The Travelling Card
A small scrap of a torn press cutting brought back a whole host of memories. It simply said that Private Eugene Delbert Hill, aged 35, had received a court martial sentence of two years hard labour for deserting from the U.S. Army in 1945.
I remember Donna Delbert, as he was called. He came into Hamley’s and Max Andrews introduced us. Later we met when Delbert was working with Maskelyne Is Mysteries in the Westminster Theatre. I always found Delbert a most charming person and we had several long chats about things magical. At one period, we were on the verge of doing a deal over an illusion I possessed. I certainly never suspected anything, although after the revelations there were many people who said, “Didn’t you know? By golly, I guessed right from our first meeting”. Personally, I don’t think anyone suspected. Even when he shared dressing rooms with some of the other female acts.
Delbert was picked up at Newcastle through I information supplied to the police by a girl-friend in Islington who got a jealous turn when he collected another girl-friend in Newcastle.
His act was a hotch-potch of all sorts of things. Basically, it could be termed a fire-eating act but he added quite a few magic tricks on occasions and did a bit of whip-cracking too. He had projected a book after the arrest to be called “Four Years a Woman”, but there was never any sign of it.
In Variety, he earned a good living wage but, in the winter of 1947, he worked as a packer in Lambert & Butler’s tobacco factory in drag. Delbert had worked as an entertainer before his decision to desert and change to female attire. Back in Pennsylvania he did small shows and, finally, appeared before Queen Mary with the Eighth U. S. Air Force show in 1944. After the act he was presented to the Queen.
The one thing I do remember, which looks a bit odd in retrospect, is the way Delbert drank beer in pint glasses. Several times when we were having a noggin I did think it was a bit unfeminine. He could wade through I a hefty cheese sandwich pretty quickly too. One thing he did well in the magic line was reeling a chosen card up out of the deck. He would shoot it up to his hand so quickly you’d never have a chance to see the thread from the reel.
He once told me a “string-up” for doing the same thing, but where the card travelled horizontally. It’s hell to explain in print but if I draw you a little sketch, you’ll see how the stringing is done. At the time, I remember thinking it was the sort of thing Allan Lambie would have come up with. Delbert didn’t know where held got it.