Despite a career on stage that spanned fifty years (and thirty years of recordings), Ray is probably most infamous for his 1950s “sex change” hoax. The main artifact of it today is his outrageously titled album, Let Me Tell You About My Operation and the funny title track where Ray sings, “There’s been a change in gender”.
Ray’s “sex change” hoax was a more complex story that has been forgotten over the years, even though the hoax – and Ray’s arrests because of it – were in the news for several months.
We have to go back to December 1952. Christine Jorgensen, received the world’s first well publicized sex reassignment surgery in Denmark. (Surgeries of this type had been performed in the early 1930s in Germany, but Jorgensen also received hormone therapy.) The surgery was performed in November and was covered on the front page of the New York Daily News on December 1.
The public was fascinated by Jorgensen for several reasons. The first of Alfred Kinsey’s books, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, was released in 1948 and was a best-seller, still being joked and talked about when Jorgensen appeared in news headlines. In addition, gender roles were changing as ex-soldiers returned from World War II. During the War, women had kept the economy going, taking on jobs more traditionally held by men in factories, farms, and the service industry. Now with the soldiers back at home, a new conservative mood expected women to go back to their “traditional” roles as homemakers and mothers.
The news that an ex-soldier would go through a procedure to become female caught the public off-guard. Jorgensen became a hot topic of public interest. Low budget film producer George Weiss commissioned director Ed Wood to make an exploitation picture inspired by Jorgensen’s sex change; Wood instead created a docudrama about transvestism, Glen or Glenda. It was released in April 1953, just four months after Jorgensen’s procedure hit the news and was advertised with the tagline, “I Changed My Sex!”
Ray added jokes about Jorgensen to his act shortly after the news broke. Ray released an album, Yes! It is Ray Bourbon, that included two of his shows recorded at Coffee Dan’s in San Francisco, recorded sometime in 1953. He tells the audience that he’s going to Denmark “to have more put on”.
In 1954, Jorgensen made her debut on Broadway in Cherie De Paris (The Darling of Paris), a “Gay Parisian Revue” at the Latin Quarter and was featured in newsreels. Meanwhile, Ray was running into problems. Just ten years before, Ray’s Insults of 1944, opened to good reviews and ran for three months in Los Angeles. Now, Ray’s 11:45 Revue was panned – “Bourbon’s Stage Revue Puts Emphasis on Smut”, read the headline on a December 20, 1954 look at the show in the Los Angeles Times. Calling the show “obnoxious”, the review noted, “This performer is less crude than he used to be when performing Hollywood nightclubs and on the stage here. But he is still definitely beyond the “oh-so-blue!” horizon for most showgoers.” Audiences dwindled and the show quickly closed.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Ray was arrested for drunk driving on February 3, 1955. “While being questions, officers told Bourbon to put his foot on the brake, as his car was rolling backward toward their patrol vehicle,” the Times reported. “They quoted him as saying he had his foot on the brake but it was actually pressing the floor-boards, they said. The patrol car was bumped, but without damage, the officers reported.” In April, Ray would plead guilty to the charge and pay a fine of $100.
It’s at this point the first news story appeared about Ray’s planned sex change. Hedda Hopper, who was a friend of Ray’s in Hollywood for several years, broke the story in her March 15, 1955 column. (Enter Madame, referred to in the column, was a 1920s play about an opera singer, twice made into a film in the 1920s and 30s.)
“Ray Bourbon, night club entertainer, tells me he will go from an old man to an old woman. He’s off to Denmark for that operation to be performed by the same doctor who took care of Christine Jorgensen. Ray’s taking along his 12 cocker spaniels on the polar flight, and on his return he expects to star in a musical version of ‘Enter Madam’, which Bob Wright and George Forrest have written. I asked if he would change his name. “I’ll go from Ray to Rae,” he said. He’s 63.”
Ray really was going to have an operation, but the reason for it was more dire. In early 1961, as part of their investigations into the William Martin and Bernon Mitchell defection to the Soviets, FBI agents interviewed Ray where he admitted the “sex change” was actually an operation for cancer.
In 1954 he found out he had cancer and went to Mexico where he had a “Christine Jorgensen operation”. BOURBON laughingly stated his reason for having the operation was different than was Christine’s, in that he had wanted to save his own life. Since the operation, he has billed himself as RAE BOURBON since actually is now bi-sexual.
Ray’s operation was done in September 1955, according to a front page article in Variety that was published on May 23, 1956. The United Press picked up on the story and it was picked up by Stars and Stripes on May 25 and other national newspapers. In May and June of that year, Walter Winchell also mentioned Ray’s sex change several times in his column.
“Bourbon has changed his first name to Rae,” the articles noted, “and claims he is a “complete female.” Ray obtained a certificate from the doctor stating “this individual now is a woman and not a man.” Ray would use a reproduction of the statement in ads for his show, such as this one in Variety from July 30, 1956 when Ray appeared at the Melody Room in Los Angeles.
