Part II: fame and marriage
Part III: The geography of Charlotte McLeod in New York, 1957
Charlotte was offered night-club appearances. A reporter, who worked at the National Press Club and normally wrote religious articles, proposed to do a book on her, and put her up in a hotel in Washington, DC while they worked on it, but it was never finished, and he ran out of money.
She took a gig in New Orleans, but found that the contract was with a strip club.
“And right across the street was a very, well the nicest club on the street. No hard bumps and grinds and strips and all that kind of thing. And to get me out of the verbal contract the owner paid for me going to court. And the next thing I am sitting up in front of the judge. I never will forget, I had a great big felt cart wheel hat on. Couldn’t sit on the seat because the cart wheel hat hit the back and I had to take my hat off. I don’t know why I should remember that. In that day and time ladies wore their hats. And he released me from the contract and I went across to the Show Bar, which was the nicest club on the street.” (Stryker:26)
A dancer-comedienne called Cupcake wrote material for Charlotte:
“ I’ve been to many places, environments strange, and then I went to Denmark, just for a little change”.Then she moved on to the Casino Royal in Washington where she was backed by a band. She had become a member of the American Guild of Variety Artists, and was represented by Miles Ingles who was also the agent for Cyd Cherise and Polly Bergen. One time she appeared on stage in between Gypsy Rose Lee and Mae West. She also did modeling. Charlotte met Christine Jorgensen once when they were both appearing in New Orleans.
In August 1955, Charlotte had breast implants with New York plastic surgeon, Else La Roe (1918 – 2006).
In 1956 she wrote a brief autobiography for the Mr Annual, in which she claimed that her condition was physically caused, and that 95% of transsexuals should have psychiatric treatment.
|Dorothy at the all-night beauty salon|
She was becoming annoyed by star reporter and television personality, Dorothy Kilgallen.
“I got tired of Dorothy Kilgallen chasing me around and writing things about me that I have never thought of doing. And I went to her house [45 E 68th Street] one day and knocked on her door and the butler recognized me, it was strange, he said, ‘aren’t you Miss Charlotte?’ And I said, yes. And he said, don’t go away. I said, well I have no intention, that’s why I’m here. So I met Dorothy. And I said, well Dorothy, I’m tired of this, this business and I need a job. If you’ll help me get a job, I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Her husband is Dick Kollmar a Broadway producer, and he owned the Left Bank Club. He owned a little French restaurant and bar right across the street from Madison Square Garden. And in that day and time, the hat check and cigarette concession could make you a decent living. So they were most pleased to get me to be the hostess and hat check girl. The main thing that’s fun, I met everybody that ever was in show business.” (Stryker: 28)This was 1957. It was while working at the Left Bank Club that Charlotte met Harry Benjamin, who came in as a customer. He became her physician, and also would take her out to lunch and introduce her to such conservative activists such as William Buckley as well as film stars.
Charlotte was living at the Washington-Jefferson Hotel on West 51st Street. Ralph Heidal, whom she had met in Bergen, had stayed in touch by mail. They ran into each other in Maxie’s, a bar close by. He offered to take her away.
In 1959, Christine Jorgensen had been denied a marriage license by a clerk in New York City, on the basis that her birth certificate listed her as male; Jorgensen did not pursue the matter in court.
|Charlotte in Miami 1959|
Dorothy Killgallen had contacts in Miami as everywhere, and their wedding was featured in her column.
A few months later, Mr and Mrs Heidal moved to California. They lived in Berkeley, then Oakland and then Marin County. Charlotte reconnected to Harry Benjamin who spent his summers in San Francisco. He introduced her to trans women Aleshia Brevard and Kathy Taylor who had been friends since their days at Finocchio’s nightclub, where Kathy performed as Stormy Lee.
Mrs Heidal’s marriage to her husband lasted seven years.
“And bless his heart, he couldn’t do a darn thing but drive a steamship around the world. Never did teach that rascal to drive a motor car. In fact, that’s why we broke up. I had visions of a little cottage on the side of Mt. Tamalpias. And oh how we did love it. But Ralph didn’t find a job. Everything he knew was diesel, whatever made steamboats run. I took him to every plant in Northern California trying to find a job for him. And finally, I got the proverbial Dear John letter. He said it was how it is every year we had to write but unless I was willing to go back to New York, where he was perfectly happy. And we would have to part company and I wouldn’t go back to New York.” (Stryker:31)Dorothy Kilgallen died in November 1965 at age 52 after ingesting alcohol and barbituates. Some say that she was murdered (more) for digging into the Kennedy assassination – her folder of documents on the case had disappeared and was never seen again.
After her divorce, Charlotte moved to Laguna Beach, south of Los Angeles, because she had friends there. She got a job as a receptionist at a beauty salon. Charlotte arranged to have vaginoplasty:
“I was living at Laguna Beach. And a little Japanese doctor did it. And there was some instrument that he had to have, I think. He was under the impression that he could use the same instrument on me that he could on a normal woman that needed that surgery done. Well he did and perforated my colon. And I had to go to Stanford to have the colostomy to repair his work and while I was there I stumbled on Dr. Donald Laub [head of the Sexual Identity Unit]. Oh, me. What a to-do that was.” (Stryker:22)One of the beauticians mentioned that her brother-in-law had lost his wife to suicide. They were introduced and started dating. He was a military officer with two children, eleven and twelve. The kids started calling her Mom.
