Darcelle world’s oldest drag queen dies at 92

Legendary drag queen Darcelle has died at age 92.

Darcelle — offstage, Walter W. Cole Sr. — died Thursday of natural causes, according to the Facebook page of Darcelle’s nightclub.

“The family of Darcelle XV along with her cast and crew are heartbroken to announce that our beloved Darcelle (Walter W. Cole, Sr.) has died at age 92 from natural causes. We ask for privacy and patience as everyone processes and grieves in their own way and at their own pace,” the venue wrote.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler wrote on Twitter, “Darcelle is a Portland icon who gave us more than great performances. Their legacy will live on through their philanthropy, legendary show venue, and the countless lives they’ve impacted for good.”

For more than 50 years, Darcelle ran the Portland nightclub Darcelle XV Showplace, “where the entertainer told bawdy jokes in elaborate makeup and beaded gowns, while acting as master of ceremonies to a parade of other drag queens and dancers,” The Oregonian reports.

It’s the longest-running drag club west of the Mississippi.

Darcelle was embraced warmly by Portlanders, appearing at many events around the city and receiving numerous awards.

The queen received a place in “Guinness World Records” in 2016 as the world’s oldest drag performer.

Early beginnings

Walter Willard Cole was born Nov. 16, 1930, and grew up in the Linnton neighborhood, a blue-collar area near St. Johns Bridge in Northwest Portland.

In his one-man show “Just Call Me Darcelle,” which was based on his 2010 memoir of the same name, Cole described himself as a shy, quiet boy who was trying to cope with the loss of his mother, while living with an abusive, alcoholic father. His aunt Lil moved in after his mother’s death and served as mother and father. As an only child, he said he felt isolated from other children, who taunted him with the nickname “sissyboy,” The Oregonian said.

Before creating Darcelle, Cole was a manager in the Fred Meyer retail chain, then ran a beatnik-style café called Caffe Espresso and a variety of bars.

Here’s Darcelle

Cole bought Demas Tavern in 1967 in what was then a rough neighborhood of Portland. That was where he started performing in drag — the first time was when he was 37 — creating the Darcelle persona with help from his life partner, fellow entertainer Roxy Le Roy Neuhardt.

Darcelle’s name was based on French actress Denise Darcel, with whom Neuhardt had appeared in Las Vegas. The performances helped business take off, and the bar was renamed Darcelle XV Showplace in 1974.

Cole and Neuhardt maintained their gay relationship even while Cole remained married to his wife, Jeannette. Cole and his wife had two children; one, Walter Jr., has worked at the drag club for three decades and will keep it running.

Neuhardt died in 2017 at age 82. The home the two men shared is on the National Register of Historic Places, as is Darcelle XV Showplace.

Charity work

Cole said becoming Darcelle enhanced and perhaps even saved his life.

“If I hadn’t admitted who I was, I’d probably be dead now,” he said in 2010, according to The Oregonian. “I’d be sitting on a couch retiring from Fred Meyer management. Not for me.”

As Darcelle, Cole raised money for a variety of charities, including many LGBTQ+ and AIDS organizations. The Darcelle XV AIDS Memorial stands at a cemetery in Portland, and in recognition of his work, Cole received the Spirit of Portland Award in 2003. The club also hosted Christmas Eve dinners for people who had nowhere else to go.

Cole’s life and work were chronicled in a 2019 exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society, “The Many Shades of Being Darcelle: 52 Years of Fashion,” and a musical that premiered that year, “Darcelle: That’s No Lady.

While drag has been targeted by the right wing in recent years, Cole had pointed out that the art has been around for many years and will survive.

“You’ve got to remember that Milton Berle and the movie ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ and these other people brought it to mainstream attention,” Cole said in 2017, The Oregonian notes. “I don’t think it can go back in the closet again, no matter what. Same-sex marriage, it broke that horrible barrier.”

Cole is survived by his wife, Jeannette, his son and daughter, Walter Jr. and Maridee, along with two granddaughters, a great-granddaughter, and a great-grandson.

Details on a public memorial are pending.

This article originally appeared on Advocate.com, and is shared here as part of an LGBTQ+ community exchange between Q Voice News and Equal Pride.

About the author

Trudy Ring

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