The Zebedy Colt Teenage Sex (?) Scandal

Continued from “My Own Private Zebedy Colt

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One of the heartbreaking things about writing any scholarly article (beyond the near-certainty that virtually no one on earth will ever read it) is having to chop content to hit word-count limits, which happens to me every time. Perhaps I’m just verbose. In any case, GLQ has a generous limit of 11,000 words—but by the time I was finished revising “Sex Wishes and Virgin Dreams,” I was at some absurd level in the 16,000 range. Something had to give, and there weren’t that many adjectives and adverbs.

So, the historical side ultimately disappeared. Which is ironic, since I’m an historian. But GLQ, which is the pioneering journal in queer studies, while deeply interdisciplinary (I mean, check out the table of contents for this issue with my Colt article!), skews theoretical, and so my textual analysis of Colt’s films didn’t need to remain tethered to my more biographical discussion (much as, in a word-unlimited utopia, I would have liked to publish THE DEFINITIVE Zebedy Colt article).

Most of what was sacrificed at the altar of brevity is already public knowledge, if less familiar to scholars in porn studies and queer studies than it is to fan communities. I dug for a Zebedy Colt archive (probably the subject of my next post!), but in the end, no source goes deeper than JD Doyle’s fantastically rich Colt page on Queer Music Heritage (the entire site is a true gem of the internet). I suppose I had a brief passage about Colt’s songwriting for the Del Tenney 1964 drive-in hit Horror of Party Beach which I found difficult to part with for sentimental reasons (mostly, my attachment to the experience of digging for subversively queer content in banal beach music—of which there wasn’t much, except perhaps a few mildly ambiguous lines in “The Zombie Stomp” which declared, “Baby, baby, don’t be scared/’Cause I’m standing here looking kinda weird”).

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But here’s one thing I cut that, as far as I can tell, has never been noticed before: the Zebedy Colt teenage sex scandal! (Okay, as we shall see below, it might have involved sex. But it certainly involved intimations of sexuality, so in the spirit of exploitation, I’m running with the more sensationalistic headline).

First, some context: before he was Zebedy Colt, gay liberationist singer and porn actor/filmmaker, Edward Earle Marsh was a musical boy prodigy, born in 1929 (or thereabouts–see below). Colt lore has him appearing as a child in Babes in Toyland (1934) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), though I’ve never been quite sure how apocryphal that is (James Hollenbaugh, who’s been working for some time on a Zebedy Colt documentary, will hopefully clarify that when the film arrives!)

The first documentary evidence of Colt’s life that I located was in the June 1, 1941, Los Angeles Times:

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Later that year (Sept. 30), another brief LA Times piece refers to him as a “piano genius”!

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Again, LAT, March 25, 1942: “unusual sensitivity” on the piano this time.

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And May 24, 1943, playing “Dark Dancers of the Mardi Gras”:

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By June 18, 1944, the now 14-year-old Earle’s “Misbehaving Clocks” is being performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra!

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(the 1948 Catalog of Copyright Entries for Published Music gives his birth date as 1930, BTW, in contrast to the 1929 of Wikipedia and IMDB).

Now, if you’re reading closely, you’ll have noticed that one name recurs alongside Earle’s in every single article. To perhaps drive the point home with a sledgehammer, here is Earle on January 13, 1946 winning the surely-impartial Charles Wakefield Cadman prize:

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Charles Wakefield Cadman, based on my reading of his Wikipedia page, was a white composer who capitalized on co-opting Native American musical traditions, though he did it skillfully to be sure (I’m rocking some “From the Land of the Clear Blue Water” as I type).

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And then, he died. The January 10, 1947 LA Times fills in the story (and provides the pic up top), the “stirring story of a great artist and a gifted boy.” Some useful Zebedy Colt biographical info here, too:

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Notably, there are no references here to young Edward appearing in films. And his attendance at USC contradicts a claim in a lengthy Metasex Colt profile that he attended UCLA alongside Kenneth Anger and fellow queer underground filmmaker Curtis Harrington, befriending both (I believe Harrington did attend UCLA, though looks like Anger went to USC, so it’s still possible they connected there—I certainly love the idea).

In any case, the AP wire version of the story cuts more to the chase. Here’s the Bakersfield Californian, Jan. 9, 1947, with the telling last line: “He was a bachelor.”

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We get some tantalizing, if elusive, glimpses of Cadman’s private life in this April 6, 1946 Pantagraph Sun article from Illinois, detailing his long and intimate friendship with Doc Bradshaw. Some details on Earle, too.

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And then, the controversy begins. Back to the LA Times, July 30, 1947: Cadman’s nephew, Donald Wakefield Smith, files suit, claiming Earle held Cadman under “a peculiar and unlawful power.”

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While this was local coverage from a paper that had provided in-depth reporting before, the Times was curiously evasive. Compare the Harrisburg Telegraph article of the same day, which adds some language: Earle and his mother here are accused of “taking advantage of [Cadman’s] peculiar nervous and physical infirmities.”

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In 1947, this is unmistakably the thinly-coded language of homosexuality. I see no other way to read it: Edward Earle is accused of seducing (either sexually or romantically, or both) the aging bachelor composer to bilk him out of his estate. That this completely inverts the power dynamics of the duo is immaterial; it’s the implied queerness alone that renders it actionable. It’s Death in Venice by way of Double Indemnity, with more than just clocks misbehaving.

Gay-baiting was something of can’t-lose proposition in Cold War America, but nephew Smith must have done it poorly: no news for a year, and then December 2, 1948, LA Times:

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The final press coverage comes on January 4, 1949: settlement approved. After all that, Smith gets an extra thousand bucks.

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So, in the end, more smoke than fire, perhaps. We can probably never know the actual nature of the Cadman/Earle relationship, though it adds an appropriately perverse twist to the Zebedy Colt story. It also fleshes out our biographical sense of Colt, in terms of his financial security and artistic foundations.

But if, for all that, you’re disappointed by the lack of actual teenage sex here, I suppose there’s always Sharon from 1977, with Jean Jennings as Colt’s daughter, and roles reversed with Our Man of Art and Smut in the now-straight Cadman role…

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