Toronto
3 min

I am my own personal transformation

The book behind the Broadway hit

Credit: Xtra files

Those who follow the trajectory of queer content on Broadway have likely noticed that this year’s hit shows include a crowd-pleasing homage to a plucky guy in a dress. I Am My Own Wife was inspired by the memoirs of a transgendered German lad who survived both Nazi storm troopers and the East German Stasi goons who inherited their ruined police state.



Doug Wright’s Tony and Pulitzer-winning play celebrates the near miraculous endurance of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who began life in 1928 as Lothar Berfelde in the village of Mahlsdorf on the eastern edge of Berlin. If you have plans to see the play, this book is a must-read – if only to ensure that you get the story at source, unreconstituted for the masses of Manhattan cultural tourism. In any case, Mahlsdorf’s story stands on its own, an inspiring and fascinating personal history.



Charlotte’s voice seduces from the first page. In 1991 she threw a queer garden party at her family home in Mahlsdorf, a rambling manor house that, over decades, she had laboriously, triumphantly rescued from bureaucratic idiocy and turned into a museum of furniture and art. In a flashback to the days of Hitler Youth, the party was attacked by neo-Nazi skinheads brandishing iron bars and starter pistols.



Before the police arrived,two guests were injured and the garden was a swath of destruction. As Charlotte began the cleanup, her mind flew back to childhood memories of the notorious Kristallnacht of November, 1938, when Nazi brown-shirts rampaged through Jewish districts of Berlin, smashing and looting shops and attacking any Jews who got in their way.



It’s hard to imagine a more perilous world for a sensitive boy-girl to be born into. Among 20 pages of photographs in the book, the most moving is of Lothar at age 10, his lips stretched thin in a tense smile, his eyes already filled with sad wisdom. On the facing page is 60-ish Charlotte in an identical pose, arms folded over a book on a desk, with the same world-weary gaze, now tempered by the kind smile and dangling pearls of a doting auntie.



It’s a wonder that Charlotte lived for that photo to be taken. Lothar’s father, Max, was a militarist psycho-path controlling a captive wife and son. When Gretchen was pregnant with Lothar, he actually took a pistol shot at her. Mother and child were saved only by the quick action of Lothar’s great-uncle who lived downstairs. He shoved Max’s arm just as the shot was fired. Lothar was later born in the same room, with the bullet that might have killed him still lodged in the ceiling.



Lothar was just 17 when, in the spring of 1945, desperate German troops took their suicidal last stand in Berlin. By then, he had killed his father in self-defence. Partway through a four-year sentence in juvenile prison, he found himself liberated by Russian soldiers as they took the city. He emerged into a street scene of chaos and carnage, with allied bombers roaring overhead and entire neighbourhoods reduced to rubble.



Lothar spent days wandering the madhouse of Berlin in its death throes. When the fighting stopped he found his way back to his family mansion in Mahlsdorf. Except for smashed windows and some holes in the roof, the house was intact, and filled with refugees who were soon turfed out by Russian troops seeking shelter. Banished to the cellar, Lothar slowly gained the trust of the vodka-soused “Ivans” by fixing blown fuses and blocked toilets.



By the late 1950s, Lothar was wearing frocks in public and became known to her friends as “Lottchen.” When the Wall went up in 1961, dividing Berlin, queer culture was struggling to emerge. Lottchen began to frequent an East Berlin bar run with an iron fist by a lesbian in motorcycle gear. “I liked her rough, masculine style, and she must have liked my feminine reserve.”



Elli’s Beerhall had the eclectic queer mix that bars worldwide have since lost. At weekend dances “a huge crowd of gays and lesbians packed the bar.” In a backroom there were “sadomasochistic parties,” Elli the reigning ringmaster with her stinging leather whip. If a butch top gal seduced a willing homo boy, no one blinked an eye.



About this time, Lottchen responded to an ad on a washroom wall for a whipping partner. She met a take-charge kind of guy named Jochen who became her disciplinary daddy for 27 years.



As the ’60s unfolded, Mahlsdorf’s guile and ingenuity enabled her to wrest possession, if not ownership, of her East Berlin estate from the clutches of communist apparatchiks. She turned it into the successful Grunderzeit Museum, which exists to this day. By 1992, with the two Berlins once more united, Mahlsdorf was finally allowed to own the house she’d been born in. She continued to live there as curator of its historic collection until her death in 2000.



I AM MY OWN WIFE.

By Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.

Cleis Press.

186 pages. $17.95.