Why Did World Famous Transsexual Disappear?

by Tony Phillips

Bradford Louryk is taking off his face. Or at least that was the plan: the actor would engage in a rapid reverse of the three-hour hair and make-up gauntlet that turns him into Eisenhower-era, transsexual press whore Christine Jorgensen for eight shows a week. He would simultaneously submit to an interview. Louryk’s publicist knocks on the door of his subterranean dressing room beneath Times Square’s Theatre Row complex and he answers in full-on, minty green Jorgensen décolletage. He’s on his cell phone: so much for deconstructing the legend.

Louryk debuted the hour-long Christine Jorgensen Reveals across the pond at The Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s theater-a-thon and performed it steadily for four years. He’s probably incapable of true disengagement by now anyway. He’s also incapable of much more than standing. He’s graciously puts me in a chair in his low-ceiling dressing room and apologizes for the fact that he’ll have to pace back and forth during our interview. “I can’t sit down in this,” he says, motioning to the stage costume he’s still wearing.

Louryk flawlessly presents the1950s’ gendernaut who was so famous early in that decade, she briefly knocked that other post-WWII, 1950s fascination, the Hydrogen bomb, off the front page of newspapers. “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty,” blared the front page of The New York Daily News on December 1, 1952, when Jorgensen, a 26-year-old New Yorker, landed back on our shores after rounds one and two in a series of transformative surgeries. In her time, Jorgensen was as famous as Madonna or Cher is now, popping up in the media referenced by only her first name: Christine. And after a period in the cultural netherworld, Jorgensen is once again bubbling up the zeitgeist. Not only is there Louryk’s front-running show, but there’s also a documentary and feature film in the works, let’s not even get into Brian Selznick’s Chirstine Jorgensen puppet show.

“My piece is all about happy accident,” Louryk says of his one person show, “I didn’t know who she was when I found the recording.” The recording is the 1957 phonograph Christine Jorgensen Reveals from which his piece takes not only its title, but also its soundtrack. “I bought it because it looked interesting,” Louryk remembers of the vinyl interview between Jorgensen and black comedian Nipsey Russell, but it sat unopened in his collection for about a year while he acquired a record player. “And it was very, very expensive,” he adds of the purchase, which set him back $150.

But Louryk wasn’t the only one in the dark about the forgotten the transsexual legend. Though an elderly librarian waxes on for a good five minutes about Jorgensen before handing over her autobiography at the library, people under 50 might have trouble remembering exactly who Jorgensen was and just how famous she’d become. Louryk’s publicist explains that she gets a lot of the “oh, was she that tennis player” question, referring to 1975 sex change Renee Richards, who took her US Open ban in 1976 to the Supreme Court and won in 1977.

Louryk himself blames Jorgensen’s erasure on the summer of love. “The simplest answer is the sexual revolution happened,” Louryk says, “and she wasn’t that interesting anymore. But that also made her reinvent herself.” Jorgensen, in fact, became the mother of reinvention, doing time on the college lecture and cabaret circuit before becoming a talk show regular, becoming tabloid TV chum, but one who could curtly hold her own with the voracious Springer and Stern sharks swimming in today’s television mass market.

Jorgensen stormed off The Dick Cavett Show when he asked after her “wife,” leaving Cavett with the balance of an hour’s worth of live air to fill, which he did mostly by stammering about how he had not intended to offend his guest. When she was in her 40s, she pitched herself to Playboy for a pictorial. Playboy honcho Hugh Heffner passed. “I guess it’s really more a question of our understanding of her significance,” Louryk says, “maybe we forgot or we didn’t need Christine.”

So why do we need her now? “It’s the tenor in the country,” Louryk says, “whether it’s Prop 8 or gender, she was just a pioneer. When you start to look at politics or sociology and you take someone with outsider status, well, she is the frontrunner of the outsider becoming relevant.” But how much of the outsider’s tale can be believed? There are some fairly well documented inaccuracies in Jorgensen’s story as she tells it. She loved to talk about her struggle to change the sex category from male to female on her passport at a time before passports contained a line for gender.

Still, Louryk finds even these inaccuracies telling. “I’m more interested in presenting what she herself presented,” he explains. “And she’s of this period where these women were like the creation of a studio or something. It’s very obvious when you listen to her voice. She sounds like a contract player at Metro. If you listen to later recordings: her dialect, her inflections, everything was totally different later in life. In this recording, the letter ‘r’ doesn’t really exist. It’s a ‘lettah.’ Later in life, that wasn’t so. She went through many phases, but we present her as she presented herself.”

