In the 1925 silent comedy “Seven Chances,” Buster Keaton’s character is thrown out of a theater, with his clothes torn and his straw hat shoved down his head, after strutting inside in pursuit of a performer with a beaming smile and shapely legs. Clearly, he had made a pass, and it was intercepted.

What is so funny? As the scene reveals, the attractive beauty was Julian Eltinge, a famous female impersonator. Moviegoers would have gotten the joke — that is no lady! — because Eltinge was the first cross-dressing celebrity in the nation: a triple threat of movie star, accomplished singer and popular stage actor.

A century before the battles over drag performances today, Eltinge represented a unique form of the art, one that emphasized fidelity to femininity instead of risqué repartee, outlandish outfits or high-energy lip syncing. He made a mint onstage and toured the world, sometimes while wearing a 23-inch corset and size 4 high-heeled shoes.

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“We live at a time when gender fluidity is in the foreground. But it was not in his day until he came along. He was a transformative figure,” said cultural historian David Hajdu, one of the authors of “A Revolution in Three Acts,” a graphic novel about Eltinge and two other vaudeville stars.

Eltinge was also a sad figure. Throughout his career, the man known offstage as William Dalton had to tout his own masculinity to prevent audiences from speculating about his private life. And the physical toll of his work may have contributed to his death.

As a child in Montana, Eltinge performed in girls clothing in saloons, and his mother sent him to Boston to keep him safe from his furious father. That was where he put on a corset and made a career, landing a Broadway role as an elegant female impersonator in 1904. (His chosen stage name, he said, rhymed with “melting.”)

Female impersonation was a standard act in vaudeville, but Eltinge added the daring touch of singing in musical performances, said Tufts University scholar Laurence Senelick, author of the book “The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre.” In many cases, Eltinge portrayed a man who is forced to dress up as a woman, a precursor to movies like “Some Like It Hot” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

“He was a very handsome man in his youth and able to transform himself into a beautiful woman and sing in a really lovely contralto voice. Audiences were convinced they were watching a female performer, yet they had been told explicitly that this was a man,” said Los Angeles librarian Nicholas Beyelia, who has also written about Eltinge. The power of his name and reputation, Beyelia said, allowed Eltinge to fill theaters across the country, at one point likely earning as much as $5,000 a week.

Most of his fans were middle-aged women, “at a time when female forms were changing from Edwardian rotund to something more like a flapper,” Senelick said. It emboldened them, Senelick said, that Eltinge, “a man of some size,” could “force himself into a corset and look elegant.” And men, as the press loved to write about, swooned over his onstage persona. “He is the swellest-looking dame that ever wore down the boards,” raved an audience member to a Cincinnati reporter.

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Then, just as now, the gender-bending nature of drag performance made some people uncomfortable. As a result, Eltinge had to toe the line both in his stage and film careers. On one hand, he leaned into a role as a cultural icon and dispenser of blunt advice. “The woman who prides herself on being as nature made her is apt to be unnecessarily ugly,” he declared, uncharitably.

Eltinge hawked fashion tips through his own magazine, sold his own brand of cold cream and warned of the unspeakable horror of women’s shoes with low heels. There was always a danger that the public would think there “must be ‘something wrong’ with a man who wanted to put on women’s clothes,” as a newspaper reporter later wrote in a profile of Eltinge. To combat the perception he was gay, his publicists fed the press an image of a “cigar-chomping, womanizing, hotheaded braggart,” Beyelia said.

Eltinge sparred with boxer “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, and his own magazine in 1912 touted him as “a husky young man of 29, agreeable, manly and without the slightest trace of the sissiness one might expect to find in the nature of a man who impersonates a woman.” (The article fudged his age. He was actually around 31.)

Early in his career, newspaper reports said that he would marry the male impersonator Eva Tanguay, known as the “Queen of Vaudeville.” The New York Evening World asked in a headline: “When Girl-Boy Weds Boy-Girl, Who’ll Be Boss?” The engagement fell through. Otherwise, “his private life remained private,” Senelick said.

But, according to the book “Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics,” by historian Daniel Hurewitz, Eltinge did have sexual relationships with other men. Eltinge lived the high life, with a villa in Los Angeles and a ranch outside of San Diego, but his career declined as he aged, gained weight and drank heavily, Hurewitz wrote.

Meanwhile, Hollywood cracked down on explicit content and homosexuality on screen in the 1930s. “Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden,” the new film rule book known as the Hays Code declared. By 1937, Eltinge told a reporter he did not want to return to female impersonation. “Girls today don’t have charm,” he said, “so I find little to impersonate.” He preferred to act as a man, he said, “but producers can’t imagine me without a gown.”

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Three years later, the Los Angeles Times reported that local police refused to allow him to perform as a woman at a “known hangout for women who hold women’s hands and men who hold men’s hands.” Instead, he took the stage to sing and point to his old outfits on a mannequin. “For this number,” he said at one point, “I would have worn this lovely dress.”

Eltinge died in 1941, at 57, of a cerebral hemorrhage. He had also suffered from heart and kidney problems. Years earlier, the Los Angeles Times reported, Eltinge had been told that his corsets were dangerous to his health. “I must,” he replied, “be a martyr to my profession.”

Eltinge leaves a legacy as an LGBTQ pioneer, said Hajdu, the cultural historian. “He is turning sexual desire upside down when men in the audience realize they are attracted to someone who is really a man,” Hajdu said. “He embodied the idea that gender can be constructed, a product of human agency.”


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