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13 January 2015

Lili Elbe, media construct

Part I:  Einar Wegener, artist
Part II: Lili Ilse Elvenes, surgery and womanhood
Part III:  Lili Elbe, media construct

The young writer Aldous Huxley published Limbo, a collection of short stories, in 1920.  The first story "Farcical History of Richard Greenow", 115 pages in length, told of a Cambridge-educated writer attempting a philosophy synthesis who is disturbed to find that he has an alternate identity, one Pearl Bellairs, who takes over when he is asleep and pens long sacharine romances.  Her novels, La Belle Dame Sans Morality and Daisy's Voyage to Cytherea become best sellers and provide an income.  In writing this story Huxley had been inspired by William Sharp, who after his death in 1905 was found to be also the author of the prose and poetry published under the name of Fiona Macleod.   Huxley, and many others, were also influenced by the very popular same-sex duality 1886 novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Another well-known story in this period was the 1890 The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde which told of a beautiful (natural beauty?) young man whose life and whose portrait become confused.

Contrarywise, Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel, Orlando, takes the  opposite approach:
"Orlando had become a woman - there was no denying it.  But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been.  The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity".  
Lili was not a follower of Orlando.

In October 1930, rumours circulated about the non-appearance of Einar, to the extent that sales were not happening at Gerda's exhibition of paintings.  Louise (Loulou) Lassen, the pioneering female journalist, had interviewed Gerda in 1927, and was now able to interview Lili Elvenes and produced a short series of articles for the sister publications, Politiken and Ekstra Bladet.

It was Loulou who proposed that Lili Elvenes be known as Lili Elbe.

The first article was by Loulou about Lili and Gerda. In her write-up Loulou stressed that there was nothing homosexual in the lives of Lili and Gerda.  The marriage had not been sexual, Lili had been a woman's spirit in a man's body since childhood, and more than that, that Einar and Lili were, in the style of Richard Greenow and Pearl Bellairs, two different identities. She explicitly stated:

"Einar Wegener no longer paints … he was so markedly virile in his whole manner of painting" that Lili could not continue it.
The second article is a transcript of a telephone call between Copenhagen's Dr Rank and Dr Kurt Warnekros, who was referred to as von Warnekros [‘von’ implies nobility]. Warnekros boasted that he had performed an unprecedented operation that the top French doctors were incapable of. There is no mention of the other trans women who had been operated on under the aegis of Magnus Hirschfeld.

In the third article, Copenhagen endocrinologist Kurt Sand gave his opinions, and a lawyer discussed the legal aspect.

Fra mand til kvinde: Lili Elbes bekendelser (From Man to Woman: Lili Elbe's confession) was published in Denmark within months of Lili's death in 1931 incorporating the news articles by Louise Lassen. It uses Lassen's pseudonym of Lili Elbe rather than Lili Elvenes, and Andreas Sparre rather than Einar Wegener although Lili's real names were well known in Copenhagen. Gerda becomes Grete, and the doctors and others are hidden behind pseudonyms.  Lassen's idea that Einar and Lili were two competing identities is retained in the book, as is the Richard Greenow/Pearl Bellaire idea that the male identity is neurasthenic and sickly while the female identity is vivacious and strong

Ernst Harthen (1884-1969), a German correspondent in Copenhagen, using his pen name Neils Hoyer, produced a German version,  Ein mensch wechselt sein geschlecht, a year later, and an English translation from the German, Man into Woman, with an introduction by Norman Haire came out in in 1933. Haire concluded:
“I cannot help thinking that until we know more about sexual physiology it is unwise to carry out, even at the patient’s own request, such operations as were performed in this case”.

The Spanish sexologist Gregorio Marañón perceived sexual evolution to be directed towards the virile, with feminine as an intermediate stage between adolescence and full masculinity.   For him the idea of a regression from male to female was untenable.   In the appendix to The Evolution of Sex and Intersexual Condition, 1932, he comments that "this woman, obviously intersexual, was always a woman".  Furthermore he suggested that Andreas and Grete were 'viriloid' women, their virility proven by their artistic prowess.

In 1933, Maurice Rostand's La femme qui était en lui, the first novel based on Lili's life came out

Warnekros' files were destroyed along with his clinic in the Allied bombing and resulting firestorm 13-15 February 1945.

