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14 March 2013

Virginia Prince (1912 - 2009): Part 1 - Youth and First marriage

See also:  Did Virginia Prince have Harry Benjamin Syndrome?
and The Myth That Transgender is a Princian Concept.

Previously in April 2008, I wrote an account of Virginia Prince, who started life as Arnold Lowman. With all due modesty I think that it still stands as the best short account of her.  I wrote it based mainly on the books by Richard Docter, Richard Ekins and Vern Bullough.  Particularly after I wrote my TG, Words and Concepts series, I realized that my account of Prince could be much improved.  This realization was further developed by reading Robert Hill’s dissertation which is largely based on a close reading of Transvestia magazine.   One problem with most accounts of Virginia Prince is that they are not integrated into GLBT and general history.  Hence I have included background events below, mainly of what else was going on in Los Angeles, but also elsewhere when it seemed appropriate, to give a contextualization.

Part 1 – Youth and First marriage
Part II – Second Marriage
Part III – Femmiphilic activist
Part IV – Full-time Living
Part V – Transgenderist dowager
Jargon terms and general comments

Charles Leroy Lowman (1879-1977) was born in Park Ridge, Illinois. Both his paternal grandparents were physicians. He trained as doctor at the University of Southern California, interned at California Lutheran Hospital and studied orthopedic surgery at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Children’s Hospital in Boston. In 1909 he started a small out-patient clinic for handicapped children, and was the only orthopedist between San Francisco and New Orleans, traveling through five states to practice. He married Elizabeth Hudson Arnold (1882-1968), the daughter of a prosperous Indiana farmer and Ella Gifford Ferris, who was a cousin of George Ferris, the inventor the Big Wheel that first appeared at the 1893 Chicago Exposition1. Charles and Elizabeth Lowman had two children: Arnold born in 1912 and Elizabeth born four years later.2

The owner of the building where Charles Lowman had his clinic made an offer that if Lowman could establish a functioning hospital within 15 years, he would donate clear title to the building and its gardens. This was done and further expansion of the Los Angeles Orthopedic Hospital was being discussed when the 15 years had passed in 1922. Lowman pioneered aquatherapy for poliomyelitis patients, and devised motor-driven lifts to get the patients in and out of the water. He pioneered fascia lata strap transplants which enabled wheelchair-bound patients to walk with crutches.

Elizabeth Sr contributed to the home by shrewd investments in property and stocks. For grades 3-7 Arnold was transferred from his local public school to the residential Glendora Foothill Christian School, fifty miles to the east. On Thanksgiving Day in his seventh grade, the school burnt down, and he was transferred back to a local school.

Arnold developed a fixation with high-heeled shoes. They were of course not welcome in the home of an orthopedist. He moved on to his mother's clothes, and then started collecting his own. By the age of 12 Arnold was an accomplished cross-dresser and could pass in public as a girl. He used the name Muriel.(Docter:41-2)    As Prince wrote in 1979:
"Starting at the age of about twelve I found myself fascinated with wearing my mother's clothes on all occasions when the family would be out. It was sexually exciting and thrilling but it was also frightening and it gave rise to a tremendous load of guilt and shame. With that kind of pressure I should have quit – and I did – many times, I felt terrible about it, guilt ridden and wondering what was wrong with me – an otherwise normal, functional boy. For a while I supposed that I must be a homosexual – though I had no interest in boys sexually. When I got that straightened out in my head I decided that I must be psychopathic. But on the other hand, I was an intelligent, above-average student, an athlete, member of clubs, etc. But even if I was not either of those two two things surely I must be the only otherwise normal boy who was so weird as to want to wear girl's clothes. I went through adolescence with those worries, and I kept on dressing on every occasion when I thought I could do so safely. While it started out as an erotic experience each time, there came a time when, after eroticism had run its course, I discovered that there was still a very special pleasure in 'being' a 'girl'. Instead of just being an erotically aroused male in a dress, I found that I was somehow different. I did not know for years what was going on – or more properly what was coming out. It was that part of myself that had been hidden and suppressed in all my growing years – just as it is in all men. It was my other half, that half that when openly expressed is termed feminine."
In 1922, the Los Angeles City Council had revised its anti-masquerading law of 1898. It now stated that if one dressed in the clothes of the opposite sex on the streets, a penalty of up to six-months in jail or a fine of up to $500 could be imposed. By 1924 the Los Angeles drag culture was dominated by Clarabelle, who was regarded as the queen mother of Bunker Hill. Arnold never spoke of this. That was also the year that male-impersonator Jean Southern accosted a police officer who failed to read her, and the encounter made headlines in the Los Angeles Times. Julian Eltinge was the US's top female impersonator and was playing to sell-out audiences at the Los Angeles Orpheum Theater.

