The Irresistible Con
At certain rare moments in history, a figure has arrived with ideas so revolutionary that they shake the very foundations of civilization. Think Jesus, Copernicus, Luther, Marx. Not so rare is the delusional conviction that such a figure has arrived. Think David Koresh, Ayn Rand, Dr. Phil… and you can add to that illustrious company the name of Charlotte Bach. Who is Charlotte Bach? “Cross-dressing bullshitter” is the short answer. But who was she really? Francis Wheen tries to see up her skirt (all the way up into her mind) in The Irresistible Con. The resulting portrait is, like the six-foot Charlotte, not pretty. It’s also in an odd way inspirational.
Charlotte hit the London academic scene in the early 70s. Her theory of sex and evolution, she declared, “largely disproved Darwinian theory.” The theory itself was hard to understand, but it was always clear that the theory was BIG. Lest there be any doubt about this, she announced it in an advertisement in the London Times: “My theory of emergent evolution provides adequate grounds for a flat refutation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle as well as a substantial modification of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.” After constantly agitating for publicity from every conceivable source, she was finally profiled in Time Out, where it was proclaimed, “If she is correct, or even half correct, then the implications of her theory are so tremendous that it is one of the greatest intellectual advances of the 20th century, and she should be classified with Einstein and Freud as a revolutionary thinker.” Unfortunately, the article made no predictions if she were a quarter correct, a tenth correct or a total crackpot. She held lectures at private apartments, her followers sold pamphlets, but things never quite took off. When she died in 1981, the autopsy revealed that she had a penis.
Karoly Hajdu (1920-1981), the man behind the makeup and falsies, was born a tailor’s son in a small town outside of Budapest. Not content with that lot in life, he bought a monocle in his early twenties and masqueraded (unsuccessfully) as a baron. After the war it became plain that communist Hungary was too small for grand ambitions, so he immigrated to England (anglicizing Karoly to Karl), where he lived for the rest of his life, always trying to fashion the sort of fate that Baron Hajdu deserved.
All he really wanted was to be a royal layabout, but since he was unsuccessful breaking into aristocratic circles, he was forced to bear the indignity of work. After beginning relatively humbly and honestly as an interpreter, he made himself into an apartment broker. This went well until he was investigated for charging prospective tenants for a list of available apartments — a crime in England. His business was crumbling when, in the fall of 1956, Baron Karl Hajdu was suddenly galvanized by the news of the anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary. He wanted to stick it to the communists. The plan was pretty simple: get about five hundred rifle-toting patriots together, sneak them over the Austro-Hungarian border, then let his amateur commandos wreak havoc (whether Karl himself would go was unclear). News of the Hungarian Freedom Fighters hit the papers, and within weeks he had hundreds of ordinary Britons eager to take on the Red Army. When it became clear to the English government that this wasn’t a joke, Scotland Yard sabotaged the campaign — the baron was a fraud, and he was embezzling funds. The whole venture vanished in a flash, and Karl Hajdu’s bid to be the Ahmed Chalabi of his day along with it.
Karl Hajdu was ruined — and Michael B. Karoly was born. To reinvent himself, Karl/Michael simply took his given first name and made it his last; the B. stood for Blaise (very dapper). He needed a new profession, too — so he studied to become a hypnotist. Soon enough he had a respectable number of patients. He even seemed legitimate; he began lecturing on hypnosis at London’s Stanislavski Studio, wrote a book on the subject, and became a newspaper columnist. He might have lived out a comfortable life, had he been content to do so. But he was restless. His wife of ten years, a woman very happy with the title of Baroness, got on his nerves. And he really, really wanted to wear women’s clothing. He’d been obsessing about it for years. One day, as a kind of vacation, he drove out to a small town and walked about dressed as a woman. But one of the locals spotted him; he was arrested, tried, and convicted for “breach of the peace.” Soon after, he left his wife and started a therapy group, Divorcees Anonymous, which was really no more than an opportunity for him to seduce vulnerable women. An exposé in a tabloid put a stop to that, and the publicity killed his hypnosis practice. Then his wife died. He was left alone… with an entire closet of his dead wife’s clothing.
The transformation took awhile, but by the late 60s Michael had disappeared for good. Charlotte, his new persona, was a dominatrix and theorist with “radical” ideas, ideas that explained not only Karl/Michael/Charlotte, but also the universe. “Sexual deviation is the mainspring of evolution” was the theory in its most concise form. Here’s how it went: each sex desires to become its opposite; this “platonic pull” is denied, resulting in an “inner stress” that forces some sort of creative solution. Such solutions were responsible for the evolution of man millennia ago, and that same stress drives us forward today. The baron’s private, lifelong battle was really humanity’s continuous struggle; each man, on a deep level, really wanted to be a woman, and vice versa. And there was more. She had developed a Universal Theory of Relativity and a theory of the “non-dimensional space-time continuum.” To her followers (of which there were perhaps two dozen), it seemed that there was no secret of the cosmos she did not know.
Charlotte herself remains something of a mystery. Certainly (s)he, in the many guises (s)he took in life, had been a fraudster. But there is always the question of whether a fraudster is a fraud even on a deeper level. Wheen, who has an eye for damning details, seems to think so and keeps an ironic distance from his subject throughout the book. Vanity and a lust for fame were Charlotte’s motivations — that’s his story. Let me rise to Charlotte’s defense. The world is full of frauds, only most are subtler and much more tedious in their fakery than Charlotte. Take a moment to think of the frauds in your life, in entertainment, in academia, in the government… A fraud with real flair is rare. When one comes along, we ought to applaud the innovation.