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.