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Who Was Elizabeth Eden?

JN Hoad

Elizabeth Eden, whose story was dramatised by 1975 film 'Dog Day Afternoon,' was a pioneering trans figure in popular culture – but her political impact runs far deeper than a botched bank robbery.

‘The rest is history, which we go the movies to forget.’

—Eric Holm reviewing Dog Day Afternoon for Jump Cut

Elizabeth Debbie Eden married Littlejohn Basso on Saturday 4 December 1971, at four o’clock in the What’s Inn a Tale café. The wedding was covered in a four-page photo spread by the small trans magazine Drag (‘The International Transvestite Quarterly’), which shows Eden glowing in a bespoke wedding gown and garters. Eden’s closest friends Caroline, Liz, Ronnie, and Susie served as bridesmaids, and Eden’s parents attended the ceremony. Though later coverage calls the ceremony a ‘mock Catholic wedding’, Drag instead names it as ‘New York’s First Drag Wedding’ and notes that an ordained Roman priest officiated the ceremony. (Eden herself was Jewish.) The ceremony was filmed and even featured on the Walter Cronkite news show.

Such glossy coverage might have constituted Eden’s sole fifteen minutes of fame, but subsequent events elevated her and Basso’s troubled relationship to a broadsheet-worthy media and cinematic event. On 22 August 1972, Basso held up the Chase Manhattan Bank at 450 P Avenue, Brooklyn with Savlatore Naturale and Chris Sarandon, which developed into a hostage situation as police officers surrounded the bank. The feverish media coverage of the day-long negotiations, anti-cop sentiment from onlookers, and Basso’s bisexual lifestyle would go on to inspire Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon.

Basso himself was working for Mike Umbers, a criminal attached to New York’s Gambino Mafia family who divided his capital between low-end rental, nightclubs, and prostitution. Though evidently as ruthless as any Mafioso, Umber was notably ingrained in Queens queer night life. He had a share in the Stonewall Inn and had in fact evicted the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries from STAR House on East 2nd Street in the weeks prior to Basso’s attempted heist. Of his profitable involvement with New York’s gay community, Umber once remarked: ‘I started this whole empire myself, and I’m doing more for the gay community than any organisation.’ Not unlike today’s pink-washed corporations, Umber maintained that was making progress for gay rights simply by charging trans women for ground rent.

All of this took place in a New York where homosexuality was still criminalised, and in a decade where unofficial policing of ‘cross dressing’ would soon be codified in racist and transphobic anti-prostitution laws which decades of resistance would eventually repeal. Basso’s own relationship to gay politics seems to have been opportunistic. He was a political dilettante and ferocious cruiser who frequented the ‘Firehouse’, base of the Gay Activist Alliance; however, he was later found to be an informant for Umber, and in fact showed up to a protest against the gangster landlord with a sign reading ‘Umber is good’.

The Chase Manhattan incident has become mythologised as an anti-heroic attempt by Basso to pay for Eden’s sex change operation. Basso first claimed this as his motive during the hostage negotiations, and has reiterated that he was moved by his transgender wife’s financial and medical troubles in subsequent interviews. Yet Arthur Bell’s contemporary gay perspective in the Village Voice contrarily claims that trans healthcare was ‘peripheral to the motive’, and raises the issue of Basso’s apparent debt to and funding from the Mafia. Life magazine’s coverage confusingly dubs Eden as Basso’s ‘male wife’, giving a sense of their relationship as a secondary peculiarity which carries into the film.

In a candid but contradictory interview with The Journal of Bisexuality, Basso further claims that he wished to save his spouse’s life, and so planned to steal the money for her sex change and free her from the mental ward where she was being held, all at gunpoint. However, he has consistently emphasised that he himself did not want his wife to undergo the operation for fetishising sexual reasons, and has never fully acknowledged her as a woman. Eden claimed at the time to be unaware of her husband’s plans to fund her transition and bust her out of the mental health ward, though she may have claimed this simply to avoid accomplice charges. In in the Village Voice’s 1975 coverage of the legal fallout of Dog Day Afternoon, Eden disclosed that she ‘never loved him’.

Basso has had a small culture industry dedicated to ‘setting the record straight’ from his perspective—about his bisexuality, his Republicanism, his motives, and his time in prison—in film magazines, journals, and documentaries. Liz Eden’s perspective has been overshadowed as a result. Zagria Cowan of Gender Variance Who’s Who has done characteristically precise work in reconstructing a biography of Eden. Cowan’s work is invaluable for assessing obscure sources and highlighting the consistent accounts in an often embellished tale.