The Neil Hoyer book became legendary and several transsexuals mention it as an influence on the way: Betty Cowell, Renée Richards, Jan Morris, Sally Barry, Dawn Simmons.

Various academics gave brief summaries of the book from the 1990s onwards adjusting it to fit their theses. With the exception of Sandy Stone in 1991, it was not read closely until Rainer Herrn in 2005.

Sanda Davis in her 1995 book, Am I a Man or a Woman?, revived the idea of an alternate identity, but without mention of either Pearl Bellairs or Lili Elbe. This she called an introjection, which can become so dominant that it becomes the major personality: 
 "All humans acquire Introjects. Depending on specific factors, Introjects may or may not lead to dissociation, even to severe forms of dissociation. Reflecting the person that is imprinted as an Introject, some Introjects are content with limited control, while others take over completely, using, abusing, and transforming the body. Such is the case with Gender Identity Disorder: a cross-gender Introject takes over the body, and demands gender reassignment.
David Ebershoff fictionalized Lili’s life for his 2000 novel, The Danish Girl, making major changes such as changing Greta to be from Pasadena, California (where Ebershoff grew up) and giving her a previous husband and child. It was announced in 2008 that the novel would be filmed with cis actress Nicole Kidman as Lili, but it never happened, and in 2014 it was announced that a male actor, Eddie Redmayne, will play the part.


There was another woman, Lili von Elbe, the first wife of Kuno von Moltke, one of the participants in the Eulenburg homosexual scandal in 1907, who testified about his aversion to women.  She was no relation to this Lili Elbe.

You may argue that to apply the tools of literary criticism to the Lili Elbe biographies is to make a category mistake, but my point is that the fact that we are able to do so, that there are such strong echoes of Pearl Bellairs, Edward Hyde and Dorian Gray in the tale of Lili Elbe, that the veracity of the tale is suspect.   Not to the extent of doubting the historicity of Lili Ilse Elvenes, but that we should consider that Lassen and Hoyer, and maybe Lili herself, adjusted the facts.

There is a good discussion of "Farcical History of Richard Greenow" in Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar's No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Vol.1, , The War of the Words: 131-6.

You can actually find novels by Pearl Bellairs listed in both Worldcat and Amazon.  They were in fact written by Margaret Jepson Birkinshaw, mother of Fay Weldon.  And she quite consciously took the name from Aldous Huxley's story.

Louise (Loulou) Lassen, one of only a few female journalists in the 1920s, was fluent in French, had translated Guy de Maupassant into Danish, and specialized in medical reporting.

There is a 1991 book, Struggling Under the Destructive Glance: Androgyny in the Novels of Guy de Maupassant, by Rachel M. Hartig.  As Lassen had translated de Maupassant, I looked at it to see if it discusses anything like Pearl Bellairs, but did not find anything like competing identities in the same body.

Elbe is, of course, the river in Dresden.  However 'elvenes' is Danish for 'rivers' and in fact 'elbe' is an old German word from 'albiz'=river.  Additionally a river often what separates two states, so by metaphor two sexes.

Ernst Harthern, born Ernst Ludwig Harthern Jacobson, wrote several books under the pen-name of Neils Hoyer.  He was raised in Stade, Lower Saxony, and was of Jewish descent.  His father abandoned him and his mother died when he was nine.  Despite difficulties he did finally become a journalist and covered Scandinavia for German newspapers until the Nazi takeover in 1933 when his writings were banned.  He escaped the German occupation by moving to Sweden, and in 1943 was part of the team that helped the majority of Danish Jews to escape to Sweden.

Rainer Herrn,  Schnittmuster des Geschlechts. Transvestitismus und Transsexualität in der frühen Sexualwissenschaft, comments how, in reading the book, it is difficult to know which bits are by Elbe and which bits by Hoyer.  It is not so simple as separating the 1st-person bits from the 3rd-person bits.  Furthermore Sabine Meyer points out in "Mit dem Puppenwagen in die normative Weiblichkeit. Lili Elbe und die journalistische Inszenierung von Transsexualität in Dänemark" that some parts are written by Louise Lassen.   Nor is it clear whether Hoyer was involved in the original Danish edition.  Unlike the German and English editions, his name in not on the book, although WorldCat has added his name to the 5th edition, but not the earlier 4.  The German version is not claimed to be a translation of the Danish.   Nor is at at all explained how or why Hoyer had access to Lili's papers.  There is no mention in the book itself of a Neils Hoyer, although Wegener does socialize with a friend in Berlin, said to be from Copenhagen, who is called Neils Hvide.  It would be a useful PhD thesis if someone were to compare the three language versions and the newspaper articles by Lassen.

