One of the earliest ordinances against cross-dressing was passed in Columbus, Ohio, in 1848, making it illegal for someone to appear in public “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” While police enforced such laws on public streets and jailed offenders, the impersonation of women by men, and men by women, became a popular routine on the vaudeville stage, a precursor to today’s variety show. And it so happens that in the early 1900s, one of the most renowned male impersonators was a Charlottesville native.
Kathleen Clifford was born in Charlottesville in 1887. Hailey Stoudt, who researched and designed an exhibit about Clifford’s life that is currently on display at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, says there are discrepancies between the historical record and the information Clifford presented to the public about her life.
Because British performers were popular at the time, Clifford purported to be from England, despite her Virginia birth. And because being a performer was not exactly a reputable thing to do, especially for a woman, there is no information available about Clifford’s family, possibly because she took a stage name. While an origin story pinpoints her entrance into the performing arts at age 15, when she met American producer Charles Frohman at age 15, (who then cast her to star in a musical comedy called Top o’ the World), Stoudt says this is likely the glamorized Hollywood version. Clifford probably had more humble beginnings and had to work her way up from minor parts to center stage.
As a male impersonator doing vaudeville, Clifford wore a top hat, coattails and a monocle. Her smart fashion sense earned her the nickname “the Smartest Chap in Town.” The exhibit explains there were two generations of male impersonators. In the first generation, which performed from 1860 to 1900, the goal was to present a realistic portrayal. According to historian Marybeth Hamilton, female impersonators at the time were billed as illusionists, which made them appear less of a threat to traditional gender roles. But in the second generation of male impersonators, from the 1900s to 1930s, actresses were purposefully more feminine, no longer trying to pass for male as vaudeville hoped to attract a more middle-class audience, including women and children, and a convincing drag performance would have been considered vulgar.
Clifford continued to perform in vaudeville up to the 1930s, even as she was cast in Broadway productions and silent films. The only film Stoudt found intact was When the Clouds Roll By, a 1919 comedy in which Clifford stars as the romantic leading lady, an artist named Lucette Bancroft, opposite Douglas Fairbanks as Daniel Boone Brown, a young man being driven mad by his psychiatrist.
“It is the only one [of her films] still currently available,” Stoudt says. “A lot of silent films were actually destroyed. It’s kind of sad that we don’t have them to look at now. The performance is over the top and exaggerated to get the point across, but she was definitely talented.”
While she continued to act, Clifford also opened a florist business in Hollywood in the late 1920s. But five years after the first feature film with sound, Clifford appeared in a short talkie called The Bride’s Bereavement (1932), and then she disappeared from film. Her appearances in vaudeville, too, began to wane in the 1930s, as the novelty and popularity of the talkies eclipsed such live-performance shows.
Her passion for the written word, however, did not diminish. In 1945, she published The Enchanted Glen: Never Trod by the Feet of Men, a children’s book that was illustrated by Howard “Kim” Weed, a contributing illustrator to Disney’s Fantasia (1940). Ten years later, Clifford published the novel It’s April… Remember?, inspired by her time in Hollywood, a place she described as “perhaps the most romantic city in the world of romantic dreams.”
“It’s a farce that looks at Hollywood’s personalities and outrageous characters,” Stoudt says. In the foreword to the novel, Clifford reminds her readers that it is a work of fiction, asks them not to superimpose themselves on her characters and even jokes about being sued for libel. Yet she writes a sincere and nostalgic tribute to the “fabulous people” of Hollywood and credits them with their unbiased generosity and selflessness.
“She was such an interesting woman,” Stoudt says. “She was famous for being a male impersonator in vaudeville, making all her costumes, writing her own songs and material. She was definitely a hardworking woman and this translated later in her life when she ran her own business and wrote her stories and novels. I’m excited to see, as more information becomes available, what we can uncover about her.”
The exhibit will be on display through the end of the year, and an article on Stoudt’s latest findings on Clifford is forthcoming in The Magazine of Albemarle County History.