Charles Lowman was a prolific author and innovator in the field of orthopedic medicine. He published A Collection of Papers Dealing with Some Physical, Educational, Physiotherapeutic & Orthopaedic Problems in 1924, persuaded the California legislature to provide teachers for handicapped children in hospital in 1927 and co-published Corrective Physical Education for Groups: A Text Book of Organization, Theory, and Practice in 1928.

At age 18, in drag, Arnold won a prize for best costume at his church Halloween party. He did his BA at Pomona College, Los Angeles where by chance he shared a dorm with Edward Richards, the future Barbara Wilcox, although they did not know each other.

Whether young Arnold knew or not, 1932 was a peak year for pansy revues (which featured female impersonation) with appearances in Los Angeles by Karyl Norman and Jean Malin, and the next year Hollywood made a record number of films with pansy content. However, from 1932 onwards, and especially after the end of Alcohol Prohibition in 1933, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) started busting the pansy clubs. BBB's Cellar and Jimmie's Back Yard were raided repeatedly. The raid on The Big House in fall 1932 met resistance: the patrons fought back and a female impersonator attempted to escape through a window. The bar, renamed Buddy's Rendezvous, reopened, and the police returned eight months later and arrested five transvestites on vagrancy charges. In November 1933 another raid on Jimmie's Back Yard resulted in 90-day sentences for the owner, the mistress of ceremonies and the piano player. Three other female impersonators were each sentenced to six months – the maximum penalty. Harold Brown, arrested on suspicion of posing as a narcotics officer, was discovered to be female bodied and got a suspended 30-day sentence for masquerading. Three pansy bars were shut down in 1936, and another three the next year. Frank Shaw, the Los Angeles Mayor, ran a notably corrupt administration from 1933 until he was recalled in 1938. He was opposed by Clifford Clinton, a restaurateur, who with others filed a grand jury report that led to the recall. Part of Shaw's fight back was to step up the attack on 'sex pervert' bars. This was reinforced in 1937 by a national sex panic after children were killed in New York, and J Edgar Hoover declared 'War on the Sex Criminal'. In 1940 even Julian Eltinge was prevented from appearing on stage in Los Angeles in female clothes, and was obliged to do his act in a tuxedo with his dresses on mannequins.

However private parties in Hollywood and even public appearances by its stars were another matter. Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn were known for their male attire, both on screen and when out socializing. Film director, Dorothy Arzner, the only female director in Hollywood, was known for dressing in men's clothes. In 1937, Howard Greer, the Hollywood fashion designer who did the costumes for Bringing Up Baby and My Favorite Wife, threw a drag party at which he hired female impersonators to sing a Cole Porter song in front of the real Cole Porter (Gay LA: 46) In 1938 Los Angeles resident Michael Higgins was arrested on charges of grand theft and fraud, and discovered to be female-bodied.

Meanwhile Arnold graduated from Pomona College in 1935 and did postgraduate studies in pharmacology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Charles Lowman published Balance skills in physical education in 1935, and the next year Arnold co-published with a fellow student a paper on lactic dehydrogenase. In 1937 Charles Lowman published The Therapeutic Theatre, and contributed to Technique of Underwater Gymnastics; A Study in Practical Application. Arnold's MS thesis was on lactic dehydrogenase, and the fellow student and he published a book on the topic in 1939. Arnold's PhD thesis, Carbohydrate Metabolism and Its Relation to the Cancer Problem, was completed in the same year.

