Long before Georges and Albin came out in the French film, La Cage aux Folles (1978) or RuPaul made transvestitism hip, Julian Eltinge, by the 1910s, had established himself as the greatest female impersonator in the history of the American theatre. Unlike other gender illusionists of his time, who typically presented themselves as caricatures of femininity, Eltinge left the impression amongst theatergoers of actually being a woman! No one before or since has rivaled his popularity. At the height of success, he was a bona fide star with a Broadway theater named after him, performing before European royalty and owning one of the most lavish estates ever built in Silver Lake.
His particular brand of fame had its pitfalls given the times in which he lived, when homosexuality was far less accepted than today. Eltinge overcompensated for presumptions about his gayness by projecting a super-stud image. Publicity photos showed him horseback riding, chopping wood and smoking cigars (there was even a cigar brand named after him); newspapers reported his frequent bar brawls and (staged) boxing matches, including one with heavyweight champ, “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. When confronted publicly about the ambiguity, Eltinge’s typical response was “I’m not gay, I just like pearls.”
Given the precariousness of his personal life, Eltinge kept the details of his personal life shrouded in mystery and embellished with myth. Encouraged by his mother at a young age to dress up in skirts, Eltinge was already performing in drag at local saloons as a teenager growing up in Montana. When his father learned of these activities, he beat the boy severely, causing his mother to send him to Boston for his protection in 1899.
Freed from his father’s wrath, Eltinge’s affinity for dressing up as a woman burst into full bloom. Changing his given name, William Dalton to Julian Eltinge, he joined the Cadet Theatricals, an all-male troupe whose members, in classic Shakespearean style, played both male and female roles. From there, he moved on to the Bijou Theater in New York, where in 1904 he played a man disguising himself as a woman in a musical with songs by Jerome Kern. Eltinge’s performance earned rave reviews and made him a sensation. He played New York’s vaudeville circuit and made a tour of Europe, capped off by a command performance for King Edward VII, who presented him with a pet bulldog.
On his return to New York in 1907, he performed as a Gibson girl, a role that catapulted him to the pinnacle of female impersonators. As Variety enthused, “The audience was completely deceived as to Eltinge’s sex until he removed his wig…his act is far and away above what is described as female impersonation.”
Eltinge moved to Los Angeles in 1917, eager to cash in on the burgeoning movie industry. His first featured role was in The Countess Charming, followed by The Isle of Love alongside Rudolph Valentino. Not limiting himself to film, he launched his own magazine, Julian Eltinge’s Magazine and Beauty Hints. In 1918, he triumphantly returned to the Broadway stage with The Julian Eltinge Players, performed at the Palace Theatre.
At the height of his popularity, Eltinge had renowned architects Francis Pierpont and Walter Swindell Davis design a lavish estate in Silver Lake, the Villa Capistrano, located at 2327 Fargo Street. The pink villa is still standing today; it can best be observed from West Silver Lake Drive, looking across Silver Lake Reservoir.
With advancing age and mounting public homophobia, Eltinge’s star began to fade; in later life his roles were limited to sporadic night club appearances. He fell ill while performing at the Diamond Horseshoe Club on May 7, 1941, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage ten days later. His remains are interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, alongside those of his parents.
Adapted from Silver Lake Chronicles: Exploring an Urban Oasis in Los Angeles and used with permission. © All rights reserved.