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    Mademoiselle Lulu: The Wo/man on the Flying Trapeze


    Mademoiselle Lulu, aerialist extraordinaire, was the sensation of the season when she debuted in London in 1871. The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine proclaimed her “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” a “fearless and graceful” acrobat, “the very empress of gymnasts.” Other commentators–there were many–noted her exceptional poise, captivating appearance, and beauty. No one, of course, mentioned that Lulu had been born Samuel Wasgate (or Wasgatt), possibly in Hancock, Maine, in 1855.

    An orphan, Sam met acrobat and tightrope walker Guillermo Antonio Farini sometime around 1866. Despite Farini’s name, he was actually a Canadian born William Leonard Hunt. They soon began appearing together throughout Europe. Sam, now known as El Niño Farini, was just 11 at the time, so Farini installed a safety net to protect the boy wherever he performed. It was an innovation never before used in public by an aerialist.

    El Niño famously appeared as Le Tambour Aerial, The Aerial Drummer–balancing on his neck on a trapeze bar high in the air while playing a snare drum. Then in 1869, Farini carried Sam, now 14 years old, on his back along a tightrope 180 feet–about 15 stories–above the audience, attempting to emulate the great Blondin, the world’s foremost aerialist, who seven years earlier performed a similar feat with his daughter.

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    Blondin’s exploit gave Farini another idea: do his act with a young woman. It would be easy to present small, slender Sam to the public as such, since one commentator later described him, “as a beautiful and shapely young girl.” El Niño was too well known in London, though, for Farini to showcase him there as a girl, so “The Beautiful Lulu, the girl Aerialist and Circassian Catapultist,” gave her premiere performance in Paris in 1870. The next year, her reputation preceding her, she returned, received top billing at her first London appearance, and became internationally famous.

    There was some gossip early on that Lulu and El Niño actually were the same person, but almost nobody believed it. As a critic wrote in The Era (London) in 1875, “If she is not ‘she,’ then I don’t know what a woman is at all. I must have grown up with very erroneous ideas respecting the natural distinctions of the sexes.” Besides, there was “much that is attractive in her personal appearance,” he continued, “effectively costumed in a rich crimson tunic and pink silk fleshings, her arms and neck being bare.” Who could resist so lovely a young woman?

    Mademoiselle Lulu captivated audiences in Europe and the United States. Other aerialists, male and female, emulated her appearance. Royalty applauded her. Beau Brummel ventured to meet her at the stage door. Men of high position sent her love letters, expensive gifts, and the requisite offers of marriage. Demurely, Lulu declined them all.

    The centerpiece of Lulu’s performance was the spectacular “Lulu Leap.” Defying gravity, she seemed to fly from the stage straight up to a plank suspended between two trapeze bars 25 feet above her, then turned three full somersaults on her way from the platform and into a net below. Actually, Lulu was catapulted into the air from an eight-foot high mechanism invented by Farini that was built into the stage. Audiences, unaware of the device, remained both amazed and mystified by her feat.

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    The truth came out in 1878. Performing in Dublin, Lulu’s catapult malfunctioned, injuring her legs. In fierce pain, she continued to fly through the air, but could not reach the platform. Instead, she fell onto the edge of the safety net, causing her even more harm. Her attending physician discovered Lulu’s secret. Newspapers reported there was “much embarrassment amongst male admirers” when they learned that Lulu, in fact, was a man.

    Sam eventually recovered and was once more into the breeches for El Niño Farini, again performing as a male. He continued to wear Lulu’s familiar costumes, however, until he retired a few years later. One commentator wrote: “Lulu, scented up to the eyebrows, looked very much like a German student–a pocket swell with long hair and pale features.”

    In 1885, Farini set off to explore the Kalahari Desert. Sam went with him as the expedition’s photographer. He took pictures not only of the Kalahari and its native peoples, but also of other parts of southern Africa. The images, which still exist, show that in addition to his other extraordinary talents, he had a superb eye for artistic content, composition, and beauty. In whatever guise El Niño and Lulu and Sam appeared, the public was delighted, charmed, and inspired.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.