The Man Who Would be a Woman Act Six, Scene Two: The Performance—and Shi’s Dénouement

Previously: Shi Pei Pu transforms into “the princess” as he prepares for her big night back onstage. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

The room where Shi Pei Pu’s televised performance was to take place was absolutely packed with lighting fixtures, cameras, sound booms, electrical cords, recording equipment, and bustling technicians. Folding chairs had been set up for some sixty or seventy invited guests, and additional spectators stood behind the camera equipment. An immediate and full silence fell upon the room as Shi Pei Pu made his entrance, holding ever more tightly to my arm. The spectators craned their necks to observe the appearance of the personage whose life story—in lurid detail—was known to each and every one of them. As we approached the front of the room, polite applause brought a slight smile to the princess’s face just before she ascended the two steps to the stage.

The cameras, lights, and speakers were put through their final checks. Simultaneously, Shi Pei Pu explained to the audience that the opera from which he would sing three arias involved the chance meeting of a princess and a peasant boy, each wearing cross-gender disguises. 

The first aria, my client explained to the hushed room, was about the sadness the love-stricken youths both felt, because each of them thought that they were the wrong gender to pursue the relationship. However the second selection, Shi Pei Pu added, was an aria of pure joy, for not only did the enamored youths discover that they’d both been in cross-dress disguise, but the peasant boy also discovered that he was actually of royal blood. In the third and final aria, Shi continued, the engagement of the couple was blessed by a delighted Emperor. A polite giggle arose from the savvy audience, presumably because each and every one of these plot elements has been used over and over again in both Italian opera and Shakespearean drama.

After he finished his synopsis, Shi Pei Pu bowed slightly and received yet another round of polite applause. With that, he turned away from the audience and once again became entirely still. Remarkably still.  The cameras rolled. The accompanist began to play the piano. And then, a good twenty measures into the music, Shi Pei Pu turned to face the audience, and there could be no doubt in anyone’s mind that he did so as a woman.


The recital itself was completely unlike any other performance I had ever attended. Normally there is a considerable degree of connection, of like-mindedness, between a performer and the patrons who have elected to attend. Here, however, from the very first note that Shi Pei Pu launched into the air, there was a profound disconnection, an unbridgeable chasm that continued to widen measure by measure. To begin with, there were the costuming issues mentioned earlier, grossly exaggerated by the bright lighting apparently required for television filming. On top of this was the confusion, bordering on discomfort, which arose from the multiple levels of gender misrepresentation: the role of a cross-dressing boy was being sung by a male dressed as a female who understood himself to be a female although he always dressed as a male. But these two elements of disconnection between diva and audience paled in the face of the audial onslaught.

It is arguably the case that there is no music on Earth more foreign to the western ear than Chinese opera. It doesn’t matter what level of cultural relativism and goodwill a westerner brings to listening to these alien sounds, or how open one’s mind is to experiencing a new and different branch of opera. The chords are so dissonant to our sensibilities and experience, so harsh, so brash, so in violation of the chromatic scale that informs our western sense of musicality, that there is essentially no way to approach the music.

Worse still, this inherent dissonance was magnified a hundredfold by the performance itself. Sadly, Shi Pei Pu’s voice wasn’t in any better condition than was his costume. While no doubt his vocal abilities had once been appropriate for a soprano role, this clearly was no longer the case. His advanced age, his difficult life, his forty extra pounds, and his lack of practice had quite apparently all taken their toll. The delicate soprano tones he so wanted to retrieve were simply no longer available, and the audience found itself assaulted by an uneven and quavering baritone voice that was completely inconsistent with the portrayal of a young princess.

The more the princess sang, the greater the estrangement became. By the time the third aria was completed, there were tears in her eyes as she looked out at an audience that sat in stunned silence, mouths agape. After she finished, almost as a second thought, a belated and brief round of unconvincing applause broke out, but it was far too modest, and far too late. Shi Pei Pu visibly shuddered at being so out of place, so disconnected, so alone, and the recital ended uncomfortably for all involved.

The audience dissipated quickly, while the entire People Magazine crew, which now numbered fully twenty people with the appearance of editors and executives, hurried down the richly carpeted stairs to Maxim’s bar. I walked with a greatly deflated Shi Pei Pu back to his dressing room. I asked if I could accompany him home, or better yet, take him out for dinner. But he preferred that I call him at home in the morning, and closed the powder-room door to be alone.

Taking my leave, I lost no time in making my way to the first-floor and gladly joined Bertaux who was seated at the bar. I learned that he had arrived just moments before the performance had begun. He soon spotted a bottle of scotch that was so top-shelf that the barkeep literally had to climb a small ladder to reach it. God knows what those drinks cost the magazine, but as Bertaux had no sympathy whatsoever for People or the use it was making of his friend, he couldn’t have cared less. An hour later, we hugged good-bye on the sidewalk and went our separate ways. Although I see my dear friend every couple of years, when work or pleasure takes me to Paris, Shi Pei Pu and his strange life have been conspicuously absent from our conversations. For some reason, we must feel we have exhausted the topic.


Neither Bertaux nor I ever saw Shi Pei Pu again. From what both of us came to understand, he became a recluse, and eventually a shut-in. I did, however, speak with him on the phone as the wild success of M. Butterfly was parlayed into Jeremy Irons’ extraordinary film on his life3 and Joyce Wadler’s sensitively written book. But in each of those calls he never again sounded the same. Something had been broken; some part of Shi Pei Pu’s spirit had been irredeemably saddened. And I had the distinct impression that the princess was gone forever. Worse yet, so was the son. He had moved out and was living very much on his own. Given the loneliness in my client’s voice as he told me about this, I assumed that the young man didn’t call home much.


A few years later I saw in the press that Shi Pei Pu had died—so, once again, he got a moment of the media coverage he so coveted. It was like the last firework to explode on July 4th, before the sky finally goes dark. Sadly, even in the articles written after his death, Shi Pei Pu was ridiculed and belittled—and disbelieved. Society isolates those it labels deviant, and surely such persons are among the loneliest souls on Earth.


Even the minutiae of the more interesting legal cases I’ve worked on seem to endure in my mind— despite many years having passed. And so it is with the curious and singular case of the man who would be a woman.

I suppose there are some ways in which his life story would seem less compelling today; after all, in the intervening quarter century, the western world has accepted the gay lifestyle to the point where same-sex marriage has obtained both legal protection and broad social acceptance. Most among us don’t think twice about people who are openly, even proudly,  gay. And we are no longer shocked by people who chose to cross-dress, or people who redefine their gender identification, or gay couples who elect to raise children, or even people who choose to undergo sex-change operations.

      Given this rapid and extensive social change, I sometimes ask myself just why this particular legal case remains so present in my thoughts. The answer, I am convinced, is because it never was a case about homosexuality. Shi Pei Pu was right—it was a case about love, about the connections people make with others that lie at the very heart of what it means to be human. It was a case about how important these connections are, and the extremes to which people go to protect them. It was a case about the dire consequences of love lost and disconnection endured. And it became one of the cases that compelled me to write Four Seasons of Loneliness, my humble effort to think through the impact of chronic loneliness on the lives of those who find themselves disconnected and alone.

New to the story of the enigmatic and tragic Shi Pei Pu, the inspiration behind the Broadway musical and film, M. Butterfly? Catch up from the beginning here.

