He worked as a chorus boy in a touring show that stranded its cast without pay in Butte, Montana (where Julian Eltinge had grown up). The 14-year old Everette worked as a female taxi-dancer until he had enough money to head for the Yukon to dig for gold.
He worked his way back east as a fortune teller, Madame Veen, but was arrested in Baltomore, and sentenced to 60 days.
In Chicago in 1904, using the name Bert Savoy, he married a showgirl called Ann Krehmker, and they worked in vaudeville as Savoy and Savoy for four or five years. She was last heard of in 1930 when she was arrested on a robbery charge.
In 1914 Everett joined the Russell Brothers drag act (they performed as Irish servant girls) as an understudy, and then stepped into a leading role when James Russell dropped dead.
A year later Bert was picked up on a streetcar by chorus boy Jay Brennan (1883 – 1961) who became his 'straight man'. By 1916 lovers Savoy and Brennan had made the cover of Variety. They were employed by Irving Berlin to train some soldiers in female impersonation for the wartime show Yip Yip Yaphank. In the early twenties they starred both in vaudeville and in The Greenwich Village Follies.
In his act Bert always appeared in a red bobbed wig, which he would never remove despite the tradition of the trade. He was always overdressed and sported a large picture hat. The act was built around 'dishing the dirt' re her friend Margie, and used a lot of double entrendres and homosexual patois. The act involved much fluttering of eyelashes and emphasizing of words. Brennon, in deliberate irony, came across as the more feminine half of the act.
Savoy had four classic lines: 'You should have been with us'; 'I'm glad you asked me'; 'You don't know the half of it, dearie'; and ‘You must come over’.
Mae West based much of her style on his act, especially her walk, and rewrote the last phrase as ‘Come up and see me sometime’.
George and Ira Gershwin featured ‘'You don't Know the Half of it, Dearie, Blues’ in their hit musical, Lady Be Good, 1924.
The critic Edmund Wilson said of the act, 'One felt oneself in the presence of the vast vulgarity of New York incarnate and made heroic'.
Off stage Bert was slightly balding, and slightly flabby. He usually wore a bright pink corset. He cultivated a camp style and referred to men in general as 'she'. Bert was a major contributor to the new perception that drag was somehow homosexual.
On 26 June 1923 he was walking with friends on a Long Island beach when a thunderstorm came up quickly. Bert is reputed to have said: 'Mercy, ain't Miss God cutting up something awful?' Mere moments later a lightning bolt came from the sky, struck Brennon’s locker key around his neck and killed two of them.
Jay Brennon continued the act with Stanley Rogers, who was able to copy Savoy’s mannerism and catchphrases almost exactly. They were in the 1927 W.C. Fields movie, Two Flaming Youths as ‘Savoy and Brennon'.
Brennon later had a short career as a Hollywood screen-writer.
- Avery Willard. Female Impersonation. New York: Regiment Publications. 95 pp 1971: 82-3. Online at: www.queermusicheritage.us/fem-willard16.html.
- Anthony Slide. Great pretenders: a history of female and male impersonation in the performing arts. Lombard, Ill.: Wallace-Homestead Book Co., 160 pp. 1986: 32-4.
- Laurence Senelick. The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre. London & New York: Routledge xvi, 540 pp 2000: 312-8.
- Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman & Donald McNeilly. “Savoy and Brennon” in Vaudeville. Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. Routledge. 2007: 995-7.
- Erik Mitchell. “The Drag Queen Mae West Took Her Act From”. Associated Content. Sept 26, 2008. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1044312/the_drag_queen_mae_west_took_her_act.html?cat=40.
- J.D. Doyle. “Bert Savoy”. Queer Music Heritage. www.queermusicheritage.us/jun2004b.html.