Barbette (performer)

:"For the military installation, see Barbette"Infobox actor
name = Barbette

caption = Barbette in 1926
birthname = Vander Clyde or Van der Clyde Broadway
birthdate = December 19, 1899
birthplace = Round Rock, Texas
deathdate = August 5, 1973 (age 74)
deathplace = Round Rock, Texas
occupation = Trapeze artist, Female impersonator
spouse =
children =

Barbette was an American female impersonator, high wire performer and trapeze artist born in Texas on December 19, 1899. Barbette attained great popularity throughout the United States but his greatest fame came in Europe and especially Paris, in the 1920s and 1930s.

Barbette began performing as an aerialist at around the age of 14 as one-half of a circus act called The Alfaretta Sisters. After a few years of circus work, Barbette went solo and adopted his exotic-sounding pseudonym. He performed in full drag, revealing himself as male only at the end of his act.

Following a career-ending illness or injury, Barbette returned to Texas but continued to work as a consultant for motion pictures and training and choreographing aerial acts for a number of circuses. After years of dealing with chronic pain, Barbette committed suicide on August 5, 1973. Both in life and following his death, Barbette served as an inspiration to a number of artists, including Jean Cocteau and Man Ray.

Early life and career

Barbette (birth name cited as Vander Clydecite news
last = Steegmuller
first = Francis
coauthors =
title = An Angel, A Flower, A Bird
work = The New Yorker
pages =
language =
publisher =
date = 1969-09-27
url =
accessdate =
] Gerwitz, et. al. p. 198] and Vander Clyde Broadway) was born on December 19, 1899cite news
last = Thompson
first = Karen R
coauthors =
title = "Barbette": He started in the circus
work = Community Impact newspaper
date = 2007-04-07
url =
accessdate = 2008-05-29
] (although it is sometimes cited as 1904) in Texas. Most sources indicate he was born in Round Rock, although Barbette himself gave his birthplace as Trickem.United States passport application for Vander Clyde Broadway, dated March 9, 1923] There is some confusion as to the name of Barbette's father. On a 1923 passport application, Barbette lists his father's name as "Henry Broadway" and notes him as deceased. However, Barbette's death certificate gives his father's first name as "Jeff."Texas Certificate of Death E950067, State file number 81205, for Vander Clyde (Barbette) Broadway. 1973-10-17] The death certificate lists his mother's name as "Hattie Wilson;" Barbette listed her name as "Mrs. E. S. Loving" on his passport application.

Barbette's mother took him to the circus at an early age in Austin and he was fascinated by the wire act. "The first time she took me to the circus in Austin, I knew I would be a performer, and from then on I'd work in the fields during the cotton-picking season to earn money in order to go to the circus as often as possible." Barbette practiced for hours by walking along his mother's clothes line.cite news
title = Circus Producer Started in S.A.
work = San Antonio Express
pages = 16B
date = 1953-10-15
] He graduated from high school at the age of 14.

After high school, Barbette began his circus career as one-half of the aerialist team The Alfaretta Sisters. One of the sisters died unexpectedly and Barbette answered the surviving sister's ad for a replacement, auditioning in San Antonio. Together the pair decided that it was more dramatic for a woman to perform the acrobatic stunts. [Kibler p. 148] "She told me that women's clothes always make a wire act more impressive...and she asked me if I'd mind dressing as a girl. I didn't; and that's how it began." Following his time as an Alfaretta, Barbette next joined an act called Erford's Whirling Sensation. This act included three people who hung from a spinning apparatus by their teeth. He then developed his solo act and moved to the vaudeville stage. He took on the name "Barbette," believing that it had an exotic French sound and because it could conceivably be either a first or a last name. [Gerwitz, et. al. p. 199] His solo debut was at the Harlem Opera House in 1919.Cullen, et. al. p. 67] Barbette performed trapeze and wire stunts in full drag, maintaining the illusion of femininity until the end of his act, when he would pull off his wig and strike exaggerated masculine poses. For the next several years, he toured the Keith vaudeville circuit, [cite news
title = Newspaper advertisement
work = The Kingston Daily Freeman
date = 1922-04-02
] advertised as a "versatile specialty." [cite news
title = Newspaper advertisement
work = The Atlanta Constitution
date = 1921-07-24

The toast of Europe

Barbette made his European debut in 1923, having been sent by the William Morris Agency first to England and then to Paris. He appeared in such venues as the Casino de Paris, the Moulin Rouge, the Empire, the Médrano Circus,cite web
last =Curlee
first =Kendall
title =Clyde, Vander
work =The Handbook of Texas Online
date =2001-06-21
url =
accessdate = 2007-10-04
] the Alhambra TheaterWilmeth, et. al. p. 55] and the Folies Bergere.

