Barbette — born Vander Clyde Broadway in 1898 — was a drag pioneer, circus acrobat, toast of Paris, friend of Josephine Baker, muse (and lover, briefly) of Jean Cocteau, and frequent subject of Man Ray’s lens.
It’s been nearly a century since the Texas native first stunned audiences by performing trapeze and high-wire stunts in full drag, yanking off his wig at the end and striking a masculine pose. The guise began when he replaced a female performer who had died suddenly; it went so well that he made a career out of the illusion.
Barbette started a solo act at the Harlem Opera House in 1919, soon taking the act on the road to England and France. During an engagement at the London Palladium, scandal broke out when he was caught having sex with a man, thus barred from further working in England.
In France, however, he was hailed by Jean Cocteau, who wrote Le Numéro Barbette in 1926, an influential essay on the nature of art. During a brief dalliance between the two, Cocteau gave Barbette a cameo in his film Le Sang d’un Poète (1930). Further, the trapeze-artist murderer in Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder (1930) is inspired by Barbette, a role not to be found in the source novel.
Barbette continued to tour Europe and North America throughout the 1920s and 30s until a high-wire accident put him into the hospital for a year. He later found work as an aerial choreographer and consultant on films, most notably Some Like It Hot (1959), for which he coached Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis on gender illusion — although a resemblance to a frothy, effervescent Marilyn Monroe is uncanny. After years of chronic pain, Barbette committed suicide at the age of 74.