Elizabeth followed her brother to Pomona College and then Berkeley. She later met and married a mining engineer, and they moved to Nevada. They had three children.

Fletcher Bowron, who was mayor of Los Angeles 1938-53, had a particular antipathy to women in trousers. In 1942 he declared to the city council that he loathed "to see masculine women much more than feminine traits in men" and got them to pass a regulation barring female employees at City Hall from wearing pants.

In 1941 Arnold outed himself as a transvestite to his father after a trip to San Francisco, by being his femme self when his father arrived to pick him up. This was just before his first marriage, to Dorothy Shepherd (1909 – 1985) a secretary from Anoka, Minnesota, whom he had met at church. The wedding was held in the Lowman home, the day after Arnold burned all his female clothing. Mr and Mrs Lowman then moved to San Francisco where Arnold had a job with Del Monte Foods, and later on a medical research project for one of his professors who was now at the University of California Medical School at San Francisco.

Arnold researched transvestism in the medical library. He noted two case studies of interest being presented in the psychiatry department, and attended both. The first was by Barbara Wilcox who had been his classmate at Pomona College, and was by then living as a woman and had petitioned the Superior Court of California to change her name and to become legally a woman. The second presentation was by Louise Lawrence, the pioneering transvestite organizer who put transvestites in touch with each other, and with sympathetic doctors. Either Arnold badgered the lecture organizer to reveal Louise's home address, and Louise took in the nervous young man on her doorstep (Stryker, 2005: xv); or he sneaked a look in the case file to obtain her address, and telephoned and asked to meet (Docter: 45). In either case Lawrence introduced Virginia Prince as Arnold named himself (he lived on Prince Street) to other transvestites in San Francisco, and provided contacts in Los Angeles. Through her he became a patient of Karl Bowman of the Langley Porter Psychiatric Clinic, the seventh psychiatrist that he consulted, who told him to “relax and learn to accept yourself” (TV&Wife: 5-6). She also introduced him, in the late 1940s, to a doctor who spent each summer in San Francisco, and was starting to build a practice with transvestite clients: Harry Benjamin.

In 1945 the millionaire Howard Hughes went to San Francisco's famous Finocchio's female impersonation revue and night club where he met performer Pussy Katt. Shortly afterwards he flew her to Mexico City for an operation that made her America's first surgical transsexual. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Clarabelle, the queen of Bunker Hill was no more. Her successors were Wilhemena, and then Carioca (who later died on an operating table in Calexico). The inter-racial Club Alabam on Los Angeles' Central Avenue continued to sponsor an annual drag ball contest.

When the research project was over Arnold and Dorothy returned to Los Angeles where Arnold found work as a chemist. Their only son, Brent, was born in 1946. For the first five or six years of their marriage, Arnold kept his cross-dressing from Dorothy, but then got it into his head that he was going as a half man/half woman to the church Halloween party. Dorothy was not thrilled. Afterward they had a long talk and agreed that Arnold was not to dress in her presence, but that she would do his clothing shopping, to avoid one risk. Then Arnold got to be Virginia about once every two weeks. He started spending time with Edith Ferguson and other transvestites. They attended meetings at the Long Beach home of Joan Thornton, who shared the same interest.
Virginia Prince, 1948.  Plate 1 in JJ Allen, The Man in the Red Velvet Dress

William Parker (played by Nick Nolte in the film Gangster Squad) was Los Angeles Police Chief from 1950 until his death in 1966. He repeatedly sent his men to raid gay and lesbian bars and to treat gays and lesbians as if they were criminals. So many arrests occurred that an entire section of the Lincoln Heights jail was reserved for gay and trans inmates, nicknamed the "fruit tank". One case that made the newspapers in 1950 was of three Negro domestic servants who were arrested for dressing as female.

That year two lesbians, in separate cases, challenged the Los Angeles anti-masquerading law, and in both cases the courts declared that cross-dressing alone did not constitute guilt under the ordinance unless there was further intent to conceal one's identity. However the LAPD and the local politicians simply ignored these two rulings.

