Late to the Party
Most everyone authors his or her own life, to some extent. Arthur E. Teele, Jr. was a man that tried composing his with a hand steady and certain, despite those that objected or intruded. He came from a wealthy and privileged black family in Washington D.C, studied law at FAMU, fought in Vietnam, and returned a decorated soldier. He then litigated for a groundbreaking civil rights case and went on to get appointed by Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Department of Transportation. After that, he served as attorney for the founder of Nascar.
Teele had a storied career with the Miami and Dade County commissions, where he was a major and controversial figure at a pivotal time in the development of Miami. His life came with all the trappings of having big influence in the Magic City, and in 2005, he killed himself in the lobby of the Miami Herald.
A politician of the highest order, Teele was lauded for his brilliance and passion even by his enemies. While serving in the nation’s capital in the 1980s, he secured hundreds of millions of dollars for the construction of Miami’s Metrorail and Metromover. Throughout his two-decade career in local politics he pushed for the betterment of impoverished black communities, a cause he heralded as head of the City Commission’s Community Redevelopment Agency, where during his tenure he oversaw significant developments in Miami’s blighted Overtown neighborhood.
He was known by many to be kind, engaged, and accommodating. But for those who got in his way, they knew well that he’d draw blood if necessary. Teele routinely unsheathed his intellect and fervor on his opponents. Sharply combative, he made plenty of enemies as he played the political game like a true Machiavellian. There was also a reported tendency for him to use real, not just soft force: one time, he punched a lobbyist right in the face.
Though he secured political clout throughout his career, Teele’s personal finances came under question again and again. He’d been accused of accepting bribes and doing favors and being involved in generally shady activity, such as putting a woman arrested for prostitution on the city’s payroll (to get him coffee).
It’s clear that, no matter the validity of the many imputations and real legal charges made against him, he was an accomplished and gifted man and was (and remains) respected by many. But as it usually goes, underneath the surface there lay something seething and complexly hued.
In 2003 things started to get really badly complicated when Teele and the Community Redevelopment Agency were put under state and federal investigation for corruption, some of it related to construction contracts at Miami International Airport. Teele and his wife Stephanie started to be surveilled by the police; a task force of civilian-clothed officers followed both of them in unmarked cars and performed stake-outs of their apartment. Teele and his wife were aware of these activities, but were paranoid that it was an insidious murder plot. At one point Teele ran an undercover detective off the road who’d been trailing his wife, which he was put on probation for. In 2005 he was charged with money laundering and multiple (26) counts of fraud, and was removed from his post at the city commission.
When he walked into the Miami Herald, five days after being arraigned for these charges, the Miami New Times was getting ready to publish an article titled “Tales of Teele: Sleaze Stories,” which contained the full police report of the investigation – much of which remained uncorroborated. Though he wouldn’t live to see it released, it’s entirely possible that he knew its contents one way or another: graphic depictions of sex with male prostitutes, reports of extortion, and anecdotal nuggets concerning cocaine deliveries from someone named Peaches.
Dig a hole in our porous, oolitic earth – through which rivers rightly run – and you’ll find it impossible to get very far without water filling it up. The more you dig, the more muddied it becomes.
Right before he shot himself Teele called Jim DeFede, an acclaimed journalist at the Herald and a friend of Teele’s:
“When Art called me it wasn’t unusual to hear him want to vent and talk about what was going on in his life and politics in general. As we started to talk I became alarmed because I was hearing something in Art’s voice that I hadn’t heard before – frustration, but more than frustration, almost defeatism.” (Time Magazine)
Teele told DeFede, who was upstairs, that he had a package for him but that he needn’t worry about coming down to retrieve it. Then Teele asked the receptionist to tell his wife that he loved her.
He was made and unmade by the words of others, and his final act was a desperate assertion of control. The Miami Herald ran a front-page piece on the event the following day, a gruesomely noir photo of his bleeding body flanked by two police officers. So public a suicide, by so public a man.
