A Star in Reborn, Again

Former Houstonian Charles Kathryn McGuire has been a millionaire, a transvestite, a socialite, a political candidate and a woman. Now, with son James's first play on stage in New York City, she's Daddy Kathryn.

She's dating one at the moment, she says, on-again, off-again for about six months. He has never heard of Charlie McGuire. Neither has anyone else in her small Jersey community. Kathryn says she doesn't plan to tell him, unless they should decide to get married. In that case, she would feel obligated.

"I don't know how, but I guess I'll figure it out. I always seem to figure out everything else."

As she did with James, Kathryn may have to tell her man before he hears it on the street.

The tabloid The Sun has already expressed interest in doing a story. The BBC is in town as well, having come to New York to film a documentary about how off-Broadway plays get produced, and having stumbled into this instead. She told the BBC people she was just visiting in Jersey, that she lived in Atlanta.

For the time being, though, her favorite entry in a scrapbook filled with press clippings is a recently published small-town Jersey newspaper. There, on page 2, over a grainy black-and-white photo of Kathryn at a market stall, weighing a tomato in each hand, are the words "Tomato Lady." Beneath the picture, the caption reads, "Kathryn McGuire debates her choices."

That's it. No Charles/Kathryn. No transsexual. No millionaire socialite. Just Kathryn McGuire, Tomato Lady.

"Can you believe that?" Kathryn beams. "Tomato Lady."

"I don't know how anybody in that community could not know my dad's a transsexual. Anyone under the age of 75 without Alzheimer's disease.... Maybe that's where I'm on the inside looking out. Maybe my dad does look a lot like a woman. To me, he looks like my dad in drag."

If Kathryn's apartment is a bit tattered around the edges, James's near-Harlem Upper West Side place, which he shares with a female roommate, is all right angles. As I enter, I step across a throw rug, and before I can sit down on the wood-slatted futon couch, he's straightening the rug after me.

It was two years ago, after a traumatic breakup, that James began writing about his father and about his life with his father.

"I wrote a little blurb just about my father. I think I was in a standup comedy class. And people were like, 'oh, my God, that's so funny that that's your father.' They couldn't get enough of it. So, I just kept writing and writing and writing, and it turned into this."

It wasn't the first time James had worked with transvestite material. Starting last year he began working on the side at the Jane Street Theater, home to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a play about a transvestite's spiritual journey. Last time James's mother visited him in the city, he took her to see a performance. She was not amused.

"Mark Twain said humor is the darker side of pain," says James. "Which, like, totally makes sense to me.

"Dad can be, how shall I say... He's very big. He's a very big person. And I'm not making this comparison, but I do remember Maya Angelou's son was doing an interview for a documentary, and he said something like, 'oh, she can be such a powerful woman, and she can so press her needs on how my life should be,' and I thought, God, that's so true with me and my relationship with my father. And I really had to find what James finds important. And that took a long time. It took about eight, nine good years. My dad wanted me to be an actor superstar. Just conquer the theater world from a business standpoint. It didn't matter about process, or art, or any of those things. And I really had to find my own ideas, my own thing. But I think a lot of people go through that in their 20s."

But while most sons have to come to terms with their fathers' desire that they follow in their footsteps, most don't have to come to terms with those steps being taken in three-inch heels.

"It's kind of fun actually to be in drag," says James, who got his cross-dressing experience in acting classes. "But I still don't think I can deal, like even for Halloween. It can be so cheeky and so campy, which is fine, but even if I go to, like, the drag shows here in New York, I really have to gear myself up for it. And usually that night I'll have a weird nightmare about a drag queen or something. I'm sure that's probably as a result of Dad."

Also as a result of Dad, James has had to think about what happened. About what would lead a man to surgery to leave his life behind.

"I think a lot of what happened with my father, he'd been dressing as a woman for years, all his life, and when he became Kathryn he was a very public figure, very much into society balls, very much into the Houston social scene. But it was this stage presence, it was sort of like this social theatricality going on. If you try to put something that's on stage, or a work of art, into a real life, into a real existence, into somebody that's got to go to work, to function in a normal society, it never can work.

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