CLYDE, VANDER (1904–1973). Vander Clyde, who achieved international fame as Barbette, a female impersonator and trapeze and high-wire performer, was born on December 19, 1904, in Round Rock, Texas. His mother was a milliner, and he had a sister and at least one half-brother. Enamored of the circus after his mother took him to his first performance in Austin, Clyde began practicing on the clothesline in his mother's yard and working in the fields for money to go to as many circuses as possible. After graduating from high school at age fourteen, he traveled to San Antonio to answer a Billboard advertisement placed by one of the Alfaretta Sisters, "World Famous Aerial Queens." He joined the act on the condition that he dress as a girl, since his partner believed that women's clothes made a wire act more dramatic. He later performed in Erford's Whirling Sensation, in which he and two others hung by their teeth from a revolving apparatus.
During this period Clyde began developing a solo act in which he appeared and performed as a woman and removed his wig to reveal his masculinity at the end of the performance. After adopting the name Barbette, he traveled throughout the United States performing the act, which became quite popular. In the fall of 1923 the William Morris Agency sent him to England and then to Paris, where he opened at the Alhambra Music Hall. Barbette became the talk of Paris and was befriended by members of both American café society and French literary and social circles. In particular, his artistry was championed by French poet and dramatist Jean Cocteau. Inspired by Barbette's act, which he described as "an extraordinary lesson in theatrical professionalism," Cocteau wrote a review in the July 1926 issue of the Nouvelle Revue Française, "Le Numéro Barbette," which is considered a classic essay on the nature of art. As described by Cocteau, Barbette's acrobatics became a vehicle for theatrical illusion. From his entrance, when he appeared in an elaborate ball gown and an ostrich-feather hat, to an elaborate striptease down to tights and leotard in the middle of the act, Barbette enacted a feminine allure that was maintained despite the vigorous muscular activity required by his trapeze routine. Only at the end of the performance, when he removed his wig, did he dispel the illusion, at which time he mugged and flexed in a masculine manner to emphasize the success of his earlier deception. To Cocteau, Barbette's craftsmanship, practiced on the fine edge of danger, elevated a rather dubious stunt to the level of art, analogous to the struggle of a poet. Cocteau wrote about Barbette on several other occasions, and in 1930 he used the aerialist in his first film, Le Sang d'un Poete (Blood of a Poet), in which the bejeweled and Chanel-clad Barbette and other aristocrats applauded a card game that ended in suicide.
Although Clyde performed in such other European cities as Berlin, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Warsaw, Madrid, and Barcelona, his spiritual home remained in Paris, where he performed at venues such as the Casino de Paris, the Moulin Rouge, the Empire, and the Médrano Circus, in addition to the Alhambra Theater. His popularity peaked in the early 1930s, and his performing career ended in 1938, when he caught pneumonia after performing at Loew's State, a vaudeville theater in New York. His ailment left him crippled and required surgery and eighteen months of rehabilitation, during which time he had to learn to walk again.
Clyde continued to be involved with the circus by staging productions and training performers for Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey, Cole Brothers, Clyde Beatty's, and other circuses. He spent his last years in Round Rock, where he lived with his sister Mary Cahill. He died at home on August 5, 1973. Late in life, and even posthumously, Barbette continued to inspire writers and poets: he was interviewed and subsequently profiled in a lengthy New Yorker article by Cocteau's biographer, Francis Steegmuller, and he was the subject of Albert Goldbarth's book-length poem, Different Fleshes, which won the Texas Institute of Letters award for poetry in 1980.
Jean Cocteau, Francis Steegmuller, and Man Ray, Le Numéro Barbette (Paris: Jacques Damase, 1980). David Lewis Hammarstrom, Behind the Big Top (South Brunswick, New Jersey: Barnes, 1980). LeGrand-Chabrier, "Les Métamorphoses de Barbette," Vu 144 (December 17, 1930). New York Times, August 10, 1973. Francis Steegmuller, "An Angel, A Flower, A Bird," New Yorker, September 27, 1969. Francis Steegmuller, Cocteau, A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Kendall Curlee, "CLYDE, VANDER," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcl54), accessed September 23, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.