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Mahlsdorf, Charlotte von (1928-2002)  
 
page: 1  2  

"I am not concerned with dead stones or lifeless furniture," she declared, explaining her interest in preservation. "They are embodiments that mirror the history of the men who built them, who lived in them. Senseless destruction does away with a former way of life, the foundation of our spiritual and aesthetic culture, and irretrievably impoverishes our daily lives."

Mahlsdorf's preservation efforts were heroic, especially given the meager resources at her disposal. But hard work, coupled with East Germany's bureaucratic incompetence, enabled her to save several important buildings, most notably the Friedrichsfelde Palace and the Mahlsdorf villa that would become home to her museum, and thousands of historical objects.

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Mahlsdorf's collection, perhaps the largest of its kind in the world, eventually evolved into the Gründerzeit Musuem, which opened in 1960. In 1958, she had become engaged in the preservation of a derelict Mahlsdorf manor that was threatened with demolition. She managed to save the estate and was awarded the manor house to use as her museum and her home.

Over the years, however, she was frequently threatened with eviction and was often harassed by various officials of the Communist state. At one point, to protest the threats of the government to take over the museum, she even gave away a large part of her collection to museum visitors.

In the cellar of her museum, Mahlsdorf recreated a notorious bar from the Scheunerviertiel district of Old Berlin, the Mulackritze. The haunt of gay men, lesbians, transvestites, and prostitutes of all kinds, including those who specialized in S/M, the Mulackritze was finally closed by the East German authorities in 1963. In the 1970s, the recreated Mulackritze in Mahlsdorf's museum became the site of meetings of the Homosexual Interest Group of Berlin and of gay and lesbian dances.

Also in the 1970s, Mahlsdorf apparently became an informer to the Stasi, the East German secret police. Her motivations for doing this are not altogether clear, but they undoubtedly included her desire to protect her museum. There is no question that she despised East Germany's Communist regime almost as much as she despised the Nazis, once referring to it as "ein rotes KZ" (a red concentration camp).

In the 1960s Mahlsdorf became involved with the motion picture industry, often serving as a consultant on films set during the Gründerzeit period. Several movies were filmed in the museum itself.

Mahlsdorf also frequently appeared in small parts in films. Her most famous role was as a barmaid in Heiner Carow's Coming Out (1990), the first and last gay film to be made in the German Democratic Republic. She later appeared in Rosa von Praunheim's film based on her autobiography, I Am My Own Wife (1992).

On May Day 1991, a group of neo-Nazi skinheads attacked a celebration at Mahlsdorf's museum. Several people, including Mahlsdorf herself, were injured. At the time, she revealed that she was considering leaving Germany.

Before she left, however, the government of the newly unified Germany in 1992 bestowed on her one of its most prestigious honors, the Bundesverdienstkreuz (or Service Cross of the Bundesrepublik), for her preservation of cultural values.

Also in 1992, she published her autobiography, Ich bin meine eigene Frau (I Am My Own Wife). The book not only tells the story of her own life lived under extreme conditions, but also that of a whole generation of East German homosexuals, who faced persecution first from the Nazis and then from the Communists.

The title of the book comes from a conversation Mahlsdorf had with her mother when she turned forty. "As much as I like to have you with me," her mother said, "you are now really at an age to be married." In response, Mahlsdorf answered, "I am my own wife," a statement that reflected her independence and self-sufficiency, as well as her identification with the feminine.

While Mahlsdorf regretted that she never found the great love of her life, she enjoyed passionate, longtime relationships with three men, with whom she shared tenderness, affection, and trust, as well as sex.

In 1997, Mahlsdorf left Germany for Polarbrunn, Sweden, where she opened a new Gründerzeit museum. The city of Berlin took over her museum in Mahlsdorf.

On April 30, 2002, during a visit to Berlin, Charlotte von Mahlsforf died of heart failure.

After Mahlsdorf's death, doubts emerged about the truthfulness of her autobiography, particularly her apparent collaboration with the East German authorities but also even about whether she had actually killed her father as she claimed. Those doubts are the heart of Doug Wright's extraordinary play, I Am My Own Wife, which opened on Broadway in 2003 and went on to win the Tony Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Lambda Literary Award. Directed by Moisés Kaufman, the play featured a spectacular performance by Benjamin Mays as Mahlsdorf and 35 other characters.

In Wright's play, Mahlsdorf emerges as less idealized than she had been seen before the revelations about her relationship with the Stasi, but also more complex, more intriguing, and more human.

Above all a survivor, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf may have created her own narrative as a means of coping with the tumultuous times in which she lived.

Claude J. Summers

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social sciences >> Overview:  Nazism and the Holocaust

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social sciences >> Hirschfeld, Magnus

German-born Magnus Hirschfeld deserves recognition as a significant theorist of sexuality and the most prominent advocate of homosexual emancipation of his time.

arts >> Kaufman, Moisés

Award-winning writer and director Mois├ęs Kaufman specializes in theatrical works that explore watershed moments in glbtq history, such as the Wilde scandal, the murder of Matthew Shepard, and the experience of East Berlin transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.

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arts >> Wright, Doug

The works of award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and librettist Doug Wright often focus on the unconventional lives of society\'s outsiders.


    Bibliography
   

"Charlotte von Mahlsdorf." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_von_Mahlsdorf

Griersdorf, Jens Richard. "Mahlsdorf, Charlotte von." Gay Histories and Cultures. George E. Haggerty, ed. New York: Garland, 2000. 558-59.

Das Gründerzeit Museum im Gutshaus Mahlsdorf. http://www.gruenderzeitmuseum.de/

Mahlsdorf, Charlotte. I Am My Own Wife. Jean Hollander, trans. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1995.

Weber, Bruce. "Inventing Her Life as She Goes Along." New York Times (December 23, 2003).

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Summers, Claude J.  
    Entry Title: Mahlsdorf, Charlotte von  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2006  
    Date Last Updated May 2, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/mahlsdorf_c.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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