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Tears of a clown: St. Pete’s Deb Carson writes about her Uncle ‘Flo’

Bill DeYoung

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Deb Carson giving a "book talk" presentation at the St. Pete Beach library. Photo: Larry Feldman

As a child growing up in 1960s Baltimore, Deb Carson loved the every-December family vacations to Sarasota, to stay with her grandparents at the small home they shared with Great Uncle Albert, grandma’s older brother, for two or three weeks at a stretch.

Uncle Albert was a bit of an eccentric – in a way that fascinated everyone. At that time, he was a senior clown with the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. He spent 10 months out of the year touring the country, and Sarasota was the company’s winter headquarters. So he was home and rested, his whiteface makeup and elaborate costumes tucked away till January.

1965, Sarasota: Albert White with Deb (left) and Sue Carson.

Carson and her siblings loved to hear his tales about the road, about the strange and wonderful people he encountered with regularity. About the Hollywood circus movies he’d appeared in.

Albert White had been a professional clown since in 1920s, and had worked his way up the ladder to reach the golden gig with Ringling, the nation’s top circus. He was a “drag clown,” which meant the character he “portrayed” under the Big Top was female. She was known, famously, as Flo.

“My grandmother and my uncle would have a Christmas party every year, which was really funny,” Carson says. “He would have all of his friends from the circus, and my grandmother would have all of their neighbors. It was quite a gathering of very interesting folks. An interesting mix of people.”

Albert White died in 1974, when Carson was 19, but she never forgot about him, or the stories her grandmother, and her mother, shared when he wasn’t in the room – that he had left home, at the age of 16, to escape an abusive father. Albert had literally run away to join the circus and never looked back.

Carson’s curiosity led her to research and write Becoming Flo, a thin but nonetheless riveting biography. The book documents her uncle’s beginnings, as the black sheep in a family of Russian Orthodox Jews, to his acceptance and embrace from the circus community. He was an outsider welcomed into a family of outsiders.

For Carson, there was a surprise waiting around every corner. “His was an amazing story to begin with,” she explains. “And the more I researched it, it really struck me about the power of art, and his courage, and what he had to do to transcend bigotry and anti-Semitism and homophobia. Within his own family.”

Ringling Brothers clowns, circa 1964: Flo is second from left. Florida Archives.

Circus life, particularly in the earlier decades of the 20th Century, was hard. It’s a testimony to his resolve that Abraham Isadore Meyrowitz (the name on Albert White’s birth certificate) chose it over his own Maryland family home.

Becoming Flo is described by its author (right there on the cover) as “A Mostly True Story.” Although she was aware of the various troupes that employed her uncle – where he was and what he was doing at any given time – no records exist of how he felt about certain things, or who helped him up the stairs to the Big Top. Carson had a road map, but describing some of the stops along the way required a little creative license.

She learned a lot about her uncle from his longtime friend and fellow clown Jackie LeClaire, who sat for three lengthy interviews at his home in Sarasota. “He was the one who told us how Albert lived his life as a woman, and truly believed that he was a woman in a man’s body,” Carson says.

“We never knew that. Back in those days, it was a binary thing – people just assumed you were either straight or you were gay. And it was never really discussed. But that was the feeling of the family – ‘Uncle Albert’s gay.’ And I came to believe that wasn’t the case.”

From Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” 1952. Screen grab.

Jackie was one of Albert’s closest friends. “He never went by anything other than Flo among his circus family members,” he told Carson.

“The big takeaway from Jackie, and the big takeaway for me, was who cared? No one within that welcoming community, that safe harbor community, no one cared. This is the way Jackie put it: No one care who you kissed. The only thing that people cared about was, how good are you?”

Deb Carson has spent much of her own life in and around the arts (she worked at the Palladium Theater, for example, for more than a decade); she believes she inherited what she and her cousins always referred to as ‘the Flo gene.’”

Writing his story, she says, “was in the back of my mind for a long time – his life, to me, even before I met Flo, was always very remarkable.”

She says she also wrote it as a sort of allegory for these troubling times. “I really wanted to share the story of a person who, against all odds, really was able to muster the courage to live an amazing life on his – on her – own terms. And that maybe it would help those who similarly struggle. The story illuminates a way out.”

Becoming Flo ($25) is available directly from the author at debcarsonwrites@gmail.com.

Florida Archives

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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