Harry Benjamin was born in Berlin, Germany, on 12 January 1885. He came to the United States in 1915, age 30, a doctor, forced by The Great War. Benjamin settled in New York City, opening a medical clinic which was also his home, and eking out a living. Benjamin had done his graduate work on tuberculosis, but was interested in endocrinology and the role hormones played in sex and aging. Eventually, his practice became remunerative enough that he could travel back and forth between New York, his home, and Europe. His interest had been stimulated by the Swiss scientist August Forel, whom I best know as a founding myrmecologist (ant biologist), having looked into his work for my first book, on fire ants. Benjamin came to know many of the leaders in the developing field of sexology, Freud and Havelock Ellis and Eugen Steinach and Magnus Hirschfeld.
He met Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s, first through a colleague and then after opening an annual summer clinic in San Francisco. The clinic was at 450 Sutter Street (the Sutter Medical Building) across the street from the Sir Francis Drake hotel, where Kinsey was staying. Coincidentally, while Kinsey was traveling to interview people for his research into sex, he had also started out studying insects of the order Hymenoptera—gall wasps in his case, rather than Forel’s ants. By this point, Benjamin was well established, having done a report on the sex life of soldiers for the government. Kinsey interested Benjamin in the case of a boy who felt as though he was meant to be a girl. Benjamin considered sending him to a psychiatrist, but when he found psychological opinion split on the correct course, he offered the boy estrogen and arranged for him to have what is now called gender reassignment surgery in Europe. This was in 1948. Benjamin lost track of the girl after she went to Europe.
Benjamin kept seeing similar patients, though—what we now call transexuals. He kept files on them using both their male and female names. He was a sympathetic doctor, if also paternalistic, and as word spread among those with he came to hunk of as gender dysphoria, he acquired more patients. Nonetheless, in the early 1950s, he was thinking of retirement and hired Virginia Allen, the wife of another doctor, as an assistant to help him in phasing out his clinic. She also typed several drafts of his contribution to Prostitution and Morality. While organizing his papers, Allen came across Benjamin’s files on transexuals and convinced him they needed further study. At the time, newspapers were filled with the story of Christine Jorgensen, a male who had gone to Denmark to undergo surgery and returned a female. Benjamin became a confidante to her as he worked up his files into the 1966 book The Transsexual Phenomenon.
Like the other tangental Fortean, George Starr White, Harry Benjamin was interested in extending the human life span, and he himself lived to 101, dying in 1986. During his his years studying transsexuality, both before and after the publication of his seminal book, he amassed boxes of material, and these files, along with lots of correspondence are now held at the Kinsey Institute, at Indiana University, the whole lot covering some 30 linear feet. Abundant material, this, for a biography, which really should be done. Again like White, he deserves one, and the story of his life would shed light on some of the twentieth century’s darker corners: ideas about sex, race, gender, age, religion and politics. (Benjamin's biography adapted from here and here.)
Benjamin was associated with the Fortean Society from the mid-1940s, at least. Thayer was selling Sex in Wartime, part of which Benjamin authored, in the spring of 1944 and already was labeling him a member of the Fortean Society as well as “the celebrated gland man who attempts to retard the ravages of time on the human body.” A year later, Thayer advertised The Sex Problem in the Armed Forces, which was Benjamin’s part of the first book “extracted, amplified, and put up by itself in wraps,” as Thayer said. Fifty cents. Again, Benjamin appeared in Doubt 16 (1946). Discussing pamphlets and books he had received, Thayer notes he had come across several works by the French doctor Helan Jaworski; Frederick S. Hammett was reading one of the tomes. (He later epitomized it as an “amusing whimsy”: that the earth was alive, and human’s its mitochondria.) In passing, Thayer notes that Benjamin had met Jaworski in Paris several years before.
How Benjamin became associated with the Fortean Society is unclear—although there are hints, and these are the Society’s dark shadows. Harry Benjamin was good friends with the writer George Sylvester Viereck. German-born, Viereck lived in America but came to champion Germany’s cause during World War I. He also supported the work of Eugen Steinach on rejuvenation, which is likely how Viereck and Benjamin came to know each other: Steinach advocated vasectomies to increase longevity. Viereck was also close with that Fortean favorite Nikola Tesla. But what really brought Viereck notoriety was his support of Hitler and Fascism in the 1930s and failure to register as a foreign agent, which earned him a prison sentence in the 1940s.