He returned to America in 1924 to appear in "The Passing Show of 1924", which ran for four months beginning in September.cite web
title = Barbette credits on Broadway
publisher = Internet Broadway Database
url =
accessdate = 2008-05-27
] Also in this timeframe he became a featured attraction with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and toured London, Brussels and Berlin. It was during an engagement at the London Palladium that Barbette was found engaged in sexual activity with another man. His contract was cancelled and he was never able to obtain a work permit for England again.

Barbette was championed by avante garde artist Jean Cocteau. Cocteau wrote in 1923 to Belgian friend and critic Paul Collaer:

"Next week in Brussels, you'll see a music-hall act called 'Barbette' that has been keeping me enthralled for a fortnight. The young American who does this wire and trapeze act is a great actor, an angel, and he has become the friend to all of us. Go and see him ... and tell everybody that he is no mere acrobat in women's clothes, nor just a graceful daredevil, but one of the most beautiful things in the theatre. Stravinsky, Auric, poets, painters, and I myself have seen no comparable display of artistry on the stage since Nijinsky."
To other friends he wrote "Your great loss for 1923 was Barbette -- a terrific act at the Casino de Paris...Ten unforgettable minutes. A "theatrical" masterpiece. An angel, a flower, a bird."

In 1926 Cocteau wrote an influential essay on the nature and artifice of the theatre called "Le Numéro Barbette" that was published in "Nouvelle Revue Française". In this essay, Cocteau celebrates Barbette as an exemplar of theatrical artifice. Barbette, writes Cocteau, transforms effortlessly back and forth between man and woman. His female glamour and elegance Cocteau likens to a cloud of dust thrown into the eyes of the audience, blinding it to the masculinity of the movements he needs to perform his acrobatics. That blindness is so complete that at the end of his act, Barbette does not simply remove his wig but instead "plays the part of a man." He rolls his shoulders, stretches his hands, swells his muscles...And after the fifteenth or so curtain call, he gives a mischievous wink, shifts from foot to foot, mimes a bit of an apology, and does a shuffling little street urchin dance -- all of it to erase the fabulous, dying-swan impression left by the act." [Cocteau, Jean, "Le Numéro Barbette", quoted in Steegmuller] Cocteau calls upon his fellow artists to incorporate deliberately this effect that he believes for Barbette is instinctive. Cocteau commissioned a series of photographs of Barbette by the Surrealist artist Man Ray, which captured not only aspects of Barbette's performance but also his process of transformation into his female persona. [Lyford p. 223]

Cocteau cast Barbette in his experimental film "Le Sang d'un Poete" ("The Blood of a Poet") (1930), Cocteau's first film. Barbette appears in a scene in a theatre box with several extras, dressed in Chanel gowns, who burst into applause at the sight of a card game that ends in suicide. He replaced the Vicomtesse de Noailles, who along with her husband had originally shot the scene but were appalled upon seeing the finished film, as the card game/suicide had been shot separately. Speaking of his preparation for the scene, Barbette, who knew he was replacing the Vicomtesse, said:

"I tried to imagine myself a descendant of the Marquis de Sade, of the Comtesse de Chevigné...and a long line of rich bankers -- all of which the Vicomtesse was. For a boy from Round Rock, Texas, that demanded a lot of concentration -- at least as much as working on the wire."

Cocteau fell in love with the Barbette persona but their affair was short-lived.cite news
last = Liner
first = Elaine
title = Swingers: "Barbette" soars to greatness with the tragic tale of a trapeze artist
work = Dallas Observer
date = 2002-06-13
url =
accessdate = 2008-05-19
] Others in Barbette's European circle included Josephine Baker, Anton Dolin, Mistinguett and Sergei Diaghilev.

Barbette is credited with having returned to the United States in 1935 to star on Broadway in the Billy Rose circus musical "Jumbo". [cite news
last = Winchell
first = Walter
title = On Broadway
work = Wisconsin State Journal
date = 1935-11-30
quote = In 'Jumbo' there's a female impersonator named Barbette, who swishes on a slack wire and the trapeze.
] However, some sources suggest that this may have been a Barbette impersonator.

