After a career spanning six decades, Darcelle XV, the world’s oldest working drag queen, has died at 92.
The longtime drag artist was performing in her native Portland until just days before her death from natural causes, drag performer Poison Waters, one of Darcelle’s closest friends, told LGBTQ Nation.
Condolences poured in from around the world.
U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley (D) and Ron Wyden (D), the Oregon Congressional delegation, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, city council members, Lady Bunny, Jinkx Monsoon, and Joey Arias all sent messages honoring Darcelle. From overseas, drag royalty Maisie Trollette, the oldest drag queen in the United Kingdom, shared her grief over the longtime performer’s death.
Darcelle XV, aka Walter Cole, was born in 1930 and crowned “oldest drag queen” by Guinness World Records in 2016. Her landmark Darcelle XV Showplace in the City of Roses is also ranked by Guinness as “the West Coast’s longest running drag show.”
“He always said that Darcelle could do anything, where Walter was a little more shy and reserved,” Waters recalled. “In our 35 years, I never once called him Walter. It just seemed odd to me.”
Darcelle’s long reign was witness to a remarkable transformation of the gay community, from the time she bought a dilapidated tavern in Portland’s Old Town in 1967 to today. Stonewall, gay liberation, the AIDS epidemic, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, marriage equality and the current wave of conservative, anti-gay backlash all happened as Darcelle worked her club’s stage in towering wigs and backless silver pumps.
Back then, laws banning sodomy were still on the books, and forced sterilization of “sexual perverts and moral degenerates” were only recently abandoned. Raids at gay bars like Darcelle’s were commonplace.
Despite the risks, Cole bought the property as a financial investment, and an emotional one. With the purchase, Cole came out to his wife, and began living openly with his boyfriend, Roxy Neuhardt. The couple would spend nearly 50 years together.
“They were perfectly paired,” Waters recalled. “Darcelle was the more serious one in business, and Roxy was just kind of kooky and fun, and even on stage his character was more like the ditzy show girl. Darcelle was the lead actor.”
It was Roxy who Darcelle credited with her creation.
“Roxy had worked in Vegas,” Darcelle said in 2017. “We had seen a few shows during our travels and decided that maybe we could try it.”
Darcelle’s name was a spin on French-American starlet Denise Darcel, and the look was based on local legend Gracie Hansen, a hotel dancer famous for her longshot run for governor of Oregon. “She was always: ‘More furs! More feathers! More rhinestones!'” Darcelle remembered.
One longtime performer and friend, trans-evangelist Sister Paula Nielson, said another influence was actress Vivienne Leigh, whose immortal cry as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind stuck with Darcelle from a young age: “As God is my witness,” Scarlett inveighs, “I’ll never be hungry again!”
Hunger, and the cops, were kept at bay with Darcelle’s growing success.
Post-Stonewall, as gay rights became frontpage news in bigger cities, Darcelle kept her show in Portland on the down low to avoid antagonizing police, even while placating them; payoffs to operate without official interference were a common tactic for gay bars at the time. Cops had been there one night when Roxy danced an adagio with a male partner and the club was slapped with a fine. That never happened again.
Like a New York or San Francisco debutante, Darcelle came out to high gay society in 1972, when she was crowned Rose Empress XV, “The Happiness of the Rose,” at the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Oregon — the state’s longest-running LGBTQ+ charitable organization — for her charitable contributions to the community.
Darcelle added the XV designation to her professional name and wore it proudly the rest of her life. “The fragrance of happiness,” wrote the Rose Court, “has been with us ever since.”
In the early years at Darcelle’s, dancing and performance involving more than one musical instrument were forbidden in Oregon taverns, so performers skirted the strict law by lip-syncing to records, creating an enduring art form in the process.
Then, in quick succession, Oregon’s sodomy laws were repealed, and the state’s liquor laws were liberalized.
Darcelle XV and his Portland Showplace took off.
In Darcelle XV’s very first interview, for Portland’s Willamette Week in 1975, the writer describes the newly mainstream Showplace as full of “warmth and affection,” with performers “glittering in sequins and satin and a shimmering froth of feathers.”
“I’m an entertainer with a capital E,” Darcelle told author Susan Stanley. “Darcelle is a character — like in a play — and I work very hard at her.”
Both Darcelle and Roxy expected the same from their cast.
“Roxy was our choreographer and he was kind of a taskmaster when it came to that,” Waters remembered. “He was in charge of the way the show looked, the way the show appeared and he would really get on us if we were in the wrong hair, the wrong shoes. The show was the star, not any one person standing out.”
“They both wanted it to always shine and be the best, regardless if we had 10 people in the audience or a hundred.”
“Darcelle also taught me that you can’t just be a personality,” Waters added. “You’ve got to be a person. So I can be on stage and be wild and have the world love me, but when I get off stage, I still need to figure out how to make that happen, as well. So to be a person, to be kind and appreciative, those are lessons that I’ll always remember.”
Darcelle is credited with helping liberalize Portland’s once-provincial attitudes around the gay community. As Rose Empress, he convinced then-Mayor Vera Katz to serve as a celebrity guest judge for La Femme Magnifique, the annual drag pageant Darcelle co-founded that’s still running today.
Darcelle performed at Portland Mayor Bud Clark’s (D) inauguration in 1985, and for his Guinness World Record application, Darcelle received witness statements from Portland Mayor Charlie Hales (D) and former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts (D).
In 2020, Darcelle XV Showplace was added to the Oregon Register of Historic Places, the first site in the state to be nominated specifically for its significance in LGBTQ+ history.
Charity was also integral to Darcelle’s persona and the club’s reputation.
“He was always the first to offer the club for people to have events,” said Waters. “Many, many, many memorials were held there. He would always donate gifts for kids, gift certificates for different raffles and auctions. He was really one of the first drag queens that was doing charitable work with nonprofit organizations, and now, many nonprofit groups reach out to the drag community for MCs or entertainment and that sort of thing, which never would have happened if it wasn’t for Darcelle.”
Just this year, Darcelle helped form a new trans legal fund to assist families enduring discrimination in neighboring Idaho, and the club is planning a fundraiser for the endowment. “Unfortunately, now, Darcelle won’t be able to be a part of it, but the club and his legacy go on,” said Waters.
Darcelle’s final turn on stage was a performance the week before he died, for the launch of a new beer in his honor called Darcelle Blonde IPA from Gigantic Brewery. The Showplace was sold out. The 92-year-old sang two songs, both recently recorded with Portland’s iconic Pink Martini. One was The Rose, made famous by gay icon Bette Midler, and the other, Irving Berlin’s What’ll I Do, which Darcelle started singing on the Showplace stage shortly after Roxy’s death in 2017.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.