Lili Elbe

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Lili Elbe
Lili Elbe 1926.jpg
Lili Elbe in 1926
Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener

(1882-12-28)28 December 1882
Vejle, Denmark
Died13 September 1931(1931-09-13) (aged 48)
Dresden, Germany
Other namesLili Ilse Elvenes
(legal name)
(m. 1904; ann. 1930)

Lili Ilse Elvenes (28 December 1882 – 13 September 1931), better known as Lili Elbe, was a Danish painter and transgender woman, and among the early recipients of sex reassignment surgery.[1][2] She was a successful painter under her birth name Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener.[3] After transitioning in 1930, she changed her legal name to Lili Ilse Elvenes and stopped painting;[4] she later adopted the surname Elbe. She died from complications following a uterus transplant.[5][6][7] The US and UK English versions of her semi-autobiographical narrative were published posthumously in 1933 under the title Man into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex.[8][9]

Early life[edit]

It is generally believed that Elbe was born in 1882, in Vejle, Denmark. Her year of birth is sometimes stated as 1886, which appears to be from a book about her which has some facts changed to protect the identities of the persons involved. Facts about the life of her wife Gerda Gottlieb suggest that the 1882 date is correct because they married while at college in 1904, when Elbe would have been just eighteen if the 1886 date were correct.[10][11]

It is speculated that Elbe was intersex,[12][13][14] although that has been disputed.[15] Some reports indicate that she already had rudimentary ovaries in her abdomen and may have had Klinefelter syndrome.[2][5]

Marriage and modeling[edit]

Lili Elbe c. 1920
Poplars along Hobro Fjord, 1908 - an example of Lili Elbe's work as a landscape painter

Elbe met Gerda Gottlieb while they were students at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen,[16] and they married in 1904 when Gottlieb was 19 and Elbe was 22.[17]

They worked as illustrators, with Elbe specialising in landscape paintings while Gottlieb illustrated books and fashion magazines.

They travelled through Italy and France before settling in 1912 in Paris, where Elbe could live more openly as a woman by posing as Gottlieb's sister-in-law.[18] Elbe received the Neuhausens prize in 1907 and exhibited at Kunstnernes Efterårsudstilling (the Artists' Fall Exhibition), at the Vejle Art Museum in Denmark, where she remains represented, and in the Saloon and Salon d'Automne in Paris.[19]

Elbe started dressing in women's clothes after she found she enjoyed the stockings and heels she wore to fill in for Gottlieb's model, actress Anna Larssen, who on one occasion was late for a sitting. Larssen suggested the name Lili, and by the 1920s, Elbe regularly presented with that name as a woman, attending various festivities and entertaining guests in her house. Gottlieb became famous for her paintings of beautiful women with haunting, almond-shaped eyes, dressed in chic apparel. The model for these depictions of petites femmes fatales was Elbe.[20][21] Elbe stopped painting after her transition.[4][2]

Surgeries and dissolution of marriage[edit]

Lili Elbe by Gerda Gottlieb

In 1930, Elbe went to Germany for sex reassignment surgery, which was highly experimental at the time. A series of four operations were carried out over a period of two years.[21] The first surgery, removal of the testicles, was performed by Dr. Erwin Gohrbandt, under the supervision of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin.[22][21] The rest of her surgeries were carried out by Kurt Warnekros, a doctor at the Dresden Municipal Women's Clinic.[23] (The clinic was later destroyed with its records in Allied bombing raids.[24]) The second operation was to implant an ovary onto her abdominal musculature, the third to remove the penis and the scrotum.[25]

Lili Elbe by Gerda Gottlieb

By this time, her case was a sensation in Danish and German newspapers. A Danish court annulled the couple's marriage in October 1930,[26] and Elbe was able to have her sex and name legally changed, including receiving a passport as Lili Ilse Elvenes.

She returned to Dresden and adopted the surname Elbe to honor the Elbe River that flows through the city.[27][28][29] She began a relationship with French art dealer Claude Lejeune, whom she wanted to marry and with whom she wished to have children.

In 1931, she had her fourth surgery, to transplant a uterus and construct a vaginal canal.[6][7][30][5] This made her the second transgender woman to undergo a vaginoplasty surgery, a few weeks after Dr. Erwin Gohrbandt performed the experimental procedure on Dora Richter.[24]


Lili Elbe, 1930

Elbe's immune system rejected the transplanted uterus, and the operation and a subsequent surgical revision caused infection, which led to her death from cardiac arrest on 13 September 1931, three months after the surgery.[24][5][6][7][30][31]

Elbe was buried in Trinitatisfriedhof [de] (Trinity Cemetery) in Dresden. The grave was levelled in the 1960s. In April 2016, a new tombstone was inaugurated, financed by Focus Features, the production company of The Danish Girl.[32][33] The tombstone does not record the date of Elbe's birth, just her name and places of birth and death.

In popular culture[edit]

The LGBT film festival MIX Copenhagen gives four "Lili" awards named after Elbe.[34]

In 2000, David Ebershoff wrote The Danish Girl, a fictionalised account of Elbe's life.[35] It was an international bestseller and was translated into a dozen languages. In 2015, it was made into a film, also called The Danish Girl, produced by Gail Mutrux and Neil LaBute and starring Eddie Redmayne as Elbe. The film was well received at the Venice Film Festival in September 2015,[36] although it has been criticised for its casting of an English cisgender man to play a Danish transgender woman.[37] Both the novel and the film omitted topics including Gottlieb's sexuality, which is evidenced by the subjects in her erotic drawings,[38] and the disintegration of Gottlieb and Elbe's relationship after their annulment.[39]


