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Recovers the life and art of Bradford Ropes, author of 42nd Street and chronicler of gay lives in early show business

Table of contents

List of Figures
The Enduring Myth of 42nd Street and the “Forgotten Melody” of Bradford Ropes
The Stories of Ropes’s Backstage Trilogy
Peering Back at “Proper Boston”
Drag Reveals and “Strange Interludes”:
Billy Bradford’s Dances on Broadway
“This is Not a Book to Give to a Maiden Aunt”:
The Influence of Backstage Novels and “Pansy Craze” Novels
“Light-Hearted and Damned”:
Anti-Gay Discrimination and Camp Defiance in Ropes’s Backstage Novels
“Your Blood Responds More Eagerly to the Lure of the Theatre”:
The Backstage Trilogy, the Puritan Ethos, and the Myth of “The Show Must Go On”
Bringing Back Bradford Ropes


Greasepaint Puritan details the life and work of Bradford Ropes, author of the bawdy 1932 novel 42nd Street, on which the classic film and its stage adaptation are based. Inspired by Ropes’s own experiences as a performer, 42nd Street “reads less like a novel than like a documentary about the lives of New York’s theatre people and, above all, about the practicalities, the personalities, and the sexual politics that go into the making of a show,” according to Richard Brody in The New Yorker. Why did Ropes’s body of work—which included a trilogy of backstage novels—and consequently his biographical footsteps, disappear into obscurity?
Descended from Mayflower Pilgrims, Ropes rebelled against the “Proper Bostonian” life, in a career that touched upon the Jazz Age, American vaudeville, and theater censorship. Greasepaint Puritan follows Ropes’s successful career as both a performer and the author of the backstage novels 42nd StreetStage Mother, and Go Into Your Dance. Populated by scheming stage mothers, precocious stage children, grandiose bit players, and tart-tongued chorines, these novels centered on the lives and relationships of gay men on Broadway during the Jazz Age and Prohibition era. Rigorously researched, Greasepaint Puritan chronicles Ropes’s career as a successful screenwriter in 1930s and ’40s Hollywood, where he continued to be a part of a dynamic gay subculture within the movie industry before returning to obscurity in the 1950s. His legacy lives on in the Hollywood and Broadway incarnations of 42nd Street—but Greasepaint Puritan restores the “forgotten melody” of the man who first envisioned its colorful characters. 

Maya Cantu is a dramaturg, interdisciplinary scholar, and historian who teaches on the Drama Faculty of Bennington College. She is also the author of American Cinderellas on the Broadway Musical Stage: Imagining the Working Girl from “Irene” to “Gypsy”

“Ropes’s biography and backstage novels offer an illuminating view of class and the social caste of blue-blooded Bostonians at the turn of the 20th century. Additionally, Ropes’s stealth entrance into vaudeville intersected with the Pansy Craze, the Harlem Renaissance, and the emergence of Jewish musical theatre composers banging out tunes in Tin Pan Alley. For musical theatre scholars, queer history aficionados, and literary criticism enthusiasts, Greasepaint Puritan is the book we have been waiting for.”

- James F. Wilson, author of Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance

“Extremely well researched, Greasepaint Puritan offers a compelling argument for reclaiming Bradford Ropes as an important figure in queer and theatrical culture.”

- Jordan Schildcrout, author of In the Long Run: A Cultural History of Broadway’s Hit Plays

“A significant contribution to our further understanding and appreciation of American theater and entertainment in the mid-20th century. Bradford Ropes deserves a bright spotlight, and Maya Cantu has provided it.”

- Jack F. Sharrar, author of Avery Hopwood: His Life and Plays

"A well-researched and thorough illumination of a writer who deserves to be better known. For fans, performers, and creators of musical theater."

- Library Journal

Listen: Author Interview on Broadway Nation | February 22, 2024
Read: Author Q&A | January 15, 2024