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Round Rock's Flying Female Impersonator

Forty-two years ago today, Vander Clyde died of a drug overdose in Round Rock.

Clyde, who performed as Barbette, wasn’t an archetypal Round Rocker (if there is such a thing) in the sense that, for a stretch of his 68-year life, he was a sensation in Paris’ vaudeville scene, became the muse of a proto-surrealist avant garde poet and filmmaker, and went on to become a circus director for Ringling Barnum Circus.

Born in Round Rock in 1904, Clyde took to acrobatics early after seeing the circus in Austin as a boy. He used a galvanized iron clothesline to practice tightrope walking in his mother’s backyard and, after graduating high school at age 14, he decided to join up with an act called the “Alfaretta Sisters, World-Famous Aerial Queens.”

One of said queens had died, and the remaining Alfaretta sister was eyeing Clyde for a trapeze act, but there was a catch.

“She told me that women’s clothes always make a wire act more impressive – the plunging and gyrating are more dramatic in a woman – and she asked me if I’d mind dressing as a girl,” Clyde told The New Yorker in 1969. “I didn’t.”

Thus began Clyde’s career as Barbette, the renowned female-impersonator acrobat. The act required Clyde to perform tightrope acts in a large dress, an ostrich-feather hat and a wig. After taking numerous bows, Barbette would remove the wig, revealing he was a man.

In 1923, Barbette went to Paris and became a hit among the cultural cognoscenti, including Picasso and playwright, poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, who later featured Barbette in his proto-surrealist film, “The Blood of a Poet” in 1930. In the film the “bejeweled and Chanel-clad Barbette and other aristocrats applauded a card game that ended in suicide,” according to the Texas State Historical Association. Cocteau later went on to write an essay about the nature of art that focused squarely on Barbette.

Barbette’s career ended in 1938 after a bout with pneumonia and years of untreated injuries. 

barbette_bsp0413.jpg
Credit Sverre O. Braathen, Milner Library Special Collections
Clyde as a director of productions for Ringling Barnum Circus in Wisconsin in Sept. 1943.

Still, Clyde continued to work in aerial acrobatics under the big top after his career, working as a consultant and even a director for Ringling Barnum Circus in the early ‘40s into the mid-‘50s. He also served as a consultant for both Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis’ female impressions in “Some Like It Hot” in the late ‘50s.

In 1959, he moved back to Round Rock and in 1973, Clyde died of a drug overdose in Round Rock. Years later, in 1990, the city of Round Rock mulled erecting a statue honoring Clyde’s Barbette, but, as his nephew Charles Loving told the Houston Chronicle, the city rejected the proposal. 

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