There is a movie I used to watch over and over again on late night television called Valley of the Dolls. Three women in 1960's New York meet, become friends, and pursue careers that lead them down paths they could have never predicted. Anne Welles is a prim New Englander, (played by Barbara Parkins), who unexpectedly skyrockets from being a talent agency secretary to being a glamorous TV model. Neely O’Hara, (played by Patty Duke), is a determined singer who finds that Hollywood success can easily spell self-destruction. And Jennifer North, (played by Sharon Tate), is a beautiful sex symbol torn between the money that her body commands and the shame of feeling exploited. By the end of the film, only one of the three narrowly escapes a tragic end.
Based on Jacqueline Susann's best-selling novel about the dangerous side of Hollywood, this high camp, 1967 melodrama was once thought of as shocking. The story has everything a gay man loves: sex, money, fame and drugs. (The word “dolls” refers to the pills abused by the film’s characters.) Now, drag queens do impersonations of the screen characters on stage, and gay men repeat the dialogue word for word while taking shots of liquor and bursting into uproarious laughter. As an eighteen-year-old living on my own in 1976, Valley of the Dolls was a mirror of my own life.
I had two new best friends in 1976, Gregory Nicholson and Raymond McConneghey. They were my extended family during that first year of living on my own. Together, we formed a trio reminiscent of the three women in Valley of the Dolls. We would watch the movie over and over again and recite all of its most popular lines:
Helen Lawson: Look. They drummed you right outta Hollywood! So ya come crawlin’ back to Broadway. Well, Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope. Now you get outta my way, I got a man waitin’ for me.
Jennifer North: You told me Gramp’s been sick, mother, and I know about the oil burner. Okay, I’ll pawn the mink. He’ll give me a couple hundred for it. Mother, I know I don’t have any talent, and I know all I have is a body, and I am doing my bust exercises. Goodbye, mother. I’ll wire you the money first thing in the morning. Goodbye. [Hangs up the phone and starts performing calisthenics.] Oh, to hell with them! Let ‘em droop!
Anne Welles: You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls.
We saw ourselves in each of the main characters. Gregory was Anne Welles, the prim and proper secretary who would later be discovered as a model. Gregory looked like he came from New England, wearing round spectacles, polo shirts and penny loafers. He took the preppy boy look seriously. He always had a notepad with him, and wrote poems at the drop of a hat. When I moved out of my father’s place and into my tiny apartment, Gregory and his family lived a few doors down the block. We both attended Northwestern High and we both auditioned for the Sidney Poitier role in the senior class production of To Sir, with Love. He was cast as the famous teacher while I got the character role of the principal. At first I resented him for this, but I later came to love and respect him.
Raymond lived down the block a little further and always reminded me of the Jennifer North character. He felt people never took him seriously, so he would make jokes about himself just to beat people to the punch. Tall, light-skinned and sexy, Raymond had a hairy chest, broad shoulders, long legs, and a huge ass. Despite his self-deprecating demeanor, he was beautiful. When he was nervous he would talk very fast, and sometimes you could not understand what he was saying. This was because he spoke with an accent and in a language called “Gullah,” a blend of English and African languages known as the dialect of the “Geechie.” People of the Geechie culture were descendants of Africans from Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Senegal, and lived in coastal South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Raymond’s family was South Carolinian Geechie.
I could never figure out the source of Raymond’s self-esteem issues; I just knew he used his sexuality to compensate for his lack of confidence. He felt he had no talent to offer the world, other than his beautiful body, so he slept with lots of men in order to feel loved, although he seemed to hate the sex afterwards. He forever wanted to find perfect romantic love and settle down with the man of his dreams. He could quickly turn moody and, just like the Jennifer North character, feel as if all men had used him up and tossed him out like a rag doll.
I myself resembled the character of Neely because I wanted to become a success in entertainment. Greg and Raymond used to chant at me, “Sparkle, Neely, Sparkle!” (a line from the movie.) When I did my first community theater production of Shoes at the Arena Playhouse in Baltimore, Greg and Raymond were shouting this from the front row, cheering for me. They were always encouraging me to never give up on my dream.
To make things perfect, Gregory and Raymond also loved the music of the Supremes. We would go to the clubs and dance the night away to Diana’s “Love Hangover.”
