Performer/writer Charles Busch, who recently penned his autobiography, Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy, said that collecting his most precious and salient memories in a book felt "inevitable."
"Storytelling is such an essential part of my life, with the way I was raised, with my aunts' stories," Busch told Windy City Times. "I've lived my life for the anecdote."
Among Busch's most acclaimed works are the stage comedies are Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party, Die, Mommy, Die! and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. As a performer, he is especially known for a large repertoire of female characters, many of whom are archetypal of leading ladies from the classic Hollywood films he loves so much.
"TCM is pretty much my best friend," he joked.
Leading Lady's early chapters pivot between Busch's recollectionsgrowing up in New York, going to college at Northwestern University and becoming a major player in New York City's underground theater scene with Vampire Lesbians of Sodomand numerous personal anecdotes, many of them involving legendary performers such as Esther Williams and Claudette Colbert.
"I've told my stories before, but in ways that are rather limited," Busch said. "I wrote an autobiographical novel in the '90s, called Whores of Lost Atlantisbut it was very fictionalized. I did a cabaret act that told the same stories, but they were boiled down to cabaret banter."
He admits that revisiting those memories, especially his rise to underground stardom in the mid-'80s, was difficult.
"I had made such hay with that period of my life, and I had exploited it so," he said. "The reality of it was, it was about a six-month period," he said, laughing. "It was so intense. It was this area of New York that was, at the time, completely ungentrified; it was just rubble. This was basically the same story as the musical Rent."
He summed up that experience as "the only time in my life when I was in the right place in the right time." He recalled being "dazzled" the first time he went to the Limbo Lounge, the East Village storefront space where Vampire Lesbians would eventually debut.
"Even thought [the clientele] was from New Yorkor Indianathey all seemed to speak with this strange, slightly European accent," he said. "I don't know where that came from. I thought they all were from Dubuque."
Compiling these various stories for his memoir was made easier for Busch thanks to his participation on social media for several years.
"Facebook has been really good for me, despite its sinister connotations," Busch added. "I have the best Facebook friends. I never get snarky commentsit's full of affection. I tend to write rather long pieces for Facebook, telling stories of my life. … I can't say it inspired me to write the book, but the stories fit [in the book]."
Busch's mother passed away when he was young. After her death, his father disengaged from the family, essentially leaving Busch and his sisters to be looked after by his Aunts Lil and Belle.
Busch admits that, to some extent, Lil is the central character in Leading Lady. A well-to-do Park Avenue widow, Lil at many points bailed Busch out of jams or just pushed him to assert himself as a performer. When Busch, who was generally a poor student, came close to being held back a grade in high school, he moved in with Lil, who helped tutor him through a summer school regimen to salvage his academic record.
Years later, when Busch was looking for publicity for his act, it was Lil who suggested he try for a booking on The Joe Franklin Show, a late-night talk show that regularly featured local performers.
When Busch fretted over how to get in touch with Franklin's bookers, Lil suggested Busch simply look up Franklin in the phone book. Not only did he find Franklin's phone number, Franklin answered the call himself and immediately slated Busch for his program.
Lil features in numerous such warm anecdotes, but Busch also recounts her hardships and shortcomings, writing about both a traumatic experience she had as a nurse, and her reluctance to actually discuss his being gay after he came out, even as their relationship remained strong.
"Aunt Lil was such a fascinating figure her whole life," Busch explained. "I thought one time of writing a novel based on her entire life. I realized that's not what I do. … [Lil] was important to me with this book. It was my story, but it was also her story."
He was friends with the late comedian Joan Rivers, who mentored him on several occasions and figures prominently in Leading Lady. In the book, Busch admits that he probably regarded Riverswhom he described as the most "accessible" performer in show businessas a surrogate for his late aunt.
"It was odd with Joan," he remembered. "By the time we became close, she had two reality shows [and] a big QVC empire, and yet she was the easiest person to reach. I have friends who will be like, 'I'll get back to you in three weeks,' like they are important members of the avant-garde. Not Joan."
As much as he valued knowing Rivers, however, Busch admitted not to knowing what impact he ultimately left on her.
"I don't want to give the impression from the book that I was one of her closest friends," he explained. "I'd like to think I was [at least] in the second tier."
Indeed, whenever Busch would meet an exuberant older woman he enjoyed socializing with, he'd seemingly find himself late to the party when it came to developing a deep friendship.
"I've often gotten crushes on, developed attachments to, sniffed around possible mother figures," he laughed. "Which is hard because a lot of these ladies have got their gay boys already. They don't need methere are a bunch of fascinating ladies I've had minor friendships with, but they didn't take it further. They had their group."
Busch kept busy during the COVID-19 pandemic, even co-writing, co-directing and co-starring in the film The Sixth Reel (which is now available on iTunes). Busch appears alongside Tim Daly and Margaret Cho, among others, in a comedic story about a a group of obsessive collectors looking to trying to score the last reel of an undiscovered film.
He'll also appear in a new play this winter, Ibsen's Ghost: An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy, which will be performed first in New Brunswick, New Jersey before moving to New York.
"I play [Ibsen's] widow, Suzannah, in the week after his state funeral," Busch explained. "She been the keeper of his flame for most of his life. Her identity is based on this great marriage that she had to this great man, and all sorts of things start happening that jeopardize her self-image, both publicly and internally."
He added with a distinctly feminine inflection: "It's a marvelous role that any actress would kill for."
Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy is now available in stores and at online booksellers. See charlesbusch.com .