Death Is A Drag | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Death Is A Drag 

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"Dearly Beloved Friends," the notice under the black wreath on the door reads, "Welcome to the Coven Funeral Home." Inside, mourners sign the registration book, sit on the two tasteful couches under the Kandinsky print, and stare at the far wall where a body is lying in state. A dozen large floral arrangements ring the room, and the air is fragrant with the smell of gladiolas, mums, and carnations. The corpse appears to be female, well into her golden years, with red lips, tight black curls framing her face, and, um, hairy arms. Dressed in an elegant black cocktail dress and big money pearls, the body lies in repose on a small white pillow in a satin-lined coffin. The skin glows under the special pink torchere lamps. A bow made out of 20-dollar bills is on the casket, along with family photos, tiny American flags, an ashtray, and a solitary Bloody Mary minus the celery. "Don't Cry Out Loud" wails Melissa Manchester over the sound system as a man with a cigar prays at the velvet padded kneeler.

Abruptly, the body sits up in the coffin, looks the man in the eye, and says, "Hey Schwarzenegger, why don't you climb in here and give me the Terminator Special?"

This is the most elaborate drag party the Coven has thrown yet, a mock funeral service for Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. The party's been in full swing for a few hours, and everyone has made use of the well-stocked bar. The invitation said visitation and cocktails at 8 PM, service at 9. It's well past 10 and these 40-plus weekend drag queens are ready for things to start. It's time for the immediate family to line up and pay their last respects to "the oldest queen of all."

The Coven is a group of eight men, all close friends, identifying themselves as "the gay Rat Pack." They've known each other for nearly a decade, and they all like to party. A lot. "I guess we have at least one a month," says Mike, who's hosting tonight's funeral. "We just get together, have dinner, and throw parties." Not all the parties are in drag, although the "most memorable ones certainly are."

This evening's theme holds special meaning because everyone in the Coven has eagerly awaited the death of Rose Kennedy. "When she died, I smiled to myself," Mike recalls, "not because I was glad--but because we could finally throw this big old Irish wake. It's in dreadful taste, isn't it?" John remembers where he was when he learned of her demise: "I was having a reconciliation weekend with my boyfriend. No phones, no nothing. Then we heard the news. I had to call [the Coven]. My boyfriend said, 'You are ruining our relationship over this party!' I called anyway--we were already going to break up. I certainly wasn't going to miss this."

Most of the members have nicknames: Mary Richards, Edie (after Edie Sedgwick), Frau, Vicky, Carole ("with an 'e' please, thank you"), and this is how the Rose Kennedy connection came up in the first place. Two years ago, while sunning one afternoon on the Belmont Rocks, one of the Coven, or several (no one can recall, "and who gives a shit anyway?"), glanced down at Ralph, lying in the sun, and "they immediately started calling me Rose Kennedy," says Ralph with a mortified giggle.

When the 104-year-old Mrs. Kennedy "finally, finally died," the party date was quickly set up with the help of two gay men who call themselves "the Velvet Underground." Ricky (not his real name) works as an undertaker and "borrowed" the necessities for the event, including a stand-up crucifix referred to as "Jesus on a stick." He also brought the flowers: "We had a funeral on Thursday, and I asked the family if they'd mind if I donated them to a nursing home. They said sure, so I loaded 'em in my van and brought 'em here."

The Coven pitched in for the caterers, who prepared shrimp profiteroles, caviar potatoes, stuffed blue cheese mushrooms, roasted chicken kabobs, and chocolate dipped strawberries. The only requirement was that guests come dressed as a Kennedy family member or associate. Those invited spent the previous week combing the resale shops, or they were busy at their sewing machines. "Who did your wig? It's incredible, where'd ya get it?" a man in a pageboy, a black suit, and heels asks a beefy blond Marilyn Monroe between sips of his drink. "Someplace down by the health club," Marilyn answers. "I went to Ben's," the pageboy volunteers. "When I walked in they said, 'Another wig, huh? Do you want some jewelry this time?'"

