The Dramatic Life of Barbette -
Round Rock's First and Greatest Drag Queen
by Kyle Taylor
“More fun than a sex party!” — Barbette
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.
Author Guest Post: What are the challenges of fictionalizing a real person's life story?
Kyle Taylor, author Wildflower: The Dramatic Life of Barbette—Round Rock’s First and Greatest Drag Queen.
When I set out to write about Barbette, I really was thinking of him more as a symbolic image for a contemporary character. I thought if I just give some broad brushstrokes of character that would suffice.
But as I researched Barbette’s fascinating story, I knew the entire nature of my novel had to change. That said, I don’t think I realized the scope or depth of study I would have to undertake to bring the fabulous Barbette to life. Wildflower covers sixty years of a man’s life. I wanted to be respectful. I wanted to capture the essence of Barbette—at least how I responded to him.
That is the essential struggle of an author when they desire to fictionalize a real person’s life story. How can I liken it? Maybe it’s like portraiture. The writer is the artist painting a portrait of his subject. Abstraction is a risk, yet it could quite possibly bring forth the essence of the subject. Many of Picasso’s later portraits were extremely abstract, yet, he captured some inner truth.
There is also the notion of subjectivity. You can’t divorce the painter from the subject. Subjectivity is the only way I would bring Barbette to life on the page. What do I mean by this? I must make an explicit statement that no matter how much research I endeavored, in the end, I met Barbette, in my own mind, my own heart. That is why in the preface to Wildflower, I say that this work is a fantasia. The story is not literal, but a blending of the facts of Barbette’s life and my subjective response to him.
That said, my fantasia is not as abstract as Picasso’s paintings. I followed a strict timeline of Barbette’s life. I dug up stories of other people’s experiences of Barbette and layered them into Wildflower. I relied on Barbette’s own voice as well as the voices of his contemporaries to provide authenticity.
Surrealist photographer Man Ray made a film in the 1920’s at the villa owned by the French art patrons, the Noailleses. When I watched the film at the villa, which is located along the coast of southern France, I saw a trapeze hanging over the indoor swimming pool. How irresistible for an author writing about a drag queen aerialist who admits to his association with the Noailleses. Did Barbette actually perform on that trapeze? I don’t know. But in my imagination, after studying the Noailleses and Barbette, of course he did!
I also had to work on evolving the character of Barbette. Sixty years is a long time in a person’s life. Barbette’s career spanned the globe throughout the decades. I was extremely aware that I needed to show Barbette growing and maturing.
At the end of the day, what was I looking for? Certainly, I hoped I created a character I could viscerally say was Barbette. I can’t note that statement lightly. The story of Barbette moved me. I could identify with him. So a marriage of sorts happened. But I also wanted my audience to connect with the creation.
The writer lives in this tension—was the effort only a fantasia for him or her—or did the fantasia have some sort of connection with the reader as well? Ultimately, that’s what we hope to achieve.
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.
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