text Giuseppe Aprea
Einar was the most talented of the two. He loved to paint the black sea of Kattegat and herring fishermen on the way home, and his sky was always coloured in that kind of grey that transmits sadness. His wife Gerda too was close to her land and to the laborious people of Denmark, but portraits were here passion. She lived for drawing women’s faces, she could have worked on it even at night. Moreover Parisian women loved to see themselves painted with candid eyes like babies and small lips, thick and sensual like femme fatales. So, according to her, that was the easiest way she knew to eke out a living. In Paris, where the couple moved in 1912, everything was better than at home, not only the sales of their paintings. Actually, since the moment they moved, every single event seemed to be a sign of a season of freedom, out of all the retrograde schemes and out of the obsessive attention which locked them in Copenhagen. In that bourgeois town which Copenhagen was at that time. No, in Paris everything was different. Also, what an incredible coincidence was spending the first night in Paris in the Hotel d’Alsace, in the very same room where Oscar Wilde’s extraordinary life ended. They spent those first days in the Ville Lumière reciting each other, out loud, the eternal lines of his Ballad of Reading Gaol, the lines that became epitaph on his sepulchre in France: And alien tears will fill for him / Pity’s long-broken urn / For his mourners will be outcast men / And outcasts always mourn. For a while of time Einar Wegener and Gerda Gottlieb who, when still young aspiring painters met and loved each other during classes in Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, thought they could never feel exiled in France. But they were wrong. The experience that they were about to live – unexpected, shocking and in some ways unconfessable – would have changed their existences. All began the day when Anna Larsen, a very popular actress of that time whose portrait was about to be finished by the Dutch painter, phoned to cancel the appointment for the pose in the afternoon. Then what? The deadline for the painting was near. So Gerda naturally thought she could ask her husband for help, showing that sweet begging smile which some wives use if they ask their husbands something absolutely special. Would he be so kind to be her model, wearing silk hose and high heels her client was supposed to be painted with? Her Eimar had such long and feminine legs… We can now claim, after long time, that Einar was born again. Actually, the sound of the silk hosiery on the skin let him feel like he was born for real, destroying the cocoon that surrounded his body and his mind, setting the butterfly free. Since that day Lili started to show up between him and Gerda, often unexpected but always (after all) appreciated young French woman who was just born.
This is why Gerda had a man who wanted to become a woman with all himself as her husband and a woman, Lili Elbe, as a model for her paintings. After all, that didn’t shock her. On the contrary, for a while of time that secret belonged to them only and it kept them closer to each other.
But Eimar wanted to be ‘Lili’ forever, not only for one day. Einar wanted to cancel Einar and live his life, which he had been suffocating for too long without even noticing, as a woman. Wearing women’s clothes at home, putting make up on only to pose for Gerda or going out with her, not being recognized, was not enough for him anymore. He felt like an usurper on someone else’s reign, like a person who only owns one façade of the house. On the other hand, Lili herself was breaking through his mind: even though him, her and Gerda looked like they could coexist in mutual respect and love without any problem, there was still a possibility that the situation could become unbearable. In everyday life it was absolutely clear when Lili was ‘alive’, she was a happy woman with brilliant conversations; when she wasn’t there, Einar suffered terribly of depression that day by day weighed him down until he became apathetic. All Paris was already speaking about this situation which was incredible at that time. And if on one hand, in his new identity he abandoned every vain ambition as he belonged to another life, on the other hand Gerda experienced picks of success as a painter she had never dreamt of. The magazine ‘Vogue’ wanted her as the exclusive painter and her works of erotic nature enriched fortunate editions of art books: ‘Casanova’s adventures’ is an example. We must say that this new and extremely special condition of fame allowed the two to take two longs trips, especially in Italy: among all the preferred destinations of the ‘Bel Paese’, Capri seduced them. On the island they chose to live in Villa Cercola, situated in a solitary location far from the centre, on the way from Tragara to the Natural arch. When they arrived there, in the beginning of 1920’s, the white and vital walls of their home, on which the bindweed and the blue jasmine were perched, still echoed of English men’s voices – men of prose and poem – who lived there in voluntary exile from homeland after Oscar Wilde’s sentence for pederasty. There, during summer nights, Ellingham Brooks, Frederick Benson and Somerset Maugham drank wine of the island, played piano, recited and shouted to the moon Heredia’s sonnets, the poet of the Parnassianism. But all around that place, confused by the perfume of countryside flowers, it seemed to the new comers like they could feel in the air the loved smell of painting, soften but still comforting, mixed with turpentine. Could it come from the upper entrance of the villa, after a long stone staircase which run through huge and ancient prickly pear plants? Maybe. Right there, where there was the writing Lo studio della Cercola, Romaine Gorrard Brooks, the American painter who loved popular men and women of those years, had her atelier for a long time. Einar, Gerda and Lili, who became the inseparable friend, filled their lungs of air of freedom and tolerance that blew on the island and spent calm days and happy nights, livened up by music and warm company of good friends. They painted those happy moments, mixing colours and happiness with the nature of the place, its sea and its fabulous villas. But maybe it happened in Capri that Einar decided to abandon his body forever. The first doctors he saw once he left the island – among them there was the most famous sexologist of that time, the German Magnus Hirschfeld – were sure that his problem was small and nonfunctional ovaries that his belly had been hiding since the birth. His gynecologist, confirming the esteemed colleague’s diagnosis, guaranteed him that the substitution of the ovaries with younger organs capable of a bigger production of estrogens, would have definitely started a fast transformation of his body.
Moreover, Lili would have showed herself to the world in the condition of overflowing youth. Those illustrious specialists decreed that, before any hypothesis of transplant, other steps were obligatory. So, from the first months of 1930, Einar Wegener underwent four painful surgeries, even though he faced them gladly; during the first one they removed his testicles and they transformed his penis into a rudimentary vagina with an extremely courageous surgery for that time. The first step was done. The convalescence from that delicate operation, in the room of the public hospital in Dresden, was longer than anyone thought and more tormented than ever because of the wait for the ovaries to be transplanted, which arrived only many months after, removed from a twenty-seven-year-old woman. For the surgery of those years, Einar’s second operation, during which the total absence of congenital ovaries his doctors spoke about was certified, was a real step towards the unknown. Above all, it was because of a cruel stranger enemy hidden in shadow: rejection. When that happened, there was no other way but removing the organs that they had just transplanted: for this result two more difficult, painful and exhausting surgeries were required. Anyway, in the autumn of the same year a decree of the king of Denmark stated the cancellation of his marriage and gave him a new passport assigned to a woman, Lili Elbe. Right after this happening, Gerda Gottlieb, his friend painter, got married with the man she had been in a relationship with for a long time, an Italian flyer, the major Fernando Porta. And she flew away with him to Marrakech. In that time, in that small moment of illusion that life gave her, Lili, who realized her attraction for men, accepted the proposal of an admirer, more insistent than others, and she promised him she would have followed him everywhere. But only as soon as she could be pregnant. A fifth surgery, she guaranteed him, would have soon given her the uterus she needed. When Gerda found out that Lili passed away in September 13th 1931 – a few terrible months after the experiment of the transplant of the uterus – she felt like dying in desperation. She abandoned her husband without many explanations and locked herself up in an apartment in Copenhagen. There she found a new friend, alcohol. He took her by the hand, he walked with her for a bit and then one night he killed her.