Emergency vehicles converged on the scene within minutes, along with television crews, and soon thousands of Nashvilleans were watching coverage of the accident's aftermath on the ten o'clock news: firemen spraying foam on a huge puddle of spilled fuel, bystanders lining the side of the road, traffic backed up for miles. At the center of all this -- an island of calm amid the sirens and flashing lights -- stood Neil Cargile. At sixty-one. he was impressively handsome, with glinting blue eyes, a square jaw, and white hair that fell casually across his forehead. He was wearing a blue blazer, a dress shirt open at the collar, and gray slacks. Aviation officials inspecting the scene praised his skill in handling the plane. They said his cool demeanor and his more than forty years of flying experience, which included a stint as a Navy jet pilot, had probably averted a disaster. Cargile sipped a soft drink and calmly inspected the wreckage.
"You look as though you're going to a party," one of the reporters remarked.
"That's exactly what I was doing," he growled amiably.
"What was the cause of the crash?"
Cargile smiled. "I like being the center of attention."
There was more than a grain of truth in Cargile's jest, as many of those who were watching the drama at home on television were well aware. Neil Cargile was a celebrated son of Nashville, a dashing figure of privilege and status who was never very far from the spotlight. He had played football at Vanderbilt, driven race cars, sailed yachts, and played polo. He was a man of action and daring -- of that there was no question. And yet when his friends saw his dapper image on television that night they were all seized by the same incongruous thought: Thank God he wasn't wearing a dress.
The Crooks assumed that the episode was nothing more than a party prank, and they held to this view for the next couple of years, even when rumors of other cross-dressing episodes began to circulate in Nashville. The other occasions were costume parties, too, and they were always out of town.
But then Cargile began to dress up in Nashville. At first, he did it at private parties and with a degree of subtlety. He'd wear a blazer, a shirt and tie -- and a kilt. Instead of the traditional knee-length woolen socks, however, he'd put on black stockings and high heels; or he'd wear the kilt and the heels with a formal dinner jacket. Eventually, he held what he called a Vice-Versa party at his home: guests were required to come dressed as a member of the opposite sex. Cargile was between marriages at the time, and his date that night came as Sir Lancelot; she rode into the house on a pony.
The Vice-Versa party and other sightings of Neil Cargile in drag caused a great deal of talk around town, but it was not until the 1979 Cumberland Caper that Nashville got a good look at Neil Cargile as a cross-dresser. The Caper is an annual costume party that benefits the Cumberland Science Museum. It has a different theme every year, and in 1979 Nashville's moneyed elite were asked to come as their favorite character in history. They arrived that evening in an assortment of decorous disguises -- as George and Martha Washington, for example, and Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Neil Cargile showed up in a blue dress and a long blond wig. Given the theme of the evening, his choice was strangely inappropriate.
"And what historic character have you come as?" someone asked.
"As Neil Cargile in a dress," he replied.
Cargile was the antithesis of what people expected in a cross-dresser. Nothing in his life had given any hint that he would become one. He had grown up at Jocelyn Hollow, a large estate in the rolling hills of Belle Meade. As a boy, he showed a talent for mechanical engineering, and for standing out from the crowd. At the age of twelve, he set up a machine shop in his father's garage and made motor scooters out of washing-machine engines. At sixteen, he rebuilt an airplane out of surplus parts from the Second World War and flew it solo from his back yard. Local newspapers doted on his exploits, calling him a "back-yard aviator" In the air, he was a superb pilot and a daredevil prankster. He flew loop-the-loops, and he once buzzed his father on the golf course of the Belle Meade Country Club, a stunt that got him grounded for two months. He survived so many emergency landings, in fact, that he earned the nickname Crash Cargile. As an adult, he had a helicopter landing pad on the front lawn of his Nashville mansion -- one of the few heliports at a private residence in Tennessee. He got involved in businesses that required grit and daring -- flying crop dusters, for example, and designing, building, and operating mammoth dredges that were used for deepening rivers and harbors and recovering diamonds and gold, often in remote parts of the globe. After his exploit at the Cumberland Caper, Cargile assured his worried friends that he had not turned gay. The only reason he dressed up, he said, was that it was fun.