Thousands from the black community across the state mourned his passing, and even stone cold nemeses expressed their sorrow at having lost a man of such meteoric impact. Two years later, a court posthumously exonerated him of all the charges, seemingly out of pity and understanding since his wife had been denied certain benefits because of the legal proceedings against him.
Long before his death, Arthur E. Teele, Jr. had told his family and friends that he wanted to be buried far, far away from Miami-Dade County, and so, he was.
Sitting on a couch with a painted-on dinosaur print, I swilled some vodka graciously provided by David Rohn, an artist and writer, and Danilo De La Torre, a drag performer who goes by the name Adora. Their new house was in the midst of a move-in: boxes and scattered things signified the layered pace of flux.
De La Torre was dressed casually in a snug, full-length slip with flip-flops poking out the bottom. He perused through the box of flyers and photos, stopping every so often to exclaim, explain, and hand the ephemera to me. The flyers are brightly colored portraits of her and others outrageously posed. The venues listed include Paragon, Kremlin, and Warsaw Ballroom – dance clubs on South Beach that served as cultural complexes of gay culture, electronic music, and communal pleasure seeking. Drag performances were blowout spectacles by a sundry mix of performers, including Adora.
Born and raised in Havana, De La Torre studied ballet from the ages of 13-17 in a makeshift backroom studio at the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television. In 1985 he moved to Paris, where he met David Rohn at a dinner party hosted by a mutual friend. In 1986, they moved to Miami Beach.
She got her first regular gig at a Mexican restaurant and bar named Barrio off 10th street and Washington Avenue. She hosted the Mondays are a Drag night, where she honed her singing, dancing, and monologuing. Adora’s playlist was (and is) a significant part of her act – selections by artists like Yma Sumac, the Peruvian soprano who saw exoticized success in the US as a lounge and Latin American folk singer. Adora also developed her dramatic finale, wherein she’d leave the stage, walk right out of the building, and get into a cab waiting outside. Though the crowd could be cold at first, by the end they were in uproar.
Adora’s look had started out cartoonish, with too-tremendous eyes and unmanageably huge hair, but she eventually refined her look into an elegantly exaggerated one. She, like ninety-nine percent of drag queens, learned how to do her own makeup. But unlike ninety-nine percent of drag queens, Adora continues a 20+-year career of performing and hosting regularly at venues in different cities and appearing on the pages of publications such as Vogue Spain.
Adora didn’t have it easy gaining success though. The late 80s and 90s on South Beach, a time when gay audiences and others of alternative orientation were gathering more openly and challenging stigmas, was also a volatile period of serious social fractures and conflict even within the already marginalized community of non-heterosexuals. Structurally, the chaotic governance of drugs, the promise of capital, and the explosion of entertainment-based economic models renewed the cycle whereby South Beach caricatures itself, eventually transforming into a cannibal with a taste for its own.
Regarding this process, the lives and art of drag performers give us insight not only into an underexplored narrative, they also act as a critical metaphor for the big-picture development of South Beach and Miami, and point to an important area of research regarding the local development of norms in the context of artistic production.
First off, the drag scene was no monolith. The 70s and early 80s had seen the first wave of contemporary drag with an aesthetic that was more feminine, a more literal articulation of drag where the metric of success was man-passing-as-woman; and that woman needed to look glamorous and classy. By the late 80s, a new form had been taking shape, one that was darker, more expressionistic, and decidedly camp. Adora belonged to this wave, along with the rest of the cheekily-dubbed group of drag performers known as the South Beach Royalty: Taffy Lyn, Sexcilia, Mother Kibble, Bridget Buttercup, Gidget, Damian Divine, Placidia, Paloma de Laurentti.
They were the fringe of the fringe, but one queen in particular existed on the farthest outskirts of decency, a prurient example of the violence that occurs for artists when they use Being as their Medium. That queen – that wild monster, that repellant bitch – was Varla.