What is clear is that Eden’s relationship with Littlejohn Basso was troubled, and she struggled throughout her life to have her perspective recognised. She attempted to commit suicide multiple times during their relationship. The night before the robbery was her birthday, but the money for the occasion was stolen. She attempted to kill herself that night, and was rushed to King’s County Hospital, where she clinically died but was resuscitated.

Staging a Robbery

Liz Eden’s cinematic counterpart Louis enters the scene in a hospital gown, unshaven and disoriented in front of a crowd of spectators jeering at the police from behind a road block. She is quickly shuffled by an FBI agent into a barber shop, surrounded by suited cis male cops who try to harangue her into an interview with Sonny (Al Pacino’s version of Basso). Sonny’s request to speak to his wife is treated with ambiguity, with this marking the reveal that she is transgender. Her dishevelled entrapment in the barber shop seems an all too obvious metaphor for the relation between gendered space, patriarchal style and trans pathologisation. All the more notable, then, that this detail is taken from Life magazine’s coverage from the time.

Soon after Sonny claims on the phone that he is going to get the money for Eden’s sex change, we cut to a group of gay activists arriving at the barricade by night to cheer him on. In this moment, a queer viewer may be gripped by the prospect that the film invites a queer political spectatorship. Previously, Sonny incites the crowd into chants of ‘Attica! Attica! Attica!’, and draws woops from the crowd as he roughly pats down cops at the door. The Summer of 1975 in New York saw a wave of working-class militancy on the streets, protesting the acceleration of destructive austerity measures. We are in the proximity of moments of actual revolt—Eden herself was present at the Stonewall Riots.

From a queer perspective, Dog Day Afternoon is a veritable workshop on dynamics of class, gender, genre, and style. Pacino plays Sonny as a flamboyant bisexual who, suddenly finding the weight of New York’s great social conflicts upon him, rides through with a sweating, dyspraxic, improvisational charm. He feels up the cops who wish to enter the bank in front of cheering crowds, exposing the intrusive body politics of police searching.

His bonding with the flustered, strait-laced bank tellers, all prim hair and pastels, over their low pay comes off as an effortless exercise in solidarity between women workers and effeminate marginals. As the asthmatic security guard Howard is ushered out of the bank early on, his role as the stereotypical disarmed and debilitated black working man is all too clear against Sonny’s maverick Mafioso bravado.

Though highly theatrical in content, the form of the film is remarkably realist. It features no soundtrack apart from Elton John’s ‘Amoreena’ over the opening, semi-documentary shots of Brooklyn, and proceeds with a tight real time sense of pacing. Even so, we are always conscious of the determinate role of spectatorship, cameras, and media in events. Sonny plays journalists and crowds off of cops in interviews and ‘front of house’ appearances. We watch Sonny during a phone interview watching himself on a crappy black and white TV, as he is filmed through the bank’s window.

The Life magazine article cited in the film’s opening describes the ‘police floodlights which bathed the bank with the aura of a theatre on opening night’ during the night of the Chase Manhattan siege. Prophetically, it compares Basso to Al Pacino, and makes clear that even as it unfolded, the robbery had become a cinematic spectacle. The fortress of American capitalism has been transformed into the stage for a soap opera. Inside is a kind of Warholian utopia where everyone is a celebrity, but no one quite has control of their image.

After the Event

Both the film and the robbery raise the problem of media event versus concrete occurrence for the critic. Frederic Jameson has offered a Marxist reading which attempts to unpack its manifest contradictions:

‘What sharply differentiates the Lumet film from any of the TV pseudo-documentaries mentioned is precisely, if you will, the unity of form and content: we are made secure in the illusion that the camera is witnessing everything exactly as it happened and what it sees is all there is. The camera is absolute presence and absolute truth: thus, the aesthetic of representation collapses the density of the historical event, and flattens it back into fiction.’

Yet the same critic who has implored us to ‘always historicise’ showed little interest in the ‘density’ of historical experiences which the film selectively adapts. Jameson detected a contradiction between the film’s ostensible function of providing a sociological diorama of the New York margins, and its formal requirement to conservatively diffuse the explosive political connotations of the actual occurrence. This is an extension of Jameson’s rather anachronistic view of the Mafia as anti-heroes in and against American cinematic capitalism. But here the critic is more complicit in our entrapment in the simulated event than he would like to let on.

