Remembering Vincent Astor

Vincent Charles Astor

b. December 6, 1953—d. January 17, 2023

Vincent Charles Astor, who for decades chronicled and archived the history and experience of LGBT+ people in Memphis and around the mid-South, has died. He was 69. Astor, who gained local and regional acclaim, along with some measure of notoriety primarily via his alter ego, Lady Astor, was an historian, author, organist, actor, volunteer, and archivist. For more than half a century, Astor documented the experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people starting with the emergence of the gay rights movement in the mid-South in the early 1970s through the AIDS epidemic that began in the 1980s, and throughout the tumultuous period that ensued, which included the implementation and eventual repeal of the U.S. Military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the fight for marriage equality, and the resulting backlash culminating in the flurry of political and policy repercussions still posing a threat to the rights of LGBT+ Americans.

Astor was born and grew up in Memphis. In 1971, he gained admission to Southwestern/Rhodes College where he graduated in 1975 with a bachelor of arts degree.

He was involved with the saving and first renovation of the Orpheum Theatre starting in 1976. Through 1987, he was an organist and archivist who was much-photographed and interviewed in relation to the Orpheum. He played the Wurlitzer organ on many occasions.

Astor was also a Bartender/Actor at Circuit Playhouse/Playhouse on the Square for fourteen seasons in the 1970s-1980s.

He was among the founders of organizations that effected great change in the lives of gay and lesbian Memphians. He was a founding board member of Memphis Pride, Inc., serving as co-chair in 1994 and 1995. He was also a founding board member and benefactor of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center (MGLCC, which later became OUTMemphis) where the Vincent Astor Archives of Gay and Lesbian documents and memorabilia is housed. He created its Roll of Honor.

Astor reported local news as a columnist and contributor to Gaze newspaper and the Triangle Journal News from the mid-1980s until their demise, and he contributed to Focus Magazine. He participated in virtually every publicly held Gay/Lesbian Pride celebration and event held in Memphis since 1980, often as a leader or organizer, but always as a cheerful volunteer.

Whether writing or speaking, he was a natural storyteller and used that gift as a volunteer docent with Mallory-Neely House and for WKNO and WONDERS. He was a perennial Father Christmas for several organizations. He donated artifacts to Mallory-Neely House, Woodruff-Fontaine House, Rhodes College, the History Department at the Hooks Central Library, U of M Special Collections, Museum of Science and History (Pink Palace), the OUTMemphis archives, and the Orpheum theatre.

Astor was a square dancer, contra dancer and waltzer who loved all three forms equally. He was an online presence as well, contributing more than a thousand memorials for family members, friends, and others at Find A Grave, a free service identifying itself as the world’s largest gravesite collection.

Astor described himself as never forgetting a slight but always remembering a kindness. He told friends he wished to be remembered as a proud gay man who did his part to record and enhance the lives of gay men, trans persons and lesbians in Memphis, TN.

Astor liked to point out that his date of birth occurred very near the time that Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of the British Empire. That mention was invariably accompanied by a couple of rare, silent moments during which the listener was allowed to soak up the significance of two great queens’ separate yet parallel entries into the public consciousness.  While one worked hard to bring her subjects out of the darkness and terror caused by a war that threatened their very existence, the other did much the same over in England. They each managed their respective callings with a mixture of success and failure, but Vincent as Lady Astor did it with her hair down—and eventually with her hair completely off—as he learned to fully inhabit his complete identity as a proud gay man in the heart of the South.

Vincent’s funeral will be on Saturday, February 4, 2023, at 10am at Calvary Episcopal Church with a reception to follow in the Great Hall. 

In addition, the Orpheum Theatre Group will host a Celebration of Life for all of Vincent’s friends on Saturday, February 11, 2023 from 2-4pm in the theatre lobby. 

A Personal Note

BY: Perry Stevens

I knew Vincent for 35 years. I served with him as a founding board member of the MGLCC. We stayed in touch after I left Memphis, mostly via Facebook. Last year, I read about a health scare he suffered and mistakenly believed for several minutes that he’d died. I wrote him about that, and I asked him if he would mind if I penned his obituary should he die before me.

