In our previous posts [part 1 and part 2] in this series, we looked at new research by Charles Cage revealing Ray Bourbon’s real name and some basic facts about his family and where he grew up. In this last post in the series, we look at the stories Ray told about his own life, how they evolved, and some of the possible motivations behind Ray’s fabricated past.
During his life, Ray offered different stories about his family origins and start in show business. As we’ve seen from the recent research by Charles C. Cage outlined in previous posts in this series, these tales were impossible – Ray has been definitely located in Texarkana up until 1920 and his birthdate of 1902, rather than 1892 as he later claimed.
Why did Ray invent these stories about his past? Where did they come from?
Ray’s Version of His Early Years
In his autobiography, Ray Bourbon says he was born August 11, 1892 in Chihuhua City, Mexico and that his mother was Louisa, “an obscure Bourbon-Parma princess”, his father a member of the Hapsburg family of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His parents were divorced and Louisa died eight days after Ray was born. Ray says he was taken to live with Frank T. Waddell and Elizabeth Waddell who owned a ranch in Hudspeth County, Texas.
Ray asserts that he grew up on the Waddell cattle ranch in Sierra Blanca, learning to ride at an early age. He says that, beginning when he was six, he was tutored by “Lou”, Frank Waddell’s sister, who had formerly been a school teacher and that he would travel once each year to El Paso to take his examinations.
Around 1900, when Ray was eight years old, he said his father Frank died and his mother, Elizabeth, married a man named Ted Hughes that had been a friend of the family for several years. Ray and Ted didn’t get along and Ray accused Ted of marrying Elizabeth just for her money.
When Ray was eleven, around 1903, Ray says he began a relationship with George, the ranch foreman. Three years later, in December 1906, Ray says that George was murdered in an El Paso saloon. Ray, witnessing the murder, killed the man who had slain George. He goes on to relate that the brothers of the man were out to kill him, but some of Pancho Villa’s men got to them first. Ray claims that Pancho was a friend of his mother.
In early 1907, Ray states that, because of the murder scandal, Elizabeth and Ted sent him to school in England. Lou accompanied him on the trip and enrolled him in “Mrs. Allen’s Academe for Young Gentlemen”, where Ray strikes up a relationship with a male teacher, Earl Williams, who introduces him to music halls. Eventually, they leave the school and start working in the music halls.
Ray says he returned to Texas when World War I broke out and rode with Pancho Villa in drag, taking part in Pancho’s famous raid on Columbus, New Mexico. Because of the raid, Ray was being sought by authorities, so he moved to California to evade capture and broke into movies as an extra.
Origins and Variations on the Stories
According to interviews with Ray’s long-time friends, composers Bob Wright and Chet Forrest, Ray was always cagy about his true heritage. In interviews with Elin Woodger for a so-far unpublished biography of the team, Bob said they never really knew what to believe, with Ray offering up different, conflicting stories about his family, background and other aspects of his life. Even with the two men closest to Ray for for almost four decades, Ray’s past remained an enigma.
Ray seems to have started fabricating stories about his past very early in his career. When he arrived in Hollywood around 1920, he started using the stage name “Ramon Icarez”. Of course, it’s not unusual for performers to use stage names in show business and Ray might have assumed the name to market himself as more Latin and exotic – this was, after all, the period when Rudolph Valentino and other “Latin lover” types were all the rage in movies.
But, Ray went further than just an exotic stage name. Even then, he was lying about his age. A 1922 piece in an industry publication, where Ray also advertised his services as an actor, noted some of the films Ray had recently appeared in and specifically noted that Ray had appeared at the Folies Bergère in Paris in 1914.(1) This was unlikely, since Ray would have been about 12 years old at the time.
Ray, who was born and raised in Texarkana, in east Texas, living there until at least around 1920, had created the story about growing up in Sierra Blanca (in west Texas) by 1944. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle published an interview with Ray, promoting his appearance in Mae West’s “Catherine Was Great”. “My family raised cattle (and me) on one of the largest ranches in the entire State of Texas,” Ray said. Ray also mentioned that he entered Tulane Medical School for one day, but left after he saw the dissecting rooms during a first-day tour. “Cattle being cattle,” the reporter noted, “he didn’t care about ranch life, so he joined a carnival troupe. This was the beginning of his theatrical career.”(2)
People I have interviewed who knew and worked with Ray in the 1960s say that Ray told them the same general story of growing up on his family’s ranch in Sierra Blanca. Bob Wright and Chet Forrest, who were friends with Ray since their start in show business in the mid-1930s said that Ray told them different variations of his childhood and background over the years. Author Elin Woodger, who interviewed Bob and Chet extensively for an unpublished biography, talked with them about Ray.
“According to Bob, Ray told them that his real name was Ramon d’Acariz (also listed as Icarez in other accounts), that he was half Spanish, and that there was some doubt about his legitimacy,” Elin Woodger told me via email. “Throughout his life, Ray often referred to a Texan senator who was, apparently, a “very close friend” of his mother’s (wink, wink) and who would, because of this association, help him out whenever he needed it.” Elin also told me that Bob thought Ray’s name of “Hal Waddell” may be connected to the Senator and that the Senator’s name was Waddell.
There was a Texas legislator with the name Waddell – Charles H. “Charlie” Waddell, born January 18, 1886. Waddell served in the Texas House from 1927 to 1931.(3). Originally from Arkansas, Waddell was a prominent business leader in Rosenberg (4), near Houston Texas, about 300 miles south of Texarkana.
The family of Ray’s father, Frank Waddell, was living in Arkansas just before the Civil War, so Charlie might be distant relative, but, as far as I can tell, there was no close family connection between Charlie Waddell and Ray. Ray might have been illegitimate, but we have no proof of it. There’s no evidence that Ray’s mother was in Rosenberg, Texas or that Charlie Waddell spent time in Texarkana. And we’ve found no documentation of anyone named “Icarez” in Texas at that time.
Ray in Sierra Blanca
One of the many unanswered questions about Ray’s surviving autobiography is the detailed picture he paints of his supposed childhood growing up on the family cattle ranch in Texas, along with his love affair with the ranch foreman, George, his schooling in England and break into show business in that country, and riding with Pancho Villa.
If Ray grew up in Texarkana – all the way across the state – and his family had an interest in cotton plantations and later running a hotel, how could he talk about the Sierra Blanca area so vividly? Ray was only about 14 years old when Pancho raided Columbus, New Mexico. How could he know details about the raid that even impressed some Villa researchers at the time Ray was writing his memoirs?
There are several possibilities that might give us some insight on where Ray’s invented childhood came from.
Ray did have distant cousins from his father’s side of the family that had lived around Sierra Blanca since the late 19th century. We have no proof of it, and it was a considerable traveling distance, but Ray could have visited them when he was growing up, drawing on his experiences as a more romantic and adventurous telling of his early years.
Another – and perhaps more likely – possibility is that Ray got to know the area and the stories about Pancho Villa when working in Juarez, Mexico nightclubs in the early 1930s and perhaps earlier. At that time, Villa’s death and his earlier raid on Columbus were around a decade in the past and would have likely still been the topic of local conversation and developing legends. Villa was a popular hero in Mexico and one can easily see Ray working references to Villa into his act – particularly a tall tale about riding with Villa in drag.
More importantly, Ray worked at Hugo’s in Juarez in 1933 (5) around the time someone who had a close connection to Villa was also on stage there – Pancho Villa’s daughter, Celia. The manager of Hugo’s tried to develop her talents as a singer and turn her into an attraction at the club.(6) The details we’re reading in Ray’s account could be borrowed from stories told by Celia and others around Juarez.
One puzzling piece we have about Ray and Pancho are reports I’ve heard from people who worked with Ray in the 1960s who recall him carrying around an old photo apparently of himself and Villa. The photograph is long gone, but this could have been taken on the set of a movie, at a tourist destination with someone who was dressed like Villa, or many other situations.
Ray in England
Ray said that his parents shipped him off to England to attend school in 1906, after he killed the murderer of his lover George, the ranch foreman. While there, he was mentored by a gay teacher and they eventually left the school and Ray began his career on the stage.
I’ve been unable to find any documents to back up this part of Ray’s story. Ray, in later years, would still talk about his deep love for George – George might have existed and there might have been a real life scandal with the affair, but I’ve so far found no newspaper accounts of murders or shooting incidents in Texarkana or Sierra Blanca that come close to any of the details Ray provided.