By 1951 Dorothy Lowman felt unable to cope with her husband’s cross-dressing, and saw a psychiatrist who explained that Arnold was homosexual. She sued for divorce mainly citing her husband’s “admitted propensity for feminine apparel”. Arnold was ordered to pay $50 a month for his son’s support and $50 for his wife’s. His transvestism was publicized during the proceedings, which led to contacts with more transvestites. (Docter: 29-35, 47-8)

One who did not establish contact was Gigi Hemingway who was arrested en femme in the women’s restroom of a Los Angeles movie theater. Many gays and trans were incarcerated in Atasceradero State Hospital, a maximum-security facility, which came to be known as the 'Dachau for queers'. Atasceradero was frequently visited by Dr Walter Freeman who specialized in ice-pick lobotomies. This was done through the eye socket. Of the 4,000 patients he treated this way, over 30% were diagnosed as homosexual (which included transvestites).  Another of his victims may have been the film star, Francis Farmer.

Charles Lowman co-published Therapeutic Use of Pools and Tanks in 1952. The same year the group meeting at Joan Thornton’s created a mimeographed newsletter: Transvestia: Journal of the American Society for Equality in Dress – a name suggested by Joan, who was the major editor. The initial subscription list was built around Louise Lawrence’s address book, and the subscription list for Edith Ferguson’s instruction course. Arnold contributed under the name Muriel. While only two issues were made, they were mailed to all the cross-dressers that they could identify in the United States and to sympathetic doctors and sexologists including Alfred Kinsey. Without paid subscriptions, the project proved to be too expensive to continue. This was at the same time as the fledgling homophile organization, ONE, Inc started selling its magazine. The first attempt to ban it by the US Post Office occurred a year later. At the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Medicine Elmer Belt had started doing controversial sex change operations.

For the group at Joan Thornton's, there was a question of who was a transvestite. Louise Lawrence had written that the group includes "heterosexuals, there are definite fetishists, sadists, masochists, voyeurs, homosexuals, etc.", and Edith Ferguson had previously been a female impersonator. However there were cross-dressers who were not invited such as fellow Angeleno and heterosexual Edward D. Wood, Angeleno Sascha Brastoff, José Sarria who was starting to organize fellow drag queens in San Francisco, and the majority of female impersonators, such as those who performed at Finocchio's in San Francisco. Nor was the invitation extended to female cross-dressers. While Lowman maintained that women were free to wear what they liked, many women in Los Angeles, mainly lesbians, were being arrested for 'masquerading' and dumped in the Daddy Tank at Lincoln Heights jail. One of these was Nancy Valverde who was arrested many times in this period.

In 1953 when Arnold was attempting to modify his visiting rights and reduce his alimony, he was again named in the press as a transvestite and his father threatened to disown him. This was at the same time that Christine Jorgensen was in the news after returning from Denmark, and it was announced that Bela Lugosi’s next film would be called Transvestite. The director, Edward D Wood, announced that the film, which was eventually called Glen or Glenda, would have no relation to the transvestite divorce story then in the Los Angeles newspapers. The judge ruled in favor of Arnold who was allowed custody one day a week and alternate holidays, increased the son’s support to $60 and discontinued the alimony payments. However Dorothy moved back to Minnesota with Brent. Arnold called on her some years later. They had a cordial evening, but then never saw each other again.

Harry Benjamin had helped Lowman with “parental and marital problems” (TV&Wife: 6, Ekins & King, 2006: 81), and put him on female hormones, which he continued for a few years. As Virginia, Arnold wrote to Christine Jorgensen that he had "a missionary complex" and hoped to "alleviate the lot of our kind in the social scheme" (quoted in Meyerowitz:182). Benjamin arranged for Virginia to have a personal interview with Christine and her mother while they were in Los Angeles ( Ekins & King, 2006: 235n4; Docter 2008:xii). As Prince later admitted, at this time he was considering sexual surgery: "If I had had the money at the time, I would have taken the boat to Europe". ("The Life and Times of Virginia", Transvestia, 100, 1979; TS&PseudoTS :271).

In 1954 the LAPD raided LaVie Cafe in Altadena and arrested five 'men' for wearing women's clothes. Tamara Rees, another ex-GI turned female was in town to do a burlesque show. Elmer Belt discontinued doing sex-change operations after a committee of doctors decided against it, but restarted a few years later.