[3] M. Butterfly, 1993. Directed by David Cronenberg.

The Man Who Would be a Woman Act Six, Scene One: The Transformation

Previously: After Shi Pei Pu’s People Magazine interview, Daniel and I debate the questions that stubbornly linger. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

The day after Shi’s interview, I walked down the Champs Élysées to Maxim’s bar. It was a stunning summer afternoon, and the glory and monumental beauty of Paris called out to me from all sides. The bar at Maxim’s has the same quietly luxurious tone that the world-famous restaurant has. The art deco wooden bar is itself a graceful reminder of a bygone era. And as I was early for my meeting, I stopped at the bar for a quick espresso both to soak in the beauty of the room, and to fortify myself for what was to follow.

After my coffee, I climbed the carpeted stairway to the mezzanine floor and found the door of Shi Pei Pu’s dressing room. I took a deep breath—maybe two—then knocked.

I shall never, ever forget what I saw when I entered. Our diva was deeply involved in applying his makeup- his “maquillage.” He was looking away from me into a three-panel, well-lighted mirror, but he could see my reflection by merely shifting his gaze. In front of him, on the dressing table, were dozens and dozens of bottles and tubes of makeup products, and he was partway through the process of turning his aging male face into that of a young woman. The man who would be a woman was actually becoming one before my very eyes.

On the dressing table, over to one side, was a forty-year-old color photograph of Shi Pei Pu as a very young opera star in full female makeup, costumed and glorious in a bejeweled, silken gown. He turned his eyes to the photo every fifteen or twenty seconds, looking for direction—and hoping for progress. But the ravages of forty years—the hardships and deprivations of the Cultural Revolution, the ordeals of immigration, the tribulations of the treason trial, the harshness of imprisonment, and the cruelty of the public humiliation—had all taken their toll. Shi Pei Pu could make himself into a woman, that was clear, but he could no longer come anywhere close to making himself into the exquisite young princess who gazed back at him from the picture.

Never one to quit, Shi Pei Pu redoubled his efforts and continued to apply an ever thickening layer of cosmetics. But while he put up an admirable fight for at least another five minutes, there came a point at which he finally surrendered. I heard a quiet, mournful sigh that echoed the sadness in his eyes, and then he just pushed the tubes and bottles away.

The aging princess rose to put on her sequined costume, followed by the final step in the dressing process: the donning of a complex hairpiece and hat that connoted her regal presence. She then stood, drew herself up to her full height, and took my arm to be escorted to the stage. But first, perhaps unwisely, she took a moment to glance back at herself in the looking glass. As the years pass, each of us returns an increasingly disappointed look back at a mirror, but the princess’ disapproval of what she saw that day was clearly of an altogether different magnitude.

It was only as we took our first steps toward the door that I noticed for the first time the tailoring on Shi Pei Pu’s costume. Long rectangular panels of new material had been inserted at regular intervals to allow the original royal robing to envelope a quite significantly expanded princess. Despite the tailor’s noble efforts, however, the coloring of these strips didn’t quite match the faded hues of the original silk, and, in fact, they somewhat clashed in tone. Worse still, the original silk was almost in tatters, having fed a great many moths over a great many years. Overall, the gown’s hoary condition exaggerated and drew attention to the worn-out look of the princess who wore it; one could only hope for dim lighting. 

Joyce Wadler appeared at the door just as I opened it. She announced that the film crews were ready, and that the invited audience was seated and becoming anxious. She asked me to confirm with Shi Pei Pu that he intended to explain to the audience the operatic setting for the arias he was going to sing, and the general sense of each libretto. She asked me if I would translate these introductory remarks, and with that she was gone.

At that point, the princess dropped my arm, closed her eyes, and was perfectly still for a good fifteen seconds. She then drew in a long, deep breath, exhaled ever so slowly, and took my arm again. Regardless of how she looked, she was clearly one hundred percent committed to the international ethic of all performers: the show must go on.

Up next: Shi Pei Pu takes the stage. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

The Man Who Would Be a Woman Act Five: Deliberation and Disputation

Previously: Shi Pei Pu tries—quite eloquently—to set the record straight, but we all know People Magazine will use its preconceived angle on the story in the end. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

After saying good-bye to Shi Pei Pu, Bertaux and I immediately headed to the nearest café and ordered beers from a waiter who, thankfully, noted our desperate need for quick service. We drank, saying nothing. I caught the waiter’s eye and signaled for another round.

 “Daniel,” I eventually said. “Let me ask you something. You’ve known Shi longer than anyone else in the western world—as long as Boursicot has. Be straight with me here: How do you experience him? Do you see him as a man, or as a woman?”

Bertaux exhaled heavily. “I’ve always experienced him as a man, because that’s how I knew him in China,” he replied, “and because that’s how he’s always dressed. I still have distinct memories of the week in Beijing that followed the evening that we met; we were just three young chaps out on the town. I never had a single clue about Pei-Pu being a woman, and certainly no hint about any sexual attraction between Pei-Pu and Bernard. I experienced them as two guys, and I still do so now.”

“So what went through your mind in that phone conversation when Bernard first told you that Pei Pu was his common-law wife and the mother of his child?” I asked.

Bertaux paused to think, and a wry little smile spread across his face. “I was totally bowled over. But I felt certain Bernard was telling me the truth. I mean, there was proof: Bernard raved about how cute his little boy was—just the same damn way you did the first time you told me about your son. He didn’t say anything about an adoption: on the contrary, he clearly said they had had a child together. Those were his words.”

 “So, let me ask you this, Daniel. When you saw Pei Pu after his arrival in France and understood him to be a woman—and the mother of the child—did that change your relationship with him—or her, I mean?”

Again Bertaux paused to recollect. “I don’t remember it being a big issue. That must have been when he first told me the story about his having cross-dressed since childhood to please his grandmother. Fine. Enough said. I had no interest in prying further into the matter . . . What did I care?”

“So then what went through your mind years later when you read the headlines about their arrest on espionage charges and Pei Pu being rejected by the women’s prison?” I probed.

For some reason this made Bertaux let out a little giggle. “I remember that morning so well. Look, Terry, France is a one-city country. So if you’re from a family like mine, and you live in Paris, and you went to a grande école, it’s not all that rare to read headlines about people you know. But not like this. I mean, I knew these guys personally, and they were charged with high treason? These two guys were completely unlikely candidates to do anything so wild. And needless to say, I was bowled over by the revelation that Pei Pu was back to being a man. And you know what? I was sort of pissed off, too. I felt like I’d been manipulated by Bernard into misrepresenting Pei Pu’s gender to the immigration attorney who helped him come here—and I still feel that way.” He paused a moment, and then added, “At least in part.”

“What? Why only in part?” I interjected.

Again Bertaux took a moment to find the words he wanted. “Because sometimes I say to myself that Bernard didn’t just believe Pei Pu to be a woman: he actually experienced Pei Pu to be a woman. There’s a difference. So he actually wasn’t lying to me. Sometimes I see it as a kind of good faith error on Bernard’s part.” 

“Oh come on, Daniel. That’s all we have here, a good faith error? What about Pei Pu’s continued insistence that he is a woman? You heard him today. Is that also just an error? I mean, however manipulated Bernard might have been by Pei Pu, however deeply they were involved in their mutual fantasy, didn’t he become part of the fraud—an important part actually—when he presented himself to you and to the immigration attorney as the biological father of the child?”

“Look Terry,” Bertaux shot back at me, “we live in an era that recognizes that gender identification is more complex than it used to seem. But that was less true in 1964, especially in China. So I don’t find it difficult to understand how Pei Pu created a personal construction of reality to mask his cross-gender identity from others, and maybe from himself. You heard him tell Wadler today that he believed he was a girl cross-dressed as a boy from his childhood. That’s how he felt on the inside.”

“So, is this just another case of ‘I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body?’”

“Well, it’s at least that,” Bertaux responded. “But I think it goes deeper. I think Pei Pu actually reinterpreted his body as being a woman’s body. He was a woman, to himself. And apparently to Bernard.”

“So Daniel, are you arguing that if you feel like you’re really a woman, you don’t have to take account of being biologically a male when you fill out your immigration application? Don’t you have to distinguish your personal redefinition of your sexuality from the mundane question about which sex you are on an immigration form? I mean, you can’t possibly believe that Pei Pu didn’t know that he was perjuring himself on the application form.”

“I don’t know, Terry,” Daniel replied. “I like to think of the two of them as actually not knowing; they were lost in a fog. People believe in all sorts of nonsense that flies in the face of directly available evidence. I assume companies pay fortunes for advertising only because it works: wear such-and-such a dress and you’ll look like the beautiful model in the advertisement; smoke a Marlboro and you will actually be a macho man—taller, stronger, better looking than you used to be. On some level, consumers must internalize all this nonsense.

“But it’s deeper than that, Terry. Did you ever ask yourself why all the western religions essentially insist that people believe illogical, irrational narratives which directly contradict the world they know in their everyday lives? Think about it: Jews are asked to believe a miniscule bit of lamp oil lasted eight days; Christians have to believe Jesus rose from the dead; and Muslims are required to believe Mohammed traveled on his night ride and met with God. Each of these religions more or less insists that its adherents make a ‘leap of faith’ that directly contradicts everyday reality. This can’t be by accident. I think the leap of faith that is involved is precisely the point.  It is a sort of rite of initiation, because the abandonment of rationality is a profound act of commitment to the religion. You don’t pay with money to adhere to a religion: you pay with submission. Maybe that’s how we should understand what Bernard did when he made his leap of faith against the evidence.”

 “Okay, Daniel, assume for the moment that you’re right, I replied. “Assume that both of them were so ensnared in their mutual reconstruction of reality that for them—for both of them—Pei Pu was unquestionably a woman for all purposes, including the immigration application. But here’s my question: do you think such a mutual psychological interdependency, such a folie à deux, detracts from the love story he described today?”

“Absolutely not,” Daniel shot back without hesitation. “Why should it? Heterosexual couples come together for all sorts of collateral psychological reasons—the woman needs to find a guy as nurturing as Dad, the guy needs to find a woman as different as possible from Mom—whatever. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be head-over-heels in love with each other. They just may not realize why they are so attracted to each other. The one thing I am absolutely certain about is that Bernard was deeply in love with his wife and his child, and that he ardently wanted them to come live with him here in France-- for no other reason.” 

“Okay. I hear you. But one last question, Daniel, and then we’ll call it a night. How do you think Pei Pu is doing these days? I don’t mean the People Magazine project, I mean in general.”

 “Not well,” Daniel said. “Not well at all. He must be the most isolated, lonely person I’ve ever known. Think about it: he gave up his country, his culture, his professional reputation—everything—to come join Bernard here in France. He left a culture in which he was refined and educated, to enter one where his language skills are modest and his education is irrelevant. So far as I know, his only motivation for coming was to rejoin Bernard, and then, after years of immigration formalities, he arrived in France only to be arrested, tried, convicted, imprisoned, ridiculed, and permanently separated from Bernard. For over a year he was the laughingstock of an entire country, and now that’s going to happen all over again.”

I was silent for a moment while I signaled the waiter to bring the tab. I was also trying to think of something positive to say. “Well, who knows, maybe all the publicity growing out of M. Butterfly will help him make some new connections? You never know.”

“I doubt it,” Daniel came back. “Look, I understand Pei Pu’s desire to make some money and be in the spotlight. I hope to hell you negotiated some decent money for him from People. But what I don’t understand is why he doesn’t see that People is going to ridicule and deride him—just as the French press did years ago. Once again this is going to make him a laughingstock—this time on an international scale. In my view, Pei Pu’s life is a complete disaster: he gave up his culture and his country for a love affair that slipped through his fingers. And now, after things in France have finally quieted down, this press coverage is going to bring it all up again. I think he’ll be even more rejected and feel even more alone.  If that’s possible.”

On that sad note, we left the café and agreed to meet the following day before the recital. The meeting never happened.

Up next: The day of Shi Pei Pu’s television performance arrives. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

The Man Who Would be a Woman Act Four, Scene Two: The Heart of the Matter

Previously: As Shi Pei Pu’s People Magazine interview begins, veteran reporter Joyce Wadler gears up to ask the indelicate questions that sell magazines. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

In spite of our efforts to the contrary, it was obvious from the start where the People interview was headed: the magazine had preconceived an article that would center on the incredulity of Boursicot’s claim that he actually did not perceive that Shi Pei Pu was a man; Joyce Wadler was merely looking for quotes that would buttress that angle.

Sensing Wadler’s frustration with his efforts to sell a love story in lieu of a sex story, Shi Pei Pu struggled to convince her by launching into a long, step-by-step description of how the attraction between him and Boursicot had blossomed into love over many months. And since Shi Pei Pu was, after all, a performer, he took the time to describe the stage setting for each of their encounters in exquisite detail. Wadler, to my surprise, finally ceased trying to interrupt the narrative, and allowed herself to become swept up in the entrancing stories. Shi Pei Pu’s eyes glazed over, and I recognized what was happening: I had often seen witnesses become flooded with the actual sensations they had felt at the time of the experiences they were testifying about.

Shi Pei Pu’s voice softened as the story progressed, and he seemed unaware—even uncaring—about who else was in the room as he re-experienced what he and Boursicot had once shared and felt for one another. It was hard to imagine any two lovers—outside of an opera anyway—enduring the opposition he described.

After I translated Shi Pei Pu’s last lines, no one spoke for quite a while. It had been a mesmerizing performance with enchanting, transporting descriptions of the lovers’ moments together. Obviously, it would never see the light of day in the People Magazine article.

Wadler paused to take a drink of water, and to regroup. She took a tissue from her purse and dabbed at her visibly sweaty forehead. Then, she went in for the kill.

“What exactly went on sexually between the two of you?” she asked. “How could Bernard not have known that you were biologically male if you were making love with each other? Was your penis erect when you made love with Bernard?”

After I translated the first of these questions, I reminded Shi Pei Pu that this was not a police or court inquiry, and that he had every right to refuse to respond. But with a brief “No, no; ça va,” he sent me back to my translation duties.

I later learned that even the investigative magistrate of the French Supreme Court who had grilled Shi Pei Pu under oath on these same matters had, in the end, settled for vague responses that preserved much of the privacy of the couple’s sexuality. Shi Pei Pu responded in the same vein to Wadler, and at times he seemed as if he too were searching for an adequate understanding of his sexual identity; who knows, perhaps he was. Wadler, however, insisted on repeating her question: “Did your penis become erect, yes or no?”

