Here’s some shocking old news: Each and every one of us has felt the keen sting of Seattle’s relentless Development Plague. And goodness knows there has been more than sufficient whining, whining, WHINING about it (even from the beloved superstars featured in this apt and jaunty tune that I haven’t been able to get out of my head for the better part of three weeks—“This spot? HOT DAMN! Is where we once ate Christmas ham! Now it’s NOT! HOT DAMN! It’s just a land-use action plan!” Ha! Aidez moi!). And I confess: I’ve been a louder whiny baby than anyone.
But bitching about it has become almost as exhausting as the merciless land-grab itself. I’m sure you quite agree.
So I propose that we all take just this moment to take a deep, cleansing breath, wipe developer’s greed and Amazon bros out of our minds for two effing seconds and remember all of the indispensable landmarks and cherished establishments that still make Capitol Hill almost worth loving. You know! Things like Bauhaus Coffee, The Lobby, Bailey Coy Books, The Broadway Market in general, The Capitol Club, The Broadway Grill, The Elite, and one of my personal favorite old sentinels of Capitol Hill and all of it’s pursuant madness: the big brick tower they call Biltmore Apartments.
The old Biltmore Apartments—towering so imposingly and dark and ivy-choked and unmistakably Rosemary’s Baby-looking at Capitol Hill’s Western border—has, for its own mysterious reasons, developed a habit of collecting unto itself rare and notorious Seattle characters. Its glory years were definitely between 1990-ish-to-2001. The twisted, the insane, the ridiculous, and the brilliant; fags, punks, unemployable deviants of every stripe, writers, waiters, exhibitionists, masochists and the sadists who love to smack them around, and some remarkably committed Devil worshipers—all these and more roamed the Biltmore’s shadowy hallways.
These stories have never been told…until now…
The Biltmore was born in 1924, a bouncing baby seven-story terracotta castle. Like any proper castle, it was born crenellated, crowned with parapets, and crawling with ivy. It sits on a hill, perched just so, in the middle of absolutely everything but precisely two steps removed. It was built for a rich investment architect called Stephen Berg by a company called Bertram Stuart and Arthur Wheatly, Architects. It sits on a cobbled little road called Loretta Place at the corner of Summit Avenue East. It looks down its nose at the rest of us. It is where some of Capitol Hill’s most interesting stories took place.
Seattle’s Long-Lost Greatest Queen: Crystal Lane
As far as this history is concerned, an old Drag Queen called Crystal Lane gave birth to The Biltmore Apartments.
Not really, of course. Apartment buildings are built, not born from Drag Queens. But the true lives of buildings are vicarious ones—they live through the stories of those who’ve haunted their halls. And no building in Seattle is more haunted or thoroughly storied than The Biltmore. And Crystal Lane was without a doubt the glittering start of it all…
Crystal Lane was born Kristopher J. Anderson. She was the resident Queen of the old Brass Connection. Old timers say that Crystal was that rarest of flowers: a Drag Queen that was completely lovable, charming, and a skillful trained entertainer—a dedicated Queen who sang her own songs and who refused to alienate the shit out of people for kicks. She topped almost seven-feet tall in heels and hair. She was adored.
They say Crystal grew up in Seattle, doing Gay things like drama club and chorus. As soon as those gigs turned drab, she absconded and spent a few years doing way Off-Broadway bits in New York. They say she “studied” with Charles Nelson Reilly and Uta Hagen, but since Charles Nelson Riley and Uta Hagen are not endearing schools of performing arts, I am not exactly sure what “they” mean by that.
Crystal came home to Seattle and The Biltmore in the early ‘80s, dazzling, undaunted, and undefeated. She did a little theater—the legendary Alice B. Theatre, in fact—and starred in some well-regarded Drag revues. She did endless charity work, performing and playing hostess at events for Children’s Hospital & Medical Center and the Chicken Soup Brigade.
