I am writing this as New York City is on an “enforced” COVID-19 stay-at-home order. I am pounding with emotions, hammered, hammered—my friend Camille O’Grady is dead.
I first learned about Camille through the documentary Uncle Bob, an exposé on her comrade-in-art, Robert Opel's, setup murder. Opel was a San Francisco gallerist who was the first to show Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic photography, Tom of Finland, Rex and many others in America. He was also the man who streaked the Oscars in 1974.
In 2019, I messaged Camille on Instagram, and we set up a phone interview for my project. We made a lot of progress: 40 hours of recorded interviews in six months.
We finally met in person in July of the same year. She was a 3D extension of her phone-voice, wearing all black and 30 different pieces of silver jewelry. We ate Mexican food and looked out the window at the San Francisco sun. Her jewelry clanked as she set her burrito on her plate, an interruption before she entered a stream-of-conscious trance. Between each bite, a thirty-minute monologue, continuation, rapid-fire.
We then met again in December, two months before she died. A photo of us is forever documented in her last Instagram and Facebook post with a caption that includes, “This year is going to force our hand with game-changing events… I expect some real event around Jan 12 that will possibly be traumatic in the US, though I am really hoping we will learn important lessons in its wake, and be ready to use the wake-up calls we have been getting to make those long overdue and sorely necessary changes in this dawning year and decade.”
She wasn’t far off. On January 21, 2020, the US announced the first identified COVID-19 case.
Camille O'Grady was a graphic artist, turned musician, turned performance artist, turned jack of all trades. She called herself a “multimedium” artist.
Camille was a leather icon and the only woman allowed in the infamous New York leather, sex bar, the Mineshaft. She was an early leather Drag King and won competitions—people thought her second self, Jack Savage, was a man!
In 1978, Camille toured the West 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, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, also referenced the punk poet when describing Camille, calling her “a second-rate Patti Smith.”
Neither were true. Camille O’Grady was more than that and could not be limited by half sentences. She was a psychic, magik, forever with one foot in this plane and the others. Patti Smith just sees, Camille felt.
In 1979, Camille moved to San Francisco. That year forever changed Camille’s life: the previously mentioned Robert Opel, her comrade-in-art, was murdered. After the trial, she stayed in San Francisco as long as she could until she eventually fled. No one heard from her. People thought she was dead, possibly another casualty to AIDS. Like she told me, “After the trial, I got really, really sick and almost died. By 1984, I had completely dropped out; but, now I am back!” Camille did come back.
CAMILLE O'GRADY PERFORMIN IN NEW YORK CITY INFERNO
New York City Inferno is a 1978 French experimental gay pornographic film by Jacques Scandelari. The film follows Jérôme
(Alain-Guy Giraudon), a Parisian man who has traveled to New York City in search of his lover Paul (Bob Bleecker).
New York City Inferno is directed by Scandelari, who also wrote the film's screenplay based on a concept by Elliott Stein.