Talking Heads: The Death of John/Diane
October 5, 1982
Resting their minds from the Palestinian slaughter and the killing of the economy, some New Yorkers turned their attention last week to a diverting little crime, the murder of Diane Delia.
A dark pouting model, Diane Delia was the apex of a love triangle at whose base were her accused killers Robert Ferrara and Robyn Arnold. The murder itself, which took place in a Yonkers wood last October, was accomplished with four straightforward shots to the head, two, the prosecutor alleges, fired by each of the accused. The cause of death is one of the few details of the Delia case that is a certainty, that and the obsession the accused killers had for the victim. Both Robert Ferrara and Robyn Arnold were emotionally entangled with Diane Delia — Ferrara married her, Arnold was in love with her — and both date their involvement to the days before her operation, when Diane Delia was still John Delia, a man.
The Transsexual Love Triangle, as the tabloids call it, was being played out in high colors against the grim backdrop of the criminal court building on Centre Street. In a ninth-floor courtroom the devotees gathered, toothless trial junkies, a woman who follows the trials in police costume, the Super-8 filmmaker Eric Mitchell, reporters, parents of the accused, and friends of the deceased. Pastel chalk squeaked as the television news artist sketched the witnesses, while they, in turn, painted a picture for the jury of John/Diane, as the victim, for convenience, was called.
A medium-height man from a middle-class family, John Delia was dark-skinned and slight. His body and face were so smooth that, when at 16 he first began dressing in women’s clothes, there was never any stubble to betray him. His drag impersonations, lip synching to Diana Ross records, were so convincing he made an act of them, performing first at local clubs, later in Manhattan, billed as an impersonator of women even after this was no longer the case. Miss D., as his friends called him, had small hands, a naturally feminine voice, beautiful legs, and a reckless humor. He was compulsive, rude, and funny. He was casually immoral, and loyal. He had big feet and a taste for cheap clothes. The boaty pumps that are pivotal evidence in the prosecutor’s case rested on the courtroom table — weird icons. Like everything else in the John/Diane story, they’re purple.
Robyn Arnold, the surgeon’s daughter and accused murderess, met John Delia at the Playroom bar in the late ’70s. They became lovers. She offered him money and her complete attention. Friends say that as many as 40 framed snapshots of John Delia litter Robyn Arnold’s bookshelves. Several large blowups of Diane Delia decorate her wall. It was Arnold who paid for Delia’s sex change, when, several years into their relationship, he met and fell in love with Robert Ferrara, a bartender from New Hope, Pennsylvania. It was Arnold who paid for surgery to prettify Delia’s nose and heighten his cheekbones. Hard but not unpretty, Robyn Arnold hid behind a fringe of hair in court, as witnesses described for Judge Rothwax, the press, and the jury, her aggressive, manipulative sexuality and her emotional enslavement to Delia. Sitting beside her, Robert Ferrara listened as the prosecutor mounted his case.
When Delia became enamored of Ferrara they began to live together. Arnold continued to pay the bills. Claiming that Ferrara could not accept himself living in a homosexual relationship, Delia planned and Arnold engineered the sex change: the two were married. Delia was as proud of his new anatomy as a child with a toy and made a party trick of showing the altered parts. Neither Diane Delia nor Robert Ferrara saw marriage as a binding proposition, though, and both had affairs. In 1980 Delia left Yonkers for Montreal, where she was hired by a modeling agency for her “Latin look” and shot an Avon ad for a Foxfire robe (“Wrap yourself in luxury.”). She took a lover there. In her absence Robyn Arnold and Robert Ferrara cemented their friendship. Piqued by this, Delia returned to New York and the three were reunited, after a fashion. Delia’s nature was compulsive, sexually and emotionally. Her extramarital affairs with men were expected, but when she started to sleep with women, the climate changed — this betrayal was the final straw.
In the prosecutor’s scenario, Delia’s husband and friend arranged on the night of Wednesday, October 7, to pick her up in Arnold’s Cadillac Seville to go dancing. They drove her instead to a wood and shot her, leaving the body for some days before returning to dispose of it in the Hudson River. It washed up three weeks later. The prosecutor’s case is circumstantial and triangular: it hangs on the motives of the accused, on Diane Delia’s shoes, which were later found by a friend in Robyn Arnold’s possession, and on the yellow acrylic blanket in which the body was unluxuriously wrapped. Witnesses claim the blanket came from Miss Arnold’s bed. At presstime, none of this had been proven.
The courtroom has been tickled when suited men take the stand to identify evidence: “Of course, I know those pumps,” said one. “I used to wear them.” It has been shocked by the excessive violence of the shooting. The first bullet killed Delia; the others blew out her eyes. It has been chilled by the sight of Delia’s death outfit, once lavender, now mottled river-green. It has been amused by the courtroom antics of Arnold’s lawyer, a silver-haired ham given to improvised outbursts. And it has been bemused by the image of the two accused killers. Silent, drab, impassive at their table, they are diminished even after her death by the late John/Diane, whose flamboyance was seductive and whose seductions proved fatal. The received wisdom about transsexuals suggest they are born imprisoned in bodies of the wrong sex. For John/Diane Delia this seems inaccurate. In her desire to please and be accepted, she treated all sex as the right sex. As a man and as a woman she accommodated both men and women lustily, equally. It may be that her democratic nature was the end of her. ■