Cargile did appear to be having a rollicking good time when he was in drag. It was almost as if he regarded dressing up as a big joke, and on one level it was, since he made no attempt to pass as a woman. He did not alter his masculine voice or feminize his walks and it was clear that he got as much pleasure out of shocking people as he did out of wearing the clothes. He especially liked to drop in at the Bargain Boutique to shop for second-hand dresses and pop out of the fitting room to ask dumbstruck ladies what they thought of the dress he was trying on. He did not merely seek the spotlight, he coveted it. When another man won the costume prize at the Cumberland Caper one year by coming as Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie," Cargile was incensed. He swore he would never attend another Caper if people were going to horn in on his act. He had no discernible qualms about dressing up in public. He even took delight in the new nickname he'd been given: High-Heel Neil.
By the mid-nineteen-eighties, Nashville had become used to the sight of Neil Cargile in women's clothes. Out-of-towners were about the only people still taken aback by it. One evening, a woman who was visiting Nashville to see her grandparents suddenly leaned across the table at the 106 Club and told her grandfather, in an urgent but lowered voice, that a man had just come into the restaurant in a red dress. Her grandfather shrugged and went on eating. "That would be Neil Cargile," he said without bothering to turn around.
"I suppose he does it, as he says, for the fun of it and for the shock value," Em Crook said. That's Neil."
Jimmy Armistead, an old Nashvillean, disagreed. Saying it's fun is O.K. for the first few parties," he declared, but after twenty years there has to be a better reason."
Frank Jarman, the former chairman of Genesco, thought back over Cargile's lifetime of daring exploits and concluded that cross-dressing was simply another of his adventures: I think he just got bored.' A number of people pointed darkly to a tragedy in Cargile's past -- the death of his fourteen-year-old son from a burst aneurysm that occurred in the swimming pool of the Belle Meade Country Club in 1970 -- as if it might have somehow triggered his compulsion to cross-dress.
The Easter-bonnet affair was not, in fact, the first time a Palm Beach paper had featured Cargile in drag. A year earlier, the paper had revealed that he had given his alter ego a name: SheNeil -- pronounced "chenille," as in the fabric.
Like Cargile's friends, I had always heard it said that the great majority of transvestites are heterosexual, but I couldn't understand that. Homosexual drag queens made a lot more sense to mc. Of course, I had never actually met a heterosexual transvestite Nor, I thought, was it likely that I ever would. Such people, I assumed, did their cross-dressing in private and, if they went out in public, made every effort to be undetectable.
But here was Neil Cargile -- probably the most uninhibited, socially prominent cross-dresser in America since Edward Hyde served, in drag, as the governor of New York and New Jersey in the early eighteenth century. Governor Hyde explained that he wore dresses in order to represent the monarch, Queen Anne, as faithfully as possible. It occurred to me that perhaps Neil Cargile, open as he was, might be willing to shed some light on the mystery of cross-dressing, and, with this in mind, I called him in Palm Beach in early August. He said that he would be happy to tell me all he knew, but that it wasn't much. His voice had a gentle Tennessee twang, and he spoke with the measured calm of a commercial-airline pilot addressing his passengers before takeoff. He told me he would be coming to New York in a couple of weeks to discuss financing for gold-dredging operations he was setting up in South America. We could meet then. He would be travelling with his girlfriend, Dorothy Koss.
"Will you be bringing your dresses with you?" I asked.
"Hell, yes," he said. "I love wearing that stuff."
Dorothy came out of the bathroom. She was a pretty blonde with wavy hair, smooth skin, and makeup that was applied as artfully as Cargile's was not. Her fuchsia dress had ruffles of silk organza at the shoulders, creating an effect that was somewhat youthful for her forty-odd years. The sight of Cargile tugging at his hem made her laugh. 'You wouldn't wear it at all when it was longer," she said. "Now it's just the right length to show off your legs. Trust me." She reached up and rubbed at a blot of excess lipstick on his upper lip. "I hate to see you smear up your face."
Cargile held still while she wiped his lip. "Dorothy wants me to look like a real woman," he said. "But I'm just a wild-lookin' man. Aren't I, Sweet Pea? She's my fashion consultant. She picks my clothes and designs my hats and my Elton John glasses. And she's baaad She encourages me to be wilder and wilder."
