Finding Geoff Brown

©2007 by Willow Arune

Willow’s article was first posted on her Pangarune Corner blog on September 9, 2007. I chanced across it, found it interesting reading, and asked her if I could place it on the Chrysalis pages. She kindly agreed.

 The Hunt for Geoff Brown

By Willow Arune


If you talk to a transsexual woman older than 40, chances are she remembers having read a novel that dates back to the 1960s with the strange title I Want What I Want. Perhaps you have seen a black-and-white movie on late night television by the same name.What makes this book so very interesting is that it is the first– the very first– novel to deal in a realistic manner with a new minority then emerging– transsexuals. It dates back to 1966, the year before Christine Jorgensen published her autobiography and the same year Dr. Harry Benjamin published his groundbreaking medical book The Transsexual Phenomena. Gore Vidal’s spoof Myra Breckenridge was not yet published– it would follow in 1968.

I Want What I Want appeared first in the United Kingdom, then in the USA. It made little impact. A late paperback copy was released in both countries, with not much more impact. The writer, Geoff Brown, was unknown and new to novels (I Want What I Want was his first, and only one more would follow– and that almost ten years later). In fact, as novels go, those that involve realistic portrayals of transsexual women are still rare. Those by males (Two Strand River by Keith Mallard in 1974, The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff in 2000, and Trans Sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian, also in 2000) have made the trade press. Those by transsexual women writers such a Pamela Hayes are generally found, with great difficulty, amongst the publish-on-demand press. So where, then, did I Want What I Want come from? Who is Geoff Brown, and is he (or she) dead? Did Geoff transition gender roles?From what is available, we know little. In fact, as much as we know is contained on the back cover of I Want…. “Geoff Brown,” we are told, “was born in Bridlington in Yorkshire in 1932 [making him now 77] and still lives there. This is his first novel and he is at work on a second.”

That second novel was in fact written and published in 1975. On the blurb of My Struggle we learn a bit more about Geoff, but not much:

Geoff Brown is a Yorkshireman. He says he is stuck with it so he might as well be proud of it. When questioned, he said that he though he might be able to write what were taken for autobiographical novels, as yet he did not seem to have any autobiography of his own.
In the accompanying photograph it is just possible to discern a scar on the right side of Brown’s nose; it resulted from a misunderstanding with a neurotic dog.
‘I got my nose between his teeth and I wouldn’t let go.’ His hobbies are chess, war games and jeering at certain television programmers.

That was in 1975. After that, nothing.

Reviews of I Want What I Want were promising. Punch, Sunday Times, The New Statesman and Saturday Review used words like “promising,” “charm,” “intelligence,” “powerful and moving,” “honesty,” “compassionate and glowing with truth.” For the 1960s, that was remarkable! In fact, for any novel about transsexuality today such reviews would be wonderful!

I Want What I Want

One thing Brown’s book did was inspire a young actress to look upon it as her vehicle to stardom. Anne Heywood, a former Miss Great Britain and an actress with some film credits, saw I Want… as her golden opportunity. She was in a position to do something about it, for her husband of the time was film producer Raymond Stross. Stross had many pictures under his belt in the UK. It’s believed Anne put the bug in his ear. He bought the movie rights from Geoff Brown and hired John Dexter to direct (Dexter would go on to win fame and awards on Broadway, but I Want… was the last film he directed). The Stross project moved ahead, as movies do, slowly. In the meantime, back in the U.S., other movies were a-makin’– and faster. Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge had shocked the public, surprised his publishers (who had ordered the use of cheap paper, as they thought the book would fail) and became a 1970 movie with Raquel Welch as its star. On a more serious side, Paramount had bought the rights to Jorgensen’s biography (saving her financial life at the same time) to make The Christine Jorgensen Story, also released in 1970. Both of those had a big advantage– they were filmed in living colour. Poor I Want… was a black-and-white film. It was released in 1972.Poor Myra. Vidal was hired to do the screenplay and then replaced. The effort was to decline even worse:

Rex Reed says that MYRA BRECKINRIDGE was a film made by a bunch of people who hid in their dressing rooms while waiting for their lawyers to return their calls.

The film itself demonstrates the accuracy of these comments. The basics of Vidal’s story are there, but not only has the story been shorn of all broader implications, it seems to have no point in and of itself. Everything runs off in multiple directions, nothing connects, and numerous scenes undercut whatever logic previous scenes might have had. And while director Sarne repeatedly states in his commentary that he wanted to make the film as pure farce, the only laughs generated are accidental. (User Comments from IMDB)

I Want… had a happier time with the screenwriter. Brown was not up to the task, although he is credited. An English novelist, one who created a stir when she wrote an early classic book involving homosexuality (Leather Boys), Gillian Freeman was set to work. She had worked with Stross before, bringing her own book to the screen, but this was different and she should have known better. After all, the star was Anne Heywood, who just happened to be married to Stross. By the time it all ended, both Brown and Freeman thought they were off the hook for the result. The producers (i.e. Stross) had changed everything.

