A Star in Reborn, Again
The father and the son share memories. Like those of many fathers and sons, the memories are attached to shared times, and as with many fathers and sons of a certain age who grew up in Texas, those shared times were spent hunting. Deer, duck, goose, dove, quail. At least hauling guns around in the cold and drinking beer outside.
The father and son both lived their most formative years in Houston, but they had a place in Orange Grove, near Corpus Christi, and on that place they kept a pig named Queenie and a calf named Calfie and assorted sheep and goats and a Jeep for getting from one blind to another. They also had a wife and a sister, respectively, but while those two surely have memories of their own, this is not their story, because they have chosen to stop telling it.
The father and the son keep telling their story. Like the telling will explain, as they say art sometimes can. As if repetition could make it real. As if an agreed-upon plot could synchronize the details. Because explanation is hard to come by. Because even now the story hardly seems credible. And because the details do indeed diverge.
James McGuire, for instance, remembers his dad, Charlie McGuire, a larger-than-life man of fierce drives and masculine appetites.
Kathryn McGuire, who used to be Charlie McGuire, hardly remembers that at all.
That's because Charlie is a woman now. Has been lo these past eight years. Days spent largely in the pursuit of a "normal" life that was denied her during the 49 years she spent trapped in a wildly successful man's body. A normal life, as a normal woman, that remains threatened by the bald existence of the fact that Charlie McGuire, known at the time as Charles/Kathryn, titillated, amazed and appalled Houston's political, business and society communities by, among other outrageous acts, spending close to $100,000 to remove his body hair, smooth his skin, soften his shape, grow breasts, cut off his balls, fillet his dick and shove it inside out into what the doctors call a neovagina.
And James, once the boy, is a man now, aged 31, gay, a playwright launching his off-off-Broadway career with Daddy Kathryn.
It's an exceedingly odd slice of Texana receiving a high-profile New York airing, and anyone familiar with the elite provincialism of New York City might reasonably suspect that its grittier details have been fictionalized to raise eyebrows in the jaded land of a thousand theaters.
The play is advertised as an "autobiographical, highly neurotic semi-theatre piece, about Kathryn McGuire, a millionaire transvestite that runs for city council in Houston, Texas."
That summation isn't complete -- the McGuire story defies summary -- but the melding of characters is telling. Autobiography is, by definition, about one's self. But when your life is so tangled in another man's life, your story can end up being his, even if he ends up being a she.
It's easy enough to imagine that story could tear you apart. Now imagine that it ties you together.
Charlie McGuire was born near Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1941, the first and only son of a construction worker.
"What's so strange about my life," Charles has said, "is that I grew up doing construction work since I was nine years old. All those relatives of mine say, 'God, you were always such a little man.' I can remember them just drumming this into my head, what a man was."
Problem is, Charlie had already started figuring out what a man wasn't. The way Kathryn remembers it now, he was five years old when he visited his grandmother's house in Corpus and told her that he was cold.
"She put her robe on me, and I could feel the difference. She said, 'here, put your grandfather's coat on,' and I said, 'no, I don't want to put Grandfather's coat on. I want your robe.' "
On one such occasion young Charlie's parents walked in, found him wearing the robe and "blew up." That's how Charlie learned that wearing women's clothes was not something that little men did. He did not, however, stop wearing women's clothes. He simply became a bigger man.
He worked for his father's construction company. He played four years of grade-school football, quit, then came back to letter in his senior year, earning an invitation to try out for the Texas A&M team. All the while, dressing as a girl in private moments.
"I actually wondered if everybody else did it. There's nothing wrong with me. They must be doing it, right? If I'm in high school and a football player and a big sports fan and working construction in the summers since I was nine years old, had my own car when I was 14, go hunting every weekend, play basketball, softball, hey ... everybody else must be doing the same thing I'm doing. I'm not the weird one.
"I didn't understand why guys didn't want to dress up. I mean, it makes a complete picture. You know, go out and hunt, come home and put the pantyhose on. So I did."