And then, suddenly, Shi Pei Pu’s patience ended. Without any change in his tone of voice, he entirely reversed his strategy. These are the words he spoke, and they still reverberate in my mind:

“Please understand, Ms. Wadler, that Bernard and I dearly loved each other for many, many years. He has been the love of my life, and I the love of his life. Do you understand that?”

Shi Pei Pu let a good ten seconds lapse before starting up again. 

“During Bernard’s first tour of duty in Beijing, we did occasionally find time to be together without others around. We perceived our lovemaking to be between a man and a woman, and I was the woman, a woman who had been dressed as a boy by my family to please my grandmother, since there were no other grandsons.

“This was how I was dressed as a child and how I still dress as an adult, for it has always been my habit. To the world I am a man, and to some I am even an aberrant man who is confused about his sexuality. But to myself, and to Bernard, I was—and I am—a woman, always a woman. And as you know, when I sang opera, I was always cast and costumed as a woman, singing some of Chinese opera’s most beautiful arias as a soprano, and even as what you would call a coloratura soprano.

“You see, Ms. Wadler, this is why I have loved both Bernard and opera with all my being, all my force: only in their company was I taken to be the woman that I truly am. And only in their embrace could I fully be myself, could I fully open up and love—or sing—with all my being.

“So, yes, I took a man as my lover, but you see, that was only natural because I am a woman. I remained completely devoted to this man until recently, when we went our own ways, most certainly because of the extreme pressures put on Bernard by the trial and the press. He has moved from France to escape the cameras and the questions, and I miss him terribly.

“Ms. Wadler, this is all I am going to say about this topic, not because I am reluctant to speak about my private life, nor anxious to seem mysterious, but simply because there is nothing more to add. Nothing more to add at all. Do you understand that? There is nothing more to add.”

As I translated these passionate words for the journalist, I could sense that they were having a powerful effect on her. Later, I learned that they had torn her in two, separating her heart from her mind. Her heart determined at that very moment to take a year’s leave of absence from People Magazine in order to better comprehend what Shi Pei Pu was saying, and from this year of research she would produce a magnificent book on his life.2 But her well-disciplined mind knew full well that, for purposes of this interview anyway, she was being paid to break through Shi Pei Pu’s defenses. The slightest straightening of her spine followed, and Shi Pei Pu, master fox, sensed that she was recovering her sense of purpose. He turned his head ever so slightly and looked directly into my eyes. I nodded to signal that I understood: as his counsel, it was time for me to bring this line of inquiry to an end.

Wadler was about ten words into yet another question about Shi Pei Pu’s penis when it dawned on her that I had stopped translating and was staring at her over my glasses.

After a twenty-second pause and a somewhat frenzied shuffle through her notes, Wadler ended her interrogation with a series of benign questions about the opera arias Shi Pei Pu would be singing the following evening. He, of course, became exuberant in response—and the interview was concluded on an entirely positive note.


In silence—in awe, really—Bertaux and I walked a visibly exhausted Shi Pei Pu down the hall to the elevator and, still without a word, went down with him to the front of the hotel where we signaled a passing cab. Just before a round of polite good-byes, Shi Pei Pu asked me to meet him in his dressing room one hour before the next evening’s performance. I nodded in agreement, without needing to say a word.

Up next: After the interview, I have more questions about the enigmatic Shi Pei Pu. Daniel and I debate the possible answers. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

[2] Joyce Wadler. Liason: The Gripping Real Story of the Diplomat Spy and the Chinese Opera Star Whose Affair Inspired “M. Butterfly,” Bantan Books, 1993. 


The Man Who Would be a Woman Act Four, Scene One: The Interview Begins

In this installment, the once beguiling, infamously gender-bending Shi Pei Pu reenters the spotlight as he finally sits down for an interview with People Magazine. My plan: to guide the interview away from the prurient details of Shi Pei Pu’s scandalous love affair. But Pei Pu has different ideas. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

As I waited in my hotel’s conference room the following day for Shi Pei Pu and People Magazine reporter Joyce Wadler to appear, I was astonished to see Daniel Bertaux enter the room. He explained that Shi Pei Pu had called, asking him “to back up the lawyer in the interview translation.” But this was clearly a pretext, and I could see that Bertaux knew that. It was obvious to both of us that my client, sly fox that he was, had somehow manipulated Bertaux into spending the day in the stuffy room for an altogether different purpose: he was there to police my resolve to do what I could to turn the interview away from sex and toward opera.

For many years, People Magazine’s journalistic modus operandi has been to expose as private a detail as they can possibly uncover about as public a personality as they can possibly interview. It’s that simple. I had insisted in my negotiations with the publication that they assign a senior journalist, hoping that this would lead to more sophisticated, modulated reporting. Like most coins, however, this one had two sides.  Joyce Wadler, who later in her career would become a respected columnist for the New York Times, was the senior journalist assigned by the magazine, and it was predictable that she would push harder in her questioning than would a less experienced reporter. Moreover, I had to assume that she was on a mission for her editors to find the quotes she needed to debunk Boursicot’s claim that he hadn’t known the true gender of his lover. This, after all, was what would sell copies in grocery store checkout lines.

 The problem was that I had very little leverage to intervene, especially since People had paid dearly for the right to conduct the interview in the first place. My goal was to do what I could to limit Wadler to a small number of passes at the most prurient subtopics, but it wasn’t clear that I would have any appreciable capacity to influence the direction of the questioning.

On the other hand, I felt somewhat more optimistic about the upcoming television special we had agreed to have filmed. After all, complex sexual matters were essentially taboo on network television. I did continue to worry, however, that my client’s physical appearance—he was much older and heavier than he’d been during the height of his fame—could expose him to ridicule. But none of my concerns had any impact on Shi Pei Pu. Nothing Bertaux nor I nor anyone else could have said would have stopped him from proceeding with the broadcast, for in the final analysis, he was an entertainer, and spotlight to an entertainer is like sunlight to a plant.

This same point was made years later by David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly’s playwright, when Shi Pei Pu was named 2009’s Person of the Year by Time Magazine. Hwang wrote: “When I offered a percentage of the play’s royalties to its real-life inspirations, Shi instead demanded a recital at Carnegie Hall, a wish as grand as it was unfeasible. Perhaps this comes closest to the truth about Shi Pei- Pu: he was, above all, a performer.”


Within five minutes of Bertaux’s unexpected appearance, Shi Pei Pu and Joyce Wadler arrived. The conference room was brightly lit—overly so—and from the very start, the interview felt more like police interrogation than investigative journalism. Wadler indeed proved to be a ruthless and wily inquisitor, but old foxes are cleverer than young ones, and Shi Pei Pu anticipated her every move. Watching the two of them spar was like observing a world class chess match: strategies begat counter strategies, and tactics engendered counter tactics.  Shi Pei Pu had one distinct advantage however: he was remarkably attentive, which allowed him to sense the subtlest of signs. At one point, for example, Wadler paused for just a second too long while she turned the pages of her interview notes, and I heard the tiniest humph deep in my client’s throat.  He was well aware of where she was heading next.

