A Phantasmic Woman

ONE LEARNS very quickly that Myra Breckinridge is an unreliable narrator. Her writerly voice—for we are reading her diary entries, composed for the benefit of her psychoanalyst—is foxy, cerebral, with the bombast of an unpublished academic, as well as a nearly cosmic narcissism into whose delusional gravity you cannot (and by you I mean me, which could be a slogan for narcissism) help but be sucked. Myra’s a liar. This is redundant, because Myra is a transsexual, and in the medical literature the transsexual is, invariably, a deceiver. None is more famous in this regard than the woman known to posterity as Agnes, who posed as intersex in order to secure treatment at the UCLA Medical Center in the late 1950s.

It’s an old phobic premise: The transsexual lies, because the transsexual is a lie, a fiction, a fantasy. Myra Breckinridge, which Gore Vidal is supposed to have written in a matter of weeks in Rome, does not do away with this premise so much as displace it from the doctor’s office to the acting school. After the death of her husband, Myra comes to Los Angeles, nominally, to claim her inheritance: a onetime orange grove in Westwood where her weaselly uncle now runs the fictional Academy of Drama and Modeling, just down the street from the very real UCLA Gender Identity Research Clinic, where Agnes scored her vagina in 1959. Myra quickly hustles her way into a position at the Academy, teaching Empathy and Posture. The only surgical procedure Myra Breckinridge is after is a realignment of the world’s mythic spine, sans anesthetic. Like anyone who’s ever moved to LA, Myra dreams of becoming a god, but the price of her ascension will be the ritual humiliation of the male sex, beginning with her own students—a violent deposal of the usurper Priapus and a restoration of the ancient feminine principle.

Myra sees this principle incarnated in the giant, spangled mechanical girl that turns hypnotically outside her window in the room, across the street from the Chateau Marmont hotel, where she has installed herself. The Sahara Girl, as she was known to drivers on the Sunset Strip, is to Myra what the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg were to Gatsby: a piece of the divine, smuggled to an atheist earth in the form of commercial advertisement. Myra adores her. A photo of the spinning showgirl was even included in Myra Breckinridge’s original cover art; the poster for the 1970 film adaptation, which Time magazine called “about as funny as a child molester,” featured Raquel Welch as Myra herself in the same pose. The Sahara Girl is an avatar of the 1940s, whose films constitute not just the golden age of Hollywood but, if you ask Myra, the apex of human civilization—an opinion she shares with her late husband, Myron Breckinridge, film critic, whose unfinished manuscript Parker Tyler and the Films of the Forties; or, the Transcendental Pantheon advances the thesis that “this century’s only living art form is the movies.”

Raquel Welch in Michael Sarne’s Myra Breckinridge, 1970.
Raquel Welch in Michael Sarne’s Myra Breckinridge, 1970.

That’s no figure of speech. Myra is Myron, of course—a spoiler that Vidal and his publishers impishly hoped to protect by refusing to provide advance copies to reviewers, but which comes as no surprise to any reader half paying attention. (“Did Myron take his own life, you will ask? Yes and no is my answer. Beyond that my lips are sealed. . . .”) Myra is a film critic who, having peered too far over the brim of her object of inquiry, lost her balance and fell in. She has succumbed, in other words, to the deadly temptation, faced at one time or another by every critic, to become the thing one studies. This makes Myra Breckinridge a male-to-film transsexual, a being of pure celluloid cut together from references to the starlets of the ’40s. She rasps in a low voice “modeled on that of the late Ann Sheridan (fifth reel of Doughgirls),” with notes of Jean Arthur, Margaret Sullavan, and “a sweet tone not unlike Irene Dunne in The White Cliffs of Dover.” When she chooses, she wears a “beautiful yet knowing smile like Ann Sothern in the first of the Maisie films.” Her superb breasts are “reminiscent of those sported by Jean Harlow in Hell’s Angels and seen at their best four minutes after the start of the second reel.” She is, in a word, “a dish, and never forget it, you motherfuckers, as the children say nowadays.”

