The legacy of Harry Foy on Sydney's Oxford Street LGBTQI+ community.
By ELLIOT LINDSAY
Harry Foy's portrait, auctioned after his death
More than one thousand elegantly dressed individuals clamoured around the arched stone entrance to the Paddington Town Hall. All were attempting to attend what some declared to be the most exciting soiree of the year.
Already the venue had reached its maximum capacity with more than one thousand people inside jovially dancing and singing to the most fashionable songs of the time. Those waiting outside, dressed to the nines, knew their chances of gaining entry were slim, but they persevered. Even the infamous Tilly Devine, Queen of Woolloomooloo, could not get in.
The event was a benefit dance honouring the late and great Harry Sidney Foy. By day, he worked as a bartender at a Surry Hills hotel. However, by night she was a great drag artist who performed at Ziegfeld's Night Club on King Street and was an early pioneer in bringing drag performance to a mainstream audience.
Along with Maxine’s Night Club on Oxford Street, Ziegfeld's was one of the first venues to introduce drag shows in Sydney. But tragedy struck one evening in 1943, a tragedy that was not the first and, sadly, would not be the last.
1938 advertisement for a drag show at Ziegfeld's in central Sydney
Ziegfeld's Night Club was one of the most popular venues for United States servicemen during World War II. Hundreds of soldiers and sailors would stream in each night to drink, sing, dance, pick up a lover for the night, and have a great time.
On this particular evening, 22 December, Foy performed her famous drag act, switching between elegant dresses, costumes and make-up arrangements. The club did not pay Foy to perform because the audience would throw money onto the stage and buy her whiskey cocktails all night.
Part of Foy’s schtick was to walk out into the audience, arms wide open, embrace a man and pretend to plant a kiss on his lips. For most of the audience, this was considered a great joke and they would play along and ham up the interaction.
But not everyone appreciated the humour of it all, particularly US sailor John Tyler Williams. Williams was a large burly man in the audience that night when Harry singled him out for a ‘kiss’.
Williams made a scene, so the cheeky Harry Foy decided to come back for a second try. The audience found the whole act hysterical as she went in for the next kiss. But, out of nowhere, Williams punched Foy in the face. Foy went flying back into the cymbals and drums and hit her head on the way down.
Several hours later, Foy was dead.
Arrest and trial
Williams was arrested and stood before the court. Witnesses were called in to testify. It soon became apparent that his fellow US sailors’ attitudes were motivated by homophobia.
When Williams himself stood up as a witness, he described the event as follows:
“His [Foy’s] actions were offensive. I struck him to prevent him from kissing me and carrying on his filthy conduct. He tried to kiss me twice, and I have no use for these people whatsoever.”
The court referred Williams to stand trial on the charge of manslaughter. However, several days later, the Solicitor General dropped all charges against Williams. He determined that Williams had been ‘provoked’ and Foy’s behaviour caused his own death. A classic case of victim-blaming.
Once again, someone in the LGBTQI community had been murdered, and nothing was to be done about it. Then to make the matter worse, it was discovered that poor Harry Foy’s mother was now in a terrible state. Harry supported her financially, and now she had no one.
But friends of Harry came up with an idea to help. They organised a gala night in Harry’s honour to raise money for his mother, with tickets sold at the gate. Furthermore, a large framed portrait of Harry Foy in evening wear would be auctioned off to the attendees.
The night was a great success, with members of the LGBT community - particularly several young drag performers (such as a young Neville McQuade) who Foy inspired - and various friends and fans coming together to support the cause.
But it was the auction that everyone had been waiting for on that night. After receiving many competitive bids, the hammer struck down for the price of 14 guineas, which is equivalent to $1,150 today. The winning bid was cast by Mrs Olive Ward, a long-time friend of Foy and Maxine’s Night Club owner.
Today, Foy’s name has largely been forgotten, but with the tremendous success of the Sydney LGBTQI Mardi Gras each year, it is clear that his legacy continues to live.
Mug shot of Neville McQuade (18) and Lewis Stanley Keith (19),
North Sydney Police Station, early June 1942.
McQuade and Keith were inspired by Foy and performed in clubs while Foy was famous.