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13 March 2019

Candy Lee (193? - ) female impersonator, bartender, Mardi Gras, muse to Tennessee Williams

The first gay 'krewe' – of the krewes that put on the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations – was the Yuga Krewe, founded in 1958. The name is an exoticism referring to the Kali Yuga of Hinduism. It was also a gay in-joke to refer to it as KY (after the branded lubricant), and perhaps Yuga is a play on (are) you gay? The Krewe had grown out of the Steamboat Club, a gay social organization. These were the years when gay organizations had to be discreet; Mayor deLesseps Story Morrison and Louisiana district attorney Richard Dowling pursued an anti-gay clean-up, supposedly for the tourists, and a crackdown ensued. The first two Yuga Balls were held in a private house on Carrollton Avenue, but the neighbors had become irate. The third Yuga Ball in 1960 was held in a jazz club, Mama Lou’s on Lake Pontchartrain, reached by a wooden walkway that proved quite difficult for those who came in high heels. The fourth and fifth Yuga Balls were held in the suburb Metairie in a school that had a large dance studio, and was surrounded by a wooded area close to the lake. The second gay krewe, that of Petronius, held its first ball in 1962 at the same location. However the Yuga Ball a week later was raided by the Parish Police. Some managed to flee, but many were arrested in what the police dubbed a ‘lewd stag party’. Those arrested had their names printed in the newspapers and thus most lost their jobs.

Candy Lee had started a career as a female impersonator at the Club My-O-My on Lake Pontchartrain. She also worked as a bartender at Bacino’s bar, and was an acquaintance of playwright Tennessee Williams when he returned to the city in the late 1950s.

Williams wrote an one-act play, And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens in 1958, which is said to be inspired by the life of Candy. The play’s protagonist, an interior decorator who sometimes cross-dresses, is called Candy, and is about to turn 35. Her older lover who set her up in business has left her for a younger man. Candy picks up a sailor, Karl, in a gay bar. She spends money on him, and he then beats her up and steals more. This was the first play by Williams with explicit gay characters, and was never performed during his lifetime.

The real Candy Lee had been arrested five times at Bacino’s in 1958, as had the other bartenders. She was also one of the founder members of the Yuga Krewe. However she did not get on with the other members, and by the early 1960s had been banned from the balls. The word is that she called the police on the 1962 Fifth Yuga Ball.
  • Michael Paller. Gentlemen Callers: Tennessee Williams, Homosexuality and Mid-Twentieth-Century Broadway Drama. Palgrave MacMillan, 2005: 133-7, 246n45n47. Discussion of the play.
  • Howard Philips Smith. Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans. University Press of Mississippi, 2017: Chp 1 The Royal Krewe of Yuga and the Birth of Gay Carnival.

Clay Shaw, New Orleans business man and prominent in the city’s gay scene was likely a member of the Yuga Krewe. He is best known as the only person to be prosecuted for the assassination of US President Kennedy (Tommy Lee Jones portrayed Shaw in Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK.)

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