George William Jorgensen, Jr. presented himself in 1926, born to working-class parents in the Bronx. As WWII was drawing to a close, Jorgensen graduated high school and was drafted into the Army. Once discharged, he bounced around to several colleges, including one in Utica, before taking a job cutting together newsreels in New York City. Around this time he also started self-injecting the female hormone ethinyl estradiol, embarking on a journey that would eventually take him to Denmark for the beginning of many sex-reassignment procedures over the next several years before finally emerging in the headlines as Christine Jorgensen.

In her 1967 autobiography, Jorgensen describes being shuffled back and forth between different doctors, before arriving at the desperate decision to administer female hormones. “It must have been about that point that I began to form another idea,” Jorgensen writes. “Although at first a rather vague one: I would experiment on myself. But in order to do that, somehow I’d have to get hold of the miraculous substance known as ‘estradiol.’ I don’t think I had any idea of how I was going to go about acquiring it at the moment, for I knew that I couldn’t buy it legally without a prescription, but I also knew I had to try.”

This self-experimentation is straight out of the science fiction B-movies of Jorgensen’s era. Queer historian and filmmaker Susan Stryker has been working with footage – both images of Jorgensen and images Jorgensen helped create as an editor – she’s beginning to assemble into the documentary Christine in the Cutting Room. Stryker says the film, which she estimates about two to four years away from completion, is about the relationship between Jorgensen’s work as a film editor – “I just had this picture in my head of Christine Jorgensen,” Styrker says, “pre-transition, working in this room physically cutting film: labeling it and filing it and her body was in the middle of this huge apparatus for making mass media images” – and her celebrity, in which Jorgensen became her own “spectacular image of transsexuality.” Once Jorgensen stumbled onto what hormones could do in 1949, Stryker also imagines her making the link to altering her own body, saying, “Wait, you cut the medium and you splice it together in a new pattern and you project the medium to tell a story. Boom. I need Kraft services.”

“I think she grasped at this really basic level this way to use her own body,” Stryker continues, “her own living flesh, as a medium for creative expression. Her transition was not just her being a passive recipient of a medical technology. She very actively sought out the people who had the technical means to help her project self-image through the medium she had to work with – it’s a double movement – from one kind of cutting room to another kind of cutting room.”

And if the early ‘50s were the crest of Jorgensen’s fame bubble, what of its post-sexual revolution slump? “In the ‘70s, ‘80s and even into the ‘90s, Jorgensen was seen as an old fuddy-duddy,” Stryker explains, “she wasn’t cool or hip, but I do think there’s a kind of retro-chic fascination with that period.” Unfortunately, Jorgensen’s appeal didn’t figure into the sexual revolution. There were simply too many characters that summer who hadn’t had their turn in the limelight. And while Jorgensen retreated to California into what by all accounts became a swinger’s lifestyle, America had moved on and she died there in relative obscurity, with just her two nieces and two close friends scattering her ashes over Dana Point in 1989.

But suddenly, Jorgensen is back. Stryker offers the 1950s, advertising-age, high gloss of current television shows like Mad Men as an example of our current preoccupation with the era. “This idea of Jorgensen as a transnational, transsexual celebrity in 1953, what’s up with that?” Stryker asks. “There is a ‘Why now?’ aspect to Jorgensen: a fascination with how contemporary she seems in such an early period. There is a kind of glamour, celebrity, and sexiness attached to her that I think makes people open to hearing more about her.”

Stryker also sees Jorgensen’s allure as a mirror held up to the post-war period, which also feels quite contemporary today. “The baby boomer generation has been dominant for 30 years,” Stryker says, “but now there’s a younger generation looking back at their grandparents’ generation and seeing it as cool. Post-WWII was the height of American pop culture, that’s The American Century.” And Stryker places Jorgensen squarely in the can-do of that era. “She was a truly global phenomenon,” Stryker explains, “Who lived well and worked consistently based on public fascination with her change of sex.”

But Stryker sees a dark interior to the Jorgensen’s mystique that’s also in line with the era. “The decadent levels of consumer excess,” she explains, “That seems sexy and horrific right now. The ‘50s were an American consumerist utopia, that’s the good life we’re supposed to have. But from another perspective, it’s a total death trip to go down that road. Look what it’s done. Look at what the consequences have been. So there’s this kind of horror and fascination with just how beautiful the surfaces of that world are.”

Jorgensen’s trough later in life, Stryker says, is also just another symptom of the erasure of transgendered people, or any outsiders for that matter, from the historical record written by the dominant culture. When most people think of the transgender movement, they look to the 1990s. “Transgender came on their radar screen then,” Stryker says, “people think of it as this new thing, but then you realize it has this very long history and is really rooted in something old. There’s a little bit of cognitive dissonance there for most people. There was this famous transsexual person half a century ago? And she looks fabulous and she’s saying these interesting things? That doesn’t add up.”

