Barrington Stage Company: Part Two

His Own Wife/Husband: Charlotte von Mahlsdorf

By: - May 28, 2008

Charlotte’s Autobiography Charlotte at Gay Pride Day Charlotte’s Life on DVD Charlotte in later years Vince Gatton as Charlotte Charlotte Welcomes You

Part Two

I Am My Own Wife
By Doug Wright
Starring Vince Gatton
Directed by Andrew Volkoff; Set Design, Brian Prather;  Costumes, Jacob A. Climer;  Lighting, Scott Pinkney;  Sound,  Matt Kraus;  Press, Charlie Siedenburg; Production Stage Manager; Barbara Janice Kielhofer; Casting, McCorkle Casting, Ltd. ; Original Miniature Furniture Designed by Paul Eric Pape; Other Stages Producer, Mary Porter Hall.
Stage Two, Barrington Stage Company, 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, Mass. May 21 through June 8. Box Office: 413 236 8888

Quick Link to Barrington Stage Company 

Stereotypes are deceiving. Those who trade in them are rarely able to penetrate the layers of complexity behind such unusual people as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the transvestite hausfrau who is the subject of  the Pulitzer Prize winning  play, "I Am My own Wife", now being performed by Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield.

As portrayed by Vince Gatton, and directed by Andrew Volkoff, watching this tale on stage is immensely rewarding. We see how Charlotte von Mahlsdorf uses a mixture of cleverness, passivity and resourcefulness in order to survive the two cruelest political regimes the West has ever known.

Charlotte of course, was a man.

But she always referred to herself in the feminine. Still, I believe she was - underneath those simple stands of pearls  -  a real man. Yes, a mensch. Strong. Resourceful.  Much of the credit for seeing both aspects is the creative approach Vince Gatton brings to the role as Charlotte. In his portrayal, Charlotte is certainly as feminine as was her self image of herself. But under the kerchief and pearls she was made of steel. Even in later years when it seemed the entire population of Berlin rejected her because of her bargain with the Secret Police (the infamous Stasi) she never wavered from who she was.

In February 1945, at age 15, the young Lothar Berfelde (he had not yet gone through his metamorphosis to become Charlotte) bludgeoned his own Nazi father to death with a rolling pin in order to prevent the drunken sadist from murdering his family. Though sentenced to four years in detention, he was released less than six months later when Berlin was liberated by the Allies. It was then that von Mahlsdorf began cross-dressing full time.  Prior to that she had worn his mother's coat, and women's shoes, and wore his hair longish, in a pageboy cut.

Sturm und Drag

With the help of a lesbian aunt Tante Luise, Charlotte came to understand her sexuality during the teen years and identifited as a transvestite rather than a transsexual, though she described herself as "a female soul in a male body." But the truth is, Charlotte had no problems with the male equipment she was born with, and indeed had several long term gay lovers over her lifetime.

Charlotte was truly a "plain Jane", favoring those simple pearls and no makeup. No wigs. No fancy dresses. Indeed, she saw herself more as a simple housekeeper, a maid, than a wife, a hausfrau. Give her a simple embroidered apron and a bandanna, and she was happy.

As a young teen she had worked with a second hand furniture dealer who dealt in abandoned household goods, and those from bombed out apartments and homes.  Some were from Jews who were earlier sent to the concentration camps.  In later years, some accused Charlotte of profiting from the holocaust, but this was not so. By the time she entered the second hand business as an independent dealer, the war was over.

Her familiarity with intimidation began as a child when her father was a Nazi officer, and Max forced him to join the Nazi Youth movement. He was the ultimate cold, distant father that often gives rise to rebellious gay youth, incredibly cruel and hurtful to his own flesh and blood. How easily those macho uniforms and suits could came to mean violence and destruction in Charlotte's mind, while the dresses of women, would become icons of safety and love.

In her book, Charlotte tells of her father's attempts to teach her how to swim, mimicking swimming strokes on the living room floor and ultimately being pushed off the diving board of a pool and left to fend for herself. The father watched cooly as she floundered,  and only the quick action of a lifeguard saved her from drowning. Such was the kind of fatherly love she found in her youth. Her father was a pig, and Charlotte's mother was well rid of him, the only problem being that he kept returning to "claim" his family and re-establish his domination with Hitleresque patriarchal rule.

Charlotte had a brother and a sister. And while the mother doted on Lotte, the siblings worked hard in later years to discredit her and take control of Charlotte's meager possessions.

Lothar knew from her earliest days that she was different, not only in terms of her sexual orientation, but her strong attraction to women's clothes and old furniture, victrolas and above all, clocks.