"Well, you know how I feel about it, SheNeil," she said. "If you're going to take the trouble to dress up, why look like a frumpy old matron?"
Just as we were about to leave for dinner, the telephone rang. Cargile removed his left earring and answered it. Then he sat down on the edge of the bed. "That river's full of gold," he told the caller. "And right now the Venezuelans have got men out there panning for it with shovels. The computer-controlled dredge I designed can do in one hour what it takes a thousand men all day to do by hand. No kidding And the beauty of it is we get to: keep the gold. We give the Venezuelans ten per cent of what we sell it for, and then we take a fourteen-per-cent mining-depletion write-off on our U.S. taxes. We're getting offers to do the same thing worldwide, you know." Cargile pulled at his dress, which was riding up on his thighs. "Yeah. It's all outlined in the papers I sent you ... Sure ... Great! How's the wife? ... The Flu? Listen, tell her to take four times the dose of whatever the doctor Prescribes. Knock the hell out of it. That's what I do. What the hell do doctors know, anyway? They're much too cautious."
Cargile hung up and put his earring back on. I asked him what the man on the other end of the line would have thought if he had been able to see as well l as hear him. "He'd have dropped dead, he said.
We walked to the elevator, Cargile moving with a bouncy, athletic stride. As we passed through the Algonquin's oak-panelled lobby, I became aware of heads turning suddenly and of conversations halted in midsentence. I quickened my step to put a little distance between my two companions and me -- just enough to appear unattached to them but not so much that they would notice. I thought with relief how lucky it was that I had hired a car. The three of us would not have to roam the streets looking for a taxi.
In the car, Cargile gave me an amused look. "Dorothy, I think our friend here is completely freaked out by us," he said. "But, hell, that's par for the course. I've had people cross the street rather than walk alongside me when I had a dress on.
"I used to feel the same way," Dorothy said, but I got over it. When I first met Neil, he was wearing a navy blazer and white pants. He was very handsome, and he had the look of a man who was used to getting his way, so I fell for him. We started dating, and for the first few weeks I didn't know anything about the cross-dressing. He broke it to me gradually. He told me that sometimes his friends liked to dress him up in wild clothes. He said he hoped I could handle it. Then, one night, he appeared at my door in a blazer, kilt, and heels, and I was stunned. We continued to date, though, and I can remember standing out on my balcony one evening waiting for him and thinking, Soon I will hear the click, click, click of his high heels coming up the patio steps. This is bizarre. I don't know if I want this. But I really liked him, and eventually I came around to accepting his cross-dressing. I stopped being embarrassed. I wish he didn't cross-dress, but I won't try to change him. To me, he's a combination of Crocodile Dundee, Rambo, and Jezebel."
I had reserved a table at the Tribeca Grill, and the hip downtown crowd there took Cargile in stride. The headwaiter led us to our table without seeming to notice anything out of the ordinary. Our waitress brought us menus and took our drink orders. She winked at Cargile. "I'd kill for legs like yours," she said.
Over dinner, Cargile spoke easily about his cross-dressing. "Men are forced to wear a uniform that never changes," he said. "A jacket and trousers. Women can wear anything they want, and it's O.K. I happen to be more comfortable in a dress than in a blazer and slacks. And any way I'm a big showoff. I have a motto: If your aren't doing something different, you aren't doing anything at all. That's the way I've always lived. When I was a kid, I had five airplanes in my back yard. Nobody else had any. When my cross-dressing got to be too much for my wife, she made me go to a psychiatrist. So I went to see Dr. Joseph Fishbein, an associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University. The first thing Fishbein asked me was did I like men. I said no. Then he told me some of his colleagues were cross-dressers, too. They'd come home at night and put on their wives' clothes. And they were doctors! I got the impression that Fishbein didn't think there was very much wrong with me. Anyhow, I never went back."
I asked how the rest of his family felt about it.
"My brother's a born-again Christian, so of course he hates it, and my teen-age son, who's a big athlete, has a tough time understanding it. But my daughter handles it pretty well. Hell, she gave me a makeup kit for Christmas one year."
