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.