Over the years, Wadler’s reputation as an unapologetic, exacting stylist—the best kind of pain in the ass—flourished into legend.

Some people are born writers, that’s how Joyce Wadler sees it—certainly about herself.

Growing up in the upper Catskills, Wadler read her uncle’s Mickey Spillane paperback novels before she was ten, and James Baldwin by the time she was thirteen. She edited her high school newspaper and studied journalism at New York University, but Wadler’s interest in the world around her was evident from early childhood. The world amused her. And Wadler possesses the rarest of gifts—for a journalist or any other kind of writer—she’s naturally funny on the page. Unforced, no-mistake-about-it funny.

Turns out she’s no slouch as a reporter, either. Wadler’s professional career took her from the New York Post—in the mid-seventies, when it was still a left-wing tabloid—to the venerated Style section at the Washington Post (where she’d also serve as New York correspondent). Later she would land at the New York Times, where Wadler’s reputation as an unapologetic, exacting stylist—the best kind of pain in the ass—flourished into legend.

In addition to writing the definitive book about the M. Butterfly spy case—a convoluted tale that, in Wadler’s sure hands, not only makes sense but also feels authentically tragic—and My Breast, a frank, intimate and often hilarious memoir about her bout with breast cancer, Wadler freelanced for various magazines including New York and Rolling Stone. That’s where she wrote her longest true crime pieces, including the batshit crazy story of John Delia, told with page-turning efficiency and low-key authority.

Wadler’s wry, observant prose provides a welcome balance to the unsettling series of details in this messy tale. Though Wadler found reporting true crime stories such as the Delia case to be physically exhausting, as a reporter she knew a good story was hard to resist.

—Alex Belth

Joyce Wadler 'Portrait' by WBYK

Alex Belth: You’re from upstate New York, right?

Joyce Wadler: I grew up in the 1950s near Fleischmanns, New York, a dying tourist town in the Catskills. Fleischmanns peaked as a Jewish tourist town in the 1920s. There were a lot of grand hotels, estates, and boarding houses. My parents had a boarding house/farm that was almost a hotel; there was a pool, there was a dining hall, there were outbuildings, there was also a barn with chickens and cows. Our neighbors in the winter were local farmers who had lived in the area for generations. There were only a few Jewish families that lived there year-round. In the summer, we got a lot of New York City people. So, part of my childhood was a Norman Rockwell painting with the farmer in overalls speaking at the Grange Hall meeting and the other part was know-it-all New York City kids. I was not allowed to date guys who were not Jewish so I’d have to wait until the summer when I could go out with the busboys and waiters, the Jewish guys who came up to work at the hotels.

Even though I was upstate, I was very aware of the smart kid New York City schools: the High School of Music and Art, Bronx Science, CCNY, the Little Red Schoolhouse. I was very aware of Greenwich Village. I was focused on the Village. If you were an upstate Jew, New York City was the mother ship. We didn’t have many relatives we were in touch with in New York, but I do remember visiting a dying great aunt in a dark, depressing apartment in the Bronx. My mother said, “This is the Bronx. This is where the poor people live. If we lived in New York, this is where we’d live.” My mother could capsulize entire cities: “In New York, when the wind blows, a New York woman holds onto her hat and not her skirt.” “The flag outside Ohrbach’s”—a department store that no longer exists—”flies higher than the flag of the United States,” which flew beside it. Totally wrong, but she didn’t care. My mother was funny—”brutal” is maybe the more accurate word, but still funny. My father was funny when he was out of the house. I’m told.”

AB: Were you a big reader?

JW: Yes. I think that had a lot to do with the availability of paperback books. I didn’t understand what I was reading, but I read all the time. By eight or nine I was reading my uncle’s Mickey Spillane novels. I was thirteen or fourteen when I read Henry Miller and James Baldwin.

AB: When does writing come into it for you?