The camera and script after all offer us a select perspective, which can be challenged through a more grounded archival approach. It is here where queer and trans experiences step in to foreground again the political themes of Dog Day Afternoon. Where Jameson sees the film in the silhouette of a conceived dyadic totality, he passes over the possibility of investigating what lies within the shadows cast by cinema and capital. Rather than approaching the film with the concerns of a historian, he presented a structuralist dissection of the star system in order to demonstrate the film’s operation as a means of flattening historicity. He sees the casting of Pacino as Sonny and the two police officers played against him as crucial: the principal anti-hero and his embattled antagonists are thus transformed into commodified images or genre tropes.

More curious for us is the (mis)casting of of a cisgender actor, Chris Sarandon, in the role of Louis. In an unhappy irony, Sarandon subsequently won an Oscar for Best Male Actor for his performance has a trans woman. Producers had considered casting Elizabeth Coffey Williams in the role, but she was considered to be too attractive to play a trans woman. On the level of both production and narrative, Lumet’s film portrays a world in which trans women can neither represent nor fight for ourselves.

The film’s effect and limitations as cinema verite therefore have a great deal to do with its particular deployment of trans and queer politics in creating emotional intrigue. Pacino’s affectation of queer masc criminality focuses our passion and sympathy, even as it expresses the inevitable derailment of his seized class power. Louis is emotionally muted by comparison, both as she confronts Sonny over his abusive behaviours, and peculiarly confides that her institutionalisation ‘helped her’. Both are sexually marginalised proletarians, but only Sonny is empowered to bash back. By contrast, Louis’ dysphoria is portrayed as an obscure symptom.

If Louis/Eden can be construed as practically peripheral to events, they have also come to seem somehow emotionally central. The ‘reveal’ of Sonny’s first wife in the film changed the emotional stakes of the situation. With the entry of a trans woman and a host of gay protesters, the confrontation between cops and robbers takes on a new dimension. The robbery-cum-insurrection becomes a ground where social marginalisation is thrown into relief. From this perspective, Dog Day Afternoon is a film about the relation between transsexuality and private property.

The question of Basso’s real motives towards his trans partner should be key to our understanding of his politics. The film portrays Sonny as being abusive towards Louis, and with factual grounds. This changes our reading of him as an anti-hero. Is he stealing to provide for a poor trans woman, or a gangster instrumentalising anti-authoritarian sentiment?

In many respects the things Liz Eden wanted seem very simple: money for her transition; a young husband; defence against negative media. She was in fact remunerated for her misportrayal in the film, as Warner Bros. (possibly with help from Basso’s family) agreed to fund her bottom surgery as part of the rights; she subsequently settled with Warner Brothers for a million dollars in an injunction against the film. She continued to feature occasionally in Drag, which reported in 1975 that she was suffering from cancer. After being hit by a car outside a gay bar in Queens, she was again hospitalised, where she received a transfusion of HIV positive blood. She died of AIDS related pneumonia in 1987, aged 41.

Trans Historiography

If the history of sexual difference is a history of contracts, then trans women have been imbued with an acute figural and economic debt. The rituals and interventions that constitute transition are often treated with indifference by state institutions, right up until the point we demand their medical or social resources, in which case a harsh and sceptical scrutiny is usually erected. Trans women as portrayed in popular media are often used as ciphers for alien sexual indeterminacy or increasingly, liberal cultural progress. Yet this exploitation of our image too seldom returns to fulfil our personal struggles.

By tracing the history of a trans woman in the spotlighted background of a famous incident of queer illegalism half a century ago, I have sought to ask what the retrieval of such stories might do for a historical materialist approach to our struggle to survive, then and now. Eden herself was not simply a subject acting out a predetermined role. Her life was manifestly shaped by political activity and personal desires, as much as the derailments entailed by self-harm, abuse, unwanted fame and visceral accident. Yet she was scarcely a helpless victim in events. To echo trans historian Julian Gill-Peterson: she may not be the redemptive hero of this story, but nor is she merely a passive bystander.

We should hope that future historians know more of us than what misguided cinematic portrayals disclose. Equally, we should hope that historians and theorists learn to forego the tendency to portray trans women simply as fictional characters. What Eden’s story and her place in queer New York point to is a historiography equally ready to consider the ephemera of drag weddings and political events such as the Stonewall Riots. After all, a historian unprepared to attend to obscurities will be lost before most of history.