Mike's living room is the viewing area. Ralph plays Rose, leafing through a People story on "herself," while the Kennedy clan lines up to send the old girl off. Here's the mannish Eunice in her tasteful black dress and hat. Her luckless sister Rosemary sniffs under her floor-length black veil and leans on the ever-present nurse. Jackie is dressed in pink, with pearls, white gloves, and sunglasses. She smacks a swaying Marilyn on the head with her purse. Unconcerned, Marilyn whips out her makeup and coos "liiipstick" before applying another coat. Nearby, a turbaned Gloria Swanson, draped in velvet with elbow gloves, practically paws the ground waiting for the eulogies to start.

Ricky the undertaker introduces Eunice, who describes Rose "not only as a mother, but as my old, old, old, old friend." Presiding from her coffin, mommy dearest flicks her ashes and trains a video camera on the mourners, who recite the Lord's Prayer twice. A cardinal blesses the crowd with water from a turkey baster, and the lobotomized Rosemary falters midway through "Yes, Jesus Loves Me." When Gloria Swanson begins to speak, Rose picks up a knife. Swanson, played by Chuck, speaks in the well-rehearsed cadence of the the-a-tah. "Her strange fascination with auto shows might begin to explain her children's behavior," Gloria says. "Still, I salute you, Rose, for everything you stood for--and laid down for." A bearded Christina Onassis leads one and all in a rousing chorus of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "The Rose." But the crowd is getting antsy: the bar is beckoning. "Disco," hisses Peter Lawford to Daryl Hannah, who's bending over the stereo in her mermaid costume.

Mary Jo Kopechne, wearing a bathing cap and seaweed, passes by Rose, who's stepping out of her casket. "Well, I think it's just incredible bad taste that you're here," Rose snaps. "Wasn't $250,000 enough to keep you away?" Mary Jo responds, "Shut up, you cheapskate, you're lucky I could get the seat belt off." The party has become the biggest group improv show in town, with the majority of the guests clomping around in size 14 heels.

There are now two Marilyns, but both assure me that they were murdered by the Kennedys. "Jack pulverized me, just like O.J.," confides Marilyn Blue Dress. Marilyn Gold Dress staggers and slurs, "They wanted to finger my pussy, and I wouldn't let them, so they murdered me."

Rosemary seems to be taking it well. "I'm getting all the money," she says, perhaps recognizing me as Pierre Salinger, longtime Kennedy press secretary. "Time for your medication," her nurse cuts in, taking Rosemary by the arm while eating a chicken kabob. "What'd ya do your last day?" asks Joan Kennedy, liquor bottle in hand. "Well," Rose says, "mostly I breathed. I laid around and threw the ball to Rosemary." There are two Patricia Bowmans, the alleged victim of Willie Kennedy Smith's amorous advances. A Before in a tight-fitting black mini and an After with a ripped slip, smeared lipstick, and fistfuls of cash. "We had lots to tell," they agree, "but now we've signed a nondisclosure agreement. Are you from A Current Affair? We might still have some hot dirt for the right price."

One guest is dressed as an overweight man in horn-rimmed glasses and a gray suit splattered with "Jack's blood and brains. I was his limo driver in Dallas. Name's Jack Fript," he says, extending his hand and adding, "I made up the name. LBJ got rid of all the Secret Service that were on that day. I spent about a day doing research. I walked over here dressed like this. I got great reactions. I can't wait to walk home and see what happens."

As the evening progresses and the music becomes more insistent, the guests begin to pull up their skirts, drop their tops, form kick lines, and generally let down their synthetic hair. At one point a caterer squeals, "This is the party of the year," as she clings to her dance partner, Maria Shriver.

This may be the last Coven party for a while. Mike has been unexpectedly transferred to London. "But I'm sure the Coven will visit from time to time."

Victor, the bearded Christina, drops off a video of the party the next day with this note: "As with any group of gay men, death and illness are rarely 'discussed' but present in every discussion. Last night's mockery of death was hilarious and probably therapeutic in a way. Whistling past the graveyard, etc. Still I can't help but believe only a group of guys immersed in a culture that has had to process and absorb the death of many people their own age could conceive and pull off a stunt like last night's 'wake.' Is this a triumph over death in its own way?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Steven D. Arazmus.

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