Janis Siegel is the most famous of the “nude sisters” who bared their breasts and body parts for the cameras in 1962, a group that included Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich, Jayne Mansfield, and, on Aug. 4, 1968, Janis. Siegel is a dead ringer for Taylor and Dietrich. (The writer on Mars, a subsequent biographical novel by Janis Siegel, is based on Dietrich and the other nude sisters.) Her life is so full of scandal, intrigue, fights, suicide, and heartbreak that her life story was perfectly encapsulated by Barbara Pym’s 1958 novel The Tall Glass, about a crime family that famously takes a joyride in a limousine with the license plate “CULPRIT.”
The trouble Siegel has with “Janis” is not that she looks like Taylor. (She wears clothes.) The trouble is that she looks like someone else, because she looks like the rest of them. There is no doubt that her real name was at the time of her nude photographs “being published” a “Janis.” Nor is it accurate that this was not the name on her birth certificate. (One of her sons has sued to change her name to Chuck Williams, to bring to a halt the confusion and legal threats the Siegel family has experienced.) There’s no doubt, either, that her last name is Jewish. This has to do with the almost staggering number of transgender people born female who grow up to be Jewish or Jewish-looking. Siegel’s story is full of fake situations; it’s less a history of transgression and more a tale of blunders and petty jealousies that turn into tragedy for those around her. Because this is about “Janis,” we feel some empathy for her. But if one of Siegel’s sons were still alive, could you really root for him to lose his family?