UPDATE | Atlanta drag legend Diamond Lil dies at 80
Friends are rallying around Atlanta drag pioneer and one-time antiques dealer Diamond Lil, whose performances date to the pre-Stonewall era. The legendary queen is suffering from cancer and was recently moved to a hospice.
Friends sounded the alarm about Diamond Lil's health in a Facebook post on July 3, revealing to fans that she's been battling cancer for more than a year.
Our Diamond Lil is in very poor health these days. She has tried to keep her health conditions private from her fans and even close friends because she cares too much about you to worry you. Diamond has only wanted to be someone who brings joy and happiness to people thru her art. But it's now important as the administrator of this fan page to reveal the sad truth. Diamond has been living with cancer for over a year now. She has been so very strong by performing when she can and staying socially active. Diamond has always loved her audience and peers and fans and friends very dearly. Now she needs their support.
Diamond can no longer live on her own. She is currently staying at a facility that has been evaluating her condition. It has been decided that she must move into a care facility or with someone who can watch after her. Her cancer is in an advanced stage and we want to assure that the legend that has brought so much and entertainment and history to our community can live her remaining life in comfort and love.
In late June, Diamond Lil was moved from Piedmont Hospital to a hospice in Marietta. On July 14, she was moved to Our Lady Of Perpetual Help Home, a facility in southwest Atlanta that cares for indigent cancer patients. Friend Robin Davidson updated fans through Diamond Lil's Caring Bridge page:
Diamond settled into, “Our Lady Of Perpetual Help Home” this morning & seems to be adjusting in just fine.
I wish that I could report to all of you that he would like to have visitors now that he's in his new home but he still insist he's not ready. Hopefully as he adjust he will change his mind with a little help from his love ones.
I can report that Diamond has grown stronger in the past few weeks & surprised us all. The much needed care & rest he's received in the past few weeks has helped tremendously. There's life in the “ole” gal yet.
Please rally around & send well wishes to show him how much he's loved & missed. The address I posted on the 10th is correct.
Thank you all for the love & support you've shown on caring bridge & face book. I haven't as of yet been able to read every message to him but I have made sure he knows everyone's name that has shared sentiment.
We know that it has touched his heart.
On Tuesday, friends said Diamond Lil is resting and asked for prayers.
Diamond is resting somewhat peacefully in his new home at Our Lady Of Perpetual. He's very quiet & soft spoken when he speaks but most of the time he sleeps. As all of you can imagine accepting what lies ahead is not easy. I wish I could report that he would like to see his friends but he clearly does not. Try to put yourself in his position. The last thing you would want to do is be “on” for company.
All that we can do is let him rest & pray his journey is peaceful.
As far as I can see the care he's getting is great. The staff does whatever needs to be done to keep him as comfortable as possible.
Your love & well wishes are most appreciated by him & his family.
Diamond Lil has done yoga with the gay grays, held court with Santa at Heretic and offered wedding advice to the gays who marry. In 2015, she was among a handful of LGBT trailblazers honored by Atlanta Pride in 2015. Ahead of the event, held with Touching Up Our Roots, organizers offered this biography of Diamond Lil:
Diamond Lil brings female impersonation to new heights, singing and song writing and recording in her own voice. First performing on Savannah radio in the 1940s as a little boy, in the 1950s Diamond entertained the sailors “who would throw me in the air” as she sang and danced on the ships docked in Savannah’s harbor.
Threatened with long term jail time for numerous harassment arrests, Diamond settled in Atlanta in the 1960s and became a major cultural influence, inspiring musicians like Ru Paul, Fred Schneider and the B-52s, and singer Jayne County (and perhaps ever Michael Stipe and REM).
Headlining many benefits for lgbt causes, Diamond especially helped the University of Georgia’s first lgbt student group, the Committee on Gay Education, survive in the 1970s, when she performed torch songs like “Stand By Your Man” to thunderous applause at benefits. Ultimately after long court fights, the UGA gave up on throwing the COGE off campus.
In 2014, readers of the Georgia Voice voted Diamond Lil as Icon in the media outlet's Best of Atlanta awards. Last August, she dished with the Georgia Voice that it takes her eight hours to dress for a performance. And her best night ever? She cleared $200.
'You can't be a prophet in your own hometown'
Diamond Lil was born Phillip Forrester in Savannah on Dec. 28, 1935. It wasn't long before the performances started in the coastal city and the times – and her drag – prompted a move to Atlanta in 1965, according to a must-read Creative Loafing profile.
