When Caitlyn Jenner unveiled herself to the world in a sensational June 2015 Vanity Fair gender reveal cover, the world’s most famous transgender star was assumed to have been born. The reality star and former male Olympic gold medallist was widely feted as the biggest trans star in history.
Jenner has indeed become a passionate advocate for trans rights and is undoubtedly a trans icon. But in the bitter culture wars that now rage between trans activists and radical feminists, there was an earlier transexual superstar whose voice has largely been lost in the din — until now.
Christine Jorgensen blazed a trail for trans people long before Caitlyn swapped her Speedos for a swimsuit. Jorgensen became America’s first celebrity trans woman after undergoing sex reassignment surgery and hormone treatment in Denmark in the early 1950s. She had formerly been a US G.I. in the Second World War and, when it was revealed that she’d changed gender in a front-page news story while she was in Europe undergoing treatment, she found instant fame on her return to the US where she began a career as an actress and singer.
Like Jenner, Jorgensen rose to the heights of showbiz society. She became a friend to the stars, had flings with movie greats, and rubbed more than just shoulders with royalty.
Now, a fascinating lost tape uncovered by Hollywood fixer Paul Barresi shines a light on America’s first grand trans dame. Recorded on September 17, 1988, just months before she died the following year, the tape is her last recorded interview.
“I’m proud to have given Christine Jorgensen her voice back and to have uncovered not only a part of showbiz history but also an important cultural relic,” says Barresi.
In the tape, shared exclusively with Radar, Jorgensen, who was born George William Jr. in 1952, talks about her links to royalty and celebrity.
She tells interviewer Ray Strait, an author who was Jayne Mansfield's press secretary, about meeting actor John Wayne, who became a cancel culture bête noire in 2019 when excerpts of a 1971 Playboy interview he gave, in which he criticized the depiction of gay sex in the movie Midnight Cowboy, were tweeted.
Jorgensen explained that she was dining in the DeMille restaurant at Paramount Studios having lunch when "The Duke" came in.
“I had never met him. He doffed his cap, came over, put his arms around me and kissed me,” she recalls. “And that’s the one and only time I did meet him. And he came over and he kissed me. He kissed me on the lips!”
Whatever Wayne’s opinions about gay cowboys were, the tape shows he was obviously not concerned about trans women.
Jorgensen, however, had nothing good to say about another actor, Sean Penn, who was making headlines at the time for his divorce from Madonna following allegations of violence and abuse, which the singer later withdrew.
“There are men that are absolutely terrified of being in the same room with me. I’m sure I would terrify Sean Penn,” she said. “I think he’s trying to prove his masculinity all the time. He’s not a very charming little man.”
She explained that she believed some famous men felt threatened by her, naming talk show host Johnny Carson as an example.
“I’ve done every talk show, practically on the face of this country, but he’s scared of me,” she explained. “Those that are secure in their own masculinity had no problem approaching me or saying, ‘Hi’. Not like the young ones today like Sean Penn, who want fame, or they’ll punch you in the mouth.”
Barresi uncovered the lost tape for an unnamed collector. He explains that Jorgensen’s revelation about John Wayne shows the True Grit star in a more nuanced light.
He explains: “The days of being recognized for our best achievements in life are long gone. In 2019, cancel culture fanatics resurrected a decades-old interview and branded an adored Western movie star a racist and a homophobe. I wonder what those people would have to say after hearing Christine Jorgensen talk about The Duke’s inclusive greeting when he met her.
“Wayne was obviously not bothered by Christine’s gender orientation. It is very easy to take something said by someone in the past out of historical context and judge them by the progressive standards of the day. But is that fair? Culture and opinions change and decades down the road we’ll all be judged to have had outdated views on something or other.”
In the interview excerpts, Jorgensen also reveals she dated The King and I star Yul Brynner in the fifties when he was starring in the Broadway version of the musical.
She says: “We went to 21 Club a couple of times with Gypsy Rose Lee (a famous burlesque dancer) and Julio De Diego (a famous artist) who she was married to at that time. I used to come backstage at The King and I and he’d (Brynner) would be shaving his head with an electric shaver. And a little boy, the number one son in the show, stood there with great big saucer eyes looking at me all the time, waiting for me to come, just cute as a button. And I did not know for 20 years that it was Sal Mineo (the Rebel Without a Cause actor who was later nominated for an Oscar).”
