A haven in Primrose Hill for cross-dressers
Dubbed ‘the most shocking woman in Britain’ at the time, a 60s boarding house owner would supply her male guests with women’s clothing and take them out on the town. Now she is the subject of a play.
IN THE 1960s, behind the doors of a secret house on Primrose Hill Road, a Jewish German �migr� ran a boarding house for cross-dressing men.
Judges, politicians and high-ranking police officers went there to transform into their fantasy female alter egos.
Frau Mili Herschel supplied them with the outsize shoes, clothes and corsets they needed – and a driver to ferry them around town.
When debut playwright Bern Bowers befriended Frau Herschel’s former chauffeur, he revealed the extraordinary story of the figure the newspapers dubbed “the most shocking woman in Britain”.
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The premiere of The Primrose Hill Ladies Club runs at The Courtyard Theatre in Islington from May 3.
“When she was aged only about 20, one of my closest friends Marvin answered an advert in a magazine for a driver and became entangled with this rather overbearing lady who ran a very exotic house for men,” says the former Muswell Hill resident, who now lives in Turkey.
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“She would drive the ‘ladies’ around to clubs, restaurants and cinemas helping them to unzip all the things they couldn’t for themselves when they went to the ladies’ room.”
Bowers’ drama takes place over one weekend in 1968 and alternates between the activities of three clients, a young Orthodox Jew, an American pilot and a British army officer, and flashbacks to Frau Herschel’s early life as a cabaret singer during the Second World War.
“I am concerned with the psychology of cross-dressing. It wasn’t that they were going to have a bit of fun in a dress. The belief system is that they are women – they take on a whole persona, the image of a woman they want to be – and they want to function normally by going out into public places, believing that everyone will accept them as that. The problem is their hair or clothes or make-up aren’t perfect. It was often quite obvious who they really were and they were set upon and attacked, as happens in the play.”
Bowers says that because cross-dressers are heterosexual, producers have cast “macho” actors in the roles.
“In the 1960s, Frau Herschel must have had problems sourcing the best wigs and getting clothes and shoes in big enough sizes to carry the weight of a man. Today, we were able to get a lot of stuff from Transformations, a specialist shop, but dressing them has not been simple because it was difficult to get period clothes to fit our actors.”
He says that there are “all kinds of psychological reasons” why men want to dress up as women, which is reflected in his characters.
“Everyone comes with baggage and everyone is trying to resolve different things within themselves. For some, the dress is a cover for deep-seated things, it often relates back to their relationship to their mothers.”
Bowers, a former actor, art dealer and publisher, says it helped that he was briefly entangled in the “bizarre world” of high end prostitution.
“I knew this madam and got a job driving the girls to hotels and escorting them inside. It only lasted six months, but it was very interesting and eye opening and means I can tell this story from the grass roots.”
Sadly, Bowers believes that cross-dressing is almost as derided and taboo today as it was in the 60s.
“In the play, Frau Herschel tangles with the police, accused of keeping a disorderly house and not meeting the high expectations of good behaviour of England at that time. But the story is wider than that, it’s about people who don’t conform to our standards of normality, about the way we cast judgement or force mavericks to conform by shunning them. I’m afraid that kind of intolerance is still applicable today.”
o Until June 4. Box office is on 08444 771000.