by Dan Burrows
IT'S A GRAY, WET SUNDAY in April in Boston's Public Garden, but the grounds are bustling with people happy to be outside after a long winter. Young families take advantage of the relatively warm weather to take their kids out in strollers and walk their Labrador retrievers around the pond. Well-to-do couples stroll lazily over the footbridge. And Rev. Chrissy Korda, the founder and leader of the Somerville-based Church of Euthanasia, is here, too--looking smashing as usual.
Dressed in a black, sleeveless, knee-length cocktail dress, and a black overcoat, all tastefully accessorized with a simple silver chain and bangles, this scion of a great family of movie producers, directors, artists, and authors brings a certain elegance to the bizarre proceedings she is about to lead. For today, the patrons of the garden will get to watch something both comical and disturbing. Rev. Chrissy and her church followers have gathered near the site of the bronze ducklings to honor the 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult who perished together just one month before.
As toddlers climb on Mrs. Mallard and her brood just 20 feet away, Rev. Chrissy goes about setting up a makeshift altar on a massive downed maple tree limb. For the altar's centerpiece, she hangs a large framed color photo of church hero Dr. Jack Kevorkian. As Rev. Chrissy makes the preparations, other church members--about 15 or so--mull about eating cookies and fretting over the tax-filing deadline only two days away. One member wears a white death mask. Another sports a homemade coat covered with sewed-on black plastic doll faces.
They appear a little strange and somewhat out of place, but harmless. At first they go almost totally unnoticed by the lively crowd. But Rev. Chrissy and her followers quickly become very conspicuous as the members form a semicircle around the reverend, transforming the area before the downed branch into an open-air chapel. Two disciples hold aloft a five-foot black banner that proclaims the church's credo: The Church of Euthanasia: Suicide, Abortion, Sodomy, Cannibalism. Next to the banner stand two church members gripping twin staves topped with red-painted human skulls, one incongruously sporting a blue knit cap, the other an angler's canvas hat. Other members swing soup-can censers on chains and chant the church mantra: "Save the Planet. Kill Yourself! Save the Planet. Kill Yourself!"
Finally, Rev. Chrissy launches into a sermon in which she lauds the Heaven's Gate suicides for helping to deal with her church's number one priority--overpopulation. She then takes out 39 black plastic film canisters, each containing an earthworm--one for each Heaven's Gate member. As a follower rings the sacred chimes. Rev. Chrissy removes the worms one by one, kisses them, and returns them to the earth. That done, she produces a bunch of fat red grapes out of a bag and passes them out to the members in the arc.
"These grapes represent the testicles of the great Heaven's Gate members who so bravely castrated themselves," she avows. "We now eat these as a symbolic cannibalization of their testicles." Everybody eats the grapes and the service is concluded. The parents whose kids are clambering over the ducklings have stopped in their tracks and look up, astonished. Their eyes go wide and their jaws slowly drop, their mouths forming perfect little Os.
Even among the host of kooky religious zealots sprouting all over as the millennium approaches, Rev. Chrissy stands out. For one thing, despite her slender build, hazel eyes, and long lashes, Rev. Chrissy Korda was--until 1990--Christopher Korda, a computer programmer and jazz guitarist. (Chrissy is still biologically a man; we refer to her gender as feminine at her request.) And if the last name sounds familiar, that's because it belongs to one of the great creative families of this century. Rev. Chrissy's father is Michael Korda, the best-selling author and editor in chief of New York publishing behemoth Simon & Schuster. Her grandfather (Michael's father) was Vincent Korda, the Academy Award-winning art director of The Thief of Bagdad. And Sir Alexander Korda, Rev. Chrissy's great uncle, along with his brother, director Zoltan, almost single-handedly created the British film industry. As such, the Kordas are responsible for such classic movies as Sir Laurence Olivier's Richard III; Sahara, with Humphrey Bogart; and The Third Man, starring Orson Welles.
