Welcome to our latest writer, Susan Walter!
She’s got a story to tell that intertwines the South Bay with a national and international reach. But wait! I’ll let her tell you more:
She’s the South County Expert of Julian Eltinge
In 1998 my husband and I were about to tackle a new project located near the rural San Diego County town of Alpine. We are historic archaeologists, and have researched many interesting people during our careers. After perusing background information provided to us, Steve tossed the file folder to me, and said “Here. This is right up your alley. You’ll love this. You do the research for this one.” And that was why I became interested in the fellow depicted in the accompanying photograph.
Julian Eltinge became my obsession. For weeks I was on line till the wee hours chasing down weird references to weirder details. Then I looked for him in our local archives and libraries. Though I managed to cobble together a fairly good history of this man, what I also turned up was quantities of confusion about him, and I learned of several out and out inaccuracies.
Greatest Female Impersonator
However there was never any doubt of one fact: Unanimously, Julian Eltinge was described as the greatest female impersonator of all time. As an example, one writer said, “Julian Eltinge was that rarest of all creatures – a great original. Before him there was nothing. After him came a completely new genre of impersonation….” Literally thousands of young men hit the stage in drag, hoping to cash in on Julian’s popularity.
So, here are some lines of inquiry I wish to address:
- A topic of current attention, making Julian’s career of interest today, is the identification of self with gender. It is a fact that Eltinge consistently portrayed himself as male when off stage. And though, if alive now, he might be dismayed at this subject of contemporary inquiry, there is no doubt that our current views on gender are riveted by Julian’s extraordinary success at his gender bending presentation.
- Why has Julian’s method of expert and empathetic portrayal of females been lost? The performances by cross dressed males of today are often oversexed, cartoonish, or raunchy. Julian was nothing like that. Julian always depicted a manly man playing a gorgeous woman. This masculine character’s evident distress of his situation resonated with Julian’s audiences. Similarly, in his female roles he exuded a coy innocence which charmed his viewers. In other words, either of Eltinge’s stage personas caused his viewers to like him.
- Why is Julian’s career important to be disseminated today? Well, for one thing he literally knew everyone. An item I’ve been researching is his autograph book. There are about 1,000 names in it! I’ll drop some. Mary Pickford. Al Jolson. Eddie Rickenbacker. Barney Oldfield. Geraldine Ferrar. John Philip Sousa. Anna Pavlova. His lifetime, in other words, encompassed and included people legendary to our present artistic and cultural history.
- Another problem that bugs me includes the aforementioned factual inaccuracies that veil Julian’s true life story. I want to explore those confusing details, try to dig up their sources, and lay them to rest.
- Finally, why me? What has attracted me to this person? Obviously I am fascinated by this guy/gal being. I hope the journey of this research will enlighten me. I’m very aware I am exactly within the demographic of his time – because it was repeatedly reported that his target audience, like me, was middle aged women.
As part of my research I have contacted and connected with people and entities all over the country interested in Julian, and one result is that I have collected stuff. Sheet music. Books. Newspaper articles. Magazine pieces. Photographs. Ephemera. Maps. Legal documents. Furthermore I’ve gathered lots of information about related people and events to put things into context to understand this dude.
Yeah… So – hey Julian! I am now going to try to tease out the real story of you.
Readers, here are a few things I do know are correct:
William Julian Dalton was born in 1881, in Newtonville, Massachusetts. He adopted the stage name of Julian Eltinge, and was a phenomenally successful and popular entertainer, with a professional show business career spanning a period from 1904 until his death in 1941.
Physically, as a young adult, Julian Eltinge was a rather large, handsome man. His face had gracile features, large, expressive eyes, and an attractive mouth. Eltinge had smooth shoulders and back, small hands and feet, good looking legs, and he could exhibit an astounding figure.
It is important to know that the fact he was a man in drag was not the point of his performances. Julian was an intelligent, sharply acute, and sensitive observer of female characteristics. His attributes included an exceptional acting ability, a beautiful singing voice, and he could dance with great skill.
An unfortunately pivotal event for Julian occurred in 1928, when Mae West produced a show that featured female impersonating gay men that upset the moral balance of theatrical productions. This show resulted in the passage of laws that restricted cross dressing in public. These laws, coupled with his increasing age, caused a severe decline in Julian’s career.
Julian Eltinge, who was the subject of headlines and broke numerous records for popularity, is remembered today only by the few people have an interest in his unique life.
This brief little essay is meant as an introduction to you about my research about this man.
Julian Eltinge starred in Hollywood produced movies, on the stage in Broadway and other high class venues, in nationwide vaudeville programs, and toured the world more than once. When alive, his was a household name. I am immensely sad about the loss of popular awareness about Julian Eltinge.
I intend to follow this post with other essays resulting from my research in Alpine, San Diego, Los Angeles, Butte, Boston, New York, and anywhere else his trail may lead me.
I invite you to contact me, with questions, critiques, or – so delightful to anticipate – your own perspectives of gender perception during the periods of 1900 through 1940, information you can share of any other female impersonators of that time period, and of course details you may have about the incomparable Julian Eltinge.
Susan Walter has lived in the South Bay for over 30 years. Her interests include ceramics, marine biology, books, and local history. She and her husband Steve are historic archaeologists. They have a daughter Rachael, and son Aaron.