  1. ^ Hirschfeld, Magnus. Chirurgische Eingriffe bei Anomalien des Sexuallebens: Therapie der Gegenwart, pp. 67, 451–455
  2. ^ a b c Koymasky, Matt & Andrej (17 May 2003). "Famous GLTB: Lili Elbe". Archived from the original on 10 October 2007. Retrieved 2 February 2016. Based on Brown, Kay (1997); Aldrich R. & Wotherspoon G., Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History, from Antiquity to WWII, Routledge, London, 2001.[better source needed]
  3. ^ Meyer 2015, pp. 15, 310–313.
  4. ^ a b Meyer 2015, pp. 311–314
  5. ^ a b c d "Lili Elbe Biography". A&E Television Networks. Retrieved 11 December 2015.
  6. ^ a b c "Lili Elbe: the transgender artist behind The Danish Girl". This Week Magazine. 18 September 2015. Retrieved 1 February 2016.
  7. ^ a b c "The Danish Girl (2015)". History vs Hollywood. Retrieved 1 February 2016.[better source needed]
  8. ^ Worthen, Meredith (n.d.). "Lili Elbe – Painter". Retrieved 15 August 2016.
  9. ^ Elbe, Lili (2020). Caughie, Pamela; Meyer, Sabine (eds.). Man Into Woman: A Comparative Scholarly Edition. Bloomsbury. pp. Introduction. ISBN 9781350021495.
  10. ^ She and She: The Marriage of Gerda and Einar Wegener. The Copenhagen Post. 3 July 2000
  11. ^ "Ejner Mogens Wegener, 28-12-1882, Vejle Stillinger: Maler". Retrieved 30 December 2011.
  12. ^ Hoyer, ed., Niels (2004). Man into woman: the first sex change, a portrait of Lili Elbe: the true and remarkable transformation of the painter Einar Wegener. London: Blue Boat Books. pp. vii, 26–27, 172. ISBN 9780954707200.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  13. ^ "Lili Elbe's autobiography, Man into Woman". OII Australia – Intersex Australia. OII Australia. 16 April 2009. Retrieved 1 September 2015.
  14. ^ Vacco, Patrick (29 April 2014). "Les Miserables Actor Eddie Redmayne to Star as Queer Artist Lili Elbe". The Advocate. Retrieved 1 September 2015.
  15. ^ Kaufmann, Jodi (January 2007). "Transfiguration: a narrative analysis of male‐to‐female transsexual". International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. 20 (1): 1–13. doi:10.1080/09518390600923768.
  16. ^ "Conway's Vintage Treasures". Retrieved 8 April 2014.
  17. ^ "Biography of Gerda Wegener". Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  18. ^ "Gerda Wegener: The Truth Behind The Canvas". 7 March 2017. Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  19. ^ The Arts and Transgender.
  20. ^ Gerda Wegener.
  21. ^ a b c "Lili Elbe (1886–1931)". LGBT History Month. Archived from the original on 3 August 2015. Retrieved 8 April 2014.
  22. ^ "Lili Elbe Digital Archive". Retrieved 25 August 2020.
  23. ^ Brown, Kay (1997) Lili Elbe.
  24. ^ a b c "A Trans Timeline – Trans Media Watch". Trans Media Watch. Retrieved 3 February 2016.
  25. ^ Meyer 2015, pp. 271–281
  26. ^ Meyer 2015, pp. 308–311
  27. ^ "Man Into Woman". Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  28. ^ "Biography of Lili Elbe, Pioneering Transgender Woman". Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  29. ^ "The Incredibly True Adventures of Gerda Wegener and Lily Elbe". Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  30. ^ a b Harrod, Horatia (8 December 2015). "The tragic true story behind The Danish Girl". The Telegraph. Retrieved 11 December 2015.
  31. ^ "Lili Elbe (Einar Wegener) 1882–1931". (in Danish). 10 September 2013. Retrieved 2 February 2016.
  32. ^ "Letzte Ehre fürs "Danish Girl"".
  33. ^ Haufe, Kay (22 April 2016). "Hollywood rettet Lili Elbes Grab" [Hollywood saves Lili Elbe's grave]. Sächsische Zeitung (in German). Archived from the original on 21 June 2018. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
  34. ^ "MIX Copenhagen LGBT Film Festival - LGBTQ - Copenhagen". ellgeeBE. Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  35. ^ "BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Radical Change and Enduring Love". The New York Times. 14 February 2000. Retrieved 11 December 2015.
  36. ^ "'The Danish Girl' Wows With 10-Minute Standing Ovation In Venice Premiere". Deadline. 5 September 2015. Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  37. ^ Denham, Jess (12 August 2015). "The Danish Girl: Eddie Redmayne defends casting as trans artist Lili Elbe after backlash". The Independent. Retrieved 7 March 2016.
  38. ^ "The Incredibly True Adventures of Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe". 3 August 2012. Retrieved 26 January 2016.
  39. ^ "Reading Group Notes The Danish Girl". Retrieved 10 December 2015.

Further reading[edit]

  • Man into woman: an authentic record of a change of sex / Lili Elbe; edited by Niels Hoyer [i.e. E. Harthern]; translated from the German by H.J. Stenning; introd. by Norman Haire. London: Jarrold Publishers, 1933 (Original Danish ed. published in 1931 under title: Fra mand til kvinde. Later edition: Man into woman: the first sex change, a portrait of Lili Elbe – the true and remarkable transformation of the painter Einar Wegener. London: Blue Boat Books, 2004.
  • Schnittmuster des Geschlechts. Transvestitismus und Transsexualität in der frühen Sexualwissenschaft by Dr. Rainer Herrn (2005), pp. 204–211. ISBN 3-89806-463-8. German study containing a detailed account of the operations of Lili Elbe, their preparations and the role of Magnus Hirschfeld.
  • "When a woman paints women" / Andrea Rygg Karberg and "The transwoman as model and co-creator: resistance and becoming in the back-turning Lili Elbe" / Tobias Raun in Gerda Wegener / edited by Andrea Rygg Karberg ... [et al.]. – Denmark, Arken Museum of Modern Art, 2015.

External links[edit]