On 8 August 1969 she was visiting Kathy in Los Angeles where they could see a commotion across the canyon that turned out to be the aftermath of the murder of Sharon Tate and 3 others by members of the Manson Family.
The military officer asked Charlotte to marry him, but something had to be explained first.
“In fact, it was Cathy who went to him and explained to him the situation because we had debated. He hadn’t the vaguest idea. And I knew, if he hadn’t already asked me to marry him, Cathy said, let me see if I can help. And she went and talked to him. And Cathy’s husband did not take it so well. In fact, he was very belligerent when he did find out.” (Stryker:41) [Cathy=Kathy of course. Aleshia Brevard, who knew her, spells it with a 'K'. The transcription of the interview spells it with a 'C'.]Charlotte and the military officer were married in Las Vegas in 1970 – this time with no press attention. Again the marriage lasted seven years.
Return visits to the Stanford clinic and Dr Laub created problems when her husband went with her.
“And that really ruined my marriage with my second husband. We were going up and stopped by for a chat with him. And we went in and Donald had started, he was so very selective, very selective. He had a Gorgeous George sitting in there with tattoos all over him.” (Stryker:44) “He did ruin my marriage. My husband saw me in a different view from what he had in mind.” (Stryker:45)After the end of her second marriage Charlotte moved back to Dyersburg, Tennessee to look after her ageing mother. She stayed in touch with her step children. The son died in middle age without finding out about Charlotte’s past; at the turn of the century, Charlotte was very sick and wrote to tell the daughter on her own terms in that it would come out if she died. That daughter has had children, and thus Charlotte became a grandmother.
++Charlotte remained in Dyersburg, and died at age 82. Her passing was not noticed by the press, which probably would have been to her liking.
*Not the mystery writer, nor the character in the television show, McLeod’s Daughters.
The Washington-Jefferson Hotel is still in business. Its rooms are now $126 a night and up. Charlotte says: it “was a place for retired show people who lived there” which probably means that even after adjusting for inflation it was cheaper in 1957, particularly if you paid by the month.
Aleshia Brevard in The Woman I Was Born to Be, 2010, p48 writes:
This is quite different to what Charlotte said, whereby the wedding was after the confrontation at Kilgallen’s apartment, and the husband was certainly aware of Charlotte’s past before he married her.
Tina Thranesen gives the name of the New York plastic surgeon as Rachael LaRoe; Joanne Meyerowitz gives it as Else La Roe. I have gone with the latter.
In the Stryker interview it sometimes becomes confusing about when things are happening. I have placed the vaginoplasty operation just before Charlotte met her second husband because she says that she was living in Laguna beach at the time, and Donald Laub was not at the clinic at Stanford until 1968.
Charlotte says that she was already married when she observed the Tate killings from a distance, but that happened in August 1969, and she also says that the wedding was in 1970. Time does affect our memories. (Stryker: 38-9)
The Wikipedia page on Dorothy Kilgallen says nothing at all about Charlotte. Likewise Lee Israel’s 1979 biography, Kilgallen. Likewise Mark Shaw’s The Reporter Who Knew Too Much: The Mysterious Death of What's My Line TV Star and Media Icon Dorothy Kilgallen.
There is something missing from the source documents: Dorothy Kilgallen's articles about Charlotte are not online. The collection of newspaper articles found at TransasCity is very good, but does lack this component.
Trivia: Dorothy Kilgallen was at 45 E 68th Street; Harry Bemjamin’s office was only a block away at 44 East 67th St.
- “Sex-Shifter Wants to be Charlotte”. Boston Daily Record, June 15, 1954: 4. Online.
- “Charlotte Seeks Night Club Job”. New Orleans Times Picayune, June 24, 1954: 8. Online.
- “Charlotte Halted by Court Action”. New Orleans Times Picayune, July 4, 1954: 11. Online.
- “Charlotte M’Leod Suit Lost by Badon”. ”. New Orleans Times Picayune, July 10, 1954:1. Online.
- “Sex-Changed Ex-GI Becomes Miami Bride. UPI, Nov 13, 1959. Online.
- “Bride Revealed as Forner GI”. San Diego Union, 11/14/1959: A3. Online.
- Joanne Meyerowitz. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Harvard University Press, 2002: 82-3, 84, 89, 91, 148, 304n93.
- Susan Stryker interviews Charlotte McLeod, transcribed by Loren Basham. GLBT Historical Society, August 22, 2002. PDF.
- Aleshia Brevard. The Woman I Was Born to Be. A Blue Feather Book, 2010: 5, 48.
- Brittany Shammas. “Five Moments in Miami’s LGBTQ History, From 1937 to 2015”. Miami New Times, March 12, 2019. Online.
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