Anne Heywood in I Want What I Want

Anne Heywood as Roy in I Want What I Want

Anne Heywood as Roy in I Want What I Want

Anne Heywood as Roy in I Want What I Want

Transsexuality was a tough subject back in those days and remains so today, even in these days of Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica. So by the time I Want… hit the screens, the topic as well as the black-and-white treatment sank like a stone. Still, transsexual women who saw it, including myself, consider it a classic.

Making matters more confusing for anyone who cared to look, there were several other Geoff Browns who elected to write books on topics such as Black music and biking. The name is certainly not uncommon. After his second novel failed to generate sales, our Geoff Brown simply stopped writing and disappeared from view– for more than 25 years!

Being a transsexual woman, I had seen I Want… on late night television. Being a bookaholic, I wanted and finally found a copy of the first edition, which was becoming rather pricey by 2000. Even the paperback copies were going for more than $50 by then, although the book had shown up free on the Internet, reproduced without concern for royalties, and, I suspect, with the idea that Brown was dead.

After hunting down one Geoff Brown after another, none of them the right one, I had pretty well given up by the time my partner and I moved north to Prince George, some 700 miles north of Vancouver. (“You left Vancouver, the world’s most liveable/wonderful/best traveler’s/best business traveler’s city!?!” Yep. Getting too expensive, too, trendy, and too warm. We needed cheap, basic and cold. It was just our luck to move north when global warming gave Prince George the warmest winter on record. We may have to head further north soon….).

After the move, I revisited the matter of the missing Brown. As publishers had failed me, I headed off in another direction– after the movie types. Now, Stross was dead. Anne Heywood had moved to the USA, married a former New York assistant attorney general, and moved to Hollywood. She made many more films with small roles up until 1988, and then… nothing.

All of the other members of the cast had died, it seemed. But then, a bit of luck. I found Gillian Freeman had published a new book, her tenth. I wrote to her publisher (a very small publisher on the English coast), itself a bit of a strange step, and got back word that Gillian had had a stroke, but that her publisher, the dear, would copy my post and send it on to her for reply.

Several weeks passed. Then the postie brought a thick envelope postmarked from the UK. It was from Gillian. Unable to type after her stroke, she had kindly taken the time to dictate a letter and have her husband type it! Even better, she hadn’t given all her papers to Reading University, as my Internet research had disclosed, but had kept some. She enclosed with her letter copies of letters she had received from Brown during the writing, filming and release of I Want What I Want, the movie. The bad news was the last correspondence she had with Brown was back in the 1970s. She had no idea where he was– dead, or, more likely, transitioned with a new name, she thought.

My many trips to England had taught me a bit about the local culture. One fact I remembered: we here in North America pull up stakes and move every second year, it seems. But in the UK, many people live all their lives, from birth to death, in the same house. Brown’s letters to Freeman, from the 1970s, had a return address. Was it possible???

A bit more Internet digging. A search for the town, and it had a computer bulletin board! I asked if someone would look up Geoff Brown in the local telephone directory– just to tell me if someone with that name was shown at the old address. A reply came back in a few hours. G. Brown was listed! Another search with Brit Mail and Brit telephone gave me the postal code and telephone number.

Delighted, I looked up a map of the town and pinpointed Brown’s home, nosey parker that I might be.

And I wrote a very nice letter. And I waited…

A week passed. Then two. During that short time my partner and I changed our phone plan and could now phone anywhere in the UK for a mere $.10 per minute. I had Brown’s telephone number, thanks to Brit Telephone. With temptation steering my course, I picked up the phone one morning (allowing for the time differences and such) and dialed the number, getting the distinctive British telephone ring.

It was picked up!

“’Allo. Who’s this?” said a decidedly elderly female voice.

I introduced myself and stated my purpose.

“Oh, you’re that Canadian who wrote to my Geoff, are you? Oh yes, he got your letter. Matter of fact, he’s up stairs now writing a reply. I’m his wife.”

Now, the voice was a tad cold and unfriendly, but even finding Geoff had a wife and was thus, presumably, still a man was a step forward. I asked if I could speak with him directly.

“Auw no. He’s up the stairs, isn’t he? ‘ad his supper and went back upstairs. Can’t get him downstairs now, where the tele is.”

Having some experience with the elderly and a little with narrow old English staircases, I could appreciate that this might be difficult. Still, I had to gain some ground with this formidable character. Confronted with this wall, I cast about with subjects, hoping to establish some rapport. I hit on my third attempt– dogs.

