Shock your friends! Surprise your enemies! Win a round of trivia! Herstory 101 is back in session!
Welcome back my fellow queens and queen enthusiasts! I hope you’re ready to read all about another figure from herstory who laid the groundwork to make the art of drag what it is today!
Before we get too ahead of ourselves, I would like to make a slight correction to my article about Julie D’ Aubigny. In my last article, I stated Julie was from the 15th century when I had intended to say she was from the 17th century. Blame it on my poor math skills, Autocorrect, or blame it on the A-A-A-A-Alcohol, but it happened. I hope you forgive me…
Oh you do? Great. Let’s move on.
Today we will be journeying back to the good ol’ U.S. of A. and discussing an actor and female impersonator from young Hollywood. He was given the title of “ambisextrous” (watch that be RuPaul’s next catch phrase), and he supplied what may be my favorite quote of all time; “I’m not gay, I just like pearls.” He was known as Julian Eltinge.
Like every good female impersonator, no one knows exactly when Julian was born. He claimed his birthdate was May 14, 1883, but a birth certificate was found in Massachusetts with his given name, William J. Dalton, stating he was born two years earlier, in 1981. Additionally, there are multiple stories as to how young William got started in female impersonation, but they all agree that he was a fabulous cakewalker (it’s a sort of dance style. Google it!), he trained in dance with Mrs. Lilla Viles Wyman, and he had adapted the stage name Julian Eltinge by his stage debut at 9 years old.
In 1900, Eltinge was invited to perform a small part in Miladi and The Musketeer, a show put on by Cadet Theatricals, a group of amateur male actors who acted in both the male and female parts of a play. Mrs. Wyman recommended him to the director of the Cadets, and Eltinge impressed the theatrical group so much with his work ethic that the show they produced the following year, Miss Simplicity, was supposedly written especially to showcase Julian’s talents, though he was not an official member.
His fame continued to grow with his talents, and in 1904 he was selected to star in a show in New York City, Mr. Wix of Wickham. While the show itself failed to impress (lasting a little over 40 performances), critics were quite taken with Eltinge’s talents, writing such remarks as, “If a man ever succeeded in lifting and almost totally obliterating the stigma which… attaches to this work, Eltinge has.” The following year, Eltinge joined the vaudeville circuit. Audiences were fascinated by his stunning costumes as well as his remarkable poise and grace. By 1910, at just 19 years of age, Julian Eltinge had reached the pinnacle of the Vaudeville circuit and made his transition into more traditional theater.
He began performing in The Fascinating Widow, a play that made its way up to Broadway’s Liberty Theater in 1911. His role in this play is argued to be his greatest success on stage. While The Fascinating Widow also had a very short run in New York, Eltinge himself still continued to grow in fame, becoming such a nationwide household name that a Broadway theater was constructed and named after him in 1912, though Eltinge never actually performed in this theater.
By this time, Eltinge had become a master at dealing with the press and promoting himself. He sold a self-titled magazine at his performances, providing beauty and fashion tips to women, and included a glimmer of the drag wit we know and love from today’s queens. “See what the Julian Eltinge Cold Creame does for a man. Imagine what it will do for a woman,” declared one of the ads for his cosmetics line. Marketing genius!
Eltinge made sure to loudly express his unhappiness at performing as a woman. He made sure to be seen boxing, smoking cigars, and anything else to separate himself from an image of effeminacy. There were also several engagements to women that were always broken off. He claimed the only reason he continued to perform as a female impersonator was for the money. Despite his adamant claims otherwise, rumors of his homosexuality still bubbled up.
1918 and 1919 saw Eltinge’s return to the Vaudeville circuit with several Hollywood silent film credits under his corset. He had become one of the highest paid Hollywood actors and even owned one of the most lavish villas in Hollywood, which he moved into with his mother.
However, in the early 1920’s, gay speakeasies cropped up in New York City, and early forms of drag began to appear alongside them. Suddenly, Eltinge’s style of female impersonation began to look old-fashioned and outdated. He began to drink heavily, and was even caught smuggling in liquor from Canada in 1923, which marked the beginning of his decline.
His first and only sound film was ultimately his last film that he would star in. Released in 1931, Maid To Order only brought to light that Eltinge had lost his touch. His weight gain was obvious, and rumors of his alcoholism grew. While he tried to revive his career through the rest of the 1930’s, local laws prohibited men from wearing women’s clothing, and he was forced to perform in dingy nightclubs in a tuxedo, pointing to a rack in the corner, which held the dresses he used to wear.
On May 7th, 1941, just one week shy of his 60th birthday, Julian Eltinge passed away. True to his shrouded life, there is much speculation as to his actual cause of demise. Some speculated suicide, others kidney disease, while his death certificate listed a cerebral hemorrhage as the cause.
What of the theater named after Eltinge? When the Great Depression struck, it became a burlesque theater (Vaudeville’s sultry sister), and then eventually was converted to a movie theater in 1942. It was renamed The Empire Theater in 1954. In 1998, the building itself was actually picked up and moved 170 feet to the west, and was purchased by AMC to become the AMC Empire Theater on 42nd street, which still stands today. The façade of the original theater remains mostly unchanged, and the lobby of the theater is actually the Eltinge Theater’s auditorium. Visitors can still see a mural of Julian Eltinge located directly above the box office.
So why does a fallen Hollywood star, whose name has faded from our culture’s memory, matter to us today? First off, his career gives us hope that today’s modern drag queens can be just as celebrated in our culture today as his once was. With shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race putting female impersonation back into the eye of the public, that brand of wide-spread acceptance may be near. Secondly, his career provides a cautionary tale on many levels, namely that one should never stop evolving with their craft lest they be left behind. Third, and this is a sentiment I have always tried to live by myself, his career, and life in general, tell us to always be grateful for what we have and where we come from. Too often drag performers, myself included, get caught up in the applause of a crowd and begin to take the limelight for granted. Remembering to stay grounded and grateful for all our opportunities not only provides an endearing sense of humbleness, but also prevents a sudden career decline.
That being said, Julian Eltinge won the hearts of Americans with his poise, grace, and remarkable transformation skills. His career, while a cautionary tale in many ways, should encourage drag performers and their supporters to continue to showcase the art of drag back into the minds and hearts of the world at large.
And always remember: the higher your heels and hair, the taller your pedestal will seem.
To find out more about Julian Eltinge, or to just see if I got it all right, check out my sources here:
Scarlett Bleu enjoys writing blogs and binge watching YouTube videos in her spare time. She frequently polishes her Miss Venture Inn 2013 crown, and often asks the question, “Whatever happened to Baby Scarlett?” while staring meaningfully out a window. Regardless, she has learned to love herself, and feels that is enough.