According to Gerald Clarke's 1988 Capote biography (the book that inspired the film), Capote and his editor, Joseph Fox, arrived in Kansas City in April 1965 to witness Smith and Hickok take "The Big Swing" at the Lansing Correctional Facility. They checked into a suite at the Muehlebach Hotel, where Capote was, Clarke writes, "incredibly tense and unable to talk to anybody for more than two or three minutes at a time." To ease his tension, perhaps, Truman Capote dragged Fox and a Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent out to enjoy a little of this city's nightlife. Clarke quotes Fox saying, "At night we went to the movies or strip shows and transvestite shows Kansas City is one of the six or seven biggest transvestite centers in the country."
This history-reverin' riblet happens to remember that the biggest "transvestite show" in Kansas City back in 1965 was at the legendary Jewel Box Lounge at 3219 Troost, where the performers were known as "femme mimics." These female impersonators didn't lip-synch to records as drag queens do today; instead, they sang in their own voices and did their own comedy material. The club's show director at the time was a willowy 29-year-old named George Cauden, who went by the stage name Mr. Tommy Temple. See, at the Jewel Box, the mimics didn't pretend to be real women, so their femme names typically were preceded by "Mister." That included Mr. Eddie Lynn (billed as "The French Pussycat"), Mr. Salome, and "The Body Beautiful" herself, Mr. Timmy Saxton.
Capote must have gone to the Jewel Box more than once, because he became chummy with Tommy Temple. Several decades later, Temple bragged to this meat patty, "I entertained Truman Capote in my home."
We weren't able to track down Temple last week. But several years ago, when this meat patty was much younger and sometimes wrote for other publications around town, Temple recalled that while Capote was blowing off steam waiting for Smith and Hickok to move off death row and onto the gallows so he could finally finish his damned masterpiece the big-name headliner at the Jewel Box was Mr. Rae Bourbon.
And, in a twisted tale that the gossip-loving Capote would have adored, the same year that the movie version of In Cold Blood was filmed in Kansas (it starred Scott Wilson and Robert Blake as the murderers), Rae Bourbon got tangled up in a murder, too.
As it turns out, Randy Riddle, a documentary filmmaker based in North Carolina, has finished a book about Bourbon. Called Daddy Was a Lady, it incorporates an unfinished memoir that the ol' queen wrote in prison after he was convicted of masterminding the murder of a Texas kennel owner. Before he died in 1971, the 78-year-old Bourbon was the oldest living drag queen serving life in prison.
"He insisted he start dressing as a woman in the early 1900s, when he was supposedly running guns in drag, mind you for Pancho Villa in Mexico," Riddle tells the Strip. "Later he made silent movies. He was in Rudolph Valentino's Blood and Sand."
Rae was such a hit with Kansas City audiences that he recorded a live album of his bawdiest material at the Jewel Box in the early 1960s, titled A Trick Ain't Always a Treat.
In the fall of 1967, Bourbon drove off from the Jewel Box to do a show in Mexico, hauling a trailer filled with his pets. "Rae had 40 dogs by this point," Riddle says. Traveling through Texas, Bourbon's car caught fire. The animals survived, but he couldn't continue traveling with them, so he took the dogs to the Pet-A-Zoo Kennel. Weeks later, when he couldn't pay the bill, kennel owner A.D. Blount sold them for medical research.
"Rae hired two male hustlers to go and scare Mr. Blount, just to rough him up," Riddle says. "But things went terribly wrong, and they killed him instead. Rae was sentenced for conspiring to commit murder."
At about the same time that Rae Bourbon died in a Texas prison, his former employer, the Jewel Box Lounge, was dying its own death.
"It all changed after the 1970s," Tommy Temple told this sizzlin' sirloin back in the '90s. "There was a stigma associated with female impersonation. Our customers would walk outside the club and see drag queens on the street hustling."
These days, the hookers have moved several blocks south. The brick building that once housed the Jewel Box still stands, now home to a company that sells window blinds. It's hard to believe that this forlorn-looking place was once known as "Mid-America's Greatest Fun Complex." (A popular strip joint, the Yum-Yum Club, was right next door.)
And Truman Capote wasn't the only visiting celebrity who paid the $1 cover charge to watch "Kansas City's Most Unusual Show." Temple remembered seeing Liberace, Rock Hudson, Eartha Kitt and Pearl Bailey in the audience. Queening it up over all the other performers was future murderer Rae Bourbon.
The Strip can't wait to see that movie!