Wadler opened with an innocent enough question, asking Shi Pei Pu how he had met Boursicot. Shi Pei Pu seemed delighted, even surprised, by the open-ended opportunity this provided him to tell his tale of love. I translated each detail as he answered slowly and carefully, taking the time to find just the right words, trying in every way he could think of to communicate the irresistible attraction Boursicot and he had almost instantaneously felt for one another.

But Wadler’s persistence in asking tougher and tougher follow-up questions made it clear that she was not falling under my client’s spell—not yet anyway. And as the answers followed, one upon the next, Shi Pei Pu’s tone of voice changed just enough to tell me that he sensed this.

With seemingly unflappable conviction, he continued to relate his love story—and a lyrical, even poetic description of love it was. Wadler, in turn, struggled mightily to bring the discussion back to what she was searching for, shaking off Shi Pei Pu’s lyricism the way a dog shakes off water after a swim. As the morning ground on, I at one point picked up on a shared glance between Bertaux and Shi Pei Pu. It was clear to me that both of them were becoming progressively resigned to the sad fact that the story Shi Pei Pu so wanted to convey would be ignored by People in favor of yet another analysis of what exactly Boursicot knew or didn’t know about his lover’s genitals.

But whatever the outcome was likely to be, Shi Pei Pu wasn’t going down without a fight.

Up next: the interview between People Magazine’s Joyce Wadler and Shi Pei Pu heats up. Just joining the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

The Man Who Would be a Woman Act Two, Scene Two: How Could He Not Have Known? Meeting Shi Pei Pu

After Bertaux shares with more details about Shi Pei Pu and his lover’s story, I have to wonder: Did Boursicot actually know all along that Shi Pei Pu was man? And, if not, how could Shi Pei Pu have orchestrated such a deception? In this installment, I finally meet the man who inspires so many questions. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

The outside café in the Fontainebleau woods consisted of twenty or so forest-green metal tables. At each one, resting hikers sat and debated all sorts of topics in the animated and earnest tones emblematic of French discussions. My conversation with Daniel was no different.

Like anyone who first hears the story of Shi Pei Pu and Boursicot, I protested that it didn’t add up. It isn’t difficult, I argued, to discover your lover’s biological gender. Bertaux took the opposite position: he found Boursicot’s explanation adequately, if not entirely, credible.

Boursicot, Bertaux explained, had testified during his espionage trial that the lovers’ trysts were invariably in dark rooms, that Shi Pei Pu had remained covered, and that he had “guided him.” On top of this, Bertaux contended, Shi Pei Pu’s successful manipulation of Boursicot fit their personalities as he knew them: one was a dominant, manipulative person, he said, while the other was quite the opposite.

But what was particularly fascinating to Bertaux was the depth and certitude of Boursicot’s belief that Shi Pei Pu was a woman. According to Bertaux, Boursicot had always spoken with complete assurance that he was the biological father of Shi Pei Pu’s son. So the key to the mystery, Bertaux proposed, was to discover the foundation of Boursicot’s certainty. How could he be so sure, and yet so dead wrong. How would that work? Was it simply Shi Pei Pu’s skills at manipulation? Was he, in effect, a hypnotist? Or did Shi Pei Pu actually and fully believe that he was a woman to the extent that this overwhelmed Boursicot’s perceptions? Or was there something innate to Boursicot’s character that compelled or inspired him to accept his lover’s asserted gender?  What was at work here?

Bertaux thought that a significant contributor to Boursicot’s solid conviction came from the fact that the “son” Boursicot came to know and love during his second tour of duty in Beijing was visibly a Eurasian child. I reponded that while the Eurasian child might indeed have seemed convincing evidence to Boursicot, Shi Pei Pu certainly knew he was not the biological mother of the boy. Moreover, however Shi Pei Pu obtained the baby boy (which I never learned), the fact that he had chosen a Eurasian child seemed concrete evidence of his conscious and purposive manipulation of Boursicot.

But Bertaux disagreed, and sidestepped my point.  He proposed that there was something more profound underlying both Boursicot’s certainty of his paternity of the child and Shi Pei Pu’s insistence on being a woman. Bertaux theorized that the two men were caught up in a type of folie à deux. In other words, he saw the two lovers as participants in a mutually reinforcing psychological interdependence. And this interdependence allowed both men to make the leap of faith required to actually experience Shi Pei Pu as a woman and the child as their biological son. The psychological motivation for each man to enter into this shared fantasy was clear, at least to Bertaux: Shi Pei Pu’s conviction that he was biologically female was greatly reinforced by his having “given birth,” and Boursicot’s definition of himself as heterosexual was markedly buttressed by the same fiction. 

The more psychological abnormality Bertaux ascribed to his friends’ relationship, the more I began to wonder about the bona fides of their “love story.” Is it love if you con or manipulate someone into loving you? To form my own opinion on this issue, I clearly would need to meet the master—and that introduction was scheduled for the following midmorning.


The next day, a taxi brought me to a modest neighborhood on the periphery of Paris, although it took the advice and counsel of a half dozen different pedestrians before the driver finally located the small street where Shi Pei Pu lived. I climbed the stairs to his fifth-floor apartment, where a handsome and very pleasant young man in his early twenties opened the door and greeted me with a winning smile. He was, I realized, the famous son. He said his “parent,” (that’s the word he used) would join us soon and asked me whether I would like to join him in the kitchen while he prepared the dim sum meal he would be serving us?

While we were in the kitchen, suddenly, almost abruptly, Shi Pei Pu made his entrance into the room with all the flair of an opera diva coming onstage. I am embarrassed to admit that I was completely and utterly taken aback. The only photographs I had seen of him depicted a trim, delicate, handsome young opera star dressed in robes of flowing silk. Naively, and inexcusably, I was unprepared to meet a puffy-faced, overweight, middle-aged man. There was nothing even remotely feminine or effeminate about him.

Shi Pei Pu, whose accented but excellent French derived from his upbringing near the Vietnamese border, was positively effervescent with excitement about the upcoming, fully costumed performance he was to give in two days’ time. People Magazine had rented the ballroom above the bar adjacent to the famous Maxim’s restaurant on the Champs-Élysées. My new client positively gushed about the prestigious venue.  This was followed by a long conversation about what he would be wearing, and he told me how he had personally supervised a local tailor with the letting-out of his costume. The gown, he explained to me, was an exact copy of the bejeweled robes worn by an imperial princess of some ancient dynasty. At one moment he did express some slight trepidation about his long-unused operatic voice, but overall he was thrilled to have the opportunity to appear once again in front of a live audience—and ecstatic about performing in front of television cameras that would carry the recital to millions of viewers.

During our discussion, Shi Pei Pu brought out several poster-size pictures of himself in complex and ornate traditional gowns, and the striking, feminine delicacy of his once stunningly handsome face made Boursicot’s fantasy seem almost plausible. But the stark contrast between Shi Pei Pu’s past and present appearance also began to give me concerns about what the upcoming television coverage would actually bring: fame, or ridicule?

After this conversation, and a few polite inquiries about my flight and his old friend Daniel Bertaux, we sat down to eat our meal.  The delicate steamed dumplings came one after the next, each with its own shape, and each concealing a different, delicious filling. There was also Chinese broccoli as green as imperial jade, and a half dozen other culinary treats. The meal in itself was an adventure.

