retro record

LISTEN: This mysterious mid-century queen shook audiences up with her outrageous stories

Note: For this article, we’ll be using he/him pronouns for the performer, in keeping with the archivists at

If there’s one thing Rae (and/or Ray) Bourbon was, it’s a storyteller. The details on his date of birth, hometown, and original name were all largely obfuscated by a lifetime of unreliable, inventive narration.

It’s known that he had success from the 1920s and ’30s on as an actor, a vaudeville performer, and mostly famously, a female impersonator. He performed in gay clubs across the country for decades, performed his own sold out show at Carnegie Hall, and was even hired by Mae West to tour an original show she’d written.

On top of these more documented accomplishments are his apparent claims to have started his career working as a stunt double for silent movie actresses and modeling dresses for department stores, among other things.

Even his sex and sexuality are difficult to pin down; translating early queerness into modern identity frameworks doesn’t often work, but his is particularly complicated by his storied “sex change” operation that many believe to have been faked entirely.

In the 1950s, Bourbon capitalized on the recent notoriety of things like Christine Jorgensen’s famous transition and the Ed Wood film Glen or Glenda? by announcing that he’d be getting his own sex reassignment surgery in Mexico.

Though the claim brought the press that he was after (and a bit of interrogation by the FBI he wasn’t after), it’s since become popularly believed to have been a publicity stunt and that Bourbon simply had an operation to remove a bit of cancer.

Still, the “operation” became a popular point of reference in his comedy and recordings. One of his most enduring LPs features the piece “Let Me Tell You About My Operation”, in which he, well, tells the listener about his operation.

His life also featured a number of arrests due to his impersonation work (and one final arrest due to a Tonya Harding-esque accomplice conviction), but his comedic stylings and outrageous recordings make up the real heft of his legacy.

Lend an ear as Rae Bourbon tells you all about it: