Just call me Darcelle

The first time Walter Cole put on a dress, he looked at his reflection in a full-length mirror and said, “Walter, what the hell have you done?”

The first time Walter Cole put on a dress, he looked at his reflection in a full-length mirror and said, “Walter, what the hell have you done?”

Over 40 years of female impersonation later, Cole strings together a lifetime of reflections in his autobiography “Just Call Me Darcelle”—the story of a man’s struggle to become his true self entwined with a rich cultural history.

While Darcelle is a national icon (in 2009 he was named one of the Stonewall Trans Hero 40, a group recognized for their contributions to gay rights), Cole’s book also reads as an essay of Portland-centric gay history, dating even further back than New York’s Stonewall riots in 1969. In 1960’s Portland Cole’s club, Darcelle XV, then still called Demas, became one of the hubs of the gay community. Cole stood at the center of this community and his narrative is laced with firsthand accounts that illustrate the tumultuous landscape of gay civil rights.

Among these cultural chronicles are lovely images of Portland past, familiar street names and neighborhoods preserved into a backdrop of the mid-20th century. The book begins with Cole’s childhood in rural Linnton, Ore., and eventually bleeds into life in Portland’s Old Town, leading the reader through a landscape of the city’s history. Cole offers us the vivid details of a Portland we can now only find in the occasional faded sign painted on the side of a building.

While the book is marketed as a memoir, it’s actually more of an oral history. Cole seems to have a bottomless reservoir of stories, and after some peer pressure, his friends finally convinced him to thread them all together into the larger story of his life.

“I said to him, ‘I’m coming over with a tape recorder and we’re starting,'” co-author Sharon Knorr says of the show’s conception.

The two pieced together Cole’s recorded history into segments for what became his autobiographical one-man show of the same name. The show was never fully scripted, so as not to stifle Cole’s obvious natural talent for the impromptu. These segments eventually became the book’s chapters, which add up to an autobiography that reads less like a narrative and more like the transcript of a storytelling hour; I half expected every chapter to begin with, “Now, let’s see, where was I…”

Despite its tidy new book format, the storytelling voice trumps any effort to form this piece into a traditional memoir narrative. The whole book has the feel of a performance piece; it’s difficult to separate the performer from the reflective autobiographer.

Most memoirs are guided by two voices: the older, wiser narrator and the younger, more naïve character. In this case, those voices are Darcelle and Walter. Cole recognizes this duality and describes that the boundary between the two has been shrinking.

“Walter and Darcelle have gotten closer together so that dress or no dress, now I am mostly the same person.”

Cole performed the “Just Call Me Darcelle” show dressed as Walter—a challenge, considering he’s used to hiding behind Darcelle’s grandeur. The book’s narrative, however, still feels like a performance, and it leaves the reader wanting to know more about what is underneath his polished storyteller exterior.

Yet, like every true storyteller, Cole has a knack for drawing people into his anecdotes, which are funny, touching and full of vibrant images that brand themselves into your memory (like a fellow queen running down a gangplank with her girdle around her ankles). He keeps a light, conversational tone throughout the work, which feels natural and sincere. Knorr’s ghostwriting is barely detectable.

“I was basically just the voice of the straight person,” Knorr comments. One of her main objectives was to edit any drag-speak that wouldn’t translate well to someone outside the community.

Cole’s overarching message in this work is to encourage everyone to seek out his true self, no matter how arduous the journey. Through his own quest, Cole discovers that he’s the sum of all his parts.

“Darcelle has given Walter a very interesting life.” ?