April 03, 1978 12:00 PM

I did everything macho,” explains Eleanor Schuler. “I was trying to deny this feeling within me—it was an overpowering kind of thing.” If that sounds like an odd confession from a middle-aged divorcée, the story of how she came to be one is even stranger. Two years ago Eleanor Schuler was John Huminik, a soft-spoken metallurgist and father of four who had also been a double agent for the FBI. “You know that book I Led Three Lives” Huminik’s ex-wife, Alice, once said. “Well, he led four lives.”

Huminik’s second and third lives—as spy and counterspy—began when he was approached by Soviet agents at a scientific conference in 1960. He was then 24 and working on classified rockets. The FBI asked him to play along, and for six years he delivered photographs of harmless documents about the U.S. space program to designated locations in the Washington suburbs. After hiding the film in shrubbery, Huminik would go to a specified phone booth, turn to a page in the phone book and write a number ending in three zeroes. “The Russians would check, and if the number was there they’d know the drop had been made and they’d pick it up. If the Russians had ever caught on to me, I would have been dead.”

Soviet agents were unaware Huminik was betraying them until a newspaper article in 1966 blew his cover—and led to the expulsion of a high-ranking Russian diplomat. “I had no fear of dying,” says Eleanor Schuler of her previous life, “because if I got killed, okay. It would stop that inner voice.”

After six years of nerve-racking work, Huminik found the voice of womanhood more intense than ever. “I felt that it was no longer possible to stay a male,” Eleanor recalls. She decided to confront her family: “I gave them the whole story. I told them I still cared about them, and I hoped they would retain some feelings about me. I cried, I think, for 90 days, a few hours every day. But to me it was a choice of leaving the family and making the change or committing suicide. I had my poisons all laid out, and I was ready to do the job.” Instead, in 1976 Huminik underwent sex change surgery in New York.

Now, at age 42, Eleanor Lorraine Schuler (a name she simply made up) has begun enjoying her new life as a woman. Six weeks after the operation her doctor suggested she resume sexual activity, so a friend fixed her up with an Army officer. Female hormones had given her breasts, and later she paid to have her nose made more feminine. The last vestige of John Huminik—his beard—was entirely removed by electrolysis. Of her four children, ages 12 to 19, only the eldest, Yvonne, who is married, seems resentful of her father’s transformation. Eleanor calls the others often and tries to see them once a week. They live with their mother in Maryland. “We talk about the kids’ problems, about what’s going on in their lives,” Schuler says. “They call me Eleanor—it’s just a normal relationship that you’d have with your relatives.”

Born in Washington, D.C., the son of Russian immigrant parents, young John Huminik suffered from asthma and seldom attended elementary school. But in high school he was a whirlwind of activity, playing the clarinet, running sprints and hurdles for the track team, working in a drugstore and repairing cars after classes. Though he never attended college, he had been reading technical manuals since age 10 (“I have a genius IQ—over 160”). Commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Reserves, he eventually commanded several chemical corps units. By 1959, at the age of 23, he was named vice-president and senior scientist of an Alexandria, Va. engineering firm. All that time—from earliest childhood, in fact—Huminik had known he wanted to be a woman. “But I behaved as much like a boy as I could,” Eleanor remembers. “At the end of high school I met my future wife, and it was a real ordinary courtship.”

Not until his cloak-and-dagger days did Alice Huminik become aware of her husband’s tortured inner life. “I finally told her because the preoccupation was getting worse,” says Eleanor. “We both decided we would keep going—I was going to master it.” That turned out to be impossible. “He had female clothes of his own,” Alice recalled later, “and he would just go into the bedroom and shut the door. It was too risky in his spy days to go out in public like that.” Doctors eventually diagnosed his condition as “gender reversal”—they said he had the brain of a woman and the body of a man. In 1975, a year before his operation, John and Alice were divorced after 20 years, and he took a job as a medical secretary. “I wanted to squash my masculine life,” he explained, “so I went into a typically female occupation.”

Eleanor, who lives alone in Virginia, recently hired a manager to redirect her career. She has completed her second autobiography (as John Huminik, she wrote Double Agent, an account of her days with the FBI) and is already working on a book on sex change surgery. She plans a lecture tour to persuade people that transsexuals should not be ostracized, and hopes to establish a foundation to help others who face the same crisis she did. “You could bounce around the offices of the world’s greatest psychiatrists for a lifetime,” Eleanor says, “and nothing could be done to change your concept of sexual identity. When society can better understand what sex change is all about, then the person can come forward and be treated.” For Eleanor, of course, personal problems remain. Now that her past is no longer a secret, she worries that the men she’ll be going out with may be intimidated by her daring career. As for the man of her dreams, she says, “He’ll have to be quite a guy. I don’t want sissies.”

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