“I could never understand why I was receiving so much attention,” Jorgensen said in a 1986 interview. “Now looking back, I realize it was the beginning of the Sexual Revolution, and I just happened to be one of the trigger mechanisms.”
Christine Jorgensen-with her sleek hair, smokey voice, slender body and smart clothes, exploded into the nation’s consciousness in the halcyon days of the post war Baby Boom, in the placid I-like-Ike, I-love-Lucy era when issues of sexuality, much less transsexuality, were strictly taboo. It didn’t take much to propel her private, two-year odyssey from man to woman into the object of international debate and ridicule.
“EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BOMBSHELL,” screamed the headline in the Daily News, which broke the story on Dec. 1, 1952, after it was leaked about the second of Jorgensen’s three operations.
Unwittingly, Jorgensen’s surgery proved to be something more than the lurid tale it was made out to be at the time: It was also the begining of greater candor and understanding in the way the world looked at issues of transsexuality. According to the International Gender Dysphoria Association, by 1980 an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 American adults had undergone hormonal and surgical sex changes. Among them, tennis pro Renee Richards and British-born writer Jan Morris.
And while transsexual surgery has hardly become commonplace since it was pioneered in Europe in the 1930s, it certainly has become less-than-scandalous in most quarters. Indeed, by 1982, when news spread that a Nassau County police officer had undergone a sex-change operation and was planning to return to the force, the response, from the county executive to the police commissioner, was more support that embarrassment. “It (the surgery) wouldn’t get on the 95th page of the newspaper if it happened today,” Jorgensen said last year in an interview with the Los Angeles Time. “It’s not news anymore.”
But it was news-scandalous news-when Jorgensen did it.
In those pre-feminist days, there was no end to the cutting appellations: The press described her variously as mankind’s gift to female species,” “The latest thing in blonde bombshells,” “tops in swaps” and “the turnabout gal.” In and out of the press, she became subject of endless conversation and the butt of thousands of titillating jokes. And that was just the beginning. While Jorgensen was still in Denmark, she had sold the rights to her life story to the Hearst Corp.’s American Weekly Magazine for $20,000. But that contract did little to dissuade other journalists-and evryone else-from besieging her.
On Feb. 12, 1953, when she stepped off the plane from Denmark, at what was then Idlewild Airport, Jorgensen was greeted by more than 350 “admirers, autograph hounds and just plain curious people.” Not to mention hordes of reporters and photographers who catalogued everything from her baggage (13 pieces of luggage) to her destination (“the Swank Carlyle Hotel” in Manhatten) to her first beverage in America (a Bloody Mary “containing two shots of vodka and tomato juice”) From then on, wherever Jorgensen went, neither the press nor the attendant carnival atmosphere was far behind. Every detail was grist for the mill: Her size 9-AA shoes. Her $10 contribution to a volounteer fire department in her new Long Island’s hometown. Her first Easter bonnet, which landed her on the front page of Newsday on Easter weekend in 1953, a much-vaunted accolade traditionally reserved for Long Island’s society matrons.
The press couldn’t get enough of Jorgensen. The press was there on Feb. 26, 1953, when she took her drivers test in Garden City. A Newsday reporter noted on the occasion, “She, then he, had once been employed as a chauffeur. But her license had expired and so, said one wag, had the sex of the owner.”
The press was there on May 8, 1953, when Jorgensen made her debut at Hollywoods Orpheum theater, narrating a 20-minute travel documentary she filmed in Europe: “Her paycheck is reported to be $12,500 for a weeks work.” And the press was there a week later, on the flight back to New York, when Jorgensen announced that she planned to make her home in Massapequa, on a 150-by-100-square-foot parcel of land where her father, George, a carpenter, would build a six-room, $25,000 ranch-style house, complete with the most up-to-date burglar alarm system. “Long Island,” she said, “[is] a lovely spot to settle.” It became her home base until 1967, when her parents died and she moved to California. But if the press fueled the furor over Jorgensen, it was feeding a public that couldn’t get enough of her and a society that didn’t know what to make of her. Was she some sort of side show freak? Or a modern pioneer? There was no consensus. While gossip columnist Walter Winchell ridiculed her, hostess Elsa Maxwell feted her. While the Stork Club banned her, the Waldorf-Astoria welcomed her.
