I’ll never look at paper dolls the same again. That’s because I recently befriended the greatest living creator of the art form, 83-year old Tom Tierney.
Now I certainly didn’t go looking to chat up a paper doll artist, which made the whole experience all the more special. Here’s the story…
My boyfriend Doug and I were driving from Houston to Austin last Sunday, and stopped in the little town of Smithville, population c. 4,456. We’d been told it was the best place to browse antique shops while en route. Junk stores is more what Doug considered them. But it was a typically warm and sunny Texas day and Smithville’s Main Street was clean and well preserved. (“Tree of Life” is one of the many films made there.) A nice break in the drive. One lady shop keeper was particularly friendly and said to be sure to check the little store around the corner, which she described as “more European.” We didn’t know if that meant better quality or more gay. But it was just steps away.
As soon as we entered, the gentlemanly old proprietor offered us freshly brewed coffee. It was a tiny shop and we didn’t plan to stay long, and so we politely declined. But the other friendly older man in the shop, seated and smiling, soon started chatting us up. Where are you from, what do you do, etc. And he was as generous with information about himself as he was inquiring about us. He had a shop over on Main Street where he sold his line of paper dolls, though the place was closed on Sunday.
Actually, the same friend who recommended we stop in Smithville for the antiques also mentioned the paper doll shop. At the time that really went in one ear and out the other, but there in front of us was the paper doll man himself, Tom Tierney. He was irresistibly good natured and full of stories, starting with how Liz Smith, the gossip columnist and native Texan, once recommended his work on television, talking about how on a recent visit to the White House she showed his book of Clinton paper dolls to Hillary, who remarked that he got them just about right, underwear and all. “That was pretty great publicity and I just happened to catch it on TV,” he recounted with some understated pride. When I inquired about the extent of his work, he said that the Clinton paper dolls are one of over 500 books of paper dolls that he’s produced over the years.
After hearing that it didn’t take much to persuade Tom to open up the shop to give us a look see. Soon we were strolling half a block down the gravel alley and being escorted through the back entrance. He actually lives in the rear of the shop (zoning restrictions aren’t too strict in Smithville, he said), and so on the way in we saw some of his large paintings hanging in the private space.
The shop is officially named Shangri-la Emporium and includes sundry tchotchkes and a rather sizable array of Hindu statues. But the heart of the business is the large display of paper doll books.
Tom Tierney’s background as a fashion illustrator and years of accomplishments with paper dolls are well known, at least to those who follow such things. Once I laid eyes on the colorful merchandise, I realized I’d glanced past them countless times in souvenir and gift shops over the years.
Although only a portion of his life’s work was on display here in Smithville, it was darned impressive. Soon he was showing us the William and Kate paper dolls, the Obama paper dolls, the vampire paper dolls (with Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and the whole “Twilight” crew), and the fashion designer paper dolls, including runway looks by Dior, Chanel and McQueen. And on and on and on.
Somehow Tom knew to hand me a couple of the more gay-themed paper dolls, which I ended up purchasing. “Life’s a Drag!” is subtitled “a campy salute to the cross-dressing stars of film and television” and features Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Julie Andrews (“Victor Victoria”), Dustin Hoffman (“Tootsie”), Barbra Streisand (“Yentl”), Robin Williams (“Mrs. Doubtfire”), Nathan Lane (“The Birdcage”), and John Travolta (“Hairspray”), among others. A more risque publication is “Attitude: An Adult Paperdoll Book,” which is structured like a Greenwich Village cocktail party c. 1979. First we meet our hostess, Auntie Mary (“She’s load of fun,” reads the brief deadpan narrative), and then all her charming friends, including leather queens and muscle queens, some rough trade and cute little twinks, plus more than a few tired old queens. Every one of these books has the same formate: a figure on the left in their skivvies with their choice attire on the right, ready for cutting out and playing dress-up.
Before we knew it, we were following Tom up the back staircase and into his studio where we got to see scores of original illustrations, some published and some not. Where the “Attitude” book was suggestive, there’s also a large and unpublished body of Tom Tierney work that’s more overt but still meticulous and beautiful. Tennessee Williams, James Dean, Andy Warhol and Rock Hudson are just some of the figures from gay history that Tom’s depicted with his same careful hand and loving eye – and, mind you, without their skivvies.
Throughout all of this show and tell, Tom recounted one terrific story after another from his decades in New York through to his recent semi-retirement back home to Texas. (Just one example: Tennessee Williams was a friend of a friend and Tom ended up making them breakfast on Saturday mornings while they met to work on a project.) But time was running short and Doug and I were expected in Austin. And so we had to hit the road, but only after getting our purchases autographed by Tom, sharing hugs and promising to stay in touch.
The hour or so in Smithville, sandwiched as it was in between a pleasant weekend with friends in Houston and a few days of family obligations in Austin, turned out to be a highlight of our trip. And it wouldn’t have happened if we’d not taken those few steps off the Main Street of Smithville and if we’d not been open to a conversation with a friendly old fellow. Really, it’s anyone’s guess where you’ll find a new friend or a slice of vibrant queer culture.
The only camera I had on hand was in my phone, but I couldn’t resist snapping a few things…
Tom was quiet a looker in his youth, as shown in these photos by Richard Avedon:
Many of Tom’s stories involved getting an approval or a blessing from those who’s images he rendered in paper doll form. This is a detail of an autographed Erte poster:
With my new friend Tom: