Warhol associate and playwright Robert Heide recalls Hibiscus, an icon of gay culture
By Robert Heide
In the late 1960s, the Beatles released two songs that became prominent, era-defining hits, one expressing the desire for revolution (“we all want to change the world”) while the other had the foursome shouting out over and over again, “All you need is love, love!” The psychedelic Sixties had brought forth a new counterculture that became known to mainstream America by the often pejoratively applied tag “hippies.” By any name, this counterculture created the idea of love-ins and be-ins, and its members protested in large gatherings as a form of revolt against their elders. In 1967, a youth movement that was labelled by the mainstream media “The Summer of Love” found runaway teenagers and dissatisfied young adults flocking to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district to participate in the rituals of free love and free-form musical happenings.
A new book entitled Flower Power Man (El Dorado Books) authored by three sisters, MaryLou Harris, Jayne Anne Harris, and Eloise Harris, tells the story of how that breakthrough decade morphed into the disco-backroom sex of the Seventies. The focal point of the book is their brother, George Harris III, who became famous in San Francisco and New York as Hibiscus, the founder of a movement called Flower Power and the creator of musical glitter transgender extravaganzas known collectively as The Cockettes and later The Angels of Light. He also created a cabaret act in the 1970s called Hibiscus and the Screaming Violets, a trio that included the Harris sisters, who created this phenomenal book.
It should be noted that for a period of several years a huge glittering sign affixed with fluttering large multi-colored sequins existed on Sheridan Square above the Village Cigar Store on the corner of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue; it advertised the show “Hibiscus and the Screaming Violets.” In addition to writings by the sisters, Flower Power Man is edited by Walter Michael Harris (Hibiscus’ younger brother) and features an introduction by Kembrow McLeod, author of the forthcoming Pop Underground.
A number of contributors wrote their own personal accounts and memories about the fabulous Hibiscus and his apocalyptic adventures. Among these are the actors Tim Robbins and Agosto Machado, the Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn, Angel Jack (aka Jack Coe), Lance Loud, Penny Arcade, and the Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto. Musto was with Hibiscus in 1982 at St. Vincent’s Hospital when he died at age 32 of what was then called G.R.I.D (gay related immune deficiency), the mysterious plague that later became known as AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). AIDS would go on to define the Eighties, a decade many now refer to as the AIDies. I myself contributed several accounts regarding Hibiscus—in particular, my astonishment when I saw him as a young blonde teenager in the Jeff Weiss Oedipal play A Funny Walk Home at the Caffe Cino in l965.
The book is also filled with great photos by the likes of Peter Hujar and Bernie Boston, who took the famous and now iconic picture on the front cover, which shows Hibiscus putting a flower (a carnation) into the barrel of a rifle held by a National Guardsman. That act of nonviolent protest took place in Washington D.C. on October 21, 1967, 50 years ago. It was intended to call for an end to the Vietnam War.
To some people, the Hibiscus shows that featured drug-crazed male and female glitter drags were a breakthrough, all-the-way, in terms of gender bending. They featured 1920s fringed lamps for hats and halved coconuts for breasts and homosex shenanigans with everything hanging out for all to see. The midnight musical extravaganzas, utilizing 1930s Depression-era songs “Keep Your Sunny Side Up”, and “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine” at the Palace Theater in San Francisco’s North Beach, have become legendary. They carried titles like Pearls Over Shanghai and Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma.
Fortunately, much of this story may be viewed on screen or on DVD. The documentaries include The Cockettes (2002) and, a favorite of mine, Pick Up Sticks (1973), which has Hibiscus starring with his flower-power mentor Allen Ginsberg (both in full drag). In this film, we see Hibiscus portraying Jesus Christ on the cross.
Here is the trailer for The Cockettes:
The story of Hibiscus is no flash in the pan. It has become the stuff of true legend. Think James Dean or the incredible Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick. All three had short lives in the spotlight; but all became – each in a different sense – bright comets that flashed across the sky and then were gone.
Robert Heide is a playwright in New York and author of The Bed, which was filmed by Andy Warhol. His reminiscences about George Harris III (aka Hibiscus) are included in Flower Power Man. Heide’s new collection, 25 Plays (Fast Books), is available on Amazon.com.