In her earliest memories she remembers being attracted to  women's dresses, especially those with peasant embroidery.  This taste in decoration also translated to furniture and home accessories especially those with scalloped wood trim, tiny turrets and ornamental molding. Perhaps it was a love for the tactile. Both embroidery and wood carving would clearly enhance the pleasure she found in cleaning and touching favored objects.

How she came to love old furniture and clocks

Charlotte enjoyed coming home from school and cleaning the house. In fact she was quite a fanatic about it. This is not the least bit unusual. In large cities, many small independeent cleaning services are run by gay men. Gay men also are frequently encountered in the Antique trade. It comes as no surprise to me that she came to love precious things at an early age, and in a time of privation in Germany.

The wanton Nazi destruction of Jewish shops that held such items hurt Charlotte deeply.  On the way home from school one day, she saw the remains of old clocks and furniture scattered about. They had been wantonly destroyed without a thought by Nazi thugs during Kristallnacht. Tens of thousands of Jewish businesses and homes were ransacked that terrible night. She was as crushed as if they were her dearest friends.

The Grunderzeit Museum

Time passed, and eventually she acquired an old manor house that was in disrepair and lived in it rent free. Here again, her masculine side showed itself, as she repaired the tiles on the roof and refinished the planks of its many neglected floors.

Over time, her instinct for collecting furnished her new home. Eventually she turned it into the Grunderzeit Museum, showcasing items from the late 1800s. She first opened it for tours in 1960, when she was in her early 30's and soon it became an attraction in an area that was largely being built up with ugly Soviet style apartment complexes.

A decade later, the East German government was in the process of stamping out what little remained of the gay and lesbian community, and decided to tear down Berlin's only remaining gay bar, the Mulack-Ritze. In the span of just 24 hours she managed to get all the furniture and much of the decorative interior detail moved into the Manor's basement.

Along with the furnishings came Berlin's gay crowd, who soon made parties at the Grunderzeit Museum one of the bright spots in an otherwise drab East Berlin. Problems ensued as the Stasi began to snoop around, peeking in her basement windows to see what was going on. She painted them black. Seeing an opportunity to blackmail Charlotte and get inside information on the anti-state activities of people she knew, they threatened to take the Grunderzeit away from her and throw her in jail unless she cooperated. Like one out of three East Germans she was forced to agree, though she often fed them disinformation and made her reports so florid  that they were virtually incomprehensible. Still, the records seem to show that she turned in friends.

The Neo Nazis and the Medal

When a large gang of neo-Nazis stormed her garden party on May Day and many of the guests fled in terror from the stick wielding bullies, Charlotte stood her ground, and found a  long handled ax to wield at the intruders who trashed her grounds and collection.  These are not the actions of some limp-wristed homosexual but rather the no nonsense answer to the cowardly bullies who had tried to intimidate her throughout her life.

Shortly after that incident, she was awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Federal Cross of Honor), the nation's highest honor, for founding the museum.

It was about then that the gay and lesbian community and playwright Doug Wright discovered von Mahlsdorf.  In 1992 she published her autobiography Ich bin meine eigene Frau.  An English language version followed, translated by Jean Hollander. A documentary film by the same name was made by Rosa von Praunheim. It is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.

Of course, the notoriety brought Charlotte's detractors out of the woodwork, and they began trying to tear her down. They charged that she made profits by helping displace Jews, that she made too much money (which went to repair the museum, she lived frugally) and paid no taxes, and that the items she collected were second rate examples of the period. A psychologist declared that she was mentally ill, diagnosis:  autistic. The supposed proof was that she repeated her lectures often to those who took her tours. I have decided that her sins were no worse than that of a fisherman whose catch grows a little larger with each retelling.

Wright makes these discrepancies part of her life story, and the stage play is built around both the contradictions, the search for the truth, and his fondness for her.  "She doesn't run a museum, she is one!" he writes in the play.  To me, most of the charges were simply barely disguised homophobia and retaliation from people who were forced to live lives of quiet desperation while she got away, they think, with murder. One of the major reports on the dustup she caused is still available in German via her Wikipedia entry, but I found that many who demand proof from Charlotte have little verification for their charges to offer either.

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was the first and only known transvestite in East Germany under the Communists. That she survived into old age is quite an accomplishment. She died in 2002 at age 74 by my calculations. Her museum is still open to visitors.

For more about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and the Grunderzeit period, visit their website:

The Grunderzeit Museum

I Am My Own Wife is on Stage Two of Barrington Stage Company on Linden Street in Pittsfield through June 8th. The play premiered on Broadway in 2003 and garnered a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony.

Quick Link to Barrington Stage Company

Link to Part One, a Review by Charles Giuliano

Link to Part Three, Commentary by Astrid Hiemer