It was on this day–September 19–in 1904 that America’s greatest and most popular drag queen, Julian Eltinge, starred in his first Broadway musical. Despite a selection of songs by a 19 year-old Jerome Kern, the production of Mr. Wix of Wickham was a flop, closing after only 41 performances. But the 23 year-old Eltinge, who had crafted his female impersonation act in Boston in the late 1890s, was on his way. Within a few years he was a top draw on the vaudeville circuit perfecting his multiple drag personas in a variety of shows that highlighted his particular talents. His triumphant return to Broadway in 1911 in a musical specially written for him, The Fascinating Widow, in which he played both the male and female leads, led to additional Broadway contracts and international fame. By 1917, he was in Hollywood starring in a series of popular films, including The Charming Countess and The Isle of Love (opposite Rudolph Valentino) and his star would continue to rise throughout the 20s.
But with the decline of vaudeville and the arrival of the Great Depression, Eltinge soon found engagements only in small nightclubs and local halls. Rumors of his sexuality also hurt. While he never married, he made a great effort to play the virile male off stage, creating another role in real life that he hoped would dispel any concerns of his apparent homosexuality. While he courted a number of famous starlets and even became engaged to a few, his bachelor status remained intact throughout his life. On the other hand, there were never any confirmed intimacies with men either, though many of his vaudeville cohorts were convinced he was gay. If he was, Eltinge did a good job keeping it under wraps. Despite his efforts to return to the stage, by the end of the 30s, Eltinge’s career was effectively over. Crackdowns on homosexual activities in the major American cities meant he was no longer able to perform in drag. And audiences were tiring of his now dated material. He died in 1941 at the age of 59 after collapsing on stage at Billy Rose’s New York nightclub, The Diamond Horseshoe. Sadly, Eltinge was one of America’s greatest performers of the early 20th century, but one few remember today.