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Not-so-sweet Charlotte

Playwright Douglas Wright wanted to immortalize 'a groundbreaking gay heroine' who happened to be a man. Then the truth got even murkier.

June 22, 2003|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Surviving the oppressive regimes of the Nazis and the East German Communists as a man dressed in a black shift and pearls would, in itself, be a singular achievement. But the transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf went one better. She was also a noted antiques collector, a self-proclaimed murderer, a decorated national hero and a spy.

The fascinating true story of Von Mahlsdorf is at the heart of "I Am My Own Wife." Douglas Wright's off-Broadway play recently opened at Playwrights Horizons to rave reviews, especially for Jefferson Mays, the relative unknown who portrays Von Mahlsdorf along with more than 40 other characters in the one-man show.

But in the play, the classic psychosexual tease of the transvestite -- "I am not who you think I am" -- takes on new resonance. Reflecting Wright's decade-long research, which included interviews and letters exchanged with the real Von Mahlsdorf, press clippings, and assorted government files, the Charlotte in "Wife" morphs from the iconoclastic heroine of the first act to an all-too-human and possibly sinister force in the second.

In writing this strange tale, Wright says he had to confront the elusiveness of truth, ambiguities of history, and myths and lies that almost everyone invents about themselves in the course of a life.

"As a dramatist, I wasn't driven by the personal agenda of the historian," Wright says. "So I found the fact that the world was so eager to believe her stories as truth more interesting than the absolute truth. I was fascinated by the question of what palliative her particularly mythology was providing."

Wright first heard about Von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde, from his journalist friend John Marks. As Berlin bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report, Marks discovered her in 1992 giving guided tours of her own extensive collection of fine late-19th century antique clocks, gramophones and furniture in her turn-of-the-century mansion.

"I think she may well be the most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War ever birthed," Marks said in a letter to Wright, who immediately caught a plane. "She's way up your alley."

Indeed, the playwright had achieved notable success on both the stage and screen with "Quills," which depicted one of the 18th century's most notorious iconoclasts, the Marquis de Sade. But even the colorful Marquis seemed to pale next to a character who personally told Wright she had bludgeoned to death her abusive Nazi father; narrowly escaped Hitler's jack-booted Gestapo; ran a gay bar right under the nose of the Stasi, East Germany's notorious secret police; and received a medal of honor on national television from the Minister of Culture of a reunited Germany.

Secret police files unearthed

Wright knew only part of that story when he began to graph Von Mahlsdorf's odyssey. He says he was first motivated to write a play about her because of her defiant individuality in the face of overwhelming odds. He realized what that might mean for other marginalized minorities. "As someone who grew up gay in the Bible Belt of Texas, I found the story of her life such a powerful curative," Wright says. "She blossomed into her own homosexuality nurtured by a lesbian aunt and gay uncle and I wanted to immortalize her [in a play] as a groundbreaking gay heroine."

However, midway through Wright's research, he received a call from Marks, telling him that Stasi files had come to light that appeared to paint Von Mahlsdorf as a willing -- even enthusiastic -- informant who betrayed colleagues in exchange for immunity and possible favors. (At one point, they were apparently so entwined that the Stasi police gave Von Mahlsdorf fashion tips and encouraged her to wear makeup to entrap and extract information from American soldiers.)

The press had a field day -- "Mata Hari Was a Man!," "Comrade Charlotte: Is the Disguise She's Wearing More Than Just a Dress?"

Now Wright had to face the possibility that many of Von Mahlsdorf's stories, including the murder of her father (for which there were no records), could have been fabricated. And when he personally confronted her about the Stasi files, she artfully deflected his questions.

When Wright pressed her, she claimed that Alfred Kirschner, a gay friend and fellow collector, had begged her to give him up in order to save herself. Kirschner had died in 1979, so there was no one to corroborate her story. But he did write loving letters to Von Mahlsdorf and left her his entire legacy in a will -- hardly what one would expect him to do if he suspected her of any betrayal.

Hounded by the press and fearful of the rise of Neo-Nazism, Von Mahlsdorf emigrated to Sweden, where she died in April 2002.

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