Were there any places he would not go in drag?
"I wouldn't go to church in a dress, and I wouldn't go to the Belle Meade Country Club or the Palm Beach Bath and Tennis Club in drag, either," he said. "Those places are hallowed ground. But I'm not afraid of going anywhere in drag, if that's what you mean. I know it blows people away, but that's part of what makes it fun. Of course, once in a while I've had to set people straight. Like, one night a couple of years ago I walked into a bar and heard a guy mutter 'Faggot.' Well, I just turned to him and said as nicely as I could, 'I'm Neil Cargile, and I don't think we've met.' I put out my hand, and he shook it. Now, I'm a mechanical engineer, and I work with my hands a lot. So, I squeezed that man's hand. Hard. I crunched. I cracked. And I kept on squeezing until his eyes bugged out and his body writhed and he let out the most pitiful gasp of pain. I haven't had any trouble with him since." Cargile held out his hands. They were broad and beefy, and unadorned with nail polish.
I asked Cargile several times during dinner, phrasing it differently each time, if he knew why, deep down, he was compelled to wear women's clothes.
"Everybody likes to make things psychologically complicated," he replied at one point, "but there's nothing to it. For me, it has nothing to do with sex. I don't get turned on by it. It's just fun." He suggested that we continue the discussion the next day over lunch, and I agreed.
"How about that restaurant in Central Park?" he said. "I've always wanted to go there. Tavern on the Green." On any Sunday, Tavern on the Green is a tourist Mecca, drawing as many as fifteen hundred people. I pictured Cargile strutting into their midst wearing God knows what, and the thought gave me anticipatory pangs.
"But it's so crowded," I protested. "And so noisy."
"Sounds perfect!" Cargile exclaimed before I could suggest another place. "Dorothy will love it!"
"Tell you what, Neil," I said. "Why don't you come dressed in men's clothes? That will give me a chance to see your other persona."
"Good idea," he said. "I will." In the morning, I rose early in order to finish perusing a stack of reading material I'd assembled as a crash course in the psychology of cross-dressing. Though Cargile's theatrics were superb, he was a bit short on theory, and I was curious to know why -- apart from the fun of it an estimated three to five per cent of the male population puts on women's clothes, at least occasionally.
I discovered that the true causes of transvestism are not known, but that psychologists have come up with explanations for a wide range of cases. At one end, women's clothes are a sexual fetish; at the other, the clothes give expression to a second self, to the "girl within." The girl-within phenomenon underscores the difference between sex and gender -- between, on the one hand, a person's basic male or female characteristics (sex organs and sex drive) and, on the other, the person's masculine or feminine personality. (Some cross-dressers refer to themselves as members of "the gender community.") If the sexual orientation and the gender orientation are seriously at odds, the result can be the emergence of a second self. Cross-dressers frequently give a name to this other self. In Neil Cargile's case, apparently, it was SheNeil.
In addition to scientific studies on the subject, innumerable insights have been gained anecdotally. One psychiatrist reported encountering several cross-dressers who had been forced as children to wear clothing of the opposite sex as a form of punishment; their subsequent cross-dressing was therefore connected with a sense of humiliation. Another clinician found that male cross-dressers often tended to think women had too much power; putting on women's clothing was their way of taking back that power. A common thread seemed to be the theme of"role relief": the cross-dresser seeking to escape the pressures of being a male in a society that demands more of boys and men than of girls and women.
I was not sure where Neil Cargile stood in all this. However, I did come across a survey, conducted by Richard F. Doctor, of California State University at Northridge, that tabulated cross-dressers' own explanations for why they cross-dressed. In the early years of cross-dressing, the most common reason given was that it was "sexually arousing." Over time, the sexual aspect diminished, and the primary reason became that it was "pleasurable behavior," which is, I suppose, another way of saying "fun."
A few minutes after the hour, they pulled up in a cab, and I could see, to my relief that Neil was wearing a blazer and an open-necked shirt. He was handsome, white-haired, and suntanned -- no picture hat, no rhinestone-studded sunglasses, no makeup, no earrings. This was the real Neil, King of the Dredges. Then he stepped out of the taxi, and there it was: his bottom half -- a black-and-white striped micro-miniskirt, panty hose, and heels.
