Free love, drag, and art: Fayette Hauser on the infamous Cockettes

Clay Geerdes, The Cockettes Go Shopping, 1972

Clay Geerdes, The Cockettes Go Shopping, 1972

Get out your lace, velvet, and tinsel, and come on down to the Walker Art Center tonight for A Cockettes Evening, an event held in conjunction with the museum’s “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia.” Outrageous, fabulous, and totally high on LSD, the Cockettes helped usher in a new era of queer aesthetics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, putting on wild shows at the Palace Theater in San Francisco. This evening, the Walker will be showing rare performance footage, and will host a conversation with former Cockette member Fayette Hauser.

Hauser says hippies have been having a bit of a moment recently, as there's a renewed interest in the what the Cockettes and similar groups were all about. Recently, she was part of a show at the Bellevue Art Museum, called "Counter Couture," and she’ll be flying over to the Seattle Film Festival, which is showing a documentary based on Cockette stories. Hauser is also working on fundraising for an upcoming book project about the Cockettes.

We chatted with Hauser about her time with the Cockettes and their legacy.

Did waking through “Hippie Modernism” stir any memories?

Fayette Hauser: Absolutely. I think it’s really interesting, including the architecture in there, because there were a lot of things that I knew of in a peripheral consciousness that were different from what was going on in San Francisco. But I hadn’t really seen any of the that stuff in years. There was just so much, like Ira Cohens' pictures, all the Living Theater memories. This really is a comprehensive show. It’s just wonderful to be in it, because you feel the energy from the period a lot in this show.

You were originally from the East Coast, how did you end up in San Francisco?

When I got out of art school I lived in Manhattan for a year, and saved up money. I wanted to go to Paris, but a friend of mine had set up an art camp in Aspen, Colorado. It was sort of a hippie destination. 

When I got there, the art camp was in the barn, and I wasn’t interested. I wanted to be in the woods. So I set up my own camp in the woods, and we would sit there in the nude at a place called Castle Creek and paint in the daytime. People would come visit, and they would have to take their clothes off — that kind of thing.

I would hitchhike back into town every few days or so, and one day I was picked up by Nancy Gurley, who was the wife of James Gurley, from Big Brother and the Holding Company. That experience changed the course of my life. She was brilliant, and I spent the rest of the summer just walking with her and being with her every day. This was toward the end of the summer, so it was getting chilly. There was a big old hotel in town where all the hippies lived; it had bunk beds. It was like a miners’ hotel. I moved in there so I could spend more time with her, and then I went with her to San Francisco.

So I landed right in the nexus of the Family Dog. They were one of the original tribes; they created the concert shows. I really plopped into the middle of it with my cowboy boots. I thought I was such a cowboy, and then all of a sudden I’m in San Francisco wearing lace and velvet. It was fabulous.

How did the Cockettes get started?

I had met Harlow and Mickey — they had come from Seattle — and I moved in with them because we were artists. We were very into dressing up and finding things and making our environment very lush. We were living in small apartment, but then there was a fire in the apartment below and we had to flee. 

So we moved into Scrumbly’s house, which was at Bush and Baker. Scrumbly was living there, Link was living there (he was a writer). Then I moved in, and I was a painter. Mickey was a designer, and Harlow was a performer. So the group was already together, and we were going out, being outrageous, wearing all the finery we could find. We were flaming in the streets. Then Hibiscus came to us, and said he wanted to move in with us. He wanted to put our lives on the stage. The core group was already together, and Hibiscus was the fire that ignited it. 

We were going to do a satire of the Rockettes and call it the Cockettes. We did this chorus line with all this drag on — tons of stuff — and Hibiscus had a little record player there and a 78 of this French can-can. The place went crazy. The place went absolutely nuts. None of us were performers, but Hibiscus, who came from a theater family in New York and had done underground theater, he just put the record on again. He knew the magic of the stage. So he put the record on again, and we did again, and people started taking their clothes off rushed onto the stage. It was like a firecracker going off.
Doing drag as a woman, did you think anything of it at the time?

We called it drag, but we had our own definition of drag. It wasn’t specific to gender. Drag to us meant pulling your fantasies onto your head and putting them onto your body, and it was such a collage of ideas and concepts. We would search these things out every day and compose things on the wall, with combinations of fabrics and all the kind of clothes that were really gorgeous from past eras.

Which eras?

From all the eras. LSD just unleashed your imagination to a tremendous degree, really. People were running around in velvet capes, and all kinds of things like that.

There were some vintage clothing stores in the film ward. There was one particular one that was run by a black woman that everyone went to. And also the opera would sell costumes. And the diggers had the free store. You could go in the free store and completely change your persona, leave your clothes there, and walk out another person.

We were into exploring our fantasies. I sort of brought my ideas of painting into my ideas of clothes, and we just called it 'high drag,' because that’s what we were creating. But it wasn’t about being a woman or being a man, although it encompassed those genders. It was very fluid within the concept of gender and identity and fantasy.

Did you ever encounter sexism? This was when the feminist movement was just beginning…

It was, and I was very liberated in that way. I did not want to get married. I didn’t want to settle down when I was in high school. Other girls were anxious to get married. I thought they were chumps. I thought there was a world out there and adventures to be had.

When I got to the West Coast, a lot of the communes were very heterosexual, and they were very divided along those lines. The women in the commune had the baby and washed the clothes, and I would have heterosexual boyfriends and they would want to take me to some commune in the country and I’d think, 'No, I don’t really want to do that.' The Cockettes were all kind of bisexual, and things were not assigned along a sexual line. Everyone was very individuated, because we were all artists. Everyone’s individual persona was the most important thing.

If you really felt a soul connection to someone, then you would have sex. The focus wasn’t like what like it is now. I think psychedelics had a lot to do with freeing that up. Having sex at the time; it was how you got to know somebody. You would have sex with them first to determine whether or not you would even talk to them. The more important thing was spending time with someone and finding out who they were. Exploring the soul adventure. But everyone in the Cockette house really loved each other. That was the one thing about us: We really dug each other, and we shared everything.

Are there things that come to mind that the Cockettes influenced?

Oh absolutely, there’s no question about it. Our look was completely original, and it was very much picked up by the gay community. There were gay hippies and other people in the community that wanted to do drag, but they were in old-fashioned prom dresses and bad wigs. They didn’t have a lock on it. The Cockettes created a modern visual language for gay people that because it was like a subculture that was unacceptable as far as mainstream society was concerned. It really gave them a kind of entry into modern society. 

Other than that, everybody in the underground kind of knew each other. The underground was not connected to the mainstream in any way. And so they were not paying attention. We had our own thing. We were influenced by the Beats, and then there was the hippie movement, and then it went into glam rock, and then punk. It’s all connected. We were all into authenticating our own ideas and creating original material, creating our own culture. Everyone was sharing their ideas. If you saw something that was fabulous, you would say, 'That is fabulous.' And then it would be a part of you as well.


A Cockettes Evening
6:30 p.m. Thursday
The event begins with a conversation with Fayette Hauser, followed by a screening of Cockettes performances at 8 p.m.
Walker Art Center
Free; pick up tickets in the Bazinet Lobby starting at 5:30 p.m.

Cockettes Vid from Fayette Hauser on Vimeo.