Ray (or Rae) Bourbon (c.1892 – July 19, 1971) was the stage name of an American female impersonator, entertainer and vaudeville performer, noted for his "outrageous" risqué monologues. He mainly performed in nightclubs, gaining a following in the 1930s and 1940s, and issued several LPs of comic material during the 1950s. He died while serving a prison sentence, after having been convicted of being an accomplice to murder.
Many details of his life are disputed, but it is widely thought that his birth name was either Hal Wadell (or Waddell), or Ramón Ícarez, and that he was born in Texas. He claimed to have been born on August 11, 1902, but FBI sources state that he admitted that his birth was in 1892. In a 1937 application for a Social Security card, he gave his birth name as Hal Wadell, but at different times in his life claimed that he was the illegitimate son of a Texas congressman, and/or that he was the "last of the Habsburg Bourbons" whose mother had traveled to the US shortly before giving birth. One friend stated: "Where Ray was concerned, we simply never knew what was real and what wasn't."
He claimed to have attended school in London, and to have first performed on stage there in 1913. He returned to the US around 1917 and, according to the FBI, married and had a son. Bourbon claimed to have been a stunt double for movie actresses, and an uncredited actor in several silent films, notably Rudolph Valentino's Blood and Sand in 1922. Using the name Ramón Ícarez, he may have appeared as a dancer at the opening of the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1923. He also performed in vaudeville as one half of a double act with Bert Sherry, and toured the US and England. In 1929 he worked in another double act, Scotch and Bourbon, and in 1931 (as Mr. Rae Bourbon) modeled women's dresses in a department store in Bakersfield, California. After receiving a large inheritance, he then wrote a novel, Hookers, published under the pseudonym of Richard F. Mann.
By 1932 he was working full-time as a female impersonator, headlining "Frisco’s first pansy show", Boys Will Be Girls, in San Francisco in 1933 at Tait’s Café. He became noted for his outrageous material, and was later described as "a professional vulgarian, not to be confused with glamour drag." In the 1930s and 1940s he appeared in hundreds of gay nightclubs across the US, notably in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami Beach. He performed his own material, or songs specially written for him such as "Mr. Wong Has Got The Biggest Tong In China", and occasionally issued recordings, such as Hilarity From Hollywood (c.1945). His accompanists included Chet Forrest and Bart Howard. He put on his show Don’t Call Me Madam: A Midnight Revue in Time at Carnegie Hall in New York City to a sell-out audience. In 1944, he was hired by Mae West to perform in her Broadway production of Catherine Was Great, and her show Diamond Lil which toured until 1950.
By the early 1950s he increasingly faced prosecution, as well as declining sales, and his shows were too risqué for a mainstream audience. He issued a series of spoken word albums on his UTC ("Under The Counter") label, which were available at his performances and by mail order. In Los Angeles, he was arrested on a charge of "impersonating a woman", and the authorities closed down the club in which he was performing on the grounds that it was "presenting an indecent performance." After an arrest in New Orleans in 1956 he claimed to have undertaken a "sex change" gender reassignment operation in Mexico. This was probably untrue and no more than a publicity stunt; he may in fact have undergone an operation for cancer. However, he persistently used the claim in his material and publicity, even releasing an album titled Let Me Tell You About My Operation, and he insisted thereafter on being billed as Rae (rather than Ray) Bourbon.
Prosecution and death
In December 1968 he was accused of being an accomplice to murder. He traveled between performances in an old car pulling a trailer containing some 70 pet dogs; after the car broke down, he entrusted their care to a kennel owner in Texas, A. D. Blount. However, when Bourbon failed to pay for the dogs' upkeep, Blount disposed of the dogs, most probably to an animal shelter. Bourbon became convinced that the dogs had simply been killed and he hired two men, Bobby Eugene Chrisco and Randall Craneto, to beat Blount up. Blount was shot once in the chest during the attack and died as a result. Bourbon was arrested 10 days later. He pleaded innocence, but was convicted with the two men and sentenced to a 99-year prison term. Bourbon died in hospital in Brownwood, Texas, while serving his prison sentence in 1971.
- St. Sukie de la Croix, Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago before Stonewall, University of Wisconsin Press, 2012, pp.112-113. 11 July 2012. ISBN 9780299286934. Retrieved 2013-09-12.
- Kliph Nesteroff, Murder in Mink! The Crimes of Comedian Ray Bourbon, June 30, 2012. Retrieved 30 May 2013
- Bud Coleman, Rae/Ray Bourbon, in Billy J. Harbin, Kim Marra and Robert A. Schanke (eds.), The Gay And Lesbian Theatrical Legacy: A Biographical Dictionary Of Major Figures In American Stage History In The Pre-Stonewall Era, University of Michigan Press, 2005, pp.68-69. 2005. ISBN 0472098586. Retrieved 2013-09-12.
- Randy A. Riddle, Don't Call Me Madam - The Life and Work of Ray Bourbon, 2005. Retrieved 19 October 2019
- Ray Bourbon at Dragstravaganza. Retrieved 30 May 2013
- Slide, Anthony (1971-07-19). Anthony Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, University Press of Mississippi, 2012, p.60. ISBN 9781617032509. Retrieved 2013-09-12.