Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 167: John "Bunny" Breckinridge and the sex change that wasn't

Was Bunny Breckinridge really going to change his sex?

"Goodbye, penis!"
Bill Murray (left) says his famous line.

That's a line of dialogue viewers of Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) will likely remember. It's uttered loudly and publicly by Bill Murray as John Cabell "Bunny" Breckinridge (1903-1996), the foppish millionaire who was an unlikely member of Ed Wood's coterie and even played a prominent role in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). Why Murray chose to say those words in the exact cadence of Bea Arthur, I do not know. (But I'm glad he did.)

Some context may be needed for those who haven't seen the Burton film in a while. After the commercial failure of his directorial debut, Glen or Glenda (1953), Ed (Johnny Depp) is feeling down and decides to attend a wrestling match with his girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Bunny.  Although Ed is initially unwilling to engage in conversation, Bunny excitedly tells Ed that Glenda has inspired him to get a sex change in Mexico. "It's something I've wanted to do for a long time. But it wasn't until I saw your movie that I realized I have to take action!" Ed is intrigued; Dolores is mortified.

Later in the film, however, Tor Johnson (George "The Animal" Steele) approaches Bunny during the wrap party for Bride of the Monster (1955) and asks him about the sex change. But a depressed Bunny tells him the sad story of what happened on the trip: "Mexico was a nightmare. We got into a car accident; he was killed. Our luggage was stolen. The surgeon turned out to be a quack." At the end of the film, a caption informs us: "Bunny Breckinridge, despite much talk, never actually had his sex change. He is currently living in New Jersey." Which he was, although at 91 he was too ill to do any publicity for Ed Wood.

The indomitable Chuck Harter recently sent me a cache of vintage news articles about this very subject, all from early May 1954, i.e. after Glenda but before Plan 9. You might remember Chuck as the reader who sent me the articles about Bunny's legal troubles a few weeks ago. And, once again, we'll go through these items one by one.

The first comes from The Los Angeles Mirror, May 4, 1954:

"I think like a woman," declared Bunny Breckinridge in 1954.

For a newspaper from 1954, the Mirror is remarkably casual and nonjudgmental in reporting Mr. Breckinridge's then-highly-unorthodox plans. This article is presented as "special," so it seems that Bunny granted them an exclusive interview, possibly because he just wanted a bit of publicity. There's a great deal in this piece that stands out, most notably the fact that Bunny plans to undergo his transition in Denmark rather than Mexico. This would put him much closer geographically to Sweden, where Christine Jorgensen's celebrated surgeries took place in 1952. Only a 17-mile strait called the Sound separates the two countries.

The article dutifully includes some of the biographical highlights of Bunny's life that we've seen in other articles: the Vice Presidential lineage, the brief marriage to a French countess, the lone biological daughter, etc. The author describes Bunny's appearance and odor as well, noting that he "frankly wears jewelry, perfume and mascara." This would have been quite avant garde for a man in 1954. We also get an explanation of the man's famous nickname: "He keeps pink and yellow toy rabbits on his bed."

Bunny himself adds a couple of intriguing little biographical details, including a (dubious) claim that a perfume called Scandal was named after him. That's equally difficult to dispute or substantiate. Speaking of names, he has a post-op one picked out for himself: Glorianna Cabell. (Interesting that he'd drop the "Breckinridge" part.) He also says he plans to publish a book called Falling Sun, its title a possible pun on "falling son." No such volume has ever emerged to my knowledge. His boldest claim is that, once he's a woman, he will finally marry a man, though he is theatrically coy about concealing that man's identity.

The true gift of this article is that it includes so many direct quotes from Bunny himself. The late Mr. Breckinridge was obviously something of a wordsmith and was able to describe himself and give his views on gender in a witty, eloquent way. One can read an article like this and imagine Bunny Breckinridge as a fascinating dinner guest. No wonder Ed Wood liked hanging around with him. Some of the quotes in this article are very much in keeping with the philosophy of Ed's Glen or Glenda script. (Example: "I think there are a great many men with women's souls and characters who are stumbling around in the dark in men's bodies. It is these who can be helped.")

The next piece is a brief blurb from The San Francisco Examiner, May 5, 1954. It is part of Herb Caen's column from that day. Caen (1916-1997) was a Bay Area institution for decades, a wry humorist who reported local political and social happenings (read: gossip) in a chatty, pun-filled way.

Bunny was one of Herb Caen's "sightems" on May 5, 1954.

Just 30 words, but there's a surprising lot to unpack here. "Sightems," for instance, was Herb Caen's punning portmanteau of "sighting" and  "item." At first, I was confused as to why the columnist called John Breckinridge a "Sharon heir," but he's referencing a wealthy branch of the Breckinridge clan. If you search through their family tree, you'll see that Thomas Sharon married Louise Breckinridge, thus bringing two powerful families together. It's also notable that Caen declines to use the nickname Bunny in this column.

