‘He was a perfect, beautiful woman’: the female impersonator who became a 1920s star

<span>Julien Eltinge plays a ‘bathing beauty’.</span><span>Photograph: Laurence Senelick Collection</span>
Julien Eltinge plays a ‘bathing beauty’.Photograph: Laurence Senelick Collection

Over a hundred years ago, a cis man rose to superstardom as a female impersonator. His proto-drag persona was so popular – and accepted into the mainstream – that he ran his own ladies’ magazine, sold cold cream to female fans, and counted royals and celebrities as superfans.

In the new book Beautiful: The Story of Julian Eltinge, America’s Greatest Female Impersonator, the writer Andrew L Erdman documents the life of a turn-of-the-century performer whose career would still be considered radical more than 80 years after his death. The title refers to a common description of Eltinge, who was known for his elaborate costumes, tight corseting and highly illusionary makeup skills. “He was this perfect, beautiful woman,” Erdman said in an interview. “[Female impersonation] got very normalized in the 1920s … there was a lot of gender play and openness across the spectrum.”

Female impersonation followed a familiar formula: performers were expected to sing, dance, and play as a man who, for whatever reason, had to go undercover as a woman. Most of it was high camp, but Eltinge turned his performances into a kind of fashion show, wearing the latest looks and serving as a style authority women could trust. Some of the performances, Erdman writes, ended with Eltinge revealing his true gender, surprising an audience convinced they were watching a woman on stage.

Eltinge, who was born William Dalton in 1881 in Newtonville, Massachusetts, first thrived via the vaudeville circuit, where he became one of the highest-earning stage performers of the era. The comic skits and bits of vaudeville weren’t enough, though, and he pined for “the legitimate”, or appearing in a Broadway play. He eventually starred in The Fascinating Widow, playing a college boy who goes undercover as a woman to win back his girlfriend, which toured the US for several years.

Hollywood soon beckoned. There, Eltinge played male and female roles, including in 1920’s The Isle of Love, where he starred alongside two unknowns: Rudolph Valentino and Virginia Rappe, the model and bit-part actress who mysteriously died at a wild party hosted by Fatty Arbuckle a year later. In the silent film, Eltinge plays a peasant leading a revolt against the duke of an island, with Valentino as his sidekick. At times, Eltinge’s character disguises himself as a woman.

Like many stars of his era, who were prone to inventing exotic backstories, Eltinge was a bit of a fabulist – he told reporters he had studied architecture at Harvard, when in reality he was the son of a struggling mining engineer whose family moved west to Montana in search of better opportunities. There, a teenage Eltinge first developed the acting bug, securing an ushering job at an opera house in Butte, which would allow him to see shows for free while he worked. Eltinge’s father, who considered this career unmanly, beat his son in retaliation.

The bashing did little to kill the dream: Eltinge would soon return east, working as a salesman before landing a spot in an all-male revue, playing the first of many female characters. Eltinge’s forte was comedy, but he was obsessive when it came to achieving the veneer of womanhood. “He was this precise, highly illusionistic performer,” Erdman said. “That really appealed to audiences who were used to magic shows, carnivals, circuses, and Houdini – it played on that American trope of ‘we like to be fooled’.”

On stage, he wore beaded gowns, feather hats, and voluminous Gibson Girl wigs. But offstage, Eltinge curated a masculine persona. This could have been to combat persistent rumors about his sexuality; Eltinge was known to fight anyone who suggested he was gay. “He had to be the guy who was like, ‘Yeah, someone called me a sissy, and I punched him in the face,’” Erdman said.

“I can see why LGBTQ historians have struggled with him over the years,” Erdman continued. “He’s not an easy ally. He didn’t align himself with other artists who were more comfortable with an emerging gay subculture, or gender fluidity. Offstage, he was sort of like this average guy who thought that taxes shouldn’t be too high.”

Though Erdman couldn’t find concrete proof that Eltinge had gay lovers, he suspects there were “erotic ties” to other men. Eltinge had some longtime friendships with men, especially when he lived in Los Angeles, but ultimately, his personal life remains ambiguous.

In 1908, Eltinge and the vaudeville superstar Eva Tanguay announced a surprise engagement. It was mostly a PR stunt, drumming up excitement from fans and serving as a type of “sham marriage” to quell suspicions around Eltinge’s queerness. Critics viewed Tanguay, who sang songs titled I Want Someone to Go Wild With Me and Go as Far as You Like, as a symbol of the modern, liberated woman; announcing an engagement to a female impersonator was a subversive, gender-bending ploy.

Even though he curated a reputation for masculinity off-stage, Eltinge aligned himself with women, dishing out advice in newspaper columns and his own beauty magazine. One piece, titled “Ladies, get thin”, shows how depressingly little has changed when it comes to beauty standards. “Obesity is a disease,” Eltinge wrote, adding that he struggled with his weight, too.

Eltinge himself only dieted while on tour or preparing to hit the stage, Erdman writes. His fitness regimen included staying awake as much as possible (he didn’t note how) as a form of exercise, and binge-dieting, eating only dry toast and fruit for breakfast, mutton or fish and vegetables in the evening, and “quarts of buttermilk” as a snack.

This was influencer culture, circa the 1910s: Eltinge believed beauty could be achieved through hard work, and he hawked that ethos to his fans. “He was like a living mannequin, and there was some style porn going on, but it was also instructive, with a patriarchal mallet,” Erdman said. Eltinge donned corsets and colors that suited his version of womanhood, and he advised fans to do the same – especially if it helped him make more money, whether through the box office or sales of his many Julien Eltinge-branded products.

Reports of the day suggest that his fan base consisted mostly of women, but Erdman thinks that’s inaccurate. “There was a homoerotic appeal,” he said. “It allowed men to be close to each other, to normalize [gender play].”

Eltinge died in 1941 at 59, after he lost most of his fortune during the 1929 stock market crash. The man who once had a Broadway theater named after him found it difficult to perform in his later years due to anti-cross-dressing laws, which New York police started seriously enforcing by the 1930s. (Many historians viewed this as a reaction to 1920s sexual liberation.) He eked out a living in New York before dying of a cerebral hemorrhage, and became largely forgotten.

Why tell his story now? Conservative, homophobic groups have long stoked fears about the LGBTQ+ movement, and in recent years, drag queens have become a lightning rod in their culture wars, with performers facing death threats or protests from Republican or far-right groups. Eltinge’s story shows that drag has a long and complex history in the US, and was once widely considered a mainstream form of artistry – not a so-called affront to “traditional values”.

Though the drag one would find at a queer bar in 2024 owes much of its lineage to Black trans performers post-Stonewall, Erdman believes that you can still find Eltinge’s stamp on the ultra-realistic drag you might see go viral on Instagram or Pinterest today – “gender illusionist artists” who use modern-day makeup to create ultra-realistic looks for social media. “They are very popular, and very, very beautiful,” he said.

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