Long before Ru Paul eyed his first pair of six inch stilettos, Boy George donned his colorful caftan, or Divine bust her large frame on the scene.... a handsome young man from the small town of Round Rock, Texas barnstormed the stages of Europe’s most lavish theaters and night clubs as Barbette, a beautiful aerialist drag queen who became a scandalous sensation throughout the Roaring Twenties.
Performing his erotic, high wire and trapeze routine in lavish, feminine regalia, Barbette shocked audiences by revealing the true nature of his gender at the very end of his act. From a child who picked cotton and walked his mother’s clothes line to headlining at the Moulin Rouge in spectacular drag, Barbette was quite the original act. Barbette himself says that when the circus came to Austin it changed his life. He begged his mother to permit him to run away and join the circus. She told him he was free to go as soon as he finished his high school studies. Barbette said he doubled up his studies and left Round Rock at sixteen.
Barbette was a sensation in Europe, he started purchasing property in Texas. He was a top-paid act in the Roaring Twenties. He boasted he travelled with twenty eight trunks, a maid and a maid for the maid. He was big time. After twenty years or so on the stage, it all came to an end, when Barbette got sick while performing at Manhattan’s Loew’s State Theater. He contracted polio. He decided on a radical and painful treatment plan that depleted his savings. His career as a performer was over.
Barbette is listed on the 1940 census in Round Rock as living with his mother and step father, Samuel Loving, as well as other siblings. Imagine how crushing it must have been for him to see all that he worked for come to an end and then winding up back in Round Rock—a flamboyant peacock amongst the grackles. What must the town’s folk have thought about Barbette, a man who dressed up like a woman for a living, coming home?
After a year and a half of operations and recovery, Barbette created an ethereal spectacle using over fifty women entwined in silk ropes and other hanging apparatuses swirling about the big top. It launched his second career as a director and trainer of female aerialists in the circus, stage productions and films. All the while, when Barbette wasn’t on the road, he returned to Austin to reside with his sister Mary and her family. It’s no wonder he desired being on the road, taking on productions into his seventies until his body finally gave out. After he fell and became partially immobile, Barbette took his own life back in Texas at his sister Mary’s home. He was buried in the Loving family plot, right by his mother and sister Mary.
I also found out there is a book about his life which might well be my next read.
Wildflower reveals long-forgotten secrets of this enigmatic performer: his arrest in London on morals charges, his bout with polio, his infamous collaborations with some of Hollywood’s greatest stars— Orson Welles, Vincente Minnelli, and Judy Garland, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis as well as his hidden affair with French surrealist Jean Cocteau. Wildflower captivates with every page, dramatically revealing the startling and at times heart-breaking story of Round Rock’s first and greatest drag queen. Also to note, the author Kyle Taylor crafted this book entirely on his own, from the fonts, research, photos and backing, everything about it, because publishing houses didn't think it may be of interests. So I HUGE hat tip to Kyle for this sure to be brilliant read.