April Ashley MBE by Andy Stewart MacKay
Illustration by Louise Pomeroy.
Andy Stewart MacKay is a London-based writer and cultural historian. He’s the author of The Angel of Charleston (2013) and The Story of Pop Art (2019) and has taught art history throughout Europe since 2005.
[Editor's note: Andy uses pronouns as directed by Ashley's own autobiography.]
‘Darling, I never did ordinary’
Writer, model, socialite, activist and trans-pioneer April Ashley - still thriving in her 80s - has lived an inspiring life of extraordinary and almost unthinkable bravery. Photographed for Vogue by David Bailey and pursued by an avalanche of famous admirers from Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein and Salvador Dali to Elvis Presley and Paul McCartney, Ashley enjoyed affairs with the actors Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, and – when she was 48 – with the 23 year old INXS front-man Michael Hutchence.
Nearly sixty years ago, Ashley flew to Casablanca in Morocco to become only the second Briton in history to undergo ground-breaking gender confirmation surgery. Costing thousands of pounds, the seven-hour procedure - performed in 1960 by innovative French surgeon Dr George Burou - was decidedly dangerous, with only a 50/50 chance of survival. But as Ashley makes clear, ‘I knew that if I was to live it could only be as a woman’. Woken by Dr Burou with a kindly ‘Bonjour mademoiselle’, the six-month recuperation period involved terrible pain and even the temporary loss of her thick dark hair, but Ashley was ‘elated’. Quite literally in her case, and in more ways than one, ‘the pain is part of what makes you’.
Taking her name – April – from the month of her birth in 1935, Ashley was brought up as George in working-class Liverpool. With his father away at sea in the Merchant Navy, George was beaten by his mother, rejected and ignored by his siblings, bullied by the local boys and sexually assaulted by a neighbour. Strangers would eye the ‘delicate boy’ suspiciously and ask his mother ‘What is it?’. The only peace and solace to be found was, ironically, in the local Catholic church. Here, protected from the bullies by kindly priests, he would pray to miraculously wake up a girl. After an adolescent suicide attempt, George was sent to nearby Ormskirk Psychiatric Hospital and endured a year of electric shock treatment before the doctors realised they couldn’t ‘cure’ him. In an escape of sorts, during the early 1950s George joined the Merchant Navy but was raped by another recruit. Traumatised, he fled to Paris and found the freedom there to live as April. Alongside the singer Amanda Lear and entertainer Coccinelle, Ashley became a dancer at the drag club Madame Arthur and later at Le Carousel, ‘the most expensive club in Paris’. Having herself successfully undergone Dr Burou’s gender-confirmation surgery in 1958, Coccinelle proved Ashley’s foremost supporter on her own journey to Casablanca.
Moving to London after her operation, it was her friend Sarah Churchill – a dancer and daughter of war leader Sir Winston Churchill – who encouraged Ashley to become a model. Like a posh-sounding Catherine Zeta Jones, Ashley soon took the 1960s fashion world by storm. Quickly becoming the most sought-after model - and underwear model - for Vogue, Ashley’s modelling career looked guaranteed. Until, that is, she was ‘outed’ in November 1961 by an article in The Sunday People and immediately dropped by all the London agencies. Nevertheless, three years later, she married bohemian aristocrat The Honourable. Arthur Corbett – father of four children and heir to his father Lord Rowallan. Together they were at the centre of the 1960s jet-setting elite, and until their marriage was annulled in 1970, his family were according to Ashley ‘terrified I’d be the next Lady Rowallan’. Arthur knew about ‘her past’ and didn’t care, and yet – in a devastating betrayal - during their annulment proceedings, he used it to publicly shame her, claiming that he’d never known and their marriage was a sham. Tall, beautiful and incredibly glamourous - with immaculately bouffant hair and flowing maxi-dresses – Ashley bravely endured extraordinary levels of abuse from the populist press. The judge in the sensational ‘Corbett vs Corbett’ case was charged with deciding whether she was a woman or, as the tabloids put it, a ‘monster’. And, perhaps inevitably, he ruled that - as Arthur maintained - the marriage was invalid.
Thanks to her undeniable resilience and the loyalty of her friends, Ashley spent the following decade running a fashionable club and a restaurant in London. By the late 1980s she lived quietly in California, working in art galleries and bookshops and volunteering for Greenpeace. Retiring to the South of France for several years, Ashley returned to London only a decade ago. For all this moving around, travel wasn’t always easy. More than once in her life she had to be smuggled across national borders in the backseats of friend’s cars. How, after all, could Ashley easily have passed through border controls with ‘George’s’ passport? Writing from retirement in the South of France to the then-Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott – her only friend from the Merchant Navy – April demanded he rectify the situation. The result was the 2005 Gender Recognition Act, which allowed her and thousands of others to legally change their gender - and hence the names on their passports.
With justified pride, Ashley recently declared ‘Darling, I never did ordinary’. No doubt she is somewhat bemused therefore by her new-found status as a National Treasure. In the last few years she has received an MBE from the Queen, created Liverpool’s Citizen of Honour, recieved an Honorary Doctorate and been the subject of an exhibition at London’s Welcome Collection. Once described by a European Prince as ‘obviously high born’, hers is a life that transgressed the boundaries of both gender and class. Naturally expressive, there’s no doubt that her cultivated aristocratic accent could be powerfully cutting if it needed to be. In a world that refused to protect or defend her, words – and their delivery - were useful weapons. Her life reads, to me, like something from ancient myth. The mortal George endures hell, but is transformed, deified and constellated into the night sky as April, a ‘star’ of the queer firmament. The lesson we must all learn from her life is to, with her own emphasis, ‘be bloody brave’.
I met Ashley once, about five years ago, at the opening of an exhibition in London. Nearly 80 and supported by a cane, she was kind and shy but touched that I’d bounded up to her, fully star-struck and gushing with admiration. Most intriguingly, she claimed, 'I remember your Father from the 60s’. Lucky Dad.