1918: Julian Eltinge, the most famous drag queen

julian eltinge most famous female impersonator

In 1918, Australian newspapers celebrated the move to the silver screen by popular stage star Julian Eltinge, the world’s most famous drag queen.

Julian Eltinge

  • first performed in drag at the age of 10 in the Boston Cadets.
  • made his Broadway debut in drag in 1904.
  • became one of the highest-paid actors on the American stage.

In his mid-teens, Julian accompanied his parents to Montana where his father worked as a mining engineer. Already a seasoned trooper, the youngster threw on a frock and performed in saloons for entertainment-starved miners and ranchers. But when Julian’s father found out about his crossdressing, he beat the shit out of him. Julian’s mother sent the lad back to Boston to live with his sister. The 17-year-old worked as a salesman and took dancing lessons.

His hard work and perseverance paid off. At the age of 23, Julian Eltinge made his Broadway debut. Over the following years, he became one of the world’s highest-paid stage performers, touring the US and the world.

He played fairly much the same character in all his plays and movies. Never a man who chose to crossdress but always a bloke compelled to pass as a woman in order to save the day for himself or his friends.

In his younger days, Julian made for a convincing and attractive woman, always dressed in the height of fashion and renowned for his beautiful gowns. The Maryborough Chronicle noted that in a 1918 movie, he changed costume forty-six times. But he was also a renowned comedian — a triple threat — a laugh-a-minute jokester, sexually ambiguous, and unrelenting glamourous.

Significantly, the world’s most famous female impersonator went to enormous lengths to conceal his sexuality and make himself acceptable to mainstream America. He took part in staged boxing matchs, smoked bloody great cigars and feigned affairs with one beautiful woman after another. A man’s man, as the Queenslander newspaper told readers.

“Julian Eltinge, a man who plays women parts, is a man’s man and a thorough, good fellow, with the inimitable ability to make himself appear a beautiful and captivating woman.”

“I just like pearls!”

Julian dismissed suggestions of homosexuality with a throw-away line, “I’m not gay. I just like pearls!”

But in 1929, Julian lost much of his fortune in the stock market crash. He was nearly 50 — still glamorous, still funny AF — but no longer the skinny pretty young thing who astonished audiences with his ability to pass as a woman. The work dried up.

1933/2023: the same old bullshit

06 Sep 1933, Wed The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) Newspapers.com

Worse, ninety years ago in 1933, the Los Angeles board of police commissioners banned drag in city clubs. They had no legal authority to do so. But, in 1933, the LAPD used the same tactic employed by bigots in 2023 to close down drag events — bullying and threats of violence.

No longer able to perform in drag, Julian Eltinge stood on stage next to a rack of his costumes. At the beginning of each song, he showed the audience the gown he had previously worn for that number.

Julian died in New York in 1941 after falling ill while performing onstage.

More wonderful drag queens:

Drag Queens at War: Forgotten ANZAC legends.

Queensland drag icons: Peter and Johnny Moselle.

1970s Brisbane and the Queens of the Valley.

Danny La Rue Down Under in 1980.

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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