Neil and Dorothy were approaching the front door now. Without a moment's hesitation, I turned and retreated into the garden, where I collared the headwaiter and asked to be seated immediately. "We're just setting it up for you now, sir," he said.
Then I heard Neil call out cheerfully "I thought I'd come half and half."
As I turned to greet them, I heard the buzz of surprised voices, little chirps of laughter, and the scraping of metal chairs against flagstones as people rose to get a better look.
As soon as we sat down, I scanned the menu, my mind fixed on ortolans -- tiny birds that used to be prepared as a delicacy in France. Ortolans are so small they can be eaten whole, in one bite, except for the beak. In order to trap the birds' aroma, restaurants traditionally provided large linen napkins to be placed over the diner's head and plate, covering them completely, like a pup tent. I had no particular interest in ortolans, but at that moment I would have given anything to cover my head with a large napkin. Already, I noticed, the traffic past our table had increased considerably. Some diners were taking circuitous routes to the bathroom.
"Dorothy and I have decided we're going shopping for dresses tomorrow," Cargile announced. "One for each of us." From across the table, Cargile looked like the conservative, Watergate-be-damned Republican businessman I knew him to be. He had a firm jaw and the bearing of a C.E.O. The picture would have been perfect had it not been for a few inches of bare knee and thigh visible along the edge of the tablecloth. Cargile had not tucked his legs under the table, as I had hoped he would. He had swung them to the side and crossed them so that they basked in full view of other diners.
"What size dress do you wear?" I asked.
"Eighteen," he said. "and an eleven shoe."
"I don't think you'll find much of any thing in an eighteen at Saks or Henri Bendel," I said. I offered to find out where male cross-dressers shopped in New York.
A boy with a balloon passed the table for the fourth time in as many minutes.
"You know, I used to be so happy I was a man," Cargile mused. "But these days white males are the most disadvantaged people in the United States. Women and minorities have the edge now. The government gives it to them."
"So that's why you wear women's clothes," I said.
"No. Like I told you, I do it because it's fun."
Just then, two middle-aged women approached the table with friendly smiles and a camera at the ready. "Would you mind?" one of them said sweetly. "We are from Sao Paulo, and we think you look wonderful! You are why we love New York! People here are fantastic! May we take your picture?"
Cargile jumped up and struck a pose with his hands on his hips and his blazer pushed back so as to give an unobstructed view of his miniskirt. Dorothy got up, too, and stood next to him. The commotion, which had been simmering, now boiled over. Other diners simply got up from their tables and came over to watch. Waiters gathered around, ways in hand. The people seated in the glass-enclosed Crystal Room had also abandoned their tables and were massed along the wrap-around windows. There was a smattering of applause. Cargile was all smiles.
When we took our seats again, he was radiant. "Did you see how everyone enjoyed themselves? That always happens when we go out in Palm Beach. The party doesn't start until I arrive. I am the entertainments Dorothy and I have been talking about opening a club in Palm Beach. We'd call it Club SheNeil."
His mention of the name SheNeil reminded me of the girl-within theory that I'd read about that morning. If there was ever going to bc a chance to delve beneath the surface with Cargile, this was it. Choosing my words carefully, I asked him, "When you put on women's clothes and become SheNeil, does a second self emerge? Do you feel like a different person?"
"No," he said. "I feel like Neil Cargile in a dress.
On Monday afternoon, Neil, Dorothy, and I took a freight elevator to the third floor of a loft building in the West Village. We soon found ourselves in the vast, Buttered showroom of New York's premier shopping mart for cross-dressers and drag queens. The shop was crowded with racks of glitter and fluff in every color and metallic tint -- mostly party dresses and show costumes rather than everyday street clothes. Cargile him- self was wearing a silk blouse, a miniskirt, a hat, makeup, and heels. The salesman regarded him with a bland air. "Yeah, we can fit you," he said. "We go all the way up to size thirty."