That Rev. Chrissy, with this legacy, is a 34-year-old transgendered man living in poverty in Somerville seems to be an anomaly. But Rev. Chrissy says that in building the Church of Euthanasia she is accomplishing something as majestic and impressive as her adventurous forebears. "I'm very much following in the Korda tradition," she says. "I'm just one in a long line of great Korda impresarios."
THE CHURCH OF EUTHANASIA was born on a hot summer night in June 1992. Rev. Chrissy was asleep on her queen-size mattress on the floor of her tiny room in the dingy gray three-story Somerville house she shares with four others. Suddenly, she says, she woke from a feverish dream and sat bolt upright in bed, her baby-blue cotton blanket soaked with sweat. She glanced at the red digital readout of her alarm clock and saw that it was just past five. Out her bedroom window she could see the sky just coming to light with the pale azure of early morning. Quickly, shakily, she reached for the small note pad and ballpoint pen she kept by her pillow to record her dreams. She believed that an alien consciousness called the Being had just visited her with a revelation, and she wanted to get it down on paper. In an unsteady hand, she recorded the Being's call: "Save the Planet. Kill Yourself!"
To many, the Church of Euthanasia is satire, performance art, a joke. But if it is a joke, it is one to which Rev. Chrissy says she has devoted 80 hours a week for the past five years. In the process, she says, she has managed to put together a "congregation" of roughly 200 members all over the world, even though the church no longer has an actual place of worship. It was forced to dismantle its first chapel when a surprised Somerville landlord discovered it in his basement two years ago. In addition to incorporating the church, Rev. Chrissy has won a battle with the IRS to grant it status as an educational institution so that it can spread the word tax free. Meanwhile, the church has staged four to five "actions" a year--supporting abortion clinics, picketing sperm banks--that regularly involve between 25 and 30 local members and hangers-on. The church even tried to establish a for-profit, 976-number suicide-assistance hot line last year, which NYNEX, apparently uncomfortable with the church's stated aims, turned down.
Robert Kimberk, known as Pastor Kim, a 48-year-old electrical technician who has been a church member since its inception, asserts that the pro-suicide message is for real. "Yes, we have an in-your-face approach," says Pastor Kim. "But how do you genteelly broach the subject of population reduction in a media-saturated society?"
"I'm a religious zealot, a crusader," says Rev. Chrissy. "I'm insulted when we're dismissed as not serious. I've worked so hard for so long--if this were a prank, it just wouldn't be worth it. Our message is shocking and disturbing and so it's more comfortable for people to think we're just being satirical. But this planet is being destroyed and human beings are the cause of the destruction."
Whether or not people take Korda's cry seriously, thousands of people have been buying the church's bumper stickers ("Thank You for Not Breeding," "Efficiency = Death"). Others read its yearly journal, Snuff It, and surf its home page at www.churchofeuthanasia.org. And they've managed to get 200 people to pay a $10 lifetime membership fee and take a vow not to procreate. Members range from Sam Davis, a 42-year-old Cambridge-based guitar teacher who supports its ecological message, to Lydia Eccles, a 42-year-old bookkeeper who says she's "just not into the whole breeding thing."
The dictates of the church might seem troubling, but they are more attention-getters than actual rules. The only sin in the eyes of Korda and church board members is procreation, which breaks the single vow members take upon entering the church. Sodomy, by which the church means nonprocreative sex, is encouraged, as is abortion and suicide--though the church does not require that its members actually perform such acts. Rev. Chrissy says she hasn't committed suicide because she has too much work to do, and besides, "it's more about creating a space for people to feel shame and suicidal rage about what humans have done to the planet," she says. Rev. Chrissy, a practicing vegan who eats no meat or dairy products, also advocates cannibalism, though mostly only as an alternative for those who just can't give up meat. "If you must eat flesh, you may as well eat human flesh," she says. "There are 40,000 traffic fatalities a year. Why slaughter animals when all that meat is going to waste?"
The Church of Euthanasia doesn't engage in mind control or require its members to turn over their bank accounts, but the black humor of the Church's aphorisms can be alarming. In fact. Rev. Chrissy says she's jealous that Heaven's Gate received so much media attention. She wishes for that kind of exposure for her own church. "Much to my chagrin," she says, "we haven't had much success with suicide. Yet."
REV CHRISSY, OF COURSE, came from a very different world. In the late 19th century, her ancestor and the patriarch of the clan, Henrik Kellner, was a retired soldier and a Jew who managed a wealthy nobleman's estate on the plains of Hungary about 90 miles east of Budapest. His three sons, Alexander, Zoltan, and Vincent, were raised in poverty. But Alexander, who changed his name to the less Jewish-sounding Korda, worked his way up through the production ranks of the silent-film industry, first in Budapest and then in Vienna. By the 1920s, he and his two brothers were making their way to Berlin and Paris before moving on to the movie business in London.
For his part, Vincent, like his brothers, put incredibly long hours into his work--so much so that he was quite distant from his young son Michael. In fact, in his family memoir, Charmed Lives, Michael reports that his father cared so little for children that he was raised almost entirely by his nanny; then, from the age of 7 to 11, he lived with his mother, Gertrude (who had divorced Vincent in 1942), in New York, 3,000 miles away from his London-based father.
In 1947, however, Michael was reunited with Vincent in London and began to participate in the Kordas' royal lifestyle, traveling by Rolls-Royce and enjoying their yacht in Antibes. When the Kordas were late for passage on the Queen Mary, the ship waited for their arrival. The London house in which Michael lived faced Buckingham Palace and had been the residence of the Duke of York before he became King George VI.
In 1958, Michael Korda made his way back to New York to begin the literary life at Simon & Schuster. An adroit and savvy editor of commercial fiction, he rose rapidly at S&S, taking over as editor in chief just 10 years later at 36. In addition to editing Graham Greene and both Jackie and Joan Collins, Korda penned his own succession of best-selling if lightweight books, including, Power!, Success! and Queenie. More recently he edited David McCullough's award-winning biography Truman.
Racing Ferraris and enjoying an upstate New York horse farm with his second wife, Margaret, a former model, Michael Korda has done his best to maintain his family's traditions. As much as his only son flies in the face of all that, Michael and Chrissy Korda share the need to make a big entrance, to be the center of attention. "Chris uses an element of theater to present her ideas; in that way, there definitely is a connection to her family," says church member Lydia Eccles. "Most of all, Chris has her father's drive and intelligence."
EVEN IN HER OWN EYES, however, Rev. Chrissy has always been kind of different. Born and reared in Manhattan in a five-room apartment on East 56th Street near Sutton Place, Chrissy says she always had a "poetic sensibility" that set her apart from the other school kids. Michael Korda doesn't like to talk about Chrissy, and in this brief comment still refers to his son--as his son. "I'm not going to talk about Christopher except to say that I'm very fond of him," says Michael. "He's a grown-up person and this is his own business." According to Chrissy, her mother, Casey Korda, a former secretary and Off-Broadway actress, remembers Chrissy as a shy and overly sensitive child who was especially disturbed by the ravages of industrial society. Chrissy says her mother believes that her son acquired those feelings because she had read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring when she was pregnant with him.
From kindergarten through eighth grade, Chris attended New York's prestigious Grace Church School. "I was the kind of kid who always had his glasses broken on the playground," Rev. Chrissy recalls. "I was picked last for dodgeball, after all the girls." A self-described teacher's pet who won prizes for reading the most books in grammar school, Chrissy remembers becoming slowly unglued growing up in Manhattan. "I was moved to tears by the strangest things," she says. "I would see things from a global perspective, even as a child. On the subway I would see people as a species--a herd of animals--and cry. Or on a bus, I would suddenly realize that everyone there had once been a mewling baby, and suddenly I could see their inner child inside the distorted, crippled, suffering adults they'd become."
