Otto’s family were German. Otto was the 13th of 14 children. The first five died of cholera. The youngest also died young. His father died when he was four, and from then he slept with his mother in her bed until he was 14. He was her Nesthäckchen, the youngest living. He was girlish in appearance and his dressmaker sister used him as a dress model. He often wore girls’ shoes and dresses as a child.
A first experience with a woman at age 18 resulted in a gonorrhea infection. He emigrated to the US at age 19 (1895?).
A casual gift of theatre tickets to a young woman led to him being approved by her mother, and to marriage. They had two daughters and a son. Otto wore female clothing at all opportunities and wore female underwear under his male clothing at other times. He built up a wardrobe of 70-100 dresses. All the family knew of his dressing. He went to many masquerade balls in female dress. The younger daughter called him her papa-lady. He kept his hair long, but pinned up. He did not go to a barber for over twenty-five years, despite his wife’s urging. Nevertheless he became a successful businessman.
Back in Berlin Otto applied to the police for a permit to transvest, but without success. He transvested in public anyway. Magnus Hirschfeld said that he was an inverted lesbian, and he joined a Berlin lesbian club that tolerated transvestites.
He was a member of Hirschfeld’s Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (Scientific-Humanitarian Committee), and corresponded with Hirschfeld. In May 1906 Spengler gave a lecture on sexual intermediates to the German Scientific Society in New York – this is the earliest known lecture on the subject in New York.
In 1912 Otto was propositioned by a friend who found him in female clothing. He did not get any satisfaction from the encounter, but found it interesting.
An account of Spengler and a few other transvestites was the first such to be presented to doctors in the US. This was in a lecture by the sexologist Bernard Talmey to the New York Society of Medical Jurisprudence in December 1913, and published the next year in the New York Medical Journal. Spengler is not named, but simply referred to as ‘Mr S” and “first patient”.
In 1916 the five-year-old daughter of Otto’s neighbor was sent out to buy milk and was raped and murdered. The janitress tattled to the police about Spengler’s dress habits and he became the prime suspect. A search found blood-stained clothing (from his wife’s most recent period) and for four weeks he was under constant supervision. He had an alibi from a servant, and the police offered the servant $2,000 to change her story, but she remained loyal. It was established that the blood was menstrual, and the investigation was discontinued. The crime was never solved.
Spengler had corresponded for many years with the Oswego, New York transvestite doctor, Mary Walker, and attempted to secure her collection of pictures and letters when she died in 1919.
He had become a medical patient of Harry Benjamin who in 1928, at Spengler’s request , prescribed the newly developed progynon (later known as estradiol), an estrogenic hormone, and x-ray sterilization of the testicles. This was Benjamin’s first transgender case.
Shortly afterwards, Otto’s wife and son left him. The son had become the youngest press agent on Broadway, but died of tuberculosis at age 21.
Spengler suffered a financial loss in the Depression, but continued with a mail-order business and press-cutting service. He boasted that he had sold to the Prince of Wales, and to the Soviet Government.
In 1931 when Magnus Hirschfeld visited New York, Otto was noted in the audience and was pleased to be referred to as a typical transvestite. Spengler himself quoted Talmey’s article in a letter about himself to the New York Evening Post in 1933.
Spengler is one of the transvestites profiled in George W Henry’s Sex Variants, 1941, where he is given the pseudonym Rudolph von H. Shortly after that Otto was in a street accident, and was taken unconscious to hospital. When his underwear was discovered, the examining physician wrote into the hospital record: “patient is obviously a degenerate".
When George Henry (or one of his assistants) interviewed Otto, he was 64, blind in one eye because of a cataract and glaucoma, and living alone in a small dingy apartment cluttered with figures and portraits of women and with forms to display dresses. There is no record of his passing.
*Not the German political philosopher.
- Otto Spengler. Monatsberichte des Wissenschaftlich-humanitären Komitees, 5, 1906. Reprinted in 151. Jonathan Katz. Gay American History: Lesbians And Gay Men In The U.S.A. A Discus Book, 1978: 575.
- Bernard Simon Talmey. "Transvestism. A contribution to the study of the psychology of sex", New York Medical Journal, 21 Feb 1914, pp.362-368. Incorporated into his Love, a Treatise on the Science of Sex-Attraction: For the Use of Physicians and Students of Medical Jurisprudence. New York: Practitioners' Pub. Co, 1915: 298-307. Partially reprinted in Jonathan Katz. Gay/Lesbian Almanac. Harper & Row. 1983: 344-8.
