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19 December 2021

Buddy Kent (1921 - ?) male impersonator, x-ray technician

Buddy Kent was originally Malvina Schwartz of Brownsville, Brooklyn a predominantly Jewish area. As a teenager she rode into Greenwich Village to explore the lesbian bars in the shadow of the 6th Avenue El. She soon changed her last name to Kent, wore a cross and lipstick, as Jews and lesbians did not get employed. During WWII, Kent played trumpet in the Women’s Army Corps band. From then on she was Buddy.

“Then at eighteen I was of age and I walked into Ernie’s, got my first job as a bartender, which I had never done. When Ernie interviewed me, he said, ‘What do you do?’ And I said ‘Everything, everything.’ So he put me behind the bar, and I was in full drag at this point: pants, vest, shirt, tie, short hair. I worked like that for a year. Then the liquor board came in and thought I looked too young. One reached across the bar, touched my face and said, ‘He isn’t even a shaver!’ But Ernie had all the connections. He took the men in the back, paid them off, and from then on, he said, ‘I’ll have you tend bar from eight to twelve. After midnight a girl cannot be behind the bar.’ Because now my cover was blown: I was a girl.”

She tended bar and took dance lessons. Buddy’s break came at Club 181, located at 181 Second Ave on the Lower East Side of Manhattan - which was run by Anna Genovese, the lesbian wife of top mafioso Vito Genovese. Many butches worked at Club 181 either as waiters or as chorus boys. Buddy Kent started as a chorus boy and then did a solo act, a Fred Astaire impersonation with black tails, top hat and a cane.

The hookers at Club 181 were organized by a madame, Lucille Malin, the widow of 1930s drag/pansy star Jean Malin.

Buddy, left

In 1949 the police raided the 181 because the neighbours had been complaining about seeing the performers go in to work in drag.  Buddy shrugged that off.

 “ 'An unhealthy atmosphere for their kids', they said. I got out the back way. If they took you in, it was usually for ‘disturbing the peace’ or 'impersonating’ somebody of the opposite sex."



One of the masculine lesbians whom Buddy knew was Angela Calomiris (1916-1995), who was initially active in the Photo League (for budding photographers) and then had risen within the US Communist Party and become its finance secretary, where she had access to the real names of all members. In July 1948 twelve leaders of the party were charged with advocating an overthrow of the US government. During the trial, in April 1949, Calomiris was called as a prosecution witness (the one and only time she was known to wear a dress), to much surprise, and was outed as an FBI asset. She became a minor celebrity and wrote an autobiography, Red Masquerade: Undercover for the FBI, 1950.

Calomaris

Calomaris also informed to the FBI re Yetta Cohn, a policewoman who was the editor of the NYPD newsletter. Cohn was the girlfriend of rising film star Judy Holliday (1921-1965  - Best Actress Oscar 1950) despite the latter’s supposed heterosexual marriage. Among other things, Calomaris accused Cohn of being a supporter of Henry Wallace (who had been Roosevelt’s Vice President and ran as the Progressive Party presidential candidate in 1948). Cohn was then unemployed for many years but was supported by Holliday. Calomaris' testimony also enabled the FBI to terminate the Photo League in 1949, by accusing it of being ‘communist’.

Calomaris then moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she became a rich landlord, and opened up the town to lesbians. Her mentor in the Photo League, Sid Grossman never worked again in New York as a photographer. He and his wife moved to Provincetown, opened a photography school and fished. They sold their catch on the street. He died in 1955 age 42.

The Club 181 lost its liquor license in 1953 after being mentioned in USA Confidential as a gay club. The same management then opened the 82 Club around the corner at 82 E 4th St.

Buddy moved on - at first with Kicky Hall and his review. They went to the Jockey Club, a gay club in Atlantic City. On return, Kicky booked Kent into the Moroccan Village, on 8th St in Greenwich Village.

At one time in 1950 the Moroccan Village got closed down after an attempted robbery and a shooting. The performer during the shooting was the male impersonator/trans man Blackie Dennis. The Moroccan Village was able to open up again after a couple of months.

It was at Jimmy Kelly’s on Sullivan Street that Buddy Kent became Bubbles Kent, Exotic Dancer. “Because I wanted to get in on some of the big money,” She was still doing her Fred Astaire act, but concluded it by stripping down to sexy underwear.

Buddy became, with Jackie Howe and Kicky Hall, the partial owner of a club, the Page Three (with the obligatory mafia participation). That flourished for some ten years into the 1960s until changes in musical tastes took the crowds away.  Kicky Hall was also Buddy and Jackie's agent.

Afterwards Buddy became an X-Ray technician at St Vincent’s Hospital. She maintained her apartment on 8th St across from the old Whitney Museum. Jackie Howe and Kicky Hall lived in the same building.

In later years Buddy became involved with the local branch of Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE) (now Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders). Buddy was popular there in that with her show-biz experience she was ideal to run the social.

On 1983, Buddy was interviewed and tape-recorded by Joan Nestle for the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA).

Buddy ran again into Angela Calomiris, who was back in Manhattan, and encouraged her to join SAGE. She also got to know Lisa E Davis, who drew on the memories of Buddy and others for her novel, Under the Mink, set in 1949, and then wrote several articles about Buddy.

Calomaris finally retired to San Miguel de Allende/Guanajuato, in the hill country of central Mexico with her wife.

Buddy’s date of death is not recorded. Apparently it was shorty after her friend Jackie Howe died, and then one of Buddy’s sisters.

  • Lisa E Davis. Under the Mink. Intoprint, 2001.
  • Lisa E Davis. “Back in Buddy’s day”. Xtra, February 28, 2006. Online.
  • C Alexander Hortis. The Mob and the City: The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York. Prometheus Books, 2014: 169, 171.
  • Lisa E Davis. “Buddy Kent, aka Bubbles Kent, Exotic Dancer”. West View News, 10/03/2015. Online.
  • Lisa E Davis. “The Red Scare's Lesbian Informant”. Advocate, April 07 2017. Online.
  • Lisa E Davis. Undercover Girl: the lesbian informant who helped the FBI bring down the Communist Party. Imagine book, 2017: 24-7, 32-3, 37, 173, 203, 227n6-7.
  • Hugh Ryan. “The Three Lives of Malvina Schwartz”. Hazlitt, October 12, 2016. Online.
  • Dylan Foley. “Lisa E. Davis, Greenwich Village historian, author of Under the Mink and Undercover Girl”.  The Last Bohemians, May 30, 2020. Online.
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Apart from articles about Buddy, Kicky (Kiki) Hall seems to have disappeared from History.  The only other mention that I could find is the preface to The Queens: Photographs by George Alpert.  A De Capo Paperback, 1975.  He introduced Alpert to various trans women to be photographed including International Chrysis and Kim Christy

I do not know why Mr Hall took the name Kiki.  In the 1940s and 1950s 'kiki' among female impersonators and femme men was loving each other rather than going with a butch man.  Among lesbians it was a woman who resisted becoming either a butch or a femme.  That is, they were gender non-conformists relative to the gay/lesbian conventions.  They were super queer.

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