When I lived, worked and wrote in Paris for ten years, I used to take charter flights back to the States for economic reasons. One such occasion was when my father had a serious stroke and I was called home. Charter flights were cheap and were for sure the best way for a person on a seriously tight budget to get back to the USA. My plan for getting home to Okolona, Mississippi, was to take a charter to New York and from there a Greyhound bus the rest of the way. Decidedly it was not the deluxe way of getting to my hometown but it was the cheapest.
My father was very ill and I knew it probably was the last time I would see him. I quickly booked a charter and was in Okolona several days later. My family and I had a great visit and my father seemed to improve while I was home. The time soon came though when it was time to return to my teaching (and writing) activities in Paris. I put writing in parenthesis because I had not yet entered the realm of being a full-fledged writer.
I went to the airport in New York to catch my charter flight back to Paris but was told it had been delayed a day. They put me up in a modest hotel in the city for the night. Now comes the part serendipity played in my life. If that flight had taken off as scheduled, I would have returned to Paris and continued my teaching activities and my struggling to get a hold in the world of writing.
The flight though didn’t take off as planned and my life was changed forever. That layover provided me with a future in writing.
That evening in New York I decided not to stay in the hotel room and watch TV but instead to go out and scout the neighborhood. In my wanderings, I ran into a theater that was presenting a production of the notorious underground film star Divine in a theatrical piece called WOMEN BEHIND BARS. Divine was a three-hundred-pound man in drag. The show was hilarious. I had a great time and was in a great mood afterwards.
The next day on the charter plane my mind thought of the play I had seen the night before. Being that I had just returned from a situation where I knew my father would not survive, my mind was on both the play and him. Out of nowhere I began thinking of Divine going home to attend her father’s funeral. In the plot hatching in my brain, I decided a drag queen would not be welcomed dressed as a woman. He would out of respect dress normally as a man. Therefore, I decided to add the twist that my main character had had a sex change.
By the time the plane landed in Paris, I had a play composed in my head. I even had a name for it — TIJUANA LADY. Immediately upon returning to my apartment in Paris, I began committing my play to paper. I think it took me less than a week to bang it out on my little Olivetti portable typewriter. My story involved a porno star who had had a sex change. Her father died and she went back to her small hometown in Arkansas for his funeral. The play turned out not only funny but contained a lot of human comedy.
Within a very short time, the theater group I had founded in Paris was mounting a production of TIJUANA LADY. We had a wonderful cast and the production was a big success with sold-out audiences every night. A British film producer who attended even optioned it for a film.
All of a sudden I was considered an expert on “sex changes.” A group from UNESCO’s headquarters invited me as a guest speaker on the subject. That took more creativity than writing the play. I really knew nothing about sex changes. I had simply written what I imagined—mainly based on having read about Christine Jorgenson, a famous transsexual who was a sensation when she retuned to her native USA after having sex-change surgery in Denmark in the mid 1950s.
Flash forward to when I retuned from France to the States to live and work in Los Angeles as a writer. I wrote screenplays and was considered a pretty successful “writer for hire.” A theater group in Los Angeles put on TIJUANA LADY, with Rita Hayworth’s nephew Richard Cansino playing the leading role. Again the play was quite a success. I began thinking about perhaps someday turning the play into a novel. Several years later when I retired to Palm Springs, one of the first things I did was to adapt the play into a novel which I called CONTESSA. It published up at 529 pages, a pretty long book.
I did a lot of research for my book. I spoke with many transsexuals or corresponded with them on the Internet. The one thing they all seem to want was a sympathetic character—not a comedic or caricature but someone you could root for and like. This approach was totally different from the play. Even so, I honored their desire for an upbeat character and that is exactly who the final leading person ended up being.
The book was published in 2000 and since then has had what I consider a good success. It has been under option six times for a film but so far the magic lightening has not struck that would turn it into a movie. The book is not turgid in the least and is a fast and exciting read. The last third of the book takes place in Cuba during the revolution. Being that I lived in Cuba during those turbulent times, it was easy for me to incorporate that most wonderful city Havana. The book is full of humor, adventure and fun. It is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble –but not at your local movie theater.
This brings me to last week when I went to see a film called THE DANISH GIRL. This is a 2015 British film based on a book that came out in 2000 (same year as CONTESSA) about the lives of two real people in the 1920s—Einar Wegener (after becoming a woman, she was called Lili Elbe) and Gerda Wegener, two Danish painters who were actually man and wife. They ended up living in Paris and that is where Einar became Lili. Lili was operated on but the doctor tried to transplant a uterus in her so she could bear children. It didn’t work and she suffered a disastrous consequence.
In my research for CONTESSA, I ran across these two people but they did not fit the uplifting and positive character that the transsexuals had asked me to use as the centerpiece of any novel I was going to write about gender reassignment.
The plot point that may have caused THE DANISH GIRL to have more success than CONTESSA was the fact that the story was based on true characters. It also concerned one of the first surgeries to correct gender. The book showed that during the 1920s such people were usually labeled insane and spent their lives in confinement or had electric shock and lobotomies performed on them.
I must confess that I was a tad jealous when I was viewing THE DANISH GIRL because its author saw his work make it to the screen and my CONTESSA hasn’t. The film stars Eddie Redmayne as Lili and he does a remarkable job. Overall the film is quite good and I think you will like it
I would be very pleased though if you would check out CONTESSA and especially if you know someone you could recommend it to who wants a good base story for a film. The full name of my book is CONTESSA: An Unexpurgated and Intimate Autobiography of the Great Star as told to Jack Fitzgerald. It is written as though the person were real. Many people who have read CONTESSA think she is an actual person. I do hope you will check CONTESSA out on Amazon or Barnes and Noble or order it at your favorite bookstore.