Part II: fame and marriage
Part III: The geography of Charlotte McLeod in New York, 1957
Charles McLeod Jr., the only child of a Ford Motors salesman, was born in Nashville and raised in Dyersburg, Tennessee. The parents divorced when he was 16: both remarried. He was a lonely sensitive boy who lacked interest in masculine things. He was sometimes taken as a girl in boys’ clothing.
He consulted doctors and in the early 1940s went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He also stayed with cousins in Los Angeles in the hope of finding a medical specialist in that city who could help – but without success.
McLeod served three months in the US Army 1948 before being medically discharged with a 4-F rating. McLeod found doctors sympathetic to the idea of a sex change, but they apologized that the US laws re Mayhem would not permit such surgery.
McLeod was advised to “find such little happiness as I could in life by going to one of the ‘colonies’ that abound in our large cities” (McLeod, 1956:12). In 1948, McLeod moved to the French Quarter in New Orleans, but did not fit in the gay world either. He did find work as a bookkeeper for $75.00 a week (a good wage at the time). He tried Boston for a while, but returned to New Orleans.
He went to the Mayo Clinic a second time. They still could not offer anything, because it would be illegal.
In April 1953 McLeod, at age 28, read about Christine Jorgensen and her operation in Copenhagen. He quickly packed, and went to Dyersburg to tell his father what he was doing. With apparent parental approval, McLeod continued to New York and quickly took ship to Denmark using a minor inheritance from a grand aunt. He sailed on the MS-Maasdam. Many of the people on the ship were crossing to England for the Coronation in June.
In Denmark, the Folketing had passed a new law restricting sex-change operations (that is the ‘first’ operation, the orchiectomy or castration) to Danish nationals who were not over 26. By asking around, McLeod was directed to a renegade doctor, Dr Emil Petersen:
“a rather unscrupulous physician, a man who had been charged with collaborating with the Nazis and who had only recently returned from exile. … of frightening appearance who, from the results of a British bullet through the base of his skull, habitually walked so bent over that he never met one’s eye.” (McLeod, 1956:13).McLeod moved into the doctor’s apartment and waited five days while Petersen came down sufficiently off narcotics to regain his surgical skill. His wife and eldest son were to assist with the operation which took place on the kitchen table. The wife administered the anesthetic.
McLeod awoke in great pain and hemorrhaging. Petersen retreated into drugs, and collapsed outside McLeod’s door. She tore the stitches in her abdomen attempting to get him up, and then an infection set in. She fled and found that she no longer had her passport. She reported this to the police, and she was told that she had to leave the country, but was allowed time to settle her medical problems.
McLeod was admitted to Bispebjerg hospital. The first operation being already done, it was now legal to complete the transition. The Danish doctors led by Dr Jens Foged (1897 – 1956) agreed to do a penectomy and relocate the urethra. Christian Hamburger, who had attended to Christine Jorgensen, was the endocrinologist, and explained to Charlotte about the need for external hormones. She was unable to pay for the medical attention, and so the medical team worked free of charge.
Charlotte then started wearing female clothes, and applied to the US embassy for a new passport. It was re-issued but again in the name of Charles. Her father was contacted, but said that he would give neither financial nor emotional support.
After recovery, Charlotte went with a church outing for a weekend in Bergen, Norway, where she met a US-Norwegian, Ralph Heidal, a seaman, who helped her with skiing.
Twice in 1953, on 5 March and 20 May, a Polish pilot defected to the West by landing his MIG fighter plane on the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic. It was probably the second occasion when Charlotte was there having been invited to visit for the weekend. She created a stir: “ I never saw so many Russian troops. Microscopic was their examination of all of our papers and when it was found that my passport didn’t match, I think they thought that they had found the master spy.” (Stryker: 23)
In early 1954 Charlotte gave a very brief interview to journalists in Copenhagen. A 47-page pamphlet, Da Karl blev Karl: En dansk læges bedrift, came out telling of a second US person operated on – this time on a kitchen table. The book names the person as Karla, and the doctor as Petersen.
