KILLER CORSETS: DEATH TO DRAG QUEENS
By Madeline Rose
Two actresses of the American stage, circa 1900, were Anna Held and Lillian Russell. These two were heralded as beautiful women, and indeed they were. They wore the most fashionable gowns of the era, keeping their hour-glass figures perfect with tight whale-bone corsets.
Rumor had it, that Held and Russell often went to their corset makers, accompanied by their friend Julian Eltinge, who advertised corsets which he used in his female impersonation act.
One advertisement showing Eltinge as a beautiful bride inquired,” If a Nemo corset will produce this perfection of figure for a fully proportioned man, such as Mr. Julian Eltinge with a waist of thirty-eight inches – an no natural lines of womanly grace – what will it do for your figure, Madame, who have all the graceful womanly lines to assist? We are headquarters for Nemo Self-Reducing Corsets – complete lines of all new models, O’Connor, Moffat & Company.”
The advertisement for corsets, along with other products such as Eltinge’s cold cream, were serious attempts to commercially exploit Eltinge’s popularity. Such beauties as Anna Held and Lillian Russell were always beautiful women, so their secret beauty tips probably would not help the average woman. However, Eltinge could work wonders with his beauty secrets.
Although his carriage received great assistance and support from a taut-laced corset, while in drag, Eltinge was not immune to the same health problems women suffered from wearing corsets. While appearing at the Majestic Theatre in Chicago in February 1921, Eltinge informed the audience that “Old Ironsides”, the nickname he gave to his corsets, were hurting him.
The corset forced the wearer’s bones and organs to contort, squeezing blood vessels and causing pain and health problems. Many people, men and women, died from wearing such devices. In 1898, fifty-three year old Bernhard Rank died from wearing corsets. Rank was a 250-lb specialist in German-speaking dame roles. It was reported his death from apoplexy, a sudden hemorrhage of a blood vessel or organ rupture, was caused by his corsets.
Tight lacing also resulted in the death of Joseph Hennella, a female impersonator. He collapsed on the stage of a South Side Vaudeville theatre in St Louis on November 4, 1912. In order to add to his feminine illusion, he wore a corset tightly laced giving the effect of a small waist.
Hennella fell unconscious on the stage during his act, dying three hours later. The attending doctors stated the tight corset caused a kidney trouble and induced apoplexy. Hennella was of medium height and stout. At the time of his death, he was forty years old. When he was younger, it was easier for him to appear feminine, but with an increasing girth, that became more difficult. Usually, he made several changes of costume in his drag act, and the constriction caused by the corset rendered this a fatiguing and laborious process.
Julian Eltinge also changed his costume several times during his act, keeping on his corset whether in drag or dressed as a man. He would wear out a corset per show and would use a new one for each show, if not for every other performance. Anguished with back and kidney problems later in life, Eltinge died in 1941. Official cause of his death was cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 57. However, because of his numerous health problems and the lack of drag work and loss of three fortunes, tabloids suggested the cause of death as suicide from an overdose of sleeping pills.