Crystal ruled the Gay club scene’s heart until her sad death at the hands of AIDS, which is still described as tragic by those who honor her memory. Crystal lived at the Biltmore throughout the height of her reign, and that’s where she died on February 18th, 1994. A one-time KCTS-TV announcer called George Ray eulogized Crystal thusly:
“His life could be summarized with one word…Bravo!’”
It is testament to Crystal’s impact that a caricature of her still exists in mural form on a wall at the old Double Header Tavern, which closed its doors forever just last week.
Crystal played “Drag mother” to many budding Queens of the age. A score of Drag babies flowed from the drag-womb that was her Biltmore apartment, which was filled with sculpture, pillows, objets and fabulous trash. It was her Drag studio, her magical backstage. Her two walk in closets held “wigs for days” and “shoes to rival Imelda Marcos”.
There are even whispers that homemade porn starring Crystal exists, filmed in said Biltmore apartment. Allegedly, the only surviving copy lies deep in a box in a closet at a city-funded counseling service waiting to be discovered. Just a legend? Who knows.
The Ropers Almost: Bill and Dorothea
Bill and Dorothea Smith managed The Biltmore, and they had since the dawn of dirt. Everyone there knew them as Grandma and Grandpa Biltmore, and Jesus Christ! were they ever confused by the parade of weirdos they were charged with land-lording over. Their ignorance was most often for the best…
Bill and Dorothea Smith’s apartment was commonly known as The Elvis Shrine. There were framed velvet Elvis paintings wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor, and very, very, creepy Elvis dolls on every shelf. Turn to the right and, BAM! Elvis plates! Turn to the left, BAM! Elvis pillows! There were Elvis cups and glasses, stacks of Elvis videotapes, ELVIS! ELVIS! ELVIS! ELVIS! ELVIS!
Grandma and Grandpa never raised rents. They never questioned the sweet green smoke billowing beneath their tenants’ doors. They never bothered about the late-night screams (of pleasure or pain or both), or all the sex in the elevator. Or if you were a month or two behind with the rent. That’s one reason why everyone loved them so.
The Punk Drag Trainwreck: Jackie Hell
Seattle’s premier shock queen Jackie Hell was the assistant manager at the Biltmore back then, at least during daylight hours, when he went around incognito as a “normal person.” Then he answered to the name David Latimer, and he had barely any tits at all. In fact, Jackie Hell wasn’t even Jackie Hell yet. Back then, his Drag name was “Margarita”. Things like “Jackie Hell” and his incredibly popular drag revue “Pho Bang” were misty dreams of the future.
But all of the classic Jackie Hell-isms that were inevitably to make Mr. Latimer so infamous later on were already alive and kicking ass: dirty old pillows stuffed where boobs and butt should be, tacky-tourist sunglasses, insane grandma makeup smears, and a purse as big and wrinkly as elephant balls, every crevasse of which was crammed with liquors, pills, evil little powders, and mysterious intentions. And the filthy pedophilia jokes! Mercy! She was like a fuck-you Aunt Betsy from the planet Holy Shit. Everyone thought she was quite insane. At first. But isn’t that the way it always is with mad genius?
Jackie/David did not get paid much for his services to The Biltmore. What he mostly got was a small studio apartment that he shared with Jonona Jupiter (much, much more about her below). They lingered in wretched poverty. During the leanest years, their greatest joy was a once-a-week treat they could barely afford…a cheeseburger from McDonalds. Sadly, their weekly treat was often interrupted by the hungry child of the drug addicts next door. It would smell their burgers, toddle over, and beg at their feet like a spaniel. “Bite? Bite?” the poor neglected waif would chant over and over until until they finally relented and gave the poor thing their cheeseburgers. Maybe that’s why Jackie’s sense of humor is so whimsically contemptuous of children.
“What’s the best thing about sleeping with thirty-six year-olds? There’s thirty of ‘em!”
