Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 23 March 1998

Was Being New York's & New Jersey's Governor a Drag?

By Warren Arronchic


Edward Hyde, better known as Lord Cornbury, was reported to have been at least one New York politician who beat Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani into flaming drag. Between 1702 and 1708, Lord Cornbury was Viscount Cornbury, Royal Governor under Queen Anne in the colonies of New York and New Jersey.

"To put it mildly," wrote former New York Mattachine director, Dick Leitsch, "Cornbury was not a good governor." This had nothing to do with his doing drag, however, as Leitsch explained.

According to author-historian Patricia U. Bonomi (Professor emerita, New York University) though Cornbury was accused of transvestitism and a host of atrocities, he really wasn't such a bad guy after all. Bonomi, in a departure from other historians, goes so far as to say that even Cornbury's historic reputation, that of being a transvestite, lacks traceable proof.

Historian George Bancroft, however, says Cornbury incarnated "arrogance joined to intellectual imbecility."

Bonomi touted her new book, The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America (University of North Carolina Press, $29.95) at a recent meeting of the New York Historical Society. Her thesis states that the accusations leveled at Cornbury were little more than aspersions.

If such rumors as transvestitism are the public rewards of certain politicians, President Clinton, at least, may find solace in the fact that his enemies have not yet produced a portrait of him in female attire. Such a portrait, supposedly of Lord Cornbury, has for over a century, contributed to his reputation as a flamboyant crossdresser.

Cornbury was accused of transvestitism, Bonomi says, because his enemies resented the loss of influence they suffered as he assumed office.

Dick Leitsch, writing in 1970 about Cornbury, explained, "The poor guy got off to a bad start. He arrived in New York to find the colony split into two warring camps: 'Leiserians' and 'anti-Leiserians.' The Leiserians were in opposition to the dominance of the landowning class. This does not mean that they were for the common man, or the 'people' as we say today; the Leiserians were anything but democratic."

As her evidence that Cornbury's transvestitism had no basis in fact, Bonomi points to London's Grub Street press, publishers who were the spiritual forerunners of the paparazzi who chased down Princess Diana. These "journalists" she believes, who would have otherwise been glad to tarnish Lord Cornbury's image upon his return to England, didn't.

Whether Cornbury's relationship to Queen Anne (he was her cousin) saved him from such at-home tarnishing remains unclear. In any case, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 turned into an era of "slander and satire, malicious gossip and sexual innuendo," and in the American colonies, at least, Cornbury was fair paparazzi game.

The Governor was accused of going about in drag publicly. He was also said to be a spendthrift, using moneys meant for military purposes on his own pleasures, especially his wardrobe.

The Assemblies of the Jerseys petitioned the Queen to call him back to England which, after the passage of three months, she did. But before he was able to pack his dresses, he was arrested for debts unpaid and was imprisoned. Fortunately for him, however, his father died, leaving an inheritance that is said to have paid off his creditors. Upon his return to England he assumed the title of Earl of Clarendon.

Other historians have accepted the rumors about Cornbury's wig stocks. They have given three explanations, according to Leitsch, for his penchant for crossdressing. One claims that "since Lord Cornbury was appointed Governor of New York and told he should represent her Majesty, he fancied that it was necessary to dress himself as a woman and actually did so."

Another group of historians believes that Cornbury thought himself to resemble his Queenly cousin and dressed in drag in order to emphasize their likeness.

The third explanation holds that "he made a vow and obliged himself for a month every year to wear a woman's clothes and, with a fan in hand, was frequently seen at night on the ramparts."

Leitsch calls each of these theories "far-fetched guesses" and blames historians as "a rather dull lot who don't understand sexuality." He writes: "Not only does transvestitism itself have thrilling aspects for some people but, in repressive societies, where there are only two rigid roles, the male and the female, homosexuals are often forced to play the role of the opposite sex."

In reply to Professor Bonomi's thesis, that Cornbury's drag would have made news in England, Leitsch earlier countered: "The European court probably didn't find Cornbury as 'extraordinary' as the colonials did since this was the great age of drag in Europe. Boys still played women's roles on stage, and many boy actors were minions to royalty. Philip, Duke of Orleans and brother to Louis XIV lived in drag, as did his follower, the Abbe deChoisy, a priest who served the French Ambassador to various other countries and who died 'a handsome dowager' only ten years before Cornbury went to Hanover."

In 1711 Lord Cornbury was raised to the Privy Council. In 1714 he was sent off to Hanover as Envoy Extraordinary.

But, according to Professor Bonomi, the acclaimed portrait of Lord Cornbury in full drag, purchased by the New York Historical Society in 1952 for $1,000, is misleading. Though it is said to be a likeness the one-time Governor, it was painted in 1867, over a century after his death. In spite of its principal's hairy arms, the portrait, believes Bonomi, is that of a masculine woman.

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