Julian Eltinge: America’s First Drag Super Star

By Richard Metzger

I started reading a fascinating book over the weekend titled Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics by Daniel Hurewitz. I’m nearly done with it and am ready to declare it one of the very best books I’ve read all year (It was published in 2007). It’s a very, very well-researched book about a very, very veiled vein—for obvious reasons—of American history. It’s a stunning work of scholarship, mind-expanding and very illuminating on several counts.

Generally speaking, what Bohemian Los Angeles is about is the birth of “identity politics” in America, specifically as it came to be expressed in the lives of a set of homosexuals living in what is now known as the Silver Lake neighborhood. Hurewitz makes a pretty good case for Los Angeles to be declared the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement, and certainly it deserves that bragging right every bit as much as New York’s West Village does.

What is utterly mind-bending to realize as you read the book is how the concept of what a homosexual “is” or “does” was nearly completely off the radar for the average American in the 1920s and, effectively, for some decades later. After introducing his readers to the long-forgotten figure of Julian Eltinge, a “feminine illusionist” who was the highest paid stage actor in the world about a hundred years ago, Hurewitz uses contemporary accounts of Eltinge’s celebrity to illustrate not so much how issues of gender and sexuality had to be carefully handled by the media when discussing someone unusual like Eltinge, but often how LITTLE this was required.

What do I mean by this? Well, put yourself in the mindset of someone in the 1920s, even, say that of a reporter in the burgeoning entertainment mecca. Gay? Homosexual? What’s that? Simply put, homosexuality was not a topic commonly discussed or even commonly understood at the time. Beyond that it wasn’t even a concept that the vast majority of the population had ever even been introduced to. About as far as it went for most people was “sissy” or “lifelong bachelor” and no further. You can see this cultural obliviousness in the newspaper accounts of Eltinge’s career. It’s just so weird to contemplate that in this century, isn’t it? Still, there it is…

Against that historical backdrop, it’s astonishing to read that one of the wealthiest and most famous stage performers in the world back then was a gender illusionist. Eltinge was Louise Brooks-level famous. Al Jolson-level famous. He appeared for years in a play written specifically for him in 1913, called The Fascinating Widow. This vehicle provided him with his signature trope of “accidental drag” (think Some Like it Hot or Bosom Buddies) and Eltinge would go from hyper-masculine to ultra-feminine and back again during the performance. Eltinge was very circumspect about his private life, taking care never to appear in drag offstage and indeed, he “butched it up” with well-publicized boxing matches and bar brawls. His fanbase was mostly adoring women who were impressed by how convincing his gender switch was, but evidently there were a number of swooning males in his audience as well, many who were probably somewhat perplexed by their attraction to Eltinge as his alter egos.

Not only was Eltinge rich, he owned a lot of property and had a huge theater built for him to perform in near Times Squares. When his massive home was built in “Edendale” (now Silver Lake) at 2328 Baxter St., Architectural Record covered its construction. One of the main reasons, it could be argued, for the passing of Etlinge’s popularity (aside from advancing age), is that by the 1930s, a significant portion of the population was beginning to understand that the “true self” of the drag performers and “sissies” on their movie screens was that they were homosexual men. Any sort of “sex deviance”  became frowned upon by the blue-nosed enforcers of the Hayes Code.

But even as there was a higher cultural awareness of homosexuality overall, this also resulted in police harassment and push-backs from polite society. Los Angeles outlawed men from wearing woman’s clothing. When Eltinge performed in his home town, he was reduced to gesturing towards his dresses on a hanger or worn by a mannequin. It was during the decades of the 1930s and 40s that a defiant “pansy” subculture sprang up in the Silver Lake area where Eltinge had once lived, with gays, Communists and bohemian artist-types mingling together to accelerate social gains, which is the main narrative of Bohemian Los Angeles.

Although he was once a true phenomenon, today, if the name Julian Eltinge is known at all, it’s as a punchline in Lenny Bruce’s famous comedy routine, “The Palladium,” about a bad comedian bombing in London. The AMC Empire 25 megaplex cinema at 234 W. 42nd Street in New York City retained part of the Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre as its foyer and three portraits of Eltinge (in drag) were kept for the decor.

Below, Eltinge dances and speaks, in early “talkie,” “The Voice of America” in 1929:

Via Dangerous Minds

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~ by The 1955 Hudson on October 14, 2011.

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