When one of the Alfaretta Sisters, the World Famous Ariel Queens, died, she had no replacement and Van stepped in.
Thereafter he retained the female guise - this was not an unknown practice in the circus. Barbette started a solo act at the Harlem Opera House in 1919. His combination of female impersonation and trapeze artistry was a great success. He maintained the illusion of femininity until the end of his act when he removed his wig.
In 1923 he took his act to England and France. During an engagement at the London Palladium, he was caught having sex with a man, and never again allowed to work in England. In France he was hailed by the noted writer and artist Jean Cocteau, who gave him a cameo in his film Le Sang d’un Poète, 1930, and had a brief affair with him. The drag-trapeze-artist murderer in Alfred Hitchcock's Murder, 1930 is inspired by Barbette, and is not in the source novel.
Barbette toured Europe and America through the twenties and the thirties until a high wire accident put him into hospital for a year.
A continuing stiffness in his arm prevented a continuance of his career on the trapeze, although he continued as an aerial choreographer and consultant, for example on Till the Clouds Roll By, 1946 and The Big Circus, 1959.
He was also a consultant for Some Like It Hot, 1959.
He committed suicide at the age of 74 after years of chronic pain.
His life was turned into a play, Barbette, 2002 by Bill Lengfelder & David Goodwin.
- Jean Cocteau. “Le Numéro Barbette” Nouvelle Revue Française. July 1926. Reprinted as Le No Barbette. Paris: Jacques Damase 76 pp 1980. Reprinted in ManRay & Jean Cocteau (translated from the French by Catherine Garo). Barbette. Borderline 1988.
- LeGrand-Chabrier, "Les Métamorphoses de Barbette," Vu 144 December 17, 1930.
- Roger Baker. Drag: a history of Female Impersonation on the Stage. A Triton Book 1968 p216-8.
- Francis Steegmuller. Cocteau: a Biography. An Atlantic Monthly Press Book. 1970. p364-8 and Appendix XIV 'A Visit to Barbette, 1966'. .
- Joe E. Jeffreys "Barbette: That Daring Young [Wo]Man on the Flying Trapeze," in Arthur Gerwitz and James J. Kolb (eds) Art, Glitter and Glitz: American Theatre of the 1920s Greenwood Press 1999.
- David de Alba. “Barbette”. FI Pictorial Tributes Epilogue. http://phantomdragon.com/THELEGEND/epilogue.htm.
- "Barbette (performer)". Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbette_(performer)