A male writer’s fantasy, one could protest, but it’s fantasy Myra wants. Certainly her expectations are no more unrealistic than those of your average transsexual. At any rate, it never occurs to Myra that being a male director’s wet dream should disqualify her from her mission to destroy “the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood.” The two go, on the contrary, hand in hand. Myra considers herself a New Woman in every sense: confident, sexual, dominating, yes, but also literally new, assembled just two years prior in Copenhagen by, readers could assume, the same studio that put Christine Jorgensen on the front page of the New York Daily News in 1952. Myra tears through Los Angeles with the frivolity of a vacationing god, and about the same regard for what mortals call consent. The brutal justice of her self-appointed task—to rape the men of Hollywood—needs no further comment today. Myra intends her infamous molestation of Rusty Godowsky, a dumb blond stud from her Posture class, as an act of revenge, not just against the men who fucked her as a self-described fag in New York City, but against Myron himself, a bloody sacrifice that, by symbolically repeating her surgical castration, is supposed to transform Myra into “the eternal feminine made flesh, the source of life and its destroyer.”

Not a few reviewers were repulsed. “Is the Olympia Press alive and publishing in Boston?” asked Time, referring to the earthy small press that first published Lolita, Naked Lunch, and, in 1968, the take-no-prisoners manifesto of a sex worker and sometime-lesbian playwright named Valerie Solanas, another famous man-hater. With a little artistic license, it is tempting to imagine the dildo of Myra Breckinridge sliding past the rosy rear lips of her sideburnt Hollywood hunk just as, on the opposite coast, a bullet is exiting the chamber of the .32 Beretta automatic pistol that Solanas has just pointed at her friend Andy Warhol in the latter’s Manhattan studio. Two women, a whole America between them, one fictional and one who might as well have been, each with a deep desire to break into show business and a funny way of showing it; and two wanton acts of humorlessness, two Very Bad Jokes, personal vendettas raised to a biblical power: rape and murder, Sodom and Gomorrah, rites for summoning sex apocalypse.

It’s no wonder those critics not left clutching their pearls and clucking their tongues imagined that Myra Breckinridge had smashed sex roles like grapes and gotten drunk on the wine. “Today,” mused the Times Literary Supplement, “sex is metamorphosed as easily as fancy dress,” while for the New York Review of Books, the novel had invoked nothing short of “the ultimate shared fantasy of the age—a future of androgynous independence.” This is a very ordinary, if tedious, view of transsexuality, often encountered within that pretty pie-slice of the population that goes about its daily activities trapped in the right body; its counterpart today is the blithe assumption, among cis and trans alike, that the manifest goal of the current wave of transgender identity politics is to slay an invisible two-headed monster called the gender binary, a beast that everyone knows but no one can describe.

True, Myra does at times suspect “a polymorphic sexual abandon in which the lines between the sexes dissolve . . . may be the only workable pattern for the future”; in this, she is a mouthpiece for Vidal himself, whom the conservative William F. Buckley would call a “queer” on live national television later that year. And to back this up, there is indeed no shortage of perverse personae among the novel’s supporting cast: Myra’s uncle Buck Loner, a former horse-opera star whose spooneristic nom de cowboy belies a low-budget machismo reduced to picking up groceries for his wife and sneaking happy endings from his masseuse; the self-styled analyst Dr. Randolph Spenser Montag, in fact just a closeted dentist with a love of ice-cream sundaes; the agent Letitia Van Allen, a ball-busting cougar who day-drinks martinis and likes to be thrown down the stairs during sex.

But this is something of a front, I suspect. Myra Breckinridge’s bite, like that of all satire, is sharpest when sincere. All the bluster about end-times can conceal the fact that the mystic twisting anima for which Myra is but a vessel is really just that old god they call Desire, whose psychedelic mysteries are kept in every kitchen in America. Myra wants, but like any of us, she cannot say why, or where wanting will take her. “I have no clear idea as to my ultimate identity once every fantasy has been acted out with living flesh,” she admits, in a brief seizure of self-awareness. The discovery that fantasies, like novels, have to have an ending, or at least a fraying edge disguised as an ending, is something you must never forget to keep forgetting, over and over again, if you are to last very long in this world. This is especially true if you, like Myra or me, are transsexual. Maybe that is why some people go the movies the way other people go to church: to have their faith in the infinite restored. Take it from Myra, on her way to visit the back lots at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: “I feel better already. Fantasy has that effect on me.”

Andrea Long Chu is a writer, critic, designer, and doctoral candidate whose work has appeared in n+1, Artforum, Women & Performance, and TSQ.