To paraphrase Winston Churchill speaking of that other security curtain (the Iron one), Julian Eltinge's life remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. The details of his vaudeville and stage career, and his films, are for the most part readily available. But the facts of his personal life, from his birthdate to his cause of death are either ambiguous or contradictory. Some of this is due to Eltinge's own mythmaking, and his fervent desire to quell any gossip about his possible homosexuality. "I am not gay, I just like pearls" he has said. But this statement in itself is a bit of a give away. Eltinge had been dubbed by some critics as "the queerest woman in the world" and "ambisextrous". Eltinge worked hard to create an image of absolute 'manliness', with public displays of horseback riding, smoking cigars, cursing, endless engagements later broken off, fights in bars (usually 'arranged'), and a bout with 'Gentleman' Jim Corbett that was splashed across newspapers. While there is little hard evidence of his sexual persuasion many of his contemporaries assumed he was gay. Brooks Peters, ("GAY DECEIVER", OUT Magazine, December 1998) quotes Milton Berle: "In the days of vaudeville I did shows with some of the greatest female impersonators, Karyl Norman, Bert Savoy, and Julian Eltinge. Of course, I worked with straight men too". In an article in the Boston Globe, Jan. 9, 1909 the wife of a sportswriter finds a photo of Eltinge as a woman in her husband's coat pocket signed 'Jules' and becomes enraged. To prove his innocence the sportswriter takes his wife to see Eltinge perform. But she is not any the happier for it, especially when Eltinge and her husband then go off together 'to the fights' while she goes home. Reading between the lines it is possible to suppose there was more than a casual relationship between the two men. Brooks Peters also notes that Norman Cohen, Professor Emeritus of History, at California's Occidental College, writing a biography of Eltinge, was told that Eltinge's true passion was for a male sax player in his band. And, there is the rumored affair with Rudolf Valentino. In any case Julian kept himself well in the closet, or at the least, guarded his secrets well.
Accounts of Eltinge's life are full of discrepancies. His birthdate is usually given as May 14, 1883. However, researcher David Harrington uncovered his birth certificate with the date of birth of William J. Dalton (Eltinge's original name) as May 14 1881, in Newton, Mass. of father Michael Dalton born in Boston, Mass. and Mother Julia E. Baker, born in Pepperell Mass. Though listed on the birth certificate as 'barber', Michael Dalton is usually credited as being a mining engineer, traveling to California and Montana. In fact, he travelled West to prospect for gold, and when that failed he opened a barbershop in Butte.
Katie Rodda, in an interesting study of the career of Julian Eltinge at the Unversity of California at Santa Barbara "Masculinity is a Drag", lists two different accepted narratives of Eltinge's beginnings. In one story he played his first female role at the age of ten with the Boston Cadets' Revue. He played a young girl so convincingly that the following year (in 1894, supposedly!) the revue was written specifically to feature his impersonation. The Encyclopedia Britannica, among other chronicles, goes on to state that he was a Graduate of Harvard, and he entered in vaudeville in 1904. In fact, during this period Prof. Laurence Senelick of Tufts University states he was working as a clerk in a dry goods store at $3.50 a week. Katie Rodda recounts another often repeated, more colorful narrative. "...he began taking 'cakewalk lessons' at Mrs. Wyman's dance studio in 1898. One day he arrived for his lesson early and observed the dancing girls who were in the class before his. After they left, as a joke he started imitating one of the more awkward girls. Wyman was impressed with his graceful carriage, and advised him to consider becoming a female impersonator. Despite initial misgivings, Eltinge began studying with the instructor, who taught him how to stand, walk, dance, and dress like a woman. He played a female role in a local show, and critics responded favorably to his performance. He subsequently landed a role in a Boston musical, impressing both audiences and critics with his glamorous and realistic presentation of a young woman."
