How Prohibition Helped Launch America’s First Great Drag Explosion

This Monday, October 28, marks the 100th anniversary of Prohibition.

Above: Bert Savoy, an acclaimed female impersonator from the 1920s.

As RuPaul’s Drag Race invades the United Kingdom, drag’s moment is definitely ascendent. But this isn’t the first time queer performers have captured the mainstream spotlight. In the 1920s and ’30s, drag exploded into popular culture in the United States, with female impersonators packing houses, attracting legions of (straight) fans, and breaking into motion pictures, popular music, and the Broadway stage.

The catalyst? Believe it or not, it was Prohibition that fueled drag’s first big moment in the U.S. Exactly a century ago (October 28, 1919), Congress passed the Volstead Act, prohibiting the production and sale of alcohol in America. Underground clubs proliferated immediately. It’s estimated that by the 1920s, there were more than 20,000 speakeasies in New York City alone.

“Before the Volstead Act, you’d go to the bar in your neighborhood where you were comfortable and everyone knew you,” drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys tells NewNowNext. “Suddenly alcohol goes underground, and you have to go out of your neighborhood and socialize with people you would have never socialized with before. So now gay people and straight people are put together in the same place, all clumped together. The atmosphere was more risqué—and the entertainment became more sensational.”

At this point, Julian Eltinge was already the most acclaimed female impersonator—and one of the top-earning entertainers of his day, with his own Broadway theater. “People flocked to his act,” says Jeffreys, who teaches a course at the New School in NYC about Drag Race’s cultural impact. “He’d come out and tell a little story and maybe sing.”

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A poster for one of Eltinge’s shows in 1911.

Like RuPaul, Eltinge had a large straight female fanbase. Also like Ru, he was a canny merchandiser, producing his own magazine and makeup line. “One of the reasons he appealed to women so much is he’d come out and talk about the latest fashions, you know, and demonstrate some of the looks,” Jeffreys adds. “Some historians talk about his act in terms of ‘whiteness,’ how he was portraying the ideal white woman of the period.”

But Eltinge went to great lengths to defend his heterosexuality, staging fights and posing for pictures wearing overalls and feeding chickens at his farm. “I’m not gay,” he once told reporters, “I just like pearls.”

By the 1920s, though, a new kind of female impersonator was gaining traction—one that, if not openly gay, was more winkingly ambiguous about their sexuality. The drag balls of Harlem were drawing thousands of spectators, of all races and genders. Billed as “the Creole Fashion Plate,” Karyl Norman made his debut the same year Prohibition was passed. Wearing gowns sewn by his mother, Norman was celebrated onstage in NYC for his octave range and skill at quick-change. (Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly used her clout to get morals charges filed against Norman dropped in Detroit.)

Then in 1930 came the “Pansy Craze,” a surge in popularity for drag acts in NYC, Los Angeles, and other major cities in the U.S. There was Barbette, a trapeze and high-wire acrobat who performed in full drag until the finale, when he would rip off his wig and strike a masculine pose. Sent to tour Europe in the 1920s by the William Morris Agency, Barbette captured the attention of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and other cultural luminaries. (He was banned from performing in England in 1922 after being caught having sex with another man.)

In the early 1920s, Bert Savoy became one of the first female impersonators to be open about their sexuality.

“He was basically like, ‘I’m a gay person and I’m up here in this dress and we all know it,’” Jeffreys says. “It was the opposite of Eltinge, trying to distance himself from that connotation.” Like many queens of today, Savoy was renowned for his catchphrases—including “You don’t know the half of it, dearie!” and “You slay me!” Mae West admitted she incorporated some of Savoy’s saucinesses into her stage persona.

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Barbette circa 1930.

Another drag performer pushing the envelope with outrageously raunchy material was Rae Bourbon, who played Carnegie Hall with his one-man show Don’t Call Me Madam. (One of his original songs was “Mr. Wong Has Got The Biggest Tong In China.”) Bourbon befriended West, who cast him in two plays, as well as other celebrities like Bob Hope and Jean Harlow. In 1931, Bourbon even modeled women’s dresses in a California department store.

But it wasn’t just female impersonators garnering attention nationwide. This was the era of the pansy: Rather than wear women’s clothing, a pansy would pantomime the stereotype of an effeminate man. He might be gay or straight, but the pansy made audiences laugh with his swishy gait and lispy voice. “This period is really when gender presentation was starting to cement itself in the public imagination with sexuality,” Jeffreys says. “Before this, there wasn’t a lot of talk about homosexuality or heterosexuality in general. It was buried in academia, in the scientific realms.”

That was changing, though, and cross-dressing and female impersonation started to be linked to homosexuality around this point in history. According to Jeffreys, certain pockets of the U.S. began to pass legislation regulating how many items of women’s clothing a man could wear. “Some places where you could not have a female impersonator,” Jeffreys adds, “you could still have a pansy act.”

One of the top pansy performers of the era was Jean Malin, who headlined NYC’s swanky Club Abbey in 1930. Clad in a tuxedo, he was described as “a six-foot-tall, 200-pound bruiser who also had an attitude and a lisp.” Singing songs like “I’d Rather Be Spanish Than Mannish,” the openly gay Malin would walk through the room and work the crowd, flirting with men and women alike. He also appeared in numerous Broadway shows and several films.

“Malin was a tremendous success and other club owners followed the lead,” wrote the Syracuse Journal. “Before the mainstream knew what happened, there was a hand on a hip for every light on Broadway.” There were other pansy stars, like Bruz Fletcher, who headlined Club Bali in Los Angeles, and Harry Rose, who flitted his wrists as he sang “Frankfurter Sandwiches.”

A Julian Eltinge poster from 1913.

“To some extent, the pansy was a very dandy figure,” Jeffreys explains. “A really well-dressed guy, more than likely with some makeup on. So it was a kind of quasi-drag but not really female impersonation. It was ‘gay’ drag.”

It was the end of Prohibition in 1933 that extinguished the Pansy Craze. The speakeasies shuttered, and authorities began paying attention again to what was going on in bars. And the growing popularity of movies and radio put the final nails in vaudeville. Broadway’s Palace Theater, where many pansy acts performed, was converted into a movie theater in 1932.

A year later, Malin died in a car accident. He was just 25.

Many other stars of the Pansy Craze also met tragic ends: Bert Savoy was struck and killed by lightning in 1923. Unable to find work as an out performer, Bruz Fletcher died by suicide at age 34. And, in 1967, Rae Bourbon was convicted of being an accomplice to murder, eventually dying in prison.

Drag went back into the closet and would remain there until after Stonewall. “In the ‘50s and ‘60s it was illegal in New York to even sell alcohol to a known homosexual,” Jeffreys notes. “The last thing you want to do is have something like a drag show going on to attract more attention.”

It would take decades before drag regained the spotlight, bigger and bolder than ever. But the legacy of the Pansy Craze can be seen in many performers of today: Earlier this month—almost 80 years after Rae Bourbon played Carnegie Hall—the equally ribald Bianca del Rio brought her show to the legendary venue.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery