Walter Cole, the man behind iconic Portland drag queen Darcelle XV and owner of the landmark namesake drag club Darcelle XV Showplace, has died at the age of 92 from natural causes.
Kevin Cook, Cole’s longtime friend and colleague best known as Poison Waters, announced Cole's passing via his and the club's social media accounts. “We ask for privacy and patience as everyone processes and grieves in their own way and at their own pace,” Cook wrote.
Cole was born in Portland in 1930, and graduated from Lincoln High School. He opened Darcelle XV Showplace in 1967 with his partner, Roxy Leroy Neuhardt—who he credited with helping develop Darcelle’s persona, inspired partly by actress Denise Darcel.
Sister Paula Nielsen, a preacher and drag artist who worked at Darcelle’s for decades and who died in 2022, wrote in her autobiography that Cole was also inspired, as a young boy, by seeing Vivienne Leigh’s immortal cry to the sky from Gone With The Wind.
Younger Portlanders may struggle to recognize the era in which Cole and Neuhardt opened their club. Oral sex was illegal throughout Oregon, at the time, and the state had stopped permitting forced sterilization of "sexual perverts and moral degenerates" only two years prior. Then mayor Terry Schrunk actively worked to shut down centers of queer nightlife and culture throughout his tenure.
Cole’s towering wigs, unapologetically raunchy humor, and caked-on makeup—painted for audience members with the worst seats and eyesight—cemented Darcelle as an icon. But, his heart is what made Cole into an internationally known legend.
Cole’s work as Darcelle helped turn Portland’s historically conservative tide towards the accepting reputation the city still enjoys today. Darcelle closely aligned with the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court—in 1973, she was crowned its fifteenth empress, hence the "XV"—the state’s longest-running LGBTQ+ charitable organization. While she held office, Mayor Vera Katz was a celebrity guest judge for La Femme Magnifique, an ongoing drag pageant Cole co-founded. Darcelle also performed at Mayor Bud Clark’s inauguration.
Darcelle was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Oldest Drag Queen in 2016, and the club was added to the Oregon Register of Historic Places in 2020.
Portland-seasoned queens like Jinkx Monsoon and Monét X. Change, among others, have cited Darcelle as an inspiration for stage and spotlight longevity. On an episode of RuPaul Drag Race, Monét X. Change boasted: "I see myself doing drag forever, girl. I'm gonna be Miss Darcelle one day. Just me, but I ain't wearing no heels. I'll be in some good Toms."
Though whispers about Cole’s declining health could be heard at the end of 2022, the news still lands as a gut punch among Portland’s drag fans and LGBTQ+ community:
“I will honor her every time I perform,” drag artist Bolivia Carmichaels wrote Thursday on Facebook, where she announced her turn hosting at Darcelle XV Showplace only hours earlier.
Heartbroken to hear about the passing of Darcelle XV. 💔— ͏Josh Cozart (@JoshCozartWx) March 24, 2023
The LGBTQ friendly space she built was one of the first queer spaces I felt comfortable in and felt like I belonged. She will be missed greatly. 🌹💖 #Portland pic.twitter.com/3PsXNaB16T
With the announcement and request for privacy, Kevin Cook also wrote that Darcelle’s public memorial service is being planned. Details will follow, as they are confirmed. Shows at Darcelle XV Showplace will still go on. "Please join us and celebrate her legacy and memory," Cook wrote.
Until then, we recommend this 2022 BBC piece on Walter Cole / Darcelle XV, made by Portland journalist Claudia Meza. The podcast Meza currently hosts, City Cast Portland, recently replayed the episode and it's a really lovely piece of work about his life—with plenty of quotes and explosions of laughter from Cole.
Send us your Darcelle XV stories and photos: firstname.lastname@example.org