John Lind: an early drag icon

postcard with collage image and handwriting

Every man can learn the art of being a beautiful woman,’ said John Lind, one of the most successful female impersonators in the early 20th century. He became one of Sweden’s most famous stars in international show business, playing effortlessly with society’s norms about gender and sex.

Coming from a small town in Sweden, John Lind advanced to a regular guest on stages across the world, from the Moulin Rouge in Paris and the Colosseum in London to the Broadway in New York. This career in the performing arts made him – born as John Lindström in Vissefjärda in 1877 – an early 20th century star, touring across Europe, the Americas and Africa.

John Lind was attracted by standing on the stage and performing for his audience for his entire life. 

Growing up and going to school in Karlskrona, he organised and took part in theatre plays. His group soon earned some money with entrance fees. When a theatre director travelled through Karlskrona, she saw him perform and recommended him to the Tivoli in Stockholm.

When he left Karlskrona, at the age of 17, the local newspaper wrote: ‘Already as a young boy, L. has shown great attraction to the theatre and has performed successfully with several performances. […] Lindström is now planning to travel to the capital to become a stage artist, a career for which he seems to have a natural talent and invincible passion.

This is how John Lind himself described his first time in Stockholm in 1895:

‘At the Alhambra I danced both as a boy and a girl. But I was so nervous when I was standing on stage in the skirts, that my ballet master had to stand behind the curtain, next to the stage and show me the different figures. Right next to the Alhambra was Kristallsalongen, where they also had ballets and the like. One evening, a girl in the ballet got sick, people came rushing in and asked me to stand in, and before I even realized it, I was there. And then I became seriously involved with ballet. No one in the audience thought that not everyone on stage was a girl.’

He was later part of a duo, known as Fanny and John Lind, and performed both in female and male roles. In 1896, the newspaper Hvad Nytt in Stockholm wrote about the two: ‘From the dance duet Fanny and John Lind, I recognise the latter, since he danced into everyone’s hearts at Tivoli last year. The boy was then the most beautiful of all the ballet girls. God certainly made a mistake when he made John Lind a boy…’

postcard with collage illustration and handwriting
A postcard John Lind sent to his mother in Karlskrona: ‘Send me, quickly, the red silk coat which I sent home. The red silk tunic with fur trim. Heartfelt greetings to you all, Mother’s John.’
Vykort, 1900-1910. Blekinge museum, Public Domain.

The theatre and ballet scene in Stockholm started to take notice of his talent and people persuaded him to study ballet professionally.

At that same time, he danced and sang in revues and variety shows, mostly in female roles. However, shows like these became forbidden in 1896, and so he was invited to Helsinki, Finland, to train with a ballet master and tour with a group through Finland and Russia. One of the institutions where he performed was the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki. He later travelled to Germany, where he worked together with Paul Schneider-Dunker and learned to sing as a soprano. 

In the last decade of the 19th century, John Lind’s career took off and he started touring all across Europe. Because of his hard training and skilled performances, the audience often did not realize that he was not the girl they thought he was: ‘At that time, no one knew I was a boy, everyone thought I was a girl. In Kronstadt, all the officers ran down right after my performance, grabbed me and lifted me up. Of course, I was terrified, but above all, I kept my hands on my wig so that it would not fall off and reveal me. If they had known the truth, they would have certainly beat me up.’

He shared several stories which reveal the dangers that he as an artist experienced because of the lack of understanding and acceptance in society.

The years 1902 and 1903 were especially busy for John Lind. 

He toured in Italy, Spain, France, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, and spent more than a year in Great Britain, where he performed on several stages in London. He could have become a British citizen but decided to stay Swedish – although he was denied the popularity and success in his home country that he experienced in many other places around the world.

poster with image of a person and text elements
A poster from John Lind’s show in Winnipeg, Massachusetts
Affisch, 1921. Blekinge museum, CC BY-NC

He became especially famous in the US where he debuted in Chicago and toured along the East Coast. When he came to New York and performed at the Hammerstein’s Theatre, he met his future wife, Stephanie, who went on travelling the world with him, tailored his dresses and supported him to get into the shape needed for his performances. He had a detailed beauty regime, and it was she who helped him with his make-up, skincare and even developed a method to remove his leg hair regularly. 

His shows soon became legendary, as he even worked with multisensory experiences, based on the five senses. He developed techniques to impress his audience for example with scents, light effects, and mirrors and incorporated both taste and sounds in his shows. 

black and white photograph with John Lind in a long dress holding a cup
A photograph of John Lind taken by the White Studio, a dominant Broadway photographic agency at the beginning of the 20th century. 
John Lind performing in his show “In a Dream of Five Senses” in New York, Blekinge museum, Public Domain.

John Lind paid a price for his life on stage. Due to his extensive travels, the strict beauty regime, and the corset he wore that tied his waist from 95 to 55 cm, he suffered from several diseases in his late years. He described the pain of his performances: 

‘My work was often very tiring. The wig was pinching my head, the shoes were several numbers too small and the corset tight. With all those things torturing me, I had to dance, sing and look happy – but when I won the applause, I forgot all the pain and tiredness.’

After a trip to Buenos Aires, he and his wife decided to go back to Sweden and live in Karlskrona. John and Stephanie bought a house and stayed there for the rest of their lives. After John’s death in 1940, Stephanie lived there alone until the 1970s. Although John tried to perform in Sweden, the Swedish audience did not accept his art and he only made a few appearances.

Although John Lind described himself as a female impersonator and dancer, his legacy later inspired drag queens around the world, such as Danny La Rue. In the international community, he is still counted among the most famous Swedes – while being almost forgotten in his home country.

EXPLORE MORE: Victorian Drag Queens Fanny and Stella

By Larissa Borck, Swedish National Heritage Board

This blog post is a part of the Europeana Common Culture project, which explores varied aspects of our shared cultural heritage across Europe.

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