By Alex Tresniowski
August 28, 2000 12:00 PM

They were, to say the least, an odd couple, and not just because they were born more than four decades apart. J’Noël Gardiner, 42, was also several inches taller than her husband of one year, Marshall Gardiner, 86, and far brawnier. When Marshall suffered a fatal heart attack aboard a flight to Baltimore in August 1999, his wife “picked him up out of his seat and put him on the floor of the airplane, which is a little strange,” says Joe Gardiner, 52, Marshall’s only child. “I don’t think my wife could pick me up and put me on the floor of a plane.”

Things would get stranger still. When a battle broke out over Marshall’s $2.7 million estate, Joe and his attorney had a private investigator dig into his stepmother’s past. What they found was a plot twist worthy of The Crying Game: J’Noël was actually a man named Jay Ball, or had been until a sex-change operation in 1994. Joe Gardiner’s reaction: “This happens in the movies. What a great plot! What a riveting story! But it’s your own life.”

Both sides went to court over the estate and, in a case that may have far-reaching consequences for the legal rights of the country’s roughly 30,000 transsexuals, Marshall’s son Joe, a Web-page designer, has won the first round. In February a Leavenworth County district judge ruled that J’Noël was still biologically a man and thus not entitled to inherit half the money, since two men can’t marry in the state of Kansas. J’Noël, a professor of finance at Park University in Parkville, Mo., has appealed and is arguing that she is indeed a woman; Wisconsin, the state in which she was born, issued her a new birth certificate after her sex-change surgery that designates her as female. So is J’Noël a man or a woman—or is she, bizarrely, a man in Kansas and a woman in Wisconsin, and thus the perfect Jerry Springer guest? “There are so few decisions [on transsexual rights] in most states that people will be watching this case,” says Shannon Minter, senior attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “Transsexualism is a recognized medical condition, and sexual reassignment has been the recommended treatment for decades.”

No matter how the legal wrangling turns out, Joe and his wife, Joy, admit that J’Noël—who declined to comment for this article—was a good wife to Gardiner. “We’re not saying that he didn’t enjoy the year they spent together,” says Joy, 53. “I think they did.” The older Gardiner, a two-term state representative from Leavenworth, Kans., and a successful stockbroker, was married to college sweetheart Molly North for 42 years until her death in 1984. After that the self-made millionaire, who was pals with President Harry Truman, became known as an eccentric ladies’ man in his hometown of Leavenworth. “He looked a little like Paul Newman,” says Joe. “He loved beautiful women.” In May 1998, at a Founder’s Day event for his alma mater Park University, Gardiner introduced himself to a tall, striking professor named J’Noël Ball.

Only a few years earlier, that professor was known as Jay Ball. The oldest of three siblings born in Green Bay, Wis., Ball earned an M.B.A. from the University of Southern Mississippi, where he met and lived with a classmate, Sandra Parker. They married in 1988. Hugh Nourse, now a retired finance professor who cowrote several articles with Ball, remembers his colleague as “a diligent researcher with good ideas…a creative, personable married man.” But even during the marriage, according to J’Noël’s deposition transcripts, he believed he suffered from a “birth defect”—namely a penis. He often dressed as a woman and even arrived at his 1994 divorce hearing in female attire. That year he underwent one of two surgeries to reconstruct his penis and, as J’Noël put it in an affidavit, “create a fully functional vagina.”

Jay Ball also legally changed his first name to J’Noël (a combination of his first and middle names) and left his job as a finance professor at Boston’s Northeastern University. In 1997 J’Noël began teaching at Park University, where she never divulged that she was a transsexual. J’Noël was well-liked and respected by staff and students, despite eccentricities like chanting at the clouds right before rainstorms. “She was an awesome teacher,” says Chris Vittorino of Parkville, a former student. “Everyone liked her, even though she was a hard grader.”

Then came J’Noël’s fateful meeting with Gardiner in 1998. A few days later “he called my office and he asked to be my escort at the next function,” J’Noël recounted in a deposition. The two began dating and took a long car trip together to the Grand Canyon and other spots in the summer of 1998. That September they were married by a Kansas supreme court justice. J’Noël insists that she told Gardiner about her sex change during a game of Scrabble weeks before their wedding; Joe disputes that and, even if it were true, he doubts that his 85-year-old father could fully understand what he was getting into. “For his generation,” Joe says, “this just wouldn’t have been acceptable.”

One of the first things the newly . married Gardiner did was to call his son, with whom he had a distant relationship, although he did occasionally send him money. The call was to assure Joe that J’Noël was not a gold digger. “He told me, ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s hers is hers,’ ” Joe says. “So I thought, ‘If he’s happy, I’m happy for him.’ ” But after Joe met J’Noël for the first time following Gardiner’s death, he quickly became suspicious. When a funeral director asked for her maiden name, “she got real nervous and did not want to give it,” says Joe, who hired an investigator out of “a curiosity as to who we were dealing with here.” In addition to the gender change, another pertinent fact came to light: J’Noël had written and signed a waiver in which she renounced any claim on her husband’s fortune; Gardiner, however, had never signed the document. Despite the waiver, J’Noël insisted in an affidavit that “Marshall told me he wanted me to have all of his property” and that he “was tired of giving his son more money.”

Although J’Noël may have lost the first round, arguments for the appeal are scheduled to resume in October. Joe insists that the person who claims to be his stepmother waived all rights to the money, while J’Noël has suggested that the waiver is void because it wasn’t signed by Gardiner (she turned down a settlement offer from Joe before the February ruling). J’Noël has since moved out of the $183,000 Parkville home that Gardiner bought for her (he spent weekends there but kept his Leavenworth house) and is living in an undisclosed Kansas City location. Apparently she is worried that her once-buried past may cost her the $40,000 teaching job at Park University. “This is a very difficult time for her,” says Nourse. “People think of her as a freak. She is not.” Former student Scott Dorrington says, “She’s really heartbroken over the whole deal. She talked to us about it in class. We knew she was upset, so we chipped in and bought her flowers.”

Joe and Joy Gardiner, too, could use some cheering up; legal costs are seriously cutting into the inheritance. Says Joy: “I really believe there will be nothing left by the time this is settled.” For now, Joe consoles himself with a fantasy based on his parents’ love of debating complex issues. “My mother is never going to let him live this down,” he says. “He marries a man? They have from now until eternity to debate that one.”

Alex Tresniowski

Kate Klise in Leavenworth and Jill Jordan Sieder in Atlanta