If I was Diana then they were my Supremes, supporting me with a strong background. But we were also the three young, wide-eyed dreamers of Valley of the Dolls, not really ready for what the world would throw at us. The night that drew my life tragically parallel to that of Neely O’Hara came on April 5, 1978.
I had taken a trip to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was hanging out with my cousins from North Philly. I thought I was so independent -- I had been working for the phone company and it was the first time I’d had a “paid” vacation. I had money in my pockets and was ready to burn it up.
Always the adventurer, I had tried pot but my cousins convinced me that the next great high was hashish. We drove slowly through a few seedy areas of the city, and various drug dealers approached us with their offerings. The smell of hash was different than pot. And the high was amazing.
The rest of my vacation was pretty much a blur. I don’t even know how I got back to Baltimore. When I returned home, I got ready for work. I turned on the television set, and a movie was on about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., starring Paul Winfield and the fabulous Cicely Tyson. I remember being deeply moved by the story and by Paul Winfield’s portrayal of Dr. King; it seemed as if Dr. King was speaking right to me, straight out of the television.
The next memory I have is returning to work at the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company (C&P), commonly referred to as “Ma Bell.” We wore head sets in those days and sat in cubicles of four. From the moment I arrived at the office, the calls seemed to be dropping in my head without the need of a headset or cable cord. I kept saying, “Directory assistance, may I help you?” with no one else on the end of any line.
All the operators in the room were confused. Some ran over to see what was the matter. Others were forced to continue taking calls, to keep their numbers up. Supervisors came running out of their cubicles. The bleach blonde shift manager, who always rated my calls as too long, approached me with a concerned tone. “Dale, what’s the matter?” she asked. “Is there someone we can call for you?”
I started babbling the speech I had heard earlier in the television movie. “Martin Luther King told me that ‘all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last!’ He told me that. He told me. Martin Luther King told me today.”
The only other male operator who worked on the floor rushed over to catch me as I collapsed. Since my father was my closet relative in Baltimore, he was contacted to come get me. He rushed me to Greater Baltimore Medical Center where the doctors decided to keep me under observation for the next three days. This would allow them time to decide whether or not I should be committed to a mental institution.
At first it was decided that I’d had a drug flashback. I had somehow smoked a PCP laced joint or the hash -- I don’t know which. The doctors gave me something to counteract the high I was experiencing, and I went into a coma for seven days.
When I came out of the coma, I was locked in a little room with cold wet sheets wrapped around my body. A nurse was there, observing me. This I found hilarious, because in Valley of the Dolls there’s a scene where Neely O’Hara sits restrained in a tub with a sheet stretched over it. When she uses her big toe to rip it open, she cusses out the nurse who tries to hold her down.
After coming out of my coma, I learned that I had been admitted to the mental ward at Sheppard Pratt Hospital. I had been diagnosed as catatonic schizophrenic and my legal rights as an adult had been handed over to my father.
The next few days were interesting, to say the least. I hallucinated that I was raped by a nurse and had become pregnant. Screaming that I was going to have a baby, I threw myself in the birthing position and began defecating all over the floor. I later tried to escape the hospital and injured a male nurse in the process. The hospital and the state deemed me a danger to myself and others.
After I learned to calm down, or after the Thorazine took affect, I was released to the “regular floor” with all the other patients. There was a beautiful girl named Jodie who stayed in the ward next to mine. She was thin and frail and wore lots of make-up. When I first saw her I screamed for joy, because I truly believed that Diana Ross herself had come to see me in the hospital.
Although it was 1978, Jodie’s look was very mod. Her wig and make-up looked like Diana right off the cover of the Diana Ross & the Supremes Greatest Hits album. She wore a big teased wig with a lock of hair covering one eye and lots of eye make-up. She always smiled and waved when she saw me. She knew that I was so in awe of her beauty and used that to manipulate me. Later in my stay, when I was allowed to go outside for short day trips, she convinced me to buy her some laxatives. I bought her a brand called Correctol, thinking it could not do any real harm. I later learned that Jodie was anorexic.
The last time I saw Jodie, she no longer looked like my idol. Due to her constant bingeing and purging, she had starved herself to the point where she was too weak to even care for her appearance. She looked like walking death. Her body had shrunken and she barely had the strength to lift up her head, which seemed huge. I would look into her eyes, no longer adorned with long fluttery eyelashes, and see only dark circles around hollow holes where eyes peeked out.
