Around The Town

Christine Jorgensen

By: Alix Cohen

Background: Who Was Christine Jorgensen?
“We didn’t start the sexual revolution, but I think we gave it a good kick in the pants!” Christine Jorgensen

February 15, 2024: George W. Jorgensen, Jr., aka Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989), was assigned male at birth, but self identified as a female. In her late 20s, she became aware of medical sex reassignment, began taking estrogen, then followed up with hormone replacement therapy in Denmark. Her parents were Danish. It was easy to mask the trip as a family visit. Operations in Scandinavia and the United States completed transition. “Remember the shy, miserable person who left America? Well, that person is no more,” she wrote friends. “You have lost a son, but gained somebody new,” she told her parents. The Jorgensens were supportive.

Mark Nadler and Jesse James Keitel.

By: Alix Cohen

Background: Who Was Christine Jorgensen?
“We didn’t start the sexual revolution, but I think we gave it a good kick in the pants!” Christine Jorgensen

February 15, 2024: George W. Jorgensen, Jr., aka Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989), was assigned male at birth, but self identified as a female. In her late 20s, she became aware of medical sex reassignment, began taking estrogen, then followed up with hormone replacement therapy in Denmark. Her parents were Danish. It was easy to mask the trip as a family visit. Operations in Scandinavia and the United States completed transition. “Remember the shy, miserable person who left America? Well, that person is no more,” she wrote friends. “You have lost a son, but gained somebody new,” she told her parents. The Jorgensens were supportive.

Christine Jorgensen 1954 (Public Domain)

Based on a purloined letter to her parents, Christine was outed by The Daily News: “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Bronx Army vet undergoes first widely known gender reassignment procedure,” read the 1953 headline. Before and after photos were published. Though not technically the first successful “sex change” operations, hers were the first to be widely publicized.

Christine Jorgensen became an overnight celebrity, the subject of misleading information and crude jokes, a victim of hounding.  Agent Charlie Yates suggested she capitalize on her name, additionally an opportunity to control narrative. Christine became a forerunner in the attempt to shape inclusivity. She submitted to interviews, lectured, and would eventually write an autobiography. By all reports, the young woman was direct, witty and extremely feminine – the latter affected by expectation. Slacks were eschewed for fear she’d appear masculine.

“What people don’t understand is that the important thing is identity. You don’t transition for sexual reasons, you do it because of who you are,” she said. “I’m transgender, not transsexual… gender refers to who you are as a human… make the body fit the soul, rather than vice versa. For me, it is the heart, the look in the eyes, tone of voice, and the way one thinks that makes the real person.”

Despite lack of talent in training or temperament, the young woman (24) was sent to song and dance man, Myles Bell to create The Christine Jorgensen Show, a nightclub act. This is when we meet her in Donald Steven Olson’s play.

The Christine Jorgensen Show – The Play

Myles (Mark Nadler) is a recovering alcoholic working on a comeback. When Christine (Jesse James Keitel) enters the Times Square studio to which she’s been directed, he addresses her as “toots” and “sweetheart” first assuming she’s an agent’s secretary, then thinking she’s a performer auditioning for his nascent act. The prim stranger responds with confusion and offended pride. Can she sing, dance, do impersonations…“high dive into a fish bowl?” No. Myles is dismissive. He has no time for amateur hour.

Jesse James Keitel
Jesse James Keitel

Christine identifies herself. Myles is shocked. Their mutual agent wants him to create a show for this new client in which Myles would be second banana. The idea doesn’t sit well. “It’s a good offer for someone in your position,” she tells him. Ouch. He’s rude and impatient. She’s stiff and wary. Still, it’s worth a try.

Over ensuing months, Myles crafts a show while at the same time teaching Christine to entertain. It’s as painful to watch as it must’ve been to experience. The young woman is resistant and frankly bad until an ersatz Eliza Doolittle-type breakthrough. The two grow close, though what that means to each is very different. After all the work, she backs out. Of course, there wouldn’t be a play had Christine not returned. We’re treated to the act. It’s a revelation.

Dramatization manifests the illusion of passing time and evolving relationship replete with a multitude of speed bumps. Christine’s fear of making a fool of herself is palpable; Myles determination and skill in tailoring material, credible. His telling her to take advantage of her sex appeal delivers a wonderful moment. The play is illuminating and moving, deft in its economy and charm.