JW: I think you are born with this stuff—I just knew I was a writer. My role model was Brenda Starr, Reporter, in the Daily News comics. If she had been Brenda Starr, Screenwriter, I’d be sitting in a much bigger apartment. I know that there were things that I thought were funny from the time I was little. At the boarding house, we had a cousin from the city who wanted to be a recreation director at a hotel. He was giving cha-cha lessons on the front porch. You could hear it over the PA system, “One-two, cha-cha-cha,” echoing around the mountains. I thought it was hysterical. I still don’t know if I can explain why it was so funny, but it was. We had these working class, middle-aged Jews who were delighted to be in a position to boss other people around. My mother said: “How is it that all these people who sit behind a machine in the city come to the country and all of sudden they’re all designers?”

I went to a high school in the Woodstock school district, graduated in 1965. The school was about twenty-five miles away, but a very different scene than the dying hotels. Woodstock kids carried Bob Dylan albums under their arms. They saw Dylan at the Café Espresso in Woodstock. Nothing was as cool as a Woodstock kid, and they let you know it. Still, I always felt very lucky that I grew up in our part of country. It was tremendously boring for a teenager in the off-season, but also tremendously beautiful.

AB: Did growing up in a boring place help spark your creativity?

JW: I don’t know. I’m perpetually dissatisfied and easily bored. But I truly think if you are a writer, it doesn’t matter where you grow up, it’s something you’re just born with. I edited the paper in high school and went to NYU as a journalism major. I wasn’t any good at news reporting or writing headlines—I was a feature writer. I got a degree by the skin of my teeth. I had zero interest in getting an education. To me college was a) a way of getting into the middle class because we were working class—everyone was trying to drop out of the middle class in the ‘60s, I was looking to get in—and b) a way to get to Greenwich Village. I worked as a copy girl at Women’s Wear Daily in college and after I graduated, I worked for a trade paper, Nation’s Restaurant News. I got bored there and either they fired me or I quit, I forget which. Either way, the breakup was mutual. I hadn’t dropped out of college, and I felt inadequate about it—this was the age of “turn on, tune in, drop out”—so leaving that job and then driving cross-country evened things out.

The advice you’re given as a J-school graduate is to get a job at a small-town newspaper, but that was not going to work for me. I’d come from a small town. Three hundred and fifty people, the smallest incorporated village in the state. My father was the police chief and fire chief. It was a town where the men were the volunteer firemen and the women joined the Ladies’ Auxiliary, having bake sales and making coffee for the firemen. Except my mother did not. “Why should I make coffee for some man?” she said. That was the best example a woman could have; it guided me looking for work. I never considered being a secretary or a researcher at Newsweek. I had a degree in journalism, why would I make coffee for some man? And, I’d just gotten to New York; I wasn’t going to leave.

I lived in a $77-a-month apartment on Christopher Street above a gay leather bar. I worked briefly for Al Goldstein of Screw magazine; he’d hired me for a hippie travel magazine that never got off the ground. Then he brought me over to Screw, where he fired me after two weeks. He was a crazy guy, he’d scream, “I just came from my shrink and I’m very ego secure”—scream it—but he was also good copy, so I had to like him. After Screw I went to Seventeen magazine for two long years. It bored me even before I got there. It was just the wrong place. There were a lot of women on the staff who were into fashion and wanted to be buyers at Bloomingdale’s. I still wanted to be Brenda Starr.

AB: How did you get to the New York Post?

JW: I wrote managing editor Bob Spitzler a note that read, “I’m better than anyone you’ve got.” And he liked the note enough to let me come in. I spoke to him and Warren Hoge, who must have been the Assistant Managing editor. Warren said, “Your clips are fine but frankly we need to hire a Hispanic reporter.” So, I went home and wrote him a note: “Dear Warren Hoge, Soon after I got home an amazing thing happened. I got a call from my grandmother and after a little small talk she said, Joycela, listen. I’m an old lady, I’m not going to live forever and there’s something I think you should know. Du bist nisht keyn yiddish meydl. You’re not a Jewish girl.’ I said, ‘What do you mean I’m not a Jewish girl? I’m smart, I get good grades, I like cheesecake. How can I not be a Jewish girl?’ ‘Well,’ my grandmother says, ‘your parents very much wanted to have a child and they couldn’t. They took a cruise to Puerto Rico and the islands, and they adopted you. You’re actually a Puerto Rican child.’ “So, White Boy, if you would like to discuss this over rice and beans, give me a call.” Warren, by the way, was a very white boy, very WASPY, or as my family would have said, goyish, but very dashing.

