Book: Cruelly Yours, Elvira (Cassandra Peterson, 2022)

Although I am a CIS heterosexual man, and the sight of female breasts silences all other thoughts in my brain, I have always found it tacky that Elvira’s prestigious bosom seems to be all most guys ever notice about her.  Myself, I always think of what a quick wit she is.  Still, I have never been much a fan of her because I tend to find her shtick a bit too cartoonish and repetitive.

So I found myself to be the perfect audience for her autobiography, Cruelly Yours, Elvira.  Stepping outside of her most famous persona, the quick humor of Cassandra Peterson is allowed to shine through without being filtered through the camp burlesque of Elvira.

Beginning with her childhood, I’m not sure why I was surprised to learn she was a monster-loving geek from the get-go.  She would read Famous Monsters magazine and requested model kids of famous monsters for Christmas.  “While my sisters played with Barbie, Midge and Ken, I spent hours lovingly assembling and painting my little monsters.  I have no idea how much time I spent on them, probably because I was high from the glue and enamel-paint fumes.”

That quote is a good example of the Peterson we come to know from her writing—frank and direct admissions followed by a solid laugh.  Her teenage years were especially rich fodder for such one-two punches, as puberty hits her like a truck, giving her an hourglass figure when she was still an apparently reserved and awkward girl.

In those years, it seems the one escape she finds is in dance.  When a teenage girl with a physicality of a woman can only find peace in her mind by dancing in clubs, I can only assume she was basically thrown into the deep end of life before learning how to swim.  And yet she finds much self-deprecating humor in those moments, such as losing a bikini contest.  Just try to read this line without hearing it in her voice: “You can tell I’m still bitter because I remember the details like it was yesterday.”

Curiously, her love of clubs and dancing leads her to occasionally perform in drag, as she had many friends who were into that scene.  By her account, she was quite successful at being a woman pretending a man pretending to be a woman, but the extent of what nature gave her makes seem highly unlikely.

Her love of clubs and dancing leads to her joining a Vegas topless revue when she was only seventeen.  This was actually on the level, and the producer of the show secured the permission of her parents to hire her.  I find I am still unable to wrap my brain around her parent’s approval of this arrangement, especially when her mother’s treatment of her throughout her childhood is draconian.

One would think her autobiography would get heavily into sordid sexual material once she is alone in Vegas as a showgirl (I mean, Showgirls, amirite?).  And there will be allusions to many liaisons, though this isn’t a kiss-and-tell kind of book.  Hell, she hung out with Hendrix and didn’t lay him.  I especially liked how she graduated from high school still a virgin, while many of her female classmates who dubbed her the school slut were knocked up by the time they donned the gown and mortarboard.

Surprisingly, given the era, there isn’t much about drugs, as her experimentation with them yields less-than-stellar results: “She definitely wasn’t as stoned as I was or she would have realized the car was no longer solid—just a huge, gelatinous glob of multicolored goo.  Miraculously, the goo-mobile got us safely to my parents’ house, which was the last place on Earth I wanted to be in my state.”

So, instead of the salacious material would expect to find here, this is largely a compendium of deeply bizarre anecdotes.  For a while, she lived with a bodybuilder in a one-room tree house he built in the Hollywood hills.  She once went on a double date with a young Schwarzenegger, who was apparently shy and sweet.  John Paragon, director of her first feature (as well as Jambi from Pee Wee’s Playhouse, has a Magic 8-ball with some of Phil Hartman’s ashes in it. 

The connection between those three began with their work in LA comedy improv group The Groundlings.  This is also where she met Paul Reubens, later to find fame as his Pee Wee Herman persona.  Remember the scene “Tequila” scene in Pee Wee’s Big Advenure, where the bikers are deciding what to do with him and there’s that biker girl was says, “I say leave him to me”?  That’s Cassandra in a cameo.

Unfortunately, as happens to many women working in show business, she is on the receiving end of many insults, threats, assaults and generally unwanted contact.  She tries to impart upon her male readers the devastating and cumulative effect this has a woman: “It’s virtually impossible to communicate to a man how deeply these experiences affect a woman’s sense of self and every other aspect of her life, but let me try.”  The hypothetical scenario of man-on-man rape she relates is effectively disturbing.

Autobiographies don’t usually have a “twist” but this one does.  That I already knew of this before starting the book doesn’t change how much it surprised me when she finally finds true love, and it is with another woman.  I wonder if that alienates any of her (predominately) male fan base, but she doesn’t care if it does—as, indeed, nobody should let the hangups of others decided who they love.

Cruelly Yours still won’t turn me into a die-hard Elvira fan, but it the most enjoyable of her work I have become familiar with so far.  As much as you can get to know a person from their writing, I feel like she takes the reader into her confidence and we’re just hanging out with her for a while.  Thanks for letting me spend some time with you, Cassandra.