She respectfully asks that her given name not be revealed either, and she's equally dodgy about her history before the persona of Diamond Lil was born. What she will say is this: The boy who would become the city's drag godmother was already doing dress-up at age 5, playing in the yard wearing his sister's clothes, a practice his mother quickly stopped.
At 17 he found a like-minded friend in Sophie, an overweight drag princess in training. One Halloween night, the two Savannah teenagers got dolled up in evening gowns and crashed an exclusive party at the American Legion on Tybee Island. They drank and flirted with a table of rowdy Air Force men who didn't immediately realize they were guys. But after several drinks, Sophie admitted to the facade, forcing the duo to exit the party early. Driving home from the party, they were followed by two of the soldiers, who shot out a tire on their car. At gunpoint, one of the men forced Diamond to perform oral sex on him.
“It was so scary,” Diamond says, “there's no words for it. But I made a decision that night that I was out. A real weird way to come out, though.”
Being out had its drawbacks. Because of her sexual orientation, Diamond was eventually discharged from the Air National Guard and fired from a secretarial job at Seaboard Railroad. After a run-in with the Savannah police — she was arrested for a drummed-up loitering charge — she decided it was time to take her talents elsewhere.
The obvious choice: Atlanta. She arrived in 1965. The city as she describes it was then a charming, small Southern town of big porches and wicker chairs. She settled down with a husband for a while and started a small antiques business near the intersection of Peachtree and 11th streets. She dabbled in drag, performing under the name Leslie Diamond at a friend's show in Columbus, Ohio, and at a short-lived gay bar in Buckhead, which was quickly shut down by the cops.
And by 1968, though her antiques business was closed, Diamond Lil was headlining her own drag show. Via the Loaf:
In 1968, Diamond's friend Chuck Cain asked her to headline a new drag show he was starting. Cain managed Mrs. P's, a small restaurant with a mixed-gay clientele in the basement of the Ponce de Leon Hotel, and had worked out an “arrangement” with the cops. He could host drag shows there, but only on weeknights and he couldn't advertise it.
Mrs. P's was an unlikely performance space. The tiny supper club, with wooden booths and a $1.25 filet mignon dinner special, drew lunchtime crowds from the nearby Sears building (now City Hall East). At night it turned “sort of gay,” Diamond says.
Diamond Lil was big in Atlanta's growing gay scene in the 1970s and early '80s, according to Creative Loafing, but the AIDS epidemic took its toll.
Diamond Lil was a constant presence on the city's quickly growing gay scene of the '70s and early '80s, and soon her popularity extended beyond the bar scene. She began writing a human interest column for the gay newspaper Sunset People, which eventually led to a popular advice column in the nightlife magazine Cruise. No self-respecting homo in town didn't know the name Diamond Lil.
But in the mid-'80s, Diamond Lil's luster began to fade. She cut back on performing to focus on a new antiques business she'd opened in Buckhead. Meanwhile, the landscape of gay life began to change. When asked about the onset of the AIDS epidemic, Diamond visibly freezes up.
“It just got hold of a lot of people all of a sudden,” she says. “It happened in just two or three years.”
A few years ago, Diamond Lil re-released her LP “Queen of Diamonds” on disc as part of a comeback that also included shows at a handful of local venues. But, according to Creative Loafing, it's been a struggle.
Diamond's friend Al Brock convinced her to re-release her LP on disc. The newly digital Queen of Diamonds showcases her live act at its best. Though several of the songs don't rise much above novelty tracks (“Jailhouse Jezebel,” “Queen of the Dunk N' Dine”), they do give glimpse of her appeal. Her opening monologue for “Silver Grill,” recorded live at The Bistro, is a rare gem of forgotten Atlanta folklore, a tale of cruising through Piedmont Park in the early '70s “when it used to be so nice to pick up something strange by the lake.”
In the past year, Diamond's played venues as varied as Fuzzy's, the Star Bar and Eddie's Attic, as well as gigs at a fundraiser for the Atlanta Church of Religious Science and the Cabbagetown Festival, where she handed out wedges of cabbage. But Diamond's biggest challenge is finding good gigs, venues that'll give her a chance to do more than just a walk-on during someone else's show. She's able to secure guest appearances because her name still carries some weight in town, but she can't figure out what exactly caused her star to fall.
“You can't be a prophet in your own hometown,” she says. “The town won't let you.”