On a flimsy paperback cover, an illustration depicts two heavily made-up women exchanging a smoldering look. One is clad only in underpants, while the other seems to have forgotten to button her dress. Lest the author's theme remain unclear, a subtitle explains, "One kiss and Ellie was hooked--she became an apprentice Lesbian."
Books like this--1961's "The Path Between" by Jay Warren--seem ridiculous, even offensive. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that professors at Roosevelt University recently declared them award-worthy.
Or the study of them, anyway.
Roosevelt bestowed its second annual Adrienne Reiner Hochstadt Hummingbird Award, which honors a student whose work helps to foster women's development, on Stephanie Schmitz. Her research project? Un One," "Stranger on Lesbos" and "Warped."
"The response [to the project] has been either really enthusiastic or, `Huh? So, what's the point?'" Schmitz said. "Even though it seems like maybe a silly or superfluous study--it's just a collection of books from a random assortment of years--I think the deeper issues with the books are important."
Many women who research lesbian history agree. In recent years, there have been several projects devoted to reclaiming the pulps.
In 1993, the New York-based Lesbian Herstory Archives, a 30-year-old research foundation, mounted an exhibition devoted to the genre. Six years later Viking Press released Jaye Zimet's "Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, 1949-1969." The feminist publisher Cleis Press has been reissuing novels by Ann Bannon, one of the genre's stars. The latest, "Journey to a Woman," was published in May.
"It started becoming this pop [culture] phenomenon," says Chicago playwright Patricia Kane. "I've been trying to think about why or when [my interest developed]. It was something that just kind of crept into my consciousness in a way."
Kane is a part of the phenomenon herself, having written the play "Pulp," an homage to the novels. Featured in About Face Theater's Festival of New Plays last spring, "Pulp" will have a main stage run in February.
Representing lesbian life
Why are women revisiting these trashy books produced by unsavory publishers to serve as, in Kane's words, "one-handed reading" for men? They are drawn both to the books' retro cover art and to the perspective they offer on lesbian history. Through the early 1960s, American culture had a straightforward view of homosexuality: It was a perversion, plain and simple. Even in large cities, women would be arrested for dressing mannishly or going to lesbian bars. The pulps may have been sleazy, but at least they provided a representation of life as a lesbian.
"Because it was the only glimpse into lesbian life that women had at that time, it's really important. It was overlooked for so long because it was dismissed as trash," Zimet says.
Not all of these paperbacks were on the baser level of "The Path Between." Some were written by women, issued by respectable publishing houses like Gold Medal and Bantam, and aimed at a lesbian audience. Vin Packer's "Spring Fire" and Ann Bannon's "Beebo Brinker" and "Odd Girl Out" depicted lesbians as real human beings with real feelings.
"You had all these women who wrote more true-to-life things. If you ever happened on an Ann Bannon book, or an Ann Aldrich, or a Vin Packer, it was a real find. It was passed from woman to woman and treasured," Zimet says. " A lot of people have said that Ann Bannon's books were used as almost a road map to Greenwich Village because they were so open about portraying the life down there."
If you did happen upon an Aldrich or a Packer, you were really reading the same author: Marijane Meaker, a leading light among lesbian writers in that era. As Packer, Meaker penned 1952's "Spring Fire," which Cleis Press plans to reissue in May. Many considered "Spring Fire" to be the first lesbian pulp, although it was, in fact, a paperback originally issued by the well-regarded publisher Fawcett. Like many later works, it used an unhappy ending to deter censors. But even though the characters were torn apart at the end (and one was even institutionalized), "Spring Fire" was a beacon for many closeted lesbians.
"My editor knew I was gay, and he kept saying, you must have a story," recalls Meaker, now 76. "He felt there was an audience out there for a presentation of realistic lesbians. `Spring Fire' went into 15 printings. They had never seen such mail. We suddenly realized that out there were a lot of women with these feelings who had absolutely no way to express them, deal with them, or cope."
Meaker may be best known as M.E. Kerr, author of such celebrated young-adult titles as "Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack" and "If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever?", but her most recent work appears under her own name. "Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s" (Cleis, $14.95) tells of her affair with Patricia Highsmith, the author of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Strangers on a Train." Highsmith also took a pen name, Claire Morgan, to write what many consider the first lesbian novel to have a happy ending: 1953's "The Price of Salt."
Pulp covers in vogue
It's understandable that lesbians would treasure Meaker and Highsmith's books, but why hang on to the likes of "Warped Women" and "By Love Depraved"? It's hard to find merit in passages like the following from "The Path Between":
"Ellie had to admit that she had enjoyed dancing with Myrna. She felt a wave of excitement flow through her with the memory of last night. How could she continue like this? She might wind up like Myrna ... permanently."
"The novels themselves are hard to read nowadays," playwright Kane acknowledged. "There are a lot of nasty things that happen--people are dying, they're being put in a mental institution, one of them goes off with a man, or whatever."
Kane attributes the books' resurgence to their cover art. Pulp art in general is enjoying a tremendous vogue these days. This year, New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art featured an exhibit of more than 100 pulp magazine covers.
"They embody this whole fantasy world that's very fun, sexy, vibrant and dangerous. There is this illicit quality to them," she said.
Still, even the trashiest of pulps may have inadvertently done some good, Schmitz said. Many lesbians read the books, ignoring the florid prose and unhappy endings.
"They had a huge lesbian following because there was a desire just to see yourself in print, to have that validation," Schmitz said.
It may be difficult to imagine finding validation in such a source, but that is the key to the pulps' historic legacy. They're an example of the measures people resort to when their deepest instincts conflict with society's rules.
Even today, it's that contradiction that Meaker remembers most.
"Of course [we] had terrible shame about it. We accepted the idea that we were abnormal," she says.
FROM THE DUSTBIN OF LITERARY HISTORY
A sampling of lesbian pulp fiction titles
"Women's Barracks," Tereska Torres, 1950
A time-honored tale of women who can't keep their hands to themselves while together. This time, the women are in the French army, and the book is their "true stories" as told to the author.
"The Price of Salt," Claire Morgan (Patricia Highsmith), 1952, 1953
Therese takes a job in a large department store and meets Carol on the opposite side of the counter. A few sales and a thank-you card later, Therese ends up at Carol's country house, under the wing of the rich, older woman.
Source: Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture, Duke University Libraries, scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/women/pulp.html
a lesbian post without pics!?! dangit! [:D]
I like lesbians.
I am a lesbian trapped in a man's body!
I just think it's funny that when lesbians are depicted on television or on book covers they are always beautiful, big-boobed, drop-dead-gorgeous models who don't look anything like the truck driver/cop/lumberjack muff-divers I've seen.
Originally Posted By POWER03: I just think it's funny that when lesbians are depicted on television or on book covers they are always beautiful, big-boobed, drop-dead-gorgeous models who don't look anything like the truck driver/cop/lumberjack muff-divers I've seen.