Jenner's Trail Was Blazed by Christine Jorgensen
Sixty-two years ago this morning, newspaper readers in Las Vegas, Nev., learned that the Hotel Sahara was attempting to renege on its contract with a performer hotel management had booked impulsively. The disagreement wasn’t really a labor dispute, so much as a warning signal about a sexual revolution still being played out in this country in supermarket tabloids and glossy New York fashion magazines alike.
The story was a precursor of Caitlyn Jenner’s arrival on the scene.
The Sahara was owned by a onetime Los Angeles jewelry salesman and Butte, Mont., bingo parlor operator named Milton Prell. He had had stopped in Vegas while traveling between Montana and California with his wife. Seeing into the future, Prell partnered with Phoenix construction magnate (and New York Yankees owner) Del Webb to build a hotel.
Their collaboration produced a 240-room, two-story Moroccan-themed resort filled with fake camels, dressed-up North African nomads, and as much hype and Hollywood pizazz as Prell could muster. And Christine Jorgensen as a headliner was just the ticket—or so Prell initially believed. He signed her up for a two-week gig for $25,000 -- equivalent to nine times that amount in today’s dollars.
Jorgensen had burst on the scene shortly after the Sahara opened in October 1952 in the form of a December 1 headline in the New York Daily News: EX-G.I. BECOMES BLONDE BOMBSHELL.
Yes, more than six decades before U.S. tabloids began chronicling Bruce Jenner’s long journey on the gender trail, George Jorgensen became a household name around the world. It must have been a lonely trek. In the early 1950s, nothing existed like the various Kardashian family product lines to redefine narcissism, Vanity Fair did not offer up a glamorous photo shoot to clear the path, and Diane Sawyer wasn’t around to play John the Baptist for George as he transitioned to Christine.
What there was, as there is today, was an accepting American public. This is a general attitude, however, not a universal one. And that remains true in 2015 as well.
George Jorgensen Jr. was born on May 30, 1926 in New York City. As a child growing up in the Bronx, Jorgensen later wrote, he was a "frail, tow-headed, introverted” kid who “ran from fistfights and rough-and-tumble games.” According to Jorgensen’s autobiography, in 1931 when George was 5 years old, his Christmas wish was “a pretty doll with long gold hair.” Neither Santa Claus nor his parents understood this little boy, however, so under the tree on Christmas morning was a red railroad train.
George graduated from Christopher Columbus High School in 1945. Although press accounts would rather casually describe him as a World War II veteran, that was only technically true: He was drafted into the U.S. Army at 19 as the war was ending. But soldier boy or not, he began feeling—in language that is more familiar to Americans today—like “a woman trapped in a man’s body.”
Jorgensen was mustered out of the service and became a photographer. As he began his career, or what he thought would be his life’s work, George learned of physicians in Sweden who could help him become a woman. Traveling to Scandinavia, he made it only as far as Denmark. While in Copenhagen visiting relatives, he met an endocrinologist named Christian Hamburger. George stayed in Denmark and began a two-year regimen that included castration, hormone therapy, and cosmetic surgery. Jorgensen chose his new first name, in honor of Dr. Hamburger.
Like Bruce Jenner, Jorgensen began contemplating the public relations (and commercial) aspects of his transition long before it was complete. As “he” was becoming a “she,” Jorgensen sold his life story to the Hearst Corporation’s American Weekly magazine for $20,000.
“I regretted at the beginning, that the press got hold of it and made my life such an open book," Jorgensen said in a 1979 interview with Newsday. “But the publicity, too, hasn't been
altogether bad. It's enabled me to make an awful lot of money.”
Caitlyn Jenner is making a similar tradeoff, although in her previous life as Bruce Jenner, fame was a constant—and constantly pursued—companion. Unlike today, press coverage of Jorgensen was mixed. Caitlyn Jenner has received adoring press notices. That wasn’t always true for Christine Jorgensen. The New York Times’ tone tended to be respectful -- “conservative,” in Jorgensen’s quaint description -- while Time magazine, to cite one example, was highly skeptical. Newsweek reported that “as a castrated male,” she was viewed by many Americans as a transsexual and “a homosexual deviant.”
Jorgensen was the punch line of the kind of jokes most respectable Americans would refrain from aiming at Caitlyn Jenner. Some were mean, others clever. Barry Gray, a 1950s radio talk show pioneer, repeated one of latter type when Christine appeared on his show: “George Jorgensen went abroad, and came back a broad.”
She laughed and said she found it funny. But a decade later, when Dick Cavett hosted Jorgensen, she walked off his set in protest when she found his questions about her sex life disrespectful.
As Jorgensen became part of the fabric of American popular culture, she became a political reference point as well. In 1956, acerbic columnist Walter Winchell was suspended from his radio broadcast after comparing Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson to Jorgensen in an uncomplimentary fashion.
In 1970, during a hard-fought, three-way Senate race in New York, Vice President Spiro Agnew characterized liberal Sen. Charles Goodell as “the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party.” This was not intended as a compliment, either, and Jorgensen requested an apology from the famously combative (and corrupt, as it turns out) vice president. She did not get one.
Caitlyn Jenner’s emergence this week has kindled similar impulses in at least one prominent Republican. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, one of the growing platoon of 2016 GOP presidential candidates, made light of the subject in a February talk to religious broadcasters.
“Now I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in P.E.,” Huckabee said. “I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, ‘Coach, I think I'd rather shower with the girls today.’”
One gay rights organization termed those comments “vile,” which is obviously an overstatement. But most Americans would find them clueless—as they have for six decades.
The man who would change Jorgensen’s life more than anyone other than Dr. Hamburger was a Hollywood press agent named Charlie Yates. His celebrity clientele included Bob Hope, and Yates was directing his clients to the nightclub scene then being reinvented in Las Vegas.
Christine was nervous at first. She couldn’t sing or dance and—incongruously, it seemed to some—didn’t entirely approve of the lax morality associated with the nightclub scene. But Yates persisted, and booked her at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles to, essentially, narrate a film about her life. Although the reviewers in the L.A. papers were kind, Jorgensen thought she had bombed. So did the talent scouts sent to Los Angeles by Hotel Sahara’s management.
To get out of the $25,000, two-week contract, Prell challenged Christine, whose genital reconstruction surgery was still incomplete, “to prove she’s a woman.” Stories were also planted in the Nevada press about Las Vegas showgirls who were concerned that Christine was really “a peeping Tom”—the Mike Huckabee fixation.
In response, Yates fought back in court. Lacking a legal leg to stand on, the Sahara capitulated and by November Christina was playing the Sahara to audiences who accepted -- and appreciated -- her for the person she had become.
She died of cancer in 1989 in San Clemente, Calif. Before her passing, she told the Los Angeles Times that gender transition “wasn’t news anymore.”
She was often prescient, but not that time. But then again, who could foresee the cultural tornado that the Bruce Jenner-Kris Kardashian marriage would produce. The great Caitlyn Jenner reveal has also had its unexpected political angle.
Jenner may have been fortunate in drawing Diane Sawyer as a host instead of Dick Cavett. Sawyer once worked in the Nixon White House—when Spiro Agnew was vice president—but evidently her politics have, to use the word in vogue these days, evolved. At one point she revealed politics as oblivious as Huckabee’s, albeit in the other direction.
Sawyer mentioned that President Obama had used the word “transgender,” the first president to do so, but instead of the reaction she expected, Jenner mentioned that he’s “more on the conservative side.”
“Are you a Republican?” his interlocutor asked incredulously.
“Yeah, is that a bad thing?” Jenner answered. “I believe in the Constitution.”