Other Forteans flirted with fascism, or at least German apologies—it was a hazard of always being on the other side of issues, I suppose. Harry Elmer Barnes, who lent his name to the Fortean Society at its founding, was a historian who denied Germany in culpability in starting the Great War and, in the late 1950s, would come to deny the severity of the holocaust. Another Fortean associated—and Thayer friend—the poet Ezra Pound, was thought to be overly sympathetic to Fascism. The science fiction writer James Blish considered himself something of a theoretical fascist. He was also a fan of Ezra Pound, and tried to defend Pound from charges of anti-Semitism in some of his fanzines, arguing that Pound was using Jewish stereotypes as a symbol, and not a historical critique. (Tumbrils 1, March 1945.)
In 1930, Fascists were making it difficult for the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld to continue his work; something of his protege, Benjamin invited Hirschfeld to America. Viereck served as tour guide and promoter, his interest in sexology and friendship with the two Jewish doctors overriding his commitments to Fascism, it seems. Indeed, Viereck featured Hirschfeld in his 1930 book “Glimpses of the Great,” calling him “The Einstein of Sex,” a reference to another Jewish scientist. Hirschfeld spent more than a year on his trip, traveling to New York, Chicago, Hollywood, and onto Asia, lecturing on sexual subjects. While in San Francisco, Hirschfeld took up the case of Thomas Mooney, a labor activist who was imprisoned at San Quentin. Calls for Mooney’s freedom had emanated from other Forteans, too, notably Theodore Dreiser, Maynard Shipley, and Miriam Allen Deford. (In a nice Fortean twist, one of the witnesses condemning Mooney had said it was her astral body which was at the scene, while her material body was elsewhere.)
Thayer seems to have known Viereck, although the evidence is oblique. In 1937, he admitted to T. Swann Harding he was ambivalent about Viereck, saying he didn’t quite understand what he was up to, but thinking he had made the right sort of enemies. The notorious 1942 issue of The Fortean Society Magazine carrying “Circus Day is Over” prompted Alexander Woollcott to compare Thayer to Viereck—which may have just been spite more than reasoned analysis. In 1948, Thayer asked Pound what he thought of Viereck: “His principles are imperceptible (to me, at least), but--anyway--he is back in town, with a novel which leans heavily on his observations in prison.” At the time, Pound was being held in an insane asylum. That Thayer knew Viereck was in town suggests that they may have run in some of the same circles and perhaps knew him before Viereck was sent to prison in 1941. Thayer also ran poems by Viereck in Doubt 35 and 36 (January and April 1952).
Even if that is not the way Thayer met Benjamin, the Fortean gestures toward Fascism and German apologies remain, as does the fact—more germane to this story—that Thayer and Benjamin were friends, and it seems that it was the friendship that brought Benjamin to Forteanism. There’s nothing I’ve seen in Benjamin’s writings about Fort. It is possible that Benjamin had some sympathy for Fort, both standing against orthodoxy of one sort or another. But it is just as possible that Benjamin became a member of the Society as a sign of his friendship with Thayer.
In 1950, the Fortean Society invited Garry Davis, a peace activist and world citizen, to join. He initially was unsure. But Thayer was undeterred and convened a dinner to convince him. On 20 May, Davis dined with Thayer, Scott Nearing (another peace activist), Jay Scandrett and Paul Bleek (pamphleteers), Fred Keating (the former magician and actor), Jack Campbell (a pseudo-archeologist), Aaron Sussman (a founder and publisher), some other Forteans and more peace activists, as well as the wives of many of the men whom Thayer name checked. In addition, Harry Benjamin was there. Thayer said that the discussion ranged “from vegetarianism to Venus with stopovers at Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Renaissance banking, Einstein and ‘leadership’ cum demagoguery. The press was not invited.”
The degree of their friendship is revealed in another anecdote, though. When Harry Benjamin met the transexual Christine Jorgenson, it was at Tiffany Thayer’s home. That does not necessarily indicate that research into transsexuality was somehow Fortean—although one can not easily imagine a more Fortean concept, the blurring and recreating of the binary sexual classification—but that the two men trusted each other. A lot. It would be wonderful to prove that Fortean thought played some role in the development of Benjamin’s ideas. But the evidence is just not there, at least not yet. A search of Benjamin’s papers at the Kinsey Institute revealed only a single letter between the two men—likely because they spoke on the phone or in person. The letter said that Benjamin had received some books from Thayer. It was dated 1960, after Thayer had passed.