In August of 1992, while vacationing in Germany, I stumbled across an astonishing subject for a play: an elderly East German transvestite named Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
Charlotte was born with the unfortunate moniker “Lothar Berfelde” in the early part of this century. Lothar’s favorite Aunt was an eccentric lesbian, who indulged the young boy’s predisposition toward women’s clothing. Instead of reading him fairy tales as a child, she would put him to bed with a chapter from the renowned sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld’s book “Die Transvestiten.” As a result, little Lothar grew up with an uncompromised sense of his own unique identity.
Lothar reached adulthood during World War II. As a young homosexual, he escaped interment in a concentration camp by successfully “passing” as a woman. Following the war, Lothar assumed a woman’s identity almost full-time and re-christened himself “Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.” A long time lover of decorative arts, Charlotte opened a museum dedicated to the antique furniture known as “Grunderzeit,” a seminal period in German design. He began to permanently refer to himself as “she.”
Because privately-held museums were illegal in the newly-formed Communist state, Charlotte was constantly under siege. Government authorities—the ferocious, legendary Stasi among them—were always threatening to shut the building down. Through a variety of means—some inspired, others nefarious—Charlotte was able to keep the place open—covertly—for over thirty years.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the West German Government discovered Charlotte and her unusual museum for the first time. Charlotte’s life changed irrevocably. She achieved celebrity in Berlin. The Minister of Culture awarded her a medal for her heroic efforts at historical preservation. She accepted the coveted prize on national German television dressed in a black peasant dress and pearls.
I spent two years visiting Charlotte intermittently in Berlin and will be assembling the play from interview transcripts, historical documents from the time, and—hopefully—a generous dose of my own imagination.
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