The New York Post gave me a two-week tryout. I interviewed Linda Lovelace, the star of the porn film Deep Throat, and wrote about a guy who had a pet tarantula. Spitzler, the managing editor, later told me that the Linda Lovelace interview was the worst interview he’d ever read but he liked the way I humanized the tarantula. He said anyone who could humanize a tarantula that way deserved a spot at the Post.

But you know, I’ve left out the most important thing about the Post—which remember, was not then a Rupert Murdoch paper, but a leftist, writer’s paper: It was my kind of place. At Seventeen, I was an outsider. I did not relate to anything that was going on. The minute I walked into the New York Post, I looked around that city room and thought, “I could be friends with everyone here.” The first time I went there, somebody pointed out Clyde Haberman, a reporter who had once been a college stringer for the New York Times. Clyde had written a story for the Times about awards at his school, City College, and had listed an award he’d made up, The Brett Award, “to the student who has worked hardest under a great handicap—Jake Barnes.” He was referencing the hero in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, who had gotten a war wound that made him impotent. The Times fired him and the New York Post, hearing about it, hired him the next day. This was my kind of paper. It was the best newspaper job—maybe the best job—I’ve ever had in my life.

I got to the New York Post in ‘74. I’d say it was like The Front Page, only I hadn’t seen The Front Page then. There was a view of the Brooklyn Bridge from the newsroom. One day I grabbed an editor because I saw someone on the bridge that looked like they were going to jump. And the editor said, “Eh, it’s three o’clock, let the News have him.”

AB: What about the publisher Dorothy Schiff? She was the one woman running a major paper in New York in a sea of men.”

JW: She had some strange rules. In profiles, you had to include a woman’s maiden name and if the place she lived in was rent-controlled. The editors—all men—made fun of her, but they didn’t cross her. You knew when the male editors had been summoned to a meeting upstairs in her office by the trail of cologne. An editor who had been a Yeshiva kid told me that Schiff told him she was the last Jew in her family and when she died, she would be cremated in a Jewish cemetery. Cremation is against Jewish law. “No, you won’t,” he said. “Oh, yes, I will.” “No,” he said, “you won’t.” And back-and-forth like this until she said, “Yes, I will, because I bought the cemetery.”

The Post was wild. Everybody was sleeping with everybody. Everybody was smart and leftist and interesting. Even the people I didn’t like at the Post were like crazy relatives. There was an obese, obnoxious guy who covered Albany who announced to the city desk: “My wife’s pussy fits me like a glove.” This was something you really didn’t want to picture. An assignment editor told me, “I like it when the air conditioning is high. It makes your nipples stand up.” But having grown up in a mouthy Jewish family, this didn’t faze me. I had two brothers, an uncle who was a Marine, a mother who was not exactly a fading flower. I always felt very comfortable in that masculine newspaper environment of give-and-take. I was condescending toward feminism because to me, feminism was redundant, female power was a given. I never knew my grandfathers. One grandmother ran a bakery, the other ran a farming/boarding house. My mother was not interested in being a traditional anything. My mother liked to make trouble, she liked to stir things up, she liked to shock people. So, to me, saying women are equal is like, c’mon, how obvious. The women I knew could wipe the floor with men, women, anyone. They were tough, interesting women. I always assumed that I would support myself and take care of myself; it wasn’t a gender issue, it’s what an adult does. The whole thing about burning your bra was silly to me. I wore a bra for comfort. What did burning a bra have to do with my ability to write and earn a living?

On the other hand, my reality at the New York Post was not the reality of the women who were clerks and copygirls. There was a night managing editor named Alan Whitney, who was, like, colorful. He sometimes wore devil’s horns or Mickey Mouse ears. Once some FBI guys came to the paper and asked who was in charge and someone pointed out Whitney. He also liked to spank the copygirls on their birthday—or have them spank him. I wasn’t aware of this when I worked there and neither were other women reporters; Alan certainly never tried to approach me that way. But copygirls had a harder time. I talked to some decades later and found out it was extremely bad. Women did not get promoted if they didn’t let this creep spank them. And they couldn’t get management to do anything about it. In my world, women reporters got great assignments, they could be stars. For the copygirls, it was another world.

