Lynne Carter; The First Legend

If you haven’t seen the AIDS Memorial Quilt Instagram feed, then you are missing out on history revisited. Reading all the posts made by friends and families who lost loved ones to AIDS is a stoic reminder the many lives lost and the life stories still out there to be shared. One story that tickled my interest was that of legendary drag performer Lynne Carter. The 1950s belonged to Lynne Carter, and the legacy she created has become a pillar to mainstreaming of drag culture into the future and history. In 1947, Carter had returned from the war and immersed himself into the gay culture in Chicago and made his first stage performance was at a cabaret night hosted by Hildegarde an internationally known chanteuse. Carter impersonated the chanteuses with high praise that night, and a star was born in the universe. 

Carter’s career took off in the early 1950s across the world and became friends with such legends as Pearl Bailey, Billie Holliday & Josephine Baker. All three personalities were apart of her repertoire, and all three icons were in love with Carter’s portrait of them. So much so, they were known to encourage her by showering her with gifts. Carter’s was a master of the celebrity impersonation, and her comedic timing and tongue earned her the luxury of many bookings. Not every celebrity was entirely keen on Lynne Carter’s art featuring them. One famous lady was non-plus about Lynne’s impression of her. Kay Thompson was notoriously unhappy with impersonation. So much so that Thompson sued Carter to stop the act. 


The battle between Thompson and Carter lasted only a few years but famously came to an end in San Francisco. Thompson had started a run at the Fairmont Hotel and while Carter kept within the confines of Thompson’s restraining order with her run at San Francisco club. She did poke a little at Thompson by shooting a newspaper ad for her show that mirrors a previous newspaper ad that Thompson had done years earlier. During the shows run, it's rumored, Carter attended one of Kay’s performances in drag as Kay. The two supposedly met after the show, and the story is they buried the hatched. Later that summer Lynne Carter performed as Kay Thompson for the last time in her career and then took up Mary Martin as Peter Pan. The feud between Kay Thompson & Mary Martin was mass media candy. 

Lynne Carter’s career would continue to flourish through the ’60s and ’70s along with his friendships in the entertainment industry. After such a long and amazing career, Carter would not be able to live out his last years enjoying the notoriety he created. In the early ’80s Carter was performing and living in New York City, and after his final performance in 1984, he fell ill and was diagnosed with HIV. Carter would suffer a series of heart attacks, and the fell to pneumonia linked to  pass

AIDS in early 1985. Lynne Carter’s legend continues today. He was the first female impersonator to perform at Carnegie Hall, and he also claimed to have been the first impersonator on stage in Las Vegas and television. He gave credit to Pearly Bailey for her career taking off after she saw him impersonate her on stage in Chicago. It’s sad there are not more videos online of Carter’s work. For now, enjoy this entertaining episode on Emerald City TV (the first Gay TV Station in the US) showcasing a hilarious Carter as well as her stage performances as Bette Davis and a near perfect Phyllis Diller. 

Another treat about following the AIDS Quilt Instagram feed is your get see all the comments that come in with people responding posts. Most of the posts are made by family members who didn’t have a strong connection with those they lost for more obvious reasons. The posts provide them a way to reach out into the world and see personal stories from old friends or coworkers, fill in all those gaps. 

BRIAN H-KComment