But Charlie knew that not everyone did, that in a very real way -- and in the 1950s, a potentially dangerous way -- he was the weird one. He kept his dress-up to himself.
"When I got older, I'd go out of town. It's bizarre, because what you do, you may spend, like, three hours getting made up back then and think you look just as pretty as can be, and man, you look like some scag out of a horror movie. You walk out that door and turn around and walk back in because you're scared to go out there. See, I was out of town a lot building highways, staying in motels. Get dressed up, walk down the hall and get some ice. That's as far as you'd get. Even in a place where no one knew you. It's against the law back then, a lot of places. Kind of hard to explain to someone you're working for -- 'hey, guess what I got arrested for last night?' For a long time I never even carried women's clothes with me. I'd go buy a nightgown or something and then just throw it away."
He kept it to himself when he got married at age 20, the same year he became the youngest superintendent ever hired at one of Corpus Christi's largest construction companies, a job he got on account of his extensive knowledge of asphalt. Charlie's wife, of course, found out early on, and there was tension, but it remained their secret through a move to Houston and the birth of a daughter in 1964, and a son, James, in 1967. He kept it largely to himself as he built his empire, M&C Consolidated, Inc., into the No. 1 seller of stabilized sand in Houston. McGuire's stabilized sand is part of Interstate 10, Interstate 45, Westheimer Road, Loop 610 and the Hardy Toll Road. Charles McGuire became a millionaire.
"I always said when I was young that if I had enough money, I could live my life like I want to live it."
And yet some days he would go to work and just cry. His secretary would see the sadness and tell him to take a few hours and go dress up, break his foul mood.
"That wasn't me. That was just a shell I was in, or an image I was projecting to make everybody happy."
And yet not everyone was happy. Charles's wife of 20 years divorced him in 1981, when James was a freshman in high school. Kathryn describes the split as amicable and says the two are still friends. He describes her as a born-again Christian. James describes her as "out there, definitely," and adds, "Mom is very religious." Both Kathryn and James asked that the former Mrs. McGuire not be contacted out of respect for her privacy. Ditto the sister.
Charles moved alone into a huge new house in the Memorial area and continued making money hand over fist.
Then his shell began to crack.
In 1987 the justice department began an investigation of three Houston companies suspected of price-fixing and racketeering related to state and local road projects. One of those companies was McGuire's, and as the feds dug, they uncovered Charlie's secret. He felt sure the feds would out him, use his fetish to taint him. He had already been taking female hormones for five years, had already been through an 18-month series of electrolysis treatments. His surgically restructured, more feminine nose was six years old.
"I was kind of told that if I didn't cooperate, they would. I never was one to like to be intimidated. So I just take it off the table. If it's not on the table they can't use it."
Charlie, not a man for small gestures, took his secret off the table and put it on the front page of the Houston Post, whose October 7, 1988, edition carried the headline "Transvestite Now Claims Probe Linked to Lifestyle" and a color photograph of McGuire in full drag.
Charles McGuire had spent 47 years being a man's man. A husband. A father. A provider. A successful businessman in a man's business. He had amassed a fortune so that he could live his life the way he wanted, and when he finally played his cards, it seemed easy enough to read them: What he wanted was out.
It would not be that easy.
James remembers the day his father told him. He was in Houston for the summer, and his mother was out of town, so he was staying with his dad.
"He's like, 'I just really want to tell you something. I want to tell you something before you hear it on the street.' I was like, 'what are you talking about?' And he said, you know, 'I like to wear women's clothes, and I'm a transvestite, and I've always considered myself a woman and blah blah blah.' I could deal with it. I knew, and he knew, and I don't think that he knew that I knew, but I could deal with it on that level. When it was in my face it was very uncomfortable. That evening, I guess he had to be someplace as his female self, and he's like, 'I'm sorry to have to do this to you,' and then he started painting his nails in front of me. I couldn't even look at him at that point. It was really awkward."
Kathryn remembers that day, too.
"I told James. He said, 'Are you gay?' I said no. He says, 'well I am.' "
"The psychiatrist," says Kathryn, "says there are no family secrets. They know. You just don't know that they know."
