Barbette (Vander Clyde) was an American drag trapeze artist that came to fame in America and Europe during the 1920’s and 1930’s. His depth of talent would serve as an inspiration to legendary artists Jean Cocteau and Man Ray. Barbette began his aerialist career as a replacement for one of The Alfaretta Sisters who had died unexpectedly. A young Vander Clyde (Barbette) answered the ad to replace her. Barbette once said that both he and the remaining Alfaretta sister thought having two women perform was more dramatic. “She told me that women’s clothes always make a wire act more impressive…and she asked me if I’d mind dressing as a girl. I didn’t; and that’s how it began.” In time Vander moved on to a solo career, still performing in full drag but under his new stage name, Barbette.
He became quite popular in America but his fame in Europe was legendary. Barbette became the toast of Paris in the 1920’s with captivating performances at venues such as the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergere. In 1924 Barbette returned to America and became a featured attraction with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Scandal erupted when Barbette was caught having sex with another man during an engagement at the London Palladium. His contract was canceled and was barred from ever obtaining a work permit in England again. Barbette continued to work as a consultant for motion pictures and as a choreographer in America after an injury forced him to end his trapeze career. Sadly, after years of dealing with chronic pain, Barbette committed suicide at age 74 in August of 1973. His legend lives on forever. (Barbette photos by Man Ray)