The rear wall of the store was lined with high-heeled shoes. One comer overflowed with boas, and another had shelves devoted to sculptured female body parts -- hips, thighs, and breasts. "This is what Neil needs," Dorothy said, looking over a display of lifelike silicone breasts. "He just stuffs extra stockings into his bra. But he'd never spend five hundred dollars on something like this." At that moment, Neil was attempting to stand up in a pair of six-inch heels.
"Oh, SheNeil," Dorothy said. "Let me get a picture of this."
"Hurry, I'm about to tip over," he said.
After the picture-taking, Neil stepped out of the shoes and went into the fitting room. He came out wearing a black dress with fringes arranged in tiers. He shimmied, and the fringes swayed. Dorothy gave it an appraising look. "It's too shape- less," she said. It's not you."
"Find me something wild, Sweet Pea," he said, returning to the fitting room.
Dorothy toured the store and came back with several dresses over her arm. She handed him a green one with a ruffled skirt.
"It doesn't fire me up," he said, giving it back.
She looked at it again. "I see what he means," she said, turning to me. "Neil doesn't wear froufrou. He likes tight skirts. This is something I might wear." She held up a blue dress for him. It was too open in the back -- his Merry Widow would show, he said. "But I like that one." He picked out a red-sequinned dress. When he came out of the fitting room wearing it, Dorothy snapped another picture.
At this point, the salesman came over, looking out of sorts. "We don't allow picture-taking in here," he said as Cargile returned to the fitting room. I'll have to ask you to leave."
"These are just for our own use," Dorothy said.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. That's the trouble. We get guys coming in here all the time trying on dresses, taking pictures, and not buying anything. Are you going to buy something?"
"Well, we're not sure yet," Cargile said, peering out of the fitting room. He had on just his corset and panty hose.
"Sure, well -- I'm going to have to ask you to leave. Now!"
"Fine with me," said Cargile. "We're on our way." He changed back into his own clothes, and within minutes we were riding back uptown.
"What awful manners that man had," Dorothy said.
"The hell with him," Cargile said. "He thinks trying on dresses is fun. It isn't. It's hard physical labor. You can work up a sweat doing it."
Dorothy laughed. "Of all places to be thrown out of -- a store that caters to cross-dressers."
"The guy probably figured I was some sort of weirdo who gets his kicks sneaking around trying on dresses and getting his picture taken."
"He probably doesn't think you have the nerve to wear them in public," Dorothy said. "If he only knew. '
"Too bad for him," Cargile said. "I'd have bought the red one."
"How old are you, Neil?" the man finally asked. "Sixty-five? Sixty-six? Tell me, why on earth would a man your age and in your position want to leave a beautiful place like Palm Beach and go into the goddam jungle and muck around for gold?"
Cargile put his hand on the man's shoulder. "It's real simple," he said. "No Environmental Protection Agency. No I.R.S. No unions. No attorneys. Besides -- and don't tell me you don't know this already -- the world's currencies are headed for the dumper, and when they get there gold will be king again.'
The man smiled and shook his head and saw us out.
I made no mention of the vestiges of lipstick or the ill-concealed corset during the short ride back to Neil's house, but Neil laughingly confided to me that he was wearing panty hose under his suit. He often did that, he said, so he could make a quick change if he wanted to -- he always carried a miniskirt and a pair of heels in the car.
After dinner, Neil put on a red dress and a long blond wig, and we took a tour of night spots -- Chuck & Harold's, Ta-Boo, Au Bar. Neil's arrival never failed to raise the level of merrymaking. He and Dorothy would step onto an empty dance floor, and within minutes everyone in the place would be dancing, hooting, and living it up.
Neil had a business meeting scheduled for early the next morning, so at midnight I drove him home. On the ride back, he told me about come of the many close calls he had had while flying air planes, and about how he had invented mobile feed mills, coal-washing machines, and the world's largest submersible dredge, which could be used to reclaim washed-away beaches in virtually any weather. As we pulled up to his house, I changed the subject, and made one last try for a glimpse beneath the surface. I asked him what his father would have done if he had seen him in a dress.
"He'd have killed me," he said.
"And your mother?"
"She heard about it and she confronted me. She said, You're the best-looking man in Nashville, Neil. Why on earth would you want to dress up in women's clothes?' "
And what did you say?"
"I told her, 'It's fun, Mom.'"