This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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Louis Vernassier – Musical Excentrique

10 January 2015

It's a very old question. Is she a he? Or is he a she? The theater world has always had cross dressing entertainers who have exploited this provocative idea of transgender. Today I present a showcase of an unusual musical artist.

Louis Vernassier
l'homme protée
musical excentrique
dans son travesti

This French postcard shows a very elegantly dressed woman holding a violin and standing in front of an array of musical instruments. From the left is a tenor saxhorn, a small guitar, a stand of tubular chimes, an alto saxhorn, a zither, a lyre guitar, a mandolin, and a stand of tuned jingle bells. Notice the electric light bulbs above the bells and a small feathered fan inserted into one of the chimes. On the bottom edge is a short message:

Goodbye Bremour(?)


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In this second postcard the stage is rearranged. Louis Vernassier has put aside the violin and stands plucking at the bells. A waiter now stands behind the chimes delivering a tray with a carafe of coffee. On the lower edge is a one word message:  

They are actually part of a much larger photo of a theatrical troupe with five other characters. On the left is a magician complete with dove and magic wand. Next to him are two women at a garden bench, one wearing a décolletage gown more revealing than the other woman's chaste attire. To the right of the waiter and Vernassier is another young woman dressed in a peasant's folk costume. And on the far right is what looks like a postman on a rock waving newspapers. We can now recognize that the strange foliage in the second postcard was a primitive photo technique to cover up the other women.

The first two postcards were sent at the same time, possibly 1906 but the postmarks are unclear, to Monsieur P. Fremont, 15 Rue Cachin, Honfleur, Calvados France. Honfleur is a commune located on the south bank of the mouth of the River Seine across from the great port city of le Havre. It is noted for its picturesque buildings and riverside life which attracted noted painters like Gustave Courbet, Eugène Boudin, and Claude Monet who chose it for many landscapes and street scenes. It was also the birthplace of the composer and pianist Éric Satie (1866 – 1925). 

The address of 15 Rue Cachin is still a proper place and is visible on Google Street View where there is a shop offering language lessons. English for Success!    Sadly that ironic shop seems to have disappeared in 2016.  No.15 is the grey door.



Monsieur Vernassier (or is it Madame? Or even Mademoiselle?) also played the harp. In this postcard she/he appears younger and has a different gown embellished  with elaborate embroidery. 
Louis Vernassier
l'homme protée
musical excentrique
dans son travesti - dame

Jouant Violon, Mandoline,
Mandole, Violoncelle, Piano,
Contrebasse, Guitare, Xylophone,
Grelots, Saxophone, Harpe,
cuivres etc. & tous
instrumenté Excentriques

 playing Violin, Mandolin, Mandola, Cello, Piano,
Bass, Guitar, Xylophone,
Bells, Saxophone, Harp,
etc. & all
instruments eccentrics.

The instrument is a concert harp with several pedals for changing to different musical keys. Because of its angelic symbolism, the harp was particularly associated with female musicians. Sometimes they were the only women of this era allowed to have membership in a professional orchestra.

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The postmark from Mortagne, France, which is a short distance south of Honfleur, is more clear with a date of 28 Juin 05 on the back. It was sent to Monsieur Emile Guibert of that small commune.

Vernassier has changed gowns again for this next postcard. She/he has no instrument and instead offers us a beguiling pose.

The archives of the internet have failed to produce any information about this performer. Even in France, his/her history remains a secret. 

* *


This next postcard is a variation on that same bewitching quality of cross dressing entertainers. Vernassier looks older and his/her choice of l'homme-protée musical dans son travesti
as a subtitle description for his/her act is interesting. The English translation for l'homme protée is the man Proteus. Proteus was an ancient Greek god of rivers and seas. Like the sea, his shape was very changeable, which gave us the word protean meaning variable or capable of many shapes. Its theatrical meaning is more commonly interpreted as chameleon man.

The pioneering French film maker Georges Méliès made a silent movie in 1899 with this title, as did another Frenchman with Pathe films, Ferdinand Zecca, in 1907. Méliès movie title is translated as The Lightning Change Artist and the plot, such that there is one, has a man doing twenty complete costume changes in two minutes, combining them with dancing while in full sight of the audience.

* *

The phrase dans ses Travesti Dame translates as in his transvestite lady. In this next postcard 8 small portraits of Vernassier as a woman are arranged as the stylized leaves of a folding fan. In the corner is a portrait of Louis as a man. Her rather coquettish expressions suggest a certain camp humor, as the lower right image shows him removing his wig. 

This last postcard has Louis Vernassier shown in a double side by side portrait in both gender forms. He has even signed it Mes remerciement: Vernaissier – My thanks: Vernassier, though it is only a printed facsimile.

What kind of music did he play? Did he sing or dance? Was he a solo unaccompanied act or did he belong to a larger traveling music hall ensemble? Unfortunately I have discovered no answers.