He replied with several pictures of his monument, which he’d erected in a prime spot near the entrance of historic Elmwood Cemetery, telling me, “I have already begun the process (of preparing for death) as you can see. It is the queerest monument in the tri-state area at least. And it’s recycled stones to boot.”

In June 2022, I went to Memphis, and we met for lunch at Mulan, then we went to Elmwood where he posed against his obelisk. I asked him why it was important to have an obelisk and why had he gone ahead and installed it now? After remarking that he certainly couldn’t install it *after* he died (an excellent point), he reminded me that the obelisk represents immortality. He said he liked the symbolism, it was a fitting monument for the setting, it didn’t take up too much room, and it offered plenty of space for him to engrave on it whatever he wished. On the front is engraved “Sacred to the Memory of a Proud Gay Man” and below those words are photos of Vincent and Lady Astor. Another side of the monument has the names of his parents and both sets of grandparents. Another side reads, “Historian, Author, Organist, Actor, Volunteer.” And the last says, “He did his best to enhance the lives of gay and lesbian Memphians.”

We left the cemetery and went to the Museum of Science and History (which I’d only known as the Pink Palace) to take in the impressive LGBT+ Pride exhibit. Vincent had donated a leather vest completely covered with buttons he had collected over several decades of Pride events. He offered some scurrilous anecdotes relating to a few of the artifacts to the volunteer docent minding the exhibit. She took it all in with nervous excitement, nodding enthusiastically at each new morsel he threw out. As we left, Vincent said, “The best part about being a good docent is knowing all the gory details not fit for public consumption and then finding opportunities to dole them out to people who are dying to hear them. Everybody likes going behind the scenes and learning what they never heard in history class.”

Yet he could be coy, too. In the messages we exchanged leading up to our meeting, I sent, “I’m wondering if a story I’ve heard (and repeated) about you is legit or apocryphal. It seems you were taking requests one afternoon at the Orpheum when someone asked if you did hymns. Did you really nod and start pointing around the audience saying, “Yes. Him. And him. And him. And him. And him.”

Vincent only replied, “Hmmmmm…could be….” I couldn’t get him to say more on the subject.

Despite a bent toward the bawdy, one of Vincent’s magnetic qualities was an audacious innocence, a fearless purity that could inspire or intimidate, yet invariably fascinate. It was the thing that fueled the impulse to create his own monument so he could experience the joy of sharing it with his friends. There are people who simply respond to life, some of them quite effectively. But the remarkable people are not content to simply respond. They grab life by the throat and turn the tables, actively shaping it into something better. It is a welcome but rare quality, and Vincent was a superb example of its manifestation, and he was a role model when it came to its practice. 

Vincent was a unique and transformative figure in Memphis LGBT+ history. His goal was to improve the lives and enhance the life experience of his LGBT+ brothers and sisters, and he did that. It is his legacy, but inspiration was Vincent Astor’s greatest gift, and it is one that survives him. His work and his voice inspired many and irritated some, both in and outside the gay community. But he was there from the beginning, and he paid attention. His astute observations and careful archiving cement his place in the history he documented so diligently.

Flowers for Lady A

BY: Moth Moth Moth

Vincent Astor was someone I only knew legends of for the longest time. As a blossoming young historian (me) and an experienced old bag (her) our pathways crossed a couple times before we were ever formally introduced. Before we ever became family there was that old-timey drag queen territory dance that young queens and more mature queens do. This little tug of war. We did that dance so well.

I miss my friend.

For an age, I would observe the way people would run out of the room when Vincent Astor entered. There was a part of his brightness and intellect that outshone people around him his whole life. A bit of a curse of brilliancy. Vincent had a particular way of fact checking everyone and everything in real time. A coffee date with Vinny often felt like I was having a paper go through peer review.

My friendship and daughterhood with Lady A is built on late evening phone calls that lasted all night and walks together through museums and galleries we just so happen to find ourselves in, remarkably at the same time.