The Stabby Naked Dumbledore: Damian Murphy
Damian Murphy is a delightfully mad and quite charming genius of a fellow, an author and a teacher, with a mind crammed full of fabulous esoterica and a mind for mysticism. He spends much of his time wearing exquisite, velvet, smoking jackets, sipping rare vintages, and discoursing on the vagaries of tantra and other occultish doings. He is, indeed, Seattle’s most preeminent esoteric philosopher, teacher and lecturer. He is a master at the art of Hindu Astrology, the Kabbalah (he could kick Madonna’s pseudo-Jewish ass), and an expert in avant-garde film, art, and literature. He’s merely quite fabulous.
In his Biltmore days, however, Damien was a mad janitor, who was most famous for answering his apartment door balls-out naked and brandishing an enormous butcher knife. It began as a kinky little sex game of sorts with his girlfriend, and it ended in scaring the living shit out of many random people who just happened to knock on his door. (Most of these incidences were mere cases of bad timing, but they happened so often that the police once kindly suggested that he might please, “check through the peephole first” before thrusting open the door nude and viciously armed.)
Mr. Murphy was a dirty little prankster. So was his best friend, Kelly Button. Kelly Button was Grandma and Grandpa Biltmore’s real-life grandson. He and Damian used to do fun things, like strip, slather themselves with black greasepaint, and play naked chess in the elevator. Not surprisingly, they also did dumpsters full of LSD on the daily.
Mr. Murphy estimates that he and Kelly dropped Acid approximately 127 times in Grandma and Grandma Biltmore’s Elvis Shrine apartment.
“Kelly was perfectly comfortable in this environment,” Mr. Murphy explains, “While I was perfectly terrified. It possibly explains my ability to talk to spirits.”
Damian was a tenant at the Biltmore throughout the bulk of the ‘90s, and a fly-on-the-wall to most of its most scandalous and memorable happenings. For a while, he even dated the infamous Jonona Jupiter…
Pretty Girl, Not Too Sane: Jonona Jupiter
Jonona Jupiter was a performance artist, a hellion, a delightful nightmare, or a psychotic bitch, depending on your particular humor. She used to pee out window for fun. She used to play with loaded shotguns indoors, also presumably for fun. Indeed, the stories about Jonona Jupiter (and her twisted fucking idea of fun) are as voluminous as they are borderline felonious. And she was in a very peculiar relationship with David Latimer/Margarita/Jackie Hell, who is, for all intents and purposes, gayer than goose eggs from ganders. Still, they lived together at the Biltmore in a small studio apartment—in sin, of course. They met at the Christian religious cult they belonged to just outside Lubbock, Texas (of course). Jonona was married at the time, and David was secretly wearing his grandma’s underpants. So they did the only logical thing they could to: they fled to Seattle.
Jonona’s murderous estranged husband eventually arrived on their Seattle doorstep with a big butcher’s knife and homicide in his heart, the legends say. But Jonona, powerful in the art of persuasion, sweet talked him out of the murder somehow. (Maybe she threatened to pee on his head.) So he and his big knife just slithered on back to Lubbock and were heard from nary again.
David got a job assistant managing The Biltmore, and he and Jonona moved into a small studio on the third floor. Shortly after moving in together, David was forced to admit that dressing like women was much more fun than sleeping with them. But no hard feelings. They were best friends, in a Will-and-Grace-Meets-Mental-Illness sort of way. They were the glue that held the Biltmore’s weirdness together. And their taste in bathroom décor was legendary.
The Silver ‘Shroom Fairy: Identity Unknown
“The Silver ‘Shroom Fairy” was a very high and completely anonymous Biltmore resident who would occasionally paint herself shiny silver, strap on fairy wings, and roller-skate door-to-door, gifting the lucky souls who answered her knock (like naked Mr. Murphy and his knife) with handfuls of big, blue-veined magic mushrooms. Then she would skate away on her silver fairy skates, to bring fistfuls of fungal joy to other delighted neighbors. Her real identity was never known nor discovered…
The S&M Witch Queen: Janese Taylor
Janese Taylor was a sprightly young gothling who occupied a glorious, high-ceilinged one-bedroom unit on the first floor. She adored the aforementioned Rosemary’s Baby feel of the Biltmore, and did her best to enhance it by transforming her space into a dark shrine of black magic and forbidden sex.