AB: What kinds of things did you write there?

JW: The old Post divided staff into two categories; shreybers, which is Yiddish for writers, and reporters, meaning hard news people. The editors saw very quickly that I was not a hard news reporter; I was a feature writer. That meant profiling movie stars for long weekend page pieces or maybe a story about an author or a kid who was raising pigeons on the roof. I got better at reporting. Sometimes you have a natural affinity with somebody. In life, I’m intimidated by cold people; cold women especially. But generally, the key to being a good interviewer is listening. I was seeing a shrink, like everyone at the Post, and that was helpful, just learning to listen.

I was at the Post for four years. One day, I was in a cab on Thirty-Second Street near Macy’s and I was thinking, “I’m tired of this. I’m smarter than most of the people I’m interviewing, why am I doing this?” It’s what Nora Ephron called the “What About Me?” moment. I felt I’d done feature newspaper writing and I was interested in something more creative, maybe television comedy. I think I probably was better suited for that. I tried to make the transition to television a few years later, but I couldn’t get any traction—though I didn’t try very hard.

In 1977, Rupert Murdoch bought the Post and turned it into a right wing rag. Probably fifty percent of the staff left within the year. I had interviewed Howard Simons, the managing editor at the Washington Post, when he wrote a book about birding. When he found out that we’d both been upstate Jews there was a connection, and he said, “If you’re ever interested in a job, I’ll get your clips to the right place.” I was able to leave the Post and freelance for the Washington Post, out of New York. I did stories for the Style section, sometimes very long pieces for which they’d pay $100 to $200. I needed that, because I’d moved to an apartment on Bank Street and my rent was now up to $330 a month.

AB: Shelby Coffey was then the editor of Style?

JW: That’s right. Style had the best group of editors; the Washington Post was maybe the best place to be a feature writer, ever. Ben Bradlee was the editor in chief; Shelby Coffey, in Style, was an editor who had it all. He came up with great ideas; he was a great line editor; he could see the holes in the story. He was fantastic. I had one smart, terrific editor after another at the Washington Post. Eventually, I went from being a freelance Style reporter in New York to being the New York correspondent. That was the result of a misunderstanding. I thought I was interviewing for a feature job; when I realized that they wanted me as one of four national correspondents, I explained that I was not a hard news guy, that I had zero interest in or knowledge of politics. The editors could not conceive of anyone who had zero interest in politics; they thought I was joking. The Washington Post had two reporters in its New York bureau, a financial guy and me, and there was also a secretary. The national editor, Bill Greider, knew they couldn’t compete with the [New York] Times with two people; he wanted a correspondent in there who could write. And by the way, the New York correspondent wasn’t supposed to just cover New York City, but the northeastern United States. That was never going to happen, as I was afraid to fly. I left that part out at the interview.

AB: Was this when you started writing for magazines as well?

JW: Yes. David Rosenthal, who had been at the old New York Post and then at New York magazine, was at Rolling Stone and he wanted me to do a crime story about John Delia. I had started writing crime. I did a piece for Rolling Stone called “The Lawyer Vanishes” about a young, attractive lawyer in Tennessee who was assigned a case involving a career criminal named Tin Kirk, who’d killed several other inmates in prison. He was white, his victims Black. He was a very manipulative guy. He asked the lawyer, whose name was Mary Evans, to arrange for him to visit a therapist outside of prison and to bring a gun. Then they pull the gun on the shrink and go on the lam. It was a wild story. I got to write a country music song to go with it:

Her name was Mary Evans / Her client’s name was Kirk She met him in his jail cell / That was her line of work “Though he had killed four men or five / She found him kind of nice Ma, don’t wait up for Mary / She won’t be home tonight

I sold the piece to television, where it became a movie I encourage you not to bother to find. I also got a call from Kirk who said, “I hear you got a piece out in the Rolling Stone. I hear it’s not very nice to me.” I told him no, absolutely not, it was very fair, a nice story. And I’m thinking. “Shit. How the hell did he get my number?” Which was probably in the phone book. I heard from Mary Evans years later and she wasn’t too happy about the piece either.

