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Gene Malin (June 30, 1908 – August 10, 1933) was an American actor, emcee, and drag performer during the Jazz Age. He was the first openly gay performer in Prohibition-era Speakeasy culture.

Gene Malin, also known by stage names Jean Malin and Imogene Wilson, reportedly was born Victor Eugene James Malinovsky in Brooklyn, New York, on June 30, 1908. He had two sisters and two brothers, one of whom worked for a sugar refinery, and one who became a police officer.

As a child, Malin attended P.S. 50 in Brooklyn and then went on to Eastern District High School. As a teenager, he was already winning prizes for his costumes at the elaborate Manhattan drag balls of the 1920s. By his late teens Malin had worked as a chorus boy in several Broadway shows ("Princess Flavor”, "Miami”, "Sisters of the Chorus"). Around the same period, Malin worked at several Greenwich Village clubs as a drag performer, most notably the Rubaiyat.

In January 1931, in New York City, Malin married Lucille Heiman/Helman (1901 - 1975, aka Martha Farrell, aka Jeannette Forbes, aka Fay Heiman/Helman). The marriage took place shortly after a raid that closed Malin's employer, Club Abbey; he and the bride had known each other from his days performing in drag at the Rubaiyat. Malin filed for divorce in Mexico in November 1932, though at the time of his death, the couple were still legally married. Between 1936 and 1944, Malin's widow served stints in prison for operating "exclusive call houses" (brothels) and violating the Mann Act.

In the spring of 1930 Malin became the headline act at Louis Schwartz's elegant Club Abbey at 46th Street and 8th Avenue in New York City. Although Malin was at times assisted by Helen Morgan Jr. (Francis Dunn) and Lestra LaMonte (the paper-gown-wearing Lester LaMonte), popular drag artists of the day, he did not appear in female attire (other sources, however, state that he impersonated Gloria Swanson and Theda Bara). The crux of Malin's act was not to impersonate women, but to appear as a flamboyant, effeminate, openly gay male wearing a tuxedo; Hearst newspapers' Broadway columnist Louis Sobol described Malin as "a baby-faced lad who lisped and pressed his fingers into his thighs" during performances while another observer called him "a brilliant entertainer, a very funny guy, but risqué". Malin moved on stage and amongst the audience members as an elegant, witty, wisecracking emcee, affecting a broad exaggerated swishing image associated with the "Pansy acts" that followed. In doing so, Malin and other such performers as Karyl Norman and Ray Bourbon ignited a "Pansy Craze" in New York’s speakeasies and later in other cities as well. (He once punched a disruptive patron during a performance, prompting Ed Sullivan to write, "Jean Malin belted a heckler last night at one of the local clubs. All that twitters isn't pansy.) One theatrical publication, Broadway Brevities, declared "the pansies hailed La Malin as their queen", and Vanity Fair magazine published a caricature of the celebrated Malin in 1931. Among his fans was actress Ginger Rogers, and he was the frequent escort of actress Polly Moran.

Malin reportedly was the highest-paid nightclub entertainer of 1930, "a six-foot-tall, 200-pound bruiser who also had an attitude and a lisp". He also appeared in Broadway productions such as "Sisters of the Chorus" (1930) and "The Crooner" (1932).

After headlining numerous New York clubs such as Paul and Joe's, Malin took his act to Boston and ultimately, in the fall of 1932, to the West Coast, where he was employed at popular nightclubs such as the Ship Café in Venice. He also performed a club bearing his own name. While in Hollywood, he appeared in two films, "Arizona to Broadway" and the Joan Crawford vehicle "Dancing Lady”; in the former movie, he portrayed Ray Best, a female impersonator who dressed in the manner of Mae West and sang "Frankie and Johnny". Malin was cast in a third movie, "Double Harness" (1933), but his performance was discarded and he was replaced by less effeminate actor; the president of R.K.O., B. B. Kahane, disgusted by Malin's flamboyance, noted, "I do not think we ought to have this man on the lot on any picture—shorts or features."

Malin also recorded at least two songs, "I'd Rather be Spanish than Mannish" and "That's What's the Matter With Me".

In the early hours of August 10, 1933, Jean Malin, age 25, was killed in a freak automobile accident. He had just performed a "farewell performance" at the Ship Café in Venice, California. He piled into his sedan with Jimmy Forlenza (gossip columns referred to him as Malin's "close friend") and comedic actress Patsy Kelly. It seems that Malin confused the gears and the car lurched in reverse and went off a pier into the water. Pinned under the steering wheel, Malin was instantly killed; the other two passengers were seriously injured but survived.

His funeral was held at St. Mary's Church in Brooklyn, New York.


Further Readings:

Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 by George Chauncey
Paperback: 496 pages
Publisher: Basic Books (May 19, 1995)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0465026214
ISBN-13: 978-0465026210
Amazon: Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940

Gay New York brilliantly shatters the myth that before the 1960s gay life existed only in the closet, where gay men were isolated, invisible, and self-hating. Based on years of research and access to a rich trove of diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents, this book is a fascinating portrait of a gay world that is not supposed to have existed.

Hollywood Bohemians: Transgressive Sexuality and the Selling of the Movieland Dream by Brett L. Abrams
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: McFarland (August 19, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0786439297
ISBN-13: 978-0786439294
Amazon: Hollywood Bohemians: Transgressive Sexuality and the Selling of the Movieland Dream

Between 1917 and 1941, Hollywood studios, gossip columnists and novelists featured an unprecedented number of homosexuals, cross-dressers, and adulterers in their depictions of the glamorous Hollywood lifestyle.

Actress Greta Garbo defined herself as the ultimate serial bachelorette. Screenwriter Mercedes De Acosta engaged in numerous lesbian relationships with the Hollywood elite. And countless homosexual designers brazenly picked up men in the hottest Hollywood nightclubs. Hollywood's image grew as a place of sexual abandon.

This book demonstrates how studios and the media used images of these sexually adventurous characters to promote the industry and appeal to the prurient interests of their audiences. Illustrations, notes, bibliography and index.


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