Bert Savoy (c. 1888-1923) was a female impersonator, comedian, and celebrity in the early twentieth century. He is remembered today as a Gay icon and was among the first drag queens on record that did not pretend to be heteronormal when not in women’s clothing.
In late nineteenth century America, boys and young men performed on stage as women, especially in western towns populated by male miners, trappers, ranchers, and railroad workers.
Everett McKenzie was born in Boston in 1876. By the age of 14, he was already performing in hootchie-kootchie (erotic dance) clubs. He worked his way west to the Dakotas, Montana, and Alaska. Known as “Maude” by his contemporaries, he decided to try his hand at fortune telling as Madame Veen, a vocation that led to his arrest in Baltimore. MacKenzie was tried and sentenced to 60 days in jail. Insisting that he be allowed wearing women’s makeup while serving his time, MacKenzie told the judge, “It’s an eccentricity.”
MacKenzie was taken in as an apprentice by the Russell Brothers in 1914. The Russell Brothers were a duo of female impersonators who played two rude Irish servant girls in a performance called Maids to Order. Their routine brought down the ire of Irish anti-defamation societies that tried to have the act banned. It was with the Russell Brothers that Everett perfected his most famous character, Bert Savoy, the female impersonator who was not afraid to be a flaming queen (effeminate homosexual man) onstage and off.
MacKenzie/Savoy risked severe homophobic backlash in his public persona as a man as much as he did when he dressed as a woman. A popular female impersonator before him, Julian Eltinge, was a classic female illusionist, a man who portrays himself as a woman, and then takes great pains to let the public know he is a real man (that is, masculine and Straight) in real life. In the case of Eltinge, it was a double illusion. Not only was he not female, he was also not heterosexual. Nevertheless, Eltinge fit the expectations of his time. Born and raised in Butte, Montana where Savoy had also performed in his younger years, Eltinge was kicked out of his home by his father when word came back that the boy was acting like a girl for money at the local saloon.
When he was performing onstage, Eltinge was the antithesis of the vulgar drag queen. He was beautiful, elegantly feminine, and mysteriously alluring. His success in being feminine became incentive for him to perform publicity stunts confirming his virility and his attraction to women.
Savoy’s Rise to Stardom
Everett MacKenzie was subjected to the same social pressures as Eltinge. MacKenzie entered into a marriage of convenience with his business partner Anne Krehmker in 1905, a union that failed soon after. MacKenzie met Jay Brennan, a chorus dancer and fellow female impersonator, and developed his “Bert Savoy” persona. Savoy would wear extravagant gowns, wide hats perched on his head at a sharp angle, and gab about his girlfriend “Margie” to Jay, who played the role of the Straight straight man. Savoy and Brennan became renowned primarily for Savoy, his exaggerated hip-swaying saunter, repetitious chatter, sexual innuendo, and big-mouthed laugh.
There is an enduring rumor that Bert Savoy taught Mae West how to be a vamp (a sexually licentious woman). Savoy’s signature phrases, “You must come over” and “You don’t know the half of it, Dearie!” eventually became the titles of two performances that were recorded on shellac under the Vocalion label. Mae West’s famous line, “Come up and see me sometime,” was supposedly taken from Savoy. Savoy and Brennan also appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies (an extravagant theatrical revue on Broadway) in 1918, and in a cameo in a film entitled Two Flaming Youths with W.C. Fields.
Spectacular yet Tragic Death
Savoy’s career was reaching its peak in 1923. He and Brennan had been in major shows, and recorded on both vinyl and cinema film. But his life would come to a sudden end that same year. After a performance, Savoy, Brennan, Savoy’s half-brother, and another friend went to a beach on Long Island when a thunderstorm quickly overtook them. A bolt of lightning struck nearby, and Savoy screamed, “Ain’t Miss God cuttin’ up something awful?” An instant later, he was struck by lightning and killed. Brennan kept the act going with Stanley Rogers, who became a success by imitating the late Savoy and perpetuating his drag persona.
Edmund Wilson on Bert Savoy
In August 1923, writer Edmund Wilson describes the loss to the Ziegfeld Follies when Savoy died:
One instrument in the Follies’ jazz orchestra has been suddenly and sadly been silenced: Bert Savoy is dead. The character he created will never be forgotten by those who saw it. When Bert Savoy would come reeling on the stage, a gigantic red-haired harlot, swaying her enormous hat, reeking with the corrosive cocktails and malodorous gossip of the West Fifties, one felt oneself in the presence of the vast vulgarity of New York incarnate and almost heroic. And now we have heard the last of the wisecracks of Margy the girlfriend, and the thought is truly as sad one. Yet still, in the brash city nights … we may sometimes be haunted by the accents of a gossipy raucous voice, shamelessly brassy, obscene, but in a tremor of female excitement: “I’m so glad you asked me that, dearie! You don’t know the half of it, dearie! You don’t know the half of it, dearie!” (August 1923)
Cullen, Frank and Florence Hackman, Donald McNeilly. Vaudeville Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. NY: Routledge, 2007.
Senelick, Laurence. The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre. London: Routledge, 2000.
Wilson, Edmund. The American Earthquake: A Documentary of the Twenties and Thirties. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux