The Daily Agenda for Sunday, November 17
November 17th, 2013
TODAY IN HISTORY:
The Arrest of “The 41” in Mexico City: 1901. Getting to the bottom of what actually happened is tricky business. The only accounts of the raid conducted by Mexico City’s police on a private party come from a decidedly unapproving and often sensational press. We know virtually nothing of those who were arrested; we barely know some of the names. Their story was never told: they were never interviewed, and as far as I can tell there is not a single quote which can be reliably attributed to any of them. Whatever we may know of the scandal was clouded further by fictional accounts — the 41, as they were simply known, became the subject of a popular novel in 1906. But one thing is certain: the “Ball of the 41” became the scandal of the year, inspiring more than a month of headlines, sermons, editorials, and even a few corridos.
Only a few details are solid. In the very early morning hours of November 17, 1901, police raided a private party and arrested forty-one men, nineteen of them were dressed as women. The one in drag were publicly humiliated by being forced to sweep the streets — “women’s work.” The 41 were taken to an army barracks and inducted into the Mexican army. At least some of them were then put on a train to Veracruz, sent by ship to the Yucatán, and made to serve in the army as it was putting down a Mayan insurgency.
Those appear to be the bare facts, which, of course, weren’t enough to satisfy the nation’s newspapers. Here is how El Popular reported the story on November 20:
Last Sunday night, the police of the Eighth Precinct were informed that in the house located at number 4 La Paaz Street, a ball was being held without the corresponding permit. They immediately moved in to surprise the culprits, and after having encountered numerous difficulties in trying to get the partygoers to open up, the police broke into the house’s patio where they found 42 individuals who were dancing to the excessively loud music of a local street band.
When they noted the presence of the police, some of those who were dressed in women’s clothing attempted to flee in order to change out of the clothes of the opposite six; but as the police understood the gravity of the situation, they did not allow anyone to leave, and all 42 including those still dressed as women were taken to the station from which they were then sent to Belem Prison, charged with attacks on morality, and put at the disposition of the District Governor.
As a complement to the previous report, we will say that among those individuals dressed as women, several were recognized as dandies who are seen daily on Plateros Street.
These men wore elegant ladies’ gowns, wigs, false breasts, earrings, embroidered shoes, and a great deal of eye makeup and rouge on their faces.
Once the news hit the boulevards, all kinds of commentaries were made, and the conduct of those individuals was censured.
We will not provide our readers with further details because they are summarily disgusting.
It was said that many of those arrested came from highly respected families with ties to the government of dictator Porfirio Díaz. Some of the earliest newspaper reports, like this one, had it that 42 were arrested. That number later dropped to 41, which generated even more rumors. One had it that the elderly lady who owned the house was one of those arrested, and she was later released. Other, more sinister rumors had it that one of those arrested was one of Díaz’s nephews.
El Popular may have been reluctant to provide details, but in subsequent days it was happy to imagine the scene for its readers:
If only we had seen them in their resplendent hairdos, their fake cleavage, with their shiny sparkling earrings, with their falsies like the ones worn by anemic bimbos, with their corseted waists, their dancing-girl skirts like inverted tulips, their butterﬂy tights, their shoes fringed with crimped gold thread and colored glass beads, and all of them bedaubed in white powder and rouge, prancing about in the fandango with their perfumed and curly mustaches.
On November 23, El País published this account of one group of prisoners being transferred to the train bound for Veracruz:
The men-only ball that was raided by the police continues provoking talk in all social circles, by virtue of the fact that many of those detained are perfectly well known, since among them are men who stroll day after day down the boulevards showing off their stylish and perfectly tailored suits and wearing sumptuous jewels.
As we stated in yesterday’s issue, 12 of those captured in the house on the fourth block of La Paz were sent to Veracruz along with seven thieves who were also conscripted into the armed services.
At 5:30 in the morning, the hour at which attendance is taken in the 24th Battalion (that is being remitted to the port of Veracruz), those called on first were the 12 individuals who had been at the famed ball, and after number 13, who was a pelado [a term for a rough, lower-class urban Mexican] was called, he replied on hearing his name, “Present, my Captain,but let me go on record as saying that I am being conscripted as a thief; but I’m not one of them,” and he pointed to the group of dancers.
This provoked the laughter of those present, because not even a thief was willing to be confused with the perfumed boys, as they are called by the soldiers from the barracks
A very amusing scene developed in the the barracks of the 24th Battalion when the repugnant ones arrived wearing their magniﬁcent overcoats, along with hats and ﬁne patent-leather shoes. The captain of the recruits made them all strip without delay, and then handed out the rough but honorable articles of clothing that are given to recruits.
With tears in their eyes, they stripped off all their clothes, some of them begging that they be allowed at least to keep their ﬁne silk undergarments, a request that the captain denied, since, he told them, there they were just the same as everyone else. He didn’t even allow them to keep their socks, and they all began to cry as they put on the shoes that would replace their lovely patent leather ladies’ shoes.
The government paper, El Imparcial, took plains to deny that the army was foolish enough to send any girly-men to the front lines:
All of the prisoners have been sent to Yucatán, but not — as it has been said — to join the ranks of the valiant soldiers taking part in the campaign; they will be employed instead on such tasks as digging trenches, opening breaches, and raising temporary fortifications.
As you have undoubtedly noticed, it was the men in drag who occupied the attention of the press; through their manner of dress, they particularly transgressed the limits of what was tolerable in Mexican society. This brings up the two ways in which homosexuality has traditionally been viewed in Mexico: There are homosexuals, and then there are homosexuals. There are men who are attracted to other men (we understand this homosexuality as a sexual orientation), and there are men who, while identifying as men, are effeminate and, more specifically, adopted the “passive” role (a further transgression of the male gender role.) The second group, it might be said, are the real homosexuals according to traditional society; it was possible (and still is in some rural areas) for one man to have sex with another man and still be regarded as straight, as long as he is the one who retains his claim to masculinity by being the chingón (the one who does the deed) and not the chingado (the one to whom the deed is done), who has effectively surrendered his claims to masculinity.
As long as there was at least some measure of deniability that one had surrendered their masculinity, then that masculinity (and hence, heterosexuality) remained intact in many peoples’ eyes. But deniability was crucial. A few newspapers tried to argue that the twenty-one how weren’t in drag were had been “tricked,” leaving readers to try to imagine who those “tricked” men couldn’t have known who they were dancing with. Other accounts, of course, found that impossible to believe. And it appears that it was that lack of deniability which ultimately doomed everyone to the same fate. While those who were in drag were the most remarked-upon players in the scandal, the whole affair today is known as the “the 41,” not just the nineteen.
Today, the number 41 has become slang for homosexuality or, more specifically, “faggot” or maricón. Some of the early LGBT advocacy groups in Mexico incorporated the number into their names, just as many similar groups in the U.S. have leveraged “Stonewall” as a shorthand for the struggle for gay rights.
[Sources: Robert McKee Irwin. “The Famous 41: The scandalous birth of modern Mexican homosexuality.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6, no. 3 (2000): 353-376.
Robert McKee Irwin, Edward J. McCaughan, Michelle Rocio Nasser. The Famous 41: Sexuality and Social Control in Mexico, 1901 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).]
“…Somewhere during this interview I have to write at least one paragraph in which I say that you were married and that you are not married any more. I’ll tell you this before you begin: I’ve read that your marriage was ‘made,’ not by you but by the same agent who is reported to have made a star of you.”
“I’m sure you did read that,” he said. “I read it too, and it made me feel like an idiot. She was my agent’s secretary. I met her in a supermarket. She introduced herself. Naturally I had talked to her many times on the phone. For a while we had a lot of trouble getting together. Either I had a date or she had one. We went together for a year and were married. But it didn’t work out. We stayed married only a couple of years. Last summer our divorce was final. Now I’m single again.”
…I said, “I’m interested in your present reaction to dames. You do date, don’t you?”
“Certainly,” he said. Only my dates don’t get into print. To get a date into print you have to appear in a public place like a night club. I don’t like night clubs.”
