I have dealt with a lot of death through my LGBTQ history quest over the past 16 years. I get deeply involved on a personal level with many of the people I feature in my work. It is tough to separate my work documenting their stories from my investment in their legacies. Camille O’Grady (1949-2020) is no exception.
I first learned about Camille when I watched Uncle Bob, the documentary on Robert Opel. I was intrigued by the narrative and its DIY structure. While it is a fitting tribute by Robert Opel’s nephew, it leaves many questions unanswered. I have been researching Robert Opel’s story for five years, off and on, at weird hours on weird days. I am not going to spill the beans now, but… Robert Opel. He is most remembered for streaking the 1974 Oscar awards. In March 1978, he opened a homoerotic gallery in San Francisco called Fey-Way Studios, which hosted the artist Tom of Finland’s first U.S. exhibition and featured the early works of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and artist Rex.
Robert Opel’s story is convoluted and crazy, but in short, after the backlash of ex-cop Dan White’s assassinating Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, the gay community thought something was suspicious. The following Pride march on June 24, 1979, Camille, Robert Opel, Ruby Zebra, and others performed “The Mock Execution of Dan White,” which was their take on what would have happened if a gay man had killed Dan White and the police had been involved in Milk’s assassination. Opel dressed in leather as “Gay Justice” and fake-executed a friend representing White. Camille played with her band.
Camille O'Grady with skull by Jim Stewart, author of Folsom Street Blues, (circa 1979); Advert from The Bay Area Reporter for Robert Opel's "Mock Execution of Dan White," June 1979, (bottom left); The San Francisco Chronicle on Robert Opel's murder, July 9, 1979, courtesy of Jack Fritscher's archive (bottom right).
Days later, on July 8, 1979, Robert Opel was murdered at Fey-Way Studios. He was there with Camille and their friend Anthony Rogers when two junkie types—Robert Kelly and Maurice Keenan—walked in and said either, “This is for Dana” or “This is from Dana.” Robert and Camille replied that Dana was not there and mentioned that they did not like Dana. Kelly tied Camille and Anthony up in the back room, and Keenan executed Robert with a shotgun blast to the head. The murder was labeled a “drug deal gone wrong,” but although drugs and money were present, neither was taken. Kelly and Keenan left with just $5 and a camera despite having been offered cash by the victims, who originally believed they were being robbed. Many suspicious things followed. Some points: On Camille’s first visit to the police station for her initial interview after the murder, she encountered Dana, who was there casually sitting next to the police. She asked the officers why Dana was there. They ignored her, and then Dana told her that he had set the entire scenario up (supplying the sawed-off shotgun, etc.). He whispered as the police listened in. She saw him again on several subsequent visits to the police station. When the police flashed the evidence box to Camille and Anthony, it was labeled “homocide” instead of “homicide.” Also, Keenan escaped from police custody three times. One time he walked out of his unlocked jail cell in plain clothes. I will not write more about the suspected police complicity in Opel’s murder because this newsletter is about Camille and potential safety concerns. [If you have anything to say about this, write to me…]
Back to Camille, I wish I knew more about her, but there is so much mystery to her story. I think she wanted it that way. I have 20 hours of her talking about Robert Opel on tape and only two hours of her talking about herself. A tragic case of she’s “just in the hospital. I’ll call tomorrow.” Tomorrow never came. I was in her last Instagram post, which may have predicted COVID.
Camille’s life was inspired by her psychic inclinations. They provided her answers when needed and guided her throughout her life. Throughout it all, she remained grounded. She was a graphic artist, turned musician, turned performance artist, turned jack of all trades. She referred to herself as a “multimedium” artist. Camille was a leather icon and one of the only women allowed in the infamous New York 1970s leather sex bar, the Mineshaft. She was an early leather “Drag King” and won competitions—people genuinely thought her second self, Jack Savage, was a man.
