Sitting down with the transgender icon and onetime most controversial woman in sports
By Michael WeinrebPOSTED JUNE 26, 2011
The doctor practices on Madison Avenue, five blocks from Grand Central Station, in a narrow little office set amid a frenetic corner of Manhattan. Every day, hordes of commuters bustle past this particular ophthalmology clinic without really seeing it, let alone registering the mellifluous name on the sign, let alone, after so many years, recognizing that this name ever meant anything beyond the practice of ocular medicine. Fame is fleeting, and such, but she is still here, a 6-foot, 2-inch redhead hiding in plain sight, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and ducking under an umbrella amid an early spring rain, almost daring you to ignore her.
The doctor, in her role as a medical professional, has already made it clear to me that she is eminently concerned with maintaining propriety. When I first contacted her, she informed me that she wasn't interested in recounting any of the extraordinary events of in the life of Renée Richards, for fear that yet another telling, in the midst of the impending release of a new documentary (that follows two autobiographies and a television movie starring Vanessa Redgrave and dozens of magazine-length profiles and tabloid exposes over the course of three decades), would reduce her to the status of "blubbering idiot." As an alternative, she invited me to an informal lunch, along with the documentary's director, Eric Drath, and a friend of hers, a fellow eye surgeon.
This was in March, and we discussed the movie's upcoming premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. We talked about what Richards planned to wear. We talked about her Jewish upbringing, and she mentioned a short story she had written based on a summer camp she'd attended as a child. She had, she wrote me in her initial e-mail, stopped giving interviews about her life "for her own sanity," but we made tentative plans to meet at her house in upstate New York, and then a couple of days later she wrote me back and told me she "didn't want to spend an afternoon on this." And this is how we wound up here, at her office after a day of patient visits, with Drath serving as a chaperone, with Richards commanding the conversation, selectively analyzing her past and occasionally contradicting her own statements while patients roamed the halls and her partners peeked their heads in the door to distract her from herself.
If you to speak to Renée Richards for any length of time, you will stumble across one of the central conundrums of her personality: There are two Renées, an old friend told Drath on camera, and despite the fact that Richards has long been publicly defined by gender, the Renées this friend is referring to are not defined by gender at all. There is the Renée who regards herself as an introvert, who will inform you that she voraciously guards her self-image and will speak about how fearful she is of being reduced to a cultural circus act; and there is Renée the exhibitionist, who has written a pair of starkly personal memoirs, who, at the height of her fame, did thousands of interviews, who allowed Drath to intimately chronicle her fraught relationship with her own son — the Renée who relishes the attention that comes with being a public figure, a herald of a movement that she personally has little do with these days.