Ray’s trip to Mexico during this time period can be verified by ads from the El Paso Herald Post, showing Ray appearing at the Mexicana Room at Ranchito Escondito, in Juarez, Mexico “With his Gay Songs and Gay Stories” in October 1955.
However, the operation and resulting publicity may have been more trouble than it was worth. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that, on January 25, 1956, Ray was arrested at 544 Bourbon in New Orleans for impersonating a female and wearing clothes of the opposite sex. The following day, Ray was found not guilty, since he was a paid performer and had not appeared on the street in female attire.
On July 16, 1956, columnist Herb Lyon reported in the Chicago Tribune that “Christine Jorgensen, the Black Orchid star, almost had competition: Comedienne Rae Bourbon, who was cancelled at the Brass Rail after one performance. The last time Rae played here, she was known as Ray Bourbon. [Rae reportedly underwent surgery in Mexico last year.]”. Ray was billed as “Rae Bourbon, That Different Person” in an ad for the show.
The Los Angeles Times and Daily Variety reported in August 1956 that Ray, appearing at the Melody Room in Los Angeles, was arrested for impersonating a female. Ray’s defense was the was “now female”.
The Los Angeles County Commissioner revoked the club’s license for presenting Ray’s show, deeming it “indecent” and labelling Ray an “undesirable”, and complaining about Ray’s drinking. The club managed to get its license back and Ray’s charge was downgraded to performing as the opposite sex without a special permit after Ray appeared in court, in drag, with the statement from his doctor declaring him female. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner published two photos of Ray at court.
Ray was sentenced to jail in November for his appearance at the Melody Room.
Proving that any publicity can be good publicity, Ray opened a new review in late September 1956 at the Ivar Theatre in Los Angeles titled She Lost It in Juarez? A review, was published in the Los Angeles Times on September 29th, and started out by reminding everyone about the publicity about Ray’s apparent sex change.
“The net result is, we fear as yet a bit ambiguous – a husky, well-cosmeticked(sic), elaborately coiffured, gowned and girdled dowager compute with quivering, sun-tanned chins, a really awesome falsetto and a speaking voice whose languorous timber is perhaps only half an active or some below the standard cocktail contralto.
This recorded, it must in all fairness, be conceded “Miss” bourbon that she has certainly gone about as far as he could. And certainly “Miss” Bourbon’s talent for a nervous, rapidly allusive comedy is one thing – as she would phrase it – simply delicious.
Of course her particularly brand of humor is – to put it blandly as possible – rather highly specialized though it must also be recorded that her audience missed not the slightest double-entrendre (sic) in her very fastest patter.
In concluding, though we run the rest of laboring the obvious, we feel we must note that, of course, her revue is not intended for minors. Nor, in a more ultimate sense, can we recommend it for those in search of the more essentially meaningful in the theater.”
Sometime during this period, Ray recorded his now infamous lp that was part of the sex change hoax, Let Me Tell You About My Operation. “Of course I had it done!” he declares in the title track.
Listen to Ray’s routine, “Let Me Tell You About My Operation”
By July 1957, Ray’s “sex change” hoax has played out – there’s the last mention of it in a column by Dorothy Kilgallen where she says Ray is “just back from Texas after undergoing the last of a series of operations making him a lady”. That same year, Christine Jorgensen released a serious interview album, Christine Jorgensen Reveals about her life and the sex reassignment procedure.
Ray’s career never really recovered after that. He was relegated to performing in smaller clubs, mostly in New Orleans and Saint Louis and a chance at Broadway in the mid-1960s with his show Daddy Was a Lady, wasn’t enough to revive his fortunes.
In the late 1940s and early 50s, Ray had the potential to make a new career for himself in television, with his gifts for creating characters and improvisation. By sticking to the more risqué, sexually-charged aspects of his work and the camp humor, Ray would inevitably come in conflict with the new morality of the 50s.
Ray’s act, with its “out” gay sensibility and drag component, didn’t fit in with the new, more conservative atmosphere in the post-War period. With the growing popularity of television, the public could tune in to Milton Berle each week, often performing in drag for laughs. (Ironically, NBC would be paying Berle a million dollars a year as part of his historic contract with the network, and viewers would regularly see Berle performing in drag in prime time all through the 1950s, even as Ray was getting arrested for female impersonation.)
In the end, Ray’s illusion of a sex change couldn’t compete with the buzz around Christine Jorgensen and a gender reassignment.
However, Ray’s best-loved and widely distributed albums were produced during the period after the operation hoax – albums that fully exploited his many gay-themed songs and routines. While Ray didn’t have the broad, more mainstream audience he craved, Ray did find a devoted audience in the gay community.