 1. Docter:18 says that George Washington Ferris was Arnold's great-great grandfather. As George Ferris lived 1859-96 this seemed improbable. With the aid of genealogy sites I was able to construct the following:

                                        Silvanus Ferris (1773-1861)
                                          |                                   |
            Henry Ferris (1809 -1891)                       George Ferris (1818 - 1895)
                                          |                                    |
            Ella Ferris Arnold (1842 – 1929)               George Ferris (1859 – 1896)
            Elizabeth Arnold (1899 - 1968)
                       Arnold Lowman

Hence George Ferris was Arnold's grandmother's cousin. While he built the first Ferris Wheel, he died alone and impoverished, of typhoid at age 37.

2. Docter:19 says that the Lowmans lived at 123 South Hobart Avenue until Arnold was eight. According to Google Maps, there is no such address. It must be South Hobart Boulevard. However says that the first address was 7121 Senalda Road which is in the Hollywood Hills.

They then moved to 867 Victoria Avenue "two blocks off Wilshire Boulevard … in the Hancock Park neighborhood". There is such an address, in the Venice district. However South Victoria Avenue is close to Wilshire Boulevard.


Arnold went to a Christian School, met his wife in church, did his early drag appearances at church Halloween socials, and as we will see in Part II the first meeting of the Hose and Heel club was in a church building. After that we hear no more about any involvement with a church.

Arnold completed his PhD in 1939 at the age of 27. The US joined WWII two years later. There is no mention in any of the sources that he was called to be inducted into the military. Did the military not want qualified pharmacists? It is difficult to believe that the Arnold who had not yet met Louise Lawrence avoided service by confessing his transvestism, and being refused.

For some reason the Find-a-Grave page on Elizabeth Arnold does not link to either husband or children (although it does say "cremains buried with the Prince family - Ferris family relations ").


  1. Anonymous4/9/08 00:11

    Fascinating: I can't slip a tissue between Prince's femiphilia and the notion of autogynophilia (AG's) either.

    Nor can I distinguish between BBL & co's beliefs about homosexual transsexuals and AG's.

    Its all just a rehash of Prince's old beliefs.


  2. Anonymous22/3/09 07:33

    lovely to know that AUTOGYNISM is alive and interest in shemale LOL

  3. For me, as a kid, seeing Virginia Prince on TV so many years ago when there was no other person standing up saying, it is OK to have been identified as male at birth and live your life as female, was like throwing a match on a stack of hope kindling. It burned in my heart for a long while after. I am so glad I had the chance to meet her and tell her how much her courage meant to me as a kid that just happened to park my butt in front of the TV at just the right moment.

    I have heard her described as an imperfect person, and I have heard her theories and ideas dissected. I just see her as someone that left a lasting impression of hope in my very young heart, especially when at that time my hopes were running pretty thin. Thank you Virginia. May you rest in peace.

  4. Anonymous9/5/09 14:39

    It is sad to hear of her passing.

    I had a run-in with her once when I was still a boy dressing as a girl. I was dressed in a tuxedo and our group was playing miniature golf. Needless to say, she was not pleased that I was there.

    I still am sorry to here that she is gone. She did so much to advance the acceptance of transgender people and it is a shame that pioneers like her are a rare commodity. Rest in peace, Virginia.

  5. Thank you for sharing this article! Is there any video available of Virginia? Youtube as come up short.

  6. I saw her/him on the Alan Burke Show in 1968. Prince was billed as Charles Prince, author of 'The Transvestite and His Wife.' I recall a bulky, unattractive Jewish-looking guy in a black wig.

  7. I took over the Presidency of the Alpha Chapter of TriEss in Los Angeles in January 2009. I am every proud of having met Virginia several times before she passed away. We had a memorial dinner for her in North Hollywood in May 2009.


  8. Hola, saludos desde Colombia, soy Jessica Vanegas Callejas y quiero decir que Virginia Charles Prince fue un Angel de Dios que nos abrio el camino a tantos feminofilos que estabamos en busca de respuestas. Dios la bendiga.

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