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18 July 2017

Stefánie Faludi (1927 – 2015) photographer

István Friedman was raised by prosperous Jewish parents in Budapest. However with the coming of anti-Semitic fascism in the 1930s, all was lost. 17-year-old István became a legend in his family when in 1944, wearing a stolen armband of the fascist Arrow Cross, and carrying an empty gun, he removed his parents from a holding building for Jews, and supplied them with with false papers which enabled them to live in an abandoned flat in Pest.

At the end of the war, István changed his surname to Faludi (Magyar for ‘of the village’), and was part of a youth film club, and he and two other members were able to get to Denmark, initially to replenish the Hungarian film stock.

After an idiosyncratic alteration to their passports, they were able to get on a ship to Rio de Janeiro. Through Hungarian expatriates and luck they were able to talk themselves into a team that did photography for the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, which involved journeys by canoe and plane across the Mato Grosso. They applied for visas to the US, but when they came through after three years in 1953, only István used it. His childhood sweetheart had also survived the war, and was living in New York. However on arrival he found that she was engaged to another.

Faludi, now calling himself Steven (English for István) lived in a cheap room in the Upper West Side, and found darkroom work for the photo departments of Manhattan advertising agencies. He met his wife Marilyn at a Jewish émigré cocktail party in 1957. They married six weeks later in a Reform synagogue. They acquired a house in Yorktown Heights, outside New York City, and had a son and a daughter. From the 1960s onward Faludi largely worked in the Condé Nast’s art production department doing difficult darkroom alterations for the photography that appeared in Vogue, Glamour, House & Garden, Vanity Fair, Brides. Susan Faludi (p7): “I’d always known my father to assert the male prerogative. He had seemed invested—insistently, inflexibly, and, in the last year of our family life, bloodily—in being the household despot. We ate what he wanted to eat, traveled where he wanted to go, wore what he wanted us to wear. Domestic decisions, large and small, had first to meet his approval.”

By 1976 the Faludis were separated. Later that year he broke into Marilyn’s house, and badly assaulted the man she had started seeing. He then claimed he had saved his family from an intruder, and got off with a small fine. He even claimed to be the wronged party at the divorce trial, and avoided alimony. After the 1977 divorce, Faludi moved into a Manhattan loft that was also his commercial photo studio.

In 1990, after the end of the Communist regime, Faludi visited his parents in Israel, the only time that he ever did so. He then moved to Budapest. He attempted to get the deeds of the buildings that the family used to own in Budapest, and then attempted to reclaim the buildings, but without success.

In 2004, at age 76, Faludi, now using the name Stefánie, had vaginoplasty and breast augmentation with Dr Sanguan Kunaporn in Phuket, Thailand. At this stage she had minimal experience of going out as a women – she had done this mainly in Vienna, rather than Budapest. As she did not have psychologists’ letters that approved her for surgery, Faludi wrote a letter as if from a Hungarian friend, and this was accepted by Dr Kunaporn. She also deducted 10 years from her age, in case she was rejected for being too old. Faludi flew out in men’s clothes and with women’s clothes for after surgery, and with several cameras, a tripod, a videocam, a computer and DVD player, and a suitcase full of films, music, and opera recordings. Faludi was able to persuade Kunaporn’s staff to film the operation.

Afterwards she spent time recovering in Melanie’s Cocoon in Phuket, a guesthouse run by Melanie Myers from Portland, Oregon, who had had the same operation from Dr Kunaporn as well as facial feminization from Douglas Ousterhout in San Francisco, which resulted in her losing her job as a commercial printing salesman. The guesthouse was aimed at trans women, and Mel passed her business card to Kunaporn’s patients. Stefánie was by far the oldest guest.

As Dr Kunaporn’s Post-Operative Medical Certificate specified 1937 as birth year, Stefánie used her professional skills to make an altered copy with the correct birth year so that she could change her Hungarian birth certificate.

Susan and Stefánie 
Later in 2004, after a quarter century of non communication, Stefánie contacted her daughter Susan Faludi who had become a well-known author with her books Backlash, 1991, and Stiffed, 1999. Susan visited her father in Budapest several times, and wrote up her discovery of he father’s womanhood and of Hungary in the 2016 book In the Darkroom.

Stefánie died at the age of 88.
  • Susan Faludi. In the Darkroom. Henry Holt and Company, 2016.
  • Marcie Bianco, Raewyn Connell, Jay Prosser, Susan Stryker & Judit Takács. “Short Takes: Susan Faludi's In the Darkroom”. Signs Journal, 2016. Online.
  • Laura Miller. “Susan and Stefánie”. The Slate Book Review, June 10, 2016. Online.
  • Michelle Goldberg. “Susan Faludi’s ‘In the Darkroom’”. The New York Times, June 16, 2016. Online.
  • Rachel Cooke. “In the Darkroom review – an elegant masterpiece”. The Guardian, 19 June 2016. Online.
  • Kay Brown. “In the Dark Room”. On the Science of Changing Sex, June 23, 2016. Online.
  • Louise Adler. “In the Darkroom, Susan Faludi: dealing with Stefanie, her father”. The Australian, September 3, 2016. Online.
  • Stacia Friedman. “book review: susan faludi’s ‘in the darkroom’”. Women’s Voices for Change, October 24, 2016. Online.
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While there is some information about the trans scene and persons in Hungary, there is nothing about Hungary's best-known trans persons: the 19th-century novelist Sándor Vay; the artist Anton Prinner who left for Paris in 1927; Charlotte Bach who left Hungary at about the same time as Faludi pere and became a theorist of gender. Nor is there any mention of Desiré Dubounet, an immigrant from the US who settled in Budapest.

A few years later Melanie reverted to being Mel so that he could marry his Thai girlfriend and get her into the US.

In 2003, as part of the preparation to join the European Union, Hungary passed the Equal Treatment Act. They were so eager that they added extra categories: in addition to race, religion and sex they included ‘family status’, ‘motherhood’, ‘fatherhood’, ‘circumstances of wealth and birth’, ‘social origin’, ‘state of health’, ‘language’, ‘part-time work status’, and ‘trade union representatives’. They also added ‘gender identity’, which made Hungary the first country in the world to do so. However the legislation was very far in front of public opinion, and while gender changes are legally recognized, public acceptance is low.  Susan Faludi does not mention any case of a Hungarian trans person being able to use the law.

Susan Faludi, as is to be expected, gives a potted history of trans surgery. Then very briefly, p151, she brings in Michael Bailey and takes his side. Transgender activists ‘hounded’ him and his supporters. Why they would do so is not explained. Susan has entered an ongoing controversy and given only one side.  She is, of course, on thin ice here. If she thinks that Bailey’s position is defensible or even cogent, then she must think that her father was an autogynephile, but she quite avoids saying so. Kay Brown of course makes this explicit, and reasonably complains that she leaves “the reader with the notion that perhaps ALL MTF transfolk are like her father” - but then it is probably true that most biographies of their nature present their protagonist as some kind of exemplar.

Stefánie Faludi was a photographer.   There are a lot of descriptions in the book of photographs, but the book itself contains no photographs at all except for one of the author on the back flap.

Twice in the book, Susan tells us why we say Hallo on the phone: “Hallo. As my father liked to note, the telephone salutation was the coinage of Thomas Edison’s assistant, Tivadar Puskás, the inventor of the phone exchange, who, as it happened, was Hungarian. ‘Hallom!’ Puskás had shouted when he first picked up the receiver in 1877, Magyar for ‘I hear you!’.” I was unable to confirm this.


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