Hollywood beckoned Eltinge and in 1917 he appeared in his first feature film, The Countess Charming. This would lead to other films including 1918s 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.
Though the details of his professional life are widely known, Eltinge's personal life is shrouded in mystery; mystery partly due to the passage of time, but really more likely to Eltinge's own hand. Eltinge was born in Newtonville, Massachusetts. It is believed that his father was a mining engineer and that early in his life he traveled out west with his father, ending up in Butte, Montana.
His start in show business, like his early life, is also shrouded in myth. Most sources cite his first female role being at the age of ten with the Boston Cadets Review at the Tremont Theater in Boston. He is reported to have played the role so well that the next year the revue was written around him which led to minor roles elsewhere. But as to how he came to perform as a female with the Boston Cadets, sources differ. In some versions he was taking cakewalk lessons from a Mrs. Wyman's dance studio when he impressed upon his teacher an incredible ability to emulate females. It is said to be Mrs. Wyman who encouraged young William to study the art of female impersonation. Boys often play female roles in all male organizations.
Eltinge's first appearance on Broadway was in the musical comedy Mr. Wix of Wickham which opened September 19, 1904 at the Bijou Theatre in New York City. The show was produced by E. E. Rice and included music by Jerome Kern among others. The show was a flop but it helped to establish Eltinge's rising star.
During this time Eltinge began performing in vaudeville. Unlike many of the female impersonation acts that existed at that time, like Bert Savoy or George Fortesque, Eltinge did not present a caricature of women but presented the illusion of actually being a woman. He toured simply as "Eltinge" which left his sex unknown and his act included singing and dancing in a variety of female roles including a Gibson Girl-like role called "The Sampson Girl". At the conclusion of his performances, he would remove his wig, revealing his true nature to the surprise of the often unknowing audience.
In 1906 Eltinge made his London debut at the Palace Theater. While in London, Eltinge was commanded to give a performance for King Edward VII, who later presented him with a white bulldog. The next year, Eltinge made his New York debut at the Alhambra Theater to critical acclaim. From 1908 to 1909 Eltinge toured with Cohan and Harris Minstrels.
Eltinge's star began to shine on Broadway and on national tours and his name became known worldwide. Indeed, women were so enthralled by his performances that he established the Eltinge Magazine which advised women on beauty, fashion, and home tips.
By 1910, Eltinge had reached the height of his fame. Sime Silverman, Editor of Variety, called him "as great a performer as there is today".
In 1911, Eltinge opened one of his most famous shows, The Fascinating Widow at New York's Liberty Theater. In it he played Hal Blake who disguises himself as "Mrs. Monte" in a Charley's Aunt-like plot. The show only ran 56 performances in New York, but toured the nation successfully for several years.
The success of this show led producer A. H. Woods to give Eltinge one of theatre's highest honors, having a theatre named for him. A year to the day that The Fascinating Widow opened, Woods opened the Eltinge Theatre on New York's 42nd Street designed by noted theater architect Thomas W. Lamb. After serving as a legitimate theater for many years, it became a notorious burlesque house and was shut down during a "public morality" campaign in 1943. The theater became a cinema the next year. The theater has now become part of the AMC Empire 25 cineplex having been lifted and moved in its entirety down the block from its original location.
Following on the success of The Fascinating Widow, Eltinge performed in two other comedies that had similar success, The Crinoline Girl which opened in 1914 and Cousin Lucy (with music by Kern) the next year.
As many actors began to leave for the silver screen, Eltinge followed and in 1914 he starred in silent picture versions of The Crinoline Girl followed by Cousin Lucy the next year. According to Anthony Slide's The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, he also had a cameo role in a film entitled How Molly Malone Made Good in 1915. Eltinge's first real screen success came in 1917 in The Countess Charming. His role in the film was again a double role with him playing both a male and said male in female garb.
Settling in Hollywood, Eltinge made three films in 1917 and also in 1918. During this time he wrote and produced a vaudeville group called "The Julian Eltinge Players". With this group he returned triumphantly to the vaudeville stage appearing at New York's Palace Theatre in 1918. The next year he returned again in a new vaudeville review with sets by the French designer Erté.
By 1920, Eltinge was very wealthy and was living in one of the most lavish mansions in Southern California, Villa Capistrano. His star began to shine even brighter after his appearance with Rudolf Valentino in the 1920 film An Adventuress (released as The Isle of Love in the U.S.). After filming, Eltinge continued touring onstage and would do so until 1927. He also made two films, Madame Behave and The Fascinating Widow, in 1925.
Aside from the graceful femininity he exhibited onstage, Eltinge used a super-masculine facade in public to combat the rumours of his homosexuality. This facade included the occasional bar-fight, smoking cigars, and drawn out engagements to women (though he never married). He was also known to physically attack stagehands, members of the audience and others who remarked on his sexuality. Indeed, his sexual duality led to the creation of the term "ambisextrous" to describe him.
Eltinge may have been a gay man, as Milton Berle and many others who worked with him believed. Actress Ruth Gordon stated in a New York Times article that he was "as virile as anybody virile." There is no existing record of a lover of either sex, though stories did abound. According to one such story recorded by Robert Toll in his book On with the Show!, Eltinge gave a photograph of himself as Salomé, signed "From your friend Jule", to a Boston sportswriter. When the sportswriter's wife discovered the photograph in her husband's coat pocket she was outraged. Confronting her husband, she had to be convinced that the "woman" in the photograph was actually a man, but however she was disturbed to find that her husband had been spending time with him.
