D’yan Forest has lived many lives over the past 8.5 decades. She’s been the only Jewish person in a Christian choir and a Boston housewife in the 1950s, traveled the world performing as a French chanteuse, had a 25-year relationship with an ex-nun, and she became a stand-up comedian in her late 60s. Forest has never shied away from trying new things, which is why she wrote her first book, I Did It My Ways, at the age of 86.
Here’s Forest on her journey.
You grew up in a conservative suburb outside of Boston in the 1940s and ‘50s. When did you realize you might be interested in women?
I reluctantly got married in the late 1950s, and my husband and I went to Provincetown, Mass., for the weekend. I had no idea the town was sort of a safe haven for gay people.
We were walking on Commercial Street and in front of us were two women holding hands. It was at that moment that something was sparked inside of me. I thought, My God, I wish I could do that. That seems so lovely. I was jealous and I couldn’t take my eyes off the couple.
That moment stayed with me, and after my divorce I went to Paris, where I was determined to find out more about women holding hands.
After your divorce you left Boston and moved to Paris for two years, where you dated the second-ever female bus driver. What was that like?
When I first met Michele, I would meet her at some bus stop she told me about and I would ride the bus with her for hours. We’d have “bus dates.” This was my first mad love affair with a woman.
The first time you performed in Paris the show didn’t go quite as you expected. Tell me about that experience.
Elle et Lui was a Paris nightclub with two separate bars and a cabaret stage. Elle was the lesbian part and Lui was the male part of the club. I had made friends with the headliner who asked me to perform a song there.
In the dressing room, I saw all these beautiful women — long legs and gorgeous clothes. They were the most stunning group of women I had ever seen. Then one of them stood in front of me and adjusted her crotch. It was at that moment I realized all these women were men. I had never seen drag performers before. Every day I was getting an education.
What was the performance like?
Well, I figured I couldn’t go wrong because I decided to sing the most popular song in America. It was the title song from the musical Hello, Dolly!… But no one in the audience paid attention.
I finished the song, and at the end the audience was silent. I ran backstage to get my coat. Maria, the singer, rushed up to me and said, “Where are you going? There’s a second show.” I replied, “You’re not going to fire me?” And she said, “No, no, no, but this time pick a different fucking song! A French song.” I sang “La Vie en Rose,” and the audience loved it. Here I was performing in a Paris drag club in the 1960s. I was the original Mrs. Maisel [from the hit Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel].
Long before it was legal for same-sex couples to marry, you were virtually married to an ex-nun, Nell, for 25 years. You two traveled the world together; what are some of the most memorable experiences?
The wildest trip we took is when we went to Krakow. In those days, the late 1980s, Poland was like the Wild West; young men constantly tried to steal our luggage. We went to Auschwitz, which is one of the most horrific places I have ever visited. After walking across the camp to the death chambers we had to walk back to our taxi, which was about a mile walk. At one point we got caught up in the barbed wire enclosures and we couldn’t find a way out. We finally found a place where we could crawl under the barbed wire, and we followed the railroad tracks back to our taxi. After seeing another concentration camp right in the middle of Krakow we were so depressed our taxi driver suggested we leave Poland a day early.
You’re single, nearly 87, what are you looking for in a potential partner?
I’m looking for someone to share my life with and travel. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. If they happen to be a film producer who wants to make my life into a film or documentary, that would be a bonus!
This story is part of The Advocate’s 2021 Film and TV issue, which is out on newsstands October 5, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.