And if James had harbored suspicions about his dad's secret life, Kathryn had also suspected James's homosexuality.
"I just figured I might as well get it all out while this was all happening," James remembers. "He said he wasn't surprised at that moment, but then that night he was like, 'Where did I go wrong? Oh, my God, I can't believe you're gay!' He kind of freaked out, which was really kind of surprising.
"But then of course he had to accept it. He's, like, running around in women's clothes. It's like he had no choice but to accept it. I think that's why it was pretty easy for me to come out. In that sense we connected I think at that point. He was sort of like this transvestite, and I was gay, so it was like there was a connection then."
"Yes, it was hard," Kathryn remembers. "What was hard is that gays live a harder life than normal people. I lived a harder life than a normal person, so I know; I am the one that can make that argument, because I have lived the harder life. That was what worried me most, was him having a harder life than if he had just been straight."
"I didn't really get to know my dad," says James, "until I got to know Kathryn."
Kathryn, out for good, threw herself into the social whirl of Houston with a vengeance. Reporters beat a path to her door, and the unavoidably clumsy name tag "Charles/ Kathryn" attached itself to the newly minted celebrity like a tick. The Chronicle ran feature stories. The Post ran feature stories. The inaugural issue of this paper carried a long interview. Charles/Kathryn became a staple of the society pages and the gossip columns, and even TV reviewers had to weigh in on the phenomenon after Jan Glenn spent two graphic hours interviewing Houston's most famous transvestite.
Charles/Kathryn didn't fit the standard transvestite image. She was successful, high profile, outspoken, unembarrassed. If she ever felt like God had dealt her a lousy hand, she never let on. She was a born performer, and she would open her fabulous closet full of dresses and heels to anyone who asked, and she was as entertaining telling stories about her hard-drinking, gun-toting days as a man as she was modeling the Ungaro suit she wore to George Bush's presidential inauguration.
Houston loved her for it.
In 1989 she decided to run for City Council district C against incumbent Vince Ryan. Inside Edition and A Current Affair both aired profiles. She came in second place with 8.2 percent of the vote. In March 1991 the price-fixing probe was dropped without charges.
On Father's Day of that same year, Charles/Kathryn boarded a plane to London, where doctors would surgically change his genitals from male to female. The British surgeons, perhaps unknowingly, chose an oddly fitting date for the five-hour operation: Juneteenth, the day Texas slaves found out that they were free at last.
Kathryn took Houston filmmaker Brian Huberman along for the ride, paying the bills for a documentary titled The Last Days of Charles/Kathryn.
The duality had gotten to be too much.
"I got to where I just wanted to just go live and just be Kathryn. [The celebrity] got to where quite frankly it took on a life of its own. It kind of got away from me. It's like I'm standing there watching this thing, you know?"
There's a moment in Huberman's film when Charles/Kathryn recounts the pressures of the investigation and the pressures of his very public lifestyle.
"One of my private investigators that worked for me said one time, he said, 'you know, most people in this situation would have committed suicide or left town. You just start dressing more and more every day.' I said, 'That's right, I'm not running.' "
And yet the running theme of the documentary is Charles/Kathryn's countdown to the day that "Charles" dies.
Huberman's camera is trained on Kathryn as she wakes up in her hospital bed the morning after the surgery. Kathryn wakes up looking frightful, glances around the room and asks Huberman: "Am I through?"
Yes, you're through.
Then Kathryn restarts her groggy narration without skipping a beat.
"This is my first day in the hospital. Today is my first sex-change operation catheter. I never had a catheter in me in my life. This is my first day without my you-know-what."
And then, smiling: "I'm a steer."
Kathryn recovered, flew back to Houston, gave one more interview and left town. Charlie hasn't been seen since.
Kathryn McGuire is waiting on the sidewalk outside a mid-Manhattan eatery called O'Flaherty's. She's wearing black jeans, a red blouse, black cowboy boots and large-framed glasses with gold rims that set off her reddish hair and make her look just a bit like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.
Except that Kathryn McGuire doesn't look like a man.