“What’s your idea of a date?”
“To take a girl for a sail or meet her at my house or somebody else’s house. What am I supposed to prove? There are times when I almost wish I made the scandal sheets.”
Even in 1960, the interest in Hudson’s love life went a bit beyond that experienced by other male sex symbols. What other subtext could possibly explain the question about whether his marriage to Phyllis Gates was “made” or not? Martin’s question came exceptionally close to exposing the secret that just about everyone in Hollywood knew, that Hudson’s agent, Henry Willson (see Jul 31), had prevailed on Hudson to marry Willson’s secretary after Hudson narrowly escaped having his secret exposed in Confidential magazine in 1955. The couple divorced in 1958, and Hudson never married again. His secret remained well-protected outside of Hollywood, even if gays in L.A. didn’t always respect it. Los Angeles-based ONE magazine, in a laudatory review of a book acknowledging Michelangelo’s homosexuality, suggested the book would make a great movie starring Rock Hudson. “That would be casting with a twist. Or two,” ONE commented with characteristic snark.
Hudson was just one product from Willson’s “Adonis factory,” so named for Willson’s uncanny ability to find (and often, bed) some of Hollywood’s hotest male stars. Willson took a not-so-smart Roy Fitzgerald out of the truck he was driving, fixed his teeth and his bad grammar, taught him to lower his voice and lose his sibilant lisp, along with how to move, shake hands, sit, dance, sing, ride horses, and even act. It took Hudson thirty eight takes before he could successfully deliver his only line in Warner Brother’s Fighter Squadron in 1948.
He got better from there. He received good reviews for his role in 1954’s Magnificant Obsession opposite Jane Wyman, and his popularity went through the roof with the 1956 release of Giant, which also featured Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. In the 1960s, he turned to romantic comedies, including three with Dorris Day: Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers. As the sixties wore on, film offers declined and Hudson began transitioning to television. From 1971 to 1977, he played police commissioner Stewart McMillan in McMillan & Wife (“wife” was played by Susan Saint James).
In November 1981, Hudson suffered a serious heart attack, followed by quintuple bypass surgery. That didn’t surprise anyone because of his heavy drinking and smoking, but his unusually long recovery did. He remained in ill health while filming The Ambassador in 1983-1984, and health problems followed while filming the made-for-TV movie The Vegas Strip Wars in 1984. When he began appearing in a recurring role in the primetime soap Dynasty with his gaunt appearance, deteriorating speech and failing memory — he could no longer memorize his lines — rumors began to fly. First it was cancer, this publicists said, but others were whispering AIDS.
In July 1985, Hudson appearance on Doris Day’s talk show became instant news, thanks to his shocking appearance and incoherant speech. The following week, Hudson flew to Paris and checked into the hospital at the Pasteur Institute. The official version, at first, was that Hudson was “tired” and that a diagnosis wasn’t yet available. But reporters didn’t fail to notice that the Pasteur Institute was one of the world’s leading research institutions on AIDS and the destination for hundreds of American AIDS patients seeking treatments that were unavailable in the U.S, as you can see in this report:
Hudson’s publicists soon acknowledged most of what everyone else suspected: that Hudson was in Paris for experimental treatment for AIDS, which he attributed to multiple blood transfusions when he underwent bypass surgery. But even that story didn’t hold for long. People magazine published a story about Hudson’s disease, and featured comments from Angie Dickinson, Robert Stack, Joan Rivers, and Mamie van Doren, who said they knew about his homosexuality and supported him. His death on October 2, 1985, galvanized Hollywood, especially his life-long friend Elizabeth Taylor, who made AIDS fundraising not just a fashionable cause, but an urgent one for a nation that was still very uncomfortable about discussing the disease.
[Sources: Robert Hofler. The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson (New York: Carroll & Graff, 2005).
Peter Martin. “I call on Rock Hudson.” The Saturday Evening Post 233, no. 4 (July 23, 1960): 16ff.
Sal McIntire. “Tangents: Gutsy Scholar with a Shovel.” ONE 10, no. 11 (November 1962): 15-16.]
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