Whew, just when I think I've got this thing back on the rails... Anyway, this time for sure, Rock.
Since Dr. Future-wife and I have been watching a lot of Ru Paul's Drag Race lately, I figured we'd talk this week about Barbette, the female impersonating phenomenon of the early 1900's. Born Vander Clyde Broadway in Round Rock, Texas in 1899, he found his calling early in life when his mother took him to see his first circus around the age of 8 in Austin. According to legend, Broadway fell in love with aerial performance and would spend hours practicing the high wire on his mother's clothesline. During the summer, he worked in the cotton fields to earn enough money to see every circus that came through town.
Broadway's big break came when, after graduating high school at 14, he responded to an ad in Billboard placed by one of the Alfaretta sisters. One of the duo had passed away unexpectedly and the remaining sister was auditioning for a replacement to continue the act in nearby Austin. The only stipulation? Vander Clyde Broadway had to perform as a woman. Adopting the name Barbette, he began his career in 1919, performing on both the high wire and trapeze on the vaudeville circuit before embarking on a European tour in 1923.
Barbette became the toast of the Paris art scene playing at venues like the Moulin Rouge and Casino Royale. He was also artistic muse to the likes of photographer Man Ray and poet Jean Cocteau who by all reports fell in love with Broadway's female alter ego. So convincing was Barbette that one night when he removed his wig as he was wont to do at the end of every show revealing himself as a man, a Russian sailor taken with his female persona was so distraught that he drew his pistol and shot himself.
Barbette went on to perform both in Europe and America with Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey before retiring in 1938 after a combination of injuries suffered during a fall and pneumonia ended his performing career. In his retirement, Barbette turned to training other performers as well as working in Hollywood, most notably as "gender illusion coach" to Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot.
Barbette's accident in 1932 left him suffering with chronic pain for the remainder of his life however. In 1973, he died of a self inflicted drug overdose. His grave marker in his home town of Round Rock bears only one name, Barbette.