By the 1930s, the female impersonations that he had built his career on had begun to lose popularity. Eltinge resorted to performing in nightclubs. Crackdowns on cross-dressing in public, meant to curb homosexual activity, prevented Eltinge from performing in costume. At one appearance in a Los Angeles club, Eltinge stood next to displays of his gowns while taking on his characters.
On May 7, 1941, Eltinge fell ill while performing at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe nightclub. He was taken home and died in his apartment 10 days later. His death certificate lists the cause of death as a cerebral hemorrhage.
A reference to Julian Eltinge is found in Buster Keaton's comedy Seven Chances (1925). In the film, he must marry before 7:00 PM in order to receive an inheritance. After many failures, Keaton's character, in an act of desperation, sees a poster depicting a large photo of a woman outside a performance hall and enters to ask her hand in marriage. While inside, a stage hand removes some boxes to reveal that the woman is indeed Julian Eltinge. Keaton returns to the screen with a black eye and his boater hat smashed over his head.
A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski
Paperback: 312 pages
Publisher: Beacon Press (May 15, 2012)
Amazon: A Queer History of the United States
Co-recipient of the 2012 Stonewall Book Award in non-fiction
Drawing on years of research, activism, and legal advocacy, Queer (In)Justice is a searing examination of queer experiences--as "suspects," defendants, prisoners, and survivors of crime. The authors unpack queer criminal archetypes--like "gleeful gay killers," "lethal lesbians," "disease spreaders," and "deceptive gender benders"--to illustrate the punishment of queer expression, regardless of whether a crime was ever committed. Tracing stories from the streets to the bench to behind prison bars, the authors prove that the policing of sex and gender both bolsters and reinforces racial and gender inequalities. A groundbreaking work that turns a "queer eye" on the criminal legal system, Queer (In)Justice illuminates and challenges the many ways in which queer lives are criminalized, policed, and punished.
Hollywood's Silent Closet by Darwin Porter
Paperback: 750 pages
Publisher: Blood Moon Productions; 1 edition (April 2001)
Amazon: Hollywood's Silent Closet
Hollywood's Silent Closet provides a banquet of information about the pansexual intrigues of Hollywood between 1919 and 1926, compiled from eyewitness interviews with men and women, all of them insiders, who flourished in its midst. Not for the timid, it names names and doesn't spare the guilty. If you believe, like Truman Capote, that the literary treatment of gossip will become the literature of the 21st century, then you will love Hollywood's Silent Closet. Hollywood's Silent Closet is a vivid portrait of the decadent, homosexual, and gossipy world of pre-talkie Hollywood. It's an Info-Novel where 90% of everything in it is true. It represents the greatest collection of star-studded scandal ever assembled on the film stars of Hollywood's Silent Era. Valentino, Ramon Novarro, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Pola Negri, Nazimova, and many others figure into eyewitness accounts of the debauched excesses that went on behind closed doors. It also documents the often tragic endings of America's first screen idols, some of whom admitted to being more famous than the monarchs of England and Jesus Christ combined. Many of the interviews that went into the compilation of this book were conducted between 1940 and 1974, as the subjects were nearing the end of their lives and were willing, at last, to reveal scandals and insights that had previously been repressed by their own fears and by the media machines of the studio system. Marriages of convenience are the norm as intra-male peccadillos (and lots of lesbian love, too) are swept under the potted palms of the Edwardian age. The hero of this tale is the amiably cross-dressing Durango Jones, a wide-eyed neophyte from Kansas, circa 1919, who hits Hollywood during its Pre-Code excesses, and stays for a sexual feast wherein the banquet consists of many of the era's most flamboyant sex symbols. And although technically, this title has been formatted as a novel rather than a straight-line biography, there's the sometimes disturbing sense that this book is genuinely historical as well as being a jolly and rollicking piece of very savvy entertainment. This is high-testosterone Hollywood at its most compulsively readable. The 60s didn't invent sex-the stars of the Silent Screen did. --Cruiser. Who slept with Mary Pickford's three husbands, her two brothers-in-law, and even her brother? The hero of Hollywood's Silent Closet, that's who! --Trova Roma.
Sex Seen: The Emergence of Modern Sexuality in America by Sharon R. Ullman
Paperback: 200 pages
Publisher: University of California Press; 1 edition (April 30, 1998)
Amazon: Sex Seen: The Emergence of Modern Sexuality in America
Sex Seen provides a complex and intriguing account of the changes that have taken place in the social construction of sexuality during the past century. Focusing on Sacramento, California, at the dawn of the twentieth century, Sharon Ullman juxtaposes early cinema, vaudeville performances, and popular newspapers and magazines with insights drawn from close interpretations of transcripts from Sacramento court cases. She demonstrates how attitudes that emerged in the popular discourse--ideas about gender roles, female desire, prostitution, divorce, and homosexuality--often found complex and contradictory expression in the courts. As judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and juries all weighed in with differing opinions, the courtroom itself became a site of multiple discourses that attempted to make sense of a growing sexual chaos. In tracing the birth of modern sexuality, Ullman chronicles the dynamics of social change during a unique cultural moment and explains the shifts in the sexual ethos of turn-of-the-century America.
Instead of telling the familiar story of steadily increasing liberation of sexual urges, Ullman chronicles the complex confusions and negotiations of an increasingly public sexual discourse. She relates how laws against cross-dressing gained force at the same time that female impersonation became popular in vaudeville acts, how images of prostitutes were changed by the commercialization of the female body in advertising and film, and how visible expression of female desire was submerged in rape and divorce proceedings.
Ullman blends social history, textual analysis, and film and performance criticism to explain how sexuality and desire became an essential part of personal identity in this century. Her keen, accessible account of a community on the brink of the modern era offers a provocative interpretation of the seeds of our sexual present.
More LGBT History at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Gay Classics
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