Beate Uhse

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The Independent Online

Beate Köstlin, pilot and businesswoman: born Konigsberg, Germany 25 October 1919; married 1939 Hans Uhse (died 1944; one son deceased), 1948 Ernst-Walter Rotermund (one son; marriage dissolved 1972); died 16 July 2001.

Beate Uhse had a highly successful career as an entrepreneur in the German and European sex industry, spanning nearly 50 years.

Her success reflected the changing times in which she lived and her work helped to change attitudes in German society. She is credited with taking sex products from the back street to the high street. Yet her origins and her early ambitions lay in an entirely different direction. Uhse was one of those remarkable women who grew up in the inter-war period and became fascinated by aviation.

Born Beate Köstlin in 1919, the daughter of an East Prussian landowner and his medical practitioner wife, she gained her pilot's licence at the age of 17. Inspired by Amy Johnson and other women flyers of the time, she wanted to make a career in aviation and remarkably she got a job testing and ferrying planes. Another wish of hers was fulfilled when she married her former flying instructor Hans-Jürgens Uhse in September 1939. Her luck seemed to run out the same month with the outbreak of the Second World War.

Although a son, Klaus, was born she continued working with planes. Hans was killed in action in 1944 by which time Beate was an air force "helper", a member of the women's auxiliary body attached to the Luftwaffe. In 1943, aged 24, she had the rank of captain and her job was to ferry aircraft to the front airfields. As the Red Army fought its way into Berlin she flew out a small party including her son. She landed at Leck, in Schleswig-Holstein.

A short time later she was part of the general surrender to the British in north Germany. The English she had learnt in pre-war Britain stood her in good stead and she was soon released. She became one of many thousands of refugees with no job, no home, few belongings but a child to care for. Like others she worked on the land in the village of Braderup and bartered what she could. She appears to have been more successful than most, travelling by bike to trade buttons, cigarettes, coffee and toys. She also gave English lessons.

One thing many women feared in those uncertain times after the war was getting pregnant. Increasingly those around her turned to Uhse for advice. She wrote a brief pamphlet on the Lehre Knaus-Ogino rhythm method of birth control, which was printed in Flensburg at a cost to her of five pounds of butter. That led on to her selling contraceptives. It also led to the first of some 2,000 legal actions against her, in the 1950s and 1960s, for lewdness and aiding and abetting fornication. All of them failed.

In 1948 Beate Uhse married a Flensburg businessman, Ernst- Walter Rotermund, and they worked together expanding the business. Operating from the Wilhemstrasse in Flensburg, she went into the mail-order business. In 1952 she published her first catalogue with around 50 products. She already had 200,000 customers. By 1960 there were one million registered customers. In 1962 the first Beate Uhse sex shop was opened in Flensburg. It was claimed this was the first in the world.

Unlike her business, her private life had its ups and downs. In 1972 she divorced Ernst. Her son Klaus died of cancer in 1984 aged 41 and she suffered from cancer of the stomach during the 1980s. Her second son, Ulrich, born in 1950, joined her in the business.

At 73, she was still flying her own plane and she took up golf in her seventies. When the Berlin Wall was opened in November 1989, Uhse gave away 25,000 catalogues to East Germans visiting West Berlin. Her firm now has an estimated two million customers in the former East German republic. In 1996 she opened a museum of the erotic in Berlin and in May 1999 her firm was floated on the German stock exchange.

David Childs