overview

From 1974 to 1985, prolific playwright, director, performer, poet, and Warhol Superstar, Jackie Curtis, resided in the second floor, front apartment of this building.

While here, he continued to write and perform in his own work and act in other plays.

Header Photo
Credit: Ken Lustbader/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2021.

History

Jackie Curtis (1947-1985), born John Curtis Holder, Jr., was raised on the Lower East Side and became interested in performing at a young age. He adopted the name Jackie Curtis in the mid-1960s as he developed his gender-fluid persona. Curtis attended the School of Art and Design and graduated from Hunter College in 1975, and studied at the Actors Studio.

Curtis was raised by his maternal grandmother, who rented apartment 2B in 1965 and, at that time, Curtis moved in with his grandparents and uncle. In about 1968 or 1969, he moved to his own space in the former offices of the Louis N. Jaffe Art Theater, where he lived until 1973, before moving back to this apartment, until his death in 1985. During this period, he would also stay at friends’ apartments, but made this his primary residence.

Curtis met Ellen Stewart, founder of La MaMa, as a young teen, which eventually led to his long-time association with the theater as playwright, performer, or both. His first stage appearance, at La MaMa in 1965, was in Tom Eyen’s Miss Nefertiti Regrets, which starred Bette Midler. During this period he began creating a persona that defied gender stereotypes without attempting to “pass” as female. Throughout his life, he expressed elements of his personality that defied sexual or gender identity labels.

Curtis spent years living and performing in his unique style of drag. Standing at 5’11”, he would appear in private and in public wearing female attire (without falsies), older thrift shop dresses or miniskirts, ripped stockings, and haphazard makeup (often with glitter around his eyes). Depending on his mood, he would also wear a dress and adopt what was described as his “James Dean” persona.

In 1969, he described himself to the New York Times as “not a boy, not a girl, not a faggot, not a drag queen, not a transsexual – just me, Jackie,” adding that he was “not trying to pass as a woman.” This style was widely adopted by others, including many fashion designers, in the 1970s and 1980s and is often cited as an inspiration for the glam-rock look.

Beginning in the late 1960s, his plays, in which he performed the lead roles, were produced at La MaMa and elsewhere downtown. His work featured gender-nonconforming actors and characters, and themes that lampooned sexual and social conventions. Examples include: Glamor, Glory and Gold (1967), that in a subsequent production starred Candy Darling and Robert DeNiro, in his stage debut; Lucky Wonderful (1968), a musical; Americka Cleopatra (1968) with Alexis de Lago and Harvey FiersteinHeaven Grand in Amber Orbit (1970), produced by John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous; Femme Fatale (1970) with Patti Smith; and Vain Victory, or the Vicissitudes of the Damned (1971) with a cast that included Darling, Holly Woodlawn, and Andy Warhol, to name a few.

In 1967, Curtis met Warhol and the association helped get his plays noticed. Curtis, along with Darling and Woodlawn, became known as Warhol Superstars, regularly hanging out at Max’s Kansas City (213 Park Avenue South) with Warhol and his entourage. Warhol and director Paul Morrissey cast Curtis in Flesh (1968), with Darling, and Women in Revolt (1971), with Darling and Woodlawn. Warhol reportedly stated, “Jackie Curtis is not a drag queen. Jackie is an artist. A pioneer without a frontier.” Lou Reed immortalized Curtis in his 1972 song Walk on the Wild Side with the lyrics, “Jackie is just speeding away / Thought she was James Dean for a day / Then I guess she had to crash…”

In the early 1980s, his new work included Flop (1982), a musical; I Died Yesterday (1983) with Penny ArcadeI Died Yesterday (1984) based on the story of Frances Farmer; and Champagne (1985), his last performance, which was at La MaMa. During this period, Curtis performed in several cabaret venues, as well as at events for the Poetry Project events and at the Pyramid Club.

In 1985, Curtis died of an accidental drug overdose.

Building Information

  • Architect or Builder: unknown
  • Year Built: 1849-50; 1960s (altered)

Sources

  1. Collection #142 – Jackie Curtis Papers, NYC LGBT Center – National Archives (accessed February 1, 2021), bit.ly/3jaCr5Y.

  2. E-mail with Craig B. Highberger to Ken Lustbader/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, January 2021.

  3. E-mails with Joe Preston, Executor of the Estate of Jackie Curtis, to Ken Lustbader/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, January and February 2021.

  4. Guy Trebay, “A Vision in Thrift-Shop Chic Visits From the 60’s,” The New York Times, May 2, 2004.

  5. Jackie Curtis (accessed February 6, 2021), bit.ly/3aG5GcU.

  6. “Jackie Curtis, 38, Performer And Writer for Warhol Films,” The New York Times, May 17, 1985.

  7. “Jackie Curtis,” The Downtown Pop Underground (accessed February 8, 2021), bit.ly/36U15T8.

  8. Rosalyn Regelson, “Not a Boy, Not a Girl, Just Me, Jackie,” The New York Times, November 2, 1969.

  9. “Superstar in a Housedress,” produced and directed by Craig Highberger, 2004.

Curated Themes

21 Sites

Spotlight on the Theater

13 Sites

Downtown Arts Scene

Other Sites in the Neighborhood

125-129 East 11th Street
Webster Hall & Annex
Organization & Community Spaces
105 Second Avenue
The Saint
Bars, Clubs & Restaurants
74 East 4th Street
La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
Performance Venues