"I'm an entertainer with a capitol E," Walter Cole, who dazzled audiences in Portland for over 50 years as Darcelle XV, once said
Walter Cole, who dazzled audiences in Portland for over 50 years as Darcelle XV, earning the distinction of being the world's oldest drag performer, has died. He was 92.
Cole, who was also an Army veteran and champion of the LGBTQ community, died on March 23 at a hospital in his hometown, reported The New York Times. He died of natural causes, according to a tribute from Darcelle XV Showplace, the nightclub he opened in 1967, which will continue to hold performances as "per Darcelle's wishes."
"The family of Darcelle XV along with her cast and crew are heartbroken," read their statement. "We ask for privacy and patience as everyone processes and grieves in their own way and at their own pace."
Cole was born in Portland in 1930, and spent his childhood as a shy boy who was bullied by his classmates at school, according to his club's website.
One year before he was drafted, he married his high school sweetheart, reported The New York Times.
After being discharged in the 1950s, he lived a "conventional" life back home with his wife and two children, per the club. Using funds he received from the military, he was able to buy a coffeehouse, a business that later expanded to include a jazz club.
Around this same time, Cole met Roxy LeRoy Neuhardt, who had once worked in Las Vegas as a dancer, and the pair fell in love, keeping their relationship a secret, according to The Oregonian.
Life changed dramatically for Cole after 1967, when he purchased the Demas Tavern, which would eventually become Darcelle XV Showplace in 1974.
Cole performed in drag for the first time when he was 37, and by 1969, he had developed his "alter ego" and came out as gay, leaving his wife and moving in with Neuhardt, per the club's website. Although their marriage was over, they never divorced, according to The Oregonian.
"If I hadn't admitted who I was, I'd probably be dead now," he told the newspaper back in 2010.
The idea for Darcelle came from a dancer Neuhardt had once worked with, according to The Oregonian.
"When I was working in Las Vegas (in 1959), I danced with a French woman on stage named Denise Darcel," Neuhardt said in 1989, per the newspaper. "Walter needed a name, and I thought Darcelle was a sexy name. He used the name, it worked, and he hasn't changed it since."
According to The New York Times, the numbers were added back in the 1970s, after Darcelle was crowned the 15th "Empress" of Oregon's Imperial Sovereign Rose Court, an LGBTQ organization.
"I'm an entertainer with a capital E," Cole previously said, per the Associated Press. "Darcelle is a character — like in a play — and I work very hard at her."
Darcelle was recognized by Guinness World Records as the world's oldest drag performer in 2016. Two years later, Cole's home and his nightclub were added to the National Register of Historic Places for their significance to the LGBTQ community.
"Darcelle was known to say she hoped she'd die onstage and simply dissolve into glitter," Susan Stanley, who wrote what's considered to be Darcelle's first profile, said in the Willamette Week following Cole's death, per the Times.
"Darcelle carved out an unforgettable chapter in Portland's history, and will forever be remembered as a legendary entertainer who graced our city with a generosity of spirit & pioneering courage," U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden wrote on social media in another tribute.
Cole was preceded in death by Nehardt, who died in 2017, the newspaper reported. He is survived by his wife, son Walter Jr. — the bar manager of Darcelle XV Showplace — as well as daughter Maridee Woodson, two granddaughters and two great-grandchildren.