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The Unreal Story of Claude Cahun, the Lesbian Photographer Who Fought Off the Nazis

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The story of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore is almost too improbable to sound real: a pair of Jewish stepsisters who disguised themselves as old ladies in order to fight off Nazis, and who also happened to be a lesbian couple? Two current exhibits shed light on the photography of Claude Cahun, one half of this remarkable couple.

Born in France in 1892, Lucy Schwob was the daughter of a Jewish newspaper editor and a mother who was committed to an asylum when Lucy was very young. Raised by her grandmother, the girl was sent to school in England because anti-Semitic tensions were rampant in France following the Dreyfus Affair — an ongoing public scandal in which a Jewish artillery officer was falsely accused of selling French military secrets to the Germans.

At the age of seventeen, Schwob met and became romantically involved with a young illustrator named Suzanne Malherbe. Over the following decades the pair became well-known in Parisian intellectual circles, where Malherbe adopted the name Marcel Moore and Schwob became Claude Cahun. (In French, both men and women are named Claude; Cahun was a beloved uncle whose last name sounded less Jewish than Schwob.)

Claude CahunOh, and in the meantime Cahun’s father ended up marrying Moore’s widowed mother, meaning that Claude and Marcel were suddenly stepsisters as well as life partners.

Cahun wrote articles, although since she was a woman her work was not particularly well respected by her misogynist peers. In 1929 she also translated the theories of Havelock Ellis, who proposed the possibility of a third sex, “uniting masculine and feminine traits but existing as neither one nor the other.” The Surrealist Andre Breton describer Cahun as “one of the most curious spirits of her time.”

In 1937, the couple retired to Jersey, a British island that’s actually a lot closer to France than it is to England. They bought a house called La Rocquaise and lived peacefully on the island as sisters until 1940, when the Nazis took over. Although they were only about fifty years old, they lived as old ladies, and they were well-liked by their neighbors. “Everyone knew they were Jewish,” a neighbor told The Daily Beast recently. “But nobody turned them in. They were eccentrics.”

Claude Cahun autoportrait-1928-web-658x1024Moore spoke fluent German, although she kept that fact hidden from the Nazis. She wrote anti-Nazi leaflets in German, which she signed “The Soldier Without A Name.” The pair discreetly left them on cafe tabletops and sneakily slipped them into soldiers’ pockets. By this point the couple were living as elderly spinsters in order to divert suspicion. It worked until 1944, when they were caught and sentenced to death for inciting rebellion among the Nazi troops. Here’s how a German officer described La Rocquaise:

“There are very few Jews in the islands. The two Jewish women who have just been arrested belong to an unpleasant category. These women had long been circulating leaflets urging German soldiers to shoot their officers. At last they were tracked down. A search of the house, full of ugly cubist paintings, brought to light a quantity of pornographic materials of an especially revolting nature. One woman had her head shaved and been thus photographed in the nude from every angle. Thereafter she had worn men’s clothes. Further nude photographs showed both women practicing sexual perversion, exhibitionism, and flagellation.”

They served nearly a year in prison but the war ended and they were freed. When Cahun died in 1952, she had only published a single photograph. Much of her work was destroyed by the Germans, but a half century later it was rediscovered by groups including New York’s Guerilla Girls and London’s Institute For Contemporary Art. (A 1994 review of an ICA show described Cahun as “like a cross between Sinead O’Connor and Nosferatu.”)

Hollywood really needs to make a film about Cahun. What a story! I’m pretty sure that chameleon Tilda Swinton was born to play this role; she and Cahun have similar facial structures, even and I’m pretty sure there would be at least six or seven Oscar nominations for everybody involved.

Cahun’s photographs are on display through September 6 at the Jersey Heritage Museum, and also through the end of October in her birth city at the Bibliothèque Municipale de Nantes.