L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The most beautiful illusion - Francis Renault

Circa 1925. (The inscribed dates on some of these photographs do not necessarily reflect the date they were taken.)

Francis Renault (born Antonio Auriemma; 5 August or September 1895 (or 1893), Naples, Italy - 29 May 1955), female impersonator or "femme mimic".

Circa early 1920s. (Five images.)

Raised in Providence, Rhode Island, he began his career in Vaudeville under his given name while still a young boy; he was known for a lovely soprano voice, a voice which had already attracted the attention of the likes of Mrs. William McKinley, the president's widow. Early on, while still a teenager, he apparently met and was inspired by the female impersonator Julian Eltinge, a great celebrity of the time. Soon enough he was himself performing in drag, as "Auriema", having dropped his first name and an "m" from his last. Success in this new incarnation came quickly.

Circa 1910s.
Circa 1903 (?).

He became known for the lavish costumes he wore, his impressive falsetto voice - "Auriema" appears on many sheet music covers, and it's possible he performed those songs on stage - and his impressions of famous ladies, from Lillian Russell to Cleopatra to Catherine the Great. Late in 1914, still only about twenty, he changed his billing to "Mr. Francis Renault", variously subtitled "Parisian Fashion Plate", "The Slave of Fashion", etc.

Circa 1913, while still billed as Auriema. The song is by none other than Irving Berlin.
Detail of above.
Circa 1925, now billed as Francis Renault. The songwriters Kahn and Donaldson were celebrated contributors to the Great American Songbook.

After his great success in Vaudeville, in 1922 he made the switch to the world of the musical revue. The following year he traveled to Europe, performing in England and France. Not long after his return, it appears he opened his own club - the Club Francis Renault - in Atlantic City. (But I've found other mention of a "Club Renault" in Manhattan, referenced as late as the early Thirties. I don't know if this was a different club or just a confusion of location.)

1923. This looks to be a passport photograph.
Again, the inscribed date on some of these photographs is not contemporary with the image; this was taken much earlier than 1937-8.

His stage wardrobe was extensive and costly, worth tens of thousands of dollars, and always a selling point for his appearances. During his engagements at some theaters, his gowns were put on display in the lobby, so that his audiences could get a closer look and marvel at their lavish beauty and superb craftsmanship.

Detail of above. If you look closely, you can seen that his gloved fingers have been retouched to make them look smaller, daintier.
"As Cleopatra at Carnegie Hall", circa early 1920s.

It appears that he sometimes got into trouble for wearing some of those gowns off stage; he was arrested and released on several occasions for public female impersonation, notably in Dallas and Atlanta. Public cross-dressing was illegal in the country at the time, and drag performers were usually very circumspect away from the theater; Renault's predecessor and inspiration, the great Eltinge, always effected a very butch persona when out in public.

He continued to tour, performing in clubs and legitimate theaters well into the Forties, his costumes always fully exploited for publicity purposes, his act - impressions, humor, music - all a variation on what he'd been performing since the beginning of his career.

1940s. (Seven images.)
Dressed for his impression of Lillian Russell, one of his most enduring characterizations. (Four images.)

As "Madam DuBarry". These last two images are both inscribed "Francis or Tony"; Antonio was his actual name.

One source reports Renault contracting Polio in 1945, and it being two years and multiple surgeries before he was able to perform again. But reviewing programmes for his performances during that time - several of them at Carnegie Hall; during his career, he apparently appeared there more than forty times - would show that to be highly unlikely. It looks like he performed as late as 1953. In December of the next year, Walter Winchell reports him going in for surgery at a New York hospital, and he died the following May at the age of fifty-nine. (Eltinge had died at the same age, fourteen years before.)

Circa 1918.


Most of the information I've sourced to concoct this post and almost all of the images were found on the wonderful Queer Music Heritage website. The author, J. D. Doyle, mentioned that the images are from a scrapbook that was being sold on Ebay. (Which he sadly wasn't able to acquire.) What a treasure!

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