Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy

Image of Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy
Release Date: 
September 12, 2023
Smart Pop Books
Reviewed by: 

Leading Lady is a breezy chronicle of Busch’s life and career, interspersed with anecdotes about his encounters with divas of the stage and screen.”

There have been many books written about Charles Busch. Now we have his own delightful, gossipy take on his life, career, and encounters with some of the divas he has befriended along the way.

Born in 1954, Busch was an effeminate boy who saw theater as a world in which he could be accepted and in which he might thrive. After his parents’ early deaths, he, in Auntie Mame style, found himself in the Park Avenue apartment of his wealthy, widowed Aunt Lil. Childless herself, Lil took young Charles under her wing. She fought for a place for him at the High School of Music and Art and underwrote his education at Northwestern University as well as his early career.

At Northwestern, Busch was a theater major who was too effeminate to get parts in the department’s productions. The only solution was to write a play for himself to star in, Sister Act, about a pair of feuding female Siamese twins. Busch’s first female role made him realize that drag performance would be his vehicle and his liberation: “Drag for me was not an expression of outrage or even satire, but rather a passageway to channel the feminine in my nature, which turned out to be a place of authority.” His models were the great movie divas of the studio era.

After graduation from Northwestern, Busch became an itinerant writer-performer in tiny theaters and gay clubs. His base was New York’s Greenwich Village. His first inspiration was the legendary Charles Ludlam, with whom he briefly worked. Busch, however, wanted to create and star in his own work. Fame would come in 1984 with Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, which moved from an East Village performance space to an Off-Broadway theater where it ran for five years.

Busch took his version of gay theater from the fringe to the commercial theater and film. His play, The Tale of an Allergist’s Wife had a two-year Broadway run. At almost 70, his is still active as a writer and sometime performer.

Leading Lady is a breezy chronicle of Busch’s life and career, interspersed with anecdotes about his encounters with divas of the stage and screen. Joan Rivers is there from the beginning of the book to the end, but there are marvelous tales of meetings with Kim Novak and Liza Minnelli and of working with Rosie O’Donnell and Linda Lavin. Busch tells in detail the story of the creation of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and the sorry misadventure of writing the book for the Boy George musical, Taboo.

The book is also a celebration of the loyal, loving people who have been Busch’s companions throughout his personal and artistic journey, particularly his constantly supportive Aunt Lil, and his closest long-time creative colleagues. Like grand divas of yore, Busch insists that the love of his life has been his art, so there is little in the way of romance in the book. As an openly gay writer and performer based for almost half a century in Greenwich Village, his life and work reflect New York gay culture from the seventies through the gut-wrenching years of the AIDS epidemic to more acceptance. Perhaps nothing reflects the changes more than Charles Busch’s move from a downtown fringe performer to the mainstream.

Charles Busch’s Leading Lady reminds us of the importance of drag to the history of queer theater. At a time when drag has become a target in the culture wars, Busch’s life and career are also reminders that for some drag can be liberating—and that drag performance can be challenging, delightful theater.