His beginnings were fairly commonplace as these things go: an attraction to ribbons and bows in early childhood. A dislike of rough-and-tumble. By ten he knew he preferred his mother’s side of the closet. By eleven he was a perfect female on stage.
Julian Eltinge, American’s original King of Drag, was born William Dalton in Massachusetts in 1883 and made his stage debut a decade later at Boston Cadet School in a dress. By 1904 he had landed on Broadway in the musical comedy Mr. Wix of Wickham. Though the show failed, his success as a showgirl put him on the vaudeville circuit in America and Europe for the next five years. He weighed 200 pounds.
"It’s a crime that the most beautiful woman in the world is a man, " wrote a theatre critic at the time.
By 1912 Julian Eltinge was the best-paid vaudeville act in history, pulling down $1,625 a week by squeezing into four inch heels and a corset that reduced his 38-inch waist to a very girlish 23.
America couldn’t get enough of him and his petticoats. He made more money than President William Howard Taft and opened the only theatre ever built by a drag queen—the Eltinge Theater on West 42nd street in New York City, later known as the Empire. In an odd acknowledgment of the differences between people, Eltinge demanded that the theater offer seats for thin, average, and plump patrons.
Julian Eltinge was a man who was way ahead of his time. He published a beauty magazine, created a line of cold cream, and was a spokesman for Norda Corsets, the company that probably contributed the most to his illusory persona.
He insisted that he be called an actor or—alternatively—"America’s Leading Sex Simulator," but his detractors referred to him as the "gay deceiver," and "the queerest woman in the world." Eltinge took the negative comments in stride— all the way to the bank.
Hollywood came calling in 1917 and he went to work for the famous producer Jesse Lasky. Eltinge insisted, in all of his films, that he be portrayed as a happy, clean-cut heterosexual man who was forced into cross-dressing through some difficulty of plot.
Though he never married, Eltinge assiduously asserted his masculinity through numerous bar fights and dustups. He once punched out a stagehand who had called him "Lucy" and suggested that he was more than "just friends" with the founder of a cutlery company in Sheffield, England. Eltinge inherited the knife-maker’s one million dollar estate in 1907.
His agents and handlers photographed him laboring in overalls, and they once staged a rather queer boxing match with the champion "Gentleman Jim" Corbett. Eltinge affected cigars off-stage as well; wore cowboy boots after doffing his high heels.
Such films as The Countess Charming in 1917, Over the Rhine, The Widow’s Might and The Isle of Love in 1922 made him enough money to sustain his royal lifestyle as well as to buy and furnish a fabulous Moorish mansion in trendy-to-this-day Silverlake in Los Angeles. But by 1930, when he released Maid to Order, Eltinge decided to hang up his pumps.
He had become matronly by the age of forty and—then as now—Hollywood preferred its "ladies" young and nubile. Times and public tastes, too, had changed. The roaring twenties had bottomed out and drag was erroneously considered to be a component of homosexuality and therefore a threat to "straight" society. By 1940 in Los Angeles an ordinance had been passed which required all female impersonators to take psychiatric exams before taking a job.
Like many an old queen before and after, Julian Eltinge’s life became a concatenation of small and large indignities. His last role before his death in 1941 was a cameo in Bing Crosby’s If I Had My Way.
On Hollywood and filmmaking:
Below the Line
sex drugs and divorce
a little life, interrupted
- Hecho en Mejico
- Sam's Song
- Hemingway and Fortuna
- Hummingbird on the Left
- The Long and Drunken Afternoon
- Safe in the Lap of the Gods
- Quetzal Birds in Love
- Angela in Paradise
- And the machine ran backwards
a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon
I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind
Below the Line
Final Cut Pro
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Apocalypse Now Redux
The Jazz Singer
We Were Soldiers