In 1977, Camille toured the East Coast with street punk legend Lou Reed for his Street Hassle album. Lou described Camille as “Patti Smith without a social conscience.” Her ex-partner from her days at Pratt, Robert Mapplethorpe, also referenced Smith when describing Camille, calling her “a second-rate Patti Smith.” I prefer Patti Smith without a social conscience, and a recently discovered demo tape may prove that Patti Smith was pulling a Camille with her schtick.
After Opel’s murder, Camille went underground. I wish I would have asked about these lost years. Where was she? People thought she was dead, possibly another casualty of AIDS. She told me, “After the trial, I got really sick and almost died. By 1984, I had completely dropped out, but now I am back!” Camille, indeed, came back until she passed away from a sudden, mysterious illness on March 17, 2020.
Postscript: I was reviewing one of my Camille tapes, and I promised her I would tell the story about Robert Opel’s murder. One day, Camille. I did promise you.
—August Bernadicou, Executive Director of The LGBTQ History Project
Camille O’Grady by Glenda Hydler, circa 1979.
“I was born in Orange, New Jersey and grew up in Montclair, a very nice and beautiful upper-class city about half an hour from New York. I've always had unusual perceptions of things happening. I remember discovering that maybe I was a little different when I was four. It was in the summer, and there was a thunderstorm. I was supposed to be in bed, but I had this picture of a tree getting hit by lightning next to my window and the tree coming through the window.
I went to my parent's room and asked to sleep in their room for safety. My mother thought something was wrong because I was never afraid of anything as a kid. Sure enough, about 15 minutes later, a tree came crashing down through the roof. I would also always blurt out things that were happening with other people that nobody told me about. I learned that sometimes I shouldn't say anything because it was stuff I didn't want people to know about.
Also, as a kid, I realized I was anti-gender. I found it irritating and limiting when people would say boys can’t do this and girls can’t do that. So many creative breakthroughs were made by gay people. Pushing the sexual envelope was such a big deal back then because it spilled over into every other approach in life. Art was led by people from gay culture, and I recognized that.
My music was always sexual, but it wasn't like pornography. It was erotic. I had a song called Toilet Kiss. I wasn't trying to be sexual, but I started writing things from the interior of the male sexual point of view. I’ve always felt I may have been a twin—I have this male side. Toilet Kiss is about a person having a sexual encounter in a New York subway. The song echoes and has a church-like feeling. It started with a chalice ring, like a Catholic church bell, and then I sang it in Gregorian chant.
There are hardly any recordings of me because every time something major was supposed to happen—you wouldn't believe how many near misses I’ve had. Something was supposed to happen, and then something terrible would stop it, and the situation would collapse.
I was one of three women let into the notorious leather sex bar, the Mineshaft. I had friends who went to those bars, and I went with them. I had a very unique situation in that community. It was a regular part of what I did for fun with my friends. When I lived in Chelsea, I would see these men in leather, and I was instantly intrigued. I would perform at these leather clubs on the West side, and people would have sex. I also performed at the Eagles Nest and the Spike, which were the two big ones—they were really just sex clubs but hardcore. We were fortunate that they would also let us rehearse at these bars. I was in the movie New York City Inferno performing while people were having sex. I acted like the Queen of Hell.
One of my bands was called Leather Secrets, and David Bowie mentioned us when he saw us perform at CBGBs before the punk bands started performing there. My band was one of the first ones to have a following there. It’s interesting. I didn't get written into New York history as much as I was present in it so far. A lot of people have written about me in books and things since.
When the time came to leave New York, I packed everything up. I went to San Francisco to visit a guy I was a bit corresponding with, who I'd met a few times in New York. Right away, I was supposed to meet Robert Opel. Robert Mapplethorpe put us in contact. Robert Opel had read some articles about me, and he wanted to meet up, so I ended up staying in San Francisco. Mapplethorpe told me Robert had a homoerotic art gallery called Fey-Way and that he was very interested in my work and performances. After we met and became partners, my life changed forever.”
NSFW: Camille O’Grady performing in New York City Inferno by Jacques Scandelari, 1978.
Camille O'Grady (center) with the Bernadicou family (August Bernadicou in red) at the Stud Bar in San Francisco, December 20, 2019.