Varla, who’s birth name was Craig Coleman, lived and worked in New York’s East Village in the mid 80s as a drag performer, painter, and prodigious partyer. When the stock market (and thus the art economy) collapsed in 1987 (both due largely to intense speculation) Coleman realized that his work was too risky for the times – his painting and performance was scary, messy, taboo-ridden. It aggressively depicted alt sexual practices at the height of the AIDS epidemic. So, he moved to a more habitable climate – South Beach.
Alix Sharkey, a journalist who worked regularly for the Guardian and is now an editor at British GQ, is fascinated by the life and art of Craig Coleman. Sharkey lived on South Beach from 2004 to 2008 and conducted extensive research on Coleman; he interviewed family, friends, and other artists in preparation for a book that’s yet to be released. Sharkey told me that Coleman is “Miami’s forgotten artist,” a talent lost to civic amnesia that otherwise “would have been internationally recognized for his painting.”
Besides his talent, Coleman is remembered for his provocative lifestyle. Indeed, it seems that the distinction between Coleman and his drag persona gradually diminished, to the point where all that was left was Varla.
In 1987, the year that Coleman moved to South Beach, Craig Robins founded his real estate company Dacra, which developed commercial space on Lincoln Road and helped restore Art Deco landmarks throughout South Beach, and was later responsible for the Design District. One of Dacra’s earliest mixed-use projects was a building on Española Way (unofficially dubbed the Española Way Art Center), where Robins allowed artists to reside for little to no rent. Coleman lived there and paid Robins in paintings.
Besides the visual art, Varla the performer was able to bring in some extra cash. Her untamed and often shocking performances generated a cult following, antagonizing many while luring others in. Unlike the old guard of drag, Varla was none-too-concerned about passing for a woman – her makeup was smeared, her wig crooked. She was boisterous about her drug use and her scamming of dudes, and she imagined herself a glamorous tyrant reigning over South Beach. In an interview with BOMB Magazine in 1991, Varla talked about some of her projects:
“I got together with Mark Holtz from Flashdance, that little ‘50s shop. He was coming to my shows at Torpedo, so he wanted to do video, and we ended up doing a half-hour film called, Gigantic Bitch. I made a little miniature South Beach that I stomped on. So now we’re working on V-TV, which is the Varla Cable Network, like Varla products. (laughter) It has shows, like Miss Roger’s Neighborhood, where I talk to kids in the audience, ‘You have to get prettier, children…’
It’s really sick. Then it shifts to a commercial. We did 976-VARLA. There’s one for Varla’s confessions. It shows me with a close-up of the mouth: ‘Know that coke you couldn’t find yesterday? Well, I did! (laughter) This guy came over to my house, I took $20 out of his wallet, then made him leave.”
Another Very Varla moment was when she was asked to do a performance at the house of Andy Gibb, of Bee Gees fame, for Gibb’s birthday. Not fully knowing what they got themselves into, Varla went on and performed a song she wrote titled “I’m Thirsty,” and the jaws of men, woman, and children dropped as she sang its lines, one being “I can’t get a cock to suck, I need a drink.”
Varla then vomited on the floor, slipped on it while dancing, then writhed in it as s/he exposed himself.
For many great performers, it’s the ability and circumstance of producing believability. Varla did not only command a stage, but the streets as well. In one of his interviews, Alix Sharkey spoke to a business owner on Española who remembered seeing an attractive, skinny blonde woman bring a different man home every night. It was years before he realized that it was not a prostitute, much less a woman at all.
When she wasn’t performing, Coleman was painting and sculpting ferociously. He dragged giant pieces of wood upstairs to his studio and proceeded to carve, chisel, and saw them into his desired shapes, then slathered them with paint to produce a twisted universe of misshapen characters and cruddy landscapes. He was an artist working in a colloquial aesthetic, evidenced by the pastel tones and depictions of real-life characters, an aesthetic that screams of all the pleasures and pains of foisted paradise.