According to Martin Litvin, a biographer of Eltinge, his beginnings were quite different than either of these stories, and much more interesting. In Butte, Montana, assisted and encouraged by his mother, Bill began to dress up in skirts and perform in the local saloons at a very young age. Discovering this, his father nearly beat him to death. Sent by his mother to live with her sister in Boston in 1899, he entered a Cakewalk contest, and won. At this time he had taken on the name 'Julian Eltinge'. He then enrolled in Mrs. Lilla Viles Wyman's dance class to develop his talents. His first appearances were at the Tremont Theater in Boston with the Cadet Theatricals, a group of theatrical amateurs directed by Robert A. Barnet, and sponsored by the Bank Officers' Association. The performers were all male, playing both male and female roles. Alison Barnet, currently writing a biography of her great grandfather R. A. Barnet, has documented Eltinge's early career as follows:
"In 1900 Barnet invited Billy Dalton to play a soubrette role in that year's Cadet show, Miladi and the Musketeer. Apparently, Lilla Viles Wyman, whose dance studio was upstairs in the Tremont Theatre where the Cadet shows were held, recommended him to Barnet. Billy had beautiful legs and was a joy to work with--that was her description. Even as a teenager , Billy had his mind set on becoming a professional female impersonator. Barnet saw no harm in having him rehearse with the Cadets (Billy was not a member) and learn whatever he could. Before long, the company was impressed with how hard Billy worked. When rehearsals were over for the night, he was still practicing his steps. Even though someone else had already been cast for the part, Barnet asked Billy if he'd like to play the role of Mignonette, a spy of the Cardinal. People thought Barnet wrote MISS SIMPLICITY, the BOA's 1901 theatrical, for Eltinge even though he wasn't a member of the BOA. He stole the show as Claire de Loinville, an ingenue who doesn't want to become queen, changes places with a beggar girl, and appears in one breathtaking costume after another. Eltinge was the "bright particular star" of BARON HUMBUG in 1903, also for the Bank Officers' Association, as Countess Sylvia, a Hungarian belle. He was dazzling in three spectacular costumes Bamet designed for him. His rendition of the "Sylvia" song was extremely popular.
Sylvia, take the lily, daff-fo-dil!
Sylvia, take what e'er the garden grows!
But Sylvia only shook her pretty head
As she kissed a simple wild red rose.
The producer E.E. Rice picked him up and the rest is history."
The show picked for Eltinge was MR. WIX OF WICKHAM, a British musical comedy imported by E. E. Rice. It opened September 19, 1904 at the Bijou Theater, NYC. Songs for the American version were written by Jerome Kern at age 19, his first in any show. The plot followed the Charley's Aunt format. This became the basic format for most of Eltinge's musical comedies and films, where a young man disguises himself as a woman to effect change in his, or someone else's life. MR.WIX was not a success, only playing for forty one performances, but Eltinge was singled out by critics. "If a man ever succeeded in lifting and almost totally obliterating the stigma which.... attaches to this work, Eltinge has", and "He contrives..to let his masculinity shine through....which partly takes the curse off the whole thing." These phrases indicate why Eltinge labored to create an offstage image of intense masculinity while producing an astonishing image of a woman onstage.
With his outstanding reviews, Eltinge moved into the vaudeville circuit, appearing in New York in 1905-1906. followed by a tour of Europe, (London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna), including a Command Performance at Windsor Castle for King Edward VII who later presented him with a pet bulldog. Eltinge returned to the US in 1907 for his solo New York Debut. Eltinge was such a success in his quick change artistry from "THE SIMPSON GIRL", a parody of the GIBSON GIRL, through a series of breathtaking society women to a young schoolgirl that the New York Mirror featured him on their front page. Billed simply as "Eltinge" Variety (September 21, 1907) declared "The audience was completely deceived as to Eltinge's sex, until he removed his wig after the second song... his act is far and away above what is described as female impersonation". The de-wigging became a part of Eltinge's vaudeville performances, and after several curtain calls, his final curtain call would have him waving his wig from behind the stage curtains to wild audience applause. Picked up by the Cohen and Harris Minstrels, touring with them from 1908-1910 Eltinge added new dazzling roles ranging from an exotic SALOME , a racy BATHING GIRL, a spoof of Ruth St. Denis and Modern Dance in THE GODDESS OF INCENSE, a COBRA DANCE, to an outlandish blackface minstrel version of the GIBSON GIRL in the HONEY BOY MINSTRELS Musical "BELLE OF THE BARBER'S BALL". Eltinge became a major star of the Cohan and Harris troupe; "the most fascinating woman on the American stage," and his performances invariably brought down the house and had people rolling in the aisles.