Later in the interview, Jorgensen explains she was introduced to gangster Lucky Luciano, Howard Hughes, and deposed King Farouk of Egypt by Ada "Bricktop" Smith, the American dancer, performer, and jazz singer, at her nightclub in Rome.
Of the king, Jorgensen recalls, “Bricktop always referred to Farouk as ‘his majesty’, but what are you gonna call a dethroned King? So, I never called him your majesty. I liked him. He had a sense of humor. Even about himself. He laughed a lot. He was very, very, nice, extremely generous.”
Later, the exiled monarch sent Jorgensen a gift of a diamond and aquamarine ring and pendant set. She suspected he wanted sexual favors in return but exclaimed, “I wasn’t about to jump in the sack with King Farouk.”
On her return from Europe to the US Jorgensen traveled with playwright Tennessee Williams and his muse, Italian actress Anna Magnani. They were going to make the movie The Rose Tattoo together, which Williams was writing and for which Magnani eventually won a Best Actress Oscar.
Jorgensen explains, “Anna did not speak much English. She had her coach with her, but all the way across for ten days, there wasn’t much English spoken by Anna Magnani. So, I said to Tennessee at that time I said Tennessee… Tom, you have a little problem. That woman doesn’t speak English. And he said, I know, I know. She came over, she made the film and won the Academy Award. Tennessee adored Anna.”
In another part of the interview, Jorgensen reveals she had a romantic tryst with King Frederick IX of Denmark shortly after her gender reassignment surgery, explaining the high heels she wore at the time helped level up the height difference between them.
“They were very open in Denmark,” she laughs. “They are not like the British Royal family. Queen Elizabeth doesn’t show up very much as having a sense of humor.”
Jorgensen then laughs at rumors she heard that Queen Elizabeth II once took her shoes off in a private plane, looked up at one of her gay staff members and she said "will one of you queens get this queen a gin and tonic."
“I’d like to know that she has a sense of humor because invariably she shows up and she looks like her haemorrhoids are about ready to explode,” guffaws Jorgensen.
The interview was recorded at Jorgensen’s home in San Clemente, California, and forms part of an eight-hour archive uncovered by Barresi in which the celebrity also discusses Mae West, Marilyn Munroe and Vivien Lee. She also talks about the time she was banned from performing in Boston by the city’s Archbishop and how mafia gangsters were fans.
Jorgensen was raised in the Bronx and described herself as having been a "frail, blond, introverted little boy who ran from fistfights and rough-and-tumble games."
Following military service, she intended to travel to Sweden to undergo surgery but met an endocrinologist called Christian Hamburger in Copenhagen who was a specialist in hormone therapy. He supervised Jorgensen’s treatment and she chose her name in honor of him. In 1951 she obtained special permission from the Danish Minister of Justice to undergo a series of operations to remove her male genitalia. On her return to the US, she eventually underwent vaginoplasty when the procedure became available there.
While in Europe undergoing treatment, her gender reassignment was revealed in a New York Daily News front-page story under the headline Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty. The article erroneously claimed she was the recipient of the ‘first sex change’ op. The procedure was being performed in Germany as far back as the 1920s. She was, however, a pioneer in the use of hormone replacement in association with surgery.
When she returned to the States in 1953 she was an instant celebrity. Crowds of reporters and photographers were waiting as she disembarked the plane. Despite a desire for a quiet life, she realized the only way she could make a living was through public appearances and launched her singing and performing career. In 1967 she published her autobiography, which sold almost half a million copies.
Jorgensen was one of the early advocates of the trans movement and throughout her life gave talks on inclusivity. She is credited with being one of the first celebrities to raise awareness of gender issues. She helped influence other trans people to change their sex on their birth certificates and to change their names. She was proud of the role she played, telling a 1988 Los Angeles Times interviewer: “I am very proud now, looking back, that I was on that street corner 36 years ago when a movement started. It was the sexual revolution that was going to start with or without me. We may not have started it, but we gave it a good swift kick in the pants."
She died of cancer in 1989, a month before her 63rd birthday.
The unearthed tapes provide a timely reminder of one of the most celebrated and respected trans pioneers.