Coleman was especially fond of themes like sex, gender, and identity. A potent example is Coleman’s Red Paintings, which contain graphic S&M scenarios based on his romps throughout the dungeon scene of San Francisco’s Castro district. He was also really into wigs.
The clique of drag queens on South Beach, the performers and artists that occupied the social circles of Varla, are early traces of today’s queer, misanthropic subculture – the antithesis of the drag paradigm that valued high fashion and a cabaret style and its traditional notions of femininity and entertainment.
The split wasn’t only aesthetic. Varla, Adora, and the rest of the South Beach Royalty regularly experienced discrimination by other drag queens, and came into conflict with the growing segment of the gay community that became interested in big muscles, jeans, and highlights – “gym bunnies,” as De La Torre/Adora calls them. On South Beach, for better and worse, gay was going mainstream and the party was displacing art.
Before the mass arrival of antiretroviral drugs, some gay men with HIV moved to South Beach so they could live out the remainder of their lives, an immigration phenomenon referred to on the inside as “burning out.” Craig Coleman died in 1994 of AIDS, though it’s unclear when he’d become aware of his sickness.
This one time a local artist named Nick Lobo took all the art he had made the year before and fed it into a woodchipper. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon when he rented the gas-powered gobbler from a local Home Depot. He tossed in the black foam-cor and the fake crack rocks created with baking soda and the cough syrup play-doh sculptures. The chipper spit them out like chewed food. Nick says it was pretty chill, “sort of like standing around a campfire.”
“I am standing very deep in line for drinks that are a mystery to me. There’s a table with two women in matching branded uniforms serving some sort of alcohol, vodka or rum, maybe whiskey; also with a mixer, pineapple or soda, maybe seltzer, and the drinks are leaving in people’s hands. They do not have those endearing little umbrellas, which would have been a really nice touch. The lilt of the tablecloth at the corners are like tongues hanging over.
The line is long and I am alone. There is chattering and I am picking up little snippets of the conversations around me.
‘…oh yeah I’ve known her since we were kids.’
‘That place is great. Ugh, the ceviche!’
‘…there’s just that special something about being young, right? Like you know things are gonna get bad so you do what you can, while you still –”
‘Bro, whatchu think’s gonna happen when you sit on your ass all day?’
‘…maaan, everything’s a trope tho.’
Catching these bits like flies out of the air, I feel them between my fingers, judging their contours, and squeeze them dead. Every time, a deep remorse billows inside me afterward and it escapes through my pores, lingering about me like a horrible stench I hope only I can smell.
I had walked around the gallery, nervously and hurriedly, looking at the things that the artist made. Stopping and staring at the first piece, I looked up and down and left to right, came in close then backed away. I thought about what it looked like, what it represented – whether it was good or bad or even art at all. I thought about all the things I was neglecting in order to be there and look at that specific thing, one thing in a world of things begging to be known or admired or contested. The sad salad I had for lunch crossed my mind as I backed up into a person more important than me, which drew a glance of scorn.
The thing was hanging on the wall. I’m supposed to put into words what I think and feel about the thing hanging on the wall, and those words are supposed to be good. Regarding what is good – I feel I must wrap the thing in words, soft blankets of understanding that must themselves be beautifully designed, perhaps a nice scene of lovers by a duck pond, or a single color tone so inspirational that it washes over the reader in tranquil totality.
My palms are damp and I’m paying extra attention to my breathing. The people around – some I know, some I don’t. And of those I know – some I like, some I don’t. But if I were to be honest, I don’t really know anyone here. It’s a lot like other professional environments in that way, and either way, who am I kidding?
It’s hard to focus while standing in line, not least because quiet suffering is never quiet. There’s a loudness inside that’s a million times the decibels of lawnmowers or airplanes, a din so consuming it makes you shut your eyes. Getting rid of the noise is out of the question, but hell is a life spent listening to it. This might be why we need others, their soft distracting voices in our ears, disrupting the eternally humming racket of existence[.]”
This post was contributed by Rob Goyanes.