Barbette: Queen of the Flying Trapeze

Posted on Posted in History

One of the most popular Hollywood films concerning crossdressing was Some Like It Hot, 1959, starring Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. In this film, Curtis and Lemmon witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a gangland slaying in Chicago in the 1920’s. In order to escape from the gangsters, the boys disguised themselves as women and joined the allgirl band “Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators” with Marilyn Monroe (Sugar) as the bands singer.

Curtis and Lemmon were coached for their roles as Josephine and Daphne by the female impersonator Barbette. He taught them how to walk, use their hands and the like. He emphasized that in order to walk like a woman, a man must cross one foot in front of the other. This would cause the hips to swivel and appear feminine.

After his embarrassment of being in a wig and makeup, Curtis was secure enough to go on with the female impersonation. Barbette remarked he was wonderful as Josephine. However, Lemmon was uncomfortable as Daphne. He was clumsy, his shoes were killing him and his ankles turned. As Lemmon put it, “Josephine was fearless. Daphne was scared shitless.” Lemmon couldn’t follow Barbette’s direction and the female impersonator gave up in disgust and booked passage on the next transatlantic.

Barbette was a great sensation as a female impersonator on the high wire in Paris. The Texas-born Barbette began as a male tightrope performer on the Orpheum Circuit and the Ringling Brothers Circus. At the tender age of fourteen Barbette whose birth name was Vander Clyde Broodway, joined the circus as part of an aerial act known as the Alfretta Sisters. A year-and-a-half later, he became part of a teeth-suspension act, Erford’s Whirling Sensations. Playing with the act on the Orpheum Circuit in Vaudeville, he reached the stage of Broadway’s The Palace in January 1923 at the age of twenty-one. With his French feminine-sounding name, the William Morris Agency sent him to England and then to Paris that same year. He opened at the Alhambra Music Hall and felt he had found his city. Paris was the experience. He was then placed in a review, There’s Only Paris at the Casino de Paris. Barbette was introduced to the creme de la creme of wealthy expatriates, writers, painters and composers in Paris who considered him one of their own. One of these special individuals was Jean Cocteau, the French poet, novelist, dramatist and filmmaker. Cocteau likened Barbette’s act to a parable of the lie that all art is. With his act, Barbette summed up all the women he ever knew, becoming the ultimate woman. A parody of Woman.

Nothing beats a gown of ostrich feathers.

Barbette’s act combined a trapeze act with glamour and sex appeal, capturing contemporary standards of beauty. He emerged from behind a white curtain atop a milk-colored staircase. He wore a tight glittering gown with a long train and white ostrich feathers. Sauntering down the stairs, Barbette teased the audience by stripping off his headdress, gloves and skirts. He then proceeded with his aerial act. As one observer noted that against the blue background, he appeared as Phaethon deserting the sky. He wore woolen tights under silk ones softening the look of his muscular legs and resembled a woman displaying her acrobatic skills to an enthralled crowd.

Jean Cocteau used Barbette in his first film Blood Of A Poet which was released in 1932. It’s avant garde style showcased Barbette in drag seated with several well dressed friends in an opera box. They were shown applauding what appeared to be an operatic performance. However, it was a card game which ended in a suicide. Barbette was chosen for a part in the film after Coco Chanel refused to lend models to Cocteau. She did allow a few of her gowns to appear. Barbette did not see the film for several years, but was disheartened with his scene which was filmed separately from the scene of the suicide. Perhaps, his only other film appearance was in Scallera’s LA Tosca.

Barbette’s trapeze act even inspired Alfred Hitchcock!

The 1930 Alfred Hitchcock film Murder! was inspired by Barbette’s trapeze act. The films story focused on a murder investigation. The murderer (played by Esme Percy) had disguised himself as a female trapeze artist during the murder.

Barbette was featured in American vaudeville in The Passing Show of 1924 and at the Palace in 1927. He flew across the stages of the Alhambra, the Empire, the Moulin Rouge and the Medrano Circus in Paris during the 1930’s. He also performed his trapeze act in other cities such as Berlin, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Warsaw, Madrid and Barcelona. He also toured Australia, South America, the Middle East and the Orient, always with twenty-five trunks of costumes, scenery and cosmetics.

In 1935, Barbette performed in Billy Rose’s Jumbo which was the last attraction to play the Hippodrome before it was demolished. Jumbo was a spectacle combining musical comedy with the circus. Jimmy Durante acted the role of Claudius Brainy Bowers, a loud press agent for a floundering one ring circus whose only real asset was an elephant named Jumbo. While Barbette was suspended high above him, Durante sung The Most Beautiful Girl In The World. Afterward, Barbette descended and upon removal of his wig, Durante exclaimed, “Betrayed!”

One night at the Moulin Rouge, Barbette suffered from a devastating fall. A backdrop curtain waved as he was about to dive. The distraction caused him to fall. Later in 1938, he became ill with pneumonia and a crippling affliction of the bones and joints. He did, however, stay active by training aerial performers. He contributed his eccentric talents to Billy Rose’s Seven Lively Arts and Orson Welle’s Around The World In Eighty Days. Barbette also worked on circus sequences in the films Till The Clouds Roll By, The Big Circus and Jumbo.

John Ringling North contracted Barbette to stage a sixty-girl aerial act in his circus. Barbette’s stunning “Monte Carlo Aerial Ballet” was a feature of Ringling Brothers And Barnum And Bailey Circus in 1948. He worked with other circuses such as the Polack Brothers Circus, perfecting acts such as the “Human Butterflies” with the girls suspended in the air by their teeth. For three years, starting in 1969, he toured in Australia with Disney On Parade.

Perhaps the only scandal which befell the entertainer was being caught in an indiscretion with a young man in his dressing room while in England. His engagement there was quickly canceled and he was denied a visa back to England.

He ended up despondent over the affair and in declining health. He was living with his sister in Austin, Texas, a far cry from the glamorous life of his beloved Paris. One night in August 1973, Barbette took an overdose of pills and reposed into eternal slumber. He was sixty eight at the time.

By Madeline Rose
This article was originally published in Transformation 15 July 1997