Feel My Rage

Doug Wright channeled his anger from growing up gay in the Park Cities into bizarre and brilliant plays

Another satirical college play was called Dinosaurs, a trailer-trash comedy inspired by the controversy over supposed human footprints mingled with dinosaur tracks at Glen Rose. It snagged the attention of TV legend Norman Lear, creator of All in the Family and many other sitcoms. (Wright sent the play to Alder for comments and got a harsh critique of the stereotypical way it treated religious country folk. "I said it wasn't worthy of him," says Alder, who is glad it was never widely seen. "I think it would have been a great mar on the face of Doug's oeuvre.")

But the play got Wright a three-year contract to write for television. Wright made a lifelong friend in Lear but struggled with the form. Writing for television frustrated him. "It's like writing a really rigorous poem," he says. "There are three acts, and each has to fit into a seven-minute time frame. I couldn't stay interested in a character from week to week."

Writing a play, in comparison, is like writing a cookbook, Wright says. "It's giving a list of ingredients: who the characters are, where they move, what they say. You need other people to attempt to follow those instructions."

The Beales shared their dilapidated mansion with 52 cats.
The Beales shared their dilapidated mansion with 52 cats.
"Big Edie" Bouvier Beale and her daughter lived in squalor.
"Big Edie" Bouvier Beale and her daughter lived in squalor.

At the end of three years, Wright's contract wasn't renewed. "I left the studio, and they'd already painted over my name in the parking lot," he says.

Discouraged and lonely, Wright felt adrift. Then he met Charlotte.

She greeted them standing in the doorway of her museum wearing her standard uniform: a black peasant-type shirt, black skirt, sturdy shoes and a simple string of elegant pearls. Though dressed like a hausfrau, nothing could hide the reality. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a man. Right down to her five-o'clock shadow.

Days earlier, Wright had received an intriguing letter from his high school friend John Marks, then a journalist stationed in Berlin for U.S. News & World Report. "I've found a true character," Marks wrote. "She's way up your alley. (And, believe me, I use the term she loosely.) I think she may well be the most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War ever birthed. Have I piqued your interest?" Marks had come across her story in a newspaper. There had been an autobiography and a documentary of this "sexual outlaw."

Wright flew to Germany, and the two men drove to meet Charlotte. As she showed them around her museum of antiques and oddments, Wright felt himself being drawn in by her strange story. A transsexual who'd killed her abusive father and survived the Nazis and the Communists, Charlotte seemed the epitome of a gay man with strength and courage, a homosexual hero. "That was the night I was convinced I was going to structure her life into a play," Wright says.

Back in New York, Wright wangled a commission from Playwrights Horizons, a workshop and theater where he attended a basement support group for writers (as did a lanky fellow named Aaron Sorkin). He returned to Germany and began interviewing Charlotte, whose real name was Lothar Berfelde, using a translator until his German improved. "My obsession with her had a lot to do with those days I spent on the playground," Wright says. "I thought those bullies were tough. They were hardly the Hitler Youth or the Stasi. She emerged from it intact."

Wright spent hours with Charlotte just talking, about friendship, love and sex of all kinds. At the time, Wright had no relationships. He'd repressed his sexual side. "I needed to seize my own life," Wright says, "to lose that vestigial, internalized homophobia. In my generation, when you are becoming aware of your sexuality, it's impossible not to be aware of those toxic attitudes, to emerge without self-loathing."

He wasn't completely closeted. Midway through college, Wright had made a difficult decision. There had been a mutual code of silence with his parents and siblings about his sexuality. Older brother Max Wright, a freelance writer, says it never occurred to him that his brother was gay. But it made sense in hindsight. In fourth or fifth grade, his little brother wanted to be a makeup artist. "The neighborhood kids would get together and play army," Max laughs. "Doug wanted to be in charge of issuing uniforms. Like the stereotypical gay guy. He'd never actually pick up a gun. You'd get shot and go to him to pick up a new uniform."

It was time to come out of the closet. Wright set up lunch with his dad back in Dallas. He was so anxious that he blurted out the purpose before they left home for the restaurant.

"Dad, I'm gay," Wright told his father.

"Good heavens," his father said, "I've known that since you were 6 years old. Now let's go get something to eat."

His very religious mother reacted with concern but became more comfortable with her son's announcement after reading a book called Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality by John Boswell. Both of his parents remained supportive. But neither parent knew how to help their gay son navigate the straight world.

Wright sat at Charlotte's knees and soaked up her wisdom. He came to see her as a mentor, parent and guide to the human heart. "With her counsel, that side of my life started to blossom," Wright says. "It was incredibly profound for me. I think she made me comfortable in my own skin."

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