By 1910 Eltinge had reached the pinnacle of vaudeville, getting top billing in the best circuits, lavish praise from major critics and a salary that rivalled any other performer. His act required forty-five minutes for the makeup alone, and a large number of quick changes assisted by his Japanese dresser, Shima. Sime Silverman, Editor of Variety, praising his great drawing power, sense of style, and "class", concludes that Julian Eltinge is "as great a performer as there is today", equal to Eva Tanguy Nora Bayes, Harry Lauder, Ed Wynn, and Fanny Brice. (Variety 23 Apr. 1,1910). Eltinge now had only one direction to take in show business, and that meant full length Broadway Musicals on the legitimate stage.
Al.H. Woods, Broadway producer, had been watching Eltinge's rising star. On October 16, 1910, The NY Morning Telegraph had the following notice:
Eltinge Co. incorporation notice. The company is incorporated to conduct general theatrical, amusement and real estate business, to own and lease theaters, to sell, produce and manage dramatic and musical attractions. Capital $10,000. Incorporators are A.H. Woods, Martin Herman, 1493 Broadway, Ferdinand Pinner, 43 Cedar Street, NYC.
Shortly after, on November 14, 1910, Eltinge opened in Atlantic City in Otto Hauerbach's musical comedy THE FASCINATING WIDOW , produced by Al Woods, who produced all his musicals. The play featured Eltinge in a dual role as Hal Blake, a "naughty boy" at a coed college who disguises himself as a 'Mrs. Monte' to escape an irate detective. The show moved to the Liberty Theater in 1911 for it's New York premiere. Though it only ran for 56 performances in New York, it toured for several years, and became Eltinge's signature performance and the formula for most of his theatrical and film performances. The show was so popular that it was performed by two other female impersonators, Karyl Norman and Tom Martelle in subsequent years.
In 1911 Woods built the ELTINGE THEATER. to honor the nationwide success of Julian Eltinge. It opened September 11, 1912, with the show WITHIN THE LAW. Surprisingly, Eltinge himself never performed in this theater, though Woods had planned at least one production for him in the ELTINGE. The overall success of THE FASCINATING WIDOW catapulted Eltinge into a series of highly successful musicals; THE CRINOLINE GIRL, and COUSIN LUCY. Many of the lyrics of Eltinge's song in these shows were written by him. By this time Eltinge was one of the highest paid stars on the stage and bought himself a farm on Long Island as well as an apartment on West 74th St., in New York, where he was famous for his after theater parties. Eltinge's talent for self promotion is evident from the countless newspaper stories he planted, the endless interviews and photo ''ops'' he arranged, and the three JULIAN ELTINGE MAGAZINES he published. Much of this was also aimed at counteracting speculations about his sexual inclinations. One of these magazines, especially geared to his predominantly female audience, JULIAN ELTINGE'S MAGAZINE OF BEAUTY HINTS AND TIPS , promoted his own line of women's cosmetics, corsets and shoes. One coy picture of him as a woman states "See What the Julian Eltinge Cold Cream Does for a Man. Imagine What It Will Do For a Woman" . Eltinge's magazines and promotional postcards exhibit a sly humor we define as 'campy' today, and provides some insight into his 'ambisextrous ' nature. In contrast to these promotional gimmicks, Eltinge frequently expressed his disdain for "working in skirts", insisting that his real desire was to perform as a legitimate 'sraight' actor. But fame and the high salaries kept him "in skirts". Especially with Hollywood now calling him.