Her voice is slightly higher than the one recorded on Huberman's preoperative documentary, and her feminine mannerisms are better practiced. She drawls like a Texan, prefers her stories tall like a Texan and is so immediately charming, in a boisterous way, that you want to like her even before you inevitably do.
Ours is the first interview she has done since leaving Houston. She went to Prague and lived there for two years. She and a partner had planned to open a Mexican food restaurant there, but by the time they got their ducks in a row, the Eastern European mafia had moved in and rents had skyrocketed.
So Kathryn moved to Amsterdam where she met a Turkish man to whom she became briefly engaged.
"The Turk wanted me to go to Ankara and carry his children. Right. We were gonna live with his parents till we get enough money to get a house of our own. Right."
The London surgeons did not cut off Kathryn's nose for a deal.
After Amsterdam, she returned briefly to Houston for the last time, gave one more interview to the Post and moved to Philadelphia for a year, where she spent several months parking cars in an attempt to learn the business of parking garages. She had thought she might buy one, but she never did.
And then she moved to Atlantic City and lived on the beach for a year.
"When you're a girl you got to try out your bikinis and your bathing suits and everything."
Kathryn ends almost every story, almost every sentence, with a giggle that threatens to get beyond her control, and often does. She likes to laugh.
She says she got engaged in Atlantic City, too, but that didn't work out either.
By the time Kathryn packed her bags for New Jersey, where she now lives, James had already been living in New York City for seven years.
"He had been in mime school in Minnesota or some place out there," Kathryn says, and he went to visit New York with a ticket she gave him as a graduation present, bought himself a suit of clothes at the local Goodwill, got a job as a host at a restaurant and never left. If he was going to make a run at the theater world, James had decided, he would have to be in New York.
"I thought that was ingenious," says Kathryn. " I still think it's great. I'm still proud of the way he moved to New York."
While James unraveled the secrets of the big city, Kathryn continued trying to weave a normal life as a woman.
There was so much to learn.
"You have to learn the body language: how to act, how to walk. The first time I ever douched I thought I was gonna die."
For the record, Kathryn says it was Houston television personality Jan Glenn who taught her how to douche.
"Guys can sit like this," she says, stretching an elbow over the seat back in a masculine version of the come-hither pose. "You don't see me sitting like this. You don't spit."
"And the multiple orgasms are great. You can't imagine. It comes from way up inside of you."
Again for the record, Kathryn learned about multiple orgasm from the plastic rod she had to insert into her neovagina daily for five months after the operation to "keep the hole from collapsing."
"So maybe three weeks after the operation, I'm feeling pretty good, getting a little sexually aroused, and -- I never will forget that as long as I live -- I had this plastic thing up in me, and I thought, I wonder what would happen if I moved it back and forth a little bit? And all of a sudden [I got] this burning sensation in my stomach; I said, Gawd, it shot up, my face felt like it was on fire, Gawd" -- there's more than a little Meg Ryan in this scene -- "and then after that I did three or four or five at a time. It just keeps getting better and better and better.
"You have to remember," says Kathryn, explaining how different life has become, "Charles was always busy. He worked hard. Kathryn don't work so hard. It's just kind of nice not to do nothing but sit there and do what I was doing. Instead of worried about whether 5,000 tons of stabilized sand is going out today, or whether it's gonna rain and I'm gonna lose this highway out here tonight."
She lives a quieter life in New Jersey now, she says, in a two-bedroom apartment with an eat-in kitchen and a living room and a landlord who pays for heat and water. It's not much, she says, but then she doesn't pay a lot for it, and though she's coy about her income -- she has worked only sporadically since leaving Houston -- she'll allow as to how there are advantages to a modest life.
"If you're just a working-class girl, there's lots more guys in the working-class people."
She's dating one at the moment, she says, on-again, off-again for about six months. He has never heard of Charlie McGuire. Neither has anyone else in her small Jersey community. Kathryn says she doesn't plan to tell him, unless they should decide to get married. In that case, she would feel obligated.
"I don't know how, but I guess I'll figure it out. I always seem to figure out everything else."
