In the late 1980s, when I was a newly arrived, barely solvent resident of the East Village, I had frequent debates with myself about whether to walk up East 7th Street on my way home. If I did, I would pass by Einstein's, a small boutique that to me was the fashion equivalent of a Viennese bakery, with sumptuous clothing and costume jewelry instead of Sacher tortes and petits fours. The jewelry was especially swoony. It was one-of-a-kind, big in size, wit, and personality: gold seraphs cavorting on a giant cuff, a pair of miniature candelabra earrings (complete with dripping wax), a black jet necklace with tentacles like an octopus.
There were no mannequins or display trays showcasing the goods inside. Instead, there were theatrical tableaux starring one or more dolls, hand-sewn and smartly attired. Some were effigies of fashion legends like Coco Chanel and model Peggy Moffitt, muse to the visionary '60s designer Rudi Gernreich. The invented characters might as well have been famous, too, because they were certainly fascinating: the sneering, anorexic society matron; the jolly circus fat lady; the cheery sideshow pinhead; the battle-hardened, chain-smoking housemaid. The dolls weren't about simple prettiness, yet each expressed an idea of beauty, including those that didn't conform to conventional ideas of beauty. The windows at Einstein's were a source of awe and delight, a free pleasure in a city where not much came cheap.
I never went into Einstein's; I never had the nerve. A few years and a move to Seattle later, however, I met the designer of that jewelry and owner of Einstein's, Paul Monroe. It was 1996, and I'd just gotten a haircut in a salon on a residential street. As I was leaving, I noticed a hand-painted sandwich board a few doors down that said "Que" in curling script. The sign led to a tiny boutique on the ground floor of a modernist house. There was an Anna Sui skirt in the window — and a Peggy Moffitt doll. Paul had brought a little bit of his old store's magic to gray Seattle. He and I became friends that day, and I learned that all the dolls I had seen were the work of his late wife, Greer Lankton, and represented just one corner of the singular universe she willed into existence during her 38 years.
Born in 1958 as Greg Lankton, Greer grew up in suburban Illinois. She was the youngest child of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. Fine-boned and androgynous, Greer's earliest desire was simply to feel pretty like a girl; as a toddler, she liked to put a washcloth on her head and pretend it was long hair. Even that fairly anodyne bit of feminine self-expression was alarming in those days. By Greer's reckoning, she was eighteen months old when she saw a psychiatrist for the first time. A few months later, lonely and longing for a friend, Greer made herself a doll out of hollyhock flowers. The link between life and art began there, when she was just two years old. Dolls were not only her primary creative medium; they were her stalwart friends, alter egos, and confidantes.
By the time she was in sixth grade, she was working with wire, stuffing, and other materials that allowed her to make more sophisticated dolls, some of them life-size. And she became her own work of art once when she started dressing in drag around age twelve. On the sly, Greer became a dedicated and expert thrift shopper, scouring the racks for pieces that spoke to her love of Golden Age Hollywood and high fashion. She was as determined and tenacious as any '30s movie starlet, surreptitiously glamming herself up after school and riding her bike to the local Woolworths for photo-booth sessions in glorious black and white.
Meanwhile, she continued to see shrink after shrink in search of a solution to the "problem" of being both a cross-dresser and gay. The pressure to be someone else was unrelenting, suffocating. From the ages of fourteen to nineteen, Greer suffered through breakdowns and stints in mental hospitals that included shock therapy. Finally, she underwent a complete sexual reassignment — hormone treatment and penile inversion surgery, a procedure that inverts the skin of the hollowed-out penis to line a newly created vagina.