In 1954, the Jorgensen case was still fresh enough in the public's minds that the columnist could refer to a sex change procedure as "a 'Christine' operation" and be perfectly understood by his readers. I would guess that Herb Caen was looking for any excuse to include Bunny's sex change in his column, so he threw in a gratuitous mention of Bunny having lunch at San Francisco's (still-standing, still-luxurious) Palace Hotel with actress Diana Lynn (1926-1971). Diana's an interesting figure in her own right, like Bunny the product of a wealthy upbringing. A piano prodigy as a child, she is probably best remembered today as the female lead in Bedtime for Bonzo (1951) opposite Ronald Reagan and a chimp. 

The next article up for review comes from The Los Angeles Daily News, May 5, 1954:

Bunny with his bunnies.

For the most part, this piece recycles material from the previous day's Los Angeles Mirror article, including several direct quotes, but it adds a few noteworthy details. Most obviously, it includes a photo of Bunny Breckinridge wearing his trademark jewelry and makeup and, more importantly, holding the toy bunnies that supposedly gave him his famous nickname! 

This piece also updates the location of his upcoming operation, moving it from Denmark to Britain. The tone here is vaguely derisive, referring to Bunny as a "blond, heavy-set playboy." On the plus side, we get a few more of Bunny's own opinions. He tells us that he "didn't like marriage" and that he thinks the Christine Jorgensen story was "wonderful."

The next two items that Chuck Harter sent me are simply captioned photos. The first comes from The Pomona Progress Bulletin, May 5, 1954; the second is from The Martinez News Gazette, May 6, 1954.

Two captioned photos of Bunny Breckinridge from May 1954.

Scant little new information here, apart from what can be gleaned from the photos themselves. The Pomona Progress Bulletin still has Bunny going to Denmark for the operation and reports that his new name will be Catherine Cabell instead of Glorianna. The paper also makes a point of describing the way Bunny is sitting ("with leg folded under him"), perhaps to emphasize his effeminate mannerisms. The Martinez News Gazette, meanwhile, has the operation taking place in England. 

I noticed that, in the second photo, Bunny Breckinridge is cradling a pet cat. The animal's black ears and face indicate that this is a Siamese. He's also posing next to the same oil painting of himself that Rod Woodard used on the first volume of the Bunny Breckinridge biography. The most notable thing about the first photo, apart from the fact that it makes Bunny look like Alan Hale, Jr., is that Bunny is wearing the same outfit as in the Los Angeles Daily News photo. Each of these three pictures, by the way, is credited to a different wire service: United Press, Associated Press, and International. In 1958, United Press absorbed International, forming UPI.

The next stop on our journey is an article that appeared in The Times on May 6, 1954:

"We don't know just yet what we can do."

When I saw those sarcastic quotation marks around the word "Miss" in the headline, I wrongly assumed this would be a more hostile article about the Breckinridge case. But we must remember that this piece is a wire service article from the Associated Press and that the snide headline was merely added to it ex post facto by an editor of The Times. The body of the text is neutral in its presentation of the facts.

This article goes into much more detail about why Bunny Breckinridge's sex change in Denmark did not happen. In short, the country's justice ministry heard of Bunny's plans and intervened immediately. "The government," said an unnamed spokesperson, "certainly does not want Denmark to get the reputation of being a place where one and all can come to have their sex operations performed." It sounds to me like the country was turning its back on some potential tourist money. Certainly, a high-living socialite like Bunny Breckinridge would have frequented the shops and restaurants of Copenhagen while he was in town.

A few interesting details emerge here. This is the first article to say that Breckinridge's doctor would have been British even if the operation had been performed in Denmark as originally planned. At least that's my understanding of the piece. Also, like The Pomona Progress Bulletin, The Times has Bunny's designated new name as Catherine Cabell rather than Glorianna. Perhaps Bunny was telling different things to different reporters, depending on his mood.

The last article we will consider today comes from The San Francisco Examiner, May 7, 1954, and is another of those fleeting gossip column mentions:

Layken et Cie in Los Angeles. Inset: a mention of Bunny in a gossip column.

This article emphasizes one of the less-reported aspects of the case, i.e. that John Breckinridge planned to marry a man after undergoing a sex change. I can't be sure how serious Bunny was about all of this; he strikes me as the flighty and fickle type, quick to grow bored of things. But who knows? Maybe, as he said, it was "real love." I do have to wonder, though, why the author of this article thought it would be "snide" to ask "Who's the lucky man?" How else could he have phrased it? I doubt Bunny Breckinridge would have taken offense.

Incidentally, our columnist has found Bunny at a location identified only as "Lakin's at IMagnin." The article assumes we know what that is. I didn't. But a little digging turned up that Laykin et Cie was a high-end jewelry store located within a department store (or "palace of high fashion") called I. Magnin & Co. on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. This is real, old-school snob stuff, a reminder of a time when even decadent consumption was done in a classy way. I. Magnin is now defunct, but Laykin continues as an online retailer. 

I hope you've enjoyed this second look at the colorful past of John Cabell "Bunny" Breckinridge. Perhaps it's given you some insight into who this man was, what he believed, and how he spoke. Again, I thank Chuck Harter for sending this material my way. I will leave you with some quotes about Bunny from Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992) by Maila "Vampira" Nurmi and makeup man Harry Thomas:

Alternate viewpoints on John "Bunny" Breckinridge.