Inventors of Gay: Julian Eltinge
May 14, 1883 – May 7, 1941
Before RuPaul, before Lady Bunny, and even before Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon donned dresses in Some Like It Hot, Julian Eltinge was one of the top performers and best known “actresses” in the nation, earning huge salaries before the Depression and the eclipse of Vaudeville.
Was Eltinge gay? Transgender? A transvestite? Eltinge worked hard all his life to craft a picture of impeccable masculinity, but whiffs of lavender smoke kept clouding the view. And where there’s smoke, something is aflame.
Like many trans kids these days, Eltinge was drawn to cross-dressing at an early age. He garnered critical attention performing in feminine garb for the Boston Cadets Review at the age of 10. By 1904 he was performing on Broadway.
There were other drag performers at the time — Bert Savoy, George Fortesque, for example. But they performed caricatures of women—they were drag queens. What set Eltinge apart was his ability to perform female roles in a natural way — much to the astonishment and delight of his audiences.
His stage successes led producer A. H. Woods to give Eltinge one of Broadway’s highest honors, having a theater named for him. A year to the day that The Fascinating Widow opened, Woods opened the Eltinge Theatre on New York's 42nd Street.
Hollywood beckoned Eltinge and in 1917 he appeared in his first feature film, The Countess Charming. This would lead to other films including 1918’s The Isle of Love starring Rudolph Valentino, with whom he was rumored to have had an affair.
By the 1930s Eltinge's star was in decline. He was weary from his constant battles to uphold his heterosexual reputation, especially with his wife who had found evidence of his affairs with men. Performing in Los Angeles was difficult for him as there was a national crackdown on cross-dressing in public. At one appearance in a Los Angeles club, Eltinge wore men's clothing while standing next to displays of his gowns and taking on his characters.
In 1941, Eltinge fell ill while performing at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe nightclub. He was taken home and died in his apartment 10 days later. His death certificate lists the cause of death as a cerebral hemorrhage.
Why we care:
Eltinge existed in a time before language could aptly support his identity. He was apparently a closeted gay man with a strong trans identity. But he became an extremely popular actress in the United States and Europe by performing naturally, with feminine grace, in dramatic roles as well as musical comedies. He normalized the concept of a cross-dressing performer for the American public.
Left: Publicity shot from The Fascinating Widow
Below: Pat Collins, Edward G. Robinson and Julian Eltinge from 1935
"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.