A few weeks later, on 24-5 February the Danish publication, Aftenbaldet (Evening Magazine) told almost the same story of Charlotte McLeod – and in retrospect it is apparent the Karla and Charlotte were the same person.
The US press picked up on the story immediately.
In early March the story broke that Roberta Cowell in England had also completed a gender change.
In late April the Copenhagen police found that Dr Petersen was the doctor who did the initial operation, and after statements that perhaps he would not be charged, finally he was charged with violating the castration law.
Charlotte inadvertently interrupted a press event for the Canadian actress, Yvonne de Carlo:
“She had all the press lined up for this big landing that she was going to make when she came in from Europe. And they found that I was in next car coach and everybody that was supposed to interview her came gang banging on me.” (Stryker p24)It was 16 April 1954 when Charlotte arrived at New York’s Idlewild airport. She intended to transfer and fly directly to Tennessee. However fog grounded the plane. She stayed overnight in a hotel, and was swarmed by the press, to the point that she fell over. It was said that in the struggle she struck a photographer with her umbrella, and she and they were arrested and charged with assault. However the charges were quickly dropped.
|Charlotte reconciled with her father.|
She returned to Dyersburg and was reconciled with her father.
Continued in Part II.
Thank you to Tina Thranesen of Vidensbanken om kønsidentitet who first identified that Da Karl blev Karl: En dansk læges bedrift was actually about Charlotte.
The high quality photographs are from Transas City.
In an interview with Susan Stryker in 2002, Charlotte said (p6) that her father was a Ford Motors salesman. However several newspaper accounts in 1954 said that he was in insurance.
She also said that she was in Denmark for ‘two years’ (p24, 29). However April 1953-April 1954 is one year.
Charlotte did not know, most trans persons in 1953 did not know, but Elmer Belt had quietly started doing vaginoplasties for trans women at the University of California at Los Angeles. He got around the Mayhem restrictions by preserving the testicles, pushing them into the abdomen.
The encounter with Yvonne DeCarlo. This is recounted on p24 of the interview with Susan Stryker. Charlotte says it immediately after saying that she was in Denmark for two years which implies that it was at about the time that she returned to the US. It is unclear whether it happened in Denmark or the US. The expression ‘next car coach’ implies that that they were on a train. I have placed the anecdote immediately prior to her flight to the US, but with further information this may have to be adjusted.
- Bent Rosenwein. Da Karl blev Karla: En dansk læges bedrift. Self published, 1954.
- “Ny amerikansk Chris Jørgensen skjult her I byen efter operation”. Aftenbaldet. 24 feb 1954. PDF. Text.
- “Danes Change 2d GI to Girl”. Boston American, Feb 24, 1954: 3. Online.
- “Charlie to Charlotte Operation Successful on New Orleans Patient: ‘Christine’-type Surgery in Denmark changes Sex to Female”. Baton Rouge State Times Advocate, 2/24/1954: 1-a, 8-a. Online.
- “Operation Changes Sex of American”. Eugene Register-Guard. 24 Feb 1954. Online
- “Ex-Gi ‘Charlotte’ Goes into Hiding”. Boston American, Feb 25, 1954: 3. Online.
- “Now His Daughter, Says Ex-GI’s Dad”. Boston American, Feb 25, 1954: 3.2. Online.
- “Medicine: In Christine’s Footsteps”. Time, March 8. 1954. Online.
- “Charlotte, Who Was Charles, Falls in Hotel Scuffle”. Sacramento Bee, 17 April, 1954:6. Online.
- “Danes Check on Sex Change”. Sacramento Bee, April 19, 1954: 7. Online.
- “Sex Change or Suicide Choice”. Boston Daily Record, May 13, 1954:3. Online.
- Charlotte McLeod. “I Changed My Sex”. Mr Annual, Winter 1956. PDF.
- Susan Stryker interviews Charlotte McLeod, transcribed by Loren Basham. GLBT Historical Society, August 22, 2002. PDF.
TransasCity Collection Vidensbanken om konsidentitet