“Oh yes, dogs are nice. Geoff and I have three big dogs,” and Mrs. Brown and I were on our way to establishing a relationship.

Through our brief conversation, I found Geoff had written only two books and been dissatisfied with the results, so simply ceased writing. He still lived in the same house where the book had been written, some thirty-plus years after. In fact, I suspect he was born in the same house, the same town, and the same room! Mrs. Brown and I had a nice little chat, and she promised she would see to it that Geoff did indeed reply to my letter. The amazing thing was he did!

Now, pause there. Here is a man who wrote two books, had no continuing interest in either the books or writing, and who suddenly gets a letter, then a telephone call from across the seas about the damn things, filed long away in the past.

The next week, the postman brought a letter from England, from Mr. Geoff Brown himself. Not only did he send the letter, but it was obviously typed on the same typewriter that had been used for the correspondence with Gillian Freeman back in the 1970s. In fact, it looked like the same typewriter ribbon!

History in my hands.

Now, Geoff signed some bookplates for my copies of his two books, thus making mine the only autographed copies of the Complete Works of Geoff Brown, something only a book collector could appreciate or even understand.

Attempts to ferret out more concerning how Geoff had come to write such a book as I Want… were fruitless. In fact, after some attempts, I finally tried to enlist the aid of the Gender Trust of the UK, writing to them and suggesting they do an interview to record some of our history, scant as that is, as a minority. They did indeed delegate someone to do so, but a solid brick wall emerged when they wrote to set up the interview. Geoff replied that he had once granted permission for an interview, but the two fellows who showed up to complete the task were officious, in white shirt and dark suits, and were in his belief were form either the Central Intelligence Service or the FBI. Naturally, that removed any chance for a further interview. He had tried it once, as he had tried novels twice, and he didn’t  need to repeat the performance.

So, we know Geoff didn’t transition, is married, has three big dogs, and… what else? Well, The second book, My Struggle, is rather like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the CooCoo’s Nest. Geoff writes from inside the mind of a schizophrenic, and it is a chilling read indeed. One example– the young hero is playing with his brother when parents are away. For fun, he ties his brother to the staircase railings and then tortures him. His parents, upon their return, are upset. “Why?” he wonders. Just a nice thing to do on a slow boring day.

Geoff has lived all his life in a small seaside town. While I cannot say this for sure, certain indications suggest he lives in the house his parents lived in. During his late teens, a shipwreck just off the coast had a profound impact on young Geoff. A large fishing vessel had run aground on a reef and was pounded for days before it sank with all hands. Rescuers were unable to scale the steep cliffs in the bad weather. This real incident plays a role in Geoff’s second book, and certainly for a time during the 1970s was an obsession. He wanted to write a new Moby Dick, drawing upon the wreck of the Skegness. That book was never written; instead, the news reports of the sinking appear as a close to My Struggle– a book Geoff blames on an American editor who had joined the publishing house.

Geoff has never seen the movie version of I Want…. When the movie was being made, he had sided with the producer to use a female to play the lead. Gillian had wanted a male actor. The producers ripped apart Gillian’s screenplay and Geoff’s book, as both Geoff and Gillian agree.

Well and good, the mystery remains. This book was written in 1964 (publication was two years later) at the height of the Beatles craze. There was almost nothing published on transsexual treatment or sex reassignment surgery– no books, autobiographies, or medical studies. Geoff was married at the time. How was he able to convey so much of the transsexual world from a small coastal English town? Did he, as Gillian Freeman suggests in one letter, want to transition, to become a woman? Did he know those that did? There were few transsexuals in England at that time. April Ashley was certainly known, but few others and, I suspect, none at all at Brown’s location. Still, the book clearly shows a close understanding of what a transsexual feels and the options for hormones and surgery then coming available.

Both of Geoff’s books show an intimate knowledge of their subjects, and it could be that such was his special talent– taking the imagined life of others and making it real on paper. Contrary to that concept, many first novels are highly autobiographical. The locations used in I Want… are certainly drawn directly from Geoff’s own neck of the woods. If I Want… was solely imagination, how did he so accurately depict a young male-to-female transsexual? No books were available, as none had yet been printed.

There are few hints in the book itself. What makes that even more a mystery is that few in England at that time would even know about transsexuality, let along sex change operations, which were not then legal in the UK. Where did he get his inspiration and information? A newspaper article? A copy of Niels Hoyers’ Man Into Woman that turned up in a bookshop?

We shall never know. Geoff Brown is over seventy now and not about to grant an interview.


See Our Glossary for Geoff Brown’s Obituary Read I Want What I Want Online