15 November 2013

Julian Eltinge: America’s first drag superstar

When my mother was a young girl, she befriended an elderly single woman who lived nearby. I don’t know much about their friendship but I do know that when the older woman, Miss Dawson, died, she left my mother the most marvellous collection of photos. And several years before my mother passed away, she gave the collection to me.

There are perhaps a hundred photos, of the men and women who were the stars of the silver screen in the days of silent movies. Miss Dawson must have spent much time and not a little money sending letters to America and England, telling these stars of her admiration and asking for their autographed photos. Many of the photographs are signed, though a lot of these signatures have been printed on the images, but many more are authentic, with personal messages addressed to Miss Dawson.

The photos date from the 1910s and 1920s. Some of the stars I’ve never heard of but others – like Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson and Lillian Gish – are famous names. I will share many of these in future blogs but, in this first posting, I want to show you some of the more unusual images, of America’s first drag superstar. The text that follows is from Wikipedia.

Julian Eltinge (14 May 1881 – 7 March 1941), born William Julian Dalton, was an American stage and screen actor and female impersonator. After appearing in the Boston Cadets Revue at the age of ten in feminine garb, Eltinge garnered notice from other producers and made his first appearance on Broadway in 1904. As his star began to rise, he appeared in vaudeville and toured Europe and the United States, even giving a command performance before King Edward VII.

Eltinge appeared in a series of musical comedies written specifically for his talents starting in 1910 with The Fascinating Widow, returning to vaudeville in 1918. His popularity soon earned him the moniker "Mr Lillian Russell" after the equally popular beauty and musical comedy star.

Hollywood beckoned Eltinge and in 1917 he appeared in his first feature film, The Countess Charming. This would lead to other films including the 1918 The Isle of Love with Rudolph Valentino and Virginia Rappe. By the time Eltinge arrived in Hollywood, he was considered one of the highest paid actors on the American stage; but with the arrival of the Great Depression and the death of vaudeville, Eltinge’s star began to fade. 

He continued his show in nightclubs but found little success. He died in 1941 following a show at a New York nightclub. He leaves a legacy as one of the greatest female impersonators of the 20th century.