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Jean Malin: Queen of the Pansies

Premiere: 9/3/2021 | 00:05:57 |

Jean Malin was one of the first openly gay performers in the Prohibition era during the "pansy craze" of the early 1930s. Malin stood six feet tall, weighed 200 pounds, and had a wavy crop of blonde hair to die for. Although he was effeminate and a female impersonator, he was known to put hecklers and homophobes in their place with his wit — and his fists!

About the Episode

Jean Malin was one of the first openly gay performers in the Prohibition era during the “pansy craze” of the early 1930s. Malin stood six feet tall, weighed 200 pounds, and had a wavy crop of blonde hair to die for. Although he was effeminate and a female impersonator, he was known to put hecklers and homophobes in their place with his wit — and his fists!

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TRANSCRIPT

- Jean Malin was one of the first openly gay performers in the prohibition era.

And for a while, the highest paid Broadway performer during the Pansy Craze of the early 1930s.

Malin stood six feet tall, weighed 200 pounds, and had a wavy crop of blonde hair to die for.

Although he was effeminate and a female impersonator, he was known to put the hecklers and homophobes in their place with his wit and his fists.

Ow!

Hi y'all, I'm Peppermint, New York City's delightful diva, and welcome to Masters of Drag.

Where we're telling you stories of American drag pioneers.

Malin was known by some as the Queen of the Pansies.

He was in effeminate entertainer who spoke with a lisp and walked with a swish in his step, but he didn't shy away from a confrontation.

A columnist for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette once told the infamous tale of the day Malin walked into the Hot Feet Club in the New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village.

The story goes, that after a group of drunk guys reportedly started heckling the star about his blonde hair, Malin picked up a champagne bottle by the neck, smashed it on the table and went for it. (growls) The bar fight lasted over an hour and sent two dozen men to the hospital.

Police reportedly padlocked the establishment and shut it down shortly afterward.

In another version of the story, Malin had actually walked into the club in drag, which is what initiated the off-color comments from those drunk men.

Either way, we get the picture that Malin was willing to defend and quite literally fight for his art and queerness at a time when it was dangerous to do so.

But let's go back a few years to 1908.

That was the year Jean Malin was born Victor Eugene James Malinovsky in Brooklyn, New York.

He also went by Gene Malin, and Jean Malin was one of his stage names.

The son of Polish and Lithuanian parents, Malin grew up in a working class family with four siblings.

He was confident in his sexuality from an early age.

And by the time that he was a teen, was reportedly already winning awards for homemade costumes he would wear at drag balls across New York City.

Around the same time, Malin worked as a runner for Wall Street firm and a telephone operator before getting a job as a chorus boy on Broadway.

He eventually began performing in drag, naturally, and also emceeing at various Greenwich Village nightclubs.

Malin took to his new role as emcee like a drag queen to glitter.

He would never emcee in drag, but he worked with some of the top drag performers of the time, playing up the camp and never letting hecklers get the last word.

He wore an elegant tuxedo and strolled among the crowd, dazzling the audience with his wisecracks and flip remarks.

Malin was both hailed and criticized for his performances, but his success spoke for itself.

He was among the highest paid performers on Broadway in 1930 and mingled with the likes of Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich and Polly Moran.

But it was short-lived.

The Pansy Craze peaked at the height of prohibition and the mob-run speakeasies that hosted acts like Malin's were battlegrounds for rival mobsters.

In January, 1931, a gang fight involving guns, knives, and fists left Club Abbey in shambles.

The club's owner and notorious mobster, Charles Sherman, was also injured in the melee.

Police shut down the club afterwards, and New York's police commissioner began stationing cops at all the known pansy clubs.

It was a turning point for Malin.

After the closure of Club Abbey, Malin worked in other clubs on Broadway and moved to Boston for a short while before heading west.

After landing in Los Angeles, he opened his own establishment, the Club New Yorker in September, 1932.

There was a lot of buzz surrounding the opening of the club and the newspaper even hailed it, Broadway's Gift to Hollywood.

But it was only open for a year before it closed.

That's when Malin tried his shot in Hollywood.

In 1933, he appeared in the film 'Arizona to Broadway,' in which he played a Mae West impersonator.

♪ And he's done me wrong ♪ Malin was also cast like a chorus girl in the 1933 musical, 'The Dancing Lady,' with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, but was cut out of the final film.

He also acted in a movie called, 'Double Harness' that same year, but was later cut out again, only to be replaced by an actor who was considered less effeminate.

Los Angeles was well on the way to following New York in banning female impersonators and the studios didn't like Malin's brand of camp comedy.

On August 10th, 1933, tragedy struck.

After performing a farewell performance at the Ship Cafe on Venice pier, Malin accidentally put his car in reverse instead of drive and ran off the pier into the water.

His fellow passengers, including his friend, slash, roommate, Jimmy Forlenza, and actress, Patsy Kelly, were both hurt, but survived.

Malin who was pinned under the steering wheel, did not.

He was just 25.

With Malin's death and the end of prohibition, the Pansy Craze faded away and the out gay culture that flourished at this time was driven back underground.

Though Malin's life was tragically cut short, he managed to change culture in his brief shining time on earth, and cement his status as one of drag's legendary HerStory makers.

Drag HerStory as longer than most of us think, and we're only just beginning.

Subscribe to this channel for more stories of pioneering American Masters of Drag with me, Peppermint.

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