AB: Did you ever feel badly about something you’d written?

JW: Sure. A few times. There have been a lot of stories where I thought, “Gee, I wish I had been a little nicer.” (Laughs.) Sometimes they were the showbiz stories. I couldn’t help making fun of them. I’m sorry I wasn’t a nicer person. (Laughs some more.) Really.

AB: How did you come to “Mary in the Lavender Pumps”?

JW: By the time I was assigned the story, the trial was almost over, they were just about to reach a verdict. I had to order a transcript to get the feeling of the trial. I remember the defense lawyer, Michael Rosen, who was attractive in a way I like—he really was a Brooklyn cowboy. I vaguely remember interviewing Robyn Arnold, one of the two murder defendants, in his office but not getting much out of her. That tends to happen when their lawyer is there. I interviewed two of Delia’s friends somewhere in Westchester, not knowing whether they would come dressed as men or dressed as women. They came dressed as guys, but they enjoyed their ability to surprise you. They were very over the top.

I have sympathy for anybody who is the outsider, the oddball. But would I have liked John Delia? No. John Delia sounded like a person who lived to make trouble, needed attention, was flamboyant, not trustworthy. He was someone who tried to pick up his friends’ boyfriends. He was troubled. But it was an interesting story, and you know how it is—as a reporter, you may not love the person, but you love the story. I thought it was fascinating. Looking back on it now, even the title—"Mary in the Lavender Pumps”—is out of place, out of time. “Mary” was something some gay men called one another at the time. Maybe only the drag queens used it, but it was definitely there in the culture. Now, it would be considered offensive. Journalism is a reflection of the moment. Attitudes change, and what is considered insensitive now and when the piece ran forty years ago are very different. At the time I wrote the story, I felt somewhat sorry for Bobby Ferrera, who was sent to prison. I wasn’t clear about his role in the killing; I thought that he was at a disadvantage because he could not afford a top defense attorney. But when I read it now, I wonder: when Delia was walking away, the prosecutor said, he was hit with three shots in the back of the head. That’s kind of a tough shot. John was a Navy guy, he probably had some weapons training. Did Robyn Arnold? I’m sorry I didn’t have more detail about the killing wound. Was the shooter up close or ten feet away?

AB: What was the toughest part of writing the piece?

JW: The difficulty wasn’t the writing. The trouble with crime stories was the reporting. I had started moving away from show business reporting, where the publicists were becoming a huge annoyance, to crime because in crime something happens. I also found that I preferred criminals to actors. I had standards; they had to be interesting criminals. I wanted a good yarn. But each crime piece would take forever, and it was hard to make a living as a freelancer because you couldn’t plan things. You might turn down an assignment because of a trial and then the trial is delayed, so what are you going to do? My mother said, “Be like a contractor, say yes to everything.” Which was good advice. Except that there was no way to make it work. One night I covered the opening of La Cage aux Folles on Broadway for the Washington Post, filed, got a night flight to Knoxville, and was in court the next morning for Rolling Stone for the arraignment of Evans and Kirk, who’d been caught after being on the run. I was so tired, I kept dozing off in the courtroom.

AB: Was it a big ego trip to be writing for a place like Rolling Stone?

JW: Absolutely. It was also very interesting to me how the subjects regarded you. If you were coming from Rolling Stone, they assumed you were hip and expected them to be open about their lives and sex and drugs and so they were. If you were coming from the Daily News, not so much. Still, when I think back on reporting, especially the crime stories, I think, “I never want to work that hard again.” Because it was exhausting, especially going out on the road. I have a terrible sense of direction; I’d get stuck in the airport parking lot. I remember being on the side of the road, lost, crying. You’re going to the families of the alleged perp and they don’t want to talk. I once put my foot in the door when an old lady was trying to shove me off her porch.