Only after we had finished eating did my client begin discussing the next morning’s interview. We reviewed how he intended to answer questions about various sensitive topics, and I must say it was the one and only time I have ever heard a parent speak about the complexities of their sexuality in front of their own child. The young man was stoic and essentially silent throughout the meal, devoting his attention to serving the stream of delicacies he had prepared. At all times he treated Shi Pei Pu with warmth and respect.

After we had planned our strategy, the unrealistic goal of which was that I was to do what I could to increase discussion of Chinese opera at the expense of inquiry about prurient details, I took my leave, thanking father and son for the remarkable feast. And with respect to the gender of whom I met that day, I had to agree with Bertaux: I met a man.  I think. 

Up next: Shi Pei Pu sits down for an interview with People Magazine. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

The Man Who Would be a Woman Act Two, Scene One: Paris and the Full Story of Shi Pei Pu

After reading through the press coverage that chronicled the arrests and espionage trial of Shi Pei Pu and his French-diplomat lover, I fly to Paris, ready to meet my enigmatic new client. But first, my old friend Daniel Bertaux shares with me a more detailed account of Shi Pei Pu’s extraordinary tale of love, sacrifice, and deception. New to this story? Catch up from the beginning here.

I finally flew to Paris on Bastille Day, 1987. Bertaux had insisted on meeting with me tout de suit for a strategy session, which I was actually thrilled about, given that there were still vast gaps in my knowledge of Shi Pei Pu’s life. He wanted to discuss what we might do to modulate the sensationalist coverage that could be expected from People Magazine. As it was a stunning midsummer day, he proposed that we talk during an extended walk through the gardens and surrounding woods of Fontainebleau to the south of Paris. There I was treated to an uninterrupted, nearly two-hour monologue, which can be summarized as follows.

For years after they first met in Beijing, Bertaux had not had any contact with Boursicot and was completely unaware that the diplomat had been posted back to Beijing for a second tour of duty in the Chinese capital, and then subsequently reassigned to Paris. Bertaux first learned this when Boursicot surprised him with a phone call, asking Bertaux to help him find an immigration attorney. But what was really surprising about the call was Boursicot’s news: Shi Pei Pu was in fact a woman. Boursicot explained that after Bertaux had left China, he and Shi Pei Pu had fallen deeply in love.

Boursicot also described to a stunned Bertaux the extreme measures the couple had taken to preserve the privacy of their encounters. This concealment had been necessary, Boursicot explained to Bertraux, because personal relationships between a Chinese citizen and a foreign diplomat were strictly illegal under Chinese law. On top of this, Boursicot added, the French Foreign Service had its own strict rules expressly forbidding personal liaisons of any kind between diplomats and local citizens.  It was these diplomatic complexities that required the services of a highly experienced and well connected immigration attorney.

Boursicot provided more detail to Bertaux.  He explained that after he had returned to Paris following his first tour of duty, he had learned by letter that his lover had given birth to a son. The letter had contained a photograph of a handsome, Eurasian baby. Boursicot almost immediately applied to his superiors to be granted a second diplomatic posting to the Chinese capital. But his efforts were hopeless: there was an explicit foreign service policy disallowing such reassignments. He might never have seen Shi Pei Pu again— nor have met the young son whom he knew only from the photographs that continued to arrive— but for an historical accident: the outbreak of the violence and chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Suddenly, a diplomatic posting to Beijing had lost all allure in the French Foreign Service and there were no applicants—save for his. So against policy, and quite by chance, Boursicot was eventually able to rejoin his lover and meet their son- then a six-year-old.

Boursicot explained to Bertaux that China during the Cultural Revolution was a very different city from the one they had known in 1964. The Red Guard, the police, and neighborhood informants were everywhere. The streets of Beijing were filled on nearly a daily basis with tens of thousands of marching students, each with a red armband and a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book. Their youthful fervor could mutate into violence in a heartbeat, and everything that was traditional was under attack. Teachers, intellectuals, and traditional artists, very much including classical opera singers, were at great risk for “rectification” and “self-criticism” sessions held in the street, or for imprisonment and torture in “reeducation” camps. But oh, the power of love: none of this prevented Shi Pei Pu and Boursicot from seeking each other out and spending clandestine moments together. Of course, Boursicot stressed, they increased their efforts to keep their meetings concealed, but secrecy was far harder to achieve than it had been during Boursicot’s initial tour of duty.

As we strolled through the centuries old trees of Fontainebleau woods, Bertaux shared with me some extraordinary stories Boursicot had told him about the lovers’ efforts to find moments alone together.  Some of these moments seemed more taken from literature than from everyday life. At times nothing more was possible than for the two lovers to sit on benches on opposite sides of one of Beijing’s massive boulevards, simply staring across the traffic at one another, not daring to make the slightest signal. They also made use of a secret drop-off spot in the knothole of a tree, where they deposited unsigned love notes to be retrieved later. But there was one story that Bertaux remembered and retold that really caught my mind’s eye.  It belongs in an opera.  On one gray, rainy Beijing late fall day, both lovers had attended the funeral services of a perfect stranger, simply to be near one another among the mourners.

There were other, exquisitely detailed stories describing clandestine rendezvous that allowed the two parents to spend time with their beautiful little boy, but these opportunities to visit as a family were very risky, so they were rare and brief.

At this point in his monologue, however, Bertaux, fell silent, in part because he’d shared with me about everything Boursicot had told him, and in part because we had come into a clearing in the woods where there was a little outdoor café.  There he was, my old friend, busily charming a waitress into giving us the last available table.  And somehow he pulled it off—just like he had charmed the receptionist at the French embassy in Beijing, now so many years ago.  Some things never change.

Up next: Did Boursicot actually know all along that Shi Pei Pu was man? And, if not, how could Shi Pei Pu have orchestrated such a deception for so long? New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

The Man Who Would Be a Woman Act One, Scene Three: Dealings with People Magazine

After agreeing to represent Shi Pei Pu in negotiating the offers rushing in following the success of M. Butterfly, which focuses on the gender-bending singer’s shocking affair with a French diplomat—and the ruin that followed—I was almost prepared to meet him in person. But first, I needed to learn more about the details of his life. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

Through a series of telephone conferences and meetings in New York City, I negotiated the contractual details that would control People Magazine’s featuring of Shi Pei Pu in a cover story, based on interviews to be held in Paris. I had insisted that these interviews be conducted by one of People’s more senior staff journalists, in the hope that a more sophisticated level of reporting would be more likely to emphasize the subtleties of Shi Pei Pu’s gender ambiguity, rather than the specifics of his genitals. And indeed I had been successful in this: People assigned one of its top journalists, Joyce Wadler. But Wadler’s involvement introduced a new problem: she didn’t speak a single word of French, and Shi Pei Pu spoke no English whatsoever. So I offered to serve as translator.

Besides being interviewed, Shi Pei Pu was to perform-- in full costume-- a recital of three or four Chinese opera arias, which would be filmed by a People camera crew. This footage would run as a one-hour television special on Shi Pei Pu’s art and life, to be shown during prime time on CBS in the United States and distributed elsewhere throughout the world.

