Rae Bourbon of Jewell Box Lounge Fame
by David W. Jackson
I’ve had the pleasure of assisting a local author with editing his book which is due out this summer. “Criss Cross Lives: Rae Bourbon and Mae West” provides a dueling biography of two life-long friends and colleagues, one of which was a well-known Kansas City female impersonator. This feature article, by and large, is extracted from the forthcoming book with permission from and thanks to Patrick C. Byrne.
Ray Bourbon told many stories and made many claims throughout his colorful life. He claimed to have been adopted and raised as Frank Waddle when he was a child. When he got into show business, he went by Ray Bourbon. As a female impersonator, Ray became Rae Bourbon.
Early medical procedures
In the 1950s, there was a new medical procedure that was causing a worldwide stir and making headlines for those that had undergone it.
Ray first investigated the idea of a sex-change (hereafter referred to as gender confirming) at the respected Johns Hopkins Hospital. They had a Psychohormonal Research Unit and Gender Identity Clinic dating as far back as 1915. They would eventually pioneer genital reconstructive surgery. The very first of these was performed in 1925. The woman in this case was changed from a Francis to a truck driving John.
By 1951, plastic surgery had become an addition to this new field of gender confirming. Soon the office of the chief of staff was besieged with transgender individuals seeking this life-altering procedure. The gender confirming procedure involved the removal of the male genitalia and the construction of a vagina.
Ray hoped this clinic could do the same for him. After the initial exam, they told him it would be impossible.
After months of searching, he read about Dr. Emerick Szekely, who had a clinic in Juarez, Mexico. Dr. Szekely was a refugee from Hungary, driven out of his homeland by the Nazis. He ended up in Mexico and opened one of the first clinics specializing in gender confirming.
After consulting with Dr. Szekely and spending a fortnight in Juarez, Ray claimed to have had a successful operation and returned to the United States as Rae Bourbon.
Rae goes public
Rae immediately contacted everyone she knew in the theatrical press and began her publicity campaign to tout her new gender—although she, and the press, continued to use male gender references.
In an interview she gave to George Capozzi, Jr. of the “New York Journal-American,” Rae’s explosive claim became a featured article:
Female Impersonator Needn’t Fake Again—Says Surgery Made Him a Her. Now a buxom Rae: Operated On In Mexico, female impersonator Rae Bourbon, who wore dresses when he performed with Mae West on the Broadway stage, has undergone sex transformation surgery and today can wear dresses all the time. “Yes, it’s true, ‘I am now a woman.’ ”
According to Rae, who talked with the N.Y. Journal American over the long-distance phone from El Paso, Tex, the operation was performed last September by a Hungarian doctor in Juarez, Mexico.
‘I was the first one on the North American Continent,’ said Rae. ‘The other sex transformations of American men were done in Denmark.’
The 54-year-old nightclub performer, whose forte has been risqué songs and impressions of women, said he is returning to show business shortly w
ith a new act.
‘I don’t know why I shouldn’t,’ explained Rae. ‘I’ve always had a good following when I worked in a tuxedo. I should triple it in gowns. Besides, I’m a lot prettier as a dowager than I was as a man.’
SHE’LL SLIM DOWN
The 6 foot Rae, who feels like he is a bit overweight at 175 pounds said she will slim down for her return as a femme.
Concerning the operation, Rae said: ‘Psychologically I think I am going to be happier than I have ever been in my entire life. Now, I am what I always wanted to be.’ Rae decided to become a woman a year ago when he went to Juarez and found Dr. Emerick Szekely, a woman’s doctor who had fled Hungary during the Nazi purge.
Rae said Dr. Szekely found ovarian tissues during the surgery. Then on May 2, Dr. Szekely performed a “corrective” operation. The doctor also gave Rae a certificate that reads in part, “Bourbon is now more woman than man.”
‘And there’s no doubt about it,’ Rae asserted, ‘My hair is thicker, my voice is higher, and my shape is like a woman’s—a big woman’s. I measure 44-36-40. That beats Mae West, doesn’t it?’
Rae played Mae West’s French hairdresser from the Court of Louis XV in “Catherine Was Great” at the Royal Theatre in 1945, and wore dresses as Bowery Rose in “Diamond Lil” for several years.”
Rae’s Second Act
The resulting publicity from Rae’s claim to have been a successful patient of Dr. Szekely spurred newspaper interest in her story. It also renewed an interest in her career. She had learned a great deal about the power of the press from her friend Mae West.
Rae’s new nightclub billing read, “Not a Female Impersonator.” For several months this worked well, guaranteeing a full house each night. The problem was it was just a bit of a freak show. Those who came might laugh at some of the standard Bourbon fare; but, they had really come hoping to see what a sex change looked like. At that time she looked like any middle aged female impersonator. Her chin sagged, her eyes drooped and her figure had spread.
The sensational nature of Rae’s claim to have been sexually altered led to a new audience, and with that audience came a lot of uncomfortable moments.
Often there were insults shouted out accompanying the applause. A particularly inebriated young man one evening yelled, “Show me your tits!” Rae shot back, “Show me your willy and I’ll show you my tits!”
Rea knew that most hecklers were cowards and took this opportunity to turn the tables and win the audience over to her side. Coming to the front of the stage she would point to the perpetrator and insist that he join him onstage. Usually the embarrassing heckler would nearly disappear under the table. Then Rae would close the subject, “Alright audience, he’s afraid to show his shortcomings!”
The whole cleverly wrapped package began to come undone one night in 1956 at a jammed club in West Hollywood. In the middle of a number titled “There’s Been a Change in Rae,” six police officers accompanied by members of the vice squad jumped onstage. Rae was read her rights and arrested in front of a stunned audience who heard the charge of impersonating a female. She was charged with similar crimes in two or three other cities, including impersonating a man in Miami. But, the charges were dismissed and/or never stuck.
Apparently, she was able to produce a certificate from a Mexican doctor confirming her gender.
Undaunted by the sometimes hostile tone of the audience, Rae Bourbon opened each night with a song she composed about her new “condition,” and it became one of many hits that eventually made it onto a number of vinyl recordings.
On July 20, 1971, Bourbon died from heart failure in a Texas hosptial. The death certificate lists Ray Bourbon as a male and from Kansas City, Mo.
Most of Bourbon’s comedic recordings are available in the GLAMA collections.
David W. Jackson is co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA) and author of “Changing Times: Almanac and Digest of Kansas City’s LGBTQIA History” (orderlypackrat.com/s/books.