It was physically very hard work. Reporting is about stamina. You’ve got to get to bed early and have your Wheaties. If I was out of town on assignment and someone wanted to take me to dinner the night before an interview, I’d say no. I needed to be in my room going over my notes. Like a horse with blinders, focused. You need to know that you’re going into an interview with everything you’ve got. It’s so much easier to write humor and make things up. Although I did get to report some great stories.

AB: You wrote for New York magazine and then later worked at the New York Times in various roles too.

JW: I did a book on a Frenchman who was a spy for love, the M. Butterfly case; got breast cancer and wrote a memoir about that; then got ovarian cancer and wrote about that, too. Then New York offered me a job as a contract writer and the Times offered me a job as a feature writer. I decided to go with the Times partly because of the status of the Times and partly because ovarian cancer likes to come back and kill you, and I didn’t want to be working out of my house as a magazine writer, worrying if I was going to die. I wanted the distraction of a city room. I was hired to do short profiles, which is something I like. I did that for a year or two for a fantastic editor, Chuck Strum, who died a few years ago. When that was done, I was floundering. The paper didn’t know what to do with me and I didn’t know what to do with me either. I ended up in the Home section because it was the only department that would take me, as I was a pain in the ass.

I was a pain in the ass, at least to the Times, because I argued with the editors. I would stay until the story went through the copy desk, till eight. The Times had a lot of rules about Style; there were words and phrases you were forbidden to use. Like you could not write that someone had thrown a party. I believe in a living, changing language, in quoting people exactly the way they speak, in jokes because jokes are fun—I’d actually have to explain that; I’d say, “Joke good, like fire. Joke our friend”—and we fought about it. I was almost fifty when the Times hired me, I wasn’t a kid. I’m not confident about a lot of things, but I am confident about my writing. If I use a word, I use it for a reason. And I was happy to defend it and argue about it. I had one editor, who is still a good friend, who kept a list of all the words and jokes we fought about. Some of them were funny, some were politically incorrect, often a Jewish-related joke. I was told that the news desk—a group of editors at the paper who read every front-page story; any story that has the publisher’s name; any story that looked like it could be legal trouble—also read any story that I wrote. If true, that makes me extremely proud. I’m happy to have been that kind of pain in the ass.

CLICK HERE to purchase a copy of the book, or read an excerpt below.

JOEY REMEMBERS THE FIRST TIME John Delia put on a dress and went out in public. John was sixteen, Joey was about the same age, and John had gotten the itch because David Miller, a female impersonator, was coming to the Playroom, a gay club in Yonkers, in suburban Westchester Country, New York. So Delia and Joey went out in drag, and it was not such a big deal to Joey, who had done it before, but Delia loved it. That got Delia started on shows. Joey would do Barbra Streisand, their friend Gary would do Bette Midler, and Delia would do Diana Ross. With his dark, olive skin and black hair, Delia looked just like Diana Ross when he got onstage. Everybody said so. That’s why, after the change, when John became a woman, she took the name Diane.

Soon enough, Delia set her sights on a career as a drag performer. She was very ambitious. She did shows in the gay bars in Westchester, like Zipperz and the Playroom. And once or twice—her dream!—she even did a little number in a disco in Manhattan.

She had some mouth on her, too.

One night in the Bronx, when she was out in the street with Joey and Gary after a show, a dude told her, “You’re an insult to the black race, dressing up like a black woman.”

“You’re an insult to the human race,” Diane shot back, and then it was on, it was kick off your pumps, girls, here we go, three tough Italian queers in evening gowns slugging it out in the street. It was the old story, Diane starting it with her mouth, and Joey—whose stage name was Dottie Fuck-Fuck, but who offstage handled himself like a construction worker—finishing it off.

Let’s face it: Diane Delia had a big mouth, and she always had to be the center of attention; her best friends would tell you so. Showing up at Studio 54 in a rented limo. Making scenes at bars. Throwing up her skirts and showing everybody her operation. Everybody said she just used Robyn Arnold, the rich girl who was her lover, because, as everybody knew, Diane Delia was a hundred percent gay. As for Bobby Ferrara—with whom Delia had also been an item for years—it was always Grand Opera time, very hysterical, very rough. They fought, they walked out on each other. That’s why, Bobby told the police, he had never reported her missing, even after she’d been gone for weeks. Robyn Arnold did, even though, the district attorney would argue, she did so just to cover up.

