We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.


In 1973, Top 40 radio started playing an elegy for someone who was unknown to most of its listeners: “Jackie is just/speeding away/thought she was James Dean/for a day.” Jackie Curtis (pictured) didn’t actually die until 1985, in what Harvey Fierstein calls a “stupid, horrible way” involving heroin and a worshiper of the goddess Kali, but with the matted pancake makeup and torn designer dresses, Curtis always did resemble a zombie version of a drag queen. What may not have been clear to audiences who experienced her as a Warhol “superstar,” or a performer in La Mama’s speed-driven spoofs, was Curtis’ intelligence. Craig Highberger’s 2003 documentary talks to nearly everyone who survives from Manhattan’s ’60s and ’70s underground—though not Lou Reed, who memorialized such scenesters as Curtis, Candy Darling, and Eric Emerson in song—and they agree. Of the cross-dressing troika of Curtis, Darling, and Holly Woodlawn, photographer Leee Black Childers explains, “Jackie was the brains.” Intermittently narrated by Lily Tomlin, Superstar in a Housedress is a conventional documentary in form, but there isn’t a single conventional person in it. A son of the Lower East Side, where the grandmother who raised him used to run a speakeasy, Curtis was 6-foot-2 and didn’t bother wearing falsies because he knew that he—unlike Darling—could never really pass as a woman. “One day, everyone will look like me,” he bragged, and if that’s not quite true, Curtis’ legacy is the blurring of some previously rigid lines. Highberger introduces the film at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 5, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s Ring Auditorium, 7th Street and Independence Avenue SW. Free. (202) 633-1000. (Mark Jenkins)