Smiling postie by day, legendary Brisbane drag queen by night, Gene Saint lived a long full life. The elder of Brisbane’s Rainbow community passed away peacefully last week aged almost 93.
I met Gene in the early 70s at one of Dame Sybil Von Thorndyke’s annual Queen’s Birthday Balls. I thereafter received invitations to his regular house parties. He lived in a two-level home on Red Hill’s impossibly steep Stoneleigh Street. He spent most of his life in that street, growing up on the opposite side in a family of eleven children.
As a young man, Gene spent his savings on a sea voyage to England. I learnt from his nephew’s eulogy that he arrived in London with £11 to his name. Although he had nowhere to stay, he spent most of that money on a ticket to Guys and Dolls.
However, Gene soon found work. He toured the world as a steward and sometimes entertainer on cruise ships. Then, at the end of the 1950s, Gene returned to Brisbane to take care of his mother. In 1964, he began work as a postman and stayed in that profession until he retired.
In Gene’s 70th year he won a ticket to India. It was one of the few countries on earth he never visited during his decade on the high seas. So, at the age of 70, he flew to Mumbai, hired a guide who owned a car and spoke a little English and spent six weeks touring the sub-continent.
I lost contact with Gene when I moved to another city in 1992. In 2005, he moved to an aged care facility. His family said he retained his friendly curiosity in the life of folks around him, and in movies and theatre. He also continued his long habit of a nightly scotch and a Bailey’s after dinner.
Laurie Deane, aka Dame Sybil von Thorndyke, a great mate and in later years, an adjacent neighbour on the slopes of Red Hill, recalls Gene as a ‘unique’ personality. He was slight of build, unassuming and modest and enjoyed an occasional beverage… or six. He entertained his guests with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Hollywood films and the stars of the Golden Age. His tales, all with a sufficient ring of truth, of his own adventures into Brisbane’s gay demi-monde during and after World War 2 were even more engrossing.
Gene’s favourite star was Bette Davis. I accompanied Gene, Sybil and Simone ( Sybil’s brother, Kevin) to see the fabulous Bette when she visited Brisbane during her world speaking tour in the 1980s.
At her show at Brisbane City Hall, Gene asked several questions during the Q&A. His final question addressed Hollywood gossip that hinted of her secret marriage to some Hollywood notable of the day. Davis turned, recognised Gene from the airport and put on her Grande Dame of the Theatre face.
“I was never married to THAT man!”
As committed fans, Gene, Sybil and Simone also went to the airport to bid Miss Davis farewell. Their loyalty paid off. She saw them and invited them to the VIP lounge for drinks.
Ms Jean Delmonico, legendary Brisbane drag queen
Gene loved drag. As Jean Delmonico, he became a legendary Brisbane drag queen and appeared in several Queen’s Balls in the 70s and 80s. She also attended many parties and nights out at Fortitude Valley nightspots. I always remembered her as Jean Harlow because a large portrait of that star hung in Gene’s lounge room. However, Sybil reminded that much as Gene adored la Harlow, he went by Delmonico himself.
A narrow escape
Very early one Sunday in the late 1970s, I visited at Sybil and her partner Wayne at their Red Hill home for breakfast. Suddenly, a dishevelled and distraught Jean Delmonico burst in.
“Hide me, hide me! The cops are after me.”
After a calming Bacardi and Coke or two, Gene told us she’d ended her night at the notorious Pinocchio’s nite club. The club often operated outside of its licenced hours. Just before dawn police raided the joint.
Jean admitted she was very drunk and probably a bit rude. She recalled asking a sergeant. “Who do you bastards think you are? Starsky and Hutch?”
Dame Sybil remarked, “That would probably do it, dear!”
Jean continued: “They threw me in a full paddy wagon. Then three cops tried to push a large Islander drag queen in as well. She would have none of it. She wedged her feet on either side of the door and grasped the top. The cops swore at the queen and used every racial slur they knew, but they’d met their match.”
‘Carpe Diem’, thought Gene. (Seize the day) She grasped a strap hanging from the overhead rail, leaned back and then swung forward with all her might. She collected Ms Islander midriff forcing her backwards on top of the cops. All four collapsed in a heap on the Ann Street footpath. Jean landed on top of the pile and on her feet. Quickly pulling off her stellies, she hot-footed it around the corner into Brunswick Street. Using the knowledge acquired during her day job as a postie, she made her way through the Valley, Spring Hill and finally Red Hill via backstreets and little-used laneways.
A narrow escape from Joh Bjelke’s uniformed thugs!
On another night, Gene and I perambulated along Ann Street and passed St John’s Anglican Cathedral. Gene mentioned that this was where she served her country during the war. She was cross that the RSL never acknowledged that contribution. I’d never known she served in World War II and asked what branch of the military she’d been in.
‘No pet — the soldiers were all in me!”
She explained that during the war, she offered comfort and companionship, mostly of an oral nature, to innumerable soldiers in the then enclosed space under the bell tower of the cathedral.
In the early 70s, Gene installed a large above ground pool and deck behind her home. The pool was the site of numerous riotous Sunday afternoon BBQs. Late-night nude swimming often followed quite refined dinner parties.
On a summer afternoon, as many as forty inebriates would gather around the pool.
After I moved on, and during one of BrisVegas’ especially rainy weeks, the earth on the slopes of Red Hill became sodden. Gene’s pool and deck gave way and hurtled down through three neighbours back yards. Fences and shrubbery in the avalanche’s path were all demolished.
I asked Dame Sybil for some words that sum Gene up.
“Well, you can’t go past Bette Davis’ final words in Now Voyager.”
‘Why wish for the moon, when you can have the stars!’
Fittingly, at his funeral, attended by as many of nieces and nephews of the Saint family as allowed under current restrictions, the final tune was When the Saints Come Marching In by Louis Armstrong.
VALE Ms Jean Delmonico aka Eugene Alexander Saint. 1927 – 2020.
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