Glenn Close's performance as Albert Nobbs—a 19th century Irish woman who lives as a man in order to gain access to greater opportunity—is one of the standout performances of 2011, and has made her a frontrunner for the Best Actress Academy Award this weekend. First playing the character Off-Broadway in 1982, Close spent 30 years working to bring the story to the big screen.
Though based on the short story "The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs" by George Moore, Close's character in Albert Nobbs has much in common with famous figures of history that disguised their true gender. Some were spies, while some fought in wars, all were dynamic people. Here are six of the most famous historical cross-dressers.
Sarah Emma Edmonds, aka Frank Thompson
Sarah Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a man in order to fight for the Union during the Civil War. Enlisting under the name Franklin Thompson, she served as a male nurse. When a spy for the Union was discovered and killed by the Confederates, she volunteered to fill the position, becoming an expert of even more disguises. Her most notable aliases were "Cuff," a black man who worked in a Confederate kitchen, and "Bridget 'O'Shea," an Irish peddler woman.
Her military career came to an end when she contracted malaria and was afraid her gender would be discovered if she went to a military hospital. After she had recovered in a private hospital, she saw "Franklin Thompson" on a list of deserters. Still inspired to serve the Union and afraid of donning her disguise again, she went back to work as a military nurse. Only this time, she served as a female. After the war she published her memoirs, which revealed her experiences as a female in the military.
Margaret Ann Bulkey, aka James Miranda Barry
James Miranda Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkey at the turn of the 19th century. Aware of the career limitations for women, he made the decision at the age of 10 to pass for a man when he enrolled in medical school. What resulted was an impressive career as a military surgeon that took Barry all over the globe. An abrasive personality that was eager to fight duels, he served during the Crimean War, famously getting into a dispute with Florence Nightingale. Barry's true sex wasn't discovered until his death in 1865.
Shi Pei Pu
Shi Pei Pu, a 20-year-old male opera singer that had portrayed many female roles on stage, got a job at the French Embassy in Beijing as an accountant in the 1960s. Dressed as a man, he met French diplomat Bernard Boursicot, and convinced Boursicot that he was actually a woman. For over 20 years, Shi maintained a relationship with Boursicot—and even managed to produce an adopted child that he claimed was theirs—in order to obtain French documents for China. In 1986, the couple was convicted of espionage in France, but later pardoned.
Charles d'Eon, aka The Chevalier d'Eon
Charles d'Eon worked as a spy for France's Louis XV in 1756, and was sent on a secret mission to meet Empress Elizabeth of Russia while disguised as a woman. He eventually became an ambassador in London, published secret diplomatic records, and was exiled from France. When Louis XVI became King, he allowed d'Eon to return to France, but only if he asserted that his biological gender was actually female. The Chevalier d'Eon spent the last 30 years of his life disguised as a woman.
Isabelle Eberhardt, aka Si Mahmoud Essadi
At 20 years old, Isabelle Eberhardt left her native Switzerland to explore North Africa. Fluent in Arabic, she lived on the fringe of society, but still frequently dressed as a man in order to gain acceptance from those she encountered while traveling. She converted to Islam, associated with the radical Sufi brotherhood, and grew obsessed with exploring the Sahara desert. She kept a detailed journal of her life and the greater freedoms she experienced while disguised as male. A flash flood ended her life in 1904, at the age of 27.
Stanislawa Walasiewicz, aka Stella Walsh
Born in Poland in 1911, Stanislawa Walasiewiex moved with her family to Cleveland, Ohio, when she was still a baby. She started competing in track and field at a young age, and eventually went on to win the Gold Medal at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, and the Silver Medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Both Polish and American athletes looked up to her as a role model, and she set over 100 records during her career. Mugged and killed in a parking lot in 1980, an autopsy revealed her as a biological male. Questions were raised about whether or not to erase her records as a "female" athlete, but ultimately, Stella Walsh's achievements are still on record.