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.