Vernassier closely resembles another cross dressing American vaudeville entertainer from this same pre-war era, The Great Weber, who was featured on my blog back in October 2011. Weber also played multiple instruments and specialized in quick costume changes into eccentric comic characters. More recently this last year I wrote about Jose??? a German cross dressing performer who was a member of the traveling Wandertheater of the Kaiser's army in 1916.

Here is an extra bonus postcard I've recently acquired. It shows Vernassier standing with an elderly gentleman and the card's title reads:

Les Vernabene 

Could this be trick photography and both characters are the same man? Vernassier's beautiful gown is the same one she/he wears in the first postcards. 

* *

The playbills of early 20th century music halls included many entertainers exploiting the mystique of cross gender dress including several women who dressed as men. Our modern cinema has produced many similar story lines of men dressed as women. Two of my favorites are the 1959 film, Some Like It Hot, with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, and The Birdcage from 1996 with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. Both movie plots involve the confusion of sexual identity and the romance of musical revues. And of course The Birdcage was an American remake of the 1978 French film La Cage aux Folles, which was adapted from a 1973 French play of the same name by Jean Poiret.

Our 21st century sensibility to human sexual nature is very different from those of Vernassier's era. Was he heterosexual, homosexual, or transgender? I don't think there is any way we can know. He certainly must have had talent to produce such a clever act and become a successful artist on the musical stage. It is also clear that he understood good marketing to have circulated so many different promotional images. But what is more difficult for us to imagine is the strong will necessary to endure the bigotry, misguided slurs, and violence that would have been directed against him. It was not a liberal or tolerant age. It took great courage to create an act like this. From our perspective in time we can only admire his audacity and charm that make us wish we could have heard him.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everything is not what it seems.

   UPDATE 11 JAN 2015    

The internet revealed nothing about "Louis Vernassier" but I am never satisfied until I've tried every variation. Today I wondered what "Vernassier Louis" or even "L. Vernassier" might bring up. To my surprise, there were a few citations using only his initials which connected him to the history of early French cinema. In particular the French version of the first primitive motion pictures called the Kinetoscope.  This mechanical film strip device was developed in the US in the late 1880s at Thomas Edison's labs by William Dickson.  By 1895 both Britain and France had their own competing machines that became popular attractions at fairs and carnivals. One website referred to L. Vernassier's Théâtre des Merveilles or Theater of Marvels. But it was this next image found on a French museum archive  that provides the best connection to Vernassier. It is a traveling Kinetoscope trailer parked on a French street with a crowd of people waiting to pay 5¢ and watch the amusing moving images. The date is unsure but 190? is written on the bottom.

The proprietor's name on the signboard is L. Vernassier.

Source: Musée des Civilisations de l'Europen
Now go back and image the 8 images of Vernassier on the fan shaped postcard flipping through a Kinetoscope. Do you see the big finish with the flourish of her wig?

One last reference came up for "Vernassier, Louis" in a French military record for the Great War of 1914-18. A soldier with that name was killed in action at Saint-Jean-de-Bassel on 20 August 1914.


Sean Bentley said...

Wow - where do you find these amazing artifacts? This seems to fit right in with the English music-hall tradition of cross-dressing - from Shakespeare plays to Eddie Izzard.

Postcardy said...

What an amazing collection. I was impressed with the first three cards, and then you added more and more interesting cards.

21 Wits said...

You bring up a very good question, and surely will probably never know, but I like to think it was genius in his delivery, and surely he loved his talent and the life, and he was a crowd pleasing artist! Hands down. Thank you for your thoughts and comment on my post this week, I agree with such a fitting quote you shared. Thank you!

Barbara Rogers said...

Great collection of cards of a theatrical/musical personality. I think stage performers were/are more able to be a bit out of ordinary, in fact, they were encouraged to do so. The more unusual the better the publicity. Of course talent will out, and it looks as if this person must have succeeded somewhat. Thanks for once again sharing interesting information.

Little Nell said...

The fact that he was a cross-dressing entertainer seems almost immaterial. The gowns were beautiful and the attention to detail immaculate. As ever completely absorbing post.

La Nightingail said...

What a wonderful post! Great postcards & explanations. I assume he wore long gloves to cover up arm hair - although in one of the last photos, his arms are only covered with some sort of filmy material. Perhaps he had shaved at that point? Lots of fun here & as Little Nell mentions, some gorgeous costuming!

Wendy said...

Maybe most of your readers are more particular than I am -- or maybe I'm looking at the new and improved scans, but they look good to me. At any rate, I agree with Little Nell and La Nightingale that LV made a beautiful woman, and his shows must have been delightful and entertaining. I too love "The Birdcage." And what about the Lady Chablis in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"? Now would you KNOW that was a man if you didn't KNOW? He is a far more convincing woman than Jack Lemmon was in "Some Like It Hot."

tony said...

They Look Amazing To Me.You Are An Artist To, For Finding And Honouring These Performers.Another Fascinating Visit .Thank You.


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