him.  The agency did keep a watch on several figures in the pre-Stonewall gay rights movement for supposed ties to communism.

After a couple of years, I didn’t hear any response.  So, I sent off a letter to Congressman Barney Frank, asking for his help in getting the request processed.  Indeed, just a few weeks later, a photocopy of Ray’s redacted FBI file showed up in an official government envelope.

The file, around 25 pages, started out innocently enough.  In December 1961, he was appearing at Sherry’s Show Bar in Baltimore, Maryland, when his passport, along with other personal effects, were stolen from his dressing room.  Then, things got interesting.

Sample page from Ray's FBI file on his knowledge of a pair of Soviet defectors

Ray, described in the FBI memos as a “notorious female impersonator”, contacted the Detroit office of the FBI in September 1960.  Ray, hearing about two gay Russian defectors in the news, called the office to tell them that he attended a party where they were present in the spring of 1960.

In the FBI interview, the agents grilled Ray on the people he knew at the party and their associations, particularly his accompanist, who was accused of being a communist.  He mentioned that he had attended parties at the residence with his former vaudeville partner.

Ray went on to give information about himself, including the facts that he had been married twice, had a son who was 43 years old, and that he was born in 1892 in Texas.  (Ray claimed that he got friends to change his birth records to indicate he was born in 1902 so he would be eligible to enter the armed services in World War II, but he was unsuccessful in this.). He discussed his work with Mae West and that “He hopes to get one more Broadway credit to his name before he dies.”

In 1954 he found out he had cancer and went to Mexico where he had a “Christine Jorgensen operation”.  BOURBON laughingly stated his reason for having the operation was different than was Christine’s, in that he had wanted to save his own life.  Since the operation, he has billed himself as RAE BOURBON since actually is now bi-sexual.

Ray provided photographs taken at a gathering where the two defectors were present.  The follow-up investigations looked at identifying individuals in the photographs and further digging into the backgrounds and sexuality of various people at the party and associates of the defectors and the communist sympathies of Ray’s accompanist.

The truth, like many aspects of Ray’s life, is a little more complex and revealing about the times Ray lived in.

The defectors were William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, two National Security Agency cryptologists.  Long-time colleagues, they both served in the Navy together in the 1950s and joined the NSA on the same day in 1957.  In 1960, they defected to the Soviet Union, holding a press conference denouncing US encroachment on foreign airspaces and other actions they felt contributed to the potential for nuclear war.

Internally, the NSA, seeking a motivation for the defection, depicted the pair as homosexual.  Attorney General William P. Rodgers thought they were part of an “organized group” and that the Soviets were assembling lists of homosexuals in government for blackmail.  A few days after the defection, Congressman Francis E. Walter, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) told the press that Martin and Mitchell were “sex deviates”, setting off sensationalistic press coverage about the defection.

Internal NSA investigations held through 1963, however, determined that Martin and Mitchell were actually heterosexual – they found women the pair had dated that testified to their sexual orientation.  HUAC released the results of their hearings about the case in 1962, slamming NSA procedures for approving their security clearances even though there was evidence of their “homosexuality or other sexual abnormality”, atheism, and communist sympathies.

Later NSA analysis of the case picked up on the HUAC committee’s conclusions and a 1997 study, still in use for internal training by the Pentagon in 2007, still described the pair as “publicly known homosexuals” and still played up the supposed role of their sexuality for the motivations to defect.

Both Martin and Mitchell married women after settling down in the Soviet Union.  Martin took on the name “Vladimir Sokolodsky” and divorced in 1963.  He later expressed regrets about the defection and sought to come back to the US.  In 1979, after inquiring about repatriation at the US embassy, he was stripped of his citizenship and denied entry to the US.  He moved to Mexico and died there in 1979.

Mitchell married Galina Vladimirovna Yakovleva, a faculty member at the Leningrad Conservatory.  He died in 2001 and was buried in St. Petersburg and it was reported that he too had regretted the decision to defect in his later years.

Martin and Mitchell were just a small part of the so-called “Lavender Scare” that, starting in the 50s during the McCarthy hearings, targeted suspected homosexuals in government, industry, and academia as security risks, ripe for blackmail by communists.

In the case of Martin and Mitchell, it’s likely that their socializing with men known to be or suspected to be gay, along with a drive to find an easy explanation for what was a more complex personal decision, resulted in public condemnation of the pair as “sexual deviants”.

In addition to providing a glimpse into an obscure part of Ray’s life, the FBI file did have much value to my research, providing a list of aliases that were used by Ray – I tracked down Ray’s novel “Hookers” using searches on one of these aliases – and gave more information on Ray’s possible birthdate and place, in addition to the note about his sex change.

My belated thanks to Congressman Barney Frank who, I believe, got the ball rolling with getting the file finally released.  You can read Ray’s entire FBI file on a link on the Documents section of Research Materials section of the website.

 

Ray Bourbon and Bob Hope

One of the most curious questions about Ray Bourbon I’ve been trying to sort out for several years is how he became friends with Bob Hope.

There are several second-hand reports that Ray knew Hope and that Hope attended shows at Ray’s nightclub in Los Angeles.  Ray’s lawyer, in an interview about a decade after Ray’s death, mentioned Hope as one of the Hollywood stars he called at Ray’s urging, asking for help, noting that Hope, indeed, knew Ray, but didn’t want to get involved because of the potential bad publicity.

Ray himself, in his autobiography, doesn’t mention Hope.  So, what’s Ray’s connection to Hope?

A few weeks back, I started going through some of my material again, doing some new Google searches to see what new information might pop up – I have to do this periodically as newspaper archives and books are digitized and indexed.

