One of a Kind
Was Julian Eltinge just a product of his era or do his biographical details and career continue to have relevance to contemporary discussions of gender and sexuality. This question is not easy to answer when we consider the life and fortunes of America’s first great transvestite superstar.
Historic postcards provide the imagery and help tell the story that sheds light on this question. First, classic cards of Eltinge male and female:
Born as William Julian Dalton in 1881, he cut his teeth in the female-free mining camps out West. Beginning his career as a female impersonator at age 10, Eltinge debuted on Broadway in The Wix of Wickham on September 19, 1904. The English comedy included the first Broadway output by 19-year-old songwriter Jerome Kern.
Unlike his peers playing female roles, Julian was not a parodist. He did not perform as a caricature of women but based his Vaudevillian art on the illusion of actually being a woman. As an actor, he was equally adept on both sides of the gender coin.
Performing as “Eltinge” so his gender would not be revealed by his first name, he would go through a series of costume changes for different song and dance skits. As a climax, he pulled off his wig at the end of the show in order to reveal his real gender to an astonished gasping audience.
Though not overtly or self-consciously political, Eltinge’s females were strong and self-assured, not easily manipulated or coerced. His roles brought him public acclaim and adulation. In 1906 while performing in London, he gave a command performance to King Edward VII. He also hobnobbed with Broadway’s and Hollywood’s elites, Chaplin, Pickford, and Fairbanks ranked among his closest pals.
Although his sexual preference was likely gay, Julian remained deeply closeted, going so far as to stage lengthy public “engagements” with a string of women. Eltinge was also known for a bit of bravura and machismo – smoking cigars and stoking barroom brawls. One theater critic called him “ambisextrous” referring to his unwillingness publicly to champion any side in the battle of the sexes.
The 1910s were Eltinge’s salad days, becoming one of the highest paid performers in America. He appeared in a succession of Broadway musical comedy hits – The Fascinating Widow, The Crinoline Girl, and Cousin Lucy. Producer A. H. Woods recognized the marketing value of his brand and dedicated a newly built theater on 42nd Street in 1912 as “The Eltinge.” Taking his outré image to promotions, one of the most unusual mechanical postcards – in the shape of a fan – was produced to advertise a long-running Woods hit.
Eltinge never actually appeared at his namesake theater. Following the insalubrious history of its location, the theater eventually became a notorious burlesque house and finally closed. Then, it was rebuilt and renamed during the 42nd Street renovations that began a half-century later in the 1990s. The star himself went on the road with his shows and ended up in Hollywood joining other Broadway personalities eager to make it big in the movies.
Eltinge appeared in silent film versions of his shows and his extended repertoire included roles in movies like The Countess Charming, Isle of Love, Jules, The Voice of Hollywood, and If I had My Way. In 1920, Eltinge appeared opposite Rudolf Valentino in The Isle of Love.
His fame afforded Eltinge the opportunity to live with his mother in a fabled and elaborately designed Spanish Colonial Revival mansion in sunny southern California, the Villa Capistrano, on a hilltop in Silver Lake, illustrated on the postcard below. They entertained lavishly.
In the late teens and twenties, Julian returned to the Vaudeville stage and resumed touring together with an ensemble for which he served as star and creative factotum. A 1918 appearance at New York City’s Palace Theatre, earned him a weekly cash haul of $3,500 – one of the highest salaries in show business.
While riding the fame through the Roaring Twenties, Eltinge’s career began to sputter and peter out through the 1930s. For one, Vaudeville started to lose its charm and audience. Next, as the Talkies began to overtake silent films, many stars like Julian lost their appeal because their voices did not transfer well. Unfortunately, cross-dressing performance also became controversial, growing too erotic and vulgar for general theatergoers. Societal objections also began to grow against open gay lifestyles, in some cases, strictly forbidding drag performance altogether.
Eltinge, regarding female impersonation as an art form, accepted the slow decline and retreated to the nightclub scene where he was still welcomed. Becoming ill while performing at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe nightclub in New York City, Julian retreated to his Manhattan apartment and died shortly afterwards in 1941 at the age of 59.
Charles Busch (born 1954) another drag queen and New Yorker known for his meteoric rise in stage (The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife) and screen (Psycho Beach Party,) perhaps says it best for himself and his century-past progenitor: “Drag is being more, more than you can be. When I first started drag, I wasn’t this shy young man but a powerful woman. It liberated within me a whole vocabulary of expression. It was less a political statement than an aesthetic one.”