Barbette began performing as an aerialist at around the age of 14 as one-half of a circus act called The Alfaretta Sisters. After a few years of circus work, Barbette went solo and adopted his exotic-sounding pseudonym. He performed in full drag, revealing himself as male only at the end of his act.
Following a career-ending illness or injury, Barbette returned to Texas but continued to work as a consultant for motion pictures and training and choreographing aerial acts for a number of circuses. After years of dealing with chronic pain, Barbette committed suicide on August 5, 1973. Both in life and following his death, Barbette served as an inspiration to a number of artists, including Jean Cocteau and Man Ray.
Barbette's mother took him to the circus at an early age in Austin and he was fascinated by the wire act. "The first time she took me to the circus in Austin, I knew I would be a performer, and from then on I'd work in the fields during the cotton-picking season to earn money in order to go to the circus as often as possible." Barbette practiced for hours by walking along his mother's clothes line. He graduated from high school at the age of 14.
After high school, Barbette began his circus career as one-half of the aerialist team The Alfaretta Sisters. One of the sisters died unexpectedly and Barbette answered the surviving sister's ad for a replacement, auditioning in San Antonio. Together the pair decided that it was more dramatic for a woman to perform the acrobatic stunts. "She told me that women's clothes always make a wire act more impressive...and she asked me if I'd mind dressing as a girl. I didn't; and that's how it began." Following his time as an Alfaretta, Barbette next joined an act called Erford's Whirling Sensation. This act included three people who hung from a spinning apparatus by their teeth. He then developed his solo act and moved to the vaudeville stage. He took on the name "Barbette," believing that it had an exotic French sound and because it could conceivably be either a first or a last name. His solo debut was at the Harlem Opera House in 1919. Barbette performed trapeze and wire stunts in full drag, maintaining the illusion of femininity until the end of his act, when he would pull off his wig and strike exaggerated masculine poses. For the next several years, he toured the Keith vaudeville circuit, advertised as a "versatile specialty.
Barbette made his European debut in 1923, having been sent by the William Morris Agency first to England and then to Paris. He appeared in such venues as the Casino de Paris, the Moulin Rouge, the Empire, the Médrano Circus, the Alhambra Theater and the Folies Bergere.
He returned to America in 1924 to appear in The Passing Show of 1924, which ran for four months beginning in September. Also in this timeframe he became a featured attraction with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and toured London, Brussels and Berlin. It was during an engagement at the London Palladium that Barbette was found engaged in sexual activity with another man. His contract was cancelled and he was never able to obtain a work permit for England again.
"Next week in Brussels, you'll see a music-hall act called 'Barbette' that has been keeping me enthralled for a fortnight. The young American who does this wire and trapeze act is a great actor, an angel, and he has become the friend to all of us. Go and see him ... and tell everybody that he is no mere acrobat in women's clothes, nor just a graceful daredevil, but one of the most beautiful things in the theatre. Stravinsky, Auric, poets, painters, and I myself have seen no comparable display of artistry on the stage since Nijinsky."To other friends he wrote "Your great loss for 1923 was Barbette -- a terrific act at the Casino de Paris...Ten unforgettable minutes. A theatrical masterpiece. An angel, a flower, a bird."
In 1926 Cocteau wrote an influential essay on the nature and artifice of the theatre called Le Numéro Barbette that was published in Nouvelle Revue Française. In this essay, Cocteau celebrates Barbette as an exemplar of theatrical artifice. Barbette, writes Cocteau, transforms effortlessly back and forth between man and woman. His female glamour and elegance Cocteau likens to a cloud of dust thrown into the eyes of the audience, blinding it to the masculinity of the movements he needs to perform his acrobatics. That blindness is so complete that at the end of his act, Barbette does not simply remove his wig but instead "plays the part of a man. He rolls his shoulders, stretches his hands, swells his muscles...And after the fifteenth or so curtain call, he gives a mischievous wink, shifts from foot to foot, mimes a bit of an apology, and does a shuffling little street urchin dance -- all of it to erase the fabulous, dying-swan impression left by the act. Cocteau calls upon his fellow artists to incorporate deliberately this effect that he believes for Barbette is instinctive. Cocteau commissioned a series of photographs of Barbette by the Surrealist artist Man Ray, which captured not only aspects of Barbette's performance but also his process of transformation into his female persona.
Cocteau cast Barbette in his experimental film Le Sang d'un Poete (The Blood of a Poet) (1930), Cocteau's first film. Barbette appears in a scene in a theatre box with several extras, dressed in Chanel gowns, who burst into applause at the sight of a card game that ends in suicide. He replaced the Vicomtesse de Noailles, who along with her husband had originally shot the scene but were appalled upon seeing the finished film, as the card game/suicide had been shot separately. Speaking of his preparation for the scene, Barbette, who knew he was replacing the Vicomtesse, said:
"I tried to imagine myself a descendant of the Marquis de Sade, of the Comtesse de Chevigné...and a long line of rich bankers -- all of which the Vicomtesse was. For a boy from Round Rock, Texas, that demanded a lot of concentration -- at least as much as working on the wire."
Barbette is credited with having returned to the United States in 1935 to star on Broadway in the Billy Rose circus musical Jumbo. However, some sources suggest that this may have been a Barbette impersonator.
Barbette spent his last years in Texas, living in Round Rock and Austin with his sister, Mary Cahill, often in severe pain. He committed suicide by overdose on August 5, 1973. He was survived by his sister Mary and a half-brother, Sam Loving. Barbette was cremated and his ashes were buried in Round Rock Cemetery.
Barbette may have been the inspiration for the 1933 German film Viktor und Viktoria, which features a plot about a woman pretending to be a female impersonator whose gimmick of removing her wig at the end of her act is "inspired by [Barbette's] signature gesture. Viktor und Viktoria was remade in 1935 (First a Girl), 1957 (Viktor und Viktoria) and 1982 (Victor/Victoria, which inspired a 1992 Broadway musical of the same name).