1952 Sex-Change Operations Made Her a Celebrity : Christine Jorgensen, 62, Dies of Cancer
Christine Jorgensen, the one-time George Jorgensen who 36 1/2 years ago shocked the world by undergoing a series of Danish sex-change operations, died Wednesday afternoon in San Clemente after a long struggle with cancer. She was 62.
A spokeswoman for San Clemente General Hospital said Jorgensen died there shortly before 4 p.m.
Last September, after a year of chemotherapy and cobalt treatment for cancer that had begun in her bladder and had spread to her lungs, Jorgensen told a Times writer at her San Clemente home:
“I think I reacted very sane and sensibly to it. I came home (after the diagnosis) and went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror and said I may as well get rid of the ‘why me?’ syndrome. So I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Why not me?’ ”
Earlier, Jorgensen had been living in a secluded hillside home in Laguna Niguel after post-operation careers as a nightclub entertainer and lecturer. While still active, she also made numerous speaking appearances before college audiences.
She began backing away from public view in the 1970s.
Initially, Jorgensen told interviewers, she resented the lurid publicity that attended her surgery on Dec. 1, 1952. But later, she said, “I have no regrets now over all the publicity . . . Things don’t hurt the way they did then.”
Publicist Chris Costello, who had known her for several years, said Jorgensen “won the hearts of millions due to her guts and courage during a time period when this (operation) was a taboo, in the closet.”
Costello, the daughter of the late comedian Lou Costello, said Jorgensen hated the term “transsexual,” preferring to refer to herself simply as someone who had gone through a “sex change.”
The Bronx-born Jorgensen was a soft-spoken 26-year-old ex-GI and New York photographer when he heard about the complicated procedure of hormone shots and sex operations being performed in Denmark.
He decided to go there because, Jorgensen said later, he was “one of those people” who “is not of the supposed sex, but the other sex.”
Growing up, Jorgensen told the Associated Press in 1986, “I developed into a frail, tow-headed, introverted child. I learned quickly that society laid down some firm ground rules concerning my behavior. A little boy wore trousers and had his hair cut short. He had to learn to use his fists aggressively, participate in athletics, and, most importantly, little boys didn’t cry.”
After the surgery at the Danish government hospital in Copenhagen, she said, “I’m happy to have become a woman and I think many more people who are unhappy as I was before should follow my example.”
Jorgensen subsequently admitted she was not prepared for the international fuss that arose over her sex change. Most people had not heard that other such operations already had been performed and Jorgensen became a topic of sensational stories, conversation and jokes.
There were stories that she planned to marry one Howard J. Knox, 33, a statistician from Waukegan, Ill. But the state of New York politely declined to issue a marriage license because Jorgensen could not prove to official satisfaction that she was a woman.
A few months later, the engagement was broken.
“I could never understand why I was receiving so much attention,” Jorgensen said in the 1986 interview. “Now, looking back, I realize it was the beginning of the sexual revolution, and I just happened to be one of the trigger mechanisms.”
In her 1988 interview with The Times, she said, “I am very proud now, looking back, that I was on that street corner 36 years ago when a movement started . . . We may not have started it (the sexual revolution), but we gave it a good swift kick in the pants.”
Jorgensen returned to the United States in May of 1953 as a willowy blonde, stepping off a TWA plane at Los Angeles with what one reporter described as “the aplomb of a movie queen.” She said she definitely would not make any movies, however, settling for stage appearances in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
This did not keep film offers from pouring in--including one from Warner Bros.
She was also offered $500 a week to perform in a strip show.
She turned those down.
Journalists, exhibiting the same curiosity that tantalized the public, interviewed her ad nauseum and described every feminine gesture and feature.
Fay Hammond, then Times fashion editor, wrote:
“Christine Jorgensen is pretty, personable and pleasant--by any standard. She’s courteous and intelligent, too. Over lunch in a suite at the Statler yesterday, this reporter forgot to remember her past maleness and saw only her present femininity and charm.”
With her success on the nightclub and lecture circuits, Jorgensen settled in Orange County. She also had an art collection and a condominium in Hawaii.
“I have retired more times than there are people,” she said in 1986. “When the nightclubs ended, I retired. When the book (her 1967 autobiography, which was made into a film) was published and over, I retired. When the lectures came to a halt, I retired again.”
Jorgensen said in the 1986 interview that she was working on another book to talk about “all the wonderful people I have met and all the wonderful things that have happened to me.”
She said she was also writing about “changing social attitudes” and about “the development of modern surgical procedures used on sex reassignments.”
Jorgensen is survived by a sister and two nieces. A private memorial was planned, and arrangements for a public service are pending, Costello said.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.