Einar Wegener would kill himself in the spring. He had chosen a date – May 1, 1930 – after a year spent in torment. The cause of his suffering was quite simple: he was sure he was a woman, born into the wrong body. Or perhaps it was more complicated: sometimes Wegener, whose life is soon to be portrayed on film by the Oscar-winning British actor Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, felt he was two people in the same body, each fighting for supremacy.
One was a Danish landscape painter, a steadfast man who, in his own words, “could withstand storms”. He was married to a woman whose strength and talent matched, or perhaps even surpassed, his own: Gerda Wegener, a successful Art Deco illustrator who produced portraits of fashionable women for magazines such as Vogue and La Vie Parisienne.
The other shared none of these qualities. Lili Elbe was, as she set down in letters and notes for an autobiography, a “thoughtless, flighty, very superficially-minded woman”, prone to fits of weeping and barely able to speak in front of powerful men. But despite her womanly defects, by February 1930 she was becoming too powerful for Wegener to resist. “I am finished,” he wrote at the time. “Lili has known this for a long time. That’s how matters stand. And consequently she rebels more vigorously every day.”
As it turned out, Wegener did not commit suicide on the appointed date. In February 1930 he was told of a doctor who might be able to help him – who did, in fact, perform a series of groundbreaking operations that allowed Einar to become Lili. But all the same, by September 1931, Elbe was dead, the victim of a misjudged surgery to transplant a womb into her body. (Ciclosporin, the drug that prevents the rejection of transplanted organs, was first used successfully in 1980, almost 50 years after Elbe's death.)
In the year before her death, Elbe had divorced Gerda, given up painting, and was embarking tentatively on a relationship with a French art dealer. “It is not with my brain, not with my eyes, not with my hands that I want to be creative, but with my heart and with my blood,” she wrote. “The fervent longing in my woman’s life is to become the mother of a child.”
According to her own telling, Wegener’s transition into Elbe began by chance, when one of her wife’s life models failed to turn up. The couple’s mutual friend, an actress named Anna Larsen, suggested that the slight Einar might step in instead. At first she resisted, but eventually she gave in to Gerda’s pleas. “I cannot deny, strange as it may sound, that I enjoyed myself in this disguise. I liked the feel of soft women’s clothing,” she wrote. “I felt very much at home in them from the first moment.”