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“Wildflower”: What it’s like being different in a small town, how did he escape and, after becoming famous, did he ever return?
When I started researching Barbette’s life, I sought to answer those very questions. Writing historical fiction of course you are able to take creative liberties, but I needed to understand the essence of who Vander Clyde Broadway was as a child as well as his impressions of Round Rock and Central Texas.
In an interview with The New Yorker magazine in the late 1960’s Barbette expressed his disdain for Austin and its crudity. Excepting his own family, he otherwise was not fond of the area. I went to the Round Rock library and was able to find a lovely childhood account of Barbette from a woman who Barbette used to walk to school every day. She noted his sweetness. Other accounts spoke about his walking his mother’s clothes line in the back yard and putting on magic shows.
Barbette was a slight child with ears that stuck out a bit from his head. In my imagination, getting his mother’s creativity and imagination, coupled with a gentle heart and smallish size, I felt he would have been picked on.
Barbette’s mother married Samuel Loving in 1906. We don’t know what happened to Barbette’s real father only that he died when Barbette was younger. Loving was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish American war. He was a real man’s man. In my imagination, precocious Vander Clyde must have tried his nerves. I felt the two were very different men, yet both seemed pretty hard-headed as well. How could Samuel Loving tolerate a tight-rope walking son under his roof?
Barbette himself says that when the circus came to Austin it changed his life. He begged his mother to permit him to run away and join the circus. (Another indication of his treatment?) She told him he was free to go as soon as he finished his high school studies. Barbette said he doubled up his studies and left Round Rock at sixteen.
I found documentation that when Barbette was a sensation in Europe, he started purchasing property in Texas. He was a top-paid act in the Roaring Twenties. He boasted he travelled with twenty eight trunks, a maid and a maid for the maid. He was big time. Was buying Texas property a shrewd investment or sweet revenge or a bit of both?
After twenty years or so on the stage, it all came to an end, when Barbette got sick while performing at Manhattan’s Loew’s State Theater. He contracted polio. He decided on a radical and painful treatment plan that depleted his savings. His career as a performer was over.
Barbette is listed on the 1940 census in Round Rock as living with his mother and Samuel Loving as well as other siblings. Imagine how crushing it must have been for him to see all that he worked for come to an end and then winding up back in Round Rock—a flamboyant peacock amongst the grackles. What must the town’s folk have thought about Barbette, a man who dressed up like a woman for a living, coming home?
The genius of Barbette was his creativity and inner strength. As much as he was a runt, I like to think of him as a tough-as-nails Texas runt. Famous Broadway director John Murray Anderson (Ziegfeld Follies) demanded that Barbette direct the aerial ballets for the Ringling Circus when he is hired by John Ringling to oversee the entire production in the early 1940’s. (They had worked together on the Broadway show Jumbo when Barbette was a performer. Here is a link to the film footage of a preview: http://www.frequency.com/video/barbette-december-19-1898-august-5-1973/115079354/-/5-5961174) After a year and a half of operations and recovery, Barbette created an ethereal spectacle using over fifty women entwined in silk ropes and other hanging apparatuses swirling about the big top. It launched his second career as a director and trainer of female aerialists in the circus, stage productions and films.
All the while, when Barbette wasn’t on the road, he returned to Austin to reside with his sister Mary and her family. It’s no wonder he desired being on the road, taking on productions into his seventies until his body finally gave out. On the road he was free, free to be Barbette.
After he fell and became partially immobile, Barbette took his own life back in Texas at his sister Mary’s home. He was buried in the Loving family plot, right by his mother and Mary.
Long before Ru Paul eyed his first pair of six inch stilettos or Boy George donned his colorful caftan, a handsome young man from the small town of Round Rock, Texas barnstormed the stages of Europe’s most lavish theaters and night clubs as Barbette, a beautiful aerialist drag queen who became a scandalous sensation throughout the Roaring Twenties.