Was Warnekros attempting to outdo Hirschfeld?   His comments in the telephone interview transcipt in Ekstra Bladet would lead one to think so even though Hirschfeld was not mentioned.

Lili Elvenes was a patient of Kurt Warnekros, of course, and not of Magnus Hirschfeld, but hers was the case that was taken up by the press, while Carla, Toni or Dörchen were forgotten to the point that many writers claim that Lili was the first person to have a surgical sex change.

Contrarywise, in the following books about Magnus Hirschfeld, Lili Elvenes/Elbe is not even mentioned:
Charlotte Wolff.  Magnus Hirschfeld: A Portrait of a Pioneer in Sexology. 1986.
Ralf Dose.   Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement.  2005/2014.
Robert Beachy.  Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. 2014
and she gets only one line in:
Elena Mancini. Magnus Hirschfeld and the Quest for Sexual Freedom: A History of the First International Sexual Freedom Movement.  2010.

Tim Armstrong's Modernism, Technology, and the Body: A Cultural Study, chapter 6 "Making a woman' is the best attempt that I found which attempts to integrate the Lili Elbe book into its cultural context, and it should be referred to in any future attempt to do the same.    However he does drop a few big clangers.  He thinks that the next transgender operations are in the US in the 1950 (thus ignoring Drs George Burou, Lennox Broster and Harold Gillies),  he assumes that Magnus Hirschfeld was a transvestite (as does Vern Bullough but nobody else), he feels obliged to drag in Janice Raymond for no reason at all, he opens and closes with the Freudian equation of castration and decapitation.

And his biggest clanger of all found on p281n24.  He says that the title of the German version, Ein mensch wechselt sein geschlecht, means A man changes his sex, and is therefore a masculine fantasy. This is incorrect, misleading and tendentious.   The proper translation of the German is A Person Changes Sex;   'sein' is masculine only because of its antecedent.  'Mensch' is a noun of masculine grammatical gender, but 'Mensch' simply means a 'human being', regardless of gender.  With no greater distortion, the title could be translated A woman changes her sex.

The Pseudonyms:

Andreas Sparre = Einar Wegener
Grete Sparre = Gerda Gottlieb Wegener Porta
Lili Elbe = Lili Ilse Elvenes
Werner Kreutz = Kurt Warnekros
Hardenfeld = Magnus Hirschfeld
Gebhard = Erwin Gohrbandt
Neils Hoyer = Ernst Harthern
Neils Hvide = Neils Hoyer Poul Knudsen
Ridolfo Furuzzi = Fernando Porta

In all the accounts that I have read about the Danish Girl film there has not been the slightest mention of any input from any real-world transsexual.  The very idea of using a trans actor seems to be totally alien to the production.  Likewise the idea of using a trans writer.   The following is the first line of the story description from IMDB: “Inspired by the true story of Danish painter Einar Wegener and his California-born wife”.   Gerda Wegener was Danish.   The story cannot be true if she is anything else.   The film is fact-free and transsexual-free.   However as Lili Elbe, as opposed to Lili Elvenes, is a media construct by Lassen/Warnekros/Hoyer/Stenning perhaps the further fabulation is not that inappropriate.   However the word 'true' should definitely not be used.

PS I notice that in the Wikipedia article on Fay Weldon they retroject her name inappropriately (as they do for transsexuals).  Weldon was born Fay Birkinshaw, and by a first marriage became Mrs Bateman.  However the Wikipedia authors refer to her as 'Weldon' in childhood and again when she was Mrs Bateman, that is before she met and married her second husband Ron Weldon in 1960.


  1. Niels Hvide is the pseudonyme for Poul Knudsen (Danish laywer and author living in Berlin at the time).
    And I compared the different language editions in my PhD thesis that will be released as a book later this year.

  2. I couldn't have written this account without your paper. Please do let us know when your book comes out.


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