April Ashley - Model, Socialite and Trans Rights Campaigner
29th April 1935 - 27th December 2021
Certain lives read like unlikely fictions -- plots extreme in their stretching of belief, too unlikely to be considered real life -- do sometimes occur. One such journey of existence was the fabled, often troubled sojourn of April Ashley, socialite, Vogue model, activist and occasional actress, born a boy in a working class, impoverished district of Liverpool on 29th April 1935. Pretty and exhibiting obvious feminine characteristics from his earliest days, it proved an unhappy childhood, bookended by a belittling, abusive mother, and a kindly, but mostly drunken, father, home on shore leave from the Royal Navy. The outside world was no less accepting. Had Charles Dickens ever annotated a tale of a trans life, Ashley's had all the elements of his genre of story telling, dark, dramatic and unsettling.
In 1951 in a desperate attempt to ignore herself and fit in with the expectations of a post-war England, a spell in the Navy proved a futile venture. A suicide attempt in Los Angeles followed and after returning to Liverpool, a stay at her own behest, in a mental institution where treatment consisting of electro-shock therapy and copious drugs, but after a year, the contradictions remained. A brave attempt at conformity had failed, but from that arose a sense of self-reliance and acceptance and a desire to become the person within. Even the authorities couldn't alter what nature had ordained. Rejected at home, the bright lights of London beckoned with the genesis of dressing as a woman and a life on her own terms.
During a holiday in France she began working in revue as a dancer at the Le Carrousel club in Paris where she was entrusted with a letter to Dr. Georges Burou, a pioneer in gender reassignment surgery, by Coccinelle, the first French citizen to undergo the procedure at his clinic in Casablanca. In 1960, already taking oestrogen, and having saved enough money via her work as a dancer, she presented to Burou for the gruelling seven hour operation. As she went under he whispered "Au-revoir, Monsieur" and as she came round greeted her with the words "Bonjour, Mademoiselle!" April Ashley had finally arrived. She was only the second UK citizen to undergo the such surgery.
Back in London her stunning appearance swiftly earned a career as a leading lingerie model and a bit part in the final Bob Hope and Bing Crosby vehicle The Road To Hong Kong. All was going well, but disaster struck when a former friend sold her story to a tabloid newspaper. The sensational headlines destroyed her modelling career and her name was removed from the the film when it finally appeared in 1962. Ashley retreated to Spain where she found work modelling, and as a hostess in clubs, and a greater sense of tolerance. She also encountered the minor British aristocrat, the louche Arthur Corbett, who was still married. A courtship ensued, and then marriage, which was never consummated, and then more controversy when the nature of their union was exposed. Ashley, like any spurned romantic heroine, fled the Costa del Sol in the arms of a Spanish nobleman.
In 1970, having swanned across Europe for much of the intervening decade, she instigated court proceeding against her former husband, who counter-sued. The case dragged on for three long years with considerable press attention, the judge finally ruling that Ashley was "at all times a man" and their union was't recognized in law. Unbowed, she opened a restaurant in London with a friend called "April & Desmond's" which was a social success and a culinary disaster, but nobody bothered much about the food since they were having such an extraordinarily good time, as indeed was April, whose hedonism resulted in a couple of heart attacks. By 1975 she'd deserted the capital in favour of the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye, and then on to San Diego where she found gainful employment in an art gallery. As the new century dawned she was living in France.
In 2001 the European Court Of Human Rights struck down the judge's ruling over her divorce and her campaign to have trans rights enshrined in law finally bore fruit in 2005 when she finally was presented with a birth certificate confirming her status as a woman, a feat achieved with the help of an old friend from former times, John Prescott, who by then was the deputy Prime Minister of the UK. Where previously the incoming tide had threatened to consume her, Ashley found a new celebrity as a pioneer and icon. Invited to speak at Oxford, appear on the chat show circuit, she had finally arrived at a point of acceptance. In 2012 she was awarded an Order Of The British Empire by the Queen "for service to transgender equality" and in 2015 became an honorary citizen of her home city Liverpool. An exhibition about her life ran there for a year.
As she aged Ashley became an imperious figure, a cross between Margaret Thatcher and the Countess Spencer. A woman who'd been wooed by Elvis Presley, who'd partied with John Lennon and Mick Jagger, and counted INXS singer Michael Hutchence, the actor Omar Sharif, amongst her lovers. She was a muse for Picasso, but declined the advances of Salvador Dali to paint her in the nude. It all seems rather unlikely for a a life begun as a boy in in 1930's Liverpool. Ashley once confessed that she as a child before she went to sleep would whisper to the night "Please God when I wake let me be a girl." She granted her own wish in the end. A movie of her life starring Catherine Zeta Jones never made it into production. Her second autobiography was pulped as her collaborator on her her first volume claimed she had plagiarised his work. Another drama in a life bedecked by incident. She married for a second time, but that union ended in divorce a decade later.
The English singer-songwriter John Howard's new album Look is a concept affair based around his friend's spectacular life, he played piano in her restaurant in the '70s. Due for release in March, it is a heartfelt compliment, and fitting tribute, but one that must now sadly arrive, as a posthumous one for a life lived at such a pace it altered the grain of existence.
April Ashley died in London after a short illness.