Those phone calls are a time that I cannot get back. There are still so many stories my heart didn’t get to hear. The sharpest part of missing Vincent is that I want so badly to hear the stories I heard a hundred times. And I ache for the chance to argue with him more about the way that drag is shifting and changing.

Lady A taught me about the “street style makeup”that was popular in his prime. It was patterned after the beautiful and eccentric hookers in Memphis at the time who wore this specific more natural makeup with a bold lip. I found it extremely entertaining to learn of times when Drag was face powder and crushed rose petals for lipstick. A time when 301 lashes had yet to be invented.

I delighted Vinny with stories of Rainbow StoryTime with families at libraries and churches. Impressed him with my wit and intelligence. Once he asked me to explain the process of “how the hell you do all that to yourself”–in reference to my own drag and makeup. The more extreme elements of modern Memphis drag makeup scared the living hell out of Lady A but also fascinated her. The gender fluidity within modern drag did the same.

Our tangential conversations covered topics like ghost stories and The Dark Forest theory. We discussed recipes and favorite movies. He gave me a love of Liza’s acting. I gave him quotes from “Practical Magic.”

Lady A loved to look like a princess on the river boat queen. Moth Moth Moth loves to look like an alien that crashed in the lake next to the boat. And they were the best of friends.

“We must throw these phones on the ground and go to bed!” Lady A would proclaim before launching into an hour long diatribe about the history of the Art Guild Theatre, now known as The Evergreen. There is a plaque on theside of the Evergreen Theatre that details the first publicly advertised and attended drag competition in Memphis, The Miss Memphis review, where a bunch of feathery college queers dressed as movie stars on Halloween in 1969 and the cops couldn’t do a thing about it.

Of course, that work to move toward more publicly well known drag shows was built on the foundation laid by Black drag artists across Memphis’ history. Secret pageants and competitions had been held in bars for years. Miss Peaches represented Miss Black Gay Memphis to the finest height, representing the lives and raising the hopes of Memphians everywhere. Alongside that work was the work of the underground Memphis Ballroom Party scene of the mid- twentieth century where Lady A thrived. Less like the drag shows of today and more like radical debutante parties filled with frills and drag artists entertaining with charm and personality. Password only, in secret places. All of it was punk rock before we knew what punk rock was.

Vinny and I got closer as he supported our work in the Memphis Proud exhibit for MoSH Museum in 2022.The LGBTQIA+ archives that he founded, known as The Vincent Astor Collection, live between the University of Memphis, The Benjamin Hooks Library, and OUTMemphis. The materials contained within the Vincent AstorCollection range from precious photographs to local queer publications stretching back 100 years. All lovingly curated for the curious minds of all of “these homosexuals and cross dressers in the future who might need it.” If Vinny’s sense of humor could be described in an ice cream flavor it would be “Rocky Road,” crunchy and sweet and a mouthful. Miss a citation on a project, get ready to feel the burn baby. Vinny’s passion and deep-held protection for history inspires me everyday. He loved to show the importance of the queer experience. Mother Lady A did her best to tell the story right, and to birth a new vision for the future by doing so.

Of course Lady A has won many a crown. And of course Vincent has been decorated with awards across the ages. He was a Focus Award winner for the lifetime of work done to preserve the queer cultural history.

But Lady A’s true crown in heaven is made by the people she taught. Every story bestowed upon ear or panel or book or archive was a precious step created for future minds. Every story, another star in her crown. Erudite through and through, and the sassiest little queen I have ever met in my life.

On the last day of the MoSH exhibit, Lady A wrapped her arms around me and told me how proud she was. Our friendship was excelsior. Our friendship was a collision of two people outside of their own times. And our friendship is now history as all great friendships become.

I wept when I was late to Vincent’s funeral. Our friend Juan Fuentes held my hand as I cried and he said this, “It’s okay, I am sure Lady Astor won’t mind.”

Dedicated to the light that Lady A created, shining through the dark nights of history. Forever your friend. Forever your daughter.

— Moth Moth Moth