Performing his erotic, high wire and trapeze routine in lavish, feminine regalia, Barbette shocked audiences by revealing the true nature of his gender at the very end of his act.
From a child who picked cotton and walked his mother’s clothes line to headlining at the Moulin Rouge in spectacular drag, Wildflower reveals long-forgotten secrets of this enigmatic performer: his arrest in London on morals charges, his bout with polio, his infamous collaborations with some of Hollywood’s greatest stars— Orson Welles, Vincente Minnelli, and Judy Garland, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis as well as his hidden affair with French surrealist Jean Cocteau.
Wildflower captivates with every page, dramatically revealing the startling and at times heart-breaking story of Round Rock’s first and greatest drag queen.
Crowning the side of her head was the smartest crimson hat Vander had ever seen. If her appearance wasn’t striking enough, there was the matter of the fully grown cheetah walking alongside her. Lean and slinking on a sparkling chain attached to a jeweled collar, the cheetah most certainly put the woman over the top. Passersby cleared a path for the woman and her wild animal as she made way down the street—the woman’s head held high and mischievously proud, pretending not to notice the commotion she was causing as she made way.
“Please! Stop looking at her!” Radiguet begged.
“Josephine!” Cocteau remarked with some excitement and knowing. “Your only true competitor—the great Josephine Baker! Look at how she walks down the street—African queen of the jungle! I don’t know what they are putting into the water in America to grow such exotic flowers as you both.”
Vander was well aware of Josephine Baker. Her scandalous dance, where she only wore a skirt of bananas tied low about her hips, was the talk of Paris. If Barbette’s star shone bright, Josephine Baker was a super nova.
“She has a cheetah!” Vander exclaimed.
“Yes!” Radiguet said extremely agitated. He held his hand up to the side of his face to hide his visage from her so she would not recognize him if she turned her head toward the front window of Harry’s. “The cheetah has an unpleasant disposition!” Radiguet warned. “Chiquita is her name. She terrifies me! How Josephine is not arrested on the spot for having such an animal roaming the streets!”
“Don’t look her way or she will come over!” Radiguet hastened.
“It is a good thing Princess Violette is at home, because you know she would have made a big fuss,” Cocteau added. “It seems the princess fancies Josephine. She excites her. She finds her fascinating.”
“In all my time in America, I’ve never seen a Negro looking like that!” Vander exclaimed. He watched Josephine move down the street, like an exotic cat herself—so strong and confident, yet her eyes were vivid and alert tingling with a hint of mirth. The woman owned the street, with or without her pet cheetah!
Then, almost directly across from Harry’s Bar, a blonde driver in a black, gold-braided uniform emerged from a long, white Rolls Royce with sweeping lines and fancy running boards. The chauffer opened the rear door to the stunning automobile. Josephine was ten paces from the car. She released the cheetah’s lead and the cat leapt inside of the auto in a single bound. Josephine smiled at her driver as she stepped into the car.
“Unbelievable!” Vander remarked, eyes wide open. “I’m not in Round Rock, Texas anymore!”
“You most certainly are not!” Cocteau replied with a flourish.
“Thank god she is driving away,” Radiguet said, quickly downing his Bloody Mary to settle his nerves.
“If there is one way to keep autograph hounds from running up, that is it!” Cocteau smiled. He too downed is midday cocktail and turned to Vander. He pushed back from the table. “Now, we must head onto our next great adventure. Vander, my dear, have you ever seen a pornographic film?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kyle Taylor is the author of Wildflower, Exposition and Billion Dollar Dreamer. The Kyle Taylor character debuted in Billion Dollar Dreamer as a journalist who was assigned to write a story about high school history teacher cum overnight billionaire John Driskil. He resides in New York—and of course he is a work of fiction! You can contact Kyle at BillionDollarDreamer@gmail.com.
Book Trailer on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DuvxqzmRVqA
Author Web Page: http://www.billiondollardreamer.com/
Author Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002247108853&ref=tn_tnmn
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