An Angel, A Flower, A Bird
August 13, 2014 9:27 AM   Subscribe

Cross-dressing trapeze and tightrope artist Barbette seems to have sprung out of a Jean Cocteau fantasy, but surely was a real person. Exact birthdate and parentage subject to dispute, but somewhere around the dawn of the 20th Century in Texas. Subsequent to highschool, he replaced a deceased woman in the Alfaretta Sisters aerialist circus act. Barbette toured the vaudeville circuit and debuted in Europe in 1923. Barbette's curtain-call wig-ripping-off move was ripped off for Victor/Victoria.

Cocteau was enthralled by Barbette and commissioned photos by Man Ray (published in a 1988 book) and featured Barbette in his film The Blood of a Poet.

Barbette became disabled, possibly due to an injury or polio, around 1938. Barbette continued to train and coach Ringling Bros. circus performers and consult on films (including Some Like It Hot) and died in 1973.

Performance artist John Kelly (perhaps best known for his turn as Joni Mitchell) did a 1993 performance, Light Shall Lift Them, based on Barbette.

Cultural theorist Peta Tait writes, "Barbette made transitions from feminine to androgynous to masculine as she concurrently performed aerial action, and this elided physical and social identity spaces."
posted by larrybob (3 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
This is very interesting. Thank you for sharing.
posted by Fizz at 10:32 AM on August 13, 2014

Indeed, thanks! The first article is fantastic. Here's a shorter post on Barbette, featuring images of Vander Clyde in a suit, and Barbette in various stage outfits.

Here's the non-mobile version of the 1988 book link, but that title is out of print, and an Italian copy is up for sale for $125, though you can do a bit better on eBay.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:16 AM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, this is really wonderful, and the photographs by Cocteau are transcendent. Thank you.
posted by jokeefe at 10:41 AM on August 14, 2014

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