Joseph Touchette, who may be the oldest drag queen in New York City, has lived on the corner of Bank and West Fourth streets since 1956.
June 25, 2017
The wedding of Joseph Touchette, better known as Tish, was typical for New England in the years after the Second World War. A minister officiated; a hot buffet was served; a friend provided an apartment in Providence, Rhode Island, for the honeymoon. What was unusual was that Tish was the bride. His groom was Norman Kerouac, first cousin of Jack, and most of the guests who gathered at the reception hall outside of Providence were friends from a local gay club. Gay marriage would not be legal for decades, and even weddings staged as campy jokes were almost unheard of—but Tish’s friends had insisted. “That wedding bullshit was all started by a bunch of lesbians,” Tish, who is ninety-three, said recently. Some friends who worked at a Pawtucket bridal salon had offered to outfit the bridesmaids and to provide Tish with a lacy white wedding gown. “It was the first time I ever dressed in drag.” Seeing himself in the mirror, made up with rouge and lipstick, he was pleased with the results. “Somebody said, ‘Tish, you should be a female impersonator,’ ” and he agreed.
Tish, who may be the oldest drag queen in New York City, knew he wanted to be an entertainer from an early age. He grew up in Dayville, Connecticut, the eldest of seven children in a French Catholic, blue-collar family. Following his marriage to Norman, whom he met one night at an underground gay bar, Tish worked factory jobs and took dance and singing lessons at a prominent music academy in Providence; on weekends, he played the local clubs. After a few years, Tish and Norman broke up, and Tish decided to move to New York to focus on his career. “A drag queen is an amateur—a female impersonator is a professional,” he said. For forty years, Tish sang, danced, and amused audiences at clubs, many of them Mafia-owned, across the city and along the East Coast. “They would book us for a week and pa-pa-pa-pa, we’d stay for six months.” He remembers his audition at the Moroccan Village, a popular club on West Eighth Street during the nineteen-fifties, for which he sang “You’ll Never Know How Much I Love You”; he believes he got the job on the strength of his voice. “When the queens saw me taking out my dress in the changing room, they said, ‘You can’t wear that!’ What was good enough for Pawtucket would not work in New York.”
Since 1956, Tish has lived in a one-bedroom railroad apartment on the corner of Bank and West Fourth streets, across from a former travel agency that was later a Taoist decor shop, then a Little Marc Jacobs, and is now shuttered. He pays two hundred and fifty-six dollars a month in rent, and relies on food stamps, social security, and the nominal fee he charges an aspiring actor and chef, Derek, who sleeps on a pullout couch in the living room. (Derek’s name has been changed for this article.) Above the couch is a wall of framed photographs of Tish—you can recognize him by his nose, which is shaped like a teardrop—wearing blond wigs, long gowns, and feather boas. In other images, he is dressed as a man and wears his bleached hair in a pompadour. Beneath these photos is a small framed poster from a nineteen-sixties travelling act, “The French Box Revue,” in which the female impersonators are arranged in a grid, labelled with men’s names: Mr. Dayzee Dee, Mr. Jackie King, Mr. Bobby Dell, Mr. Tony St. Cyr, and Mr. Tish. As George Chauncey, a historian at Columbia, explained in an e-mail, female-impersonation acts were very different from contemporary drag shows, which are as much about creating queer communities as they are about entertainment. Clubs like the Moroccan Village generally attracted “heterosexuals looking for novelty” who were “astounded and fascinated by the beauty and glamor of the performers and their uncanny ability to ‘pass’ as the so-called ‘other sex.’ ”