It was clear to me that to adequately counsel Shi Pei Pu in Paris, I would need to learn a great deal more about his background in China, his career there in the opera, his relationship with Boursicot, his role in the espionage, his immigration to France, and his trial for high treason. I had lived in Paris in 1976 and 1977 while researching and writing a book eventually entitled The French Press. As you might imagine, given the subject matter of this book I had interviewed and come to know a considerable number of journalists and editors at major Parisian publications, especially at Le Monde, but also at Le Figaro, France Soir, and the weekly Time Magazine equivalent, L’Express.

To prepare for my trip, I unabashedly exploited these contacts by placing a series of calls, eager to learn their take on Shi Pei Pu. And indeed, each and every person I spoke with had a vivid memory of the news stories—and a great deal to say about the curious case of the infamous Chinese opera star.

Prepped with this background information, I paid a day-long visit to Harvard’s Widener Library. There I combed through newspapers and magazine reports on the arrests and the trial, and I quickly confirmed that Bertaux had not exaggerated in the least. Nearly every publicationfrom newsworthy Le Monde to yellow-press Le Parisian Libéré—had had a field day with this story. It was like a feeding frenzy in a fish pond.

Above and beyond the titillating sexuality and international espionage the case presented, even the setting of the legal proceedings served to add to the théâtre comique atmosphere. Espionage trials in France are held before a wing of France’s highest court, and the courtroom was adorned with ornate rococo, gold-covered carvings, massive crystal chandeliers, and seats upholstered in regal, crimson velvet. A stereotypical stage setting for a gay man’s trial.

But this was not all.  As good theater would have it, the proceedings were rendered entertainingly ludicrous by the mediocrity of the espionage. The stolen documents were comically meaningless—they included, for example. a grocery-shopping list for an upcoming embassy dinner and an early draft of plans for the renovation of an antiquated embassy bathroom.

It was equally impossible to take seriously the spies themselves. Boursicot, it turned out, had only become a spy because he had been blackmailed into it after the lovers had been discovered, arrested, and threatened. In other words, he had been forced by the Chinese political police to choose between delivering the inconsequential embassy documents or watching as his lover was sent off to prison—or worse.

Not surprisingly, given the low-octane nature of the spy story, the lion’s share of the press coverage I found at Widener Library focused on the defendants’ love affair—in boundless detail. Each and every eccentric twist and turn that came out at trial was fully reported—with lurid specifics. But arguably the high point of the proceedings came when Boursicot himself was called to the witness stand. There, it was reported, to a hushed courtroom—and via live television coverage to all of France—he had testified under oath that he had always experienced his lover to be a woman. Even under robust cross-examination, Boursicot held firmly to this position, adding that he had only learned that his lover’s gender was even in question when Shi Pei Pu turned up in the adjoining prison cell on the night of their arrest, having been summarily rebuffed by the woman’s facility to which he had originally been sent.

As I left Widener Library later that evening, I couldn’t wait to meet Shi Pei Pu and figure out this puzzle of a person for myself.

Next up: The day finally arrives when I fly to Paris to meet the enigma that is Shi Pei Pu. Upon my arrival, my old friend Daniel Bertaux takes me deeper into my client’s extraordinary tale. New to this story? Catch up from the beginning here.

The Man Who Would be a Woman Act One, Scene Two: My Law Office, Twenty Years Later

Two decades after the young Frenchman Daniel Bertaux met Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, the real-life couple behind the celebrated Broadway play M. Butterfly and the Jeremy Irons film of the same name, he receives some shocking news, and a request: to help Shi Pei Pu find a lawyer. So, he calls a friend from the old days: me. To catch up on the details of the story up to this point, see the first post.

I first met Bertaux in 1969 when I moved to Paris to research my dissertation. Like me, Bertaux was a graduate student in sociology, and we knew many people in common. Some even said we were destined to become friends, because “Daniel est le plus américan des français, et Terry et le plus français des américans.1 In any case, we spent a great deal of time together during the year and a half I lived in Paris working under the tutelage of the great French sociologist Alain Touraine.

When Bertaux called my law office in the late 1980s, we hadn’t spoken in a year or two. But he had barely said “Bonjour” before he asked if I was interested in providing legal representation to a famous Chinese opera star who had immigrated to France only to be convicted and imprisoned on charges of international espionage. “A Dreyfus case for our times,” he added, with the same infectious laugh I remembered from two decades earlier. How could I say no? 

Bertaux proceeded to describe how he had met Shi Pei Pu and Bernard, as he called his friends, during a champagne-infused Beijing evening. After the three had spent the following week together touring the city, more than a decade had passed before he heard from either man again. Then one evening, completely out of the blue, he received a telephone call from Boursicot. The diplomat, now reassigned to Paris, had called to solicit Bertaux’s help in arranging for the immigration of Shi Pei Pu and their teenage son.

Needless to say, Bertaux was astonished to learn that Shi Pei Pu, who had presented himself as a man in Beijing, was actually a woman, and that the couple had had a son together. Putting aside his surprise, Bertaux gladly used his connections to put his friend Boursicot in touch with a well-respected immigration attorney. After that, he only occasionally heard from Boursicot, and he was only marginally aware that, several years later, Shi Pei Pu and the child were successfully reunited with Boursicot in Paris.

And then one morning everything changed again. On the way to his office, Bertaux stopped for his morning café and croissant and picked up a copy of Le Monde. The paper’s bold headline did more to wake my old friend than did his espresso: Shi Pei Pu and Bernard had been charged with high treason and were to be tried for their alleged international espionage before a special wing of the French Supreme Court.

The charges alone would have been enough to grab Bertaux’s attention, but there was more to the news article. Le Monde reported that after their arrests, Shi Pei Pu, whose identity card listed him as female, had been summarily rejected by the women’s prison to which he had been initially sent. The prison authorities, it seems, had determined him to be irrefutably male. For Bertaux, this was the second reversal of his friend’s known gender.

In the weeks and months that followed, as their treason trial progressed, both lovers the media mercilessly mocked and ridiculed on a daily basis. In the end, both men were convicted of high treason and sentenced to long prison terms, but the conclusion to the legal proceedings did little to silence the press. The story was simply too juicy to relinquish. Finally, just over two years into their sentences, President Francois Mitterrand had had enough of the entire matter: yielding to diplomatic pressure from China and popular sentiment at home, he ordered Shi Pei Pu’s release. Boursicot was set free the following year.

More recently, Bertaux continued, the story of Shi Pei Pu’s life had been turned into a wildly successful Broadway play titled M. Butterfly. The production, he understood, was the hottest show in New York, and tickets were all but impossible to come by. This overwhelming success had recently generated multiple offers to Shi Pei Pu to appear in television interviews, to be interviewed for biographical books, and to consider film deals. To negotiate these potential contracts, Shi Pei Pu, who spoke only Mandarin and French, was looking for a French-speaking American attorney. And as my good luck would have it, Shi Pei Pu had contacted his old friend, Daniel Bertaux, for help in locating counsel who fit the bill. Bertaux, naturally, recommended his old sociologist-friend-turned-attorney—and that would be moi.

 I assured Bertaux that I was entirely interested in taking the case, and pledged to him that I would take good care of his old friend Shi Pei Pu, whatever his gender. Bertaux gave me Shi Pei Pu’s phone number in Paris and emphasized that there was no time to waste: People Magazine had contacted Pei Pu earlier that week about filming a television special and interviewing him for a magazine cover story.