During her tenancy (spanning seven years), Janese and large numbers of occultists and mystics of every pitch and persuasion (Satanists, Thelemites, Crowley-heads, a druid or two, Rosicrucians—but no Wiccans, thank you, they had standards) performed ancient rituals, pagan initiations, and infernal baptisms in her dining room. When she wasn’t invoking her dark overlords, she hosted frequent, notorious, and rather advanced S&M orgies …with the widow shades gaping for all to see. Horny naked people swung from the ceiling, nude men and their bobbing boners were horse-whipped in the windows, and paid Drag Queens painted gold circulated amongst the revelers with trays of crudité. Hardcore voyeurs, wayward passersby, and shocked old ladies coming home from the grocery store all gathered beneath her window with their eyes and mouths wider than dinner plates. It was a spectacle of sin to which she often drew bigger crowds than NASCAR.
And All the Rest…
Inga Muscio lived at the Biltmore from 1991-1996, and as everyone knows, she’s the famous authoress of “Cunt” (delightful!) and “Why I Love America” (ironic!) and she even wrote for The Stranger, back in her Biltmore days. (A secret report from an ex-neighbor on her bathing habits, “She bathed compulsively, 3 times a day, and sang in the bathtub in a very loud falsetto.”)
Mike Daisey lived there, too, and he went on to write “21 Dog Years, My Life at Amazon.com” and “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” which have made him famous (and an infamous liar-pants).
Boy Mike, the flame-throwing mad princess of the Seattle Drag scene, was a resident throughout the ‘90s, as, of course, was the poor mad-man who lived (and often screamed, raved, and picked his face) in the basement with a man who was widely known as his “totally Charlie Manson roommate”. (They were quite famous, in their way.)
And, of course, Marcus Wilson, of Seattle’s once preeminent queer dance night Comeback, Seattle’s currently preeminent gay bar Pony, the transgressive drag personae Ursula Android, his band The Ononos, and practically everything else.
And it all ended so suddenly…
A Most Tragic End, Indeed
In 1999, an evil corporate consortium of 15 developers called R.P. Management, Inc. bought the old Biltmore Apartments and murdered her spirit on the spot. They put old Grandma and Grandpa out to pasture and jacked the rent to the vaulted roof. All the glorious freaks that had filled the Biltmore’s infamous halls were unceremoniously upheaved and scattered to the four winds…
Grandma and Grandpa moved to Aberdeen, where Grandpa died and Grandma still is. Jonona got married and moved to the Los Angles area, where she is still freaking people the hell out today. Damien lives in Shoreline with his longtime partner (who is a real life Haitian Vodou mambo, of course). He has recently published three books. Boy Mike fled to California after returning to Seattle for a short while, and from there passed into obscurity and history. Inga Muscio and Mike Daisey are still prolific, and imminently Google-able, although they are seen around these parts most rarely. Janese can be found working at the “new” Edge of the Circle Books in the U-District, and Marcus has remained a stalwart driving force behind Seattle’s queer scene, and is taking time to dedicate to his band and visual art after suddenly quitting Pony last month. And Jackie Hell is still Seattle’s favorite train wreck.
The Silver ‘Shroom Fairy, the screaming basement dude and his “Totally Charlie Manson Roommate” (and even the, “Bite! Bite!” waif), however, have all passed into legend…
Today the Biltmore seems to slumber under a thick and snowy quilt of revolting rents, sly corporate ownership, disgruntled tenants, and, like everything else on Capitol Hill, a deeply uncertain future.
But I like to believe that maybe she’s really just waiting—waiting for the bubble to burst. And maybe someday it will. And on that day, she will shrug off her snowy sleep and corporate overlords, all her wonderful freaks will return to her, and the Biltmore shall rise again!