Smith rescued her grandmother's china, but lost boxes of photos from 1920s A.C. Her closets ravaged by water, she had to toss a modern museum of vintage patterns and sequins spanning two decades of gay glamour.
And so Smith and her bff/muse, Mortimer Spreng, stuffed glimmery gowns into boring brown trash bags. Hardly a fitting farewell to such fabulousness.
"Miss Patti" grew up Patti Weisgerber. One grandfather owned the Plaza, a hotel on St. Charles Place. The other ran a Bungalow Park laundry during Prohibition where "they used to hide the liquor in the clothes."
Smith met Spreng in 1985 when both got jobs in the coin department at Trump Castle. He was a 6-foot-1 would-be queen frustrated by size-14 thrift-store finds. She offered to outfit the "full-size Barbie."
Their first collaboration: a forest-green off-the-shoulder fringed metallic eyelash fabric number Spreng wore to lip-sync "Legal Tender" by the B-52s.
He won the contest. A star - make that two - was born.
From the late 1980s until Spreng hung up his heels for acting - he's an extra on Boardwalk Empire - they whipped up an outfit a week.
"You have to make sure everything's hidden," Smith learned of dressmaking for men. "It can't be too low-cut, because they don't have real cleavage. Sometimes we'd build in the boobs."
Back then, they could find thick spandex or lush velvet for $5 a yard. Smith scouted garage sales for vintage patterns to ensure authenticity for every pair of hot pants and bell bottoms.
"A lot of people say, 'It's just a costume.' I say, 'I want it right,' " Spreng insists. "She sews seams. She's precise. If it's Victorian, she puts real buttons up the back, not some fake zipper."
After competing queens began sending their measurements, Smith became the unpaid but lavishly adored personal designer for VIPs with names like Miss Ginger Alee and Lady Darren. She baked them birthday cakes and scurried backstage at more than 100 Miss'd America pageants and fund-raisers.
"I had to make 120 costumes once," she says, still sounding exhausted, "for a Disney show we did for Dooley House in Camden." Spreng was the Little Mermaid; Miss Patti joined the cast as Ursula the sea witch.
After decades of serving stars, Smith landed an awkward role. She works at the Borgata, but has no savings due to medical expenses. Friday, she finally received a $1,888 FEMA grant.
"That's it," she frets, adding up hotel costs and first and last month's rent at apartments she's mulling. "The deposit for cats is $250. And then, it's an extra $20 a month."
After Spreng raised $1,000 online, he got the idea to stage a drag show for Miss Patti - a gift for the giver.
"Miss Patti," he says admiringly, "is the queen of doing benefits. Now it's her turn."
Monica Yant Kinney:
Patti Smith, the longtime seamstress for Atlantic City's drag-queen pageants, surveys the loss of costumes and patterns outside her waterlogged canal-side apartment:
A benefit for Patti Smith will take place at 1 a.m., Nov. 30 at Pro Bar, Resorts Casino. See facebook.com/MissPattiReliefFund.
Contact Monica Yant Kinney
at 215-854-4670, firstname.lastname@example.org, 215-854-4670 or @myantkinney.