With some trepidation I called Shi Pei Pu in Paris to introduce myself. I told him about my phone call from Bertaux and my willingness to represent him in these business matters. He couldn’t have been nicer to speak to, nor more enthusiastic about his upcoming opportunity to sing opera once again in the television special People had offered. While he was a bit disappointed that I hadn’t yet been down to New York to see M. Butterfly, he retained my services on the spot and asked me to immediately call People to begin work on the contractual details and logistics for the proposed filming and interview. He also requested that I come to Paris as soon as possible to meet with him. This, of course, was music to my ears.

Before I called People, I telephoned the manager of the Broadway theater where M. Butterfly was playing. I used every bit of leverage I could muster as Shi Pei Pu’s personal attorney, and—against all odds—managed to obtain the last two tickets in the house for the following Saturday. Three days later, my wife and I drove to New York City from Boston and, rapt with anticipation and excitement, worked our way through seated patrons to what turned out to be the producer’s fifth-row center seats.

And indeed, just like everyone else who had seen the masterful drama—critic and patron alike—we were absolutely bowled over by the brilliance of the production. The playwright had succeeded in fashioning a script that subtlety combined the similar themes of Puccini’s extraordinary Madame Butterfly—the operatic tale of an American sailor and his Japanese loverwith the real life tale of Bernard Boursicot and his Chinese lover. The marriage of the two plot lines, the artful handling of the complexities of Shi Pei Pu’s devious sexuality, and the inclusion of moments of Puccini’s celestial music made for a remarkable evening of theater. 

The final moments of the production were particularly unforgettable. The play itself had ended, and the curtain had closed. Then it reopened to a partial stage, where actor B.D. Wong, who played Shi Pei Pu, was seated at a makeup table facing away from the audience, looking into its mirror.  He was busy removing the makeup and hairpiece he had worn in the play. Underneath the hairpiece, his head appeared cleanly shaven. But then, to the surprise of the audience, he peeled off a skin-colored, rubber skullcap to reveal long, silken hair, which he proceeded to gently brush out.

The audience realized at this point that they had been watching an actress all evening play the role of the man who takes himself to be a woman. But then, just before the curtains closed for the final time, the actress removed her dressing robe and the bared chest revealed yet one more level of gender reversal: B.D. Wong is in fact a man.

So who would I be meeting when I arrived in Paris, a woman or a man? I was curious as hell to learn, and couldn’t wait to revisit the City of Lights. But first, I needed to deal with People Magazine.

Next up: After agreeing to represent Shi Pei Pu in negotiating the offers rushing in following the success of M. Butterfly, I was almost ready to fly to Paris to meet him. But first, I needed to learn more about his life. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

1(Daniel is the most American of the French, and Terry is the most French of the Americans.)

The Man Who Would be a Woman Act One, Scene One: An Evening Under the Summer Stars

In this inaugural installment of “The Man Who Would be a Woman,” I’ll introduce you to the real-life figures behind the saga of love and deceit immortalized in the Broadway play and the film, M. Butterfly.

In my recent book, Four Seasons of Loneliness: A Lawyer’s Case Stories, I explore how a failure to successfully connect and remain connected to others can spiral into chronic loneliness, which in turn can overwhelm individuals who live their lives adrift in a sea of strangers. Given that my law practice was at the intersection of law and social psychology, over the years I consulted with scores of individuals who exhibited the telltale signs of chronic loneliness. These clients varied in every way imaginable: some were children, others were aged; some were homeless, others were obscenely wealthy; some were physically isolated, while others were surrounded by people but still failed to create or maintain meaningful connections to others.

Four Seasons presents four such cases from my law practice, one for each phase of life. But here I’ll share with you a fifth case, which revealed one of the most fascinating personal histories I have ever encountered.

The story involves a Chinese opera star who emigrates to France to rejoin his French lover, a former low-level diplomat whom he had met a decade earlier at the French embassy in Beijing. The life of this client and his progressive decoupling from everything and everyone he knew and loved reads more like a Broadway play or an Italian opera than it does like everyday life. And I’m not the first to recognize this: in 1988 this very story was crafted into the Broadway hit M. Butterfly, which ran away with that year’s Tony Award for best play. It was subsequently nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and later Jeremy Irons leapt at the opportunity to play my client in a brilliant 1993 film of the same name.

The story begins in 1964 at the French embassy in Beijing, which had just reopened after twelve long years of cold-war estrangement. The stately building was in the old Legation Quarter of the city, which in earlier centuries had been entirely walled off, creating a city within a city. While the walls were long gone, the approach to the embassy was unchanged: one entered through neoclassical gates that were guarded by a pair of massive carved stone lions—and a dozen well-armed police officers. Past the gates and the security formalities, one came upon a long driveway that curved through formal gardens and century-old trees up to the striking, Italianate embassy.

The embassy and its gardens are the setting for scene one of our drama: a formal celebratory soirée, the inaugural event at the freshly refurbished embassy. It was a black-tie dinner-dance replete with fine French champagne served in crystal glasses, passed hors d’oeuvres, and refined diplomatic chatter. A great number of French and Chinese government officials and dignitaries of grand stature were present to honor the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, but for our purposes, only the three youngest and humblest guests are of interest. Being the only people their age at the event, the young men soon found and befriended one another, and by the time the gala affair came to a close in the wee hours of the morning, they had made plans to visit the sites of historic Beijing together. But it went much deeper than that, far deeper, for their destinies had become inextricably intertwined, as two of them had begun a love affair that would last for nearly thirty years.

One of these young men, the star of our drama, is a strikingly good-looking, delicately built, rising celebrity of Chinese classical opera. His name is Shi Pei Pu (Shi being the family name, pronounced, ironically, like “she”). He was well-known in the world of Chinese opera for the clarity of his soprano voice which—coupled with his boyish stature—allowed him to perform female roles with ease and grace. But it was not his operatic prowess that garnered the young singer an invitation to that night’s elegant event: it was the fact that he spoke fluent French at a time when few Chinese did so.

Our co-star is a young French diplomat named Bernard Boursicot who had arrived from Paris on assignment just days before. Boursicot sported classical French good looks: he was tall and robust, with dark hair, flawless fair skin, and eyes as blue as Caribbean waters.

The third and final player in the evening’s drama is a French college student, Daniel Bertaux, who was touring in China. Bertaux had sparkling hazel eyes and a radiant sense of humor; he had used both to charm an invitation to the event out of an embassy secretary. Bertaux’s last-minute access was clear in his attire if not in his manner: the pant cuffs of his rental tuxedo ended well before his ankles began. 

Theater, as we know, is all about deception, or at the very least, suspension of disbelief, and so it was that evening. Unseen by Bertaux, Shi Pei Pu whispered a secret to Boursicot that night: he preferred to sing women’s operatic roles because he was, in fact, a woman. Based on this revelation—and no doubt also on the influence of the sparkling champagne and twinkling stars—the two initiated a clandestine love affair that, in the fullness of time, would involve parenting a child, being convicted of international espionage, enduring imprisonment, and suffering relentless public humiliation.

Next up in the continuing story of “The Man Who Would be a Woman,” two decades after Daniel Bertaux first met Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, he receives some shocking news, and a request: to help Shi Pei Pu find a lawyer. So, he calls an old friend: me.