Typing in a search for comedian Marshall Walker and “Whizbang Review”, which Ray mentioned in his trial testimony as one of the shows he worked in, might have turned up the Bob Hope connection. Here’s the excerpt from James Bawden and Ronad G. Miller’s book, “Conversations with Classic Film Stars- Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era“.

Business card for Byrne and Hope, ca. 1925. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.

Miller:  You and Byrne went into a broadway show called Sidewalks of New York at the Knickerbocker Theater in 1927, which allowed you to display your dance act in the big time.  What happened?

Hope:  It was so bad that were were advised to go back to Chicago and start all over again.  We stopped in Newcastle, just to break the jump.  The manager asked me to introduce the next show, which was Marshall Walker, a Scottish comic, and his Whizbang Review.  I knew Walker, so I kidded around about him to the crowd, saying he was so cheap that he got married in his backyard so the chickens could have the rice.  Every time I introduced Walker, I added more jokes.  So by the time I finished the nine shows there, I was doing a whole monologue and they just kept laugh.

Miller:  Going from bad reviews for your dance and raves for your introductions of Walker must have been a wakeup call for Bob Hope.

Hope:  I decided to break up the act and go out as a single comic.  George settled in Columbus, Ohio, and went to work in a drugstore.  He was a marvelous guy, but he never went into show business again.  [One of Hope’s brothers married Byrne’s sister, so the families stayed close.]

Now, it makes sense.  This would have been around the time that Ray was kicking around vaudeville.  Since Ray mentioned this comic and the Whizbang Review specifically in his trial testimony, it must have been memorable for him after all those years.  And it might have been memorable because that’s where he first met Bob Hope.

Of course, if until we can find another source to confirm my theory – a photo of Ray in the cast with Hope or perhaps some mention of Ray in the show with hope in a program, newspaper article, or other source, it’s just a theory at this point.

Image source: https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/bobhope/vaude.html

Ray Bourbon Images at the Los Angeles Public Library

Images of Ray Bourbon are fairly hard to come by.

According to friends and people who knew him, Ray had a large collection of scrapbooks and even carried around a tape machine and used it to record or try out routines.  But, when he was arrested for murder, all his personal effects were, quite literally, tossed in a landfill.

When Ray was working on his autobiography in prison, he put out a desperate plea to friends for photos he could use in the book.  There were only around a dozen with the manuscript, several of them publicity photos that we keep seeing from other sources.

It was surprising and delightful to find some previously unknown Ray Bourbon photographs in the collection of the Los Angles Public Library.  You can see previews of the photos here – click on a photo to read the catalogue entry for the description.

The photos all come from the files of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection.  In addition to seeing Ray in costume for some shows, we also see pictures related to his arrest for impersonating a woman in 1956.

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Wearing a black and white nylon dress, false eyelashes, heavy perfume and 5 o’clock shadow, Ray (or Rae) Bourbon enters Beverly Hills Municipal Court on August 1, 1956, to deny he (or she) was guilty of impersonating a woman. He produced a certificate from a Mexican doctor changing his sex. The entertainer and 14 dogs live in a Venice trailer court.

Here’s hoping some other digitized local newspaper archives turn up more images of Ray in the future.

William Kennedy Screenplay for the Ray Bourbon Story

Searching for some images of Ray on Google recently, I ran into a curious listing of a previous eBay auction I missed at WorthPoint.

“THE RAE BOURBON STORY, SCREENPLAY BY WILLIAM KENNEDY

The RAE BOURBON story, screenplay by William Kennedy

-125 page manuscript THE DETOUR , an original unproduced screenplay imagining a happier time for RAE BOURBON, the bawdy female impersonator who died in prison . . . but whose LP records are still eagerly sought after

-The screenplay is by Albany writer William Kennedy, who won a Pulitzer for Ironweed . . . but also wrote the screenplay for The Cotton Club. The Detour will never be produced

-This is a photocopy of a mimeographed original, very dark and sharp and clear”

I’m wondering about the story of how this wound up on eBay.  Back in the early 2000s, I was contacted by Ernest Cunningham in California.  Ernest had the original manuscript of Ray’s prison autobiography and we worked out an arrangement where I would try to get it published.  That didn’t happened, and later as Ernest felt that the manuscript and other research material he had should go to a good home, he gave me the manuscript and the copyright on it.

Ernest tracked down the original manuscript in the late 70s or early 80s and bought it from Brian Paaul, a housepainter friend of Ray’s who was going to help Ray get the book published.  Ernest had the idea of turning Ray’s story into a feature film.  He set up Dandelion Productions to produce the film, poured quite a bit of his own money into development and even got some then-name stars interested in the project through the William Morris Agency.

Ernest hired then-unknown author William Kennedy to write the screenplay.  Kennedy, a resident of Albany, wrote “Detour”, based on Ray’s story.  Kennedy, shortly after that, won a Pulitzer for his novel “Ironweed” and Hollywood came calling as, overnight, he became a hot property.  (“Ironweed” would get made into an Oscar-nominated film with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.)

Kennedy wanted more money for “Detour”.  Ernest wasn’t able to get financing for his Ray Bourbon film and the project fell apart.

I have a copy of the screenplay that Ernest sent me when I first talked with him about Ray’s autobiography and, while interesting, the screenplay is more a Kennedy “slice of life” thing than a biopic.

Kennedy’s still alive.  I wonder if he still has a copy of the screenplay and what he thought of Ray’s story.

Welcome to the New Ray Bourbon Site!

For over twenty years, I maintained a section of my personal website devoted to Ray Bourbon.  Over time, the site, which was originally hand-coded in HTML, became cumbersome to update and change.

Now, with some possible new projects opening up concerning Ray and with new information coming to light about Ray more frequently, I decided that Ray deserved his own dedicated site.

Please update your bookmarks!