Walter Cole, best known as the iconic drag queen who starred for decades as Darcelle XV and a fearless advocate for Portland’s LGBTQ+ community, has died of natural causes in Portland, Oregon. He was 92 years old.
Darcelle, who died on Thursday, was crowned the oldest working drag performer in the world in 2016 by the Guinness Book of World Records and entertained the public until the very end. As a performer, Darcelle was known for hosting the longest-running drag show on the West Coast of the United States. Offstage, Cole, an Army veteran, has championed LGBTQ+ rights and charity work in Portland.
The nightclub that Darcelle opened more than 50 years ago in downtown Portland, Darcelle XV Showplace, released a statement on Facebook express grief and ask for privacy and patience.
The club, which had become a Portland cultural institution in the 1970s, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2020, making it the first site in Oregon to be named specifically for its significance in history. LGBTQ+. In the early days of the venue in the 1970s and 1980s, it was considered taboo and protesters picketed outside, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.
He provided a lifeline for many in the city’s LGBTQ community, including Cole, he told the newspaper in a 2010 interview. Cole preferred female pronouns when performing, but has told The Oregonian that he preferred male pronouns offstage.
“If I hadn’t admitted who I was, I would probably be dead by now,” he told the newspaper. “I would be sitting on a couch retired from…management. Not for me.”
“She touched the lives of so many, not only through her performances, but also through her fearless community advocacy and charitable works,” said Todd Addams, Acting Executive Director of Basic Rights Oregon, of Darcelle. “She was nothing short of an icon.”
Writer Susan Stanley described the club as a place of “warmth and affection” where performers “glittered with sequins and satin and shimmering foam of feathers”, in what is believed to be the first profile of Darcelle XV, published in Willamette Week in 1975.
When talking about Darcelle, Cole, a gay man, referred to his character in the third person using female pronouns. “I’m an artist with a capital E,” Cole told Stanley. “Darcelle is a character – like in a play – and I work very hard for her.”
Stanley briefly worked at the club and became close friends with Cole. She described the performer not only as a talented artist, who also sewed many of the club’s costumes, but as a caring person who was deeply invested in the LGBTQ+ community and fighting the social stigma of the time.
“(Darcelle) was just a very, very caring person. She encouraged other guys to play and come out of their shell,” Stanley told the AP in a phone interview.
After decades of advocacy by LGBTQ+ activists organizing for civil rights and liberties, Stanley said she was saddened to see how drag has become so polarized in the current political climate.
“It reveals a very, very big misunderstanding,” she said. “Politicians wanting to take attitudes back decades…it’s both mystifying and horrifying to me.”
Cole was born in 1930 and grew up in the Linnton neighborhood of Portland. He served in the United States Armed Forces and was discharged in the late 1950s, according to the club’s websitewho says he used the money he received from the military to start his first business.
After dabbling in a café and a jazz club, Cole bought the space that would become the Darcelle XV Showcase in 1967.
Two years later, he had developed the ‘alter ego’ named Darcelle and come out as gay, according to a profile on the club’s website.
He leaves his wife and begins a relationship with his artistic director. During the 1970s, the Showplace became a popular destination for cabaret and drag performances.
In 1999, Darcelle became the longest-serving West Coast drag performer, after Finocchio’s Club in San Francisco closed.
On Friday, fans, including the mayor of Portland, mourned Cole’s death on social media. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said in a social media post that “Darcelle has etched an unforgettable chapter in Portland’s history” with “pioneering courage.”
Darcelle XV Showplace said details of a public memorial will be announced and all shows will go ahead as planned, per Darcelle’s wishes.
“Please join us in celebrating his legacy and memory, thank you in advance for your continued support,” the club statement read.
Claire Rush is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse Corps News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. You can follow Rush on Twitter @ClaireARush.