- Otto Spengler. Letter to the Editor. New York Evening Post, February 15 1933.
- George W. Henry. Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns. New York: Paul B. Hoeber 1948: 487-98.
- Harry Benjamin. The Transsexual Phenomenon. Warner Books Edition 1977/PDF: 51/23,29.
- Harry Benjamin. “Introduction”. In Richard Green & John Money. Transsexualism and Sex Reassignment. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969: 1-2.
- Leah Cahan Schaefer & Connie Christine Wheeler. “Harry Benjamin's first ten cases (1938-1953): a clinical historical note”. Archives of Sexual Behavior 24:1 Feb 1995: 3. Online at www.helen-hill.com/pdf/hbfirst10cases.pdf.
- Jennifer Terry. An American Obsession: Science, Medecine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society. University of Chicago Press, 1999: 111-2, 259-260,
- Joanne Meyerowitz. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Cambridge, Ma, London: Harvard University Press, 2002: 46, 298n105.
- Pierre-Henri Castel. La métamorphose impensable: essai sur le transsexualisme et l'identité personnelle.Gallimard, 2003: 51, 54, 465, 466, 472.
There seems to be no record of Spengler’s birth year. I am using the 1948 edition of George W Henry Sex Variants. However the first edition was 1941. In the undated interview with ‘Rudolph von H’, it is stated that he ‘is now sixty-four years old’. For the book to be published in 1941, the interview cannot be later than 1940. Therefore I have presumed a birth year of 1876.
Various books on homosexuality, more than listed, mention Spengler’s May 1906 lecture in Chicago, and some treat him as a gay-rights pioneer (despite the lack of homosexuality in his life), but do not at all mention his transvestity. Of particular note is Terry’s book which writes about Spengler’s lecture in one chapter, and then about Rudolph von H in another, but does not mention that it is the same person.
Spengler would seem to be the first recorded trans person to take artificial hormones.
Did Spengler have a female name for himself? At a guess, yes. However it is not recorded by Talmey, Henry or Benjamin.
Benjamin discusses Spengler within the section The Fetishistic Transvestite. Except for Progynon, Otto seems to have stayed as such until old age. Like many trans persons in the early 20th century, the question arises: if modern technology were then available, would he have progressed into womanhood? That could be argued either way, but despite being the first patient to receive external estrogen, he never started living as female, unlike say Danielle O’L also in New York in the 1930s.
Castel says that Benjamin first met Spengler in 1938, Wheeler & Schaefer say that they met in the 1920s, but that HB became his doctor only in 1938; in Sex Variants, Spengler says that he was then 52, which would seem to be 1928. Benjamin in Green & Money, 1969, says the ‘early 1920s’. As Progynon was developed by Adolf Butenandt and his future wife, and was first on the market in 1928, 1928 or 1929 is the most likely date for Spengler’s treatment by Benjamin.
Harry Benjamin, 1965: 51, knows of Talmey’s discussion of Spengler, but does not seem to know of Henry’s.
Wheeler & Schaefer say that Spengler married at age 26, but Spengler interviewed by Henry says 19.
Wheeler & Schaefer say: “Magnus Hirschfeld informed Otto that he, Otto, was in fact also the inspiration for his famous work published in 1910, Transvestism (English translation, 1991)”. They give no page reference. I have looked in both the 1991 translation and the German original and fail to confirm this.
Wheeler & Schaefer say: ” Otto's transvestism was described by Talmay in his medical book entitled Love as a "sexo-aesthetic inversion of a pure artistic imitation, occurring in highly artistic, honorable, moral, inconspicuous, nonoffensive individuals who would never commit wrong when masquerading". Actually, speaking not of Spengler in particular but transvestism in general, Talmay says that it “is a sexo-esthetic inversion of pure artistic imitation. Hence it occurs mostly in artists and in men of letters, i.e., in persons endowed with a highly developed artistic taste. Such persons are, as a rule, disgusted at the sight of the organs of the sex to which the individual by anatomical configuration belongs, while such sights offer to the homosexual individual additional charm and piquancy.”
Books in which one would expect to find at least a mention of Otto Spengler, but is disappointed:
- Charlotte Wolff. Magnus Hirschfeld: A Portrait of a Pioneer in Sexology. 1986
- George Chauncey. Gay New York. 1994
The original version of this article was 18 April 2009. A few weeks later, a blogger by the moniker of Tianewu stole my text and posted it as her own work.