May 14, 1883 – On this day of America’s foremost female impersonator is born in Newtonville, Massachusetts. Julian Eltinge was a stage and silent film star who few actually realized was a man. So popular was he that during the Korean War a troop ship was named in his, or rather, her honor.
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 title of “Mr. Lillian Russell” for 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 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,
Eltinge was an intimate of the top Hollywood stars and a wealthy man, worth over $250,000. He built Villa Capistrano, one of the most lavish villa’s in the Hollywood area, where he lived with his mother and entertained lavishly. He also built a ‘dude ranch’ for men in Alpine, CA near San Diego But times were changing. The outrageous performances of female impersonators Francis Renault and Bert Savoy, and the drag balls and gay speakeasies of the 20’s “pansy craze” in New York made Eltinge’s style appear old-fashioned. He began to drink heavily and in 1923 was caught smuggling liquor from Canada. Despite a sensational trial and bad press, he managed to get an acquittal.
It was the beginning of his decline and with the arrival of the Great Depression and the death of vaudeville, Eltinge’s star began to fade.. Eltinge resorted to performing in nightclubs. Crackdowns on cross-dressing in public, a misguided attempt 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 describing his old 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 ten days later. His death certificate lists the cause of death as a cerebral hemorrhage.
Julian Eltinge leaves a legacy as one of the greatest and most forgotten female impersonators of the 20th.century.
Raise a glass and remember Julian/Vestta!
“My heart is simply melting at the thought of Julian Eltinge;
His alter ego, Vesta Tilley, too.
Since our language is so dexterous, let us call them ambi-sexterous –
Why hasn’t this occurred before to you?”
Dorothy Parker, “A Musical Comedy Thought” – Vanity Fair, June 1916