Of course, Jorgensen herself may bear some of the brunt for her redaction. Pre-op, she presented as heterosexual and post-op she did as well. She’s a tricky, unlikely, almost assimilationist figure to emerge as queer revolutionary. Richard F. Docter writes about Jorgensen’s “heterosexual masquerade” in his book Becoming a Woman: A Biography of Christine Jorgensen, to which Stryker contributed a new foreword.

Docter details the tug of war between Jorgensen’s burgeoning gender variance and familial obligation. During her time as an editor, Jorgensen presented “a false front used as part of a continuing effort to be the son he felt he ought to be despite the emotional costs of having to conceal his intense transgender feelings,” Docter writes. “At about the age of eighteen, we see George Jorgensen doing everything he could to fit the mold of a hardworking, reasonably masculine young man, building self-esteem through his daily good works, making new friends and showing himself and the rest of the world that he was a success in a man’s job.”

Craig Harwood, the documentary filmmaker of the award-winning Paternal Instinct, optioned Docter’s book. He’s now partnered with Kerthy Fix, a producer whose own resume includes projects like Slacker and The Grammercy Park Hotel, a documentary about Warhol and the Sex Pistols’ hangout. Fix worked with Harwood before and she was putting together her own documentary on Jorgensen when they teamed again. The two decided that what they really had on their hands was all the research for a feature film about Jorgensen.

“Jorgensen was the Britney Spears of her day,” Harwood says over an early dinner at the Noho Star on Bleecker Street, “she was the most famous woman in the world in her time.” Fix arrives from an appointment with her dental hygienist in time to posit Jorgensen as punk poetess. “It’s like Patti Smith having a hit record,” Fix says, “it takes like 30 or 40 years for that to filter out into the mainstream. Jorgensen could see where this was all going, but we’re not there yet.”

Mention of these two, post-punk, feminist icons begs the question: boy or girl? Even Hollywood has gotten hip, referring to both male and female thespians as simply actors. “It’s a big film,” Harwood explains, “six million to eight million dollars.” Fix adds, “It’s a period piece and once you’re period, your costs go up. To do it properly, we’re going to have to attach an actor a studio wants to back.” So what actor do they want to portray Jorgensen?

“I’m fond of Charlotte Gainsbourgh,” Fix says, while Harwood rattles off Evan Rachel Wood, Rebecca Hall and Keira Knightley. “A casting director recommended Clemmie Burton-Hill,” Fix says, “She has this big old face and chin. It’s about having the facial features.” Stryker’s fantasy casting is Johnny Depp. We already know who Louryk sees as perfect for the role. So why not a man?

“Jude Law just completed a film where he’s playing a trannie prostitute in the fashion industry,” Harwood said. “He’s beautiful, he could probably carry it.” Fix disagrees. “He has a big head,” she says. Neither one mentions a trans actor playing Jorgensen, but Stryker, a transsexual herself, addresses the question. “I would want to shy away from identity politics on the casting question,” she says, after admitting Calpurnia Adams, a trans actor who coached Felicity Huffman on Transamerica and was the subject of Showtime’s 2003 film A Soldier’s Girl, could pull it off.

“Jorgensen was a male bodied person who transitioned over time,” Stryker says. “A female bodied person could play Jorgensen. A male bodied person could play Jorgensen. Somebody who has physically transitioned could play Jorgensen. It would really depend on the director’s artistic vision,” Stryker continues, “there’s going to be some artistry involved.” And even if there’s not, surely all three of present day depictions of Jorgensen point toward some kind of progress? Jorgensen reinventing herself one more time for the new millennium cannot be in vain.

“You have transgendered people on television,” Harwood agrees, “you have Ugly Betty, Top Model and The Real World. People are aware that transgender people exist. They’re not freaks necessarily, but it’s still incredibly hard. We don’t live it everyday, but like being gay, it’s easier today than it was 50 years ago. Being transgender is so much harder. Gender issues are so much more complex. You’re really confronting people on a very basic level. I don’t know how far we’ve come.”

Fix is slightly more hopeful, even if she’s willing to transpose Jorgensen’s model of 1950s domesticated goddess onto the current rage for hetero-normative aping. Still, progress is progress, by any means necessary. “Change is imminent,” Fix says, “by the time my nieces, who are 12 now, are our age, a lot will have shifted. There are going to be so many trans people. It’s just like the homosexual community shifting into family. It goes from sexual freedom into family rights and that really changes the whole tenure of the discussion. As soon as there are enough trans people and they’re having families, change will come. I believe in slow, gradual progress and I think that’s happening.”