Sunday , June 16 2024
PS Burn This Letter Please

Book Review: ‘P.S. Burn This Letter Please’ by Craig Olsen

Drag Queens

P.S. Burn This Letter Please by Craig Olsen is a beautiful homage to brave souls living in a dangerous time and a timely reminder of hard-won rights now under threat. P.S. Burn This Letter Please documents the lives of drag queens in New York City in the 1950s. Not only was being queer illegal in those days, but being caught in the opposite sex’s clothes was also grounds for arrest.

P.S. Burn This Letter Please started out as a documentary movie, but the book is an equally powerful testament to the men and women who lived on the margins so they could be themselves. While clearing out a late friend’s house, Olsen stumbled across a box full of letters. They had all been written in the 1950s to his friend by various drag artists. The contents of the letters were enough to have the writers arrested – as they were admissions of guilt to any number of crimes – hence the book’s title.

For Olsen, reading the letters was not only an insight into the days before Stonewall and Pride, it was also a window into a hidden aspect of his dead friend’s life. While Olsen is open about his life and his own experiences with being a drag artist, that topic was always a delicate subject when it came to his friend. Not that he was anti-drag, but he just never wanted to talk about it.

Reading the letters, and the lives they describe, one has the feeling the subject might have just been too painful. For these aren’t happy letters. While some of them do describe wonderful events and parties, there is an undercurrent of fear and sadness that runs through them. It was almost impossible for any of these men to hold gainful employment – some because of arrest records for cross-dressing – and they had to turn to various illegal, and dangerous, methods to earn money.

Sad tricks of the trade

One letter writer in particular describes how a few drag queens used to share a “trick” room with a couple of straight sex workers. While sex work was an opportunity to make money, the threat of violence or arrest was an always-present companion. There was no such thing as getting off easy for first offenses for these young men. If arrested they were always looking at custodial sentences and the accompanying harassment and abuse a gay man would experience in jail.

Olsen doesn’t just reprint the letters in this book, he also places them in context. He managed to track down some of the men who wrote the letters. Through their stories he was able to flesh out what the letters briefly described to give us a detailed account of the lives these men lived. 

He describes how there were a few clubs designated “cabarets” where the drag artists were legally able to appear in their outfits. However, if they so much as stepped outside the club wearing even makeup they faced immediate arrest. Olsen describes how drag was broken down into Show Queens and Street Queens: those who only did drag in cabaret settings and those who attempted to “pass” on the street in spite of the risk.

Over the course of the book we meet a wide variety of people. They’re not saints or heroes, but just people trying their best to survive in a world that hates them. Olsen does a remarkable job of not only bringing their reality to life, but fleshing out individual stories through research to make them all incredibly human. They steal and turn tricks in order to survive, but society pushed them so far out onto the margins they weren’t given much choice.

With anti-Queer sentiment on the rise, P.S. Burn This Letter Please is a timely reminder of what oppression looks like. Olsen has created a powerful and wonderful testament to the people who did their best to survive in spite of hatred and fear. Do we really want to return to those times?

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to Qantara.de and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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