Vander Clyde as the captivating ‘Barbette,’ early 1920s.
Vander Clyde (aka “Barbette”) was born in Texas around 1898. Though there is some dispute about Clyde’s actual date of birth, there is no debate about how the influential Vaudeville acrobat and female impersonator was to artists such as Jean Cocteau (who wrote an essay in 1926 based on Clyde’s alter-ego as a female impersonator called Le Numéro Barbette). It’s even said that Clyde’s incredible transformative abilities helped inspire Blake Edwards’ gender-bending 1982 film, Victor/Victoria.
As a young child, perhaps as young as eight, Clyde attended a local circus with his mother in Austin and was so moved by the show (especially the aerial acts), that he later confessed to his horrified mother that he intended to run away and join the circus and become a “wire-walker.” Clyde didn’t make good on his threat and instead stayed home and got a job picking cotton for several years so he could earn enough cash continue attending circus shows. After graduating at the top of his class at the age of fourteen Clyde would develop his self-taught aerial skills by using anything he could including the clothing line in his backyard. Shortly after he graduated and according to the 2012 book The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville he responded to an ad in Billboard Magazine placed by the “World Famous Aerial Queens” a group from Italy known as the “Alfaretta Sisters.” Tragically one of the sisters had recently died and the act was desperately looking for a replacement. However the job came with a catch.
The surviving members of the Alfaretta Sisters insisted that one of reasons their act was so popular was because people preferred to watch women swinging around on a trapeze rather than a man. So in order to get the gig Clyde would have to dress up like a girl. Which he happily did. It wouldn’t take long before Clyde would launch his solo career dressed in drag as “Barbette.” When his show premiered in New York at the Harlem Opera House in 1919, The New York Dramatic Mirror (now there’s a publication I’d love to see come back, wouldn’t you?) called Barbette “not a bad looking girl at all” and praised his “thrilling stunts.” The magazine also noted that at the end of Barbette’s act that Clyde dramatically removed his wig stunning the audience to silence.
In 1923 Clyde took to the stage of the Folies Bergère, a cabaret music hall located in Paris dressed in full drag as Barbette. During the show Clyde performed incredible acrobatic stunts such as walking a high wire and dangerous trapeze-related tricks. Clyde’s appearance was so convincing that it left people to ponder the ambiguous performer’s true sexual identity. Members of the French avant-garde community were captivated by Clyde’s portrayal of Barbette including one of France’s most influential creative minds the great Jean Cocteau, who was allegedly linked to Clyde romantically. Cocteau was so taken with Barbette that he commissioned surrealist photographer Man Ray to take a series of photographs showing Clyde’s metamorphosis into the ethereal, androgynous Barbette.
In 1938 Clyde contracted pneumonia which led to his early retirement from the stage though he would continue to work with up-and-coming circus acts as well as on films by Orson Welles and the legendary multi-talented producer and director, Billy Rose. I’ve included some remarkable photos of Clyde as Barbette and some images from his shoot with Man Ray. If you’d like to learn more about Clyde he is the subject of a fantastic looking book called Wildflower: The Dramatic Life of Barbette—Round Rock’s First and Greatest Drag Queen. Though there is no nudity, some may be considered NSFW.
Vander Clyde as ‘Barbette.’ Photography by Man Ray.
‘Barbette’ on the trapeze.
More after the jump…