As she did with James, Kathryn may have to tell her man before he hears it on the street.
The tabloid The Sun has already expressed interest in doing a story. The BBC is in town as well, having come to New York to film a documentary about how off-Broadway plays get produced, and having stumbled into this instead. She told the BBC people she was just visiting in Jersey, that she lived in Atlanta.
For the time being, though, her favorite entry in a scrapbook filled with press clippings is a recently published small-town Jersey newspaper. There, on page 2, over a grainy black-and-white photo of Kathryn at a market stall, weighing a tomato in each hand, are the words "Tomato Lady." Beneath the picture, the caption reads, "Kathryn McGuire debates her choices."
That's it. No Charles/Kathryn. No transsexual. No millionaire socialite. Just Kathryn McGuire, Tomato Lady.
"Can you believe that?" Kathryn beams. "Tomato Lady."
"I don't know how anybody in that community could not know my dad's a transsexual. Anyone under the age of 75 without Alzheimer's disease.... Maybe that's where I'm on the inside looking out. Maybe my dad does look a lot like a woman. To me, he looks like my dad in drag."
If Kathryn's apartment is a bit tattered around the edges, James's near-Harlem Upper West Side place, which he shares with a female roommate, is all right angles. As I enter, I step across a throw rug, and before I can sit down on the wood-slatted futon couch, he's straightening the rug after me.
It was two years ago, after a traumatic breakup, that James began writing about his father and about his life with his father.
"I wrote a little blurb just about my father. I think I was in a standup comedy class. And people were like, 'oh, my God, that's so funny that that's your father.' They couldn't get enough of it. So, I just kept writing and writing and writing, and it turned into this."
It wasn't the first time James had worked with transvestite material. Starting last year he began working on the side at the Jane Street Theater, home to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a play about a transvestite's spiritual journey. Last time James's mother visited him in the city, he took her to see a performance. She was not amused.
"Mark Twain said humor is the darker side of pain," says James. "Which, like, totally makes sense to me.
"Dad can be, how shall I say... He's very big. He's a very big person. And I'm not making this comparison, but I do remember Maya Angelou's son was doing an interview for a documentary, and he said something like, 'oh, she can be such a powerful woman, and she can so press her needs on how my life should be,' and I thought, God, that's so true with me and my relationship with my father. And I really had to find what James finds important. And that took a long time. It took about eight, nine good years. My dad wanted me to be an actor superstar. Just conquer the theater world from a business standpoint. It didn't matter about process, or art, or any of those things. And I really had to find my own ideas, my own thing. But I think a lot of people go through that in their 20s."
But while most sons have to come to terms with their fathers' desire that they follow in their footsteps, most don't have to come to terms with those steps being taken in three-inch heels.
"It's kind of fun actually to be in drag," says James, who got his cross-dressing experience in acting classes. "But I still don't think I can deal, like even for Halloween. It can be so cheeky and so campy, which is fine, but even if I go to, like, the drag shows here in New York, I really have to gear myself up for it. And usually that night I'll have a weird nightmare about a drag queen or something. I'm sure that's probably as a result of Dad."
Also as a result of Dad, James has had to think about what happened. About what would lead a man to surgery to leave his life behind.
"I think a lot of what happened with my father, he'd been dressing as a woman for years, all his life, and when he became Kathryn he was a very public figure, very much into society balls, very much into the Houston social scene. But it was this stage presence, it was sort of like this social theatricality going on. If you try to put something that's on stage, or a work of art, into a real life, into a real existence, into somebody that's got to go to work, to function in a normal society, it never can work.
"That's why I think theater is so important. Because you can separate that. Even though it does seem to mirror real life, it's always a work of art. There's always a difference between that and your real existence of paying the rent.
"I don't think Dad separated those two things, and I think that's why he had the sex-change operation. He tried to incorporate that stage thing into his real life, and it's never going to work. And that's what he's still trying to figure out. 'Can I make this work?' And he realized, 'no, I can't. I've got to start completely over and become a woman.' "
And does James see Kathryn as successful in her quest to become just a normal woman living a normal life in Jersey?