Jorgensen, from the beginning never regretted what she did, “I regretted at the beginning, that the press got hold of it and made my life such an open book,” she said in a 1979 Newsday interwiew. “But the publicity, too, hasn’t been altogether bad. It’s enabled me to make an awful lot of money.”
Although Jorgensen preferred to be known as “the noted colour photographer”-she even went to London in 1953 to photograph the coronation of Queen Elizabeth-she made her money, and her mark, from her celebrity. The offers of Hollywood stardom that poured in from film producers when she returned to the United States never panned out. Nevertheless, Jorgensen decided that if the notoriety that was following her wasn’t going to die out, she might as well cash in on it.
During the ’50s and ’60s she earned a more-than-comfortable living on the talk show and lecture circuit and, most notably, as a stage actress and nightclub performer. The act, which she took from the Latin Quarter in New York to the Interlude in Los Angeles to clubs in Havana, Caracas and throughout England and Australia, was both serious and fun. With a straight face she sang “I enjoy being a Girl.” With tongue-in-cheek, she performed “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” as a parody of her life before the operation.
Throughout the years of living under a magnifying glass, Jorgensen retained her sense of humor. But in her 1967 book, “Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Biography,” it was obvious that she had considered life before the operation anything but joyous. As a child growing up in the Bronx, Jorgensen said she was a “frail, tow-headed, introverted” little boy who “ran from fistfights and rough-and-tumble games.” When she was 5, she wrote, her Christmas dream was for “a pretty doll with long gold hair.” Under the tree, there was a red railroad train.
A graduate of Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx-Class of ’45-Jorgensen was drafted into the Army a few months after the end of World War II, as a 19-year-old who admitted years later that he felt like a woman trapped in a mans body.
The road to Jorgensen’s transsexual surgery in Copenhagen began in New York, with years of independent research. At the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistants School, Jorgensen devoured information on the subject of sexual hormones and glandular imbalances. Then, through a friend who was a physician, the young man discovered it was possible to obtain sex change treatments and operations in Scandinavia. In 1950, George Jorgensen Jr. left for Denmark, staying with friends and keeping his plans a secret from everyone, including his family. It was not until two years later-on the eve of the second operation-that Christine Jorgensen finally wrote to her parents in New York: “Nature made a mistake, which I have corrected, and I am now your daughter.” Although Jorgensen’s parents were shocked by the news, they welcomed their child home.
Jorgensen herself never married, but there were countless reports of liassons: In 1952, a Texas GI told the world that he had dated her in Copenhagen “and she had the best body of any girl I ever met.” In 1959, she became engaged; her first fiance later broke the engagement. “I’ve never been married,” she said in the Newsday interview, “but I have been engaged twice, and I’ve been deeply in love twice. I was never engaged to the men I was in love with, and I was never in love with the men I was engaged to.”
When the noteriety died down, Jorgensen settled into a fairly private existence. After she left Long Island in 1967, she lived quietly in California, first at the Chateau Marmont, the historic apartment-hotel on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, then in a four bedroomed house in Laguna Niguel, 60 miles south of L.A., and for the last two years in San Clemente.
Although she had dropped out of the lecture circuit for 15 years, she returned on-and-off during the 1980s. She had also been lpanning a sequel to her autobiography and had been trying to find a U.S. distributer for a Dutch-made documentary on transsexuals, lesbians and female impersonators. After she was diagnosed as having cancer in 1987, she confessed that one of her remaining dreams was to appear on the hit T.V. show, “Murder She Wrote.”
Jorgensen never found even fleeting fame on T.V. But she didn’t need it. To many, she had won more enduring recognition, as a pioneer, as a man-turned-woman who broke down at least one of society’s sexual barriers. For her own part, though, she saw it as nothing more that a case of self-preservation. “Does it take bravery and courage for a person with polio to want to walk?” she once said. “It’s very hard to speculate on, but if I hadn’t done what I did, I may not have survived. I may not have wanted to live. Life simply wasn’t worth much. Some people may find it easy to live a lie, I can’t. And that’s what it would have been-telling the world I’m something I’m not.”