The following is an excerpt from Beautiful: The Story of Julian Eltinge, America’s Greatest Female Impersonator by Andy Erdman and available now from Oxford University Press.

Drag artists were huge in vaudeville, musical comedies, and the movies. But none—none—were bigger than Julian Eltinge (1881-1941). Often called “the most beautiful woman on the stage,” he was a superstar female impersonator whose art, work, and life embodied the many conflicting and bewildering cultural attitudes toward masculinity, gender, sexuality, and authenticity. Beautiful is the first-ever full-length biography of this artistic marvel who defined his era—and whose story can tell us much about ours.

Erdman’s other books include Blue Vaudeville and The Queen of Vaudeville: The Story of Eva Tanguay. 

A beautiful woman steps out of the wings and onto the stage at Keith’s vaudeville theatre in Boston in 1910. She stands on the edge of the playing area, the apron, in front of a curtain and gestures gracefully, fluidly, the picture of a refined lady—a middle-class white lady, to be sure—but the former is synonymous with the latter and vice versa in most patrons’ minds.

The woman onstage is dainty yet self-possessed. Spontaneous and natural, yet self-controlled. She harmonizes nicely with her surroundings. The theatre lobby has marble floors, aisles that descend at just the right angle, cushiony seats, Louis XV-style furniture in the lounges, and China vases and jardinières in the lobby, all of it scrubbed and dusted to a shine each day. The audience members hold playbills whose pages are bordered in lavender and gold-leaf. Even the boiler room is finished in gleaming brass.

This woman, on whom all eyes are trained, wears a plush, velvet gown of turquoise-blue. It is décolleté́ with a plunging back revealing her flawless, porcelain shoulders and “enviable bust,” according to one theatergoer. The curtain behind her now rises; she walks upstage under the glow of the spotlights. As she does so, the audience gets a glimpse of her fashionable “French heels,” a new style in which the ankle is heightened to accentuate the bustline and derriere.

American women aren’t quite ready for it, but they will be soon enough. The nation, after all, is expanding abroad, finding new markets and dominating new realms. So, getting in-sync with the latest fashions from abroad seems right. The audience recognizes that this woman, with her hands on her hips, thumbs pointed forward, is a Gibson Girl, a female archetype created by Life magazine artist Charles Dana Gibson in 1890 and all the rage by 1900.

Tall, voluptuous, neckline plunging, hair swept up in a glorious pompadour, the Gibson Girl was an evolutionary step before the boyish “1914 Girl,” and two steps behind the skinny, glamorously-a-bit-unkempt “flapper” who would later dominate American style and fashion. But still: the Gibson Girl ventured outside her home much more than the domesticated, Victorian housewife before her who was bogged down by skirts, laces, brocades, and crinolines. Tennis and beach-going were out of the question for the Gibson Girl with her long dress and high-piled globe of hair. But she could ride a bike, at least for a while, then spread out on a blanket for a picnic in Central Park or Boston Common. That was activity enough.

An audience member finds the woman onstage “as charming a piece of feminine loveliness as can be found in the confines of the States.” Many agree.

Now center-stage, the velvet-gowned wonder sings “I’m Getting Fond of You” in a soft yet rich contralto. Her voice is dulcet-toned but substantial. As soon as she finishes, though, she disappears backstage! When she comes back, the Gibson Girl is gone. In her place, it’s a dead-on impression of vaudeville superstar Elsie Janis.

Another song, a few fancy dance steps, and then off again, and on again! Now she wears a filmy, pseudo-Eastern costume, all the rage these days, as she gives a rendition of contemporary dancer Ruth St. Denis’s “Cobra Dance,” with its snakelike sways and gyrations. It’s actually pretty good. Not a mocking version as some others might do. This woman can dance. She can even do a split.

Finally, the performer comes out in a bathing suit, singing “Take a Dip in the Ocean.” The crowd gapes at her exposed, alabaster neck. The song ends. She curtsies politely. The audience explodes in applause. Encores are demanded.

The lady demurs as her mouth curls into a smile. Of course she’ll give the crowd what it wants. She knows she’s the best thing on the bill. Thirteen minutes of sheer joy. It’s customary to give a short curtain speech in these situations, so she steps forward, footlights accentuating her ivory legs.

Then she removes her wig.

And it turns out this woman is no woman, but a man.

His name is Julian Eltinge. Strapping. In his twenties but more like a teen somehow. Many in the crowd had no idea that all these women were in fact this young man. Or maybe they did not want to know. After all, how could a man so completely become a woman? And not just one woman at that! Perhaps some in the audience felt a secret delight, a never-to-be-spoken pleasure at knowing all along that beneath these skirts resided a male anatomy.

Even those who knew—or insisted they had, afterward—loved the pleasure of being fooled. They loved the reveal as much as the illusion. They were, after all, accustomed to master illusionists and magicians, from the authentic ones like Houdini to the countless sleight-of-hand conjurers, all favorites of American amusement-seekers.

“I was quite in love with her,” says one. “That’s a woman alright, and a very fine one too!” says another. Women were fooled as well. “He’s prettier than any girl I ever saw,” says one. “I never saw a more beautiful woman’s face on the stage than his, not even Mrs. Langtry’s in her palmy days,” says another, comparing Julian Eltinge to famed actress Lily Langtry. Even the house manager, who knows full-well it was a put-on, writes that Eltinge “makes a handsome girl” in his notes to the head office.

Were there some in the audience, perchance, who were even more excited to discover that “a man’s heart” pulsed under the swirling silk and whitewashed skin, making them want to “steal a kiss” all the more? Were there a few gents who wondered what it might be like to try on such attire themselves? (In private of course, not on stage.) Were there women who, while oohing and aahing over the lovely dresses wondered, if a man can play women’s parts so skillfully, mightn’t they themselves play roles that were supposed to be “men’s”: professionals, executives, politicians, and entrepreneurs?

Julian Eltinge’s female impersonations were so perfectly executed, so pure, that in a sense, theatergoers could project virtually limitless fantasies, wishes, curiosities, and judgments onto them.

“If only he were a girl, I should straightaway lose my heart to him,” sighs a lifelong bachelor. Sir, you’re allowed to lose your heart to him even if he weren’t—and that can be our little secret for now. Plus, you will have plenty of other chances to see men playing women. For this is the golden age of female impersonation on amateur and professional stage alike.

But no one is better than Julian Eltinge. He’s the top of the heap. The platinum standard. “He is the best ever seen on any stage,” concludes the manager in his report to the Keith vaudeville company’s head office, happy that he booked this crowd-pleasing, crackerjack entertainer.

From Beautiful: The Story of Julian Eltinge, America’s Greatest Female
Impersonator by Andrew L. Erdman. Copyright © 2024 by Andrew L.
Erdman and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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