"A Recruit in the Army of Photoplayers" is how Photoplay Journal, (August 1917), headlined a major article stating that "Another distinguished name has been added to the list of Famous-Players-Lasky stars with the engagement of Julian Eltinge , the internationally famous impersonator of feminine roles." Previously, in HOW MOLLY MALONE MADE GOOD (1915), he appeared "straight" in one of a series of 'shaggy dog' sketches by Burns Mantle. Eltinge was chosen by Jesse Lasky, founder of The Jesse Lasky Feature Player Co. and the studio head at Paramount Pictures, to star in THE COUNTESS CHARMING (1917) a comedy with interesting social commentary on 'society snobs' in which he again played a dual role. Just as many other stars of vaudeville and the legitimate stage were drawn to Hollywood, so was Eltinge. Obviously he could not resist the kind of attention afforded by the new medium, and the ability to perform before thousands at one time. Perhaps even more interesting to him was this ability to make the quick costume changes which were so laborious and exhausting on stage, but which through the magic of film was simpler and less taxing. In that same year, he opened in THE CLEVER MRS. CARFAX. He again played a dual role in a comedy where an All American College Boy disguises himself as a woman to get next to a Vassar girl. In the process he incidentally foils two thieves trying to rip off her grandmother. Once again in THE WIDOW'S MIGHT (1918), and OVER THE RHINE(1918), Eltinge plays dual roles, but in these latter films he has moved towards more dramatic roles. As a war melodrama, OVER THE RHINE had Eltinge in the guise of a spy for the Allies. Unfortunately, its scheduled release date came after the 1918 Armistice. It was decided that a war film would not be profitable and it was recut several times, finally released as The Isle of Love (1922), featuring Rudolph Valentino. Originally Valentino only had a small part, but with his rising star, outtakes were used to increase his exposure and present it as a Valentino rather than an Eltinge film. One of the more intriguing rumors surrounding Eltinge involved him in an affair with Valentino during the making of this film. In 1918-1919 he returned to Vaudeville touring the US, Europe, China, Japan and Australia.
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. But it was the beginning of his decline.
In his last silent film comedy MADAME BEHAVE(1925) despite his age (44) Eltinge reverts to an earlier form and plays a "collegiate" type pursuing a young girl and forced to disguise himself as a woman to get near her against her father's wishes. The film is full of wonderful slapstick moments that rival some of the best in silent film comedies. It is the only record in circulation that hints at Eltinge's performance technique. In his only sound film, MAID TO ORDER (1931) he plays a private detective who disguises himself as a French singer, Lottie Lorraine, performing at a nightclub where diamonds are being smuggled. As in later Hollywood cross dressing farces such as SOME LIKE IT HOT, and TOOTSIE, Eltinge as Lottie had to room with another female singer, creating embarrassing and farcical situations. It is apparent in this film that Eltinge was past his prime, and grossly overweight. Rumors of his alcoholism were rampant. In the 1930's he tried to revive his career by appearing in a sleazy Hollywood nightclub with a gay clientele. Local laws made it illegal for men to wear womens' clothes and Eltinge had to perform in a tuxedo, pointing to his dresses on a rack, trying to create the image that once surrounded him. In 1940, almost unrecognizable from his elegant, stunning younger image, Eltinge appeared as himself in a cameo role in If I HAD MY WAY, a Bing Crosby film. By this time, mounting debts had forced him to sell Villa Capistrano.
On May 7, 1941 Eltinge died under mysterious circumstances, with as many varying explanations as his beginnings. While performing at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe he was taken ill, went home and died in his apartment 10 days later. Various obituaries listed him as having died from a kidney disease, or "a brief illness". His death certificate lists the cause of death as a "cerebral hemhorrage". Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon claims he committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. His funeral in New York was attended by over 300 people . He was cremated and the ashes were sent to his mother who still lived in Hollywood. The ashes were interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, later joined by those of his parents. His will, dated Oct. 13, 1938 states "I declare that I am a bachelor", and leaves everything to his mother.
Eltinge's decline is made even more poignant by the general lack of knowledge and appreciation of his dazzling career, and the sacrifices and compromises he probably made in his life to sustain that career. Perhaps Eltinge never became the great legit actor he had hoped to be, but as the greatest female impersonator on the American Stage, no one before or after has been able to rival him.