By the time her parents divorced, in 1976, Chrissy says, she needed to get out of New York. Still identifying herself as male, she hoped that St. Paul's School, a prep school in Concord, New Hampshire, would soothe her frayed nerves, but six months after enrolling, she says she was expelled for smoking pot. After bouncing around several private schools, she finally went on to Sarah Lawrence College for a year, then to the Berklee College of Music. A month later, she dropped out and began working as a computer programmer.
At that time the young man Chris had short, dirty-blond hair, dressed in black jeans and T-shirts, and looked like any other 1980s computer geek. Freelance work at Polaroid, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Digital supplemented his income as a street musician playing jazz guitar standards in Harvard Square. "Chris was always pretty reclusive," says Kevin Roche, 35, an electrical engineer at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and a friend of Rev. Chrissy since 1983. "He wasn't social; he was grumpy. He didn't go out much. He did his computer stuff and played his guitar."
It was a good life, Rev. Chrissy says, but something was missing. Then in 1990, everything changed. Chris and roommates decided to throw a Halloween party. "I had dressed in women's clothing in private in the past," Rev. Chrissy says, "but this was different. I came downstairs and I was a woman."
As he tentatively walked down the steps of the Somerville house that Halloween, Chris suddenly realized he was woman. Transgendered, she was out now, to herself and all her friends. "It was a real surprise at first," recalls Roche. "I mean no one saw it coming, and I know he had some rough spots with his family, but this was a shock."
Soon Chrissy was in Provincetown competing in "balls," or beauty contests with transvestites, and working as a female impersonator. She dressed as a woman full-time--with considerable success. "Chris always was disgusted with his family's wealth and value system," says Sam Davis, her piano teacher. "Chris does what he does because he has to. But I know for a fact that Chris's father is not happy about it at all."
Chris, now Chrissy, lost a lot of friends at first, but many stuck by her. "Chris has always been something of a character," says Davis, who still refers to Chrissy as a man. "He has always been intense, lots of emotional energy. But he seemed really repressed. He has really blossomed in the last five years or so. It must have been in him all along."
LAST OCTOBER, Rev. Chrissy and the Church of Euthanasia had one of their largest, most successful actions ever. Every week for 10 years a right-wing fundamentalist Christian group called Our Lady's Crusaders for Life had been picketing the Gynecare women's clinic in Brookline. Rev. Chrissy decided to take them on.
Outfitted in their most bizarre medieval regalia, the 30 or more church members showed up carrying a blown-up rubber sex doll crucified on a giant cross, and they mocked the fundamentalists by holding up placards declaring themselves the Pedophile Priests for Life.
Surrounded by the Church of Euthanasia members, the fundamentalists panicked. Immediately, they were on their cell phones to the police. "They can't do this!" they cried. "We've been here for 10 years!" When the Brookline motorcycle cops finally arrived on the scene, they found the two groups jostling each other, hopelessly intermingled. One church member, known as Vermin, who was wearing a black robe and veil, was spurting water at the fundamentalists with a penis-shaped squirt gun. In response, the fundamentalists prayed loudly. "Dear Lord," they shouted, "please deliver us from the demons surrounding us!" But the members of the church drowned them out, chanting "Sex Is Good! Sex Is Good!" over and over. It took about an hour but police finally restored order.
Given such behavior. Rev. Chrissy understands why her relationship with her father is somewhat strained. "Let's face it," she says, "we keep in touch--but no parent is that liberal. It's like having John Waters for your kid." Still, Rev. Chrissy believes her father is proud of her and has a grudging respect for what she does.
"I don't think we're going to go on Leno together any time soon," she says of her esteemed father, to whom she has offered church membership. (He declined.) "But I would love for my dad to help me," she says excitedly, her eyes brightening, energized by the thought. "Wouldn't we make just a great father/daughter team?"