The DA came into it because, eventually, Diane Delia did turn up. She turned up around a Twenty-Eight Street dock, on the west side of Manhattan, in the Hudson River.

She was wearing a pair of purple jeans, no panties, a purple camisole, no bra and no shoes. Her hands were tied behind her back, and a yellow blanket was over her head. At the morgue, the medical examiner said the maggots in her face indicated that she had probably been on the ground for some time after she had been murdered, and that she had been in the water about three weeks. It was not inconceivable that she had been killed in the woods, perhaps up in Westchester, and thrown in the Hudson, then floated downriver.

She had finally, you might say, gotten her act to New York.

Love stories. They’re so complicated, whatever the sexual mix. Passions, insecurities. The small terror of losing control lies in the belly like a snake. It’s true: the deeper you love, the deeper you’ll hate when the love is threatened. It is only from the casual things that you walk away. And this is merely with two people. What if it’s a triangle? A triangle, in the year 1981, in which one player is a straight woman, one a gay man, and the third a trans woman.

So was the love story of John/Diane Delia.

The characters were so many, their sexual roles so varied, raw and rich, that the New York Post felt obliged during the murder trial to run a who’s who. The trial in which Bobby Ferrara and Robyn Arnold were charged with murdering Delia was made for the tabloids.

After all, Delia’s body was found in 1981, the same year the mysterious plague running though the gay community was first identified as AIDS. Widespread awareness of gender issues was still decades away; the acronym LGBTQ had not yet come into use. The coverage took readers deep into the little-known world of queer disco and drag. It was not the sweet stuff of Saturday Night Fever, but the meaner—and infinitely more theatrical—world of drag-queen disco, where boys borrowed one another’s shoes and did one another’s makeup; where a lover’s tryst could involve a man tied spread-eagle on a pool table; in which a lover’s quarrel could end with a leap from a two-story window or with a superficial cut to the wrist.

It gave newspaper readers a look at a side of life most would never imagine:

There was Delia, twenty-four, who would go off with a woman in the afternoon, pick up a strange man at a bar in the evening, and, ultimately, undergo a painful operation in which his genitals were removed.

Bobby Ferrara, twenty-two, was a gay bartender with dark hair, fat cheeks, and unusually red lips. Though he was not the sharpest tool in the box, Delia loved him more than anyone in the world even though he occasionally rubbed her face in the cement.

And most tantalizing of all—perhaps because she seemed so out of place—there was Robyn Arnold, twenty-six, a beautiful, sloe-eyed girl who loved Delia and who had, as the prosecutor painted her, become a sort of aberrant and terrifying diva when she could no longer run Delia’s life.

Her relationship with Delia was “one of control and one of power and one of direction,” the prosecutor thundered, arguing that Arnold and Ferrara has lured Delia into the woods and murdered her. “She gave $40,000 to the deceased . . . She bought him a Corvette . . . She bought the ring. She was managing his career.”

Of course, her defense lawyer objected. Arnold was a nice girl, fallen in with bad company; she was being framed by her codefendant, Bobby Ferrara. A curious trial, really: Arnold’s lawyer yelling that Bobby had done it; Bobby’s lawyer screaming that the real killer sat in Arnold’s chair. It would be even more curious because, at the end of the trial, though the evidence linked them, one accused killer would go to jail and the other would walk away.

But that is the end of the story. And just a trial which is, at any rate, only a very thin slice of a life.

Copyright (c) 2022 Joyce Wadler

CLICK HERE to purchase a copy of the book.

Alex Belth is the editor of Esquire Classic, the magazine’s digital archive, as well as the editor of The Stacks Reader, a website dedicated to preserving great journalism from the Golden Age of magazines. He’s been a contributor to Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Deadspin, and The Daily Beast, and created Bronx Banter, one of the original New York Yankees blogs, which the Village Voice called a “New York City treasure.” In a previous life, he worked in film post production for the likes of Ken Burns, Woody Allen, and the Coen brothers.