While ship manifest records can be spotty, I’ve found no evidence that Ray made a trip to England before the 1930s. Ray could have invented the details about working in English music halls from his documented travels there in the mid-1930s.
One detail in the story does provide an interesting lead for further research. Ray mentions that he was sent to “Mrs. Allen’s Academe for Young Gentlemen” in London. There still exists in Bryan, Texas, about 300 miles southwest of Texarkana, a well-known private prep school, the Allen Academy. I’ve contacted the school to see if Ray might be listed on student rosters from that period, if the records still exist, but haven’t heard back from them.
Ray’s claims of breaking into show business in England or Europe might have emerged early on, as his 1923 claim of working at the Folies Bergère in Paris in 1914 to Camera! demonstrates. Ray’s early work on the stage may have been more prosaic and ordinary, perhaps in school plays or local talent shows. When he was trying to find work when he first went to Hollywood, it would have been a way to “pad his resume” in a way that wouldn’t be easy for someone to check.
Ray, on official documents, was truthful early on about his birthdate on official documents, such as his 1937 application for a Social Security card and draft registration during World War II. But, by 1962, he was claiming 1892 as his actual birth date. While many people have shaved years off their claimed age to make people think they are younger, Ray, in his later years, added ten years to his age. That makes his appearance and ill health even more tragic – he looked far older than he really was.
My first though, and that of Charles C. Cage and others I’ve talked about this with, is that Ray may have done this in order to collect Social Security early. Ray declared bankruptcy in the late 1940s and then had some success appearing in shows with Mae West. But, as the fifties unfolded, Ray’s financial situation would become more precarious – the venues he played were smaller, he was arrested and harassed by police more frequently after his sex change hoax, and Ray was living as a drifter, in inexpensive apartments wherever he happened to find work and in a travel trailer.
By the late 1950s, lying about his age would have allowed him to collect Social Security benefits a few years before the usual age of 65, perhaps forgetting that his official date of birth was already in the Social Security Administration files.
While Charles’s research on Ray’s early years puts to rest many of Ray’s claims, the revelations do open up areas of Ray’s life that need to be cleared up. Ray’s son Leon, who Bob and Chet first met in the 1940s and kept in touch with over the years, was said to have been born in the late teens. We still need to find information on Leon’s birth date and place and if he was really Ray’s son, for example.
The supposed inheritance that was the subject of the newspaper article that set off Charles’s research also needs more investigation. We do know that Ray seemed to be flush was cash, starting in the early 30s – he bought his own nightclub and owned a home in Los Angeles, traveled and performed in Europe, and financed the pressing of his own recordings. Ray did seem to have some kind of cash infusion during that period that would seem to be beyond the means of a stage performer during that time. Perhaps the inheritance was real or Ray might have received a settlement from the death of his mother, who was killed in a 1929 Los Angeles streetcar accident.
Ray may have manufactured his childhood for many reasons. Ray was, after all, a professional performer and storyteller. Informal, entertaining stories act as a kind of common currency that can open doors or get you invited to parties where you can make connections for more work. People who are LGBTQ who exist in repressive societies often wear “masks” to hide their true selves to avoid harassment about their gender or sexuality or to keep from discussing difficult parts of their childhood. With Ray, that “mask” was a much larger and more colorful canvas, still challenging researchers looking at his life and legacy many decades later.
It’s disappointing that Ray’s stories about life on the ranch and Pancho Villa aren’t true. But, really, isn’t a good story much more entertaining?
My deepest appreciation goes to Charles C. Cage for providing his original research on Ray’s family and childhood as the basis for this series of blog posts.
1 – “Where to Find People You Know”, Camera! The Digest of the Motion Picture Industry, Saturday, October 7, 1922, page 6.
2 – “For Twenty-Four Hours, Ray Studied to Become a Medico”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 24, 1944, p 25.
3 – https://lrl.texas.gov/mobile/memberDisplay.cfm?memberID=2189 (retrieved March 23, 2021)
4 – https://atlas.thc.state.tx.us/Details/5157009077 (retrieved March 23, 2021)
5 – Advertisement for Hugo’s Rio Grande, El Paso (Texas) Herald-Post, July 6, 1933, p 11; Advertisement for Hugo’s Rio Grande, El Paso Herald-Post, July 29, 1933, p 5.
6 – “Daughter in Cabaret”, Waco News Tribune, December 20, 1933, p 10.