End of performing career and later life

Barbette continued to perform until the mid- to late 1930s. Most sources report 1938, although some place the date at 1936Gerwitz, et. al. p. 207] and one as late as 1942.cite web
last =Culme
first =John
title =Barbette
work =Footlite Notes
date =2001-05-19
url =
accessdate = 2007-10-04
] The end of Barbette's career is attributed to a number of causes, including a fall,Cullen, et. al. p. 68] pneumonia, polio or some combination of the three.Cullen, et. al. p. 76] All generally agree that whatever the cause, Barbette was left in extreme pain and in need of surgery and extensive rehabilitation to allow him to walk again. He became the artistic director and aerialist trainer for a number of circuses, including Ringling Bros. (staging shows which have been described as "reinvent [ing] the aerial ballet"Tait p. 76] ) and the Shrine Circus. Barbette specialized in choreographing troupes of female aerialists who performed under such names as The Bird Cage Girls, The Swing High Girls, The Whirl Girls and the Cloud Swing Girls. [Hammarstrom p. 31] Barbette served as a consultant on a number of films, including the circus sequences for "Till the Clouds Roll By" (1946) and "The Big Circus" (1959), [cite news
title = 'Big Circus' Coming to Airport Drive-In
work = The Paris (Texas) News
date = 1959-11-22
] and was hired to coach Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis on gender illusion for the film "Some Like It Hot" (1959). Barbette was the subject of a 1969 profile in "The New Yorker" called "An Angel, A Flower, A Bird" by Cocteau biographer Francis Steegmuller. He created the circus sequences for the Orson Welles-produced Broadway musical "Around the World". Barbette created the aerial ballet for "Disney on Parade" and toured with it in Australia from 1969 through 1972. [Hammarstrom p. 37]

Barbette spent his last years in Texas, living in Round Rock and Austin with his sister, Mary Cahill, often in severe pain. He committed suicide by overdose on August 5, 1973. He was survived by his sister Mary and a half-brother, Sam Loving. [cite news
title = Vander Barbette Is Dead at 68; Trapeze Artist in the Twenties
work = The New York Times
date = 1973-08-09
] Barbette was cremated and his ashes were buried in Round Rock Cemetery.

Cultural legacy

In addition to Cocteau's essay "Le Numéro Barbette" and his appearance in "Le Sang d'un Poete", Barbette also inspired the characterization of "Death" in Cocteau's play "Orphée". The book "Barbette", collecting Cocteau's essay, the "New Yorker" profile by Steegmuller, Man Ray's photographs and other material, was published in 1989. Alfred Hitchcock based a character in the 1930 film "Murder!" on Barbette. "Different Fleshes" is a book-length poem about Barbette written by Albert Goldbarth. [cite web
title =Albert Goldbarth
publisher =The Poetry Foundation
url =
accessdate = 2008-05-27
] It won the Voertman Poetry Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. [cite web
title =A Guide to the Albert Goldbarth Papers, Undated
publisher = Texas Archival Resources Online
url =
accessdate = 2008-05-27
] In 1993, performance artist John Kelly, under commission from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, based his piece "Light Shall Lift Them" on him. [cite news
last = Holden
first = Stephen
title = Review/Performance Art; John Kelly as a Parisian Legend
work = The New York Times
date = 1993-11-12
url =
accessdate = 2008-05-26
] Barbette's story is also told in the play "Barbette", written by Bill Lengfelder and David Goodwin and first presented in Dallas, Texas in 2003.

Barbette may have been the inspiration for the 1933 German film "Viktor und Viktoria", which features a plot about a woman pretending to be a female impersonator whose gimmick of removing her wig at the end of her act is "inspired by [Barbette's] signature gesture." [cite news
last = Williams
first = Albert
title = The Hidden Holocaust
work = The Chicago Reader
date = 1997
url =
accessdate = 2008-05-26
] "Viktor und Viktoria" was remade in 1935 ("First a Girl"), 1957 ("Viktor und Viktoria") and 1982 ("Victor/Victoria", which inspired a 1992 Broadway musical of the same name).



* Cocteau, Jean & Man Ray (1989). "Barbette". ISBN 392404077X.
* Cullen, Frank, Florence Hackman & Donald McNeilly (2007). "Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America". Routledge. ISBN 0415938538.
* Gewirtz, Arthur, James J. Kolb, Hofstra University (2004). "Art, Glitter, and Glitz: Mainstream Playwrights and Popular Theatre in 1920s America". Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0313324670.
* Hammarstrom, David Lewis (1980). "Behind the Big Top". New Jersey, A. S. Barnes and Co., Inc. ISBN 0498022056.
* Kibler, M. Alison. "Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Heirarchy in American Vaudeville". UNC Press. ISBN 0807848123.
* Lyford, Amy. "'Le Numero Barbette': Photography and the Politics of Embodiment in Interwar Paris." Collected in Chadwick, Whitney & Tirza True Latimer (2003). "The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars". Paris, France, Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0813532922.
* Tait, Peta (2005). "Circus Bodies: Cultural Identity in Aerial Performance". Routledge. ISBN 0415329388.
* Wilmeth, Don B. & Tice L. Miller (1996). "Cambridge Guide to American Theatre". Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521564441.

External links

* [ Barbette] at the Internet Movie Database
* [ Barbette] at the Internet Broadway Database

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