it all started with a clothesline

Before Philippe Petit’s daring tightrope walk between New York’s Twin Towers, he was preceded by a legion of high wire performers, some more memorable than others. Jean Cocteau described Barbette as “not just a graceful daredevil, but one of the most beautiful things in the theatre.”

Barbette found here

Born in Texas in 1899, Vander Clyde began his career after practicing on his mother’s steel clothesline. He was performing as an aerialist by the age of 14 as one-half of a circus act called The Alfaretta Sisters. After a few years of circus work, he went solo and adopted the exotic-sounding pseudonym of Barbette. From his entrance, when he appeared in an elaborate ball gown and an ostrich-feather hat, to an elaborate striptease down to tights and leotard in the middle of the act, Barbette enacted a feminine allure that was maintained despite the vigorous muscular activity required by his trapeze routine. Only at the end of the performance, when he removed his wig, did he dispel the illusion, at which time he mugged and flexed in a masculine manner to emphasize the success of his earlier deception.

Barbette photographed by Man Ray found here

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. His solo debut was at the Harlem Opera House in 1919. Barbette performed trapeze and wire stunts in full drag until the end of his act, when he would pull off his wig and strike masculine poses. For the next several years he toured the Keith Vaudeville Circuit, advertised as a “versatile specialty.”

Barbette found here

Barbette made his European debut in 1923 first in England and then on to Paris. He appeared in such venues as the Casino de Paris, the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère.

He became a featured attraction with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus touring 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.

Barnum & Bailey Circus 2008 found here

Jean Cocteau cast Barbette in his experimental first film Le Sang d’un Poete (The Blood of a Poet). 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:

Comtesse de Noailles found here

“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.”

The end of Barbette’s performing career is attributed to a number of causes, including a fall, pneumonia, polio or some combination of the three. 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. Barbette served as a consultant on several films and was hired to coach Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis on gender illusion for the film Some Like It Hot. Barbette created the aerial ballet for Disney on Parade and toured with it in Australia from 1969 through 1972.

image from Some Like it Hot found here

Barbette spent his last months in Texas, living in Round Rock and Austin with his sister, Mary Cahill, often in severe pain. Sadly, he committed suicide by overdose on August 5, 1973.

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47 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. A sad end. Sad, too, that his sexuality should have eclipsed talent.But he had that in truckloads, didn’t he?

  2. 1899 to 1973 … not bad innings, all things considered …

    • I think I’d like to make it to at least 75

      • I am going for Jack Lalanne. In his 90’s, sharp as a wit, healthy too and then get sick and dies quickly.

      • Do you do the workouts?

  3. He was quite beautiful, I think.

    • Yes, I love the Man Ray photograph

  4. My aunt was a slack rope artiste working in circuses. I’m now wondering if she was really a he and my uncle was gay.

  5. omg. I saw Disney on Parade in Perth, Australia, in 1971. The aerial ballet is what I remember! I was a very small princess (only 6 yrs old) and it was magical and perfect. Thank you Barbette.

    • That’s a lovely recollection queenie

  6. A high-wire drag act – that is a niche area where you’re unlikely to find much competition.

  7. Wire walkers – I can’t stand on a 12 foot ladder without trembling.

    • I’m not much of a one for heights either Carl

  8. He stripped to his tights in the early 20th century? Surely tights weren’t invented until the 1960s?

    Some serious talent involved in being both a convincing female and a skilled high wire artist. Acting female is a lot harder than it might seem. Absurd that he was banned from working in England because he was gay.

    Some Like It Hot is one of the classics. I just love the last two lines “Oh, I’m a man.” “Nobody’s perfect.”

    • I think pantyhose were invented in the 1960s but the old fashioned kind of tights have been in existence for decades, even a century or two

      • I guess I was thinking of the very sheer variety which women started wearing more recently, but it’s true the thicker version (more like leggings?) have been around for a long time.

  9. God love the Europeans for their ease with “unconventional sexuality”. Pity our American morals have to be descended from a bunch of uptight prudes!

    • Do you think things will eventually change?

      • If we ever convince the Tea Party to just go away, maybe. Not likely, but maybe…

    • Pity indeed that the tables have turned so completely! In the 21st century, American states wholeheartedly embrace anti-gay marriage legislation, but in the UK two men or two women can get married in Blenheim Palace… Jx

  10. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be gay in Round Rock in the early part of the last century. An interesting story made more poignant for me as he was a Texan who was born not too far from where I live.

    • Yes, I read more about his early life, for me it was the most interesting part

  11. Death by suicide is always sad…

    • Except when it’s someone like Hitler

  12. A Gender Illusion Coach is a profession that I’ve not heard of previously! Thank you for opening my eyes and for that exquisite Man Ray photo of Barbette.

    • Perhaps we should bring it to the attention of Careers Counsellors

  13. Interesting…
    (you must put so much time into researching your posts, N.M… it seems like it could take weeks)!

    • They do take a very long time, but i still enjoy the discoveries

      • As do I!

  14. Never heard of him before, but he certainly lead an interesting and strange life.

    • He was new to me too. So many fascinating people whose lives are forgotten with time…..

  15. The pain and the suicide were a sad ending. How ridiculous that he was thrown out of England for having sex with a guy, yet welcomed with a transgender act. Selective prudism.

    • Robin! how are you? you haven’t updated your blog in over a month…. we miss you xx

  16. I’d have to take a heap of barbettuates to get me onto the high wire.

    • Excellent wordplay Mitzi

  17. Oh, what an interesting post. As had been already observed, you must do a lot of research for your blog.
    Stella x

    • welcome to the Gimcrack Stella

  18. Fascinating! I love how you open up the lives and worlds of these people I didn’t know existed.

    I kind of want to frame that second photo – it’s truly stunning.

    • Man Ray’s images are always wonderful

  19. What a talent. Looking at the female/male photo The song “What Makes a Man a Man” springs to mind

  20. Dear Nurse Myra;
    Someone stole your “Share” button, and you KNOW how I love to push buttons. Or, so my wife tells me.
    You don’t have a share button? Or do I maybe need to borrow Stravinsky’s eye glasses? Maybe I’m wearing TWO of Joyces patches. Or, maybe, I need to clear my cache? Oh well, let me know when you get them, I’ll surely send your blog out into Cyber Space for ya.

    • I don’t have a share button because it looks too complicated 😦

  21. “Barbette was found engaged in sexual activity with another man …”

    TOTALLY didn’t see that coming. I’m shocked. SHOCKED, I say.

  22. In an imagined previous life, I was a descendant of the Marquis de Sade, of the Comtesse de Chevigné, and a transvestite tightrope walker… Jx

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