Although there were dark moments during my stay at Sheppard Pratt, I had my fun while I was “recuperating.” Many days went by where I felt like I was at an out of town college campus, (even though we were locked in.) As residents, we attended scheduled classes and group activities; I went to gym, art therapy, group therapy, and assertiveness training. I had roommates and my own stereo, played ping pong games and watched TV shows. After a while, I was even made activities coordinator. I hired a band to entertain the patients and also planned a movie night. I wanted to rent Valley of the Dolls, but my doctors thought the movie was inappropriate. There is a scene in the film where Neely O’Hara is getting better and she also runs the patient activities in the hospital she’s been committed to. Greg and Raymond would call and I would tell them about all the things I was doing inside the “crazy house.” Raymond would say, “You really are Neely!”
I got so comfortable there in my environment that I had affairs off and on site, with other patients as well as “civilians.” There was this one bus driver I had met before I was in the hospital; he learned where I was, through a Sheppard Pratt nurse who was a member of his church, and he used to volunteer to pick me up and take me out to get my hair cut. But that’s not all we did. He’d pick me up on Sundays after church, fuck me, cut my hair and return me like nothing ever happened. He was a well-respected deacon and everyone thought, “Oh, what a nice man, mentoring a kid like Dale.” One time he took me to a music store after one of our “”mentoring sessions,” and played the church organ to show me how talented he was.
Every Monday, I had an individual therapy appointment with the main hospital doctor assigned to me, Dr. Parker. Over the twelve months I was at Sheppard Pratt, he was the doctor I remember the most. He was a pudgy, bald, white man who wore these ugly wooden clogs. I don’t remember our conversations being very good -- he was not warm or friendly at all. He would simply ask if the medication I was taking was making me feel better. I was indeed becoming more lucid, but I was gaining weight and would drool uncontrollably. It was all a side effect of the Thorazine.
My father, still in denial about my homosexuality, tried to convince the doctors that my illness was a result of me being molested as a teenager and forced into a life of homosexuality against my will. He told them that my ex-lover should not be allowed to visit me. The odd thing is that, looking back on it now, Dr. Parker was the queerest looking man there. So, although I was no longer seeing my ex-boyfriend, I can assume that request fell on deaf ears.
I turned twenty-one at Sheppard Pratt and was released on April 2, 1979 -- almost an exact year later. For a whiIe, I went to “transition” group therapy while returning to work at the phone company. My father had used my benefits to keep my apartment, so I was able to return to my own place. He had also used it as a location to rendezvous with his various girlfriends. In the year since I had been away, the apartment had become dirty and strange. After waking up with a cockroach crawling up my bed sheets, I moved out within a month of returning.
I had gotten in touch with my emotions while at Sheppard Pratt. I had learned how to cry. When I returned home, I took a vow and promised myself, “Never will I stay in a job that makes me unhappy.” Find happiness in what you do, because if you are going to spend that much of your time doing something, you need to enjoy it. It was time to leave Ma Bell.
Life after Sheppard Pratt picked up like it had never stopped. Raymond and Greg would tease me on occasion about my stay in the nut house, but my family never asked me about it and no mention of it was ever made. I lost contact with Raymond during the eighties, but ran into him at a gay pride festival in 1992 where he was volunteering at an AIDS awareness booth. He had lost weight and his health looked very bad. We exchanged numbers and kept in touch for a while, but his phone number was eventually cut off and I never learned for sure if he passed away. In Valley of the Dolls, the Anne Welles character comes out of the tale a survivor, while the Neely O’Hara character relapses into drug and alcohol addiction. Eight years later in 1987, Gregory was brutally murdered. Out of our trio, I was the lone survivor, the one narrowly escaping a tragic end. I had survived coming out of the darkness.
Around 1994, Diana Ross appeared in a movie called Out of Darkness. It was about a woman who suffers with schizophrenia. The first time I saw it, a sea of emotions ran through me. There is a scene at the dinner table where Diana’s character explains to her mother that the medication makes her drool. A chill ran down my back and the tears flowed.
Fifteen years had passed and all the memories of Sheppard Pratt came back to me. All my life I had imitated Diana Ross, and there she was, imitating me.
“Life can imitate art, so don’t be surprised when art comes back to imitate life.”