"Not yet. I don't know if she ever will be. I think it would have to be society that would have to change."
It's opening night.The place is called HERE, a performance art space/gallery/cafe straddling the border between TriBeCa and SoHo. Kathryn wears a red dress with black collars at the wrists and neckline, translucent hose, a diamond bracelet and three-inch heels. The outfit is simultaneously sensible and glamorous, and Kathryn is clearly the star of the party.
James and the other actors are preparing in a room behind the 70-seat black box theater. Director Janet Bogardus is doing a director's preshow job, denying assorted photographers access to the actors, protecting their preshow "head space."
One photographer asks if he can get just one shot, of James and Kathryn together, before the show.
"Oh, no, it wouldn't be good at all for James to see his father before the show."
In the cafe, a relatively obvious transvestite, also decked out in red, corners Kathryn and says he's just there to "make sure we don't give TVs a bad name."
The BBC crew mills about with boom mikes and cameras and release forms to be signed by anyone who might wander into the viewfinder.
Inside the black box, without fanfare or even introduction, the lights go down and the strains of "Waltz Across Texas" fill the room, and Daddy Kathryn proceeds.
The play is an interspersion of James's monologue and dramatic sketches illustrating high points of the well-worn story. Some dialogue is pulled directly from old Houston media coverage. Some is already familiar from the anecdotal archive that both James and Kathryn plunder in their individual interviews.
Kathryn, aware of being watched, smiles big smiles throughout, and never bigger than during the most potentially painful material: his daughter's disdain, James's successful stabs at humor at Kathryn's expense.
James's sister: "What's he look like? Does he really look like a woman?"
James: "He looks like a younger, big-handed, big-footed version of Grandmother McGuire."
There's a scene in which James brings home a boyfriend from college, and an onstage make-out session in which James is stripped to his briefs, before Robert English, playing Kathryn, comes home early and interrupts. Kathryn smiles through this scene, too, but the smile emerges through the tight lips of a suppressed grimace.
James recites a bit about how Kathryn tells "the same stories, over and over." The genuine smile returns.
The stage Kathryn is made to say, "I just want to have a normal life," and the audience erupts in laughter at the unlikelihood of this.
Mother McGuire is presented as a spooky, Hail Mary-saying, rosary-clutching religious freak. James had said that he asked her not to come because he was afraid the language might offend her.
James's sister, who is given a pseudonym in the script, is presented as an uncomprehending shrew. James had said she was simply too busy to come.
There's even a bit, set in Atlantic City, in which Kathryn keeps company with an Alzheimer's-stricken boyfriend.
When it's over, and James and company have taken their bows, the photographers rush in to do their work. A freelancer kneels near the footlights and documents the meeting of the real Kathryn McGuire and the still-wigged actor who just portrayed both him and her. On the bleachers in back, the BBC videographer documents the still photographer documenting the meeting of the real Kathryn McGuire and the wigged actor.
A man from the BBC asks Kathryn what she thinks of the play.
"Man," Kathryn replies, "that Daddy Kathryn was good."
She seems back in her element, at least back in one of her elements, enjoying the spotlight, rewarding the attention. She and James stand at the center of separate celebratory circles, holding their own inextricably intertwined courts.
It does not go unmentioned that this play, this retelling, might well drive Kathryn from the comfortable Jersey nest she has been padding these past three years. The publicity is bound to trickle down to Kathryn's community. Perhaps to her boyfriend. If it does?
"Well," says Kathryn, "I'll just go do it again someplace else. Wouldn't you sacrifice that for your son? To me it's just no choice. It's like I told him: I really don't want to do these interviews, but if it'll help the play, I'll do them."
Which answer goes back to an earlier question asked. How had their relationship survived the turmoil?
"Just the genes, I guess. I think his mother was strong. He's a strong person. His sister is a strong person. And I'm strong. And usually when you get strong people together it's a big fight, because everybody wants to be the leader.
"Well I relinquish. It's y'all's turn. Y'all lead. I been there.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.