December 29, 1882 – Lili Elbe:
“Each step forwards to become the person we are makes it harder to go backwards, to return to the shadowy, private world of closed doors and shuttered windows. The experience, the awakening of one’s true self, after being so long suppressed, can never be adequately explained with language.”
Eddie Redmayne addressed the controversy surrounding his decision to play the transgender character Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl (2015). His casting as Elbe came with copious complaints, with critics arguing that the role should have gone to a trans actor. In an interview with the Sunday Times in November, Redmayne admitted that while he had the best intentions, taking the role was a “mistake” and he wouldn’t accept it if it were offered today. Redmayne:
“No, I wouldn’t take it on now. The bigger discussion about the frustrations around casting is because many people don’t have a chair at the table. There must be a levelling, otherwise we are going to carry on having these debates.”
Redmayne was Academy Award-nominated for The Danish Girl, he is currently playing the Emcee in a new London production of Cabaret, opposite Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles.
The Danish Girl is inspired by the true story of one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery, Einar Wegener, who had no idea of just how unhappy he was in his own skin until he met the lively Lili Elbe. Elbe was carefree and wild, and she opened Wegener to a life he never knew he was missing.
Wegener met Elbe soon after marrying his wife, Gerda Gottlieb, in 1904. The couple immersed themselves in the Bohemian lifestyle of the time, befriending many artists, dancers, and other figures from the artistic world. She was a gifted Art Deco painter and illustrator whose portraits of women dressed in beautiful dresses appeared in fashion magazines. During one of her sittings, the model failed to show up, so she insisted that her husband sit for her. She delighted in dressing him in a gorgeous gown of satin and lace. A friend stopped by the studio remarked at how great he looked. Gottlieb announced, “We’ll call you Lili”, and Elbe was born.
For the next quarter century, poor Wegener felt like two people trapped in one body, each fighting for dominance: Wegener, a talented landscape painter and a man devoted to his wife; and Elbe, a vibrant young woman who wanted badly to give birth.
Eventually, Wegener gave in to Elbe, the woman she was always meant to be, and a brave female who would go on to become one of the first people to undergo new and experimental gender reassignment surgery and help usher in a new era of LGBTQ Rights. Elbe:
“One is led to the conclusion that the one hundred per cent male and the one hundred per cent female are theoretical types which do not exist in reality.”
The Danish Girl, the film, and the novel on which it is based, portrays the Wegeners as a very straight, sexually active couple. Their tale is presented as Gottlieb being a supportive but suffering wife whose love and loyalty never waiver as her husband is slowly replaced by Lili Elbe. It is a very good film with likable, sympathetic lead characters that share a mixture of the surprise, support, sadness that a straight woman would go through as her spouse embraces their true gender identity. It’s a beautiful story, but it’s not quite true.
They were both painters, that part is correct. Elbe’s awakening really was sparked when her wife asked her to pose in women’s clothing for one of her paintings, and Elbe really did become Gottlieb’s favorite model. Their love appears to have truly unconditional, but one thing the film missed: Gottlieb was a lesbian, noted for painting explicit sex scenes between females. She also challenged gender and sex identity roles in her work. She did this in small ways, including drawing men with slender bodies and soft lines, or by painting Elbe as both a man and a woman. Gottlieb:
“A human being who was born a man, who was my husband, my friend, my comrade – has now become a woman, a complete woman. And this human being was never intended to be anything but a woman.”
When the couple moved from Copenhagen to Paris in 1912 (the timeline in the film gets this wrong) it was so Elbe could live as a woman and Wegener could live as an out gay woman. They claimed that their love was like that of sisters. Plus, they fled to Paris because once the Danes found out that those striking portraits Wegener painted of a certain comely young woman were, in fact, paintings of her husband.
The whole thing so complicates the ideas of gender, sexuality, and love, it feels sort of silly that the director Tom Hopper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon felt they had to simplify the story to make it more palatable for a wide audience. The true story is documented via Elbe’s diaries, published as Man Into Woman (1933).
Gottlieb’s story seems to have been lost in the rise of Lili Elbe, but some of Elbe’s story has also been lost. In the 1920s and 1930s, she almost always presented herself as a woman. Elbe had her surgeries in 1930 in Germany. She was middle-aged when she had her four SRS procedures, and they happened over a two-year period. The operations were highly experimental at the time. The first surgery, removal of the testicles, was performed under the supervision of pioneering sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin. The rest of her surgeries were performed at the Dresden Municipal Women’s Clinic. (The clinic was later destroyed, along with its records, in Allied bombing raids during World War II.)
Her case became a sensation in Danish and German newspapers. A Danish court annulled the couple’s marriage in 1930, and Elbe had her sex and name legally changed, including receiving a passport as “Lili Ilse Elvenes”. “Lili Elbe” was a pseudonym first used in a Danish newspaper piece written by “Loulou” Lassen in early 1931. Elbe returned to Dresden and started an affair with French art dealer Claude Lejeune, who she wanted to marry and have children.
In The Danish Girl, Elbe dies as a single woman in her 30s with Gottlieb by her side. But the real story is that Gottlieb was in Morocco with Ulla Poulsen, formerly Baroness Ulla Rosenørn-Lehn, a Danish ballerina. In the film, Gottlieb toys with the idea of a new straight romance for her former husband, but the film’s Elbe is seen as someone too broken to ever be romantically involved again. In real life, shortly after her last surgery, the real Elbe had a boyfriend.
In 1931, Elbe had surgery to transplant a uterus and construct a vaginal canal. This made her the second transgender woman to undergo this surgery. Elbe’s immune system rejected the transplanted uterus, which caused infection, which led to her death from heart failure, three months after the surgery.
Elbe is buried in Dresden. In April 2016, a new tombstone was placed, financed by the production company of The Danish Girl. It does not have her birthdate, just Elbe’s name and the places of birth and death.
It’s important that Elbe was not a painter. It was an artistic gift for Einar Wegener only. This makes me sad; I feel that Elbe would have still had his talent.
Gottlieb held her last exhibition in 1939, but by this time, her artwork was out of style. She never had children, lived by herself in obscurity, and drank a lot. She had an income by selling her hand-painted postcards.
She died in 1940, in Denmark, shortly after the Nazis invaded the country. She had no heirs and there was only one small obituary, and it was printed in a local paper. She is portrayed by Alicia Vikander in the The Danish Girl and received an Oscar for her troubles. Amber Heard plays Ulla Paulson.
After The Danish Girl, book and movie, their paintings have been rediscovered, and exhibited and auctioned. A special exhibition of Gottlieb’s work was hosted at the Arken Museum of Modern Art in 2016/2017, followed by a travelling exhibit shown around the world.