Jesse James Keitel & Mark Nadler
Jesse James Keitel & Mark Nadler

Donald Steven Olson wrote the piece with Mark Nadler in mind, something obvious to anyone familiar with the latter’s work. The artist sings, plays piano, dances, and executes a perfect pratfall. His larger than life, perfectionist personality is embedded in characterization. Gruffness, frustration, circumspect fear, and finally unexpected affection are among those attributes specific to the character. Changes emerge with nuance. The way Nadler touches Christine (they dance) shows adjusted awareness. His pride in her is touching. It’s something to see.

Jesse James Kietel is simply wonderful. Early on, when Christine picks up a dropped glove, she bends not from the waist like a man, but down on her haunches as would a woman. The gesture is graceful and intrinsic. Femininity is like unaccustomed wearing of couture – tailored to her, but needing acclimatization to feel natural. Learning the “showgirl walk” and waltz, evolution of trust, and burgeoning self confidence are beautifully rendered. Her face, admired by light, reflects the unspoken. Kietel, though a seasoned actor, has no formal training as a singer or dancer. Nadler coached her much the way Myles coached Christine, adding unwitting verisimilitude. Chemistry adds immeasurably.

Mark Nadler & Jesse James Keitel
Mark Nadler & Jesse James Keitel

Co-Directors Michael Barakova and Zoe Adams have done a splendid job bringing this story to life. We feel involved. Clichés are eschewed. Opening the play with Myles’s back to us and draping the heroine across a piano top are two of many potent visuals. Christine’s journey from awful to charming performance is empathetically hard won. Depicting a time span is skillfully achieved. 

Shoko Kambara’s minimal set is evocative. Costumes by Suzanne Chesney are superb – period perfect, flattering, detailed and fashionably accessorized. Each one is a treat!

Production Photos by Joan Marcus

Mark Nadler & Jesse James Keitel
Mark Nadler & Jesse James Keitel

The Creation of the Play

With his last play on hold during COVID, Donald Steven Olson decided to write a musical. The author has always been drawn to telling stories of people whose lives have been misconstrued, to period pieces, and to illumination of LGBTQ situations. “I grew up as a gay person. We were supposed to be tragic figures, never allowed to be who we were. I wanted to write a major role for a trans actor that both called upon a multitude of talents and would be ultimately joyous, uplifting.” Christine Jorgensen came to mind.

Research unearthed Jorgensen’s autobiography, the biography Being a Woman by Dr. Richard Doctor, YouTube interviews, an early 80s documentary made in Denmark, and a “horrible” Hollywood movie. Having worked with Mark Nadler (Nadler directed a reading for the playwright) and attended his cabaret shows, Olson felt an affinity and ran the idea by him. Nadler was enthusiastic and generous. As book, lyrics, and melodies were written, the entertainer became both inspiration for Myles – about whom little is known – and co-composer.

Book Cover (Public Domain)

The Christine Jorgensen Show was one of the most popular and financially remunerative acts of the era. Olson tells me it was purposefully nonthreatening/middle of the road. Myles stayed with the act 1 ½ years, then went on to become – wait for it – a stockbroker. Christine replaced him. Permission to use Christine’s signature song, “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” (Rodgers and Hammerstein) was financially prohibitive. New songs and patter were written.

Olson’s play morphed from two acts over two hours to its current 90 minutes. Developmental iterations were read and performed. When recommended to producer Andrew D. Hamingson, archival film was fortuitously available. There was no question of replacing Nadler. A wide net was thrown for the Jorgensen role. Jesse James Keitel was found in Los Angeles and relocated.

Christine Jorgensen and her fiancé Howard J. Knox leave the New York City Bureau of Records after trying to get a marriage certificate, April 3, 1959. Their application was rejected “without prejudice” because Christine’s gender on her birth certificate is still listed as “male.” She said her attorney would go to Washington to straighten things out. AP Photo/Jack Harris (Public Domain)

Olson has since written a 4 character companion piece called Transition: The Christine Jorgensen Collection which finds the heroine going through her archives and collection of career memorabilia requested by The Royal Library of Denmark. She’s in her early 60s suffering from cancer and is being cared for by two rather extraordinary trans women. The piece takes the audience through her memories–the army, transition, celebrity,  her nightclub act, acting in summer stock, the 1970 film made about her life, lecturing at universities, and her two failed attempts at marriage. 

The Christine Jorgensen Show by Donald Steven Olson
Directed by Michael Barakiva and Zoe Adams
59E 59St Theaters
Through March 3, 2024