At Sydney's Justice and Police Museum Justinian's editor launched Mark Tedeschi's book Eugenia ... The true story of Eugenia Falleni who lived her life as Harry Crawford ... Gender dysphoria in the early 20th century ... Launch speech
THE First Earl of Beaconsfield was better known as Benjamin Disraeli.
Apart from being one of the great politicians of the Victorian era, he was also a successful author who wrote romantic pot boilers.
He turned to writing books because he had been badly burned by the stock market crash of South American mining companies.
Soon Disraeli was receiving unsolicited manuscripts from other keen young writers, seeking insights and inspiration.
Disraeli's standard response on receiving these works was to write:
"Dear Sir or Madam, I thank you for sending me your manuscript, which I shall waste no time in reading."
This challenging ambiguity sprang to mind when Mark Tedeschi pressed a copy of his manuscript into my hands.
I knew it was an interesting book about the torment of a woman who lived as a man and, as many of us know, it is enough of a god-awful torment living as a man without the added distraction of being a woman.
I was immediately taken by the picture on the cover.
At first blush it looked like a somewhat haunted snap of a young Murray (Smiler) Gleeson.
Tedeschi was onto something. The chief justice who was enslaved by gender dysphoria.
Michael Kirby's troubles were unspeakably insignificant by comparison.
My mind was racing.
Why was the Senior Crown Prosecutor writing biographical dramas?
Had the share market been unkind to him? Was there some slight of hand left over from the grizzly Hatzistergos era adversely affecting his superannuation.
There are questions to which we do not know the answers.
But, I had heard about the Eugenia Falleni story because of Suzanne Falkiner's earlier biography, Eugenia, A Man.
So here it is again in an altogether different genre, known as creative non-fiction, whose popularity was partly propagated in the United States by a gentleman called Lee Gutkind.
To do creative non-fiction well requires great delicacy. The author has to dramatise the factual detail but keep close to the bones of truth.
I think this has been achieved rather splendidly in this book.
And what an incredible, engrossing story it is. I took Benjamin Disraeli to heart, and read it in great racing sweeps.
An Italian born woman Eugenia Felleni who lived in Sydney as a Scottish man Harry Crawford, was raped, had a child, was tried and convicted for murder, was monstered by the press, who survived, and through it all courageously managed her and his life as best as she knew how.
Mark Tedeschi reminds us what a small, gossipy, spiteful, insular place Sydney was at the end of the nineteenth beginning of the twentieth centuries.
A city of boarding houses and itinerants.
There was the extraordinary naiveté of people, particularly a string of women who had sexual relations with Eugenia and still were content to accept that she was a man.
The suffocating moral codes of the period. The oppressiveness of keeping-up appearances. The primitiveness and slowness of policing.
While there have been dramatic changes to social attitudes in other respects things remain the same.
In his descriptions of the trial our senior crown prosecutor performs a wonderful examination of the feeding frenzy of the press and court reporters at the time.
No salacious detail was too small to report - about her clothes, her appearance, her hair, her total strangeness.
Tellingly, Eugenia's explanation to the court for wanting to be a man was because women worked longer hours for less pay.
It's surprising the transgender solution to income disparity has not proved more widespread today.
The book provides masterful portraits of the trial judge, the prosecutor (described as a man most dangerous when he smiled), the inadequate defence counsel, the witnesses ... and the trial itself, full of horrifying tactical errors that pre-ordained the inevitable outcome of a sentence of death (which was commuted to life).
It's a testament to how, in our system, guilt or innocence swings so significantly on the quality of the barrister you can afford.
Littered throughout are remarkable Italians, at least as remarkable as the author, including the Minister for Justice, Joe Lamaro, the son of Sicilian immigrants who in 1931 against the rantings of the press responded to a group of campaigners and released Eugenia on licence.
The Truth newspaper at the time showed today's Ray Hadley and the Telegraph how to beat-it up, with front screamers like this:
"Fiendish Man-Woman Murderess ... There should be no misplaced sympathy for despicable human monster."
I'm convinced that the same fractured gender displacement that had been visited upon Eugenia Felleni is more common in today's world than we might suspect.
If you peer closely at your television screen you'll see that Kevin Rudd's face quite closely resembles that of a rather irksome grandmother.
I'm sure more details will emerge in time about "Mr" Rudd.
The usual cliche is about a women trapped in a man's body or a man trapped in a women's body.
I think when it comes to Mark Tedeschi, we have a photographer and an author trapped in a crown prosecutor's body.
Of course, he is a lawyer and the law is a cult to a certain extent, binding its adherents in closeness, ritual and mystery.
Often they need little sustenance from the outside world ... but in Mark's case that is not so - he wallows in the real world.
There's certainly a film in this story. It should be called Felleni and, of course, Tom Cruise will play Eugenia.
Among the many strengths of this book is it's empathy for its subject. I think the author never believed she was guilty of the murder of her wife.
You can feel Eugenia's day-by-day torment as she lived her lie - and it's no mean feat for a crown prosecutor to make you feel empathetic.
It is with great pleasure that I launch this book down the slipway of sales and success.